Sadness and disappointment are unavoidable. They scare us, and they often jar us--shaking up our lives and leaving us broken. There is comfort, though, in these kinds of negative feelings. They won’t last. They can’t. Our old memories will resurface. Dreams of a new future will begin. Erin K. Parker’s debut short story collection, The Secret and the Sacred, explores how life continues even after we’ve lost that which holds us together.
Parker’s melancholy collection is short, coming in at under 140 pages, but it more than makes up for its smallness by the book’s moving, and often profound, content.
“Red Velvet Couch,” Parker’s devastatingly beautiful opening story, is among the finest in The Secret and the Sacred. It begins with a woman packing up her car and leaving her home. She doesn’t have a lot, but she finds “the worst apartment building on the best street.” Soon after settling into her apartment, she finds a waitressing job at a local cafe. Victor, the night manager, is the first person to display neighborly kindness, offering her soup and pie. They strike up a friendship, and he even gives her his couch. Things are great. Then, they aren’t. Victor has AIDS. He has to move back in with his mother. Her days with him are numbered.
Parker captures the fear and excitement of leaving home so perfectly. The struggles of the young woman are on full display in one striking scene in which she describes the challenges of getting to and from work: “To save milage, I took the train to work if I could get off early enough to run to the station and catch the last train out. If I was scheduled to close the restaurant, I’d miss the last train, so I drove my car. When I drove my car, I worried the whole time that it would break down. I memorized where the call boxes were on the highway so I’d know how far to walk if my car died on the side of the road. Every single day was an exercise in confronting fear.”
The story’s conclusion hits hard, too. The woman, again alone after Victor leaves, cries on her new couch. Overcoming loss takes some time, but we know that she will heal--one day.
“The Evening Sun” is the one story that tops “Red Velvet Couch.” It’s the story of a woman and her beloved cat Fishbone. Believe me when I tell you that it’s one of the most emotional love stories you’ll read this year. Early in the story, the owner promises Fishbone that she will be “responsible for making his world work” and that when it’s time for him to die, she will be with him so he won’t be scared.
The rest of the story follows their lives together. We witness him greeting her nightly at the door, the tightness of their bond following their many moves, the arguments surrounding new, younger cats, and the handling of her lovers entering and then abandoning their lives. Fishbone is her constant love, and he gives all that he has to her and for her. The ending punched me in the gut, and still, a week after reading it, I think about it often. Parker delivers on presenting something that displays both selfishness and understanding. It’s a remarkable story.
So many of the stories in The Secret and the Sacred are memorable. “Visitation Weekend” and “In the Shade” explores jealousy and falseness, with a battle between a young girl and her father’s new love interest. “Personality Test” is funny, yet disturbing, as we witness a totally wacky date.
Parker has a way with words. There is a genuineness here that feels important. What she’s crafted in her quiet collection is something that feels both accessible and literary.
The stories often end on a sad note, but there is comfort in them. I think it’s that we know these characters. Maybe they are us. Yes, that’s it. And we know our own secrets.
The Secret and the Sacred is now available from Unknown Press. Click here to buy it on Amazon.