For those of you who could not join me at my graduate reading, I’ve posted below the edited entirety of my segment of the event:
given by Sheila O'Connor, thesis advisor
Husband. Blogger. Solipsist. Weaver of weird worlds and horrific tales. Aaron M. Wilson lives in Minneapolis with his loving wife and two cats, one good, one bad. He teaches Literature and Environmental Science. Two of the short stories included in his thesis have been published by rock, paper, scissors. Lastly, his fiction reviews from his blog, The Soulless Machine Review, have been re-posted by Deadly Prose, Golden Gryphon Press, Dragon Moon Press, and blurbed at BOOM! Studios Blog.
Years ago, in my first fiction class with Aaron, in response to the claustrophobically prescriptive Burroway text, and our stifling focus on the elements of craft, Aaron wrote a fabulous piece about a jailer who tortures a writer in solitary confinement until the writer finally breaks down and follows all the rules. A story with a beginning, middle, end, a story with a climax, a story like Janet Burroway has in mind.
Aaron’s story taught me two things I’ve held on to this day: first, Aaron Wilson doesn’t work well with rules, and second, too many rules suck the blood from art. For that, I am eternally grateful, and every time I’m about to morph into that warden, handing out butt ends of pencils while I whip my students and scream the rules of perfect fiction into their ears, Aaron’s haunting story stops me in my tracks.
And that’s not the only haunting story that Aaron’s written. In Keeping Watch: and other stories, Aaron gathers together a collection of science fiction tales that work as both powerful pieces of art and as serious social commentary. Many of his stories serve as warnings calling the reader to consider the abyss we could fall into, if in fact we haven’t already. There’s a constant menace, a spookiness that jangles the reader’s nerves and reminds us that the worst Aaron has imagined might already be real. In Aaron’s futuristic fiction a lone man tends to the last bookstore in Minneapolis and a reporter watches the bloody wreckage as illegal aliens try to cross the border, both stories science fiction and both frighteningly real.
A voracious reader well acquainted with the masters of his genre, Aaron brings his unique voice and vision to the page. His work is fresh, startling, and speaks directly to the social ills of our time. Of his own process, Aaron has said,
“When I sit down and really write, write the kind of fiction that presses upon my subconscious, I’m not writing about mythical monsters and unseen horrors, even if that is what the surface seems to be about. What I hopes comes out of my fiction is my own anguish for humanity.”
The Anguish is there, it’s convincingly well earned, and by the end of Aaron’s collection we are appropriately alarmed. But there is more than anguish, there is also its opposite, the belief, however dim, that we can, and have to do better than this.
“I write because it is the only thing that allows me to feel like I can take an active stance against humanity’s desire to self-destruct. Writing is my subversive act against my own belief that humanity will never rise up to embrace its place in the universe as communal organism instead of parasite. I write with hope. I write to embrace hope. I like to think of myself as a writer.”
Writer. Reader. Truth teller. And remarkable human being.
Please welcome Aaron Wilson.
I could not have accomplished this great task without the help of many people. First and foremost, I owe a lot to my patient and loving wife, Jessica Fox-Wilson. Second, Sheila O'Connor had the courage to read my stories even though she knew they’d keep her up at night. I would not be the writer I am today without her guidance and her skill as a teacher and mentor. Larry Sutin, I don’t know if I would have switched from Creative Nonfiction to Fiction, if it had not been for the space allowed me early on in the program to write stories instead of critical essays. And all of those tortured souls who read my work and gave me the critical feedback that I needed to curtail my inherent ability to hurry up and be lazy, John, Jae, Aaron, and Laurel. And a special thank you to Deborah Keenan who graciously took a surprise reference call that helped me to land my current gig.
A Tea Party
Dan believed good things happen to people who give rather than take. Dan was young. He spent each morning helping his mother in the kitchen and around the house. He would notice that the dishes were dirty and do them without being asked. He’d see that the Sunday paper was spread around the living room, the comics on the ottoman, the sports pages on his father’s lap, the jobs section here and there on the floor marked with red lines and circles. Dan would silently pick up and refold each section, making sure not to wake his father or disturb his mother. He’d reassemble it, setting it neatly on the coffee table.
