"Unpracticed Altitudes" by Shaun Hamill

Reluctant or unable to connect with the outside world, our narrator, the landlord of an apartment building, lives life as if it were a succession of what he might call “nothing, nothing, nothing.” He frequently resorts to the companionship of pornography. In one scene, he muses, “The day wears on. Nobody calls… I watch the potholes in the parking lot fill with rain.”

Enter Mildred, one of his tenants. He finds her one night on the rooftop assembling a trampoline she had purloined piecemeal from the sporting goods store she works at. Clad in a skull cap and rainbow-colored gloves, she is quirky and childlike (at one point she, untrammeled, asks him, “Do you ever think about sex?”). We also find out she is a depressive, claiming to never sleep. She is a haunting wonder to him, and soon he finds himself helping with the trampoline’s assembly, deciphering its instructions.

Still, though she appeals to him, he can’t look at her, can’t bear the thought of being repulsive. At this crossroads, our narrator is faced with a choice:  When the opportunity presents itself to invite Mildred back not just into his apartment but into his life, will he grab it?

There’s much to admire in author Shaun Hamill’s unexpected love story, from the feast of appealing phrasings (the phone’s “trilling”; daylight as “a long slow strobe against my curtains”; “the pornography of in-between moments”) to the story’s humor (Mildred recounts a daydream in which she finds herself on a rooftop and is given the both oddly funny and sad directive to “Jump,” as sung by Van Halen).

One appreciates, too, the narrative and structural quirks of the story. In one passage, we find the funny conflation of a domestic scene outdoors (in which a little girl gets reprimanded by her mother) with a scene from a pornographic movie playing in our narrator’s apartment.

Then there is the eventual conflation of the trampoline instructions with the narrative. The instructions evolve by story’s end into unabashed directives for our narrator to jump to “unpracticed altitudes,” to position himself finally to connect. Hamill employs the second-person and future tense, both uses of which most authors can never truly justify but which here are fitting and deftly executed (a less imaginative alternative, the ending told in the first person, would not have yielded the same dynamism). The story’s final sections beautifully unfold in the conditional:  A happy ending could await our narrator, should the instructions be followed. It’s a glorious conclusion to a delightful story that reinvigorates, leaving one breathlessly uttering “Wow” by the last word.

Hamill’s story placed second in the 2010 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. He is now a reader for Carve.

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