In our “Accepted” column, Mid-American Review editors discuss why they selected stories, poems, or essays for publication. In this post, Fiction Editor Lydia Munnell discusses a story that appears in our Fall 2015 issue.
Genre: Short fiction
Title: Night Watch at the House of Death
Author: Sam Martone
MAR issue: 36.1
While reading or discussing work with the MAR staff this past year, I’ve occasionally thrown a fit about what I call “Boring Couple Stories.” Of course this is ridiculous; Some of the best stories we’ve told since we started telling stories deal in the currency of love and heartbreak. We love an affair. We love a breakup.
But I will stand by the fact that, in general I could do without another interior rendering of here we are, in the same house, and it’s ending, and we both know it’s ending, and what’s going to happen? I could do without another thinly veiled short story about a lurid affair between an aging professor and an airy undergrad.
But I can always, always read more stories that frame old love anew, that teach me something I feel like I always should have known.
That’s what Sam Martone’s “Night Watch at the House of Death” manages to do, and, ultimately, why the story warranted such an enthusiastic acceptance in my first semester as Fiction Editor. Martone’s is a story about the sublime nature of love because it’s also about death, or maybe just loss, or maybe just being alone.
The speaker in “Night Watch…” is a worker. He is a sentinel at a death house whose responsibility it is to wait for the likely-dead to show signs of life. In inventing that job, Martone captures the all-too-familiar drudgery of work, the language of waiting and work that colors the kind of purgatorial world that’s so beautifully rendered here.
Martone does a remarkable job with all the intricacies that mandate life inside and outside the death houses. Medicine, in this world, is a kind of alchemy, and as the speaker’s relationship with Hannah emerges, it’s clear love is governed by alchemy as well. Writes Martone, “I imagined Hannah undressing, one garment at a time, and seeing all the things she stole spilling from her clothes: waffle irons, withering cabbages, hand soap dispensers, step ladders, until she was completely naked atop a mountain of all she had taken, and I was clambering up toasters and ironing boards to meet her.” The world of “Night Watch” is sketched with clear lines, but love is about trial and error, a combination of semi-precious objects that, for the speaker, seem like they might add up to something.
But the other element here is time (manifest in the form of a stolen clock), and Martone’s moves in the second act fulfill the story’s promises about what it means to wait. After some too-enjoyable-to-spoil-here twists, “Night Watch at the House of Death” grants us this: we can see work and breakups the same way. They’re both about waiting, the nebulous space between.
The worst kinds of love stories leave sullen characters brooding on a rainy New York City boulevard. But the best kind—and Sam Martone’s is the best kind—leave them cleaning gutters and listening to the wind. They end the way they start without promise of death or happiness or sure resolution. And uncertainty becomes its own kind of loss, and it aches the way a good love story should.
Lydia is a native of rural western Pennsylvania who has spent the last several years on the east side of Cleveland coordinating the after school program at Lake Erie Ink, a non-profit writing space for youth. While in Cleveland, she was DJ of a folk radio program, Revival and previously did freelance writing for Cleveland Scene Magazine.