I took a jog, pushing on the stroller. My baby screamed, so I hushed him with a bottle. It was up and down, around, and fields were gold. Old buildings of stone reminded me of movies. Sheep baahed and I baahed back, pushing on the jogger. I was new to divorce. I could run far. I’d gone miles, finding Bourton-on-the-Water. I saw paved sidewalks, pubs. My baby woke, throwing out his bottle. Something banged. Things fell from the sky and he laughed.
The first sentence immediately conjures up a character, and his or her detachment. The next introduces some tension between the child and, presumably, his parent. The run, described simply as “up and down, around,” suggests a kind of fatigue, a phlegmatic surrender to routine. I like the rhyming of the third sentence’s last word “gold” with “Old,” the fourth sentence’s first, and, combined with the word “stone,” this chiming, this “oh, oh, oh,” suggests a kind of welling up. The narrator’s echoing the sheep is almost funny, but it’s really a perfunctory response, and therefore in keeping with the story’s mood. And then Chinquee drops the bomb: “I was new to divorce.” It’s a powerful and perfectly placed pivot that opens the story up, or, rather, rips it wide open.
The stories in Oh Baby are orchestrated to flow seamlessly into each other. There are direct but still unobtrusive connections, like how one story, “January Usual,” ends with the couple waiting for a repairman,” and the following story, “Needlestick,” begins with a woman waiting in an emergency room. “Slot Machine” ends with a woman getting “behind the wheel of a very nice car” and the next story, “We Were Ready for a Ballroom,” begins with a family driving away from their church. But there are other, more subtle connections, threads that are woven throughout: certain characters, though nameless, often return, and certain circumstances like the aforementioned running, and also working at a blood bank, life on a military base, life as a mother, recur, suggesting that these are linked stories.
Chinquee is much like the narrator of “History” who “penetrated people’s histories.” And she neither wastes nor minces words. In “Catch,” a character recalls going fishing and “catching nothing worth keeping.” The last sentence in “Wagon” is devastating: “We added to the whole pile, ridding ourselves.” There are the unfortunate rabbits that “thumped and did a bump-bump-bump” in “Bunny.” (Such assonantal and alliterative glee brings to mind the famed line in Wallace Steven’s “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman”: “Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk”.) And there’s the zinger in “Zelda”: “She was blonde and infomercial.” Chinquee’s sentences sometimes seem lit from within, evanescent like watercolor swatches fading in the sunlight; there is a grace and a precision to these lines. It’s a testament to Chinquee’s facility that though her stories pare away all the stuff and fluff what’s left isn’t a cold bony thing, but something raw and fleshy, something observably human.
Chinquee’s short shorts and prose poems are mercurial miniatures: they quickly shift from place to thought, image to dialogue. Her stories are like those of the character in “Tracks” whose “stories went on, went on, becoming more haunting and disastrous, faster in their tracks.” And though most of these stories are about parenting or working in a blood bank, about running, about people on the mend, skeletons in the closet, and elephants in the room, there is at least one story that completely flips the script: Check out “Wig” and you’ll see what I mean.
John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.