Michael Byers: “His Other Fathers” from One Story #167, 8/1/12

Soon after his father moved out, Paul acquired his first girlfriend, Kimberly Beebe, pronounced bee-bee. She was a soft-faced maidenly sort of sweet girl who wore calico dresses with interesting rick-rack around what would have been her bustline. She was modest and friendly, and in addition, conveniently for Paul, she was one of those rare girls in seventh grade who, due to some weirdness in their social wiring, attached themselves to the Dungeons-and-Dragons crowd, which was where Paul was. Paul had won Kimberly from her previous attachment to Hart McCarthy by writing her long letters in runic code about his cats and his D&D characters. Obviously his wooing away of Kimberly was treachery but Hart McCarthy was too weedy and underpowered to do anything about it. Both Hart& and Paul had ghostly mustaches.

Byers tells the story of a young man’s life by a series of brief interactions with the “other fathers” he encounters, his own father being absent from his life. For that matter, he’s pretty much on his own, as his mother is perpetually distracted by the antics of an acting-out sister.

His first girlfriend, mentioned above in the opening paragraph of the story, provides the usual introduction to love – except when she disappears from school, and, following a tense phone conversation with her father, Paul discovers the family has left town: “had neither the courage nor the wits to find out where she had gone, though her father’s voice would be stuck in his ear forever….” It’s a sad end to a boy’s first encounter with romance, particularly given the father who has also disappeared.

Other girls, with other fathers, follow. The fathers aren’t important figures in the relationships; he recalls them in one-encounter vignettes. But there is a curiosity, I think, in his evaluation of these men, including one who offered bland encouragement when Paul told him he was interested in the film industry: “Which seemed a miraculous kindness even then.” I read this as a sad indication of how starved the teenager was for any kind of affirmation.

While the parade of girlfriends and fathers forms the structure of the piece, there’s a deeper theme there: who we are stems from where we came from:

…only Americans could be truly cool, that only Americans, with their country marked by the sins of slavery and genocide, could manage to be at once materially oriented and still propelled by a divine music, the sin having entered into the soul of every American and so keeping a certain rhythm moving there. Every American heard it though surprisingly few had noticed or could describe such a thing. Whereas the French and Italians were merely stylish and having given up on the divine had nowhere left to go that was beyond nothingness. Americans knew something else existed, there was a ghost in everything that only Americans were haunted by.

It’s interesting that I’m reading another book right now (Rebecca Makkai’s The Borrowers) that works with this theme.

In adulthood, Paul’s father contacts him and the two have a quick reunion that falls under the heading of “too little, too late:”

On the other hand, what do you say to a boy in such a condition? If you are the father who has left that boy, and want to make amends, but nothing you say could possibly matter? As Mr. Lake had remained silent then, he remained silent now, until he finally managed, having crawled as far from Paul as he could get in the front seat of the car – “Maybe – just – just – wait, maybe, try something else…” – shrugging, stammering, not wanting to take this on, not knowing how much of it might be his pain and how much rightly his son’s, not wanting to know. His father, undone by his own weakness, what a subject that would be…and what a vision Paul suddenly had…the story of his own father’s life, of the summer the sad bastard moved away –and that had been the moment Paul started shouting, it was not something he cared to think about much, it had not seemed his voice. Honestly it is still hard for him to admit any of this, how angry he still was, how still like a boy.

We follow Paul to the point of his own fatherhood, and he looks back through a retrospectoscope and realizes a few things about those other fathers, his daughter, and himself.

There’s nothing really surprising here, least of all the epiphanic ending, and I didn’t find it particularly engaging or moving. That concerns me a bit (about my reading ability, that is) since Byers is something of a Big Deal. I do find the structure – the use of fathers as cameos in Paul’s life – interesting, and the choice of filmmaking as his calling effectively emphasizes his viewpoint. Byers discusses how it came about in his One Story Q&A.

