Issue Twenty-Six - Summer 2015

Taking Risks

By Jeremiah O’Hagan

I want to be unabashedly forthright: Jon Pearson’s “Saving Santa” is not only my favorite piece in this edition of SHARK REEF, it is my favorite piece I’ve read in a long time.

That includes taking my eighth-grade students on a six-week romp through poetry, reading essays by E.B. White, Scott Russell Sanders, Annie Dillard, Joe Wilkins, George Orwell and John D’Agata with my high school students, and revisiting short stories by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, Shirley Jackson, Roald Dahl and Ray Bradbury. It includes Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering and batches of Brian Doyle. It includes a handful of novels.

I’m listing these to give “favorite” a context.

As SHARK REEF prose editors Lorna Reese and I have worked together, we’ve missed good pieces by waiting too long to notify the writers. Now, if one of us finds something good, we send a note to the other right away.

During our reading period for this issue, Reese emailed me about Pearson’s story.

“I love this piece. Wonder if you like it.”

I read it twice that night. I read it every day for the next two weeks. Some days, I read it more than once. I read it aloud to all my classes, read it until the words rolled effortlessly from my tongue and felt like part of me.

I’m telling you this because I and a bunch of others are always blathering about the power of stories. How they matter more than anything, how they save us, how they shift our courses.

Sometimes it feels like recitation. We restate these things because they are worth believing, because one time a book did cleave us, because we think it could happen again, but we do not in fact recall the last words that smote our hearts.

I do.

“But I can’t.”

I’m not going to give context to these words because I want you to read Pearson’s story yourself, but I will tell you that throughout the dozens of times I read them, they never pulled their punch. If anything, they struck deeper.

The best essays and stories and poems have horizontal and vertical plots. X and y axes. Physical and emotional journeys. As characters move through the outside world, they are transformed inside. They dive deep for self-discoveries, climb high for perspective. Or put in terms of popular music — every story needs a bridge. It needs to go somewhere unexpected and memorable.

In the best-of-the-best writing, the emotional journey transfers to readers. We become the narrator’s consciousness. We are whisked away, we feel the floor drop out beneath us.

Pearson’s story compels me, propels me through the logistics of plot, and blindsides me with the last few sentences. Just when I wonder if there’s a point to the fancifulness, it pays off.

Poet Billy Collins reportedly said, “By the end of the poem the reader should be in a different place from where he started. I would like him to be slightly disoriented at the end, like I drove him outside of town at night and dropped him off in a cornfield.”

I read because I need people like Pearson to disorient me, because I need to walk my way back from lost, because I need to be split apart so I can keep finding my core.

Poetry co-editor Gayle Kaune said, “The best poems … tell us something authentic and ineffable that can only be retold by the poem itself.”

Richard Widerkehr, this issue’s other poetry co-editor, said, “I like poems that take risks, not just in language, but risks of the spirit.”

That’s it, isn’t it? We catch and tell stories to risk our spirit.

This past year, I had a 17-year-old student named Andrew who lived at a shelter in another city. Each morning, the transit dropped him half a mile from the high school, and he walked the rest of the way.

One day he told me he’d seen American Sniper over the weekend, and that the movie had made him cry.

A week later, the rest of the story unfolded.

For extra credit, I asked my students to talk to strangers and write their stories. Andrew said this wouldn’t be a problem because he talked to strangers all the time.

“Last weekend,” he said, “I saw a movie with a homeless guy.”

Andrew had been kicking around the transit station on Saturday, drinking free coffee, when the guy asked him what was up. They started talking. Neither had plans, and the guy had money from sitting on the corner.

Andrew said they walked to the mall and had pizza and soda in Target’s food court. Then they walked across the parking lot to the cinema and the homeless guy bought two tickets to American Sniper.

So I picture Andrew amongst flashes of light and sound. Maybe the theater is full, maybe it’s almost empty. He isn’t worried how the homeless guy smells, because he stinks, too. He’s wearing gym shorts, a U.S. Navy T-shirt and battered Nikes, all from Goodwill.

Pizza sauce is smeared in the corner of his mouth.

On screen, Bradley Cooper’s character is coming apart. Soldiers are killing women and children. He is becoming something he never envisioned, following a course plotted by someone else.

Andrew is sitting in the dark next to a homeless man, crying about lost innocence.

Copyright O’Hagan 2015