The characters in Keith Lesmeister’s debut short story collection, We Could’ve Been Happy Here, are populated with men stuck in the painful middle-distance of life, haunting the rural and lonely locales of the Midwest, the Iowa small towns serving as a microcosm of their weary worldview.
The parameters of the physical geography are clear: fading horizons at sunset, wide-open skies, Indian summers, distant farms, pastures, and backroads on the margins. The emotional landscape is equally defined through these twelve stories, all dealing in various forms with the human heart: detailing heartache and heartbreak, in heart-wrenching pieces shared to elicit empathy, simply.
And the subtle sentiment of the collection title (read it again) neatly encapsulates Lesmeister’s grand statement: a spoken expression of near-anguish, mourning the loss of an ideal never realized. His characters gain just enough clarity and insight to glimpse what they’ve lost, or could have had. Since few physical descriptions are given of the storytellers (so consistent is the language, style, tone, and setting, they could all nearly be told by the same person), we learn to know each character more intimately through what they’ve lost, and what they’re trying to reclaim.
The collection is bookended by two parts of the same story: in the opening “Nothing Prettier Than This,” Vincent, the affable narrator, has been tasked by an acquaintance, Lyle, to watch over his farm. The piece deftly depicts two story lines against one another: Vincent’s desperate search to find two lost dairy cows under his watch, paired with the surprising news that Katharine, married to another man, is pregnant with their child. In both scenarios, Vincent is incapable of grasping the seriousness of each issue, and is equally unprepared to find a resolution for either. His good luck piece, the buckeye he rubs in his hand, never reveals the answers he needs—a childlike fumbling in an adult’s world.
And in the companion piece that ends the collection, “We Could’ve Been Happy Here,” Vincent again is trying to corral escaped cows back to their pen. He strikes up an immediate and close friendship with a nearby farmer’s daughter, their innocent banter and imaginary games serving as a salve to the pain he ignores, suffering through withdrawal and the separation of his own kids—the same narrator again overwhelmed by circumstances partly of his own making.
The more humorous, “Today You’re Calling Me Lou,” reads so authentically it could be autobiography. It begins casually:
When I get to my grandmother’s assisted housing complex in downtown Cedar Rapids, she’s outside waiting for me in a lawn chair—the kind with webbing and rivets. She’s smoking a cigarette.
“I thought you quit,” I say.
“It’s my birthday,” she says. She laughs and it sounds like motor oil gurgling around her lungs.
The frank, foul-mouthed grandma (who, by the way, wants to be called by her birth name, Lou, short for Louella) and he embark on a wayward journey to head towards a late afternoon garage sale in a worn out, burgundy-colored Buick Century, a gift from grandma given long ago. The narrator, on break from the local community college and a week off before starting on a landscape crew, is game, if only because he’d feel guilty about it if he didn’t see her at least once in awhile.
What transpires is a random road trip, where all bets are off: She insists he purchase a bottle of vodka, and a pack of Kools. “Quitting was the worst mistake of my life,” Lou cracks, “next to having kids.”
After a few more drinks and cigarettes, and a confrontation at the garage sale to claim a treasured kayak, they head to a nearby reservoir. Drunk and carefree, Lou seeks a bigger thrill, tragically, yet somehow inevitably, disappearing into the distance, riding the water in her coveted kayak, the landscape literally consuming his loved-one to end the story without further explanation, a soft, diminished note:
Once again, I’m sitting on the beach, waiting. I rub my eyes and squint toward the darkness. Over and over, waves break on the shore. In the distance, I can hear something—maybe the slap of a paddle. I stare, hoping my eyes will adjust, but they don’t. And whatever I’ve heard eventually fades, moving out and away on the water.
“Imaginary Enemies” is a little less successful. The two main characters embark on a different journey—a light jaunt to the nearby Walmart to check out “ammo prices.” Elbow—just returned home from time in the Marine Corps—and another unnamed narrator, skip out on his nephew’s birthday party. They return with a toy Uzi and pistol, much to the chagrin of others at the party, to enact play-fighting that’s perhaps too real. It plays out like a brief narrative exercise—at just a page-and-a-half—to show the effects of violence on young men in the military, and how it impacts their lives upon return to the U.S. Perhaps.
