BRISKET FOR ONE: Charles Rammelkamp reviews a new collection of stories by Iris N. Schwartz

Brisket for One
Iris N. Schwartz
Poets Wear Prada, 2023
ISBN: 978-1-946116-10-9
77 pages      $15.95

As the title of Iris N. Schwartz’s new volume of flash and micro fiction suggests, loneliness, or solitariness, is an overriding theme of this baker’s dozen of fictions. Indeed, the very first tale, “Location” involves a character who has lost all memory of who she is, her name, where she is. ‘I want to go home,’ the story concludes. ‘But where is home?’

The title story focuses on a woman named Loretta (‘Call me Retta,’ she tells the neighbor to whom she is attracted, a guitarist named Roderick – whose friends call him Rick). When Rick invites her out on a date, Loretta’s fantasies move into a higher gear. She refrains from using her sex toys, in anticipation, though her dream is for fulfillment of her romantic urges. ‘Loretta vowed not to succumb to a toy this evening. She wasn’t proud of her transformation into a sex-mad recluse.’ But the date doesn’t work out. Rick reminds her of the strutting rooster on her aunt’s farm in Tennessee (like all of the stories in Brisket for One this takes place in New York). ‘Rick seemed oblivious,’ is Loretta’s ultimate assessment. Her dream goes unrequited. It’s a frustration that the characters in this collection experience again and again.

“Am I Right or Am I Right?” also involves a frustrated single woman. Even the title suggests the protagonist might be difficult to get along with. (‘I don’t bristle at confrontation. I calmly encourage it. Because I’m in the right. Always.’) She’s jealous, afraid her boyfriend is ghosting her. She stalks him. she is obsessed by “losers” (think Donald Trump). They are not worthy of her attention – and yet she is obsessed!

Similarly, Sandy, the protagonist of “Floundering,” is unable to connect with a man. The story cleverly uses fishing metaphors to underscore Sandy’s – as in “beach”? – predicament. Martin, the object of her desire (if she can only get past his ‘dyed squid ink-black hair’) is obsessed with fish. He owns a tank he’s filled with specimens he’s named after rock stars – ‘Garcia, Bon Jovi, Dylan, Mick, Bruce’ – and Sandy daydreams about the two of them, she and Martin, inhabiting such a Little Mermaid fish tank of their own. Ultimately, though, Sandy simply cannot get past Martin’s annoying shortcomings. ‘Her fantasy of meeting the man of her dreams? Oceans away.’

“Ruby’s Shoes” gives a stark image of the loneliness at the heart of the stories. It’s a very brief tale about a woman who lives in Brooklyn who attends a funeral in Queens during a downpour. Her shoes are ruined beyond rescue. In a handful of sentences and without once suggesting Ruby’s interior life, Schwartz paints a vivid picture of Ruby’s isolation. The story is reminiscent of Hemingway’s famous six-word story: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’ In Schwartz’s case, her micro fiction ends with these six words: ‘Ruby’s dress shoes? Never the same.’

Sandy, Ruby, Loretta, Sarah (“Fear”) – all of them, and especially the unnamed first-person narrators of most of these fictions – are lonely people coming to terms with their anxieties. The protagonist of “Bruxism, Nocturnal” is a fifteen-year-old boy whose teeth-grinding likewise reflects his anxieties. They plainly come from his helicopter parents. (‘Mother informs me that the dentist recommends a mouth guard. And five sessions with a psychotherapist.’) All of these characters in Brisket for One live alone with their private anxieties. Just as Schwartz’s previous book, Shame, featured characters suffering from guilt and embarrassment, her characters in Brisket for One endure feelings of isolation and frustration.

The story “In Woods” is told from the perspective of a wolf. The story begins starkly with the single-word sentence, “Lone.” Nothing is as lonely as a lone wolf, right? The story ends with then chilling sentence, ‘The wolf continues its search.’

But there is also humor in Brisket for One. “Transporting” is a micro that tells the tale of a furniture mover whose business limps along until his brother designs a creative T-shirt that involves seagulls and bats, with an imaginative slogan. And just like that, ‘Earnings, like the bats, soar.’ In “Upstate” a girl escapes New York City to the Catskill Mountains where she eats an enormous apple pancake, which Schwartz describes as ‘diabetes sweet.’ Such succinct phrasing causes a smile: it’s such a spot-on description for a treat. It’s Schwartz’s talent to zero in on the minimalist image.

Iris Schwartz has the gift of concision, the ability to convey subtle emotions in brief, poignant images. Comic and heartrending by turns, the thirteen fictions that make up Brisket for One amount to a view of our post-Covid society as people struggle with the fear of missing out (FOMO), insecurities, and fear.