Dispatches | May 11, 2013

During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from Mike Petrik (and today is his birthday).

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I am not so sure Sherwood Anderson (pictured above immediately after being shown a Youtube clip of sea otters holding hands) would want me to tell you about his beautiful love story…

For anyone out there who has read my work, please direct all criticism and complaint to Sherwood Anderson and to his short story “Paper Pills.”  It is entirely their fault that I am here doing what I am doing. There are writers I love to read more than Anderson, and many whose work has impacted my own more substantially. But it all started with this short story, a story that I put down and thought: A) something just happened to me, and B) I want to be able to do that to others.

“Hands” seems to be the story that gets discussed the most from Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, but I’ll take Paper Pills” over it any day.  It is a love story, and at right around four pages, it is a compelling depiction of a lifelong love more affecting than most romantic novels and films (sorry, The Notebook).

The story begins with Dr. Reefy’s wife already dead and gone, and him an old man forgotten by Winesburg, but within whom there remained “the seeds of something very fine.”  Then we move backward, to the story of his courtship of “the tall dark girl who became his wife.”  A story that Anderson, in a hall of fame worthy metaphor, describes as “delicious, like the twisted little apples that grow in Winesburg,” the ugly apples  left hanging on the trees after the pickers have passed through that are something “only few know the sweetness of…”

The story of their love is something better read than summarized, and I hope you will.  I’ve always thought a great short story should convey something new or vital in a way that is best expressed through the words on the page and that renders any attempt at summary obsolete and unsatisfying.  I think that is true of “Paper Pills.” It is straightforward realism, largely expository, and maybe even a bit sentimental—not exactly things I look for in short fiction, but it moves me on every reading, and I wonder, often, if I would call myself a writer had I not come across it.

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