Dressed All Wrong for This by Francine Witte
Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
Dressed All Wrong for This
Blue Light Presse, 2019
$15.95, 74 pages
Reading Francine Witte’s flash fiction is like reading one of those pocket-sized manuals, “The Wisdom of [Fill in the Blank]”: insight and sagacity packed into concise blocks of prose, only here with humor, compassion and creative word play. Or maybe her stories are like parables. Take the story “Alpha.” Always concerned about the environment, in verse as well as prose, Witte writes a humorous tale of a woman leaving the polluted, corrupt human world behind to live with the bears, who know nothing of traffic pollution, money, clothes. But she teaches the alpha bear, Roscoe, about the concept of money, handing over currency for food, just to let him know about her culture, using a leaf, foldable and green, to demonstrate the concept. He doesn’t seem to get it. “And just as you are about to give up, Roscoe presses the leaf into your white fleshy palm, and just before he swallows you in five efficient gulps, you are almost proud.” Did I mention the humor?
So many of the stories involve heartbreak – lovers breaking up, husbands cheating on wives, wives not leaving husbands. But so often, the circumstances are plain surreal. Bizarre. In “Mary as a Constellation,” when Jim tells her she should leave the planet, she becomes an astronaut, and when she arrives at Neptune, Mary looks through her telescope to see Jim with his new love, Amelia. “That bastard,” she mutters. She determines her revenge… In “Spy Story,” Giselle, tired of Greg’s cheating, hires a spy, but soon she loses interest in Greg’s activities when her spy, Hector, tells her about his other discoveries (“…there really was no video surveillance at the ATM.”). Hector is baffled. Doesn’t she care about Greg? Giselle has dressed Hector up to look like Sam Spade, but decides he should be more of a James Bond. And then: “What would you charge me to be my husband?” After a beat, Hector tells her he has to crunch the numbers….
The characters in Witte’s fictions rarely have last names. They are Jim and Greg and Hank and Tim, or Maria, Barb, Ruth or Sarah. They don’t need surnames! Fable-like, they could be Fox and Hen and Bear and Wolf. These tales resonate with that sort of “lesson.”
And indeed, in more than a few, human characters become animal. “When Michael Turns Fish,” is the title of one, in which a character contemplates the reactions of his wife, Margaret, and his heartthrob, Celeste, when, in the middle of a business presentation, “his arms tuck in and he is left with fins,” and his skin “scales over.” With a sly allusion to Kafka, the story concludes, “And is that Gregor, the summer intern, who went on and on about wanting a job exactly like Michael’s? Is he really standing over there in the corner right now wriggling a worm onto a hook?” The story, “Dogmister,” begins, “My new boyfriend is a dog. And not a metaphor dog. And not in a bestial way.” And then there’s “My Mother Was a Loaf of Bread.” Specifically, a “twisted, braided challah loaf, egg sheen on her back.” “Pigeon Radar” and “Horse Name” are other bizarre little tales!
Did I mention the humor? The story, “Flag” begins, “Janie decides to start her own country, one with no heartbreak.” She enlists her friend Ruth to be Vice President. They go to a restaurant to work on the details.
“All right,” Janie says, “but first we need a flag. I was thinking of red to
symbolize all the broken hearts.”
“And green,” Ruth adds. “For all the money spent on therapy.”
In the story, “Horse Name,” the narrator’s friend Joan asks her what her “horse name” would be and goes on to say that it can be a characteristic, something that’s true about her. The narrator replies, “In that case, my horse name is – takes too long to get out of a relationship.” (“LOL” goes here.)
The fifty-seven stories that make up this dazzling collection all bring a laugh but also leave a little pang in the heart, maybe more a “ping” than a “pang,” to sound Francine Witte-y about it. (Her wordplay is so much fun. From the story, “Blind Date,” alone: “She is all river flow.” “…his heart patter almost floated him away.” “…his danger brain kicks in.” “Will a window shine in too much truth light?”). In “Breakfast Story” a woman lies in bed eating her spoiled breakfast, considering the purchase of a new refrigerator, for the food she is eating is plainly spoiled, from the failing appliance she owns. Her husband, who has left her, had promised a new one. This one has clearly outlived its warranty. “You used to search for your husband’s expiration date. He must have kept it hidden behind his heart.” Ping! Pang!