The People I Know

Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction!

The People I Know
by Nancy Zafris

University of Georgia Press
176 pages, ISBN 0820334200
October 2009

The People I Know is a collection of nine stories, told by characters who hover at the edge of life. Whether its Lorne, perched on a sofa as a wedding party swirls around him, or the elderly Mrs. R of "Morning at the Beach," imagining a career in crime as she sits on the front porch of a Miami hotel, these are people oddly accustomed to the sidelines of their worlds.

Nancy Zafris's characters do not so much hurdle their barriers as contemplate them with varying degrees of humor, regret, and fanciful expectation. Gazing out of his window at a horizon of crushed cars, Bonner Junior fantasizes about working at an I.M. Pei office building instead of at John Bonner and Son Metal Shredders; at the same time, his job allows him to amuse his friends with grisly, embellished stories of human shreddings and wild dogs. In "Meeting in Tokyo," a businessman examines his own attraction and aversion to conformity after taking a young secretary to a "love hotel." For Wendy, born with a strong nose and a Baltic name, cosmetic surgery has brought acceptance but also boredom. Suffering little "deaths of feeling" with each success, she flirts with disaster, with anything that will make her heartbeat "go up to 75 or more." Grace, in "Grace's Reply," prefers to deal with reality through illusion; she blames her son's death on a Navy intelligence operation and sends Pampers to an imaginary grandson.

Ranging from the kiddie bleachers of television's "Uncle Sylvester Show" to the upholstered seats of a Tokyo coffee shop, from a Navy recruitment office to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, these stories enliven the common places of our world. Sad, yet rarely defeated, Nancy Zafris's characters toe the line and sometimes manage to cross it.

View on Amazon: The People I Know (Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction)

Read excerpt.

We took our places on the tatami floor and my mother served tea and bean pastries. Ikeda-sensei introduced himself to my mother and offered his brief autobiography, the schools he had attended including a seminar at the University of Hawaii, as well as his trip to the U.S. and the states he had visited. My mother and I nodded in unison as he listed each state. When he mentioned one we couldn’t place, I went in search of a map which we then spread over the table after my mother moved the teapot and cups of tea to the floor. We hunched over the map. Ikeda-sensei’s finger landed with a thud. “Idaho!” he pronounced triumphantly. “Hmm!” we exclaimed. “So big!” The states of the U.S. were generously splashed on the map. Our own country was a delicate sliver, choked by water, nervously scratched on the atlas by a rapidograph.

We folded the map and my mother brought the tea and pastries back up to the table. She emptied our lukewarm cups and refilled the teapot with hot water from the thermos. She poured the tea almost immediately. Then my teacher began. “Your son is a good boy. Everyone admires his size and strength.” My mother smiled. Ikeda-sensei cuffed my shoulder and laughed. “Yes, it’s true,” he said. “Look at him.”

Both my mother and he looked at me and smiled approvingly.

“But he is not working as hard as he possibly can. Each morning he comes to school fresh-faced and apple-cheeked while the other students are pale and wan.”

My mother, in her kind voice that rose higher and sweeter as the words grew more polite, explained that she had accepted the fact that I no longer had the credentials that would lead me to a top school. So now the kind of effort that required sleeplessness was for those private high school students who realistically had a chance at a major university.

“Yes,” Ikeda-sensei said, “that is generally true. But last year we had a student who got into Tokyo University.”

“Ohhh!” my mother said appreciatively. Then we all fell silent and looked down. My mother picked up the teapot to refresh Ikeda-sensei’s tea, but he declined and pushed his fists against the tatami to hoist himself up.

“Well then,” he said, “it’s agreed that we’ll try harder.” He turned to me and bowed. With a catch in his voice he addressed me directly. “I will try harder as your teacher not to let you down.” He bowed deeply and sincerely.

I felt very moved by my teacher’s declaration, and indeed I felt my mother beside me draw in her breath and hold her mouth tight. I followed Mr. Ikeda outside and stood by his bicycle. He patted my shoulder. “I don’t want you to ruin your health. You’re growing big and strong, and you need your sleep. But your classmates are working so hard. Can’t you work just a little bit harder to show them you appreciate their efforts?” I felt tears come to my eyes. He patted me again. “There, there,” he said. Then he pushed off his bike. Despite a dangerous unsteadiness in his balance, he turned his head and lifted a hand. Even today I see him clearly, waving to me from his wobbling bicycle.