Short Stories: People Like Frank & Nothing Without Us

People Like Frank; and other stories from the edge of normal by Jenn Ashton, Tidewater Press

The twenty stories in this collection are all relatively short, but don’t feel lacking in any way. ‘Gentle’ is a word that comes to mind when I think of my experience reading this book. And optimistic. Some of the stories feel like they have that childlike quality of paying attention to details and living in the moment. Just the collection for anyone feeling overwhelmed by the outside world.

The characters in these stories are on the “edge of normal”; a neurodiverse group of people for whom the “everyday can be an adventure and the ordinary a triumph.” Take the narrator in The Bag and I–a story that still makes me smile when I think about it–who believes she has been playing a game with the garbage man for the past three months that involves a recyclable frozen asparagus package. “Next week I plan to stand by the gate and spy on the garbage man to see if I can judge the look on his face or his actions: does he stomp on the bag, shake his head at it, does he curse it as he chucks it into the road?

In The Instruction of Thomas Epperman, Isobel Emerson stands in the hallway of her university with a different sentence from a book on her T-shirt each day, like a human billboard. She doesn’t speak, but she carries cards in a little pocket on her shoulder for students to take with the name of the book and author. What a delightful idea. “Isobel Emerson thought of herself as the mirror, reflecting the words that she believed people should see, read and know.

I just realized that I’ve been using Ann’s peppermint foot butter as a deodorant” is the first line in Sundown, a story about a man feeling anxious about getting older and beginning to forget things. “Nobody tells you how to get old, or old and sick. You don’t get training wheels for this stuff. I try not to let anxiety overtake me, but some days it’s difficult when you’re not very brave, and I fear the future for me, and for Ann. The fact is, I don’t know if I can do it without her; she has been my center of gravity for so long, I forget what my own weight feels like and she is fading from me.

In People Like Frank, the perspective is turned around and the narrator is telling us about her husband Frank’s decline into dementia. “Your own balance slides back and forth between compassion and fear, and the blankets bunch up between you in the bed like a new third person whose name is Apathy, because you’ve stopped caring altogether.”

Other stories include a stroke victim trying to figure out how to get herself to the toilet, a woman whose husband has been diagnosed with dystonia, a man who has a psychotic break, a woman who blows her vermin infestation way out of proportion, and two children whose mother lives with bi-polar disorder.

The book wraps up with Mona Lisa, a story about a woman who sells her house in the name of “freedom”. (“I need a new momentum to help push the air into and out of my lungs.“) She travels to London, Pontypridd, Skegness, and Poole where she becomes a nude model: “I was a different person to each artist, and so I must be to everybody I have met… I marvel at how I tried all my life to please so many people, when each person’s experience of me was so different.

Nothing Without Us, edited by Cait Gordon and Talia C. Johnson, Renaisance Press

Nothing Without Us is a collection of stories made up of characters–and written by writers–who are physically disabled, neurodivergent, or suffering from mental illness.

These stories uplift without needing to be Inspiration Porn, they illustrate Disabled struggles with an ableist world without making us look weak, and they tell our stories without being tokenistic.

This anthology incorporates several different genres–including sci-fi, fantasy, and thriller–keeping you on your toes. I dare you to predict what’s coming next.

In Names, a girl is headed home when she sees a coyote looking at her with the eyes of a human: “Granny always told me to turn around when a coyote crosses my path, that it might be a trickster or something worse, but Mama told me to come straight home today and I don’t know who to listen to.”

The narrator in Oliver Gutierrez and the Walking Stick of Destiny is already deaf, queer, and bipolar, and now they are learning to live with rheumatoid arthritis. And it doesn’t make matters easier when their cane starts talking to them: “Oliver Gutierrez glared at the cane in the corner of their room with a quiet rage, considered stuffing it into the back of the closet where it wouldn’t taunt xem, and wondered why on earth xe couldn’t be normal.

I enjoyed the unique structure in Sometimes You…. A teenager who is homeless and mentally ill tells his story in brief sections: Sometimes you… fly (“A cool breeze set the foliage in the park whispering“), hurt (“You gather your battered, bruised body and head to the youth shelter“), want revenge (“It fills your head, it presses into the bones of your skull“), feel everything shift (“After a good while, you’d rather trust them than not, and risk end up feeling alone“), heal (“You start at the beginning.”)

In Search and Seizure, an undiagnosed teen dies in a car accident and haunts the doctor who brushed her off. “We can’t help you, Cassie. There’s nothing physically wrong, Cassie. The results are normal, Cassie. It’s you, Cassie. It’s all in your head, Cassie. Stop looking for attention, Cassie…. Just stop talking about it, Cassie. Stop getting yourself so wound up over it, Cassie. Just go away, Cassie. Just stop.

In Charity, a disabled person is put on display at charities to evoke pity and open up the purse strings: “Maybe that’s why they fund cures. As much as they fear people like me, they are really fearing the (very likely) possibility that they will become like me.”

In other stories: A woman discovers she’s rented her basement apartment to a vampire; two sisters navigate their mother’s death; a boy with MS searches for the Oracle to find a cure; a boy with a walker just wants to be treated like everyone else; two mentally ill teens escape from a psychiatric institution; a woman with environmental sensitivities is evacuated from her home; the many voices in a person’s head helps them to feel not so alone when their friend dies.

Contributors: Myriad Augustine, Shannon Barnsley, Carolyn Charron, Elliott Dunstan, Tasha Fierce, Nathan Frechette, Emily Gillespie, J. Ivanel Johnson, Tom Johnson, Diane Koerner, Tonya Liburd, Raymond Luczak, Joanna Marsh, Derek Newman-Stille, Dorothy Ellen Palmer, Jennifer Lee Rossman, Madonna Skaff, Maverick Smith, Laurie Stewart, Jamieson Wolf, George Zancola, Nicole Zelniker

Have you read anything recently from the POV of characters who are disabled or neurodivergent? Any recommendations?

9 thoughts on “Short Stories: People Like Frank & Nothing Without Us

  1. BuriedInPrint says:

    What a great pairing! I’ve just finished a collection of short stories by Walter Mosley and I’m about to start another collection but I haven’t chosen it yet. More because there are so many demanding attention than because I can’t think of it! As for a recommendation about a neurodivergent character, it’s not one that I’ve read recently, but one that I love: Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark. Don’t let the speculative fiction label deter you: the mothering theme and the style will draw you in hard and fast. I’ve even reread it and could probably be persuaded to do so again! 🙂

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