by Steven Stam
From a toddler watching a flock of birds attempt to resuscitate a fallen brethren to a father mowing around dandelion islands of lawn weeds out of paternal love, the chapbook The Mistake Tea Can Sometimes Make by Brittany D. Clark from ELJ Publications confronts the clash between the odd and mundane of familial life. In this terse collection, Clark blends the poetic subtlety of flash fiction and the novella form.
Arranged around a series of short vignettes, many of which have been or could be published as singular stories, the narrative follows the life of Julia Carlton, a once-promising child prodigy who steamrolls through life, falls in love during college, and then drops out to marry Eric Gardner. This union lands the couple in Julia’s dead-end home town, Douglass, New Jersey. Douglass rests at the terminal end of a long New Jersey road. There is one way in to and one way out of this town founded by man who was at the end of his rope and before stumbling upon flocks of birds that later fascinate Julia’s young son Benjamin.
Benjamin becomes the success story here, the metaphorical phoenix to rise from Julia’s failures. He is a child that gleans French from language CD’s, detests the faux sophistication of sushi, and finds himself at MIT at age sixteen. Benjamin sits at the center of Julia’s life and the novella’s action, the success story in an otherwise desolate and boring rural municipality. Early on in her marriage, Julia takes to reading tea leaves only to run from the act, afraid of the futureless stasis they reveal. From then on, she fears her life’s inertia, she wants more, and this forces her to focus on Benjamin, a child worthy of her once promising life’s work. She wants to give him everything, and looks toward the future, eliding over the past. Success eludes her, for she fails to stop and read the tea leaves for what they are.
Beyond the familial discourse, the town of Douglass comes to life, first through Julia and the Gardner family’s stories, and then through the town newspaper. A parade of newspaper articles dot the narrative with updates that advance time and space, while cementing the town itself as a character. Libraries, dances, science fairs—each bland event passes time, marking a plateau of small town ennui. The articles alert us to the town’s oddities, the movements of hunters and birds, and in the process letting Clark’s creation live and breathe.
I read this chapbook in a single sitting before turning to the front cover to read it once more with a fond fascination for these, my favorite lines:
“As she lay there, aware of her failures, her exposed body seemed all at once to lurch towards something.”
“He let the rest hang there in the stale air, absorbing all the years of waste and confusion until there was nothing left but a breeze.”
“He would cut the yard around patches of the flowering plant, creating islands Julia would soon run to with her gardening sheers, cutting the few blades to match the freshly cut grassy waters around them.”
“They fluttered as Julia said, ‘like a heart murmur.’ She came up with this metaphor when one of the semi-trucks pushed straight into one of the birds.”
“It wasn’t because their families didn’t have the money; Julia liked these kinds of projects, and Eric liked making Julia happy.”
Steven Stam is a teacher, writer, and runner from Jacksonville, Florida, where he lives with his wife Adriana and two small children. Steven tends to focus on his home of Florida and the oddities therein. In doing so, he writes primarily flash fiction, believing the model fits modern society’s desire for instant gratification. His work can be found in Fiction Southeast, Kudzu House Quarterly, and the Rappahannock Review, among others.