Sightingsby B.J. Hollars
B. J. Hollars’s debut short story collection offers ten thematically linked tales, all of which are out to subvert conventional notions of the Midwestern coming-of-age story. The stories feature an assemblage of Bigfoot believers, Civil War reenactors, misidentified Eskimos, and grief-stricken clowns, among other outcasts incapable of finding a place in their
B. J. Hollars’s debut short story collection offers ten thematically linked tales, all of which are out to subvert conventional notions of the Midwestern coming-of-age story. The stories feature an assemblage of Bigfoot believers, Civil War reenactors, misidentified Eskimos, and grief-stricken clowns, among other outcasts incapable of finding a place in their worlds. In these marvelous stories, we can join a family on a very 21st-century trip along the Oregon Trail, watch as a boy builds a brother from a vacuum cleaner, follow a sandlot baseball team as it struggles to overcome an invasion by its Native American neighbors, and experience how a high school basketball squad takes to Sasquatch roaming its court. This genre-bending collection charts a bizarre pathway through the thickets of life on the road to adulthood. Pushing the limits of realism, these stories capture the peculiar rites of passage of growing up Midwestern.
"Hollars provides plenty of material in these pages for both enjoyment and close reading." —The Show Me Librarian
"The 10 stories in Sightings are all spins on classic 'coming-of-age' tales, and Hollars admits to a fascination with the genre.... Indeed, in every story Hollars finds a way to undercut the sentimentality that seems to be a staple of many coming of age stories, whether it’s by incorporating surreal elements in 'Sightings' and 'The Clowns,' or using an unreliable narrator to tell the story." —FortWayne Reader
"After reading a short story, my highest compliment is 'Damn I wish I’d have written that.' It must have sounded like a curse-fest took place in my house as I read B. J. Hollars’s hilarious Sightings, a collection of pitch-perfect stories. Fans of Kevin Wilson, Lewis Nordan, George Saunders, and Karen Russell need to add B. J. Hollars to their must-read list." —George Singleton, author of Stray Decorum
"In Sightings, B. J. Hollars brings us stories of those on the fringe but does so with an open-eyed awe that is missing from much of today's fiction. These aren't weathered, been-there, done-that, tales but fresh, exciting tales of those coming of age." —Dan Wickett, co-founder of Dzanc Books
"Each of the ten stories in B. J. Hollars's Sightings offers a rare combination of humor, insight, and coming-of-age heartbreak. Taken as a whole, the book left me awestruck, dazed, as if I'd just had my own face-to-face with Sasquatch." —Chad Simpson, author of Tell Everyone I Said Hi
"In these amazing stories, which are rife with savagely entertaining characters, the most exhilarating sighting of all is Hollars’s adept humor and impeccable prose, page after page. Readers indeed come away with the feeling of having had a true encounter with the fantastic—this unique collection, a bildungsroman at the intersection of private journal and urban legend, is not to be missed." —Alissa Nutting, author of Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls
"How I loved getting lost in the wilds of B. J. Hollars’s stories. Steeped in the landscape of the Midwest, the characters in Sightings push against their own strangeness and solitude in ways that thrill and astonish. This is a wonderful, richly-imagined debut.
" —Laura van den Berg, author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us
"Like Bradbury, Hollars manages to invoke the sights, sounds, and smells of small town America through the eyes of his teenage heroes -- and with as much ease." —The Lit Pub
"This collection masterfully shares stories about coming of age in the Midwest and demonstrates the author's skill with well-crafted prose, true-to-life characters, and reflects on the time in one's life that is worth nostalgia, even with all its anguish and social dysfunction." —Los Angeles Review of Books
Read an Excerpt
By B. J. Hollars
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 B. J. Hollars
All rights reserved.
It was the summer of 1975, and we were supposed to be feeling good.
Gerald Ford had just put an end to the war in Vietnam, and even more exciting, through the hail and the sideways rain, our hero, Bobby Unser, had somehow managed to be the first to limp his way past the checkered flag in Indy. Far less impressive was my own recent limping-completion of the seventh grade, an accomplishment whose only reward was leaving me stranded somewhere in the foggy terrain of my crushing adolescence, another casualty in a long line of those already infected.
Through no fault of their own, boys who had once been stars on their little league teams suddenly found themselves stretched and refashioned, stricken with nicknames like "string bean" and "crater face" with no signs of letting up. One morning they woke wholly dispossessed of coordination – their feet suddenly replaced with clown's feet, their legs the legs of giraffes.
Our symptoms were no different than those faced by others our age, leading us to believe that our shared suffering was likely the result of some top-secret government conspiracy (someone had poisoned the water supply!), leaving us susceptible to growing older.
