Stay Up With Me by Tom Barbash is a collection of short stories.
The first story “The Break” is a probing story of a recently divorced mother who has her college sophomore son stay with her over the Christmas holidays. She still lives under the illusion of my house my rules. She can’t let go of that little boy she loved caring for when he was younger and had to stay home from school with a cold and she could nurse him and watch him while he slept. Divorced and the empty nest make for unsuspected changes. She doesn’t do well. She doesn’t like his choice in a woman so she finds one for him. He is wiser than she expects and helps her with the new life in a typical way sons do for their mothers.
Everyone knows that the best time of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade is the night before when they inflate the balloons on Central Park West. Its magic and all the apartment houses along the Avenue facing Central Park and overlooking the busy work of so many human ants are filled with people roaming the halls and entering different parties throughout the night. It is a beehive of humanity amongst the rooms of the apartment buildings and on the ground busy with tethering and watching and ohhing and awing. In “Balloon Night” Timkin’s wife, Amy has left him and he is still having the party in the apartment he inherited from his parents who moved to Florida, the classic New York story of real estate. It is reminiscent of John Cheever’s story, “The Swimmer.”
Lots of educated people in these stories. That is college educated as in students and teachers. In “Her Words” a father and professor of English invites his class over to his house. One of his students intrigues his son, who lives at home to the point of dating her and then having her move in. This is awkward, one of his students living in his house and sleeping with his son. It’s the classic tale of a father and son negotiating those waters when the son does whatever he wants for love and dad is helpless.
It’s a year later after a car accident in which a boy dies. His younger brother, Lou, blames himself for causing the accident. His mother meets a man with four kids of his own, all are older than Lou. Lou, his brother, and mom used to howl like wolves at the moon. Lou is pin balling around this new home with these new siblings, not seeing much of his mom. She eventually comes to explain to Lou, that the accident wasn’t his fault. They go out to howl at the moon in “Howling at the Moon.”
Real estate in the Adirondacks is premium and two young lads go around talking to widows, widowers, and aged couples about their land, their vast amounts of acreage in God’s backyard. Eddie’s advise to his young apprentice, Randall, is let them know you are somebody’s son, in the story “Somebody’s Son.” Randall’s a liar and a thief. This doesn’t bother an old couple from whom he will pay little for their 300 acres and steals little items from them on each of his visits. It is amazing how the young are predators of the old. I saw it in the schools of NYC, as young teachers vie for a position held by an older teacher. It’s life and death.
“How to Fall” is a story about a young woman who breaks up with her long time boyfriend and goes on a singles ski weekend with a friend. She meets someone and tries to move on. It’s a story about what we know and comfort as opposed to starting over and living.
A tennis academy is the setting for “Letters from the Academy.” A coach writes a series of letters to one of his charges; one he believes has great promise and could make a living playing tennis. We only read the letters from the pro to the father, who is an accomplished Jazz musician. From the letters we begin to pick bad blood or even inappropriate actions by the coach. When Pete Sampras happens to see the young protégé play, he takes over and eventually the coach is dismissed from the Academy. This is the study of the slow disintegration of a man.
January in the frozen tundra of upstate New York can be a very lonely, cold, boring month. In “January” Barbash introduces us to yet another dysfunctional family. The dad lost his job in a landfill, becomes a couch potato, is thrown out and ends up in a hospital in NYC with ailments caused by the landfill. The mother and son left behind become the focus of attention by a sporty guy who owns a Jeep and takes the mother out on little adventures and brings her back to life. The boy on the other hand is torn as is so often the case. It’s always harder on the kids.
The title story to the collection, “Stay Up With Me” continues the same note of a broken family, a child tending to one of the parents, and losing himself in his dreams of the past before the breakup. Do children from these broken families have broken relationships? Barbash thinks so.
“Paris” is about a rural town in upstate New York. Of course there is irony in the title since Paris, NY is steeped in poverty unlike the glamorous Paris, France. A reporter does an expose of the town that the town isn’t to keen on. His job is to write what he sees, not to editorialize, and to be neutral. He is and they come around and we do see a rose amongst thorns.
Being stuck in a rut is what happens in “Spectator.” Instead of being Lost in Iceland, he is lost in Ithaca. He teaches a college course and does woodworking. She, eighteen years his younger, is a student and failing three of four classes because they spend to much time together, he gets jealous when her friends call, and their wheels are spinning. He dwells too much on their age difference. He is lost.
Death permeates this collection of stories as well as divorce, first loves, and moving on after something horrible. Is this Barbash’s form of therapy?