A boy is almost 12. He lives with his mother, who struggles, unsuccessfully, with alcoholism. She has a live-in boyfriend who seems, to the boy, to be rather worthless; the only thing he excels at is beating the boy’s mother. The boy keeps hoping that, one day, his mother and father will be reunited.
It’s telling that only the violent boyfriend has a name: Woodrow.
These are the main characters of four connected stories by Tom Darin Liskey and published until the title of This Side of the River.
In “Shelter,” the boy who’s called “the lush’s son” by his classmates is going trick-or-treating for Halloween. He and his mother have moved to a new town; she’s trying to evade the abusive boyfriend. What is a normal activity for most children becomes something of an ordeal for the boy, as he tags along with other families so that people will think he’s with them.
In “Wonderland,” the mother is back living with the abusive boyfriend. She convinces him to take the boy rabbit hunting, but it’s an outing doomed from the outset. The boyfriend had previously tried to raise rabbits, in some get-rich-quick scheme involving his understanding of Russian market dynamics. He’d ended up bringing them to the rendering plant, including the one the boy considered his personal pet. The rabbit hunt will not end well.
In “Motel,” the boy’s mother takes him to work with her when she can’t find a babysitter. In this case, work is cleaning rooms at a small motel. It’s Christmas-time, and in the car the boy and his mother sing carols together. They’re living on the razor’s edge, but come to know what “the kindness of strangers” actually means.
And “In Wilderness,” the boy is now living with his father in a nomadic kind of existence. His father cuts and clears storm-damaged trees, and more work is always someplace else. It’s something of hand-to-mouth existence, but storms always occur and the father manages to find enough work to keep them fed. Then the day comes when the father and the boy will have to make a journey that neither of them want.
|Tom Darin Liskey|
For almost 10 years, Liskey worked as a journalist in South America. His stories, articles, and photographs have been published in such magazines and journals as Crime Factory, Driftwood Press, Mount Island, Biostories, Hobo Camp Review, Roadside Fiction, Blue Hour Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, and others. He’s also the author of another work of fiction, The Bridesmaid (2016).
The writing in This Side of the River is spare and honed. Liskey sits the reader right there with the characters. The boy’s anger and despair becomes the reader’s. The mother’s weakness with both alcohol and the boyfriend become understandable as much as they’re detested. The people in these stories, however, keep moving forward, driven by a strange kind of hope. Hope is not always fulfilled, but there is always a promise of redemption.
Top photograph by Jessica Furtney via Unsplash. Used with permission.