Corpus Christi

Corpus Christi

by Bret Anthony Johnston


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From an acclaimed and award-winning young writer comes an intensely moving debut collection set in the eye of life’s storms. In Corpus Christi, Texas—a town often hit by hurricanes— parents, children, and lovers come together and fall apart, bonded and battered by memories of loss that they feel as acutely as physical pain.

A car accident joins strangers linked by an intimate knowledge of madness. A teenage boy remembers his father’s act of sudden and self-righteous violence. A “hurricane party” reunites a couple whom tragedy parted. And, in an unforgettable three-story cycle, an illness sets in profound relief a man’s relationship with his mother and the odd, shifting fidelity of truth to love.

Told in fresh, lyrical voices and taut, inventive styles, these narratives explore the complex volatility of love and intimacy, sorrow and renewal—and expose how often these experiences feel like the opposite of themselves. From the woman whose young son’s uncanny rapport with snakes illuminates her own missed opportunities to the man confronting his wife and her lover in a house full of illegal exotic birds, all the characters here face moments of profound decision and recognition in which no choice is clearly or completely right.

Writing with tough humor, deep humanity, and a keen eye for the natural environment, Bret Anthony Johnston creates a world where where cataclysmic events cut people loose from their “regular lives, floating and spiraling away from where we had been the day before.” Corpus Christi is a extraordinarily ambitious debut. It marks the arrival of an important, exquisitely talented voice to American fiction.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812971873
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/14/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 958,543
Product dimensions: 5.19(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.59(d)

About the Author

BRET ANTHONY JOHNSTON has been featured in The Paris Review and Open City, as well as many anthologies, including New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 2003 and 2004; Prize Stories: The O. Henry Prize Stories 2002; and Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops 1999. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he received a Teaching-Writing Fellowship, he teaches creative writing at California State University, San Bernardino.

Read an Excerpt


As Hurricane Alicia drifted north-northup the Gulf Coast from Veracruz, Mexico, Sonny Atwill stood outside McCoy's Lumber hanging no plywood signs in the windows. A gray, blurring rain blew over the parking lot, diffusing the headlights of cars waiting for empty spaces. Horns blared and bleated. In addition to the plywood being gone, the store was low on batteries, masking tape, flashlights, kerosene lanterns, bottled water, sandbags and propane. Originally the Hurricane Center had predicted that Baffin Bay, Texas, would bear the brunt, but revised reports had it heading for Corpus Christi, making landfall that evening. Sonny believed the storm would veer south, go in around Laredo; he'd projected its course with a grease pencil on his laminated hurricane map.

When he came back inside the store, a woman was sitting at the bottom of a rolling ladder in the cabinet fixtures aisle, crying. She had her face cupped in her hands. He thought to sidestep the hassle and let someone else explain that the store was sold out of everything she would need. This was what he'd learned over the years: Stay out of it. He was fifty-nine, retired from Coastal Oil Refinery, working ten hours a week at McCoy's because his doctor wanted him to exercise. Usually he was off on Friday, but when the shipment had unexpectedly arrived last night, the manager had ponied up ten sheets of plywood for Sonny himself to use, plus regular pay, if he would clock in this morning. The woman kept her back to him as she stood. Leave her be, he thought once more--let the husband come. Yet he was drawn to her, reluctantly compelled to suggest other lumberyards and offer the possibility that the storm would spare them. Then, hurriedly, she turned and their eyes met. "Sonny," she said. He took a single unintentional step backward, emptied and suspended.

"My sister," Nora finally said, but then she fell to weeping again. She wore a white scoop neck blouse, faded jeans. In twelve years, she'd lost ten, maybe twenty pounds; her ring finger was naked. Sonny knelt beside her, vaguely hearing the announcement that McCoy's would close in fifteen minutes. Whenever his son had been excited, he'd said butterflies were tickling his palms, and now that seemed the perfect description for the way Sonny felt. Nora wiped her eyes and said, "My sister has huge windows."

