Keith Lee Morris, author of The Dart League King, returns with a new story collection as acute, funny, and heartbreaking as we've come to expect from him.In this stunning story collection inhabited by dreams and disappointments, good intentions and small triumphs, Keith Lee Morris chronicles the lives of men lost in the liminal spaces between adolescence and adulthood. For all their flaws—as husbands, as fathers, as friends—Morris’s characters are portrayed with depth, tenderness, and humanity. Call It What You Want balances realism with the surreal, humor with sadness, and explores all the hidden places in between.
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Call It What You Want
By Keith Lee Morris
Tin House BooksCopyright © 2010 Keith Lee Morris
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Culvert
It was late in the winter, the time of year in that northern place when the snow lay in a hard, dirty crust pocked here and there by frozen footprints. We lived in a mining town, and the smokestacks belched soot high into the sky, and the soot filtered down to the snow, so that the snow was almost black when it had been on the ground for long. Then came a Chinook wind, and with it a hard rain. The mercury in the thermometers, stuck below freezing for a month's time, rose steadily, and with it the waters of Pine Creek rose.
That area is desolate. The surrounding hills caught fire half a century ago, and with the steady outpour from the smokestacks almost nothing grew there afterward. Twisted scrub pine and tangled thornbushes and here and there by Pine Creek a stand of poplars or cottonwoods. The soil is hard and dry and rust-colored. On the day when the Chinook came and then the rain, Pine Creek was swollen with brownish water cold as ice.
The creek rose and rose, and the men of our town were called to help sandbag against a flood. For a long cloud-swollen night I stood in a line passing the heavy, rain-soaked bags hand to hand. I am not a miner, not used to hard work, and soon my mind and back and arms were numb and I passed the bags to the next man no more than a foot off the ground. I had not thought to wear gloves, and the burlap rubbed my hands raw, and I could not tell whether the moisture on my hands was blood or rain. There was a kind of desperate goodwill along the line, those who were fit for the work exhorting those who weren't: You can do it. That's right. Just keep'em coming.
But the water rose faster than our mountain of sandbags, and soon it came over the top in rivulets and then in an icy stream. We were told, by someone who assumed authority, to go home and take care of our families.
Our house was one of the most vulnerable, just across a narrow street fifty yards from the creek, but there was a slope that began at our front yard, and I hoped it would protect us. As it turned out, there was little time before the water came. I found Natalie asleep with our six-year-old son, Alex, in the upstairs bedroom. If the water rose that high we could climb from the sundeck onto the roof. Our power had been out for hours already, and I rushed in the dark down the split-level stairway to my ten-year-old son's room. I expected to find Michael awake, scared and excited by the storm, but he made no sound when I came through the doorway. His small basement window cast almost no light, and I had trouble making out the shape of his bed across the room. I stumbled over toys and game pieces and reached my hand out for his shoulder only to find the rumpled covers thrown back, the empty pillow. I called his name, then proceeded to search the basement-the closets, the furnace room, behind the chairs near the fireplace. I searched the garage-under the shelving, behind the lawnmower, in the car. Upstairs again, I asked Natalie, but she had thought he was in bed sleeping. We lit candles. Frantically, we carried them with us from room to room, but found no sign. I returned from yet another look in the basement to find Natalie hunched over on the living room floor, her arms stretched out before her in an almost penitent attitude, making no sound, staring into the carpet.
I woke Alex and brought him out to her, made sure that she acknowledged he was there, that her eyes were alive again and focused on him, that she knew he was her responsibility, that there was a task at hand. Then I lurched back down the staircase and out the front door into the yard. There was no more snow, all two feet of it melted magically. I ran to the backyard, thinking Michael might have retreated there, but there was no response to my call. So I headed back toward the creek, shouting my son's name as I went. I stepped carefully down the slope until I was in the water. It bit at my ankles, swelling steadily and moving fast, even though I was only partway down the slope. The rain swept down, hissing as it met the rising stream, and the stream itself spoke in a steady sigh, and the wind blew my words away. I got as close as I could to the creek, or where the creek had been contained before. The sandbags were immersed already, invisible beneath the water, the water waist deep where I stood now, just across what had been our street. Despite myself I began to grow afraid, more afraid for my own life than I was for Michael, more afraid of the stream pulling greedily at me than I was of this absence that I couldn't, even then, get my mind around. Surely Michael must be in the basement. Surely Michael was somewhere in the house. The water pushed at me steadily and my legs shook from cold and weakness. I began to retreat, struggling for my balance, shoved along downstream; and as I fought my way back toward the strip of dry ground that lay before my house I found that I was talking in my head about Michael, as if I were explaining to some stranger what a fine boy my son had been, but at the same time believing that nothing had really happened, that when I walked back in our door I would see him standing there with Natalie and Alex, that everything would be explained, that even while the house flooded we would laugh hysterically with relief.