At the end of the school year, several of us began passing around a dog-eared copy of Stephen King's Carrie, which we devoured partially for its pornography but mostly for its self-help. We took refuge in Carrie's predicament, basking in her unbridled displays of strength. Even we boys who knew nothing of the mysteries of menstruation reveled in the possibility that we, too – while enduring the curse of our fading youth – might uncover our own secret powers.
We lived in a place called Indian Village, a small neighborhood constructed on the fringes of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Small, ranch style houses butted up alongside one another in an array of lime green and tangerine orange. They were modest homes – screen doors and back porches – with bird-covered mailboxes punctuating the property lines. The only characteristic that distinguished our neighborhood from the next (aside from the street names identified by Indian tribe) was the canvas teepee displayed in the grassy center of the neighborhood. We never really spent time there (much preferring our summer days dedicated to the icy waters of the Pocahontas Pool or the baseball field of Indian Village Elementary), but our neighborhood's theme took on an entirely new meaning when the rental truck screeched to a halt on the corner of Kickapoo Drive.
I didn't know anything about real, live Indians except for what the movies taught me – all that business about feathers and bows and arrows. And thanks, in part, to an R-rated flick I should never have seen, I'd also learned a thing or two about scalping; how for generations, Indians' bone-handled blades had sliced over the still-warm bodies of white men, sawing across hairlines with one hand while pulling flesh tight with the other.
This gruesome image returned to me as soon as the tall, quiet man with the jet-black hair stepped from the rental truck. He threw open the doors and gave two sharp whistles, releasing his tribe into our otherwise near-perfect lives.
* * *
It was hard to determine how many there actually were. Five or six, most likely. Mother and father and five or six Indian braves. A dog, too, who throughout the summer made it his business to do his business in close proximity to my mother's gardenias. Who knows how old those boys were, though the youngest hardly measured past my waist. However, the older ones (and most of them seemed older) were broad-chested and gaunt-faced, intimidating in their silence.
Several of us gathered at the end of the block, gripping our baseball gloves as we watched them unload boxes.
"Looks like they're sticking around," Ronald Carpenter observed, spitting into the grass.
"Maybe they'll play outfield," added Jim Kelp, who was regularly stuck playing outfield alone.
Despite our gawking, the Indians never bothered glancing up. They'd formed a hapdash assembly line – father handing the box to his oldest son, who handed it to the next, then the next, until eventually it was placed into the open palms of the smallest Indian who huffed it into the house.
"Think they speak English?" one of the guys asked, propelling us into a heated debate over whether or not Indians could. Midway through Ronald's refutation ("Of course not! They didn't even come from England!"), the one girl powerful enough to momentarily stifle our idiocy pedaled back into our lives.
Georgia Ambler, who each afternoon could be found poolside in her blue and white striped bikini, had single-handedly doubled Pocahontas's male membership just by being there. Ever since school let out, we'd fallen into a routine of baseball in the mornings and pool in the afternoons, a schedule that allowed us ample opportunity to show off the scraped knees we'd earned from our heroics on the field. For several sweltering afternoons, we took turns parading past Georgia Ambler's peripheral vision (our farmer's tans in full bloom), waiting patiently for her to acknowledge our existence.
As seventh graders we never dared call out to an eighth-grade girl during school hours, but in the neighborhood, sometimes one of us felt brave enough to bleat out a crack-tinged greeting.
But not the night the Indians moved in.
Ronald, Jim, and the rest of us huddled beneath the long arms of the oak tree at the end of my drive, tilting the remains of our grape soda cans into our mouths while our eyes focused on Georgia pedaling past on her Schwinn.
Her brakes squeaked, but it was a squeak we'd grown accustomed to from summers past, our pants instinctually tightening at the sound of her un-lubed presence.
Upon hearing her siren call for the first time, the Indians glanced up. The oldest brave (we called him Pony due to his ponytail) tracked her path with his eyes as she rode down Cherokee Lane, two tan legs fully extended.
Like the others, I should have treated myself to the gift of Georgia Ambler's backside. But I couldn't – not with that Indian staring.
* * *
Much to Jim Kelp's disappointment, we soon discovered that the Ross family's invasion into our neighborhood did not translate into an increased number of outfielders.
"What do you mean they don't play baseball?" Ronald asked, pounding his fist into his opened glove. "You mean they don't speak English?"
"They speak English," I said, settling the matter. "They just don't play the game."
Since I lived closest, I'd been nominated to represent us in our plight for a few more outfielders.
"So assuming they do speak English," Ronald said skeptically, "what'd they tell you?"
"That they don't play," I repeated, "and that was pretty much it."
