Former K-State professor’s collection of stories examines relationships

Megan Deppner

By A Contributor

If you think you have an idea what life is all about and you’re pretty sure you’re making all the right choices, “Ex-Boyfriend on Aisle 6” sets out to challenge that notion.

Susan Jackson Rodgers illuminates the everyday lives of everyday people in “Ex-Boyfriend on Aisle 6” and reminds us that life is complicated, chaotic and sometimes cruel and if we make plans, they almost always change. “Ex-Boyfriend on Aisle 6” often reads like lyric prose or poetry, owing to Rodgers’ masterful word choice.

The title itself exemplifies this careful use of words and creates an image unique to this collection.

Rodgers’ tone is witty and sarcastic, sassy and to the point. Her stories feel honest and real.

Throughout the collection, images of homes and houses are woven through each character’s consciousness, or sub-consciousness, as in “This Other Alan.”

The protagonist, Leah, muses that “She knew what Jung would say about dream houses representing the psyche.

Leah was building her inner self but wasn’t she done with that project yet?

She was well past 40. The inner self’s construction should be complete by now.”

The protagonists of “Ex-Boyfriend on Aisle 6,” mainly women, are still creating their inner selves, are still searching for meaning in a world that often takes our plans and casts them to the wind.

Rodgers’ stories are set in the Midwest, usually Kansas, and local readers will feel the ease with which Rodgers, a former Kansas State University professor, creates her settings.

“Thirty” sets readers squarely in Kansas, when “a group of us sat in a Tonganoxie bar on a foggy night — we never have fog in Kansas — but that night it was foggy and atmospheric, as if the world had gone blurry outside the large plate glass windows.”

In her descriptions of settings, Rodgers gives the reader enough to create a feeling of the place but not too much that it weighs the stories down.

Like her settings, Rodgers characters are fresh and uniquely described; no two seem the same and their voices are strong and resonant - if all plagued by the same feeling of endlessly waiting for something. Whether we learn their names or not, we know who they are.

The divorcee, living in an apartment trying to put her life back together; the mother, who feels hopelessly stuck in her life; the married couple, who slowly drift apart; and the widow, creating a life for herself again. They are young, like the grade-school narrator in “Bodies,” or middle-aged like Marla in “Mine” but they are all waiting for something — waiting to get older, waiting to know if someone has died, waiting to know if life will keep moving on. “Life was about waiting,” concludes Elena in “Mystery Date.”

“Ex-Boyfriend on Aisle 6” isn’t your ordinary collection.

While some of the stories are traditional in nature and narrate a slice of life story like “I’ve Looked Everywhere,” some play with point of view, inviting the reader to be the “you” that the narrator addresses. “What Happens Next” operates as its own collection of flash fiction, giving readers a story in a handful of sentences or a few paragraphs.

The effect is just edgy enough that it’s refreshing - not off-putting.

“Ex-Boyfriend on Aisle 6” doesn’t have a fairy tale ending. The collection itself doesn’t boast about life.

It is straightforward and unapologetic.

Rodgers’ sassy, matter-of-fact tone saves it from being depressing. The ending may surprise readers or it may seem like the last piece of the puzzle revealing the final picture.

Either way, it’s a suitable conclusion for a collection that experiments with style, point of view, characterization and allows the sharp bite of life to show through.

Susan Jackson Rodgers, a former K-State professor,  will read from “Ex-Boyfriend on Aisle 6” at 3:30 p.m. April 12 at the Union Little Theatre.

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