But Michael wasn't home. I spent an hour scurrying around the neighborhoods behind our house, knocking on every familiar door. Natalie had recovered hope, was sure that Michael had gotten scared and run to some friend's house in the opposite direction of the creek. But no one had seen him. The neighbors came to look with me until the water rose to their own front doors. Again I struggled home, this time arriving in the backyard. Before I reached the steps to the sundeck, I looked up to see Natalie behind the sliding glass doors, and the look on her face almost sent me back out into the water again. But now we were all in danger, the water flowing fast around our house, our house like a ship plowing through waves.
I spent the rest of that night on our roof, shouting my son's name into the rain until I could no longer shout or even speak, while below me my wife and youngest child huddled tight and cried together, and below them the water poured in torrents through broken windows, flooding high above Michael's empty bed.
By daybreak the rain had stopped and the water had become a slowly ebbing tide. I renewed my search. I was found eventually, standing nearly frozen in the stream, by two policemen in a rowboat. They took me home and forced me into bed, and there were missing person reports and widespread alerts and, in the days that followed, stories on the local and regional news. And still Michael did not come home.
When the basement was pumped clear, we were afraid that we would find his body there after all. But it was empty save for the muck brought in by the flood. I went into my son's room and tried to straighten things. Picking through the mud, I found the toys and game pieces and put them back in their soggy boxes and stored them in the closet. I placed the bookshelves back upright against the wall, filled the shelves with the ruined books. I made the room as ready as I could for his homecoming.
Because we went on as if he were alive. For long hours during the night Natalie and I would number the ways we should blame ourselves. I should have known to evacuate the house instead of going to help sandbag. And yet there had never been a flash flood before-who would have believed it? Natalie shouldn't have fallen asleep, shouldn't have left Michael in his downstairs room. And yet the danger had seemed so remote, and Michael had been so proud that he wasn't afraid. We should have known somehow that he would try to leave the house. And yet who could have imagined him doing such a thing? We should never have moved to that awful town to begin with.
Always these discussions would end with an elaborately constructed scenario that left Michael alive, and if not well, at least capable of being rescued. He had wandered from the house and been kidnapped. The kidnapper was neither a murderer nor a child molester. The kidnapper was a gentle but misguided soul who wanted desperately to have a child of his or her own, and was treating Michael kindly. Soon the kidnapper's better nature would assert itself, and the police would be informed by means of an anonymous phone call that Michael Dwyer, the child who had been on the news, had been dropped off in front of a service station or a grocery store. We would work ourselves carefully into a state of half belief, which meant, really, I feel certain now, that each of us would arrive at the conviction that the other believed, and that if the other believed, there might be some real chance, even though we didn't believe ourselves.
And that was enough to get us started in the morning. It was enough to make us talk to Alex about the time when his brother would come home. It was enough to keep us from going crazy when we talked to the police or the reporters or the volunteer workers who came to repair our basement for free. It was enough to keep Natalie going around the house, taking Alex to school and cooking dinner and cleaning. It was enough to keep me going to my job at the real estate office, in a building absurdly shaped like the dome of a miner's helmet, where I never, not once, told my bosses and my co-workers that I hated them for allowing me to work there, where I never told my clients that their concerns about cracks that ran along the ceiling or lack of counter space in the kitchen or laundry rooms that were in uninsulated additions were ugly and narrow and selfish.
But really our lives were intolerably empty. Alex continued to play around the house, although rather listlessly now, without all the noise and the fighting that we'd always found so aggravating before, and without any of the laughter. At times I tried to play with him, but he told me that I didn't really know how to play, that the games weren't real games like they had been when Michael was there, and in the end he preferred to play alone. I would stand at the door to his room watching while he engaged, wordlessly, in a pale imitation of those games, wildly imaginative, he had let Michael conduct. I knew their substance, vaguely-there were plastic soldiers and knights and monsters, and cities made of stacked books, and mountains made out of blankets and pillows. But I had never paid enough attention, never really listened to the games, and now the games were gone.
