Reviewed: Bearded Women: Stories by Teresa Milbrodt
(ChiZine Publications, 2011)
In Teresa Milbrodt’s phenomenal debut short story collection, Bearded Women Stories, freaks of human nature take center stage, carrying on the great Southern gothic tradition started by the likes of Flannery O’Connor. But this is not your grandmother’s Deep South gothic carnival. No, this is subtler, more mythical than existential, and, in fact, the stories in Milbrodt’s fantasy world largely take place in the least magical world of all: Ohio.
Many of the human anomalies have physical aberrations, such as butterfly wings or a third leg. Others suffer more natural afflictions, such as Odessa, in the story, “The Shell.” Plagued with advanced rheumatoid arthritis, her limbs and body spiraling in on themselves, Odessa seeks out a coffin maker to carve out her final resting place—in the shape of a shell, like the goddess rising from the sea in Botticelli's “Birth of Venus.” In the story “Combust,” small fires flare up the leg of a woman who harbors rage inside, and she tries to resolve a decades-old family conflict in order to put out the fires. And in “Mr. Chicken,” a morbidly obese man inhabits a chicken restaurant; as he gorges on boxes of fried chicken and cherry turnovers, he stares down other diners while children cry. The manager of the restaurant is a woman who shaves her face every morning and night, but decides to let her beard grow out for the day she’ll sit next to the fat man and challenge him with her own grotesqueness.
Whereas Harry Crews’s misfits often turn to sport or entertainment, Milbrodt’s characters have no interest in popularizing their strangeness for profit. In fact, most of the characters have adapted to the mundane world in their own quiet way, taking small jobs, mostly in retail and restaurants. Some still live with parents; others dwell in thin-walled apartments. The story “Snakes” begins: “They are slim and brown and look like dreadlocks. The longest ones trail halfway down my back. I wrap a scarf around the snakes and tie a loose knot to keep them in a ponytail and out of the way, especially when I'm bartending.” However, the snakes are the least of the narrator’s worries. She’s trying to figure out how to finish college without acquiring huge student debts. Does she take one or two classes at a time, pay as she goes, which will take years, or take out the loans and get it over with? Meanwhile, she’s dealing with a Greek mythology instructor who is inappropriate and repeatedly asks her out; in the end, the snakes come to her rescue.
In “Seventeen Episodes in the Life of a Giant,” a twenty-seven-year-old woman—who happens to be eight feet, six inches tall—wants someone to love her. A man comes into the store where she works and seemingly shows interest, but never asks her out. Finally, because life is short—especially for someone who is as tall as she is—she asks him, “When are you going to ask me out for pizza?” She justifies herself by saying: “Sadness makes me say things I wouldn't normally, and I'm anticipating lonely dinners.” She also dreams about the young woman at the bakery with the lovely hands. When they do sit down to talk, the bakery girl compliments the woman’s outfit, saying it goes well with her complexion. “No one has ever said anything about my complexion before,” says the woman. “When I look away I know her arms and legs are growing. Her shoulders widen. Her back straightens until I am certain she is at least eight feet tall and our hands are the same size.”
The stories are grounded in literary realism, then crack the boundaries of the form and launch into magical realist dimensions. The opening story, “Bianca’s Body,” begins, “My second lower torso grows out two inches to the left of my navel,” firmly establishing Milbrodt as a premier writer, and maybe the founder, of Midwestern mythic.