Clare Beams: “World’s End” from One Story #166, 7/17/12

Lithograph by Haskell & Allen

Lithograph by Haskell & Allen

By the time the World’s End job came to him, the architect was twenty-six but no longer considered himself young, if he ever had. He felt his professional life had begun. He shaped land, not buildings; he was a builder of landscapes, one of the first of his kind in New York, though this was the 1880′s and Olmsted had already carved out Central Park, strange hole in time and space, in the middle of the skyward-straining city.

These were the days when wealthy people were just coming to realize what their commerce had paved and grimed over, and to miss that green in the pure religious way they missed the childhood of their earliest memories. The architect had a knack for making the lost thing feel less lost…

World’s End is a real place in Hingham, MA; though some details have been fictionalized, it served as the inspiration for this piece. In reality it was designed by Olmstead, not the young architect of this story. At various points in its history, it might have become a housing development, the site of UN headquarters in 1945, or of a nuclear power plant in the 60s if not for the efforts of those who saw value in its gentle drumlins and loping paths – who wanted (and still want) to feel less lost. I think the fiction does honor to the facts. The story isn’t about a piece of land at all, of course: it’s about two men who have more in common than they realize, despite their differences.

The architect remains unnamed throughout. He travels from New York to Boston to meet with one Robert Cale, a wealthy businessman who owns 200 acres of land and would like to build houses for sale. The architect is aware of the gulf between them; he grew up in a crowded NYC tenement where as a child he lost three siblings to measles in one week; he’s very young, and a bit insecure: “He was studying the way money looked up here….he had the feeling now that they were judging him as he went by and finding him lacking.” He’s never done a job of this magnitude before; he got the job through a recommendation of a client pleased with his garden.

The contrast between these two men, detailed at the beginning like this, works very well to set the scene and give an idea of what’s at stake for the architect. But after a brief look, he sees the completed project in his head -

Here his success would be judged by how invisible he could be. The blessing he provided must seem to have come from the hand of nature itself: each hedge, each tree must appear to have grown by its own easy wisdom.

- and can’t wait to get started. He’ll stay at Cale’s house while planning, and later while the work is proceeding.

He meets Cale’s daughter Becca that first night. To me, she was the symbol of shallowness, a spoiled rich girl with little to do but rag on her friends and enjoy her effect on men. At dinner, the architect tries to explain his vision, and when she doesn’t follow, he rephrases: “Find the land’s curves and settle in, bring them out. The way a dress fits a woman.” She seems to view him with a slight increase in respect, but he’s terribly embarrassed; she’s wearing a green dress and it melds in his mind with the green of the land that’s his canvas. It’s a lovely scene.

I was completely drawn in to the architect’s plight: his fear that he’ll fail in his work, his longing for this woman who, though pretty, isn’t able to appreciate him but perhaps represents a certain kind of acceptance, of status. In this, I think he is perhaps as shallow as she, in fact. Other than her attractiveness, he doesn’t see her for what she is at all. Beams plays off this wonderfully at the end.

The climax of the story comes when the architect realizes the roads are laid (an involved process), the landscaping substantially completed, and it’s time to build the houses, but Cale isn’t showing any interest in hiring builders. He finds out Cale has changed his mind, and wants to leave it undeveloped, for a specific reason: Cale was in his Boston office during the Great Fire years earlier (another historical event) and watched the flames jumping across the roofs crowded so close to each other, coming for him.

In spite of himself the architect found that he could see this. The fire sprung up readily in his own mind….
The architect watched the red-orange line of flame flying from roof to roof, so little space between. He had watched in the same way that terrible week when first his youngest brother and then his sister and then finally his older brother had caught the measles; he had seen the sickness leap from one to the next, agile as fire, and flush his siblings with rash and fever….In his mind, he’d flattened that building, the one next to it, the one next to that, and spread a lavish dream-canopy of distance all around himself.