Then at night, before bed, he’d take out the trash and move the cans to the curb in front of the house for Monday’s pick-up. Dan would look for things that were out of place. He knew that if he could keep the little things from coming between his mother and father that they would love each other more, love him more. Good grades, Little League, keeping his bike in the garage where it belonged. Dan believed that it all helped.
One Sunday night, as Dan was making the rounds, picking up stray leaves, sticks, and pulling the occasional dandelion, he saw a shadow moving between the house and the garage. A shadow about his own size, shaped like a boy.
Being reckless, as young boys sometimes are, Dan didn’t consider the danger that could have been waiting for a boy in the early night. He just went after the shadow, quietly sprinting, avoiding the dry leaves that would have crashed like thunder. A small girl in torn skirts stepped out in to the lamplight as he turned the corner to slide between the house and the garage.
She stood there, caught in the garage’s floodlight where Dan would sometimes draw chalk pictures on the pavement. Her dirty blond hair was in two greasy pigtails. Her eyes were blue on top of purplish-black crescent-shaped bruises. The truly remarkable thing was her doll. It was one of those lifelike things with the big plastic head and the creepy eyes that opened and closed. It was pristine.
Dan didn’t know what to do. He had thought in his boy’s mind that one of the neighbor boys was goofing on him, and that he was going to engage in some kind of contest of stealth and speed; however, he was ill equipped to handle this: a dirty girl that looked like she belonged in the trash. Dan stood there looking at her. He was turning something around in his mind, something new, something that had never occurred to him before, but now seemed so simple.
He held out his hand to her.
She held her doll close, protectively. She turned to look over her shoulder as if taking some unspoken cue from the darkness. She then stepped forward and took his hand.
“My name is Alice.” Pointing her chin at the doll, “This is Sally. She’s my baby.”
He felt her hand in his. Her hand was rough and cold. He thought that girls were supposed to be warm and soft. This simple touching of hands made Dan’s face wrinkle and he began to wonder if he had done the right thing. But it was too late. She had told him her name and had put her hand in his. “I’m Dan.”
“Hi Dan.” Alice looked at her doll. “Say, ‘Hi Dan,’ Sally.” Alice rocked her doll forward and it said, “Hi Dan,” in a voice that didn’t sound very much like Alice’s.
Dan winced and let go of her hand. The doll had spoken. It must have been a recording. Some of the newer dolls could do that, he reasoned, even though it didn’t seem very reasonable to him. Well, it was only polite that he answer back, “Hi Sally.” He immediately felt foolish, his cheeks warmed.
Alice smiled a big dirty smile, showing many gaps where her baby teeth had fallen out. She put her finger in the gap in the front of her smile. “See. Papa told me that the boys like gap-girls. Do you like gap-girls, Dan?”
Dan knew something in what she had said was wrong. He squinted at her in the lamplight. “Where do you live?”
Alice looked him up and down. She looked over her shoulder. “Can you keep a secret, Dan?” She rocked her doll and Sally’s eyes clicked shut then opened.
Dan felt as if Sally was going to say something, so he waited. He balanced on his toes then his heels, hands in his pockets.
“Sure. Yeah.” Dan moved a little closer to Alice as if this secret was to be whispered into his ear.
“In your backyard. The alley really. But your backyard. Me, Papa, Mama, my little brother, Sally, and all my other dollies.”
Dan looked at Sally. The bright light danced on her plastic face. Her eyes were open. Suddenly, Dan felt in over his head. He wanted to do what was right. He wanted to help, but he was just Dan. His father wouldn’t have liked that thought. His father was always telling him to be somebody. His father had told him that if someone was in need that he should help.
Dan’s mouth felt dry. His tongue was thick with indecision. He had all the tools there in his mind. He was just about to take her hand again and make her come inside to talk with his parents, when Alice darted back into the shadows. Dan had made up his mind. He knew what to do. He ran after Alice. He had to help her.
Dan could see Alice near the fence that separated his yard and the alley. She was standing next to the gate. She was holding it open. In the crook of her left arm, Sally wore a desperate look. The light glinted off Sally’s eyes. And for just a moment, Dan thought that he had seen a tear in one of Sally’s eyes, wet and real. He stopped running, “Alice. Alice. Come inside with me. It’s warm. We have food.”
