Love Songs for the Quarantined

 
Love Songs for the Quarantined

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"Bonnie and Clyde in the Backyard"

Bonnie and Clyde drove through my grandfather's backyard when he was a boy in East Texas. Because his father died from a brain tumor (around the same time that Bonnie and Clyde were killed), my grandfather had to quit school to help his mother support the family during the worst part of the Depression. I wrote a few pages of this story nearly two decades ago, but then put it in a drawer and forgot about it. When I rediscovered the pages, I did more research on Bonnie and Clyde, who had long fascinated me, and then made the connection more direct between Riley's family and the famous duo. The first full draft came fast, as if, on some level, I'd been writing and revising it all those years.

~Reprinted from "The Last Pages" in Glimmer Train (Issue 73)

 

 

 

Publication History of the Stories in Love Songs for the Quarantined

"Bonnie and Clyde in the Backyard" in Glimmer Train, reprinted in Best of the West 2011: New Stories from the Wide Side of the Missouri

 

"The Man Who Fell from the Sky" in Glimmer Train
(nominated for a Pushcart Prize)

 

"Wedding Photograph, June 1963" in
Wrong Tree Review

 

"Blind" in Brevity

 

"Chalkdust on a Dress" in

Arts & Letters

 

"Bad Weather" in 94 Creations

 

"Snipe Hunt" (as "Tableau") in
Alligator Juniper

 

"A Nova, A Secret, An Eyelash, A Snoring Man" in When I Was a Loser
(Free Press/Simon & Schuster)

 

"The Couple Upstairs" in Arts & Letters (nominated for a Pushcart Prize)

 

"First Birth" in Arts & Letters

 

"When Our Son Died of Leukemia" in
South Dakota Review

 

"Love Song for the Quarantined" in
The Louisville Review
(nominated for a Pushcart Prize)

 

"Orchestration" in Harvard Review

 

"Filament" in One Story, reprinted in Best American Mystery Stories 2012

 

"Relative Peace" in Prairie Schooner


~Winner of the 2010 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction~
~Longlist Finalist for the Frank O'Connor International Story Prize~
~Includes stories anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories 2012 and Best of the West 2011~

K. L. Cook’s award-winning Love Songs for the Quarantined illuminates the unexpected, the unforeseen—the moments when, without warning, everything changes.   A surprise visit from the infamous Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow disturbs a thirteen-year boy’s routine—and future.  A fortune teller’s ominous predictions unsettle two brothers during their first visit to the Cotton Bowl.  Whooping cough quarantines a family and reminds them of their precarious history.  A miniscule filament of hot steel lodges in a man’s eye and irrevocably alters the course of his marriage.  Sixteen love songs about the transformations that await us—whether we’re ready or not.

Praise for Love Songs for the Quarantined

“Reading K. L. Cook’s Love Songs for the Quarantined, I had the giddy feeling I was privy to a secret, that somehow I was being let in on a great, hidden story that few were lucky to read, and as I continued to the next story and the next, I had the same remarkable feeling. This is a lucid and luminous collection—an extraordinary book.  K. L. Cook works a rare magic.”

~Debra Magpie Earling, author of Perma Red, American Book Award Winner

“I love K. L. Cook’s stories. Riveting and deeply moving, these intimate stories make it impossible to keep a safe distance.” 

~Linda Swanson-Davies, Co-editor, Glimmer Train Stories

“As the title suggests, these are songs for people entrapped by love. Sometimes it’s a happy entrapment, but more often it’s unhappy, and most of the time just inscrutable in the way that love can be.  These stories are plain spoken and fine, not the least of which is the lead story, where a dying man with a deformity is revisited by his cousin, Clyde Barrow… yes, of Bonnie and Clyde fame…and the protagonist takes a Kodak picture of woundings upon woundings.  The stories are also savvy and compelling.  K. L. Cook knows the landscape of love in modern times perfectly.”

