In her first book, Amy Monticello begins with a joke, the kind that families tell and retell at picnics and holidays, the kind of joke that not only entertains but becomes legend, that points to larger themes and insight. Monticello sustains this focus on story and insight throughout this collection, the first nonfiction selection in Sweet Publications’ new chapbook series.
Later in chapter one she declares, “No other love story thunders for me like my parents’ love story.” This is the author’s raison d’etre, the basis for her exploration of fact, legend, and memory. Despite their “committed divorce”, the lifelong devotion and friendship of her parents is a source of wonder which leaves the author in such a paradoxical situation she states: “I became what my mother calls a ‘hopeless romantic.’”
Close Quarters is her father’s business “on Endicott’s north side”, one of the many neighborhood bars where “you can track a lot of lives in these small, dark places that contain a man’s mistakes, yet always bring him comfort.” Close Quarters is also a metaphor for the sometimes stifling familiarity of a small town and the difficulties of relationships, whether the author is considering the atypical connection between her parents, or her own need for answers.
Through the architecture of small chapters, some stand-alone essays, others vivid vignettes, Monticello not only chronicles the linear story of her parents’ romance, marriage, separation, and eventual divorce, but also investigates her place in this tale. One early, curious episode is the chapter “Christmas, 1984” where the mother tape records a family Christmas dinner, and the author, twenty-five years later, probes the larger, thematic concerns—again with a joke—this time with two-year old Amy as the punchline, “Mommy, it’s okay, Mommy, don’t cry,” because she mistakes her parents’ playfulness for fighting. This vignette moves to a close as she is surrounded by:
“the family I will wish I had because I won’t remember when I had it so briefly. This is all of us together with enough—enough presents, enough peas, enough hope that people can change and put things back together.”
And we are left with the image of two-year old Amy voraciously devouring her cake, exhibiting a hunger so fierce that if she stops eating it may all disappear.
This toddler’s need becomes the unruly eight-year old in the car with her mother, confessing:
I don’t like when my mother ignores me so I say, in my most accusing tone, “How come you divorced Dad?”
… “Because he was lazy and made a mess of the kitchen. And he was a cheat.”
“What did he cheat at?” I say, thinking of Candyland, Chutes and Ladders, the day Susan Clark wrestled the dice out of my hand and flushed them down the toilet, the way I screamed on the floor like someone was stabbing me before getting sent to my room.
“On me,” she says. “He cheated on me. With his old girlfriend. Linda.”
This scene ends with Amy musing that she likes that name, imagining Linda as “the mother I almost had”, mouthing her name all the way home.
Eventually this truculence gives way to empathy as Amy grows older and watches her parents reinvent themselves; eventually she bartends for her father, and we end with a scene that is part apology, part confession, culminating in a toast—“To family.”
The chapbook itself is lovely—a dark gray, tape-bound cover, hand-sewn edges, the title held aloft in a hand-stamped black illustration of a bar sign. The inside paper stock is a creamy buff color with good texture, and the text, in Garamond, is as inviting as the inquisitive and intimate tone of the author. This handmade book is the perfect format for a love story, a story of a family bound together, not via conventional marriage, but because even though this couple cannot live together, they cannot live apart. Close Quarters ultimately is the author’s search for meaning among the peculiarities of divorce and small towns, places “where nobody can really disappear”, a delicate and intimate search for how her parents’ love story shapes not only their relationship as a family, but her own notion of belonging, love, and commitment.
Lee Gulyas writes poetry and nonfiction, and teaches at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA.