WINNER OF THE 2021 RELIT AWARD FOR SHORT FICTION
A sea witch, a bossy Virgin Mary, and a lesbian widow’s wife—in ghost form—walk into a short story collection ...
Welcome to Stoop City, where your neighbours include a condo-destroying cat, a teen queen beset by Catholic guilt, and an emergency clinic staffed entirely by lovelorn skeptics. Couples counseling with Marzana, her girlfriend's ghost, might not be enough to resolve past indiscretions; our heroine could need a death goddess ritual or two. Plus, Hoofy’s not sure if his missing scam-artist boyfriend was picked up by the cops, or by that pretty blonde, their last mark. When Jan takes a room at Plague House, her first year of university takes an unexpected turn—into anarcho-politics and direct action, gender studies and late-night shenanigans with Saffy, her captivating yet cagey housemate.
From the lovelorn Mary Louise, who struggles with butch bachelorhood, to rural teens finding—and found by—adult sexualities, to Grimm’s “The Golden Goose” rendered as a jazz dance spectacle, Kristyn Dunnion’s freewheeling collection fosters a radical revisioning of community. Dunnion goes wherever there’s a story to tell—and then, out of whispers and shouts, echoes and snippets, gritty realism and speculative fiction, illuminates the delicate strands that hold us all together.
About the author
Kristyn Dunnion is a self-professed "Lady punk warrior" and the author of the novels Big Big Sky, Missing Matthew, and Mosh Pit (all Red Deer Press). She studied English Literature and Theatre at McGill University and earned a Masters Degree in English at the University of Guelph. She performs creeptastic art as Miss Kitty Galore, and is also the bass player for dykemetal heartthrobs, Heavy Filth. She lives in Toronto. kristyndunnion.com
Excerpt: Stoop City (by (author) Kristyn Dunnion)
Now is the Time to Light Fires
It’s like last winter when she took that girl Lena on a road trip and left me to finish my thesis in the sub-zero gloom. Marzana is gone but her chattels prevail and everything, even the Weeping Fig she lugged from Ikea, evokes her. My Lorazepam shuffle wears a triangle from couch to bed to toilet back to couch, where I curl in her threadbare sweater.
Sleepless, dreamless, I up my dose.
The department offers bereavement leave and contracts my replacement, a kindness that permits me to stay home, forever pantless. I stack my research and drape it with cloth. Now who will argue the importance of historical processualism with archaeological data from pre-literate cultures? I draw the blinds. Stop changing, stop bathing. I eat cereal dry out of the box by the handful.
I’m not me anymore; I’m husk, shucked and forgotten.
After the truck hits, that’s grief. Hydraulic pistons fire and the open-box bed lifts at its hinges: a dumping, a burial.
Every day is Sunday.
I light a candle. “You can come home now,” I say to webbing that ghosts the empty corners of our room. I say to the drunkspun moths, “Come home!”
One day she does.
Marzana’s lingerie drawer slides open and her garter dangles like a question mark. My spine zings with apprehension. Her perfume spritzes, infusing the room with her scent. The bed sheet turns down on her side.
I whisper, “Is that you?”
There’s an indentation on pillow and mattress, a definite presence.
“You’re here,” I say.
She shimmers when I kick off bunched socks, toss my T-shirt, join her on the bed. I trail fingertips down my throat, collarbones, my scarred solar plexus. I falter—shy at last.
She hurled herself at me the night we met, a hastily-bought rose between her teeth. I relive our drunken tango at last call, the halting, zigzag lurch back to my old place, necking against darkened storefronts, groping under clothes. Now, lying in our dusty bed my hand works alone, intent and sorrowful, but a censoring pall hovers. Perhaps in her transformed state—nebulous, ethereal—she feels sexually inadequate? What allure does the primal realm hold for her now? I rest sheepish palms above the comforter and, suckling close, she spoons me instead. It’s not warm flesh, but it’s something. Old soup comes to mind, some kind of gelatinous substance, and I can hardly breathe for fear of crushing her in the night. Like she’s a newborn or a kitten and not the crystalline essence of herself—her Soul infused with her distinctly flawed personality—that has transcended time and space, travelled countless unknown dimensions, returning against all odds.