~John Keeble, author of Yellowfish, Broken Ground, and Nocturnal America

 

Read More Reviews

About Love Songs for the Quarantined

  • On Writing Love Songs
  • Excerpt from "Bonnie and Clyde"
  • "Blind"

On Writing Love Songs for the Quarantined

A few years ago, frustrated with the novel I’d been laboring over, I turned (or rather returned) to short stories—my first love. I found it refreshing and liberating to move from story to story, to actually finish pieces and send them to editors and have them published. My work with these stories also led to experimentation with other short forms—sudden fiction, poems, lyric essays, memoir, personal essays, and criticism.
  

At a certain point, I realized that I had more than enough stories for a book—about thirty-five pieces, some as long as twelve thousand words, some as short as two hundred.  But I wanted the book to be a thematically organized short story cycle, with its own integrity and unity, not a conventional collection of miscellaneous tales. I wanted the stories to talk to, counterpoint, inform, and build upon one another, creating a cumulative aesthetic effect.  I wanted the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts.
  

The process of tracking the patterns and discovering the secret design in my own work revealed to me both conscious and unconscious obsessions. It reminded me that putting together a collection of stories is a vital act of not just revision but investigation and re-visioning. And that, I believe, is what we’re all after, as writers—to discover what haunts and inspires us and to find more conscious ways of getting that on the page.

One of my stories was about an epidemic of whooping cough that quarantines a family of four.  I was surprised to discover that many of the characters in my other pieces seemed quarantined in one way or another—not just physically, but also emotionally, psychologically, erotically, spiritually. There were hospitals and diseases and recoveries, of course, but also figurative forms of isolation—especially as the characters contemplated their destinies and obligations to families, friends, and lovers. So my first attempt at organization resulted in a rather heavy-handed symbolic structure. The book, in this incarnation, contained twenty-five stories, was called Quarantine, and was divided into five sections that reflected a sickness-to-healing progression: Exposure, Intensive Care, Quarantine, Experimental Treatment, and Miraculous Recovery.

I saw the book coming together as a unified collection, but I was nonetheless dissatisfied with the overall thematic design.  It seemed too dark in tone, masking what was redemptive and comic in the stories.  These pieces weren’t relentlessly grim.  Many were celebratory, even ecstatic, in spirit.  I remember my agent once telling me that “every story is a love story,” which made me think of two of my favorite stories, touchstones that I return to again and again for inspiration—Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog” and James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.”  Both are love stories, both love songs.  Without knowing it, I had been writing with that idea in mind. My stories were, in fact, love songs—to spouses and lovers, to children, to parents, to siblings, to friends, to mentors.

Clearly I had been fascinated, in ways I didn’t realize consciously, by the unexpected transformations in our lives, how we embrace or resist isolation and solitude, how we become quarantined—or, more often, quarantine ourselves. But it now seemed equally obvious that I was also obsessed with the ways we respond to suffering—the ways we console one another and ourselves in times of grief, the ways we find not just solace but pleasure. That’s what love songs are all about—joy and resiliency in the face of suffering.

With this in mind, I now worked to wed these two thematic strands—quarantine and love songs.  I kept thinking about the haunting beginning of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

 

Let us go then, you and I,                       
When the evening is spread out against the sky,
Like a patient etherized upon a table….

 

I wanted, like Prufrock, to take readers on an intimate journey. I wanted to take their hands and head out under that ominous sky.  I wanted to share these stories, these songs, about a visit from Bonnie and Clyde, about brothers hearing disturbing prophecies from a fortune teller, about a snipe hunt gone awry, about siblings coping with their brother’s suicide, about a couple’s precarious journey into full-throttle parenthood.

Once I figured out this essential intention—this core of yearning—in my work, I was able to reorganize the stories, cutting those that didn’t serve the larger thematic and narrative design and revising with the idea that every one of the final sixteen stories needed to become a song.  A love song for the quarantined.
 

Which became, in the end, the title of the book.


From "Bonnie and Clyde in the Backyard"

My mother, Whit, and Clara are at church, so I put the Chopin that Doc Melbourne lent us on the Victrola to soothe my father into sleep.  Whit and I slaughtered a hog early in the morning, and the meat will rot in the May sun if I don’t tend to it.  I sheathe the hog, dispose of the trimmings, and am hypnotically rinsing the blood from the slaughter slab when I see a car barrel down the road to our farmhouse.  A plume of dirt billows behind.  Who in the world would drive the farm road that fast?  I clean my hands and run to the house as a beautiful sand-colored sedan brakes in front.  It looks new, despite the dried mud blasted against the fenders and sideboards.  The dust rises up and over the hood like a shroud.  I squint and cover my face with my sleeve.  Though I’ve never seen them in person, I know before they speak a word who they are.  I scan the backseat for more passengers, but it’s just the two of them.

