Smoking With John Riley

Read the Story March 29, 2015

I think my favorite part of the story is the description of the narrator blowing the dust off the record and dropping it “soft as a bed sheet that last half inch to the turntable.” It adds a sensual subtext to the story that I love. Would the story even have worked with an iPod connected to a set of speakers?
First, Stefani, I want to thank you for publishing the story and for allowing me to discuss it with you.

I was concerned that line would be almost nostalgic because so many people have fond memories of putting an album on the stereo. But it was a good place to emphasize the sensuality – the repressed, even compressed sensuality that is at the core of the story. The touch of the album, the way you don’t take your eyes off of it until it is settled onto the turntable, the suspension, the need to take care of this fragile object, is mostly lost when we deal with iPods or most other digital devices. And that type of music, Sam Cooke or Otis Redding, will always be associated with stereos and albums in my mind.

There seems to be an almost erotic triangle between the narrator, the uncle, and the “pale young man.” Who is the pale young man, and why does he remain nameless? Also, would you agree on the ‘erotic’ reading or is this a case of a reader’s imagination gone wild?
I might prefer sensual to erotic, but yes that is very much at the heart of it. When I let a couple of friends read it they said afterward they were afraid it was about child sexual abuse. I can honestly say that never occurred to me while writing. The boy loves his uncle, who is apparently the only adult male in his life, and the uncle loves him in his way. The uncle also loves the young man who comes by for the occasional weekend, his lover. The boy can’t understand why the uncle keeps them apart and resents it. There is a triangle of need and neither the boy or his uncle are fully aware of it. The pale young man remains nameless because the story is more about how he intrudes on the relationship between the uncle and the boy.

“I loved him so much when he was drinking!” This sentence came back to me a couple of times. I absolutely believed it, yet I found it difficult to understand, on a rational level, what’s so lovable about the uncle. Is the narrator fooling himself?
It is only when the uncle is drinking that he pulls out the Sam Cooke and let’s his guard down. I guess Sam Cooke has to carry a big load in this little story, but the music and the alcohol allow the uncle to push down his barriers. We adults can see he’s a sentimental drunk, but to the boy it gives him a chance to take an extra step toward the intimacy he is unself-consciously searching for.

I’d love to hear more about the Uncle’s line, “A man’s a fool to let anything move inside him boy, cepting his bowels, of course.” What a great, harsh thing to say. I read it as the uncle warning the narrator from coming too close or from being too impressed. I’m sure there are multiple possible meanings to it, though, and as a writer myself I know it’s not always easy to explain the things your characters end up saying…still: Thoughts?
I’ve heard a variation of the bowels line most of my life. The challenge in a story like this is to avoid that one fatal step too far into sentimentality. The uncle is a brutal man, or is clearly capable of brutality. Who knows how much of that is the product of him having to repress an essential part of himself. But clearly, he sees little to be gained from allowing his needs and feelings to run free. His entire mode of being is to try everyday to rein them in. That he’d talk about deep feelings and his bowel movements in the same sentence pretty well sums him up, I thought. Or maybe I should say it sums up his struggle. He sees it as his duty to caution the boy, but I’m glad to say I don’t think the boy is listening. At least not yet.

About the Author:

John Riley has published poetry and fiction in Connotation Press, Metazen, Smokelong Quarterly, The Dead Mule, Fiction Daily, Thrice Fiction, Willows Wept Review, Blue Five Notebook, Centrifugal Eye, St. Anne's Review, Sliver of Stone, and other anthologies and journals both online and in print. He is the founder and publisher of Morgan Reynolds, an educational publisher located in Greensboro, North Carolina.