I used to mow lawns when I was a kid, for my grandparents and some of their neighbors. It wasn’t so bad—I had cash and smelled like grass, both of which I found masculinely intoxicating. But sometimes the oldies would bust my ass and kill my buzz. One guy in particular used to chew me out when I’d miss the smallest spot in his lawn, let me have it when I’d mow dewey grass and leave it sloppy.
I resented that, and would just do a worse job in turn: leave little isosceles patches at every pivot, not get too close to the trunk when rounding the trees, forget to sweep loose grass off the driveway.
And soon he stopped having me do the grass, and I felt like I won, somehow. Twenty fewer dollars in my pocket a week, but a sense of pride about the fact that I’d somehow stood up, let that too-serious old guy have it—however silently the message was delivered.
But I knew he had a lot of stuff going on: I heard he was a veteran (WWII) and his wife had just died. Long after he stopped having me, when I mowed my grandma’s lawn across the street, I’d see him sitting on his two front steps, grilling a steak on his Smokey, looking around, neither contemplative nor engaged nor even really there at all.
I haven’t thought about the mowing or that old man or that whole juvenile triumph in a while. But after reading Chad Simpson’s short story collection, Tell Everyone I Said Hi, I’m finding it difficult to think about anything else, to cover up the image of that man and that stoop and that Smokey, the understanding that he was profoundly sad and I was cruelly happy in the way that only adolescents can be.
Simpson’s eighteen stories masterfully capture similar contrasts, and captivate the reader with their compassion and cleverness.
They feature men and women who are often at a crossroads: a young baseball player must decide if he should sign a contract after being taken first in the major league draft, a middle-aged man considers bedding a woman out of pity. A widower is unsure how to deal with his daughter’s suicide attempts. A young couple weighs the consequences of adopting a foster child. Simpson’s skill shows in his deft crafting of these conflicts, his ability to make the reader consider the characters’ predicaments: you know, I couldn’t blame her for drowning that bulldog, really—all it does is fill her with grief and resentment.
It’s difficult to talk about Simpson’s collection in a broad fashion. One can plainly say that they’re all quite good and heartfelt—there’s no postmodern silliness or linguistic showing off, just straightforward, skilled prose, stories depicting the lives of men and women from the Midwest, their occasional struggles, and their most unshakeable memories. But the stories also have a way of surprising the reader, heading in directions that are plausible but not at all predictable.
In the haunting “You Would’ve Counted Yourself Lucky,” a boy walks out of his house while his parents wait up for his sister. He encounters his neighbor, a once beautiful girl, scarred and hobbled by a car wreck. Their interaction soon becomes strangely intimate—Simpson produces some convincing and unsettling sexual tension, between the scarred girl and the confused, pubescent boy.
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.
Rebecca, the boy, and the reader are all feeling something powerful. She someone’s curious touch to her damaged places. He the skin of the opposite sex. We the sensation that what what’s happening might not be wrong or strange at all, but right for all parties, a necessary and innocent satiation. Simpson nudges us to such consideration.
One might get the sense reading out-of-context excerpts or promotional copy or even some individual stories that Simpson’s writing is heavy and serious and totally heartbreaking. But it’s not. The stories are by no means light or simple—conflicts may involve life or death or similarly high stakes. But just as often they can be funny as hell.
In “Fostering,” a man weighs the consequences of adopting a clearly damaged foster child—a heavy situation indeed. While at the pet store with the boy, Marcky, his attempt at humor falls flat.
“He’s a cutie,” the girl said. “How old is he?”
“That kid?” I said. “I’ve never seen him before in my life.” I chuckled, to let her in on the joke, but the girl’s brow furrowed the way it had when Marcky had mentioned Hydrangea. I followed Marcky to find out where he’d gone.
The story’s power dynamics aren’t totally inverted by this scene—Marcky’s still a six-year-old who probably won’t end up finding a home with this dude and his pregnant wife, so he’s obviously going to get the short end—but there’s something reassuring and funny about the way things play out here: nervous dude makes nervous joke and it doesn’t land, he looks pathetic—so much so that he has to go find some solace in the kid he probably won’t adopt.
Tell Everyone I Said Hi is a collection carried by its interesting and diverse set of sharply drawn characters, and it’s moments like the one in the pet store that give Simpson credibility. He can convincingly write in the first person as a middle-aged Vietnamese man or a fourteen-year-old girl or a blue-collar drunk (our narrator in the tremendous cover story, who, I feel obligated to mention, seems like he just walked out of a Carver story—I mean this in a good way (meaning that: I could be saying it’s derivative; it’s not, not at all)), and it’s all good. Really, really good.
So then, why the mowing story at the outset? I don’t know, precisely, why Tell Everyone I Said Hi stirs that particular memory, but I have an idea. Simpson has a knack for conveying the significance of seemingly small moments—you know, things like shitty little battles with some neighborhood boy about your grass—finding something in them that stays with the reader: maybe an image of an old man, sitting fifteen inches high on some stoop in his slippers, charring a flank.