Range of Motion
By Meagan Cass
Magic Helicopter Press
Reviewed by Lindsey Hauck
It's easy to underestimate the importance of the first story in Meagan Cass' short story chapbook, Range of Motion. It's called "Martian Sends a Postcard from Raging Rapids, East Fishkill, New York." It is exactly what the title indicates: a postcard home, written by a visitor to Earth, on the observation of a fun-for-the-whole-family water park in the height of summer. Cass begins with some really funny and incisive language in a dry, sci-fi jargon: "They make their pilgrimage once a year, in that season when the heat blurs the trees in their yards, when they plug up their light squares with gray boxes, when they shout their language across fields that could almost be our surface, red-brown and dry." It feels bizarre and pulled-back, but deeply special and private.
There's a sense of safety in this distance our martian narrator takes from his human subject, like we're hiding in the bushes, spying, safe from any shrapnel. That feeling comes back again frequently in this collection. We come to know intimately the ways that people hide from each other, sometimes deign to reveal themselves, and retreat again. But there's something else Cass is doing with "Martian Sends a Postcard," too. Take the martian's description of humans as they go flying from water slide into swimming pool, then come up for air for the first time: "When they emerge they howl, flash their teeth, raise their fists as if they've conquered some evil, have been miraculously cured of some illness." There's such empathy there, such a genuine effort to understand something that, from our narrator's perspective, makes so little sense. And that effort is the foundation of these stories. It's where Cass asks us, constantly, to start from.
The next story, "Egg Toss, August 1989," zooms in slowly to the family at the center of the collection. It's a relatively still shot of a kid's birthday party in a suburban backyard. And though we are still on the outside, knelt in the bushes on the periphery, the accomplice by our side is, instead of a martian, a future version of the kid playing in the grass. It's like watching a friend talk about their childhood; the things they know and understand now are inextricable from the blissful ignorance they had then. Cass builds a lot of tension between the romantic pull of then and the stark reality of now as she casts a child's eye on the world of adults. She writes, "I can see how our mother fishes the cooler for the last beer, her hand coming up full and numb, how she drinks it too fast, pats her newly-permed hair which our father has repeatedly made fun of." Again, that sense of distance has a dual purpose: it allows us to think of ourselves as objective viewers while challenging us to remain so as the tension rises between characters.
Resisting the impulse to take sides in these stories was, at times, seriously difficult for me. When I first read Range of Motion, it caught me on a bad day. The parents in this collection struck me as too much like my own, who divorced soon after I moved out of the house for college, and before that, never really fought so much as they ignored and dismissed each other. The way Cass tells "Egg Toss" is a lot like the way I see my own childhood photographs now. It's hard not to feel like there's some stain on those memories, now that I know how the story of my parents will end, how long it will take, how hard it will be. For me, reading these stories felt a lot like remembering. And on my first go, it was easy to get angry seeing so much that was familiar in these stories: the objects that become markers of territory, the long radio silences, the dual life lived in a house divided.
But when I came back, and I read more and then read it again, I noticed all the moments where anger, resentment, all that adulthood and marital buildup, fell away and melted into forgiveness, even sacrifice. "Backyard Dreams," the third story, is one of the best examples. We hear it from the perspective of Rosalyn, wife and mother, whose deep frustration with her marriage finds an easy target in the expensive hot tub her husband, Max, purchases for their backyard. She acknowledges that he's bought the thing out of a genuine effort to spark something new between them—this is after his affair, after she's gotten sober, and nearly time for their kids to move out, and he's hoping to put some of those struggles firmly behind them. But the hot tub spooks her; it seems to turn on randomly, sometimes in the middle of the night, and as a result it casts an ugly light on Max:
Out on the deck the Grand Bahama heats, the steam rising around him. He stands for one long, awful moment under the sharp winter stars, barefoot, half-naked in his Caldor bathing suit, his belly drooping over the waist, the gray hair on his shoulders like stunted wings and she knows what he is doing, making himself vulnerable like this in front of her, making her want to put her knowing hands on those shoulders, work out his knots, but still she can't look away from him, sliding one leg, then the other, into that unearthly neon green.
But then she goes outside, and she gets in. It's a beautifully simple moment of two people trying their best, despite all that may have come close to persuading them to give up in the past. All that malaise, like the time and routine that carried it in, melts away so easily at times.
Cass continues to build routines, battlegrounds, and tension in "Ping Pong, 12 Loring Place," and "Greyhound," and by the time I reached the story entitled "Calling All Soloflex Men," I felt as if I were reading a novel and reaching its climactic moment. Everything Cass has built is there as Max tells the story of his crumbling marriage via the story of his Soloflex machine, a piece of workout equipment purchased from a television infomercial. He hopes that his marriage can undergo the same before-and-after transformation that the Soloflex has promised his body, but of course it's not that simple, and recognizing that is the hardest part. Rosalyn has her doubts, just as she did with the hot tub. She tells him, "It's not good for the body, all that repetition. You'll lose your range of motion." And Max recognizes as well that the Soloflex is just a prop as he reflects on the leftover insecurities that all "lifting men" feel, even once they've become their 'after' photo: "At night, turning in our beds, newly strong or newly sober, we breathe in and out and try not to jostle the hunger or the desire or the anger or the lack that is not banished, is not transmuted, is simply shifted to another, less obvious place inside us."
When I first read this collection, when it was all hitting me a little too hard, I took those lines as some kind of warning. It seemed to validate my fears about my parents' relationship; that its troubles were borne out of problems with their muscle memory, that they'd just had the wrong habits too long. As if I could avoid all that, in my own life, by inviting chaos and eschewing things I deemed 'traditional': marriage, children, etc. But I see now that there is no directive in this collection, there is no lesson to draw. It isn't critical of anyone. It's a story of people trying their best, making a genuine effort to understand themselves and each other, whether they be aliens, spouses, or children. It's a strong reminder that we live in our bodies, and we carry our lives with us in our bones and muscles. That we are creatures of habit. But the beauty of Cass' writing somehow brings about the conclusion that all that repetition is really worth it. We do the reps, day after day, we do lose our range of motion, until one day the high density rubber resistance band holding our lives together snaps. Our stunted and misshapen muscles have ripped it clean out of its socket in the machine and we go tumbling backwards, parts of us atrophied or worse. But as we go flying, we know by our own pulse that we have something that could be called strength.