“Katherine’s son was about to wrestle a blind boy. . . .” So begins “The Blind Wrestler,” the first short story in Mark Brazaitis’s collection Truth Poker. Surprising, intriguing, declarative sentences like this sink teeth into you and don’t let go, until you’ve reached each story’s satisfying ending. In “The Blind Wrestler,” Katherine has an affair with her son’s high-school-wrestling opponent. She regularly meets the handsome young man in a vacant house, “a den of mild iniquity,” where she confronts not only the loneliness in her marriage to a man eighteen years her senior, but also the way she blindly trudges through motherhood toward old age, without enjoying the journey or considering her destination.
In “The Ghosts of Girls,” Joan is celebrating with her old friend Allison from high school, and when she leaves Allison’s house intoxicated, she hits and kills a young girl. In her high and drunken state, Joan can’t find the girl she hit and, wondering if she imagined the whole thing, leaves the scene. When she goes back the next morning to search the area, a young woman interrupts her hunt, asking, “Did you hit something? . . . Or someone?” Two days later, the newspaper headline confirms the truth: “Girl’s Body Found on Side of Wildflower Road.” The young woman and her boyfriend blackmail Joan, and soon skeletons from her closet and ghosts from her past haunt even her daydreams.
Brazaitis figuratively brings a ghost to life again in his story “In the Village of Mourning,” when Olivia travels to Purulhá, Guatemala to visit the friends of her deceased sister Angela, who was killed in the 9/11 tragedies. When Angela’s friends mistake Olivia for Angela, Olivia “. . . felt thrilled to hear Angela’s name spoken, thrilled to have her alive again.” If Olivia moves to Purulhá and permanently assumes her sister’s identity, will life not be better for everyone? “In one place, at least, Angela would still be alive.”
“What to Expect When You Say You’re Expecting” is, at times, laugh-out-loud hilarious, though the consequences of lying to your pregnant friends about your own non-existent pregnancy is anything but funny. Sasha’s “provocative lie” grows by dramatic measure when she faux-confesses, “I don’t even know which one of my one-night stands to thank!” Impressing these former girlfriends from high-school becomes even easier when Sasha elaborates on her raucous (also largely non-existent) sex life, telling the ladies she’s not even sure about the sex of her impregnator. She recalls one night when it was “Dark at his—or her—place. And on the bedside table, I noticed what looked like a large syringe, which, when I think about it, seemed to be filled with a murky white substance.” And, as if this tale isn’t outlandish enough, Sasha then, “lying to people she never would have been friends with if she hadn’t been so lonely,” tells the women that she also had a one-night stand with triplets. The stakes of Sasha’s lie are raised when her father finds out, but even then she can’t “end her phantom pregnancy with a phantom miscarriage,” because “the truth was she wanted this baby, phantom or real.”
Title story “Truth Poker” navigates the treacherously rocky terrain of lies told to protect those we love. The young narrator, whose father is living a double life, tells of playing truth poker with his friend Ralph. “You can ask anything . . . and because it’s the rule of the game, I have to answer with the truth.” Ralph’s gentle questions and probing insight aims for the heart of every matter: “What were you doing when you learned your mother was dead?”
Brazaitis writes brave stories that aren’t afraid to challenge feigned happiness and success; in these fifteen short pieces, he tackles marital discontent, political bribery, family discordance, and more, all with a liberal helping of guilt and surprise. These jolting dramas remind us that, at the root of every lie is the seed of human desperation, but, like the characters in these stories learn, the possibility of change resides in our recognition of the truth. An enthralling collection of brilliant stories!