Not Dead Yet and Other Stories by Hadley Moore (Autumn House Press, 2019).
When my husband and I are back in his hometown, we make a daily visit to New Bethany, the senior living home where his grandmother resides. Ninety-nine years old—though she’s been rounding up to a hundred for a couple of years now—she’s in admirably good spirits despite her many health issues. If it’s not during a time when Family Feud is airing, we might find her in the communal game room, shuffling the deck and dealing cards to a few other residents, their wheelchairs all pulled up tight to the table. We’ll sit and play a few rounds, chatting and observing the daily routines around us, taking the temperature of the room, which can vary greatly depending on who is in it. Some of the residents are apathetic, complacent to watch whatever’s on the screen in front of them. Some are impatient, some frustrated, some blatantly belligerent, and some sweetly content. All of these responses—entirely understandable, all of them—reactions to the same shared situation. My husband’s grandmother can always be counted on to elevate the mood, with her bright costume jewelry and her good-humored wonder. She’s prone to repeating a few personal catchphrases, and as of late, she seems to be in awe of her tenure here on earth. She’ll shake her head and laugh in amused bewilderment: “I don’t know why,” she’ll say more than once during a visit, “but I’m still here!”
I was reminded of her, and her friends at New Bethany, while reading Hadley Moore’s Not Dead Yet and Other Stories, the Winner of the 2018 Autumn House Fiction Prize, and published by Autumn House Press. The characters of these nine stories, while from wildly different backgrounds, echo this same confused vulnerability: what is their purpose, while they’re still here? For many of these characters, the solution is to merely survive, to wait life out, and see what happens in the meantime. From a child masking his misery at his father’s imprisonment by emphatically grieving a pet parrot, to a sedated woman in a group home who latches on to a disturbing lifelike doll, the characters in Not Dead Yet are each reacting to the life being thrust at them in their own surprising way.
One of the most memorable characters of the collection is Lynette, of “The Entomologist,” a sardonic retiree who admits that much of her life has been arbitrary, with the great exception of her career as a termite scientist:
How could you not sort of love the system of it, the workers, the soldiers, the reproductive, and the queen, that hyperprolific mother? Lynette’s life was all happenstance—things happened to her, she endured them. But entomology she had chosen. Or, rather, she had recognized her singular interest, and followed it.
Now that her career has ended, her “singular interest” has unideally reasserted its place in her life in the form of a termite infestation so thorough that her home is at risk of collapse. Complicating the situation are dual sets of young people threatening her equilibrium: two student tenants that she despises for their neediness, and two “hippies” that are leasing the land in her backyard to create a ‘microfarm’ (this is set in Portland, after all). As her wood baseboards are quickly being nibbled away, her backyard is amassing raised wooden garden beds: the inside rots, and the outside flourishes. She distracts herself from this contradiction by snooping on her tenants and making small changes in their apartment: swapping their food in the refrigerator, altering an ongoing board game. She has waited too long to make the big changes she knows she needs to, so these will have to do. The house is too far gone to intervene at this point, a house whose providence she can barely stand to acknowledge:
It was ten years ago that her husband died and left her this house and its mortgage. Her husband! Remember that little fiend? He’d insisted on buying a duplex so he could install his father on the other side, and then Lynette was the one left with the old man. God, why did anyone marry anyone?
Lynette, alone in all the chaos her inaction has caused her, faced with legal action from her tenants and a disintegrating home, knows what she now will do: nothing. “…She waited to see what she would do with her own property and all that it contained. It was entirely her decision—and more than anything now, that was what vexed her.”