It’s really wonderful what Beams does here with the architect’s ability to visualize, and with colors. For Cale, the green of the land, now become a lovely park necklaced with roads, soothes the red of the fire; just as it (and Becca’s green dress) quenches the architect’s pain. But these two are never totally on the same path; the architect is acutely aware he’s being dismissed: “You didn’t honestly believe any of it could be yours, did you?

There’s a final scene with Becca that echoes that refrain: he grabs her arm to convince her to look at what he’s created, shocking her.

This was the moment to which the architect would return, again and again, in the years that followed. It would come to seem to him that there were things he might have done next. He might have lifted her and run up the hill. He might have tightened his grip enough to bruise, to show her that he could. While she was right there in front of him, while his hand was on her, he might have found some way of testing his idea that her behavior was only a shell of the truth of her – that if her veins were opened loamy earth might spill out in clumps, that if he sniffed deeply enough at the roots of her hair he might smell the sea.
Instead his grip loosened.

He doesn’t realize that, not only is she not seeing the land, he hasn’t been seeing her at all. It’s lovely symmetry.

I’m always interested in character names, and especially, as here, in unnamed characters. In her One Story Q&A, Beams explains a little about her decision to not name the architect:

Honestly, at first it was just because that was how I started to hear the story when I began work on it. But over time it came to seem to me a fitting way to refer to this character at this point in his life, when he’s trying to paste his new profession over every other aspect of himself. I also liked the way that Becca and Cale are named and the architect isn’t. I think (or hope) that the difference helps show his separation from them—a separation he spends a lot of the story dreaming he can undo.

I also enjoyed the narrative voice: restrained, and a little old fashioned; appropriate for the setting. When the architect blurts things out in the throes of a creative impulse, it echoes against that background field of primness.

I discovered Clare Beams earlier this year via her story “We Show What We Have Learned” reprinted from Hayden’s Ferry Review #45 in The Best American Non-Required Reading 2011; it made its way to my Online Fiction etc. To Read and Love page immediately. I’ve read some of her other online work, and I’m delighted to see her in One Story.

Mia Alvar: “The Kontrabida” from One Story #165, 6/12/12

Joey Vendiola Cobcobo: “Seven Heads And Ten Horns”

Joey Vendiola Cobcobo: “Seven Heads And Ten Horns”

In the living room the family had switched from karaoke to a melodramatic Tagalog movie. Even in green it looked familiar, observing the rules of every melodrama I’d grown up watching: a bida (a star, a hero) fought a kontrabida (an anti-star, a dark force, a villain) for the love of a beautiful woman. The oldest films would cast a pale, fair-haired American as the bida and a dusky, slick-mustachioed Spaniard as the kontroabida. Between them the woman spent her time batting her eyelashes or being swept off her feet; peeking from behind lace fans; fainting or weeping; clutching a handkerchief to her heart or dangling it from the window as a signal; being abducted at night or rescued from a tower or carried away on a horse….When the bida won the woman at last, we whooped and whistled, again not out of joy so much as a malicious sort of triumph; the script had succumbed, at last, to our demands.

Another great tale from One Story. A good part of the resolution is predictable, but it’s nicely done anyway, and the emotional resonance works. If you have any chance of reading the story, stop here, as spoilers are ahead.

Steve, a clinical pharmacist in a New York hospital, left the Philippines for college and hasn’t really looked back. His father was abusive towards his family, and while Steve has fondness for his mother, he’s had no wish to visit them in the deteriorating suburb of Manilla where his mom, a nurse before her husband prohibited her from working outside the home, runs a sari-sari – a kind of convenience store located in a cinderblock building in their front yard: “The sari-sari compromised what I imagine was the dream of my parents, who grew up poor: a green buffer between the world and their world.” These front-yard stores aren’t uncommon in the area: “It was a way of shopping I had completely forgotten: egg by egg, cigarette by cigarette, people spending what they earned in a day to buy what they would use in the next.”