For years, he had thrown hurricane parties. Named storms hit four and five times a season, and he would clean out the garage and fry flounder and invite people from the oil refinery. They sat in frayed lawn chairs and drank Schlitz, watching a storm's edge cut off the horizon like a charcoal sheet and playing cards--Mexican Sweat, Texas Hold'em, Stud--until the wind howled. Then they slipped into plastic ponchos and danced. He'd mounted a battery-powered radio over the workbench (to hear the Oilers lose while he fiddled with the lawn mower), and they listened to tapes--Anne Murray, George Jones, Johnny Rodriguez. Once, a Kmart sign had cartwheeled through the yard. A man from the refinery had brought Janice Steele to the party, then she'd borrowed Sonny's phone to call her sister and invite her. When the storm broke up and the others left, Nora stayed.

That was 1972, the year he was named supervisor of an eight-man crew. He was thirty-one, Nora twenty-six. She shelved books at the library while attending the community college at night; she aimed to earn her teaching certificate. They had been together a few months when he bought the house he'd been renting on Shamrock Street. She moved in, filling the rooms with her expensive, honeyed shampoos, hanging ivies and matted photographs. Each Sunday they drove to an open-air restaurant on the Laguna Madre and ate baskets of shrimp and hush puppies. One night she said, "Take all away from me, but leave me Ecstasy."

Her voice was so low and cool that his heart stuttered. He asked, "Does that mean you want another beer?"

"It means I want you to marry me."

The wind lifted a corner of the red-checked tablecloth, raising it gently from the slatted table then dropping it again; waves sloshed heavily against pylons; the smell of batter and fish and salt-splashed cedar; the divine heat in his chest, like a ray of light refracted in a jewel.

The weather slacked off after mccoy's closed. Sonny followed Nora to her sister's on Del Mar Street. The talk-radio station he liked was overrun with storm coverage: Authorities had taken down traffic lights around the harbor and were evacuating boats from the bay; Alicia's sustained winds topped 115 miles per hour; the Navy was tying down vessels in mooring systems and deploying others to sea; ferry service had been halted, and soon rising tides would close off Padre and Mustang Islands. Residents were advised to bring in pets, stock up on canned goods, caulk bathtub drains and fill the tubs with water.

She drove slowly, her brake lights blinking like Morse code. Traffic was bottlenecked at the freeway; shoe-polished windshields read help us jesus and go away alicia! The city's south side was flooding. Corpus seemed transformed, like a dream version of itself from which a somnolent atmosphere had been cast off; wind made street signs tremble. What he felt behind the wheel was a long-dormant vulnerability. When he had offered Nora his plywood--it lay in his truck bed, under the camper--she had accepted by saying, "So here we go again."

Del Mar was a wide, palm-lined street, a quarter mile from the bay. The house was a five-bedroom with a French garden and greenhouse that Sonny had helped build; Janice grew orchids. She was summering in Italy--"with some Guido," as Nora put it--so she was house-sitting. Janice was an attorney who had never married, and whenever Sonny had passed the house in intervening years, he thought a place so large would depress you to live alone in. Years before, he'd moved into an all-utilities-paid duplex and put the money from the Shamrock house in mutual funds. He wondered if Nora had avoided Shamrock since she'd been back, or if she'd seen the newly painted trim, the garden trellis and oak saplings, the lush elephant ears she'd never been able to grow.

He backed into the gravel driveway, doubting he could finish boarding up before the sky opened again. The house looked larger, the windows higher. Nora had calmed; maybe she'd taken a tranquilizer. She greeted him now with a familiar distractedness, an improbable air of casual lightness, as if she'd just returned from shopping and needed to get some milk into the icebox. Her rejuvenation disappointed him, as did how quickly she disappeared inside. He'd hoped she might ask his opinion on Alicia, maybe even tear up again. He buckled his tool belt and switched out the bit in the cordless drill he'd borrowed from McCoy's. He hoisted each sheet of plywood onto his thigh, held it to the house with his left hand, then screwed the sides, corners, top, bottom. Twice the drill twisted and caught the flesh between his thumb and finger. He took breathers between gusts and each breath felt like a spear in his ribs. Hammers banged on nearby streets; a circular saw whined; a woman started calling for a pet named Scooter. Sonny tried not to stomp the snapdragons and budding hydrangeas, but that proved impossible.