In the days leading up to my first encounter with the natives, I'd taken careful note of their patterns. For the first few days the braves had dedicated quite a bit of time to their front yard, rearranging their dozen or so lawn ornaments until their mother seemed satisfied with her phalanx of rabbits and squirrels, whose marble eyes followed us wherever we went. My own father called the lawn ornaments "an abomination of man and beast and plaster," but since the neighborhood association hadn't explicitly ruled against them, there was nothing to be done.
Once their yard was in order, I began seeing a whole lot less of those braves. The only time they ventured outside was when the one we called Pony retrieved the morning paper around 7:30 or so. One day after breakfast I hid inside our opened garage until I saw their door swing wide, the long-haired Indian bypassing a miniature deer and reaching for the paper.
Nothing fancy on my part, just a casual jaunt in his general direction. He was probably two or three years older than me, but I introduced myself and asked if he or any of his brothers wanted to meet us over on the field.
I pointed it out to him, though when Pony remained quiet, my cajoling smile slipped from my face. I tried thinking up talking points, but found myself simply repeating the first one.
"Yup, it's right over that hill," I repeated. "That hill right over there. That's where the baseball field is."
Sweat streamed into my eyes like a doubleheader. I was desperate for an exit strategy.
In a voice like water, the Indian whispered, "We don't play."
"Oh. All right then," I said, relieved for an answer. "Well, if you ever do ... or if you change your mind ... over that hill there ... like I said."
I just kept nodding, as if something might change if I kept at it.
The Indian leaned in close, his dark eyes examining me from all angles.
"You look like Huckleberry Hound," he determined.
I nodded, thanked him for his observation, promising myself to leave that particular detail out of the retelling.
But Ronald didn't even buy the portions of the story I did tell – "Who the hell doesn't play baseball?"
Shrugging, he took his place on the mound, said, "Sorry, Jim. How 'bout taking center?"
* * *
One night, after an afternoon spent leering at Georgia Ambler sprawled on her lawn chair – fingering a Vogue while a bottle of sunscreen rested wearily against her thigh – Jim, Ronald, and I retrieved our still sweat-drenched gloves and played a few rounds of Pickle, taking turns getting stuck in the middle and finding our way back to base. We were playing in the grassy area between Comanche and Mohican when the ball slipped loose – a wild throw by Ronald – and as I ran to retrieve it, I realized just how dark it had become, how the streetlights seemed to cast longer shadows this far from the yard.
Still, I glimpsed what appeared to be a baseball skipping across the grass, eventually rolling to a halt against the neighborhood teepee. I hustled after it, slowing only upon hearing voices drifting from within the enclosure. I stopped, trying to make out their words, but they were all lost in whispers and half-laughs.
"Hey, Jerry, what's the hold up?" Ronald cried out. "You tugging one out or what?"
I froze as one of the Ross brothers tore open the teepee's canvassed door, a plume of smoke bursting from the opening, burying me in a cloud. I'd smelled smoke before, but never that kind. A peace pipe, perhaps, or a doobie.
The entire tribe seemed to have wedged in there, though once the smoke cleared and I came back into view – my baseball glove tucked around my left hand like a lobster claw – I saw there weren't as many as I'd imagined. Still, the four who were there burst into laughter, their high-pitched yips crystallizing as their tongues clicked the roofs of their mouths.
"Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi!" they screeched, leaping from the teepee, arms raised and bodies spinning. "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi!"
My first newfound secret power of the summer: running faster than I dreamed.
* * *
They broke our treaty that night. It had never been explicit, but after our failed baseball negotiations, my friends and I invoked a strict Indian policy of leaving them to their own goddamned devices. We figured the Ross brothers abided by a similar policy, and our arrangement seemed tolerable until I woke the morning following the "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi!" incident to find toilet paper streaming from the trees outside my home. Dad had woken me with his bellows, demanding that I steady "the goddamned ladder" for him while he climbed "the goddamned trees."
Our house wasn't the only one to get hit – the houses on either side of us were equally papered – and while I kept insisting to Ronald, Jim, and the others that we couldn't necessarily assume the Rosses were to blame, I couldn't think of any other culprits.
"You don't have to be Sherlock freakin' Holmes, Jerry," Ronald grunted, bobbing in the shallows of the Pocahontas Pool. "Think about it. Last night we catch them smoking dope in a teepee, and this morning we wake up and find, lo and behold, that you've been 'TPed.' Teepee and TPed, get it? Caught the bastards red-handed if you ask me, but trust me, old Chief Tiny Dick's gonna pay."
"I wouldn't call that catching them red-handed, exactly."
"What more proof do you need?" he asked. "What if you wake up one morning to find my scalp on their doorstep? Would that convince you? Would this scalp, right here," he said, tugging his wet hair, "on their doorstep right there," he continued, pointing, "help you piece this case together?"
