Yemassee Appreciation: “Nag’s Head” by Gregory J. Wolos

Modesty is for chumps. Yemassee has published some great writing over the years, and though we have our list of bigs you’ve probably heard of, we’ve been exceedingly lucky to snag some hot, fresh, sexy stuff from Writers Like You™. Here, first-year fiction MFA and Yemassee reader Chris Koslowski shows some love for his standout story from our most recent issue, 20.2.

The bit of trivia introduced near the end of Gregory J. Wolos’s “Nag’s Head” is one of those delicious stories that compels writers to eavesdrop at Starbucks, thumb through old books at yard sales, and lose sleep to Wikipedia. The tale goes that the seaside town of Nags Head, North Carolina, a stone’s throw from the dunes of the Wright Brothers’ first flight and home to scores of summer tourists, got its name from the false harbors thieves created by hanging lights on the heads of horses. Captains mistook the horses’ movements for harbored ships and were lured in to wreck near shore.

By weaving the story into the metaphorical backbone of “Nag’s Head,” Wolos shows his keen eye for that which walks the edge between tragedy and absurdity. Our doomed captain is Jim, fresh off outpatient surgery for prostate cancer, and our false harbor is his family’s Christmas Eve. The beacons gleaming in Jim’s future are encouraging. His cancer is curable, he’s poised for a reunion with his ex-wife after a long divorce, and he’s about to be a granddad. Readers may long for Jim’s safe passage, but Wolos is smart to trouble the waters immediately. What comes across at first as holiday high jinks are soon revealed to be much deeper, much more terrible. When inconveniences become wide gulfs that separate Jim from those he loves, we get a small sense of what it might have felt like to be those hopeful Nags Head seafarers looking for a hovel to ride out the storm.

“Nag’s Head” is smart, funny, heartbreaking, and full of turns you wish you’d thought of first. It’s a swell way to wrap up issue 20.2 and lead us into Yemassee’s 21st year.