31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 20: “Collateral Damage” by Wayne Tefs

May 20, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

From Meteor Storm

The stories in Wayne Tefs’ collection are about the limits of masculinity. In “Meathooks for Hands,” a farmer who didn’t go to war because his occupation was deemed necessary to the war effort at home shoots geese with his nephew, but is unable to prevent his wife from staking a claim to her own independence when she takes up with another man. The nephew in that story, who is also the story’s narrator, is 16 years old and on the cusp of manhood. He witnesses his uncle in what appears to be an incipient act of homicidal violence, and finds the older man’s inability to actualize his aggression difficult to process:

I was thinking the book I’d been reading, Mandingo, was a lot like what was happening in the kitchen. The violence, the whole business about women and sex, and men fighting each other to the death. But I saw now it was not. The book was steamy and overblown with high emotions that thrilled me in a way, and yet what was happening in the kitchen was ordinary but more frightening.

The “whole business about women and sex, and men fighting each other to the death” is a romantic ideal to which the teenagers in “Collateral Damage” ascribe to one degree or another; they are also on the cusp of manhood and do not yet fully understand that atavistic notions of violence and superiority are “steamy and overblown,” whereas reality is “ordinary but more frightening.”

The two teens who form the central duo in “Collateral Damage,” Rick, the first-person narrator, and Gil, who owns a pickup truck and whose relationship with Rick is “based on him driving [them] around … and [Rick] paying for gas,” are enticed up to Gil’s older brother’s tent by the prospect of getting laid. Gil’s brother, Henri, is an ex-con who “never seemed to have trouble turning up women.” Rick is a college-bound kid who has no idea what to do with himself, and Gil is a wastrel who “failed at just about everything.” When Henri’s woman, Tina, comes on to the more sensitive Rick, Gil becomes angry and departs. Gil returns after a bout of drinking, and violence ensues.

The fact that the boys are both 17 is something of a gimme: teenage males are subject to hormonal storms and it is no wonder that Gil’s unformed masculine psyche is slighted by Tina’s refusal of his sexual advances. But Tefs is not so obvious as to create a Manichean separation between the virtuous Rick and the vicious Gil. Rick is presented as the more intellectual of the two, and he is also the one who is more wounded by his encounter with Tina:

I did not feel like a good guy, I felt like a bastard. I’d used Tina, who was after all just another person trying to get by, and now it felt to me as if I was chucking her away, like trash, and that’s no way to treat anyone.

Gil is driven to physical aggression by a combination of drink and the implicit repudiation of his masculinity, whereas Rick has sex with Tina and then feels bereft on account of the “emptiness” he sees inside her.

Rick is unable to divorce his physical experience from his ontological dilemma:

Reality does not match up with desire. Sometimes it does, but a lot of the time it doesn’t, and whether a life goes on and makes sense to a person or doesn’t depends on how many times it works out against how many times it doesn’t. Mostly you think things will always work out but growing up means realizing that it doesn’t and accepting that, or not accepting it and turning into someone you hadn’t set out to be, frustrated and angry, defeated by life. I wondered if Tina felt that way. There were signs of it in Gil, as if he felt tragic even to his own self.

Tina, it turns out, does feel the way Rick imagines her feeling; she confesses to having been raped by her father and tells Rick that she’s “collateral damage” of a kind of fractured masculinity. Tina is offered the chance to attend dance school but she turns it down, assuming that to do so would be to buy into the dreams and aspirations of the very adults who had hurt her:

She had talent, that much was clear. She had talent and she was throwing it away and that was very sad, as sad as Gil’s not having anything at all and wanting to, but there was strength in Tina, too, the courage to say no to what others wanted for her and the determination to see it out. I admired her, I thought that was a good way to live. Too many people based what they did on what others wanted them to do, or on what they thought others wanted them to do, and after a while they didn’t know who they were and what they wanted. Sometimes it was important to say no. Otherwise you were living someone else’s dream. “Parents,” I said finally. “Fuck them.”

Of course, Tina has a greater reason to say “fuck them” about her parents, but Tefs does not end his story with the damaged girl. Instead, he ends it with Rick returning to the hyper-masculine world of his teenaged male counterparts, a world that now seems to him “a grey and lonely place.” Rick knows that he will escape, that he will eventually realize his complete selfhood. In the meantime, he worries about the damage he might have inadvertently wreaked on Tina: “I hoped she was okay. I hoped her life turned out okay but I had my doubts. I sighed and tried not to think about that.” In Tefs’ conception, life renders every one of us collateral damage.