And not unexpectedly he heard Max--the memory of his voice still strong and clear, like a good radio signal. They could've been sitting in the Shamrock kitchen, the boy's elbows propped on the newly laid-in countertop, an evening when they studied for the merit badge test. He was eight, fawn-skinned and sharp-cheeked like Nora, fascinated by windmills and in the habit of climbing into their bed after they'd gone to sleep. Recently he'd been prone to lying, was in fact currently grounded for it. The restriction opened up the after-supper hours to tie knots and practice splinting broken limbs and to review the history of the Karankawa Indians, the first inhabitants of South Texas: Members of the tribe stood over six feet tall, wore no clothes and were known cannibals; they slept on dried palms, tattooed themselves from head to foot and smeared the inside of their leaky pottery with asphaltum that had washed ashore. Sonny asked Max for the translation of the tribe's name.

The boy filled his cheeks with air, pouting, stalling, then he exhaled. He said, "Waterwalkers."

"No," Sonny said. "Dog-raisers."

"But also Waterwalkers," he said. "They can also be called Waterwalkers."

At Janice's, the drill twisted again, and Nora said, "Guess you didn't need help."

Her voice made him feel cornered, ashamed. She had changed into a loose sweater, a fisherman's hat and old sneakers. He'd liked her in the scoop neck and wished she hadn't taken it off, though maybe that was precisely why she had.

"Small potatoes," he said. It was not something he'd said before, and he had no idea where it had come from. His heart was still pumping hard. His face felt raddled, his mind dull; he regretted that he hadn't shaved before work, that he'd worn such a wrinkled shirt.

"That one would've been a bugger," he said.

The front of the two-story house across the street was more glass than brick.

"Architects," she said. "Remember? The Christmas party."

"That's all a blur for me. The old noggin mixes things up lately."

"I doubt that. But if you're serious, at least you held out longer than I did."

He returned to the plywood, cranking down already tight screws. He wanted to shy away from solemn conversations.

"The first storm of the season, in August, and it just turned Category Four."

"Welcome home," he said, but the words sounded laden, riven with an inappropriate, boastful enthusiasm. He said, "We'll get some wind, but she'll spare us. There'll be a good haul of shrimp behind the weather."

"Alicia. They always pick pretty names for the first ones."

She had believed this since he'd known her and had always cited the first storms--Ayla, Antonio, Amelia--to evidence her point. That she still observed it pleased him.

A kettle whistled inside Janice's kitchen, a room where he'd carved beef for holidays, Super Bowls, the funeral. The night of the architects' party, he'd crossed the street for more gin and spied Janice bent over the butcher-block table, the architect biting her neck and groping her breasts.

A stiff breeze riffled the palms near the street. Across Ocean Drive, the sky faded downward by degrees, violet to lavender to oyster silver, until at last it softened into a seam of sallow light on the horizon.

Nora said, "I boiled water. I thought some tea might take our mind off things."

Once, he'd seen Janice in the clubhouse of Oso Municipal Golf Course. She'd played nine holes with partners from the law firm and sat at the bar drinking screwdrivers. Raking her fingers through her hair and leaning back to expel plumes of smoke, she resembled Nora. The men around her burst into laughter at a joke she made while fishing through her purse. One of them said, "That is a hole in one," as she started for the door. Sonny thought he'd escaped her, then she shuffled over to his booth. He was finishing a Reuben--gratis, like his rounds, because he maintained the course's carts and sprinklers on weekends--and he was reading about Karankawas.

He said, "These fellas used to slather themselves with mud and shark grease."

"Injun Old Spice," said Janice. Her eyes were red-rimmed, her lips slow.

"Repelled mosquitoes," he said. "They also talked--communicated--with their mouths closed."

"So do those lawyers." She pointed at them with her chin.

Her hair was cropped, highlighted white and gold. Not a style Nora would ever wear, so having confused the resemblance irritated him. He'd intended to carry on about the Karankawas, explain how they would tie lanterns to a mule's neck and lead it in circles on darkened beaches to attract vessels at sea. A captain would read the distant light as a buoy and steer his boat toward the harbor he assumed it marked. By the time he realized his mistake, he'd have struck the outer sandbar and the naked Indians would emerge with spears. But now all of that seemed trivial and Sonny explained nothing. He heard himself say, "I haven't gotten a word in a while."