        
“Your father named Zachary?” Clyde asks.  Boyish, with a dark brown curl of greasy hair flopping on his forehead below his fedora, his voice is higher-pitched than I imagined it would be.  I wonder for a moment if maybe I’m mistaken.  Maybe they’re just joyriding kids.

 
“Yep,” I say.

   
“What’s your name?”


“Riley.”


“Glad to meet you.  I’m your cousin, thrice removed.  Clyde.”  I shake his small, calloused hand.  “This here’s my wife, Bonnie.”


“I see handsome runs in the family,” she says, and Clyde smiles.

 
I know they aren’t married.  I know everything about them.  I know she was married once when she was sixteen to a thief named Roy Thornton.  I know she was a waitress at Marco’s Café in Dallas.  I know Clyde has killed at least ten men by now, including four police officers.  I know that Buck is dead, his face and skull practically shot clean off in an ambush in Platte City.  I know about the banks in Oklahoma and Missouri and Louisiana and New Mexico.  I know about Bonnie’s aunt in Carlsbad and the policeman they kidnapped there and dropped off in San Antonio, the one that made them famous.  And I know, as everyone else in the country knows at this point in 1934, that it’s just a matter of time before they will be caught or killed.

 
“My father’s been sick,” I say.


“I’m sorry to hear that,” Clyde says.  “What’s wrong?”


“Something’s the matter with his head.”


He laughs.  “You can say that about most the folks in Texas.”


Bonnie slaps his arm.  “Be respectful,” she says.  And then to me, “Don’t mind him none.  He’s just like that.  How’s your daddy doing?”

 
“Not too well.”


“Can we see him?” Clyde asks, suddenly serious.  “He was nice to me when I was a boy.  My mom’s favorite cousin.  She made me promise to stop by and pass on her good wishes.”


I nod.

 
“Good deal,” he says.

 
They step out of the car.  The sight of them surprises me.  So little.  From the stories about them in the papers, I expect size, a certain grandeur.  Yet she isn’t even five feet tall, a girlish wisp, though prettier in person than in the newspaper photos, her skin pale, almost translucent, with freckles and a big, pretty smile and almost straight teeth.  Her reddish-blonde hair twirls in ringlets to the bottom of her neck.  A bright red skirt and a matching sweater cling to her body.  I glimpse, at the skirt’s hem, white gauze wrapped around her leg.

 
Clyde isn’t much bigger, certainly no bigger than I am at thirteen.  The coroner’s report will later say that he was five-seven and weighed a hundred and thirty pounds.  When he takes off his hat, his thick brown hair makes his head look too large for his body, as if he is a little girl’s doll.  He has an oval-shaped face with baby fat and freckles, a kid’s face, complete with a couple of nicks on his cheeks and a scab on his forehead.  He sports a green-and-red-striped tie, like a Christmas dandy, but his shirt is spattered with either dirt or blood.  He walks with a slight limp, a pistol tucked into the front of his pants.  My mother won’t appreciate that pistol.  She won’t appreciate this visit at all.  But I am not about to tell Clyde Barrow, cousin or not, that he can’t carry a gun onto our property.


“The rest of your family here?” Clyde asks.


“They went to church.”

 
He nods.

    
“Clyde, the car,” Bonnie says.

 
“You got a barn, son?” Clyde asks.  I point to the north side of the house, beyond the stand of peach trees.  “You think your father’d mind if I parked my car in there?”


“I guess not.”


“Why don’t you give the boy a ride?” Bonnie says.

 
“I’ll do one better.”  Clyde tosses me the keys.  “You know how to drive, don’t you?”


“Yes, sir.”


“Well then.”

 
I get in the car, and Bonnie climbs in with me.  Her skirt rises.  The bandage extends beyond her knee to her thigh.

 
She catches me looking.  “An accident,” she says.  “But I’m better now.  Clyde nursed me back to health, the sugar.”

