I’d told no one. To tell would have been to tell everything. But now I thought of the boys, with their secret, and how it would haunt them, as they ate, and slept, and woke, and went to school, and walked through hallways, and I thought of the women they would confess to one day, on benches or in beds, women who were now girls, like Emma, waiting to hold someone else’s sorrows.
Marcella knows a lot about holding someone else’s sorrows. Her husband Buddy gave her plenty to hold. And she doesn’t put them down until awkward teenage neighbor Emma starts visiting after Buddy’s death.
You can read a six-page excerpt of the story online, and I recommend it, because it’s wonderful writing; but of course there is the caveat that you might be irresistibly driven to finish the story. And that would be, oh, pretty cool, actually, says the story evangelist in me.
If there’s a weak link in the story, it’s why Emma visits Marcella following Buddy’s funeral. There’s really no reason for the other Lobster Mafia Widow to push Emma into these visits. But Marcella has her own interpretation of what Emma gets out of it:
I had some idea of what Emma was doing, why she watched my mouth as though trying to memorize my words. As I spoke, I was unrolling a map she wanted, of how to become a woman with a quiet life, with a husband who leaves only when he dies. She looked at my calico dresses and aprons. She thought my life had been pure and sweet.
Marcella’s life hasn’t been pure and sweet. She grew up in Boston’s North end, “praying to be delivered from the crowded, garlic-stinking streets, from family, from spinsterhood, from tackiness, that when Bobby finally found me, I was grateful to him the way you are grateful when the hairdresser makes your hair into something it isn’t, though you feel a little nervous, every time the wind lifts, that the style won’t last.” And years before, Buddy and his Lobster Mafia buddies beat to death a man whose major sin was being an outsider, but who pushed them over the edge on that particular day by showing them up, by going out lobstering in bad weather while they sat in a shed on the dock.
Buddy and his friends aren’t totally unsympathetic, however. They have their own problems.
These men are part of a lobster gang stuck somewhere in the middle ranks of the gangs, powerful enough they can sabotage their inferiors but weak enough they need the mafia kingpins to protect them. They are the sort who never imagined being anywhere but this middle, who at sixteen would have said that washing back rum and Coke next to an electric space heater with their finest friends would mean they had achieved a place in the world. None of them imagined that they would reach this place and feel nothing.
Lanza heading out into the storm, showing them up, isn’t even the last straw:
But maybe they could manage all the pressures bearing down on them. Maybe all they would do, if things weren’t about to go the way they go, is curse Lanza to the air and slump back into their crates. They might go on with their lives; there might be no story to tell. But in that moment in the doorway, they make the mistake of looking at each other. They see their own rummed eyes in each others’, and the fear there, and the shame, and the wives in the houses swinging their ankles down from the beds now, the wives with their skinny or swollen laments – and when the men turn back into the shack, they see flashlights hanging. Then the rum bottle slips from one man’s fingers, and the rum spills onto the floorboards, making a preposterous map, and the men can no longer deny how cold it is or how inadequate their space heater. One man kicks its grill, and they are off.
After Lanza’s funeral, Marcella waits to hear what happened, but Buddy doesn’t volunteer. Eventually she demands he tell her, and she turns into the minimal wife. Sort of her own version of sitting in the shed drinking rum and Coke around a space heater, except without the friends. When Emma starts visiting, a part of her wakes up.
I’d been waiting, ever since I was thirty-eight and Bobby finally stopped trying to have a child, for us to begin living. I’d been waiting for an urge, a courage, to alter myself in some way – a special undergarment, maybe a modern haircut – or to change the house with a colorful rug, plants in the windows. but now I understood that we had been living all along – that to call the passing days and weeks and years anything but one’s life was to admit to a great despair.
It’s a marvellous character development here, an evolution over decades, a woman brought to maturity by the admiration of a socially inept girl. I’m beginning to understand the term “character-driven fiction.” Some women would’ve left Buddy long ago. But for Marcella, it’s clear why that’s impossible for her: not only was he her only way out, she’s ashamed of the kind of life she’s living. The only thing she can’t bear is the thought of another generation bearing someone else’s sorrows. Then I go back and think: maybe that’s why the other Lobster Mafia widow sent Emma, hoping Marcella will accomplish what she cannot.
Every time I think I’m really more interested in clever tricks of voice, form, or language, a plain old-fashioned story comes along to remind me how perfect a plain old-fashioned story can be. Which isn’t to say there aren’t important elements of voice, form, and language at work here. The voice and language is perfect, evoking both evidence of higher aspirations from Marcella’s youth and the eventual fatalism of dashed dreams, a kind of stoniness solid with acceptance rather than brittle with bitterness. The form is pretty typical, starting “as near the end as possible” as we’re all taught to do by the high priests of in media res and catching us up with the story of the Lobster Mafia, and, at the very end, the truth about Buddy’s death, which Marcella was ready to bear as just desserts until Emma happened along. The climax occurs at the very end, the denouement is short and exquisite, relating back to Buddy, and I was left in awe at the connection between Marcella and me, between Marcella and all of us, the daughters of Eve who bear the guilt and shame and sorrow until we decide not to any more.