When I was a little girl, I loved riding home from my grandparents’ house with my parents after dark. It was one of the few times I was in a car at night, and I was fascinated by the lights in the windows of the houses that lined the two-lane highway that led from my hometown to my grandparents’ farm. In my child’s understanding of the world, those lights suggested warmth, a refuge from the darkness our car was plowing through. St. Bart’s Way, a collection of short stories by Patricia Schultheis, is like looking at the lights inside those windows and seeing all the way into the residents’ souls. But what’s inside is not always refuge, and what refuge there is isn’t easily earned.
St. Bart’s Way takes its title from a fictional street created in Baltimore after World War I when the streetcar lines are extended into the less developed areas of the city. In “The Haint,” the first story of the collection, we meet the real estate moguls who set out to acquire land so they can take advantage of the opportunities that accompany the streetcar. But Stanley Payton the first and Stanley Payton the second already have enough family secrets to fill the house they plan to build for themselves and plenty of others. When they scheme to take over the old house given to a servant by Stanley the first’s father, the servant’s son literally digs those secrets up for all to see.
The people who follow to live in the houses that are eventually built along St. Bart’s Way bring their own secrets and fears to hide in the elegant corners and behind the luxurious drapes. Some also bring their courage and compassion, bolstered by the solid plaster walls. In “Bellini’s Brush,” a pregnant woman thinks having an abortion is the best thing she can do for the baby’s father. She needs him, but she’s not in love with him, and “no man should settle for a woman who needs him more than loves him.” But is that really what he wants?
In “Firewalker,” a mother decides it’s time to tell her adult daughter that the man she thinks is her father really isn’t, but when the revelation is made, the daughter has a surprising revelation of her own. In “Abiding Blue Velvet,” a lonely man learns a lesson about finding joy from his octogenarian great-aunt.
My favorite story in St. Bart’s Way is “The Other Betty,” a touching account of the bond between two sisters. When a memory about the woman her mother took in as a boarder during World War II suddenly surfaces one morning, Margot begins to think the boarder may be a reason for her sister’s rebellious way of life. On her way to tell her sister, she visits their childhood home, which is currently for sale on St. Bart’s Way. The visit brings up more memories for Margot, including questions about her parents. When she tells all to her sister, Schultheis gives us another O’Henry-like twist as the sister shares information Margot never knew.
In each of the book’s 13 stories, Schultheis draws penetrating portraits of the people who live or have lived on St. Bart’s Way. From Henri, the servant’s son who resents having his house taken away from him, to the boy who witnesses a school shooting in “Bang!,” they’re all distinct individuals with their own thoughts and desires. They’re also part of the human family. Elise, the protagonist of “Standards,” realizes her link with a block of row houses on the outskirts of Baltimore: “Behind all of them, she knew, were dreams and disappointments. … Her losses, she knew, were no greater than those in any of the tiny houses. And her loves no more worthy.” So, too, do we all have a link with the people from St. Bart’s Way. In them, we see our own strengths and shortcomings. And from them, we have much to learn.
Join me here next month for an interview with Patricia Schultheis. The author of St. Bart’s Way will talk about writing this collection of stories, her thoughts on the purpose of short stories, and other insights about reading and writing.