Dan thought that Alice looked stunned. She said something that he couldn’t hear. He tried to see who she was talking to. He couldn’t see anyone other than Sally. She must still be talking to Sally. She must.
Alice was standing next to him. Dan jumped.
“Dan.” Alice took his hand. “Dan. Come with me. Meet my parents, meet everyone.”
“No. Alice, come inside with me and have some hot chocolate. We have the kind with the little marshmallows.” Dan squeezed her hand and turned to head back toward the house.
“No.” She held on to his hand and planted her feet. She wouldn’t budge. “Come with me.”
Dan wasn’t about to give up. Perhaps if he went with her she’d come around and return with him. She seemed to really want to show him something. Once she did, he’d ask again.
Dan was full of stories about adventures. His friends were always out getting into trouble. Over lunch, at school, they’d tell him of their adventures and how much trouble they were in with their parents. They’d go around the table, each telling a tale of some exploit that meant that they were grounded. When they’d get around to Dan, they’d laugh. Dan the man, they’d say, Dan the do-nothing man. Boring old Dan.
Dan had adventures, but they were not the kind of adventures that you share with your friends. They were the kind of adventures that get you punched and left for dead in the boy’s bathroom with your shirt over your head and your pants around your knees. They were the kind of adventures that you kept to yourself.
Dan didn’t like to talk about his adventures. They were his. Like the time his mother asked him to ride his bike two miles to the store and pick up fixings for salad: romaine lettuce, two tomatoes, carrots, olives, chives, and a bottle of dressing. Any dressing, she had said he could pick. Surprise me, his mother had said. She had trusted him with him a twenty dollar bill. That was an adventure. He didn’t even know what romaine lettuce was. He had to ask, and asking was hard. But he got on alright and paid for everything on the list and made it home. Part of him had thought that he might not make it. That there was something out there, in the streets, that would try and stop him.
Dan wanted to have a real adventure, one that he could share around the lunchroom table with the other guys. With Alice leading him forward by the hand, it felt like one of those adventures that always happened to someone else. A smile crossed Dan’s face. He was ready.
Alice giggled as they ran through the gate which led into the alley and the darkness that waited beyond the floodlight’s reach.
Dan stood looking down at the dark hole in the pavement. Alice had slid the drainage cover off just enough that she could squeeze through. She had wrapped Sally in her skirts and climbed down. Dan couldn’t wait for lunch on Monday. The guys wouldn’t believe him. They’d laugh. He knew they would, but he’d stick to his guns. He’d tell them that he went into the sewer with a girl. This was exactly the kind of adventure he had wanted. He’d only go down for a few minutes then he’d convince her to come back with him to the house.
Dan looked up to make sure that he knew where he was. He could see Jimmy’s house and Jen’s house and the stop sign that was bent over when the Murphy’s oldest boy hit it with the truck. He wasn’t very far from home at all.
“Dan,” Alice called. “Hurry, Dan, before someone comes.”
Dan climbed down into the dark. His shoe squished something at the bottom. It smelled foul. Like when his father forgot to flush. He couldn’t see anything either, except lighter shades of complete darkness. “Alice.” He held out his hands in front of himself and swung them side to side. “Alice, I can’t see.”
“Open your eyes, silly.”
Dan took a deep breath and opened his eyes. He saw pink everywhere. Cotton-candy pink, everywhere, pink curtains hanging in front of a pink window. Pink cushions on a pink bed between pink dressers, pink everywhere. Alice’s dress was perfectly pink. Dan looked around as if he had just entered the candy store on his birthday.
Alice was standing in front of a bookcase filled with dolls of all kinds. “Do you like my dollies?”
Dan took a closer look. One shelf had really fat dolls that were filled with smaller dolls. Another shelf had the kind he’d seen at his grandmother’s, the kind with the wrinkled potato faces and beady black button eyes. One shelf had a row of baby dolls with bottles. He picked one up.
“Careful. Those wet themselves if you feed them.”
