Karin Lin-Greenberg’s story, “Miller Duskman’s Mistakes,” is from the Summer 2014 issue of The Antioch Review. Here Lin-Greenberg shares the impulse behind her story of rejection.
Miller Duskman’s final mistake was not fighting for Avery. Afterward, after the Halloween dance had been cancelled and The Brilliance Café had crumbled and all the waiters had been sent home, Miller wept, told Avery, “This town has changed me. I’m not like this.
In the summer of 2008, I moved to a small town in Ohio to begin a three-year teaching position at a college. Two of us were hired to start at the same time in the English Department; I was in a visiting position, and my colleague was in a tenure-track position. We sat together at lunch during orientation and began to get to know each other. A tenure-track new hire from the math department slid into the empty seat at our table and spoke only to my colleague, engaging her in conversation about her move to Ohio, her summer, the classes she’d be teaching. He even said—right in front of me—“We’ve got to stick together since we’re both on the tenure track.” I know this sounds like a line of awkward dialogue from a poorly written story, but those words came out of his mouth. As he continued to speak only to my colleague, I realized that he (henceforth to be known as Dr. Math) didn’t allow himself to see me there, that I was—in my visiting position—someone who was essentially invisible to him. I wouldn’t be around for the long haul, and because of this, he didn’t want to invest any time or energy or kindness toward me. Fortunately, most people at the school did not share Dr. Math’s attitude, and I quickly felt that I was part of the community at the college. However, I wondered what it would be like for someone to move to a similar small town and be an outsider not tied to any institution, and that’s where the character of Miller Duskman came from. I had felt uncomfortable for a few minutes while Dr. Math snubbed me; what if I created a character who feels uncomfortable every moment of every day in a similar type of small town? What if the townsfolk are tacitly saying, “We’ve got to stick together” to each other while excluding Miller? And then what if this outsider somehow forces the people in the town to look at him? So I came up with the idea of Miller opening a restaurant right in the middle of downtown whose walls are made of glass. Even if the people of Morningstar don’t want to see Miller, they can’t help but see him through the glass walls as he goes about the daily business of running his restaurant.
The second incident that sparked “Miller Duskman’s Mistakes” involved a mom and pop hardware store that was downtown in the town I’d moved to. I’d bought a screwdriver there one day. A few weeks later, I returned to get a key copied and the store was gone. The place was completely empty when I returned. The signs were torn down and the shelves and counters had been dismantled. Where there’d been a store packed with merchandise a few weeks before, there was only a giant, empty room. I had no emotional attachment to the hardware store, but I wondered if others in town did, whether to them the closure symbolized a great loss, ushering in a new age of anonymous big box stores. And so I thought that in order to ramp up the conflict in the story I could have Miller, the outsider, come and build his restaurant in the space where an old hardware store, owned by a much-loved local, once stood.
A handful of years before I arrived in Ohio, the Rubbermaid factory in town closed down. 850 people lost jobs. I could still see the after-effects of this closure when I got to town. Although the blocks surrounding the college were filled with beautiful old houses (many owned by professors), just two or three blocks from school, the houses were in ill repair. I saw people sitting on their stoops all day, watching cars go by. I saw kids playing with rusted, broken bikes. It was a striking contrast to the well-manicured lawns of the college, the tidy houses with new cars in the driveways surrounding the school. During the time I lived in that town, a few new restaurants opened, and when I dined in those restaurants, I saw that most of the clientele were people who were affiliated with the college. In “Miller Duskman’s Mistakes,” a glass factory and a broom factory have closed down and people are out of work and the last thing the town needs is an expensive restaurant. I think there are lots of small towns in America where there are tense “town-gown” relationships, where the people who teach and attend school are better off financially than many of the other people who live in the towns that house the colleges. So in my story, Miller Duskman believes he’s bringing something positive and unique to Morningstar when he opens his glass restaurant, but he doesn’t understand that many people in the town are struggling. The fact that most of his customers come from the college only serves to make the inhabitants of Morningstar dislike Miller more.
It was those things—Dr. Math’s unpleasant welcome, the shuttered factory, the closed hardware store, those restaurants that seemed to exist only to serve clientele affiliated with the college—that came together to provide the sparks for “Miller Duskman’s Mistakes.” Living in that small town taught me that sometimes insiders don’t understand outsiders and outsiders don’t understand insiders. It taught me, too, that oftentimes we don’t do enough to understand the people who exist beyond our own circles. “Miller Duskman’s Mistakes” allowed me to slip into the voice of an insider, the owner of the town’s bed and breakfast, and play with how such a character would perceive a new person in town and what might have to change in order for her to feel regret for the way Miller had been treated.
Karin Lin-Greenberg’s story collection, Faulty Predictions, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and ForeWord Reviews’ Book of the Year Award in the Short Story category. Her stories have appeared in journals including The Antioch Review, Bellingham Review, Epoch, and Green Mountains Review. She teaches creative writing at Siena College in upstate New York. You can find her online at http://www.karinlingreenberg.com.
© The Antioch Review 2016