Steven has come back to visit at this time for a specific reason: his father is terminally ill with cancer. While he isn’t all that distressed at the notion of his father suffering or dying, he is distressed that Dad’s running Mom ragged. He’s also concerned that neighbors and extended family will talk them into coming to New York for treatment, so he’s been sending them money so they can buy what they need in the way of medical and comfort care. Then a freak opportunity presented itself to Steve:

It wasn’t his face I’d thought of a week earlier, at the hospital, when I took inventory of the narcotics cabinet. I wasn’t thinking of him as I unloaded the most recent shipment of Succorol, or when I found six more boxes than were counted on the packing slip, a surplus as unlikely as it was expensive. It was my mother I imagined, titrating morphine into his mouth by hand, as I recounted the boxes and rechecked my number against the number printed on the invoice. I thought of my mother, running back and forth between the sari-sari and the sickroom, as I typed the lower figure into the inventory log. I thought of her, crying or praying after morphine had ceased to comfort him, as I wheeled the Pyxis in front of the surveillance camera and slipped a month’s supply of Succorol into the pockets of my lab coat.

Of course, Dad wakes up dead a few days after Steve gives the patches to Mom. Though it’s not a surprise to me exactly how that happened, Steve seems flummoxed when he wanders into the sari-sari the evening after his father’s death and discovers his mother, high on Succorol, gleefully celebrating alone. In this instant, this woman he’s been trying to protect goes from innocent victim to murderer, and perhaps neighborhood drug dealer as well.

Through all the melodramas that my family and I had watched, in which the bida and the kontrabida crossed their swords over a woman, I never guessed that she might be the one to watch.

We all have an image of our parents, and sometimes we’re in for a rude shock when reality doesn’t measure up.

I like how the mother’s assurance that she’s stronger than he knows echoes from beginning to end, and how the bida and kontrabida of the movies is used. Still, the story once again sets up a woman as virgin whore and destroyer. After a thirty-year sentence, I’m surprised Steve is as shocked as he is that she could be capable of creating her own freedom; and I wonder if he’s being more than a little willfully blind, since he provided her with the tools himself. In fact, Steve’s motivation throughout – his sending money to keep his father from coming to New York, as well as stealing the drugs and risking serious legal consequences, combined with his supposed surprise at the end – makes an interesting psychological puzzle. Mom’s motivations, on the other hand, are crystal clear to me.

In her One Story interview, Mia Alvar explains she drew on some of her experiences visiting her family in the Philippines thirteen years ago:

It came from my last visit to the Philippines, when my eighty-eight-year-old grandmother was very sick. I had mixed emotions during this trip: joy at reuniting with family, and grief over my grandmother, who died while I was there. It must be common among expats to process these two occasions, coming home and losing a loved one, at the same bittersweet time.

Many particulars around my grandmother’s death in Manila, like the festive atmosphere at her wake and the bustling “funeral district” of Araneta Avenue, made a deep impression on me. But for a long time, I couldn’t write about them. The story didn’t emerge until I separated myself from the details and considered the reverse of my own experiences: what happens when a homecoming is not joyful? Is death, in the case of someone who isn’t so beloved, necessarily a sad thing? And what if a man were telling this story?

Her family also has a sari-sari in the yard, and they too are “hard-core karaokeers.” So here’s a story drawn from life, but modified – mirror-imaged, in fact – in a way to create a dark narrative from a bittersweet but honorable event. I wish I knew more about the decision to make Steve a man; is that because men are more likely to hold their mothers on pedestals, whereas daughters might be less patient with the woman-as-victim posture? A daughter, as well, might not have the same “returning hero” status as a son. It’s an interesting notion, how the story would play if Steve were Stephanie.

There’s a lot more in the story that I haven’t included: a primal scene from Steve’s childhood echoed in the deathbed scene; Steve’s ungainly efforts to help out in the sari-sari, allowing Mom to again assert she is stronger than he thinks; the welcome-home party including the movie scene of the opening quote that gives the piece its central image, theme, and title. It all comes together quite nicely, though I do wish Steve’s possible submerged motivations had been acknowledged a bit more. The bida himself had a streak of kontrabida in him; the lines between good and evil are always less than clear. Then again, maybe this is explored, just more subtly; after all, I got the notion from somewhere, and where else if not the text?

