BASS 2012: Carol Anshaw, “The Last Speaker of the Language” from New Ohio Review #10, Fall 2011

Image by ktsdesign

Image by ktsdesign

Darlyn lives her real life with all its little pieces locking into one another, a seemingly complete picture. But this is an illusion. Lift up one of the pieces and you’d be looking into an entire universe tumbling with color and light.

When I read this passage, I wrote in the margin: “Just like the story!” It’s a jumble of crazy individuals, each crazy in his/her own way, but taken together, it’s a beautiful family bursting with love and human frailty.

What a great way to start off this collection, with this funny-in-a-sad-way/sad-in-a-funny-way story that never stops, that leaves me with a sense of hope in spite of calamity that must lie ahead for them. What’s especially nice is that it’s available online.

Darlyn’s the mother, daughter, sister, lover who serves as the center of gravity for this tragically charming universe. Lake is her 10-year-old daughter, obsessed with cooking and garnishes and foams:

Lake is the name her daughter chose for herself last year. She wasn’t happy with Mary. Darlyn’s thinking was to give her the plainest name possible. She herself has suffered her whole life with one that makes anyone using it sound like they’re calling over a truck stop waitress. It just never occurred to her that she was allowed to change it.

There, do you see it – those twin poles of hope and despair? The daughter who somehow learned that change is possible?

Darlyn plays rescuer to Jackie, her alcoholic mother. Usually. Sometimes she takes the phone off the hook because she just needs a good night’s sleep. But when Jackie wins big at the blackjack tables and calls from a comped luxury suite, Darlyn and brother Russ race in to secure the $40,000 before she can lose it all – and find wheelchair-bound Billy in her room, dressed only in his undies. “A sleepover friend,” Lake calls him. Russ, a morbidly obese laid-off nursing assistant, has no delusions about life; he wants the money put aside for “when she’s still a drunk, but also nonambulatory and demented.” He himself belongs to a suicide society.

The second major narrative thread of the story follows Darlyn’s affair with Christy of the Lexus-and-NPR strata:

Darlyn is too in love with this woman. Christy, this is the woman’s name. She holds no place in Darlyn’s life, and Darlyn holds no place in hers. Christy is never going to leave her husband. What she and Darlyn have is totally compartmentalized. This particular compartment is an hour and fifteen minutes between Darlyn leaving work and having to pick up Lake at swim practice. This hugely circumscribed affair is the reason she thinks of herself at the moment as only technically queer. She would like to be a lot queerer, but that’s not happening.

They really don’t have time for long silences, or lingering moments.… Most of their conversations take place naked and in positions they can’t remember having gotten themselves into – post-sex exhaustion positions.

Again, this reminds me of the story itself, which races headlong from one thing to the next without pausing for much in the way of reflection. Not to say there isn’t any musing going on; there’s plenty, but it’s all done on the way from one crisis to another.

Ok, so maybe it’s the sitcom version of a dysfunctional family, epitomized by Lake adding cilantro and foam to the dinner of an off-brand frozen entrée. In real life, Jackie would die choking on her own vomit on her bathroom floor, Russ would end up arrested protecting Darlyn from Christy’s husband, Darlyn would slit her wrists, and Lake would be sexually abused in foster care. The story is the fairy tale view of grim reality, like the romanticized myth of “we were poor but we had love.” Darlyn knows what she can and can’t expect – being happy just for a day, based on a promise, and resisting bitterness when the promise never happens. A happiness that’s about Russ building a wheelchair ramp so Billy – whose wheelchair may be a feature rather than an obstacle (anyone who’s ever worked in IT knows the old joke about “it’s not a bug, it’s an undocumented feature) – can move in with Jackie for however long he may or may not stay. It’s about accepting and helping each other instead of criticizing and blaming. All the pieces of the story fit, and you want these people to stumble on. It’s a great read.

They just stand in the light haze of third-hand cigarette smoke drifting out through the window screen until the silence is suddenly cut with the sparky flap of cards being shuffled and Billy telling Lake, “The idea is to go higher than the dealer without going over twenty-one.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

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4 responses to “BASS 2012: Carol Anshaw, “The Last Speaker of the Language” from New Ohio Review #10, Fall 2011

  1. Pingback: BASS 2012: The Last Page | A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: Rebecca Curtis: “The Christmas Miracle” from TNY, 12/23-30/13 | A Just Recompense

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