All summer long we bump around the condo, relearning how to share this space. Nights, she settles against me and I contemplate an eternity of abstention. Sex with Marzana used to be like shouldering an oversize grain bag, pouring, pouring an endless pile. The thinning rush over time, a lessening stream, the pitter and pat to empty. In her After Life she prefers not-quite sisterly camaraderie—cuddling, hugging, holding hands.
I am pent. I simmer. But at least I’m not alone.
Marzana still roots through dresser drawers and abandons chucked clothing in piles on the floor. She stacks DVDs in towers by order of preference, her massive rom-com collection mocking me with sunny Hollywood covers. I survey her mess, mark a Cartesian coordinate system grid to impose order, and begin to excavate her cultural materials. I cradle and brush each item, starting in the southwest corner. I tag and label, jot notes.
This becomes my Stonehenge, my very own Pompeii.
Artefact 1.1: tucked in an overdue library book, I discover a black and white photo of Marzana at Hanlan’s Point, a nudist beach I refuse to visit on principle. Who took this portrait? Marzana turned just as the shutter opened and her hair caught the wind, obliterating most of her face. But her mouth is open. Sensual, teasing. The lines of her body echo in the pines behind her, in the boardwalk strips and faded pier: she was disappearing even then, waving goodbye.
Other things surface. Things I do not especially wish to see. Phone numbers on tiny scraps of paper, some with lipstick imprints from hungry mouths. Love notes, an entire incriminating series spanning more than a year from Lena, her so-called art-friend. Each piece of evidence spontaneously combusts in my hand or else Marzana ferries it out of reach. Those letters dance upon the ceiling, taunting. I string up clothesline and peg each charred, surviving remnant in chronological order, then cross-reference dates with my personal calendar.
An alleged out-of-town softball tournament occurred the same weekend as a particularly amorous getaway, recounted in gory detail by Lena.
Marzana skulks behind her green recliner and, righteous, I fume for days.
It’s bad enough she died. She had to cheat, too?
Marzana’s mother calls. I stare at the phone but don’t pick up and naturally she refuses to leave a message. Marzana retaliates by not coming to bed which is fine because frankly, I prefer to starfish the mattress, face planted, and I sleep better than I have since before it happened.
Artefact 4.6: a card from her family filled with their slanted, foreign cursive—squiggles and so many consonants. Jare Swieto. It depicts old world children parading from a small village to the river, carrying ghoulish dollies that they beat with sticks and set alight. Another incomprehensible springtime ritual that bears examination. An uncashed cheque floats out when I open the card. Marzana snatches it mid-air. I wonder, can we still deposit it? Nobody’s haunting the electricity bill.
Soon the place is a booby-trapped eyesore. Dishes pile by the sink. Spills congeal in the fridge. Milk sours. A meagre harvest comes and goes. October bequeaths a snowstorm that eats November and I become almost as much a ghost as Marzana, padding barefoot on the frigid floor, confounded. If I could only assemble the clues correctly, I’d finally know: who was she, really? What has she become?
Our bickering escalates to dorm-room levels. Someone removes grid notes from the excavated artefacts; I find them taped to a box of maxi pads in the bathroom cupboard. Someone dims the lights while I work causing eyestrain and mental fragility. She feigns ignorance but I catch her twinkling with mirth. I crank the Gregorian chants she hates and my stereo disintegrates completely, leaving a blank square on the dusty shelf. Instead, her favourite song by that shitty Canadian band blasts the air, sourceless. Marzana’s peace offering—finger-painted hearts boasting our initials—dribble condensation in the frosted windowpanes. I wipe them with an angry palm.
Caroline, department administrative assistant, says she has to meet with me. “Paperwork, you know?” She offers to do this off-campus. “It must be so hard,” she purrs in the Tim Horton’s. The release agreement sits before me, its tiny font devouring the page like so many ants.
“They’re firing me?”
“You don’t have to sign now,” she says. Sotto voce, she adds, “You might want to consult a lawyer.”
Caroline smells sympathetic, like lilies, like gardenia. Her face is impossible: pink cheeks, lavender eyelids, perfectly groomed brows. Her skin is soft and powdered. I consider stabbing it with the plastic stir-stick.
“Marzana eats all the groceries, she won’t do dishes. I can’t even re-decorate,” I confide.
She pats my arm. “I know you miss her, sweetheart.”
Caroline’s pretty face is a curtain, drawn.
“You think I’m making this up?”
