Off Days by Taylor Grieshober
Low Ghost Press, 2019
In a scene from “Night Owl,” a short story from Taylor Grieshober’s collection Off Days, the protagonist Claudine declares, “The world is full of beautiful people and ugly people.” She states this to her friend Nancy-Claire, a bubbly blonde who has no trouble drawing in random guys “like drones” when she and Claudine go out to the club. Claudine, on the other hand, can’t face her own reflection in the mirror.
But this is not a story about a beauty outshining her best friend. None of the stories in Off Days are about the triumphs of pretty people at the top of social food chains. In this collection, we never know who falls on either side of this dividing line between ugly and beautiful. Characters we traditionally view as the standard of beauty and stability tilt sideways in the eyes of the narrators of these five stories. Nancy-Claire draws in the boys, but those details, even Claudine’s own jealousy, are lost in Claudine’s descriptions of her offbeat mother--a mother who loved late-night horror flicks and fake blood.
As a reader, I love this mother. I want to be her child for a day. I want her to wrap me in the white sheet she’s “stained with coffee and burned with cigarettes” so we can thrive on Halloween night.
Grieshober's fiction untangles the lives of outsiders. Claudine rides city transit at night when she can’t sleep. In another story, “Anima,” Vicky the narrator is a waiter at a fancy restaurant who cries randomly and attempts to fend off her religious mother. Even the allegedly “normal” characters we encounter in the stories surprise us. Claudine hooks up with another bus passenger in a “tailored navy suit.” The pressed-suit visage he presents to the world signals respectability and boredom, but hooking up with a random bus insomniac is not your typical buttoned-down behavior.
Vicky, has a regular customer who looks like he’s made out of money. She calls him “Timeshare” and describes his hair as “the color of heavily creamed coffee.” He is equal parts Adonis and creep as he tries to read Vicky’s palm, telling her “No, you’re tense. You seem joyless,” which reads to me as the kind of line men shoot random women on the street: “Smile.” Vicky is equally repulsed and exhilarated by the encounter, but Timeshare is definitely overstepping his bounds. I’ve met Timeshare. I was once on vacation in Iceland with one of my best friends. My friend and I were sitting outside the hostel chatting, and one of the guests sits down with us and starts blatantly hitting on my friend. The man was in his early forties. My friend was in his mid-twenties. He stared deeply into my friend’s eyes, told him about the motorcycle he just bought, the boat he owned. My friend didn’t even notice the pick-up lines, but they registered with me immediately. It was nauseating to see him equate his belongings with a personality, hoping his “normalness” would gain him sex with a younger man.
I was also insulted Timeshare didn’t hit on me. I’m Black, broke and overweight, so maybe I didn’t fit into his high-rise agenda.
I attribute the strength of Grieshober’s writing to her powers of close observation. Describing how people truly exist in this world requires the careful study of actual human beings. Grieshober's fiction does not accept the simplified platitudes with which media and pop culture frame the world. The TV says: Are you thirty? Time to start a family. Are you sleepy? You really need a coffee grinder.
Rachel, the narrator of “Homemaking,” describes a school staging of Charlotte’s Web. She ends up playing a character who doesn’t exist: “I was to play a [mouse narrator.]...There weren’t enough parts for all the kids so the theater teacher made some up.” She wouldn’t have played Charlotte even if she had the chance. She would have played the rat, Templeton. The other characters don’t know what to do with Rachel. Her part is an afterthought, but she is also the narrator of her own story. Not every writer would locate her as the center, but I’m so glad Grieshober does. She is a young narrator who is able to view her parents with suspicion as they trend towards breakdown.
I love spending time with Claudine, Vicky, and Rachel. These ladies have their own weird ways of seeing and surviving the world that makes me feel like my way of surviving—which includes writing, drinking whiskey, and long walks through Pittsburgh—may not be as odd as it sometimes seems. I have re-read Grieshober’s collection a number of times. The book puts this messed-up world in perspective. I can scoff at Oakley-wearing time sharers. I can wonder what a business-man is like beneath his tailored suit. I remember too that I can walk back and forth across the dividing line of ugly and beautiful. I can also stand in the middle.
Cedric Rudolph teaches high school writers at the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts school (CAPA). He is a founding editor for Beautiful Cadaver, which publishes social justice-themed anthologies and stages theatrical performances. In May 2018, he received his Poetry MFA from Chatham University. His poems are published in Christianity and Literature Journal, The Laurel Review, and The Sante Fe Literary Review.
(Editor's Note: Off Days was published by Low Ghost Press of which Kristofer Collins, the editor of The Pittsburgh Book Review, is also the editor-in-chief)