One Story: In the Neighborhood – Jess Rafalko

3 out of 5

I remember when I wrote a short story for a workshop, for which the assignment was focused around going from outline to completion.

We spent time on the outline, getting character traits down to succinct and oh-so-important bullet points, breaking down the structure, then off we went.

The finished product was whatever it was, but to me, it reeked of that outline.  I could see myself swerving to hit my points.  My abilities notwithstanding, I still sense / see this in a lot of things I read: the all-too noticeable structural tree on which a story is propped.

Branches on this tree might include particular feelings or elements you want to highlight, and the more literary kids will do some Christmasing on these branches: decorations or symbols to distract from the pine beneath.  Elaborate sections of text that are clearly nuancing some cherished MEANING.

Jess Rafalko’s In the Neighborhood isn’t as heavy-handed or forced as that overlong lead-in may make it seem, but those were the two hitches that kept me from getting invested in the story.  Which is unfortunate, as the focus – the minor tragedies in our day to day lives reflecting our overall misery (joy!) – is definitely one of my preferred depressing reading topics, but of course, it all comes down to how it’s handled.

In Neighborhood, Angela walks us through her routine of mornings as a grocery store samplestress, home to passive aggressive conversations, and to bed, forever back-to-back with her husband.  Along the way we get to hear how different this is from her “before” life in a previous state, how there was love in this marriage, and what, exactly, made the marker between before and after.

At the story’s conclusion, Jess manipulates a well handled bit of symbolism for the final poking and prodding to get her characters to face one another in bed, and some key information is gracefully withheld and released effectively, but a lot of the “else” – Angela’s musings from page to page – is laid on incredibly thickly, and fairly repetitively.  Her thoughts and her interactions are believable in the way that they’re stuck in a particular mode, but structurally, it doesn’t build much momentum.

A polished, well-written snapshot that could’ve done with some roughing up.