Jake Wolff: “The History of Living Forever” from One Story #164, 5/18/12

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, c.1839-1841 - "The great ships full of boys and girls sent in search of the immortal medicine (Hôraizan) by the Chinese Emperor Shih Huang Ti (Shikôtei), c. 219 BCE"

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, c.1839-1841 – “The great ships full of boys and girls sent in search of the immortal medicine (Hôraizan) by the Chinese Emperor Shih Huang Ti (Shikôtei), c. 219 BCE”

The wave broke against the boat and plucked the man from the mast. It seemed at first as though it might carry him, as though it were merely helping him down. But then it lost interest in his safety and he was left to plummet toward the ship’s leeward sail. His body struck with a bloody plume that dyed the rain red, and then he took his flags with him into the ocean.

Philosophers have debated the wisdom of immortality. They say that it is unnatural to live forever and to wish for it is hubris. They say it will drive a man mad. His friends and family will grow old and perish, his world will change, and his immortality will become a kind of helplessness. Death, in this logic, is our only defense against suffering. And yet in the years before my father’s death, he wrote his most startling and accomplished verses. It is life’s cruelest trick that just as we begin to master our minds, our bodies begin to fail us.

In the case of the man who fell from the mast, we can argue whether his mistake was trying to appease the water dragons in the middle of a storm or forgetting to appease them in the first place. On this matter, I once would have turned to Confucius. But soon after coming to power, the Emperor had burned all of his books.

Xu Fu, the narrator and protagonist of this piece, was a real person. Details of his life differ, as they usually do for those from the 3rd century BCE. Google his name, and you’ll find many legends. They mostly agree on several points: he was the fangshu, a combination doctor, prophet, sorcerer, and alchemist, to the Chinese Emperor Qin Shihuang, and he sailed from China on two journeys, one in 219 BCE and one in 210 BCE, to search for immortality for his Emperor; he never returned from the second voyage. The Japanese have built statues to him, as it’s believed he ended up there, and possibly became its first Emperor, Jimmu Tenno.

Jake Wolff discusses, in his One Story Q&A, how he borrowed from several versions of these legends to form the story we read here, and of course added his own elements. The plot is somewhat complex, with elements bouncing off each other and echoing in later events. But in the end, the story excels because of the standard arsenal of storytelling tools: conflict, voice, and imagery. The conflict, between self and obligation, has dramatic consequences; the voice is understated and restrained, with just the right “long ago and far away” quality; and the imagery is soaked in meaning.

It starts with a scene between Xu Fu and the Emperor. They were boyhood friends, and the Emperor saved Xu Fu’s life back then by leading him out of the desert. So now that the Emperor has developed a frightening cough, Xu Fu thinks of the stories about Mount Penglai, on an island surrounded by huge fish, where the Eight Immortals dwell and keep the recipe for the elixir of immortality. He decides to find Mount Penglai, and save the Emperor’s life, to “cure him of his mortality.” He’s aware of the pitfalls of immortality; friends and family pass on, and one is left behind alone. But he feels China itself depends on the Emperor, and on his death, rebellion and chaos will break out.

The virgins had been the Emperor’s idea.

Five hundred boys and five hundred girls are to be sacrificed on Mount Penglai to assure the mission’s success. Xu Fu is concerned: “One thousand children would make for a difficult cargo.” But it isn’t until he falls in love with one of the young women, Jing-Wei, that he reconsiders the sacrifice, in spite of the dire warnings made by his servant, Kon Tsen, that there is no other choice if he wishes to live.

