“Palindrome: Stories” by Elizabeth Genovise

Consider, for a moment, the superb short story “Level,” a signature piece and the third in Elizabeth Genovise’s new collection of short stories, Palindrome (The University Press of SHSU)

The fine finish carpenter’s son is dying and the doctors have said it’s best that he spend his remaining time at home. We know the carpenter’s love for his son is profound and the loss that will occur in short time will be devastating. To add to that fictional moment’s complexity, the carpenter’s wife left the family eighteen months earlier but has returned to help care for the boy. The return angers the carpenter, but more to the point, is that when his son was healthy and the home he had built for the family was finished, he was not only in love with his wife and son, but he was also in love with God. With his wife leaving and his son’s incurable disease, the carpenter has come to the point in which the dimensions between the family’s loving world and God’s dimension become unbalanced.

Neither the carpenter, nor his son, nor his wife have names which adds to the mystery but which is not to suggest that the story falls into allegory.

Daily, when the carpenter returns home from his workday, he begins work in a shop he has assembled outside his son’s bedroom window:

His son had always loved wood, wanted to work it since he was five. It was the greatest pride of the carpenter’s life to show him the tree’s secrets, the violet in walnut, the rainbow hews of blue and green concealed in poplar, the whimsical constellations etched into birds eye maple . . . . As a baby his favorite toy had been the carpenter’s level with its water windows and the lone bubble that shifted back and forth.

It’s one of any carpenter’s tools, if not the most important. When used properly, a carpenter will place the level on a furniture project he’s working and adjust the bias either up or down for horizontal and adjust the bias either left or right for a vertical level. Without this tool, a carpenter would be unable to align surfaces properly. In wood-working language, however, the bubble in the vial in the carpenter’s tool are often referred to as the “spirit”;  if the bubble in the vial is perfectly centered between the two notches, well, bias is prevented.

What’s evident, however, is that what once was “level” in the carpenter’s life is now “un-level” even if the word which in the “quickness” of the story is the anger and prejudice that carpenter has against God.

Given the emotional tenor of the story, Genovise is confronted with the problem not only of slowly detailing the pacing and “tension,” but the subject matter could quickly devolve into maudlin hyperbole. How then to keep the mortise and tenon without the bubble of the level wobbling even though day-by-day the carpenter drags himself to work, only to return to the work assembled outside his son’s bedroom.

Sleep is never restful; he dreams instead of humiliation, waking bleary-eyed as if he had been wrestling God.

The issue? The carpenter’s level appears in the story as a tool but also as an extended metaphor developed not only in this story but the other stories in this fine collection. The evocative images in “Level” can be related to the other stories by drawing multiple parallels with other lives that have become “un-level.”

Consider, for another moment, the very fine fifth story in the collection “Meridian.” It begins with a strong image: “The funerals are long over and Norman Hall has been scrubbed thoroughly enough for the bleach to mask the lingering smell of copper.”  The prayer vigils and candlelit circles have dissipated. But the studded crosses are still stabbed in the lawn. “We,” the narrator explains, “are a shocking statistic—nineteen dead, including the shooter.”

To return, then, to the extended metaphor:  what was once level is no longer level, the “spirt” in the vial has emotionally shifted for Eva, whose classroom was the scene for the mass shooting by Sean Wakefield, her advisee, to whom she had spoken only once.

And so a statistic: nineteen dead, including the shooter. But such has become common—well, old news—except for Eva,    who is “caught in a vortex that won’t let [her] go.”  A paramedic told her to try not reliving the episode in her head. Which is exactly what a counselor told her two years ago when a woman in a Lexus forced her husband and five-year old daughter off the interstate and down a fifty-foot embankment leaving both bodies mangled beyond recognition.

She rarely sleeps and visions come to her even in the heat of the day.

At issue is her guilt for not having done something about her advisee about whom she had suspicions. At issue also is her desire for revenge against the woman in the Lexus which festers. Both misalign the spirit in the bubble while she tries to garner enough energy to teach while concern about an adjunct grows: Ira watches her as though she might detonate  at any time.

She hires Robert, a private investigator, to learn everything she can about the woman in the Lexus. He follows her and describes her as bedraggled, with “odd capes and big jewelry.”  He gets close enough to smell her: foul, like she hasn’t bathed in weeks.

Elizabeth Genovise

Eva lies awake at night, thinking that she might have anticipated Sean’s attack and bolted the classroom door. The students stare in bafflement. She could have overturned a metal folding table and slid it in front of the lectern. She can hear him cursing; he fires a few rounds into the door. She knows she is no guardian and descends deeper into a morose stupor; her teaching suffers. She says in response to questions from her dean that her students are stupid. Robert reports that he broke into the woman’s house. No person, he explains should have that many medications.

It’s a difficult story to read. So are the other stories in the collection in which the spirit bubble wavers unevenly before settling between the notches on either side of the vial. For the character in “Meridian,” such is a pyrrhic victory. She stops at a deli a few blocks from campus and purchases a foot-long roast beef sandwich. Using a black maker, she writes the name “Ira” on the paper bag and places it in the faculty lounge fridge. She thinks it stupid but then notes that she had been gone for so long she doesn’t know where to start.  At the end, at a moment in time, she is finally ready to start. Like the great meridian longitude circles on the surface of the earth, she reconnects and is finally ready to see.

In “The Chaos Drawer,” the eighth story in Palindrome, the narrator remarks that after Paul’s death, “Annalee was persistently dizzy.”  She “felt that the axis of the earth rested just under their mattress and that some “catastrophic change had occurred in the night—a pole shift that made jungles into taigas and deserts into food zones.”

They had been married for forty-five years and after a few months she was settling down, returning to her pleasant routines. But that spirt bubble was unbalanced and although their home together had been a place of “absolute, irrefutable order,” in her “chore-frenzy” her plan is to go through her husband’s things. Humming along, she finds in the pocket of one of his sporty black coats a single earring, silver with a little nub of moonstone. Very probably hers, but then she feels certain that she’s never owned a pair of moonstone earrings.

She thinks she may be becoming paranoid and apologizes to the deceased Paul. But it’s the inkling, one small thing along with the Kleenex and the cough drop, and pocket lint but, which suggests her dead husband’s loyalty.

In light-hearted chitchat with her daughter, Carla, she asks whether Carla ever knew someone named Beryl. She begins to tackle her husband’s deception with a fierceness. And she finds more. And with more, nausea, and rage. She shudders at the thought of what her life will be like now with this knowledge.

What Annalee, finds, however, is an inner strength, hidden for so many years and the realization that she could not have been the first to find truth in the abyss. The spirit bubble which has been uneven is rearranging. There are leather-bound volumes. She considers that she could take one down and read a hundred pages a day, and no one could stop her except herself. And she will peer into the mirrors and confront what she had avoided all her life, and in doing so, will arrange herself with the hope that the way back will one day become the way forward.

Elizabeth Genovise’s creative work is gaining more recognition and traction. The story “Level” is now a short film directed by Matt Linderman. She has mastered the short story genre such that story after story will remain etched in any reader’s mind. She has a novel in progress, which when published, will surely become a break-through.

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