by Heather Scott Partington
Hum, Stories by Michelle Richmond
Fiction Collective Two in association with The University of Alabama Press
Trade paper, 168 pages
Michelle Richmond’s Hum is a collection of stories about men and women who are wanting. Like the constant buzz that emanates from the locked second bedroom of the couple in the title story, each Richmond character feels desire in a constant vibration; a sharp undercurrent to his or her actions. They get what they want for moments only, then ache for things they don’t have, striving not to acknowledge their own yearning. Richmond’s stories are humorous yet sad, toeing the line short stories often do, the one between odd and revealing.
In “Hum,” the a wife acts out of desire to know her neighbor, a diplomat, and finds that there is disappointment in the reality of touch that won’t hold up to her fantasy. “Hero” sees a schoolteacher and wannabe dialetic philosopher forced to reconcile his philosophical beliefs about the black and white roles people play with the sudden intrusion of a car accident. In “Medicine,” a woman trains for medicinal hand-job certification while trying to overcome the loss of her sister. In each story, Richmond creates characters that focus on the giving and receiving of care. She asks us as her readers: what does it require of us to care for others? And how does it change others when they are cared for?
This idea is prominent, also, in “Scales,” the story of a woman who falls for a man with sharp scales covering his entire body. As he endeavors to make himself normal, or at least like other people by covering his scales, she aches for the beauty—and pain—that meant her love was special. She begins to miss the magnificence that he used to bring to her life.
Richmond’s characters question their own identity. The female descendant of “The Great Amphibian”—a man who could walk underwater for long periods of time—sits beside the water as a man floats helplessly in “Lake.” She regales him with tales of her grandfather, the kind of man one would read about in a supermarket tabloid. But unlike her grandfather, she isn’t moved to help. For the better part of the story, she sits pregnant and passive on the shore. She sees her family greatness as having passed her by. She tells her mother not everyone can be so much.
“I said this to provoke her, thinking she would lecture me about how I could be great if only I weren’t so lazy. Instead, she gave me a look that was painfully devoid of anger or confrontation. […] On that day I became resigned to a life of mediocrity, and over time I realized that mediocrity suited me well. I have a decent career. I live in a decent house. For a while, I was married to a decent man. Perhaps my parents had been wrong all along, and greatness was not, after all, genetic.”
As with the main character in “Hero,” the woman in “Lake” fails to understand herself as someone who might take action. She spends hours musing about generations of abandonment, but it isn’t until she decides to step into the water herself that she engages with her own fate.
“Medicine,” Richmond’s story about a women training herself for a medicinal hand-job test in an alternate reality not so far off from our own, uses the juxtaposition of this odd healing art (in controversy, not unlike the current day battle over medicinal marijuana) with the character’s sadness over the loss of her teenage sister, who dies of a tragic and preventable accident early in the story. As Richmond’s character trains for her exam, she wonders about death and eternity, and ultimately forges a connection with her sister’s lover through her work.
“‘My sister was only seventeen,’ [she says to the lover]. ‘You’re a married man.’ His eyes were so small, his hands so small, his beard so short and bristly, she wondered what her beautiful sister could have seen in him.
‘Did you know her dream was to map the distance between the earth and the nearest sentient life-forms outside our solar system? Yes, she was young, but she was working on a mathematical formula that could quite possibly have changed the way humans view our place in the universe.'”
Each of them experiences loss. The possibilities for humor and crossing into intimate territory with this hand-job “connection” are not lost on Richmond, who tells the story with just a tiny wink (“Heal the cock, and the heart/mind/knee/spine will follow”). Yet in creating such a physical, absurd-yet-not reality, she asks questions about whether sex or sexual acts really are able to bring people together, to heal, forge connections or soothe pain. Sometimes, when they are not able to fix what is wrong, this is just as interesting.
The most beautiful and sad story in the collection is “Scales,” in which a female protagonist falls for a man covered entirely in razor-sharp scales. Each physical interaction leaves her scarred; one could wrap it neatly into a metaphor about how love both hurts and toughens us. But Richmond’s story resists this kind of over-simplification, which would leave out its greater questions about what makes us fall in love with someone in the first place. “It was a source of fascination for me,” she says, “this pain that made me feel, at the same time, horribly wounded and deeply desired.”
Once the scaled man begins to wear a suit, to protect his lover from his cutting skin, he also hides himself and the beauty of his scales from her. Richmond raises questions about the uniqueness of attraction, about how we can become attracted to that which isn’t good for us or which makes us change ourselves. “Scales” is a story without an easy interpretation, but it is a thing of beauty.
Hum is a collection of stories centered on couples, marriages, temptation and desire. Richmond wants us to think about why we fall in love, how it changes us, and how we change others when we offer to care for them. Richmond renders small oddities with such humanity that they seem like plausible realities that could exist in tandem with our own.
Heather Scott Partington’s writing has appeared at The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Bookslut, and The Nervous Breakdown. She teaches high school English in Elk Grove, California, and holds an MFA in Fiction from UC Riverside.