There is a phenomenon I have observed in the counting of things. If you have twenty pebbles and subtract five, the difference is immediately evident. In large quantities, however, the individual units cease to make an impression. What, after all, are five stones out of five hundred? Even the keenest eye would struggle to notice a change. Until that day on the island, this principle applied to all things measured – grains of rice, bricks of clay, even soldiers or horses.
And yet as the possibility of losing Jing-Wei grew more real in my mind, I realized I had found the exception. I saw what she had been trying to show me in the belly of the boat. If you have one thousand virgins – taken from their homes, assembled on the decks of Lianyungang – and remove just one, the effect is as if you stole the sun from he sky. The whole world feels the loss of it. Truly, the energy of a thousand virgins is enough to power the sun.

This is the primary conflict, as Xu Fu tries to reconcile saving Jing-Wei and carrying out his mission for the Emperor. It isn’t just his pride that is involved. He knows that to fail – to take her, steal her from the Emperor, will be punished by death, for him, faithful servant Kon Tsen, and the rest of his crew. And it’s pretty clear that Jing-Wei isn’t exactly eager to be saved, if it means life with Xu Fu. Other than a few talks, they have very little contact, and she spends most of her time belowdecks with the other virgins.

He nevertheless returns to China with the virgins – most of them parents themselves now, none of them still virgins – and manages to talk his way into another voyage, with more crossbows and soldiers. A new group of a thousand virgins is gathered. The old group, including Jing-Wei, is executed.

I did not know the name of the last virgin sacrificed, but he waited more than eight hours on this knees on a blood-soaked dock for his sentence to be delivered.

Xu Fu departs on his second journey. But it isn’t the journey everyone was expecting:

I gathered the virgins and crew on the deck. I looked for the faces of my friends in the crowd, but of course I found only strangers. I imagined immortality for Kon Tsen, Jing-Wei, the dead virgins and their children. I wondered if our many virtues and evils could extend infinitely into time, unchanged by the length of it.
I said that we were sailing to the edge of the world, as far as the Earth would allow. Perhaps we would discover a new home. Perhaps we would drift at sea until hunger drove us mad. Perhaps the Emperor would find us again, if he lived long enough.
Penglia was still out there, I told them, but we would never land on its shores. We would have to live as mortals do.

Wolff chose to end here, with that element of immortality – losing all those you love – balanced against the hope of the future, and I think it’s perfect.

Alethea Black: “You, On a Good Day” from One Story #163, 4/23/12

You do not set the story aside simply because the second-person viewpoint usually seems to you self-conscious and contrived. You do not get impatient with the story’s unconventional structure, its refusal to unfold in scenes. You do not, at the story’s turning point, pretend you knew what was coming all along. You do not turn up your nose at the ending because it dares to be hopeful instead of stoic or dark, like the ending of a literary story is supposed to be.

You do not, you do not, you do not.

Not on this day. On this day, by the end of page one, you forget the story is written in the second person because the viewpoint is handled so deftly. On this day, you’re happy to be reading a story that breaks the usual rules, invents its own, and then plays by them fair and square. On this day, the story’s turning point—its insistent shift away from despair—strikes you as inspired, exactly the sort of thing you’d been wanting without even realizing it. And on this day, the story’s hopeful ending makes you wish more stories had hopeful endings. It gives you a nice little shiver, the thrill of emotional connection that, as a reader, you long for.

That’s the story, right there; I don’t need to describe it any further, because One Story editor Will Allison has put is so much better than I ever could.

A lot of people are going to hate this story. It’s second person. It’s repetitious. It’s very short on plot. It’s “inspirational.” It’s everything a short story shouldn’t be. Maybe it’s not even really a “story.”

I love it. It’s the story I wish I’d written.

I’ll grant you, it’s repetitious. Black has gone to some trouble to break up the parade of “You do not…” and “On this day…” sentences by occasionally switching syntax around, varying sentence length, and such, but once she committed to this structure, she had limited options. It’s just on the edge of being too long for the technique. I’m sure there are many people who think the above three paragraphs in this style are too long, let alone a 12-page (albeit teeny-tiny pages) story. For me, it just barely comes in under the wire, to stop before I want to start breaking things.