Dan quickly put it back on the shelf. He turned to look at another row of small plastic ones. They had big heads and big eyes. When he picked up the one with brown hair and the firefighter’s helmet, the head rocked back and forth as if it were on a spring. Dan could hear Alice giggle.
“Do you like my room?”
“You have a lot of dolls.” Dan reached for a set of adult looking dolls. These were more like Barbie and Ken. These he knew. Jen had Barbies. These were dressed like Dan’s parents would if they had to go to work. The Ken-like one even had a little briefcase in one hand and a newspaper in the other. The woman had a green purse and a cup of coffee. Dan picked her up. She looked a lot like an older version of Alice.
“Those are my parents.” She picked up her father by his stiff plastic legs and held him out to Dan. “Here. You play Papa and I’ll play Mama.” She took the Barbie from him.
Dan took the one Alice held out for him. It was a doll. It was plastic. Its hair was molded perfectly. Dan held the doll so that he was looking at its profile. This doll had a belly that hung over its belt. Dan had never seen a doll that looked so life like before.
“Over here, Dan.” Alice was pointing to a small doll-sized table on top of her dresser. “Set Papa there, please.”
Dan folded the doll’s legs so that it was in a sitting position and pushed it up to the table. “Okay.”
Alice smiled. “Mama, say ‘Does Papa want a cup of tea?’”
“Does Papa want a cup of tea?” the doll asked.
“Your turn Dan, tell Papa to say something back to Mama.” Alice crossed her arms in front of her and waited.
Great, Dan thought, more talking dolls. He wondered how they worked. They seemed too small to have batteries. He picked his up and lifted the shirt in the back, looking for the switch.
“Dan! Put Papa down!” She stomped her foot. “Now!”
Dan snapped to attention. He looked at the little tea party. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He smelled flowers and mint. When he opened his eyes, Alice was still waiting for him. “Daddy, say ‘Why, yes, I’d love some tea. Thank you.’”
Dan’s doll spoke back the words he had given it. It wasn’t his voice. It was deep and raspy. Before Dan could give this voice much thought, Alice’s mommy doll picked up the teapot and the daddy doll’s teacup. The mother doll poured the daddy doll a cup of tea, spilling just a little.
Dan watched as the two dolls enjoyed their tea. On the doll’s table, next to the sugar bowl, there was a plate of cookies. “Daddy, say, ‘Please pass the cookies.’”
The daddy doll repeated his words. The mommy doll passed the small plate. The daddy doll took one and ate it.
Dan thought the scene was nice. It was what he thought should happen between a mommy and a daddy. He looked at the dolls enjoying themselves. Dan didn’t want it to stop. He looked around and felt like the other dolls were watching him, knew what he was feeling inside. He felt a tingling sensation wash over his skin. He shuddered.
Dan said, “Daddy, say, ‘Thank you Mommy.’”
Alice looked at Dan. “Mama, say, ‘You’re welcome. Now, finish your tea.’”
As Dan heard the mommy doll say, ‘you’re welcome,’ he pursed his lips. Something was wrong. It was just play, but it made him miss his parents. It was all too perfect.
Dan had had enough adventure. “Alice, I want to go home.” And he moved away from her and the dolls. He turned to leave. He saw a door. He walked over to it. The door wouldn’t open.
Alice touched Dan’s shoulder while holding the mommy doll. “Mama, what do you think?” She waited.
Dan brushed Alice’s hand off his shoulder. He tried the door again. “It’s locked.”
The mommy doll answered, “I like him.”
Alice lay down on her bed and hugged a pillow to her chest. “You have to stay.”
“No. I want to leave.”
Alice waved her hand as if she were coming out from behind a curtain or finishing a curtsy. “They like you.”
In unison, every doll stood and said, “Stay Dan. We like you.”
Dan fell to the ground and pulled his knees to his chest.
“Oh. What’s wrong Dan?” Alice asked.
“They won’t find you.”
Dan screamed and banged on the door.
Alice set the pillow down. “How rude!”
“Help! I’m down here! Help me!” Dan kicked at the door. His eyes were clenched and wet.
“Stop it, Stop it. Stop it!” Alice gripped Dan by his hair and dragged him kicking and screaming towards her bed.
Alice grinned through the greasy part in her hair. “You’ve been a very bad dolly.”