To Bypass Memory

Things We Do When No One Is Watching by Philip Gerard
BkMk Press at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, 2017

Reviewed by Kamryn Masters

Philip Gerard’s collection of 14 short stories, Things We Do When No One Is Watching, elicits nostalgia for the 1950’s and 60’s, filling the heart with both happiness and regret for the moments and people left behind.

Many of the stories contained within Gerard’s collection are reminiscent of Stephen King’s novella, The Body, and the film adaptation directed by Rob Reiner, Stand by Me, in that they feature snippets of children’s lives, alternately joyful, comic and tragic, always loaded with significance. The adults Gerard writes about, by contrast, feel very much like ghosts, haunted by memories of simpler times when new experiences were fresh and the tedium of adulthood was far away.

In “Gloriana,” a story about an actual ghost that plays with neighborhood toys, Gerard writes “a ghost is a memory of truth, a dream walking, truer than facts.” This is precisely what Gerard’s book is about. His stories may have little to no basis in reality, but the important thing is that they feel real, or at least real like memories that have become more like dreams than documentaries.

Similar to dreams, Gerard’s stories often end unexpectedly and too soon, but therein lies Gerard’s gift for understanding how much to reveal in each of his stories, always leaving the reader wanting more. Like the pastor who recognizes “better than to tell people more than they wanted to know” speaking to his flock in “Flexible Flyer,” a story about a family’s Christmas during the polio scare of the 1950’s, Gerard expertly crafts vignettes frozen in time. His stories make the reader yearn to go back, to bypass memory, to experience the moment as it happened. The impossibility of time travel being what it is, Things We Do When No One Is Watching is the next best option. By telling stories that appear to be deeply connected to himself, Gerard gives himself a chance to do the same work as the main character in “The Circus Train,” a story about one man’s fixation on the toy he should have gotten as a child. Gerard wants to “sit up with this stranger (us)… to retell the story… and this time, this time, to get it right.” Many of the stories in the collection feel like they have been told again and again, somehow familiar, conversational and resonating.

The cover of Things We Do When No One Is Watching features two boys from the story “Ace” helping each other sneak in between barbed wire, a barn in the distance, the sun rising behind it. At the literal level, “Ace” revolves around a boy and his friends’ attempt to repair a glider on a property that does not belong to them but the real focus of the story hinges more on the moment “in a boy’s life when time stalls and he stands exactly on the verge of who he was and who he is going to be” where he must “venture across the barbed wire into unknown territory.” Gerard’s stories abound with these pivotal moments that unlike the rest of memory, which fades with each year, grow all the brighter with the passing of time.

Refusing to let the stories that are important to him slip into the ether, Gerard produces the collection of short stories that invite the reader to remember or imagine time’s past of summer camp, children come and gone, marital strife, miracle seekers, secret projects, draft-dodging, Christmas toys, surviving polio and much more. His book positively oozes nostalgia and yet somehow is never overpowering as each of the stories feel overwhelmingly real rather than product of invention. Like a ghost or a dream, Things We Do When No One Is Watching, has an intangible quality that, if anything, makes it even easier to love.

Kamryn Masters is both a Bellingham Review fiction editor and a second-year M.A. candidate at Western Washington University.

Featured image titled “Ghost Coast” by liquidcrash