Natalie and I wandered through the house absorbed in our own thoughts, never sharing them until that desperate time when we retreated to our bedroom at night, after we made sure that Alex was fast asleep between us. Worst for me were recollections of my thoughts during the flood. Your son is not there, at a time when you desperately need him to be there. But this has happened before, you say to yourself. There have been other times when he wasn't there, and at these times you have felt yourself at the edge of panic, and you have calmed yourself with the reminder that in each of these cases things have turned out all right. That time when you arrived home to find that he wasn't in the car seat, and you felt sick momentarily-it turned out, upon a second's reflection, that you hadn't taken him in the car to begin with. There he was in the window of the house, waving at you, and you were almost overcome with tears. And so you shouldn't panic now, not now, because this is just another one of those occasions. All will be well in a minute. You should not run immediately from the house into the storm flailing your arms like a madman, screeching at the top of your lungs. You should take a deep breath, stop to consider. You should search for a logical explanation. When you find the water rising around you, consider it foolish to dive into the stream, foolish to risk sacrificing your own life, because after all when you return home he will be there waiting for you. And yet I should have run like a madman from the house at the very first; maybe Michael wasn't too far away then to hear me. I should have dived into the stream, no matter how hopeless. Better that-better my own death-than the guilt over not having done anything.
When spring came, I made a habit of walking at night by the creek. I left the house armed with a flashlight, and I was drawn always to a church at the end of our street. Behind the church was a wooden bridge that spanned the water in an arc, and behind the bridge an old rundown shed. I walked the banks there stubbornly, over and over, each night shining the flashlight in the same places and never finding anything. At all times I cast a suspicious eye on the shed, at a leaning woodpile covered with moss that ran alongside it. Soon I began to examine the woodpile in earnest, shining the light behind it, between the cracks in the stacked wood, lifting the rotten pieces. One night, finally, I kicked in the door of the shed, but found in it only a wheelbarrow, bags of cement, old boxes, empty coffee cans. I gave up walking.
More and more, I blamed my wife for what had happened. Why had she left him in his room downstairs? How could she have fallen asleep? I distanced myself from her, and the house grew silent. Even Alex had almost stopped speaking. The three of us sat on the couch one evening, trying to empty ourselves into the noise of the TV. During a commercial, I went quietly downstairs into my son's room. The ruined carpet had been stripped and replaced, and I stood barefoot on this new carpet that no one ever walked across, staring at my son's bookshelves. So many books-so many for a ten-year-old to have found an interest in. I folded my arms tight across my chest and closed my eyes and tried hard to remember what Michael had looked like stretched out on the bed, his eyes ticking over the words, his hand held lightly at the corner of a page, his lips moving slightly. What were his favorites? The Hobbit. A book called Men of Iron, about knights and castles, a book I'd loved myself as a child. I'd given it to him for Christmas one year. I scanned the shelves but couldn't find it. Maybe it had been washed up under the bed or into the closet, and my wife had found it later, and thrown it away. But The Hobbit was gone as well. Some others- Tom Sawyer, at least one of the Harry Potter books, The Giver, maybe more titles I couldn't name offhand. Could he have taken these books with him that night? I tried to picture him with an armload of books, opening our front door and walking out into the storm. Couldn't someone have seen him? Wouldn't he have aroused someone's suspicion? What could he have been thinking? And as I left his room, I stopped suddenly and put my hand to the door frame. The week before, I had looked for a ream of paper I'd brought home from the office. I knew where I'd stored it-in my bottom desk drawer-but it wasn't there. I had looked all over, and finally decided that the memory I had of bringing it home with me wasn't real.
That night, I faded in and out of sleep, and at one time I felt Michael so close to me, right there beside the bed, that I held my hand out to reach him. I almost felt him breathing in my sleep-as if it were his sleep, or as if I were him.
As the weeks passed, it became clear that Michael would never return, that he was dead, but I harbored my doubts, my secrets. By summer Natalie and Alex seemed to have moved on to some degree. I would come home from work to find them laughing in the kitchen, and at the sight of me they would stop, as if I were freezing them in their guilt. I was a mere ghost there, just a reminder of the family we used to be, but I would not give up Michael to join them. Every small object that could not be found around the house served as proof of Michael's presence there. When I wanted the last apple from the refrigerator and found it gone, it was because Michael had taken it. The open spaces on his bookshelf seemed to grow wider, and I noticed more missing titles. Maybe Natalie had her own secrets, maybe she pirated the books and stuffed them in drawers in the bedroom, to feel she had something of Michael's close by. But I preferred to think that wasn't the case. Often I was awakened by noises at night, shuffling sounds like footsteps, the creak of doors that seemed more ajar than I'd left them, and a noise that I could call nothing more definite than the weight and volume of a body in a room. It's the cat, Natalie would tell me. But I sat wide- eyed in the dark, my heart hammering into my throat.
