In the nineteen stories from Ex-Boyfriend on Aisle 6, Susan Jackson Rodgers creates strategically placed portals for readers to enter the private world of her characters as they embark on the difficult work of being human. This may sound like the ordinary job of short fiction, but often Rodgers imposes intriguing acts of karmic justice to waken her characters out of any chance of going about business as usual.
In “Fiona in the Vortex,” a woman agrees to water plants for an estranged next-door neighbor who is recently widowed and recalls how, years ago, before her own marriage and family, she kissed the woman’s husband just yards away from his unsuspecting wife. What makes this not-so-very-strange event intriguing is the way the protagonist experiences a haunting in which her former self becomes the unrelenting ghost.
A woman in near-term pregnancy in “How About You Shut Up” fights with her boyfriend about the name they will choose for their child. Decisions are tough. “She hadn’t decided whether she would marry the person sitting next to her—the father of the baby she hadn’t planned, at first, on having.” But sometimes you find the one person you need is the one whom you’ve most recently alienated.
And then there’s “The Chicken Man.” A mainstream upper-middle-class housewife longs to impress her garden club friends in another attempt to blot out her less-than-perfect past, when she is visited by a persona non grata who threatens to blow her cover. Creepy, isn’t it, when your perfect world begins to teeter after the delivery of a single chicken egg in an iron skillet to your doorstep?
When karma is not at play, there’s happenstance. Imagine running into your ex with his younger-than-you girlfriend late at night in the supermarket. The title story, a shorty but goodie, is written from a removed second-person point of view, as if to say that bumping into the boyfriend who “knows you are horrified by how you look, how you feel, how you are” is too unbearable for the protagonist to face in first person. The distancing technique creates a sense of disengagement that makes you, the reader, ache for the character.
In fact throughout the collection, Roger’s varying prose styles keep readers continually on alert. Where in one story you linger through pages immersed in a deftly crafted conventional narrative arc, in the next, you’re floating in a stream of consciousness, grounded only in the relatable honesty of the fiction. Or, you turn the page and find a different kind of reading experience altogether. In “What Happens Next,” a collection of flash vignettes pieces together a linked narrative told from multiple points of view. Another story, “Wives,” has the feel of a list. A third, an aftermath story of shock and grief titled “This Day,” is told in unsettling staccato sentence rhythm. Syntax creates the feeling of raw emotions.
By the time you near the end of the collection, where a woman loses her cell phone and realizes that many of the things she has lost are gone forever and how she wishes she could lose certain things but can’t (“I’ve Looked Everywhere”), you’ve decided that you’re not the only person who muddles through a bad day making connections about a sliver of time in relationship to your life in general. You know you’re in good company in the story “You Again,” where the protagonist attends a reading at which “the poet reads to a dozen women who have come to hear her express their collective woes.” By this time in the book, enough overall tension has been built so you begin to worry that something really big could happen at any moment, and sure enough, it does.
In Ex-Boyfriend on Aisle 6 things happen. Characters either make choices or have no choice but to muddle through their challenges, and maybe we get to figure something out along the way.