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Signs of Life

Norman Waksler’s second short story collection Signs of Life reveals just that. Throughout these colorful vignettes, the reader detects signs of life, a glimpse of those small elements that illustrate humanity’s solidarity. The six stories tumble through our consciousness, some unearthing a longing for the past or the sweet innocence of first love, others revealing the inevitable regret that stems from apathy and the dull disappointment of the typical workday.

Norman Waksler’s second short story collection Signs of Life reveals just that. Throughout these colorful vignettes, the reader detects signs of life, a glimpse of those small elements that illustrate humanity’s solidarity. The six stories tumble through our consciousness, some unearthing a longing for the past or the sweet innocence of first love, others revealing the inevitable regret that stems from apathy and the dull disappointment of the typical workday.

Shifting between Providence, Rhode Island and the fictional Carbury, Massachusetts, the six stories explore the lives of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations. Their fears and desires are commonplace but nonetheless powerful. In the collection’s opening story “Ruthie,” the title character Ruthie is an object of adoration for young Daniel, but it’s immediately clear that this love will not play out in a traditional way:

Really, it should have been one of those forgivable serio-comic love affairs, with the two women sharing amusement at my infatuation, but it turned out there was too much at stake, and, of course, in the traditional manner of blinkered and desperate lovers, I carried things to their unfortunate logical conclusion. But not to be coy about this, I was only seven, and the woman I loved was thirty-two, so it was unlikely to have worked out very well in any case.

An older, wiser Daniel narrates, reflecting back on that innocent summer of first love. The story line is straightforward: Daniel is infatuated with Ruthie, he fantasizes about moving to Chicago with her and so runs away to Ruthie’s briefly (“no more than twelve or fourteen minutes could have elapsed”), invoking the wrath of his mother. The radiance lies in Daniel’s retelling of the story, as he marvels at Ruthie anew, even all these years later. His thoughts on beauty are basic, but they resonate:

Drinking in beauty: one of your more common clichés. Yet in all my years since then of encounters with painting and sculpture and flowers and women comparable to Ruthie, I’ve never come across a more apt phrase to describe how beauty relieves the dryness inside you, refreshes your arid spirit.

In “Snerk,” Paul Chase hates everything about his job at the convenience store, including:

The ‘who me?’ shoplifters.

The constant elevator music.

Late night drunks, hostile or convivial.

Mopping the floor, the gray/brown scum of water in the iron bucket.

Street people.

The cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep of the cash register.

Lighthearted Carbury University students stopping for snacks on their way to their dorms.

The ugly light of the fluorescents, like working inside a microwave oven.

Teen-aged girls.

The overheated oversweet smell of the pastry case.

The hot dogs glistening on the perpetual grill.

Couples unable to unhand each other, giggling as the guy bought condoms (“Two boxes.”).

The powder blue on-duty smocks.

Teen-aged boys.

The video camera that recorded every move of everyone, including the clerks.

Some, not all of those he worked with, just those who came late, left early, palmed off jobs; the petty cash drawer thieves (always caught on tape, the dopes); the ones who couldn’t make change, figure out the lottery, the coffee, slush, or nacho machines.

Everything else.

I wanted to quote the opening in its entirety because the voice is so strong and deliciously acerbic. While not everyone has worked in a convenience store, most people have had an unfulfilling job and can relate to Paul. Paul’s scathing commentary and self-loathing is a binding agent throughout the piece, allowing the reader to feel the weight of the sullen, uneventful days rolling by, punctuated by surly customers and overfriendly regulars.

One afternoon, a homeless woman hobbles into the store who “was the kind of fat that suggested tumbling mounds of graying mashed potatoes . . . her face-outsize lips, pop-eyes, dripping flesh – seemed held together by the grossly green kerchief knotted under her chin.” Repulsed, Paul refuses her demand for a free muffin, and the woman places a curse on him. He’s disturbed by the events that follow and tracks her down. His penance? A daily delivery of coffee and a muffin. Each time, the woman contemplates lifting the curse, but always finds something wrong with the delivery. The adage “what goes around comes around” accelerates into a Dante-esque tailspin and Waksler adds a comedic twist to the conclusion.

Other highlights include “Hugh’s Tattoo,” about a 61-year old man who gets an eye tattooed at the base of his throat only to discover that it changes his life more than he ever anticipated, and “Lewis Goes to the Library” where a librarian clashes against the local mafia over reading material. Signs of Life injects everyday encounters with a twist of the extraordinary, and Waksler’s simple yet impactful style of writing gives the reader a satisfying glimpse into the minds of these characters and the arc of their lives.

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