The Town Drunk, May 2007

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"Crow"  by Stephanie Burgis

"Sufficient Cause" by Tina Connolly
One of the things I love about humor is the way it can make a statement or enhance a story, even when the subject matter itself is not funny. This month, The Town Drunk serves up two short stories that carry a message which, presented without humor, would not have the same impact or appeal. Both examine gender roles, stereotypes, and societal trends. And one takes on governmental policies. But neither is heavy-handed, more like a gentle tap on the bumper than a head-on collision.
Ruth’s moment of truth and the day her life changes in “Crow” by Stephanie Burgis begins:  

“A crow flew into Ruth’s mouth one Sunday afternoon during lunch. She’d just opened her mouth to agree with her mother when the crow launched itself through the air, shrinking to the size of a peach stone as it flew, until it popped straight into Ruth’s mouth. She gagged and grabbed her throat. Her mother didn’t notice.”

"Crow" is a short, sweet tale reminiscent of an Aesop’s Fable.  Every time Ruth’s mother or co-workers try to convince her she should be prettier, neater, more organized, or more helpful, the crow in her throat prevents her from agreeing.  Only when Ruth discovers the inner truth about herself and begins to have confidence in her decisions does the crow let her speak and act.

“Ruth froze. Wild colors filled the window, the kind she’d always loved but never worn. Her mother’s warnings echoed through her head. Nice girls, respectable girls, wore white or black or gray, and they buttoned their blouses right up to their chins. Only loose girls, slutty girls wore rainbow colors, because they were trying to show themselves off. Respectable girls…The crow ruffled its wings impatiently. Ruth took a deep breath. Was she really going to listen to a crow?”

There is nothing funny about the stereotypical bitchy wife and lazy husband, or about misguided government surveillance. But Tina Connolly made me laugh with her clever use of acronyms and savage satire in "Sufficient Cause."

The payoff is a story that shows where we are headed as a society: a plastic, compartmentalized world where technology provides both individuals and governments with ample opportunities to control personal choice.

“Now, Howard. If you have any requests for the Personal Shopper Unit, you may make them through me. I will decide what is best for us. Tell me what you would like.”

“Chocochip cookies?”

“Not healthy, Howard.”

“It has to be healthy, or the pissu wouldn’t give it to me,” pointed out Howie. “It only gives out approved substances.”

“Many things are approved by the government that we do not find appropriate. If you do not know what we consider acceptable purchases, you may ask me. Now. I will order anything appropriate for us, only don’t call it a—that name is vulgar, Howard. Call it a Personal Shopping Unit, please.”

“Sufficient Cause” is told from the point of view of Howard, who longs for the good old days of junk food, eaten while watching his favorite sporting events. There are a lot of things not to like about his wife, Agnes, whose concern for Howard’s health has less to do with him than with being able to stay in the larger apartunit. Howard plays the schlub well, until the end when the government agents arrive to execute the search warrant, tipped off to suspicious activity by the pissu’s order tracking. 

Both of these stories are short and straightforward reading that will give you something to think about, plus a smile or two. I’ve always worried about being tracked by my EZ pass, but my online grocery order history might be my undoing! I’ll never again try to convince my family that the soy bologna is “real.” And I’ll not hesitate to wear those funky, beaded Capri pants a little bird told me to buy.