In one of the more sly pieces, a husband and wife (yet another team) become an improvised Bonnie and Clyde, looking to spice up their bored and sedate lives in “East of Ely.” Their desire to escape their routines is repeated in most of the stories in the collection—those seeking to create structure in their lives, and those looking to break them. The husband begins explaining what lead to their escapade:
We stopped caring about how we actually felt toward one another a long time ago because our feelings fluctuated like spring temperatures in the Midwest. Instead, we devoted ourselves to each other in the old-fashioned way of loyalty and partnership. It wasn’t a sexy, Hollywood endeavor—our marriage—but that was all about to change.
After the robbery, they hide at an abandoned farmhouse outside of town. A slow dance followed by “reckless and desperate” sex, they’re united again as if for the first time, finding the shared intimacy and danger their normal lives were lacking: “… in the wee hours of the night, we lay in bed, sipping wine, whisper-talking about our dreams, how some of them had come true, while others had not.”
In one of the strongest pieces, “Between the Fireflies,” an innocent, coming-of-age story begins in June 2003, detailing the bond only isolated children can share, where long summers weave their own kind of pain and sadness. Alice, the fifth-grade neighbor and classmate of the nameless narrator are assigned by her father to kill rabbits invading their property, as they have actively ravaged their cherished garden. Alice takes to it with tomboyish fervor, though thoughtfully allowing space for the main character’s hesitations and fears over taking another creature’s life. The first kills are difficult:
Alice nudged it with the barrel of her pellet gun. Limp and still and lifeless.
“Internal damage,” Alice said. “You must’ve hit it in the vitals. It takes a moment for that to kick in.”
My head dropped. Alice placed her hand on my shoulder again. “It’s okay to feel bad,” she said. “You should feel bad. It means you’re human.”
But there are passages in this story, and others throughout the collection, where the first-person narrator gets caught up in their own romantic nostalgia, like in this cliched observation: “It was a time in our lives when our commitment to authority—in this case her father—outweighed how we ourselves felt about the task at hand,” or earlier, a child-like attempt at poetically describing the night sky: “Above us, a moonless sky. Stars so thick it looked like a smear of vanilla frosting.” A description that’s so sweet it’s hard to swallow.
Ignoring the sometimes awkward phrase, the parallel stories profoundly—if perhaps too obviously—relate to one another: the children’s obsessive hunt for and killing of rabbits, a blood-thirst that disturbingly grows beyond their neighborhood boundaries. This repeated activity—preferred over actually having to share their burgeoning emotions—culminates in a slightly grotesque and not insignificant graveyard. Their shared experience is contrasted with Alice’s father’s experiences (ultimately left to the reader’s imagination) while stationed far away in the Persian Gulf War, and his return as a changed man, having lost a “bounce in his step.” The story’s end arrives without much more of a weightier observation than “… there had been far more casualties in the past year than either of us wanted to admit.” That resigned insight attempts to impart more significance than it actually carries.
But this story is so sensitively told and gracefully rendered, it feels as if Lesmeister somehow couldn’t arrive at a “real” ending. Despite the story’s imperfections, it’s to be commended for its honest intentions.
In each individual story, and in even the lesser ones, Lesmeister’s exerts expert control over his proceedings, never needing to stray too far from the well-worn roads he knows—in both a literary and literal sense (Lesmeister was raised, and currently teaches in Iowa). The collection is the product of a young writer, and the stories are perfectly matched to young readers. In the end, these characters—familiar outsiders one and all—often stand on the outside of their own lives looking in, scratching their heads in confusion, and wonderment. Their hearts guiding them where their heads fail them.
We Could’ve Been Happy Here is a quiet success—Lesmeister subtly and repeatedly reminding us that even the plain, and plain-spoken, deserve our praise.
We Could’ve Been Happy Here, by Keith Lesmeister. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Midwestern Gothic Press, May 2017. $15.00, paper.
Ray Barker is an Archivist in the Special Collections department at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, the central library in Washington, DC. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Music & Literature, The Collagist, Full Stop, The Los Angeles Review, Gulf Coast, 3:AM Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Rain Taxi, The Colorado Review, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and daughter in Washington, DC.