In his preface to “Where I Am Now,” a collection of seven short stories, Robert Day provides an anecdote about a time when he came upon two African American boys shooting baskets while he was walking across the campus where he was teaching.
Day, who is white, asked the boys if he could take a couple of shots. After he hit the first two shots a good distance from the basket, he asked the boys if they knew who he was. They did not.
“I’m Michael Jordan,” he told them.
One of the boys said he was not and Day asked him why he thought that.
“Because,” said the first boy, “you’re short, old and fat.”
“It is what he did not say about my appearance that I like about this story,” says Day.
In a similar fashion what is intriguing about the stories in this collection is that in most of them what is not said is as important as what is said.
Day, a master storyteller, provides glimpses of the lives of his characters. These tantalizing bits provoke thoughts about what isn’t explicit in the story.
In “The One-Man Woodcutter” the narrator’s husband, Clayton, is dead. A big tree limb fell on him while he was cutting wood. She promised to tell his story, “how he died and all.”
References to a daughter, Casey, are woven throughout Clayton’s story. His widow promised him she wouldn’t tell what happened to Casey. We learn she died in Denver but that’s about it.
There is also a son, Tony, who had quarreled with his father over something and doesn’t stop now to see his mother. The reader is left to ponder the implications.
Clayton quit doing welding and began cutting wood after his daughter’s death. He didn’t sell the wood but traded it for what many people would say was junk.
His habits changed dramatically after the daughter’s death but we never know why.
In “Pan-Kansas Swimming Champion,” the narrator says although he has never read Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” he has seen the movie.
A line from that movie - where Martha calls George the “Pan-Kansas Swimming Champion”- provides the title for Day’s story.
On the surface it is a story about a doctor living near Kansas City who swims daily laps to help keep his body in shape, a losing battle as he ages.
Virginia Woolf fought a losing battle between reality and illusion much like the doctor’s struggle as he imagines himself playing baseball for the Yankees. It is a vision he has while he’s swimming.
And while he’s swimming, he encounters a young woman who outpaces him, laps him and leaves him behind. Perhaps it is life leaving him behind.
One might ask what was left behind when Virginia Woolf waded into a river with her coat pockets loaded with stones and drowned.
The final story in the collection, “Where I Am Now,” is set in France and the reader may be tempted to believe it is an autobiographical piece.
After all, Day has lived and taught in France. His wife, Kathryn Jankus Day, is an artist who did the cover art for this book.
Like some of the wines mentioned in the story, the writing is crisp with a complex taste and balance. It includes a strong flavoring of humor and questions about reality and illusion as part of human existence.
It is a story as the narrator says, with “no denouement,” a story where the writer’s vision is compelling but ultimately left for the reader to finish.
Readers may know Robert Day as the author of “The Last Cattle Drive” and two novellas, “The Four-Wheel Drive Quartet” and “In My Stead,” or from his work as an essayist with the Washington Post and elsewhere.
Day also taught at Fort Hays State University and served as writer-in residence at the University of Kansas several years ago. He taught for many years at Washington College in Chesterton, Md., where he also served as director of the O’Neill Literary House, a position that provided opportunities to interact with many of the most notable writers of the time.
Today he spends part of his time in France, some on the east coast and a few months out of the year, he visits a home he maintains at Ludell in northwest Kansas.