BACK, BELLY, & SIDE by Celeste Rita Baker

back belly side collection cover

Back, Belly, & Side: True Lies and False Tales

by Celeste Rite Baker (Aqueduct Press)

Overall, I enjoyed reading this compilation of thirteen short stories by Celeste Rita Baker. As a collection, Back, Belly, & Side was thematically (mostly) consistent. The voice was lyrical and varied. I found the characters and their emotions intriguing in their humanity.

In “Single Entry” a planet-shaped contestant enters a Carnival competition. The protagonist expands with the recognition of the audience and diminishes when they turn their attention elsewhere. It was a short piece, but it set the mood for the collection with a striking mix of lovely and forlorn imagery.

A party-hard bartender finds an abandoned little girl on her way home one night in “Now I Got Girl.” She ends up (unofficially) adopting her after no one else will help. As these things often do, having Girl around changes her life significantly. I kept expecting this one to go somewhere surprising. It never quite did, but it’s a nicely written piece and I thought the characters were delightfully believable in their ridiculousness, especially as they got to know each other.

In “Jumbie from Bordeaux” a slave boy wakes up to a feeling that things aren’t right on the sugarcane plantation. His parents are taken to be whipped for having sex without the new master’s permission. The boy takes terrible and unalterable action to stop the beating. This was a hard story. The boy’s direct, clear voice illustrated the violence and hopelessness in unrelenting detail. The imagery is crystalline and inescapable. One of the better stories in this collection.

I’ve loved “Name Calling” since I found it hiding amongst hundreds of other stories in Abyss & Apex’s submission pile. Every night for nearly three years, Rhonda wakes up calling the names of people she doesn’t know. Then the name calling stops and she can’t get any rest. Her best friend finds someone who knows what’s going on and what Rhonda has to do to fix it. This was my favorite story in the collection. The build of tension, the flow of the writing, and the heart-aching climax came together to make a truly lovely and moving story.

Lorraine goes to the bank and runs into an old friend of her dead mother’s in “The Dreamprice.” The old lady sometimes dreams things that come true and this time she’s had a dream about Lorraine. This is the first of several stories in the anthology that I felt ended up being interesting character studies, but didn’t have much in the way of resolution or story arc. The characters are left suspended at the high-point of their emotions. I wanted at least a hint of what happened next.

In “Mrs. Littleson’s Recollection” a hairdresser tells a wiggly little girl that ‘pride feels no pain’ to get her to sit still. The little girl loves her hairdo, but returns twenty years later with a new look and different idea of how to bear her pain. This one switched from past to present too abruptly for me, though I liked the concept. Another one that felt to me like it ended just as it was getting to the good part.

Next, an office worker gets “Stuck” in Heaven with nothing but a paper clip to conquer the demons of her past. But is getting revenge really what it’s all about? This story had the feeling of a fable to me – an odd adventure capped with a deceptively clear moral. The somewhat surreal approach was a breath of fresh air after its more realistic predecessors.

How could I not love a story that begins with the line: I know a unicorn who does not believe in rainbows. “Imaginary Foes” contains such a unicorn. He wants to be very clear about what is real and what isn’t. It was an adorable story, but it felt like it belonged to a different collection. It did, however, provide a nice tonal break from the more serious pieces.

“Nobody” was the piece I had the most trouble with. I won’t say it was my least favorite because there was a lot I found fascinating about it. It’s an ensemble piece and the longest work in the collection. Francine is looking for the daughter that was taken from her while she was in a coma. Rebecca is running an orphanage, trying to turn enough of a profit to retire. Rebecca’s husband Ralph is trying to make a go of his restaurant, but he needs something from Rebecca to make it work. Joseph is in love with Francine, but can’t get her to agree to marry him because she has a secret she doesn’t feel safe to share. I was really into this story until the end. It was complex, well woven, and the characters were interesting. I found Rebecca’s despairing thoughts about the value of the children in her care poignant and horrifying. Francine’s struggle to grow into a person who could be a parent was engaging and touching. And then the end totally ruined it for me. It was gross with no discernable point. It didn’t add to the story, but rather cheapened an up-until-then carefully crafted tale of racial and financial disparities and truly human struggles. The gross-out factor was telegraphed early, but I couldn’t quite believe the story was really going to go there. It seemed far too cliché given the depth of the rest of the story and, when it did happen, it tossed me right out of the narrative.

In “Birdbrain” Marva’s father hasn’t ever been a steady part of her life, but when she comes home from work to find her mother crying over the a newspaper article about his death she learns a few things that change the way she sees her parents. This was another story that dropped off too early for my taste. It stands as almost a snapshot of one emotional moment, but doesn’t stick around to show the next frame. Marva, however, is caught in such beautiful clarity that I could see her with my eyes closed, pigeon sh*t and all.

“Cane and Jelly” starts as a tale about and old woman nicknamed, wonderfully, Telephone who never minds her own business. When an old man moves in with his daughter and starts flirting with her, next thing you know, she’s a changed woman . . . and at her age too. . . .  This was a lovely little story about two fully-formed people who find a comfortable place to be in love again, in spite of the raised eyebrows. This was one of my favorites. The not-so-young lovebirds fit so easily and naturally together in all of their very human flaws and quirks that it just touched my heart.

Lisa works at a nursing home and one of her patients is trying to set her up with her son. “Mrs. Aswald’s Time” was another story that ended almost before it began, but I loved the texture of the nursing home and the two old women who populated it. The connections between Mrs. Aswald and the people around her were well done. I just wanted to see more.

In “Responding in Kind” the characters from “The Dreamprice” return to bury Lorraine’s daughter Derecia’s infant son. This was probably my least favorite story in the collection. It came across to me as a quick lecture on standing up in the face of your grief and bad decisions and letting other people in. I also found it an odd note to end on, though the story itself wasn’t bad. It was appealing to get another side of the characters from an earlier story, but I would have liked to see something that tied the collection together and made as strong a statement as some of the other stories.

In spite of its flaws, this collection is worth a read. The characters are beautifully drawn and the situations they find themselves in are, simultaneously, real and far-fetched. I loved the use of language and explorations of parenthood, reality, and love.

–Kate O’Connor

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