I once worked at a small-town newspaper with an old salt named Stan. The newspaper was merely one of his port stops – a stocking up point where he could earn some money to finance his ocean travels. His sky-blue eyes, sunk deep in a face weathered with dark valleys and rivets, missed nothing. A man such as this has a back pocket full of insightful stories, and Stan’s specialty was to play with perception. His audience would assume a story was headed toward a certain conclusion, but in the end the story illuminated the fact that all was not as it seemed.
So it is with Paul Beckman’s collection of short stories, titled Peek. There are sixty-five vignettes, stuffed into 116 pages, and while each offers something different, it is apparent they all are the work of a well-traveled observer of humans – the way a person moves, the language of touch between humans. In the seven-sentence story “The Watchers,” Beckman even notices that “the watchers are watching the watchers. I watch them from my window.” The title of the collection, Peek, is apt in this regard. Beckman gives us brief glimpses of characters, and it’s easy for readers to feel as if they are voyeurs too, stealing furtive glances at a fellow train passenger in the story “Another Train Ride,” or peeping at the neighbor in the brownstone across the street in “Who Knew?”
Beckman expertly creates character through action. For example, in “Cereal Punishment,” a wife’s anger towards her husband is released through the passive-aggressive action of placing the wrong cereal by his breakfast bowl. In “Touchy Feely,” a man’s suffocating, constant touching of a dinner companion speaks volumes to a woman seated at a nearby table:
“Run, I wanted to tell her. Do not invite him up or have another date or take his phone calls. Change your email address. He’ll suffocate you, I wanted to whisper. He is suffocating you now. I held myself back from yelling.”
But what gives many of these stories an edge is the way Beckman manages to slowly set the scene and then expertly turn the ending upside down, like a turtle flung on its back, appendages waving in the air. No matter how many times a story surprised this reader, there was still an element of “gotcha” in subsequent stories. Beckman’s like a professional comedian who knows that the best timing is to save the one-liners for the end and let the audience laugh it out before moving on. It would ruin the fun to give too much detail about which specific stories have these twists. Even when the stories are written in the context of serious matters – end-of-life experiences, angry fathers, aging mothers – the humor of the situation is acknowledged.
There are a couple of stories which focus on Elaine and Mirsky, a middle-age couple navigating their changing bodies, desires and, inevitably, their changing relationship. Indeed, there are themes throughout Peek of the sort of infidelity – both imagined and real – that can happen even between lifelong companions who are in many ways still in love. There are nods, as well, to the reality of growing old. In one of the more sober stories, “Promise Me,” a woman tells her husband, “Shoot me if I ever have to come to one of these places” as they enter a place called Harmony House to visit a grandmother, and later adds “Drop the bottle of pills in my cola, Morty, so I don’t have to go to Harmony House.”
Beckman’s stories have been published in more than 200 publications and in a dozen countries. The style and lengths of the stories in Peek make this book a good selection for any generation in a modern age.