"Guys Day Out" by Ellen Klages: An Appreciation by Robert Cook
Which, indeed, it is. "Guys Day Out" is a powerful story full of truth--fictional truth about what lives can mean, and so one of the few truths left, or ever, that really resonates--and in that sense belongs exactly with the rest of the SCI FICTION archive. But--horrors!--it doesn't have spaceships, or ray-guns, or talking squid piloting spaceships while toting ray-guns, and so it can't be science fiction, it just can't! And no dragons/elves/wizards/magic/royalty/vampires/swords either. "No genre content" said Best SF, rather huffily and reductively. Long live the ghetto.
The fact that it's a "contemporary realist" fairy tale seems to have either passed its critics entirely by or just not been enough, somehow, to justify branding it with FantasyTM or HorrorTM or any kind of GenreTM label at all.* Too real. Not enough disbelief generated to bother willingly suspending it. Alas, poor reader (and we'll come back to that).
"Guys Day Out" is about a man who can see fairies, told from the point of view of a man who can't. (In that respect it's a bit like Iain M. Banks' Inversions, a Culture novel told from the point of view of people who've never heard of the Culture and spend the entire novel continuing to not hear of it.) Tommy Clemens (and that surname is no accident) is born with Downs Syndrome. The doctor wants to put him in a home before his mother, Helen, has even recovered from the anaesthetic ("They're fine places, really. It's 1960, not the dark ages."). Tommy's father, Andrew, doesn't even pause to think about it, though. He takes his family home.
We jump forward: Tommy is ten years old and going fishing with his dad for the first time--not their first Guys Day Out, we infer, but their first time on the water with hooks and worms and flies and everything else. Tommy wants to bring along some of his friends--his "invisible" friends according to Andrew--of whom there are twenty-six, from Amy to Zelda. Only Tommy can see them, as he explains, because he is special: "Like special ed, you know." The boat rental guy doesn't want Tommy rowing. Andrew bites his lip.
On that first fishing trip, the cognitive aspects of Tommy's condition are teased out to us, mostly through dialogue between father and son. Tommy is pedantic, fussy, squeamish: he insists that lunch is at twelve noon, that people cannot make flies, that worms are icky. He is eminently realistic in his interaction with the world. And then--unrealistically, from our point of view, and therefore surprising--he lets his invisible friends have a swim in the lake, to try to catch a real fairy, and then helps them back into the boat:
The boy reached over the side and rapped his knuckles on the bobber, jiggling it. He cupped his hands below the surface, as if waiting for underwater communion, then brought them up, thumbs tight together. He breathed gently into the hollow.
"They are dry now. Can you open my backsack for me?"
So careful with those imaginary friends, so pragmatic and detailed. Realistic, even.
Forward again: fishing every summer, sometimes with Helen, though usually not. Through Tommy's teens and twenties the Guys Days Out continue--and then somewhere in the middle of that long run, Helen dies. Not suddenly, we infer, but quickly dealt with in story time:
The year Helen got sick, he went to work at the McDonald's on Archer Avenue, twenty minutes on the bus. His red nametag said TOM in white letters, his grown-up name. He smiled at every customer, filled the ketchup-packet bin, and wiped tables with green disinfectant that smelled like the hospital he was afraid to visit again.
"Just us now, Buddy," Andrew said after the funeral.
This was a little too quick for some readers (Bewildering Stories, for example, "certainly would have asked the author why she concentrates exclusively on the boy and his father without having the courtesy to kill off the boy's mother"). But what a marvellous, efficiently dense paragraph: a year of pain in the first five words, that short last line with Andrew's terrible, yearning understatement, and in the middle Tommy--Tom, grown up, which is what happens when you watch death at work for the first time--wiping the tables "with green disinfectant that smelled like the hospital he was afraid to visit again." Horror in a beautiful line.
Between his mother's death and his early forties where Tommy runs suddenly into the wall of Alzheimer's, the Guys Days Out have dried up. The Alzheimer's quickly takes control of both Tommy's and Andrew's life. Again, the doctor offers a home placement. Again, Andrew declines.
After a solid week of changing diapers, Andrew, now seventy-six, takes forty-three year old Tommy on a final fishing trip, a last Guys Day Out. He finds an isolated shore, drops sleeping tablets in Tommy's beer, and gets Tommy to count fireflies until his head begins to droop. Then:
"Oh." Tommy's eyes opened wide, his face creased into a wide grin. He cupped both hands around a secret, fragile cargo for just a moment [hear the echo: He cupped his hands below the surface, as if waiting for underwater communion], then slid boneless down the willow.
This is the "morally repugnant" ending (for given definitions of "moral" and "repugnant"). Except it's not:
Andrew settled next to him, hugged him tight, and drank the second bitter beer . . .
"Sweet dreams," he whispered, and he closed his eyes.
Bitter, that second beer.
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote:
Something that seems quite new, or that seems insolently false or very dangerous, is the test of a reader. If he tries to see what it means, what truth excuses it, he has the gift, and let him read. If he is merely hurt, or offended, or exclaims upon his author's folly, he had better take to the daily papers; he will never be a reader.
Ellen Klages is a very careful writer--which is to say that she is full of care for her craft, and allows her readers the intelligence to take care of themselves. To take care, for instance, of the differences and resonances and contingencies between reality and fantasy, between real life and fairy tale; and to take care of what one can say to and about the other.
* Not that I would wish it to be so branded, just that not being able to so brand it seemed to be what pissed off so many people about this story. Which is a whole other essay . . .
Link to story.