Title: Traveling Left of Center and Other Stories (Unsolicited Press)
Author: Nancy Christie
Genre: Literary Fiction: Short story collection
There are some people who, whether by accident or design, find themselves traveling left of center. Unable or unwilling to seize control over their lives, they allow fate to dictate the path they take—often with disastrous results. Traveling Left of Center and Other Stories details the experiences of characters in life situations for which they are emotionally or mentally unprepared. Their methods of coping range from the passive (“The Healer”) and the aggressive (“The Clock”) to the humorous (“Traveling Left of Center”) and hopeful (“Skating on Thin Ice”). In each of these eighteen stories, the characters’ choices—or non-choices—are their own. But the outcomes may not be what they anticipated or desired. Will they have time to correct their course or will they crash?
Excerpt [From “Waiting for Sara”]:
“Mom, it’s Sara.”
Her voice was distorted by the miles of wire separating us—how many miles I could only guess.
“Where are you?”
So many of our conversations began like that, with Sara making contact, and me, desperately trying to keep that contact alive, sending out my love like a rope to bind her to me.
“Things haven’t been goin’ too good here.” Her voice was slurred—drink or drugs, I couldn’t tell.
“Sara.” My voice sharpened with worry. “Tell me where you are. Are you okay?”
“Cool, Ma.” Her voice faded away, and then came back again. “So what’s happenin’?”
“I’d love to see you, Sara. Tell me where you are, and I’ll come get you. Or give me your number and I’ll call you back.”
The phone company could trace a number, I thought. I’ll tell them it’s an emergency. I'll tell them we were cut off. We were cut off. Between my daughter and me, there was a chasm deeper than the Great Divide. And every spar I threw across fell to the bottom, the echoes endlessly crashing through my life.
“So, look, I gotta go.” There were sounds in the background—doors slamming and voices raised in anger. “But, hey, it’s been great, y’know,” and then the line was dead.
I didn’t want to put the receiver down, even when the buzzing was replaced by the recorded voice asking me to “please hang up now.”
Finally, I replaced it on the cradle—gently, the way you close a door when the baby is sleeping and all you wanted to do was peek inside without awakening her.
When Sara was a baby, I used to open and close her door a hundred times, afraid that if I missed checking her every fifteen minutes, she would die. Crib death was my big fear then, followed by child molesters and kidnappers as she grew older.
I hated seeing those pictures on milk cartons—smiling faces snapped in their school-picture pose, with the plaintive cry “Have you seen this child?” emblazoned below. I didn’t want to be reminded of what could happen to any child—my child—despite a mother’s careful concern.
Now, I wanted to take Sara’s high school graduation picture and send it to her, pleading, “Have you seen my daughter? Please bring her back.”
It has been at least four years since we lived together. One cold November morning, she packed her clothes, her favorite stuffed bear, and the small stash of marijuana she thought I didn’t know about into the suitcase I had given her for her eighteenth birthday and left. Just like that. I had no warning, no way to prepare.
Well, no, that isn’t strictly true. A blind person could have seen it coming—the logical culmination of shouted words and slammed doors, of hostile stares and muttered phrases.
A blind person, yes, but not a mother. Past experience with a two-year-old’s tantrums was little preparation for a teenager’s rebellion or an adult child’s rejection.
Sara’s thirteenth birthday had marked the beginning of battles between us, leaving me bewildered, hurt and angry—sometimes all at the same time.
“But why can’t I go?” Sara’s voice was shrill, carrying through walls into the kitchen, where I was peeling potatoes for dinner. That was her job, but it seemed easier to do it myself rather than argue with her. Lately, arguments had become the only form of communication between my teenaged daughter and me.
“You’re only in junior high. You’re too young to go to a concert. It’s dangerous. People get crazy at those things!”
“Well, it’s stupid!” She flounced into the room, wearing a skirt that was far too short. I had told her any number of times to let the hem down, that it was verging on indecent. But she wouldn’t listen. “Everybody is going—all my friends! You just don’t want me to have any fun! I hate you!” screaming the last words as she slammed the front door behind her.
All the parenting books said, “It’s a typical teenage stage. Don’t take it personally.”
Good advice. If only I could follow it.
She didn’t come home that night. Instead, she slept at girlfriend’s house, while I paced the floor and debated calling the police. In the end, I simply waited for her—the way I had been waiting since the day she was born.
Overdue, yet stubbornly refusing to cooperate with nature, Sara was born by Cesarean section. At the time, I thought it was my body that refused to surrender this new life without a fight. But perhaps it was Sara herself who was not ready to be born. Did she somehow know how difficult life would be? Was she trying to hold off accepting the responsibility for her own existence?
In the recovery room, I had marveled at her body, counting fingers and toes over and over again, rejoicing in the reality of her presence. I pictured us functioning as a single unit—mother-and-daughter—sharing joys and happiness in a peaceful home.
Not surprisingly, reality was different.
“Mommy, I’m bored.”
My daughter twined her six-year-old arms around my neck, pulling me away from the desk and the bills awaiting payment. There was so much to take care of: grocery shopping and house-cleaning, making meals and washing clothes. And Sara.
Sometimes, I would wonder what I could have achieved if I hadn’t had been a single parent. Sometimes, I would envy my childless friends, who moved unencumbered through life, achieving goal after goal.
Most of the time, I would try not to think of what might have been, and instead, would take pleasure in brushing Sara’s hair or listening to her sing to her stuffed bear. Most of the time, I would try to remember what a blessing children could be, and how many infertile women wept sterile tears.
Buy Links (including Goodreads and BookBub):
Unsolicited Press: https://www.unsolicitedpress.com/store/p248/TLOC.html
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Mother’s Day isn’t just for those who have given birth—it’s for all the women who are mothers to those they care about—their siblings, friends and parents— and all the women who are in need of some mothering themselves when life becomes too much to handle, as the stories in Traveling Left of Center and Other Stories illustrate. It reminds readers of how important it is to give that all-accepting maternal-type affection to those who need it, and to ask for it when one is alone and afraid.
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Nancy Christie is the award-winning author of two short story collections: Traveling Left of Center and Other Stories and Peripheral Visions and Other Stories (both published by Unsolicited Press); two books for writers: Rut-Busting Book for Writers and Rut-Busting Book for Authors (both published by Mill City Press) and the inspirational book, The Gifts of Change (Atria/Beyond Words). Her short stories have appeared in numerous literary publications, with several earning contest placements.