 
I turn the key, and the engine starts right up, without any trouble, just hums.

 
“This is nice, ain’t it?”

 
“Yes, ma’am.”

 
“Feel these custom seats.”  She places her little hand on mine and runs my fingers over the upholstery.  “It’s also got a built-in water-style heater.”  She turns it on, and hot air pours like the breath of a horse from the vents.  “Not that we need it in this weather, huh?”

 
Clyde pokes his head inside my window.  He smells, strangely, like sweat and oranges.  “She sure is sweet on this damn car,” he says. “Let’s put her away.”


I inch the sedan along.  At the barn, Clyde says he’ll get the doors.  He limps over and swings them open.  The chickens squawk and flutter, sounding an alarm, but he walks in like it’s his place, not ours, and I roll the car over the hay-strewn ground until he holds up his hand for me to stop.  Bonnie and I get out, and I drop the keys in Clyde’s small hand.

 
“Thanks,” I say.


“The pleasure’s mine, son.”  It sounds odd, him calling me son,since he doesn’t seem much older than me, though of course I know that what he’s done over the past few years—including the stint in Eastham prison—is enough for any lifetime.

 
Bonnie and I stand on either side of him while he opens the trunk.  About a dozen guns clutter the padded floor, including revolvers, rifles, and two of the automatics called BARs that I’ve seen in the newspapers and magazines.  There’s a crate of oranges there and a box of license plates.  Clyde smiles at me, proud of his stash.  I try not to reveal any surprise, but my face must please him because he and Bonnie both laugh.

 
“What’ll it be?” Clyde asks Bonnie.  “Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, or Missouri?” 
“Let the boy decide,” Bonnie says.

 
The plates on the car are from Kansas.  I know Clyde likes to change plates frequently, usually after every job.

 
“What’ll it be, sugar?” Bonnie says to me.  “You choose.”


“Texas,” I say with no hesitation.


“Why?”


“Because you’re less likely to attract notice with in-state plates.”

 
Bonnie steps around Clyde and kisses me on the cheek.  “I think we’re gonna have to recruit you.  You’re good-looking and intelligent.”


She hooks her arm in mine as Clyde changes the plates.

  
“Why don’t you go tell your father we’re here,” she says, almost a whisper.

 
“Yes, ma’am.”



Blind

A sun lamp, a sleeping pill, my mother dozing without the UV peepers over her eyes. Dark, troubled, shake-of-the-head talk from my father on the phone with the doctor. Mother in her bright blue terry-cloth robe, her face burned blood red and blistered, her eyes blistered too, the wreckage hidden beneath the cotton bandaged to her sockets, helped up the stairs by my father.  This hand on the railing, now step up. Now that hand, that's right, easy does it.  An anxious servility in him.

The experience two decades later of seeing, for the first time, Oedipus, that subversive song of pride and shame.  The blind prophet Tiresias pointing his gnarled finger at Oedipus, exclaiming in John Gielgud's majestic warble: You, you are the unclean thing. You are the one who must go.

But back then, in Dallas, at the Old Mill Stream Apartments, I thought only of myself.  Did I worry about my mother?  Yes, certainly yes.  But folding the Times Herald in the dark, four in the morning, beneath the apartment stairs, alone, I imagined what it would be like to have a blind mother.  I could see it, a life marked out as significant, a source of pity and fear.  The world of Braille, wooden canes, hairy shepherds: that's what I wanted, what I shamefully longed for.

Even then I yearned for tragedy, could taste the aesthetics of suffering.

Oh, how strange and tender are the dark fantasies of children.  I was disappointed in a way I'd never articulate, even to myself, when the bandages were unspun from her eyes, her vision miraculously restored, like a gift from the gods. No excuses now, no spectacular catastrophe, no special privilege or catharsis for her pitiable son, The Child of the Blind Woman.  Just more papers to fold and rubber-band in the dark, without her help.

Then out on the roads by sunrise, pushing my grocery cart full of news, not a boy in exile, but merely a messenger, the black print all over my hands and face and coat, so that when I returned home, to where my parents slept, humbled and relieved, between the newly washed sheets, I was only too aware that I was the dirty one. I was the unclean thing.