Mortified, I abandon my green tea.
“Don’t you want your donut,” she calls after me.
My throat sticks when I imagine opening the front door to our suite, breathing in that musty bog. Terminated. How will we live without my disability pittance?
Outside, I pace in front of our building. Snowflakes nip my face. They convene on my hair, my clothes. I have sneakers, not boots, and my feet slide on black ice hidden by the heron-coloured silt. Winter is coma-quiet and, just like Marzana’s life, virulent secrets lurk.
It may never end, this bone-clacking cold.
Wind rakes my flesh, pulls my nerves taut. It wakens something in my reptile brain, the part guarding ancient history, and I remember things weren’t always terrific. This profound loneliness, this disappointment, had arrived long before she died. All those stay-home Saturday nights—too much dinner, bloated on the couch watching some anaesthetizing bullshit from her dread movie collection. But mostly, mostly, it was just me waiting for her to call or to finally come home: hammered, incoherent and utterly blameless. She’d simply pass out, shoes still tied, forearms X’d on her chest, shut up like a pharaoh’s tomb, mysteries sealed intact.
Praise for Stoop City
"What an assured and attractively variegated collection of stories. Set in Toronto and small-town southern Ontario, Kristyn Dunnion's 13 short pieces are marvellous feats of pacing and styling bolstered by vibrant characterization and enviable turns of phrase."—Quill & Quire (starred review)
“No one writes like Kristyn Dunnion, not even those of us who really, really want to. These are stories that live under your skin and force new colours into the spectrum, that rip open and fold inward at the same time. You read them and wonder about the talent that allowed them to be told. Just how many lives has Dunnion lived exactly, to be able to write like this? Because you believe every word and walk beside every character. I am a long-time fan of Kristyn's work and now I think I may be head-over-heels in love.”—Cherie Dimaline, Kirkus Prize-winning author of The Marrow Thieves
“Like her feral, tormented citizens, Dunnion swaps registers, altitudes, myths, and meanings with heartbroken elan. These stories are merciful and naked; these sentences never miss.”—Paige Cooper, Scotiabank Giller Prize-nominated author of Zolitude
“Stoop City is a tender snarl of an album, a glorious collection of wreckage and beauty and insight. Dunnion's care shines through each carefully crafted page.”—Casey Plett, Amazon.ca First Novel Award-winning author of Little Fish
“Subtle satire and fantastical elements bring levity and subtext to Canadian author Dunnion’s short fiction … Dunnion’s wistful vignettes argue persuasively that the one affliction from which all human beings suffer—regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status—is loneliness. Dunnion’s second collection comprises a diverse slate of loosely linked stories with a cohesive message: Everybody hurts.”—Kirkus Reviews
"The heroines in Dunnion’s defiant collection offer refreshingly blunt observations about the world around them, in settings alternating between the gritty and the fantastical."—Publishers Weekly
“Kristyn Dunnion is a sharply observant chronicler of the marginal urban experience. In these tightly written stories, nobody gets a break. Even her well-adjusted characters are stretched to the limit by challenging circumstances. What comes through loud and clear though is the author’s empathy for people whose lives are spinning out of control through no fault of their own.”—The Miramichi Reader
“To read this collection is to witness stories of human connection told in a myriad of ways, from the absence-of to a yearning-for … Dunnion builds a community of diverse, vivid lives sewn into a patchwork quilt … The author’s strength lies in her dynamic characters: in creating a multitude of existences, and allowing us to share in those moments. And what we see is not the end. The residents of Stoop City live beyond the page.”—Prism International
“Kristyn Dunnion masters the speculative, illuminating elements of the strange to create something that's somehow all the more gritty and real. Stoop City is a total reimagining of community, showing us that despite how very different we are, it is the delicate human threads within each of our own unique stories that binds us together.”—All Lit Up
Praise for Kristyn Dunnion
“The Dirt Chronicles is tough and tenderhearted, a beautifully-written literary ode to outlaw culture. Kristyn Dunnion's writing is fierce and funny, a truly original book of stories I hope everyone will read.”—Zoe Whittall
“Kristyn Dunnion is an utterly glorious writer. The gothic lyricism of Tarry This Night not only secures her a place among the rising stars of genre-bridging literary fiction, it is a declarative staking-out of narrative territory that is uniquely hers. A superb, elegant read.”—Michael Rowe