In “Tender Cuts,” the title story in Jayne Martin’s collection of flash fiction, a little girl dressed for her first beauty pageant awaits her moment to shine. It’s the Little Miss Soybean Pageant. Her mother is keen on her performance, more so than the daughter, Julie Sue, who feels the pressure to perform, knowing she will have to raise her skirt and show some flesh to win a little prize money the family needs. When the music starts, “Mama pushes her onto the stage.”
These thirty-eight short pieces find children and adults, both men and women, at precarious, resonant moments, on the threshold of pain or already deep in it. In “All Hallows’ Eve” a homeless girl makes rounds with all the begging children; it’s the one day when she’s like any other child. In “The New Kid” a bullied fifth grader who stutters puts his hand on a gun. In “Zero Tolerance” the reader is given a glimpse of a detention center, where a child’s flight and degradation are quickly captured: “His body is still not found by the time we must flee” (father), “Ramon gives himself up to the del Cartel de Juárez so that mama and me may pass (brother), and “at the border, they tell Mama they are taking me for a bath.” These are cuts, all right. Many of them not so tender.
In a few paragraphs Martin captures the exhaustion, hopelessness, and terror of ordinary life. There is mordant humor, titles that invite–”I Married a 1985 Buick LeSabre,” “A Lobster Walks into a Laundramatt,”–as these stories shift from first to third person point of view, from the lives of children to adults.
Framing the collection, in three pieces Julie Sue and her family grow older, and, of course, things fall apart. “Final Cut,” the last story, begins, “The odor of charred wood hangs in the air as I pick through the remains of the garage. Most of this stuff had been Julie Sue’s.” Told from the point of view of Julie Sue’s daughter, who is now an adult, the story takes us into her mother’s chaotic world, a woman suffocating in domestic life who would walk into the woods and disappear for hours. Part of Martin’s gift is the ability to transport the reader in a few carefully chosen details–these stories are brief and incredibly tight. Another part is her taking us to revelatory conclusion, which usually detonates, as is the case in this story.
I read and re-read these stories, loved them for their craft and for their life.
Tender Cuts is published by Vine Leaves Press