Ronald's speech rallied the others, and he assured us that if we did not take immediate retaliatory action then those "damned Injuns" would think they had free reign of the neighborhood.
"They do act kind of entitled," Jim grumbled. "Like just because it's called Indian Village they think they're the freaking chiefs."
Ronald nodded vigorously, offering up various body parts they could kiss or suck.
"There aren't so many of them," someone pointed out. "Not even a full tribe."
"You think I care how many there are?" Ronald asked as several of us bobbed all around him. "Even if there were a million ..."
Ronald paused mid-speech as Jim pointed toward the fence.
It was Pony, his mountainous pectorals and biceps rattling against the chain link. We huddled close like a herd of lawn ornament rabbits.
"Oh, Chief Tiny Dick's just trying to intimidate us," Ronald shrugged. "Don't pay any attention."
But we did, we paid a lot of attention.
He kept staring and we kept staring, until eventually, I broke our stand off the only way I knew how – submerging myself, drowning the world away.
* * *
Things got worse before they got better. For the rest of the summer, each night we skulked past the teepee we'd hear the familiar yips and screams from our Indian neighbors, which put a halt to all further diplomatic efforts. And in the rare instance we mustered the courage to shout back, our action seemed only to embolden them further. Some nights I'd wake to watch the entire tribe tearing through the neighborhood, capsizing trash bins and spilling their insides out. They were thrill-seeking marauders, except for the nights they weren't, the nights they terrified just by loitering on the sidewalks outside our homes.
One June night I woke to tapping. I could hardly hear it at first – I was still lost in slumber land – though a second round of taps confirmed the first. I didn't look over. I stayed in bed with my eyes shut tight because it was easier. I thought: Maybe my real secret power is my amazing ability to fall back asleep. It wasn't. I couldn't. The knocking continued – tink, tink, tink – and when I finally rose and headed toward my closed curtains, hand extended, I waited for the sound before pulling it wide.
There it was again – tink, tink, tink – so I tore open the curtains to spot them, or at least a part of them – four little Indian asses crammed tight against the glass.
They turned, grinning, and as they hoisted their shorts, Pony pressed his face to the glass and offered a final tink, tink, tink with his fingernail.
I watched his mouth as he enunciated each syllable:
* * *
The next morning, upon returning to the baseball field, we found our bases flung to the trees, third base dangling from a low hanging maple, while home plate was recovered two pine trees over. The field, too, was covered with trash, the remnants of TV dinners and cake mixes and eggs shells scattered along the baselines.
Things had turned personal – they'd desecrated our home – and it was suddenly clear that Ronald had been right about retaliation.
"It's psychological," Ronald said, explaining his plan a few nights later while filling a bag with dog shit just outside the Rosses' perimeter. "They call this guerilla warfare."
Several of us had gathered near the oak tree in preparation for the assault. Jim thought it a good idea to dress up like Indians ourselves ("You know, like how they did for the Boston Tea Party!"), but in the end, he was the only one among us to don the war paint and feathers.
Ronald distributed our explosives – black cats and cherry bombs, mostly – before ordering us to fan out on all sides of the Rosses' residence and wait for the signal (a piss-poor owl hoot, courtesy of Ronald). Clutching our matches, we did just that, spidering across the street in perfect silence, our heads down and running heel to toe, which Jim (the closest thing to an Indian we had) had heard was how the real Indians used to do it during horse raids.
We all reached our drop zones, but after a few minutes of silence, we began wondering if maybe we'd missed the signal. The plan seemed simple enough: Ronald was to light the bag of shit, chuck it against the door, and then let sound the owl screech.
But there had been no screech – nothing even close to a screech – so Jim plucked one of his headdress feathers and pointed it toward the other side of the house, indicating that I should check on Ronald.
I began army crawling along the edge of the house, and in one instance, accidentally peeked inside the living room window to find the Ross family deeply engaged in a game show. Some of the younger brothers sat on the floor (Indian style, no less), while their parents and the older ones littered themselves on the couches. I glanced at the front steps (not a flaming bag of shit in sight) and so, continued crawling until spotting Ronald on the opposite side of the house.
He was in reconnaissance mode, his unblinking eyes pressed tight to the basement window.
"Psst," I hissed, "hey, Ron. You gonna give the signal or what? These black cats are burning holes in my pockets."
He didn't hear me.
This time, his head swiveled just enough to reveal the sunburned bridge of his nose.
"What?" I asked.
Excerpted from Sightings by B. J. Hollars. Copyright © 2013 B. J. Hollars. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
B. J. Hollars is author of Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa. He is editor of You Must Be This Tall to Ride: Contemporary Writers Take You Inside the Story, Monsters: A Collection of Literary Sightings, and Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction. He is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
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