Immediately he wished he'd not mentioned Nora, and at the same time he wanted Janice to spill what she knew. For a while, he'd received postcards and late-night weepy calls. He told her that he'd not contested when Coastal proposed the early retirement; she said she missed hearing surf reports on the radio, missed good chalupas. He resisted the urge to call her Honey or Love or No-No. They never spoke of Max. Then the communications dwindled, and a blankness set in, as if not reporting his actions to Nora, not even planning to report them, stripped them of any significance. She had lived in Michigan, Arizona, Nebraska and North Dakota, locales untouched by the ocean, and he knew she would never return to Corpus. His days were incurably wide and ponderous, and at night he fought phantom jealousies of other men.

After the retirement, he'd moved through life like a fugitive, trepidatious and worried that he would meet someone from the old times. If he glimpsed an acquaintance in the supermarket, he lingered on a far-off aisle or abandoned a full cart of groceries and fled to his truck. If someone caught him, at McCoy's or Oso or a pre-dawn bait stand, his veins surged with dreadful eagerness. Those mundane encounters left him utterly unsure of his identity. No longer a father, no longer a husband. And though he felt on the verge of some old, indolent connection--maybe they felt that, too--he'd erected such sturdy walls, perfected such inconspicuous deflections that the conversations passed without even the slightest revelation. The men told him about the refinery hub, which plants were producing more barrels per day, who had passed on and who was stealing compressors to sell out of his garage; they avoided mention of families. Sonny spoke of golf and fishing; he told them he was living the life he'd always worked for.

At the clubhouse Janice had run her tongue between her teeth and lips. She was older than Nora by five years, but people had always thought her younger.

"She's working at a bakery. In Ann Arbor," she said. "But that's yesterday's sad tune. I want to hear about good old Sonny."

He said, "I put one foot in front of the other, like a good soldier."

"And the ladies? Still need a stick to keep them away?"

He washed down the last of his Reuben and wiped his mouth with a napkin. Lois Whipple was at her house, slow-cooking a roast, vacuuming, and curling her hair for tonight. He'd been seeing her for two months, but already he smelled the relationship rotting on the vine.

"No," he said. "Mostly they stay away on their own."

That same afternoon his shoulder numbed. On the sixth green, he recognized the tingling in his fingers and sharp punches in his chest with an almost grateful, razorlike clarity. In his mind was the image of a fist squeezing an aorta, of a child clenching a water balloon, dreading and courting the moment it bursts. He replaced his putter, sat down and waited.

Table of Contents

I See Something You Don't See35
In the Tall Grass65
Outside the Toy Store93
Corpus Christi103
The Widow139
Two Liars165
Anything That Floats193
Birds of Paradise205
Buy for Me the Rain227

Reading Group Guide

1. “Waterwalkers”

In “Waterwalkers,” Sonny and Nora remember the hurricane party at which they met very differently. What do their different memories reveal about each of them? What larger implications does this have for their current relationship?

2. Nora tells Sonny: “We’re not wired to remember what hurts us. Our bodies have no memory for pain.” Is this true of Sonny’s own experience? Of Nora’s?

3. Why does the author choose to end this story with an upbeat flashback to the Atwill family’s trip to the company picnic? What insight does this give us into who Sonny was before his son’s death? How has he changed?

4. “I See Something You Don’t See”

Minnie reflects in “I See Something You Don’t See” that “she’d always believed Lee would make a good doctor.” Is this an accurate assessment? How might Lee have compared with Minnie’s actual physicians, Dr. Rama and Dr. Wood?

5. Is Lee correct in trying to hide the metastasis from Minnie?

6. In her final weeks, Minnie starts to wonder “what kind of mother she’d been.” In what ways has Minnie been a good mother? In what ways, if any, has her mothering fallen short?

7. “In the Tall Grass”

Are the narrator’s parents in “In the Tall Grass” a good match for each other?

8. The narrator’s father, George Kelley, tells his son, “A person can care too much.” What might he mean? How does this explain the events that follow?

