Kansas City, Kansas, Author Teases Out Stories From Neighborly Tension And Volunteer Experiences
Patricia Lawson has lived, taught, and volunteered in Kansas City for decades. Her poignant debut short story collection is an exercise in observations.
If Kansas City’s vast network of volunteers had an accompanying volume of short stories, that might be Odd Ducks, Patricia Lawson’s debut collection. Lawson has lived in Kansas City her entire life, on both sides of State Line Road. And she volunteers — a lot.
Though she is a long-time committee member for both Riverfront Readings and the Writers Place, she also likes to be outside working the land—albeit mostly urban land. A community garden in Kansas City, Kansas, has been in her charge for 20 years, and she and her husband tend a small orchard through Giving Grove.
It’s in these outdoor spaces that at least two of the nine stories in her collection are set.
“In the story called ‘Butterfly Man,’ I even used one of the names of the kids, although the character is different,” Lawson says. “I think we were a good group of teachers, but sometimes I thought the kids would rather be elsewhere on a Saturday morning in the summer.”
She says she came up with a story about an overbearing group of teachers with kids who truly did want to be elsewhere. The story is told through the eyes of a boy named Polo.
He stares at one of the volunteers, thinking that she’s an awful lot like the Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure character named Large Marge.
Lawson writes: “He could imagine that, like Marge, this lady might be talking in a fairly normal voice, and all of a sudden her eyes would bug out, and her face would change shape, and she would reveal that she really was a ghost, or worse, a vampire.”
Polo and his classmates go on to draw superheroes like “butterfly man” who kills people by dropping eggs on them “because he’s pissed.” For such ideas and language, the volunteers banish Polo, and anyone else who expresses similar sentiments, to the steps of a fire escape, intensifying the kids’ hatred of the garden.
Most of Lawson’s plots and characters—which seem to span their author’s own timeline from about the 1950s through present day—begin with factual germs.
Lawson sums up that tack in a story in which a girl is admiring her babysitter: “Carol adored her because she told wonderful stories, both old-fashioned ones and little off-handed stories that were sketches. Often the sketches took a real person and linked him or her to some fictional character.”
Most of that linking is executed with a great deal of humor, though not necessarily of the laugh out loud variety.
“I wanted to make it funny too, because it makes it a little less schmaltzy,” Lawson says. “Even in the grimmest stories, I think in every one there’s a bit of humor.”
In most cases grim plus humor equals poignance.
Lawson is also active in her neighborhood association, and many stories are about neighborly tension: a tidy neighbor who’s bothered by the house across the street that needs a paint job; a spirited neighbor who’s bothered by a high-minded one — or vice versa; or neighbors who insist on opposing political stances.
In one called “Brighton Green,” a newly out divorcé navigates a whole host of neighborhood drama. The drama comes to a head when his neighborhood association assigns him to deal with the woman next door, a mentally ill woman with 10 dogs.
The man befriends the dog lover in an attempt to make her tolerable to the rest of the street. He identifies with the crushing loneliness losing her dogs would cause, and he doesn’t want to involve the city authorities.
In the story, the woman shouts at him: “'Then tell them not to take my dogs. And leave me alone!' The alone lengthened into a wail, and one of the dogs, perhaps the red-gold bitch, took it up.”
No tale in the collection has an easily identifiably happy or sad ending—Lawson simply and effectively sets down the characters in a slightly altered environment or state of mind and nudges them to go about their business.