Squirrel Hill Features in Pittsburgh Noir Short Story
By Eleanor Ruth Smith
“…I love the rush. It makes me feel dangerous and exciting, and I am neither of those things without it.”
Pittsburgh Noir is a collection of short stories compiled by Kathleen George, fourteen stories by fourteen local authors. Arranged in four geographically themed sections, the story “Cheater” by Aubrey Hirsch, set in Squirrel Hill, falls into the last group, ominously titled, “Neighbors Who Care.” Hirsch’s narrator certainly cares about the people around her, but it is not neighborly concern which motivates her. While the narrator remains nameless, we as the reader are given a name for her immediately: Cheater. It is a moniker, an alias, and a badge of honor that she proudly wears on her ring finger. Her nights are spent collecting new lovers, and her days provide moments of reflection, contemplation, and preparation. While she deliberately obfuscates or ignores any other means of self-identity, Cheater sticks with her like the smell lingering in smoke-soaked clothing.
“Cheater” is in large part a tour of Squirrel Hill, littered with familiar streets and bars. Fanattics, Pamela’s, and even the local CVS make an appearance. But more than sightseeing, Hirsch uses these places as symbols. They become a means to identify their patrons, and further to divide residents into groups. For Cheater the narrator, they become shops, and she picks up different men like ordering from different restaurants, depending on her taste. The consumable nature of her lovers is apparent. Clearly it is the memories that she collects, and the men are merely the means to acquire them.
While this story at the outset presents itself to be about adultery, the matter at hand truly is identity. How do we define who we are? By the items we bring into our home? By the food we eat? By the relationships we cultivate? What makes a person a person, and what makes a person feel alive? I know that I have gone through the same bouts of self-discovery in which Cheater has embroiled herself. Her story begins in medias res and any relevant backstory fills in as we go along. Because concerns like past and future are meaningless. A person exists in a sort of fugue state, only the present is of any consequence. Past events feel like a dream. Future events are incomprehensible. There is no future. Life is not a path but a bus route. Many stops, but constantly looping.
Aubrey Hirsch has a proven talent for short story. Her stories and essays have been published in many magazines such as PANK, Daily Science Fiction, and Fiction Southeast. Her first published collection, Why We Never Talk About Sugar, is a collection of short stories in a similar style to “Cheater” and counts Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay among its fans. While not a native Pittsburgher, she earned her MFA here and stayed to teach creative writing at Chatham University, which she does in addition to her writing projects.
In “Cheater,” Hirsch has a firm grasp on setting, building a set of sorts out of the Murray and Forbes area and letting her characters loose in it. We feel as though we might have passed them on the street, sat next to them at the bar, or shuffled past them on the bus. They are our neighbors, both attractive and repulsive, depending on how they are experienced. “Cheaters” is a human story, and never forgets how contradictory, complex, or quiet a person can be. The quiet in “Cheaters” is what strikes me. There is little conversation, and the dialogue we find is shallow, small talk and flirting, all very much expected. The monologue of our narrator exists in a blanket of silence. There is an ironic isolation to this woman who is almost constantly surrounded by people, and shares intimacies with a different man each night.
While I feel that Hirsch’s narrator is too detached and matter-of-fact to get invested in or really care about as a person, I did very much identify with her character’s situation, and continually drew parallels to my own life. Which may have been the intention. Some narrators, especially in short fiction, exist to be templates, tailormade to wear our projections like a second skin. What I read made me curious to seek out more of Aubrey Hirsch’s work, which I am sure is intentional, as well. “Cheater” is a fine addition to Pittsburgh Noir, providing a moody, contemplative, and youthful take on Squirrel Hill, and the people we count as neighbors.