DG MARTIN COLUMN: Jill McCorkle does it again

Published 4:47 pm Monday, February 5, 2024

Jill McCorkle takes ordinary people, puts them in common situations and makes extraordinary stories. She has done it again in her latest collection of short stories, “Old Crimes and Other Stories.”
Several stories deal with men whose violent tendencies wreck their relationships with other people.
In “The Lineman,” the central character, Ricky, tells us at the story’s opening, “I am a lineman for the county,” he says. He remembers, when he was only 12 years old, Glen Campbell singing “Wichita Lineman.”
Pam, Ricky’s second wife, who has risen in the academic world to the rank of professor, is moving Ricky and his things out of their house.
Meanwhile, he is remembering the sounds of old telephones, and he thinks, “There was a time when we had silence. It was so quiet you could hear what someone said.”
Later, he thinks, “Once upon a time there was silence, you could hear yourself breathe.”
With Pam pushing him away, their daughter, Amanda is all he has left.
Then, in a moment of anger, he slaps Pam hard. “Slap, not hit, he thinks,” knowing that he has also lost Amanda.
In “Low Tones,” Loris Ward, an older woman, is having her hearing checked at an audiology clinic. Several prisoners are also being treated at the same time. One prisoner says she had murdered her husband.
“Oh my,” Loris said, “I’m sure you didn’t mean to.”
Her husband, Alton, is now in the hospital and probably dying.
Loris knows two different Altons. “The before and after. The nice and the hateful.”
To many he is a beloved hero, teacher and coach.
“That Alton is the one who tells jokes and still thinks Pete Rose needs to be forgiven and put in the Hall of Fame. He is the one who has gone on mission trips to help build houses for the poor. That’s who she fell in love with back when she had a young shapely body and could hear a pin drop. That Alton was nice to be around, but the other Alton could say things that made her blood freeze and it had gotten harder and harder to know which one was there. She didn’t tell the doctor, but the other Alton had been around for years; She barely said I do and he reared his head.”
“Everybody in town loved Alton and praised his work. That Alton, what a great guy, Mr. Shop, who helped many young men find their way. They called him a master carpenter, Jesus’s helper, Bob Villa in the later years. Aren’t you proud? People asked, and she said yes but their son said no. He told her things Alton had said or done but it was hard to hear. He said, why are you still there, mom? He said, do you hear me?”
“That’s the one she fell in love with.”
But the other Alton had regularly slapped her around and now when he is in the hospital bed dying, he reaches out his hand, but she steps back whispering, Who are you? Who? Who?
He “opened his mouth like he wanted to say something, but there was no need, and she said as much, then pulled her purse close to her chest and slipped from the room without a sound.”
McCorkle tells 10 other equally moving and disturbing stories. All beautifully written. All challenging the way we deal with those who are closest to us.
Each story stands alone, but McCorkle has tied them together by giving the important characters in some stories cameo appearances in others.
The word “belt” appears in several to accompany descriptions of brutality and in “Low Tones” to describe the chain around the waist of a prisoner.
In “Old Crimes,” Hillsborough’s Jill McCorkle proves again why she is one of America’s favorite authors.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”