University of Iowa Press
I was born and raised and still live in Ohio. As a Midwest girl, I can say that Chad Simpson’s earnest yet tough story collection Tell Everyone I Said Hi does the region right. Simpson’s emotionally complex characters live in Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky, and they’re all aching with this bruised hope, this blue yearning. They could be people we love. They could be us.
In one of the first stories, “You Would’ve Counted Yourself Lucky,” we meet a pre-teen playing with a flashlight in his backyard, waiting for his missing sister. Before he ventures outside the boy passes by his parents, who don’t notice him at all.
In the living room, the boy’s mom holds her drink in the air and says in this defeated way to the boy’s dad, “Could you maybe just add a couple ice cubes to this?”
The boy’s dad rises from his chair and says, “Sure.”
We meet the boy at a pivotal time in his life. We all know puberty is a total douchebag—add to that his distracted parents and his presently-missing sister. This boy is terrifically curious and lacerated with loneliness. We follow him into the oddly intimate encounter he has with the once-beautiful teen girl next door, who is partially paralyzed because of a car accident.
Rebecca picks up the boy’s fingers again and moves his hand down her leg to her calf. There is a divot the size and shape of a small football where doctors have taken skin at the back of her calf, and she sets his fingers inside it. The skin there is cool and completely hairless. It feels smooth in a way that skin shouldn’t.
This moment between then, during which the boy “leans forward, hoping she won’t be able to see his erection,” is delivered with such tenderness. Simpson’s unvarnished prose is always delightful, but especially in moments where characters are stunned by their thirst for intimacy.
We get plenty of that in “The Woodlands,” a brief story that broke my heart. It concerns a middle-aged man who considers pity-fucking this fantastically lonely woman he meets at a resort. It begins perfectly:
When she said that it was just her and her birds—that her apartment was like a zoo, only she didn’t even keep the things caged all the time—maybe he shouldn’t have told her that his mom owns a pair of cockatiels. Maybe he shouldn’t have told her about the time he visited his mom a few months earlier, and how while she worked during the day, he stayed down in the basement with the television on mute, listening to her birds whistle the theme song from The Andy Griffith Show from upstairs, over and over.
What he doesn’t tell the woman includes: his divorce, his better-hidden-but-still-present loneliness, and that his pity for her draws him to her.
The other people at the party were better looking and better dressed than she was, and every time she tried to join a conversation circle, the people seemed instinctually to close her out of it. But still she stumbled around trying, sticking out her chin toward a group of people here and there, laughing a few seconds later than the rest of them at some joke.
Oh the banal cruelty of conferences and cocktail hours. The moments that follow between them are also mortifying, but beautiful in a naked way, like a hug that’s too tight. Simpson knows how to do desire right.
In the next story, “Peloma,” we meet a suicidal twelve-year-old girl and her steelworker father lost in their own house, unmoored by the death of the mother. We start with: “My twelve-year-old daughter Peloma kept trying to kill herself,” which is a breathtaking opener (pun intended).
Puberty is proven to be a douchebag again when “puberty hit Pell early, just after she turned ten, just after her mother’s car hit a pickup truck head-on at the top of a hill.” We feel the horror that fills him when he finds Peloma in a bathtub of lukewarm water after taking seven Aspirin, and as she stands up when he tries to say her name, dwarfing him.
We spend time with Peloma and her father again, in “Consent,” when it’s time for Peloma to start driver’s ed. She leaves the consent form on their dining room table with “Please?” written on a note. Her mother Marcella’s car accident death is the impetus for the pair’s unmooring in “Peloma,” so her father quakes with fear at the prospect of Peloma getting behind the wheel. I have so much love for recurring characters and story cycles (one of the reasons I love prestige television), so when I turned the page to “Consent” and found Peloma and her father again, I nearly swooned.
There is much more to this collection. Baseball, flooded basements, hairspray, big bottles of wine, mendacious father-in-laws, lost loves, hard-fighting women who smell like beer and cigarettes, men who mow lawns and worry, a mother shining with pride, a conflicted foster father, working class worries and dogs like Leslie and Lucky and the strong soil of Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky. Tell Everyone I Said Hi is a straight-forward title for a book of stories told in straight-forward language, but there is nothing narrow about it. It’s all here.
Dawn West reads, writes, and eats falafel in Ohio.