Excerpted from Call It What You Want by Keith Lee Morris Copyright © 2010 by Keith Lee Morris. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
In these 13 stories, protagonists turn the reader into a confidant and introduce plots that believably approximate the unique and fitful path of human thought...Morris's prose is polished to transparency and proves surprisingly flexible in terms of tone...marked by quiet authority and beautifully observed moments." Publishers Weekly
"Morris has enough guts to reveal al of his character's insecurities, but enough empathy to never revel in them."Time Out Chicago
"With his matter-of-fact prose and bitter humor, the author has spent a decade writing quietly debilitating portraits of the kind of men that grew up poor in small Western towns...and never left. . . . Morris’ ability to capture these people without irony or pity turns them from caricatures to our own lonesome, troubled neighbors and family members, allowing each a few beautiful moments in otherwise fucked-up lives."Kelly Clarke, Willamette Week
"It's Morris' ability to isolate these kinds of human longings and riff on them, even past morbidity to the point of a black hilarity that makes his fiction so compelling and so real."Matt Davis, Portland Mercury
“Morris delves into the lives of marginal men with great understanding. Many are treading the edge of self-awareness with an awkwardness that could be grace or despair.”Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Morris has an honesty to his writing that comes from homing his craft so that just the essentials are left and a sympathy and humanism to the way he presents his characters."Kevin Holtsberry, Collected Miscellany
"In less capable hands, these stories of hardscrabble lives could become sentimentalized or condescending, but Keith Lee Morris is too talented, too empathetic, to allow that to happen. Though his characters are often in extremis, their humanity is always fully realized. These characters, and the stories they tell us, haunt the reader long after the last page is turned, as only the best stories do." Ron Rash, author of Serena
“Here are thirteen manic, beautiful stories, each centered around working men, dads, and boys, all of them broken or on the edge of breaking. Each bears witness to fragility, confusion, and beauty. Each is quietly brilliant.”
Anthony Doerr, author of The Shell Collector and About Grace
“A new Keith Morris story collection should be cause for wild and possibly illegal celebrations among those of us freaks who revere the form, and the species at large. Readers should drink to excess and confess to loves best left unnamed. The stories in Call It What You Want are among the finest being written in America todayprecise missiles aimed at the human heart.”
Steve Almond, author of My Life in Heavy Metal and Candyfreak
"They are character-driven explorations of seemingly ordinary people faced with extraordinary circumstances. They are literary stories for a literate reader...The stories in Call It What You Want take an unvarnished look at contemporary life and the people who live it. They explore the limitations that keep people, even those that love each other, apart." Blogcritics.org
"With wit and heart, Keith Lee Morris’s stories explore the slippery nature of memory, its mutability and incompleteness. His characters are forever filling in the blanks, and where others might have to earn our empathy, they have it straightaway."Bomblog
"Morris is plan-spoken, but his style is laced with a distinct, playful wit and could just as easily draw comparisons to Richard Ford, John Cheever, or Flannery O'Connor..."HTML Giant
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Probably the worst thing I've read in a while
None of the characters or dialogue is believable. A waste of time.
In Keith Lee Morris's collection of stories, Call it What You Want, the characters are usually in deep, life-changing - or ending - trouble. Often they don't properly realize it. The twenty-two year old who "never really wanted to be anything" numbly testifying in court about the death of his friend, apparently at the hand of another friend. The husband and father who finds a cigarette in his supposedly non-smoking household and becomes indundated with visions of the possible lies and betrayals it represents.One of the most dramatic moments is when a mother who has lost a son to cancer and a husband to possible suicide faces the moment when her surviving younger son asks her to carry him, then implores her when she hesitates. It's a pivotal point in their lives, and at that moment she's a clueless as we are as to what she is going to do as she stands there and looks at him.After Morris gains our trust, the second half of the collection turns surreal. Flann O'Brien surreal. The characters are still lost and in trouble, but the outcomes are no longer clear-cut and may not even be part of this world, or any world that we know. For some characters it's an avenue to death. For others it's not so bad. Two college roomates tear a "fucking hole in the fabric of the universe" with their boredom and take advantage of pleasures they could normally only wish for. Like this collection.
I call it a waste of paper.
This book was sometimes, heart-breaking, emotional, thrilling and imiaginative yet sometimes out-landish. Don't let 1 or 2 short stories turn you "sour" for the other stories. It did make for a good read when you had a few minutes to spare here and there and it was an entertaining book! You CAN "Call it what you want"!