Claire Vaye Watkins: “Man-O-War” One Story #140, September 2010

“We used to stay up all night, just listing the places you could take a girl in a city. One of us guys would say, ‘To the park.’ And another would say, ‘A museum.’ And another would say, ‘The movies.’ That was our favorite, the movies. Whenever somebody said the movies, we’d all together say, ‘The movies,’ all slow. Like a goddamn prayer.”

A lovely story full of description. You’ll know Nevada, rocks, and desert heat by the time you’re done. Harris, a retired miner, is out on a dry Nevada lakebed scavenging fireworks left behind from the Fourth of July. His dog, Milo, finds a pregnant teenager named Magda. He takes her home with him (the nearest clinic is hours away) and takes care of her. He intends to take her back to her home, but she convinces him to let her spend the night, and the next day, to go swimming. They talk about their lives: his ex-wife lost a baby and they never conceived another; she moved away and now has a nineteen-year-old. Magda won’t say who the father of her child is, other than it isn’t her Mormon boyfriend; something dark is hinted at. Harris sets of the fireworks he found, including a large Man-O-War, and tells her the minerals used to make the different colors. He starts to think in terms of Magda staying with him to have her baby: “Though he knew better, deep down in the bedrock of himself, he couldn’t help it. He thought, She will need a stroller. She will need a car seat. How the barren cling to the fertile. We, he thought, we will need a crib.

Magda’s father shows up and takes her home. The scene is written exquisitely: he comes to the porch, doesn’t ask about his daughter but says he is hunting and shows Harris the gun he’s brought. Then he goes into the house and comes out with Magda. By the way he is touching her, Harris realizes the father is indeed the father of the baby, but Magda does not ask for sanctuary, in fact looks at him “pityingly” when he says she wants to stay. The last few paragraphs are devastating: Harris “loses his shit” as the author says in her One Story Q&A.

I did have a problem with the last paragraph. It refers to “levanta” and I had to go back and look for this. I only found one reference, where Harris dreamed Magda was saying this. Apparently it means “get up”. But I had to do some research to learn that (and I had a couple of years of Spanish in college). Also, “the Hastings brothers” are mentioned, and again I had to go back and find that. I have a habit of writing characters’ names on the front pages, since I do forget them, especially when the names are only mentioned once, but I didn’t write these because they were mentioned in a conversation as people from Harris’ past, the kids he hung out with when he was Magda’s age. Their names just didn’t seem that important, though the memory, partly quoted above, was, of course. To encounter these things at the end was distressing, since the last paragraph is quite beautiful but the meaning and impact was obscured by not-total-recall of these two things quickly mentioned.

Still, it was quite a beautiful story of someone having a second chance and losing it, seeing his possibilities as he tries to help Magda see her own, from different ends of their lives.

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2 responses to “Claire Vaye Watkins: “Man-O-War” One Story #140, September 2010

    • I love One Story! I kept putting them aside – they’re so small – for “later” which got later and later… now I just put every new one in my rucksack and read it when I’m out waiting for whatever.

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