There's So Much They Haven't Told You
By Michelle Ross
Moon City Press
Reviewed by Nick Kocz
"Fear and violence reproduce themselves. Or at the very least there's the trauma that lasts forever and ever," Michelle Ross writes in one of the first stories that appears in her debut collection, There's So Much They Haven't Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. That line proves telling because fear, violence, and trauma are the dominant themes of her collection. Dark humor and macabre thoughts announce themselves throughout these short stories. One begins with a woman telling her co-worker about her three-year-old son's obsession with death. Another story, titled, "If You Were a Serial Killer," opens with this paragraph:
A woman from my lab confessed at happy hour that she sometimes wishes her husband would meet an untimely demise while he's traveling for work. If she were to leave him, she fears she'd go running back to him. But if he were to die, well.
In "Like Pulling Teeth," parents debate how to best remove a child's loose tooth:
In the kitchen, the girl's parents told gruesome stories: children's teeth lassoed to door knobs, pick-up trucks, and the tails of family dogs. The removal of baby teeth was an extreme sport. Cheese sounded kind in comparison, until the girl saw its blue-green crevices and sniffed an odor that also suggested crevices.
"Won't it just fall out on its own?" the girl asked.
"It's more fun this way," her father said. He'd voted to tie her tooth to the ceiling fan.
Danger looms over even the simplest acts of grieving. In "Unit 7: Exploring Fossils," Denise, an elementary school teacher who recently has given birth to a stillborn baby, prepares Plaster of Paris molds of seashells to teach her students about fossils. "Denise tapped the side of the coffee tin with a boning knife to disperse the Plaster of Paris powder into the water," Ross writes, "She stirred the mixture gently with a wooden dowel, careful to prevent air bubbles. What she ignored was the instruction to wear a dust mask over her nose and mouth."
In "How Many Ways Can You Die on a Bus," a school bus driver is adamant that no kids are going to die on her route. The undue level of safety precautions she requires freaks out the children riding with her.
In the beginning, it was pretty simple. We had to stay seated while the bus was moving. If we were standing, we might fall. Or worse, if the bus crashed, our bodies might turn into little torpedoes. We might shoot out the front windows like the Fourth of July. Children have been known to do just that. They shot out windows and knocked their skulls hard on glass or tar or concrete, and they died. Sometimes on contact. Other times, they lay in hospital beds for weeks before death took them in its thick, hairy arms.
Although morbidity is Ross's pervasive subject, many of her individual story titles sound like chapter headings in school science textbooks: "Atoms;" "Unit 7: Exploring Fossils;" "Key Concepts in Ecology;" "The Nature of Light;" "Kinetic Theory;" and "Of All the Animals in the Aquarium." This suggests an attempt to understand tragedy and death through scientific reasoning. As one girl announces to her elementary school classmates after she witnesses a pair of cottonmouths gorge themselves on her koi fish, "I saw the food chain in our pond this morning."
Ross's protagonists are students and teachers, educational content providers, and parents with a healthy appreciation of science and the natural world. They browse the lobbies of hospital surplus sales, where, "Cadaver carts on wheels sparkled like winking knives."
And yet, even understanding death as a clinical state brings Ross's characters little comfort when they're confronted with death in their actual lives. In "Rattlesnake Roundup," an extended family caravans to a Jaycee-sponsored rattlesnake roundup in Texas to scatter the ashes of Cash, the family patriarch who died three years earlier. Tess, the man's daughter-in-law, clenches up when contemplating what's to become of the ashes.
What Tess felt in her gut was something else. She didn't feel bad for Cash. She didn't care what happened to his ashes. They were just carbon and other elements anyhow—elements that would get recycled again and again no matter where they were deposited.
We can know what the ashes are on an atomic or elemental level, yet the connection to life those elements and atoms once represented is so strong that emotional responses overrule attempts to reason such situations.
What's to become of us? What's to become of our marriages, our families? As Ross writes, "These questions had bored into Tess like the larvae of bot flies. She could feel them wriggling around beneath her skin."
However, Ross also offers a vision where one, through pain, can attain a re-birth. As she writes of another character in "If You Were a Serial Killer," "[her] pain, naked and shimmering, makes her new again, like an insect wriggling out of its pupal case."
In "An Impromptu Lesson on Black Holes," a kindergarten teacher cowers during a school lockdown drill. Convinced that the drill has gone on too long to be merely a drill, she fears the worst: there might really be a madman or psycho killer on the loose. "I have a habit of worrying about impossible outcomes," she notes at one point. Her students, latching onto her fear, become frightened.
We're rehearsing for our deaths, after all. If the children don't understand the gravity of what we're doing here in the cubby closet before, they surely grasp it now. Their teacher's legs are trembling as though a T. Rex is about to grab hold of her with its teeth. Their teacher puts her finger to her lips even though [one of her student's] tights are soaked, her neck red with shame.
Ross writes busy stories. Often, in addition to the immediate danger her characters perceive around them, they grapple with other problems in their lives. Like others in these stories, the kindergarten teacher is also dealing with marital problems. Married for nineteen years, an emotional distance has entered into her relationship with her husband. And yet here, as elsewhere, the immediate fear prods characters to examine and re-prioritize elements within their lives. The kindergarten teacher thinks about her husband, Nick, who grew up in an abusive household. "He knows what it's like to live in fear of terrible violence. He knows what it's like to hide and hope to God you're not found. He knows how to survive."
Through fear, we survive.
Ross excels on many levels. Her lyrical, image-rich prose consistently startles. She has penned some serious, brave, thoughtful, and, at times, very emotional stories that steer clear of sentimentality. The collection's concluding two connected stories, about the effect a mother's cancer has on her daughter, brought me close to tears at several points. Death is not kind for any of Ross's characters. The daughter who's about to lose her mother declares, "I write down everything. Details are my inheritance."