9. The narrator in “In the Tall Grass” says that his father “saw that he’d led his family into a different life.” Do you think the narrator’s father regrets this decision? Do you think the narrator–self-described as “a happily married, college-educated man who’s never known violence”–regrets his father’s decision?

10. “Outside the Toy Store”

Why does the narrator in “Outside the Toy Store” tell Anna, “I hope it never happens to you”? Is Anna’s response reasonable? Do you think he understands that she will respond in the way that she does?

11. The narrator in “Outside the Toy Store” describes his encounter with Anna as an effort “to incite a drama that could open a new door, or an old one,” but one that had failed. Is their encounter entirely a failure? Are there any ways in which it might be considered a success?

12. “Corpus Christi”

What roles do coincidence and fate play in “Corpus Christi”?

13. Charlie in “Corpus Christi” thinks, “How easy to underestimate the wounded.” How does this apply to Edie? To Donnie? To Charlie himself? In what ways might this be ironic?

14. “The Widow”

Is there a turning point in Minnie and Lee’s relationship in “The Widow”? How does their relationship change as Minnie’s condition deteriorates?

15. Why does Minnie insist on planning her own funeral? What light does this shed on her personality?

16. “Two Liars”

Is Robert Jackson in “Two Liars” a good father?

17. Why does Toby punch Olaf Hollins?

18. Toby, at the end of “Two Liars,” says he “felt betrayed and alone, as if someone had set fire to my house and I was too far away to do anything but watch it burn.” How should we, as readers, interpret this?

19. “Anything That Floats”

What is the significance of the title? How might this apply to Colleen’s life?

20. Colleen says, “I’ve failed and wounded all of these men who need me.” Is this fair? Does it apply to Tyler too?

21. Is “Anything That Floats” a love story? Does it have a happy ending?

22. “Birds of Paradise”

Curtis, the narrator of “Birds of Paradise,” says that none of what happened on the afternoon of the story is “beyond forgiveness.” What is there to forgive? Is it all truly forgivable?

23. Is Phillip Bundick deserving of our sympathies? Is Luis Ortega deserving of our sympathies? Which man is a better match for Fancy?

24. What is the nature of the relationship between Curtis and Fancy? How do you think it might end?

25. “Buy for Me the Rain”

Are Lee and Moira in “Buy for Me the Rain” in love with each other? Is there any possibility they might have a future together?

26. Lee says that he would hurt someone who didn’t deserve it if Moira or his mother asked him to. Is he capable of this? Why does Moira ask him?

27. Lee imagines his mother as a child. Do we have any sense of who Minnie might have been as a child or a young woman? As a wife? How has her husband’s death changed her?

28. General Discussion

What role does the setting of Corpus Christi and its environs play in these stories? Is there something distinctly Southern or distinctly Texan in these stories? Also, the characters and residents of Corpus Christi always refer to the city simply as “Corpus,” so what might the significance of the book’s title be? After reading the book, do you think of the city as “Corpus” or “Corpus Christi”? How might your anticipated reaction have factored into the author’s decision about the title?

29. Class and economic security–the loss of wealth, the fear of poverty–play a large role in most of the stories in Corpus Christi. What is the author trying to tell us about the role of money in contemporary society?

30. Many of the characters in Corpus Christi offer up wisdom on the keys to living a happy life. What are some of the suggestions? Would any of the characters in the other stories have benefited from these suggestions?

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Corpus Christi 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was truly outstanding. I picked it up because I transplanted myself to the area 25 years ago, and I thought maybe the book would put into words the attitude one acquires living by the sea in hurricane country. It did. It's about life with the sure knowledge of the impermanence of things, which is in the end liberating. The book is absolutely beautiful--the characters could be any of a number of people I know, even myself. The stories moved me beyond words and were a tribute to everyday people.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had read Johnston's previous short stories when he was my thesis advisor in graduate school, and his writing impressed me then with its honesty and ability to cut through to the truth. When I bought and read this collection, those impressions were further gelled. Even though I have never been to this part of the country, I felt like I was there, reading about people with flesh, blood, and pulse. This is a writer with a true gift.