Unnatural Habitats & Other Stories​ by Angela Mitchell, reviewed by Michael Caylo-Baradi • Empty Mirror

Unnatural Habitats & Other Stories by Angela Mitchell / WTAW Press / 978-0-9988014-6-9 / 2018

UNNATURAL HABITATS & OTHER STORIES by Angela MitchellIn “Animal Lover,” the first story in Unnatural​ Habitats & Other Stories​, we encounter a post-sex scene, where a bobcat is lying on a bed between a man and a woman. It’s the couple’s first night together. The man raises animals in his house, including birds and snakes, but the bobcat holds a place in his heart. When the woman reaches out to feel the man after a nap, she feels “fur and a belly moving up and down” (27) beside her instead. She has awakened the bobcat she had seen earlier in the living room, and makes eye contact with it. It’s an awkward situation. Escape is possible, but she doesn’t know where to go. She is too excited to be with her date to even remember the road they had been hours before. The woman is now caught in a predicament of leaving the man or not: “[s]he [is] somewhere she’d never been before, miles, probably, from the nearest highway, deep in the Arkansas woods.” (27)

Most of Angela Mitchell’s characters in this debut collection are caught in that predicament. But they are more than moments of indecision. They are chasms of solitude. And sometimes they feel like the recent black and white photographs of Matthe​ w Genitempo in Jasper​ ​, which captures the Ozarks with stunning melancholy and solitude, a desolate state of exile, detached from a universe driven to wire everyone into new levels of interconnectedness. But while Genitempo’s project breathes images of clutter, dilapidation, and folks who look like they never had access to proper hygiene, the Ozarks of Mitchell refuses to romanticize poverty, and sets her stories in the imagination of self-determination driven by ambition, struggling to ride the train of upward mobility; it’s a world bristling with schemers and self-doubters who walk an existential line between pride, self-preservation, and the specter of criminal behavior.

Now let’s consider the nameless female narrator in “Not From Here,” whose father is plagued with unsteady employment, and a woman who “comes and goes as she wants” (38). This could be a story of a girl whose future is highly dependent on government social services. She envies the life of Annette Clark, a schoolmate who lives in a big house with a velvet couch and a white cat. She wants Annette’s fancy things. Mitchell tells the story so well that sometimes we forget the extent to which pedophilia drives the plot. The narrator appears to have regular sex with the bus driver, Ronnie, who is now scheming to use the narrator to rob Annette Clark’s house for anything valuable. But on the night of the scheduled break-in, the narrator dissipates into self-opprobrium: “I don’t got no right to be here. What belongs to Annette is Annette’s and not for me to have.” (48) It’s a sudden compunction, and not quite convincing, but a ray of light nevertheless.

Now the adult, female narrator in “This Trailer is Free” doesn’t feel the same sentiment after robbing a bank. Her childhood is a product of bad decisions that hampered her father’s employment prospects. On the other hand, she keeps her head straight in high school, and gets a decent job, before signing up for the Army, where she falls for a man who twisted her head, and catapulted her into a future of failed relationships. Soon, she scrambles for money to raise her son Jonathan, and wallows in self-pity: “Me, I think I inherited my bad judgment, a family trait that won’t let me go.” (134) But there’s nothing like the darkness of prison life, where the only person she could reach out is the one inside her: “It isn’t the women screaming for the guard up and down the corridor that wakes me in my cell but my own conscience that grabs me by the neck, looks me in the eye, making sure I know the meanness don’t come from somewhere else, only from me.” (140)

Mitchell’s women never alienate their conscience. They have no one to blame for their misfortunes, but themselves. But can we say the same with Mitchell’s men? It’s obvious that Ronnie has the moral conscience of a pig, just like Jody in “Deeds,” who is set to inherit land, but is drawn to schemes and easy fortunes that are bound to hurt others. They have no chance for redemption. In fact, in Jody’s case, Mitchell takes him away: she mangles his body in a vehicular accident by a creek, where the only person who could save him, his sister’s husband, delays any call for help. It’s a form of revenge without too much drama.

On the other hand, the more dramatic instance of revenge is played out in two stories that appear to be chapters of a novel-in-progress: “Retreat” and “Unnatural Habitats.” Here, the men in question are Gary and Layton. Layton manages an insurance Business Relationships called Insure-U, and Gary works for him as an insurance adjuster. But technically, Layton’s father holds the title of the business, since he bought it for his son after graduation, “hopeful it would provide the structure his wayward son needed.” (82) Sadly though, Insure-U is only a cover for another business with bigger turnovers: drugs. One day, Layton is waiting for a customer in a parking lot, when three men with baseball bats drag him out of his car. Now, why would Layton think Gary is behind the attack? It’s to safe surmise that it’s a preemptive attack against a scheming business partner. And so Layton exacts a heinous revenge, and draws a plan where Gary shows up in an isolated place, and Layton is free to swing a crowbar on his legs, feet, and crotch, with the help of a friend. Now seven years later, Layton drives to Gary’s house to return the bobcat he had stolen from him, after almost clubbing him to death. But it’s a forced trip. He does it for the sake of his wife, who wanted him to take the bobcat away, since the feline has now become a nuisance in their neighborhood. On the other hand, the trip becomes a convincing denouement that offers comfort to Layton’s conscience: “He came here for forgiveness – he understands that now – but he would settle for repentance.” (183)

In many ways, Mitchell’s stories are sustained by a gamut of dark forces; sometimes they’re like Tonya in “Pyramid Schemes,” who would “rather her mother find out about the men she had sex with at the Holiday Inn Express than about her financial problems.” (61) But what’s the difference? The difference is that one appears to have a more redemptive layer than the other; and in Tonya’s case, it’s the pleasure of immediate gratification, or even something you can flaunt, for scoring with another car salesman. And so, it’s gratifying to know that Ronnie and his female cohort have aborted their plans to rob a house. But beneath that failure is something more sinister: theirs is a new partnership now, spawned by the mind of pedophilia. Or it’s nicer to hear that Layton has a conscience after all, but what elides our attention is how much his father loves him to a point where it could inspire murder. In fact, he tells his son that “Gary is never coming back. […] He will never be in your life again.” (180)

And so, I invite you to take a plunge into the Ozarks of Angela Mitchell, and feel a bobcat’s whiskers brush against your leg. That’s high, Midwestern gothic right there, teasing your senses. But don’t tap the aquarium housed in the woods of Arkansas, because you really don’t want to irritate the snakes.

About Michael Caylo-Baradi

Michael Caylo-Baradi is an alumnus of The Writers’ Institute at The Graduate Center (CUNY). His work has appeared in the Kenyon Review Online, The Common (Online), Empty Mirror, Eunoia Review, The Galway Review, Galatea Resurrects, Our Own Voice, PopMatters, New Pages, Ink Sweat & Tears, and elsewhere. His personal website is mcaylo.blogspot.com/ and he’s on Twitter @MCayloBaradi.

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