Kellie Wells’s “Gaythal Dethloff, Mother of Murder” is a chatty story, in love with its own telling. Every description is exaggerated, dialogue is over-stuffed with podunky turns of phrase, actions are out of place but never really all that absurd. It’s like the costumer and the choreographer went to different schools. It’s a story that, while not always arresting, nonetheless lives and breathes with you if you let it. Like a puppet, it’s dead until you learn to move its strings and make it dance.
The story is essentially a monologue with witnesses. The first five hundred plus words are given over to describing the setting and the size of the characters. Before you’ve had a chance to forget, you’re reminded these are two of the tallest women in the world, and this is one of the fattest. There’s almost a kind of physical comedy in the constant repetition. By the time Gaythal tells how her good son, Nestor, became a serial killer, physical descriptions are largely unnecessary. As you read Gaythal’s monologue, you imagine it coming from the bed-ridden mouth of Jabba the Hutt. It feels like a bold move to front-load a story the way Wells does, to segment it so severely, but really it’s nothing new. Mark Twain’s tales are hinged in a similar fashion.
Nestor, once a great soup-kitchen chef, becomes a great murderer fulfilling his friend Ezekiel’s prophecy. Nestor kills and kills and kills. The murders, of course, come with a twist. Not a typical sicko, Nestor is doing his victims a favor. He kills Ezekiel to ratify him as a true prophet. He kills suicides so they can still get to heaven. Eventually, he ends up in jail.
Having given up her story, Gaythal shrinks in size. This all seems simple and straightfoward. We zoom back out of Gaythal’s monologue, back into our narrator’s thoughts, and, with her, feel a little let down. Gaythal’s had this bed-shaking, gospel-singing possession-like experience, but nothing really feels settled. Into the void of non-resolution comes a fun question: Are we dealing with ghosts? Is all of this more bizarre, more foreign than the initial description prepared us for? Without her brother’s love, the narrator is sure she’ll remain gigantic for eternity, but does she really mean eternity?
She says, “without being able to witness the faith of my one apostle ebb, I fear I am a lifer, Johnny-punchclock to the end of time. Without Obie, I am doomed to endless enormity. Without my brother’s love to engirdle me, I am an over-sized eidolon, hopeful opiate, just another reluctant cosmoplast roaming the backroads of the universe in search of the adoration of a sacrificial boy.”
Now, that’s hardly proof of ghosts, I know, but what does it mean?
Maybe a better question is why can’t I accept that maybe the narrator is just really sad she lost her brother, really alienated by her size, and desperate to find someone willing to worship her once more?