And, true, it’s short on plot. It’s basically a “person goes through routine day and thinks profound thoughts” story. My favorite kind of story. There is some action of you look hard enough – she’s driving, in church, at the hairdresser, goes home and tries to work, has lunch, goes for a walk, goes to bed, tosses and turns, drives to city, goes to a movie. This isn’t really one day, is it? I mean, how do you go to church and the hairdresser on the same day? But any plot is secondary. The point is, whatever she’s doing, there are all these horrible thoughts that could overtake her. And, on a good day, she doesn’t let them.

Black deals with these complaints in her One Story interview.

On using second person:

Point of view is one of those things that I always feel chooses me more than I choose it. Although since this story started when I was trying to talk myself off a ledge, that may have helped suggest the second-person voice.

I’m a big fan of changing it up from first- or third-person exposition, backstory, development, climax, denoument mold. And I’m very fond of symmetry. I’ve even used it. Hasn’t everyone?
.
On plot:

The danger with a story like this, where mood and tone are so central, is that without sufficient plot, it could become more rant than story. I tried hard to give “You, on a Good Day” enough of an emotional turn to satisfy my appetite for action and change.

I suspect a lot of readers are still hungry. Me, I’m stuffed. But that’s me: I once wrote a story to an “end of the world” prompt that consisted of a guy sitting on a rock smoking a cigarette and pondering. No, you can’t read it; even I was embarrassed to send that one out into the world, though I was stupid enough to send out a story about inner thoughts while grocery shopping.

On happy endings (the literary kind – get your mind out of the gutter):

I think what sets alarm bells off for readers and writers alike is an ending that’s facile or in any way false. A happy ending that’s unearned betrays the trust of the reader, and violates Writing Rule Number One: Do not waste a stranger’s time. That said, I’m not afraid of a little closure or a little hope. For a while, those qualities have seemed unfashionable in contemporary fiction—a friend of mine described a recent award-winning collection as “slices of bummer”—but maybe that’s changing.

As a chronic depressive, I have trouble with happiness in general, but I don’t think that’s the story’s fault. And yes, I’ve written happy-ending stories.

(See why I’m no longer writing?)

I wish I’d learned to do these things better, rather than listening to those telling me they shouldn’t be done, because here is a story that shouldn’t work, but does. Oh, come on, even as you’re sneering, you’re smiling and nodding your head along with passages like:

When you get home, you do not let the fact that your Internet connection has gone out make you want to eat your own hands.

And you sighed and shook your head – maybe even an “ohh…” escaped -over:

As your hairdresser continues to talk about her doctors, you do not think about the doctor who told your friend, the one you did not call, that the lump in her breast was nothing. You do not imagine your friend’s face beaneath the green and yellow scarf where her hair should be.

Come on – that’s damn good.

Steven Millhauser won a Pushcart for a report on a town’s ghosts. Jennifer Egan was practically canonized for including a Powerpoint presentation in her Pulitzer-winning book. Jill McCorkle’s “PS” in BASS 2010 was just as plotless. Seth Fried explained fictitious microorganisms and called it a story (addendum: and, I just learned, won his second Pushcart prize for it, much to my delight; it’s the only piece listed in this paragraph that I thoroughly enjoyed).

There is room for this.

Stephen O’Connor: “Another Nice Mess” from One Story #162, 03/29/12

"Fire in the Hole" - a 3D alphabet by Oliver Munday

"Fire in the Hole" - a 3D alphabet by Oliver Munday

My colleagues and I are charged with deciding which soldiers should be killed in the war, as well as where, when, and how they will die. At first I thought it strange that we should be orchestrating casualties for a war that ended before my grandparents were born, but the human resources executive who hired me explained that the war was not, in fact, over, that wars never actually end, and must be continually refought, at least for as long as they are remembered.

The narrator – (Oh, the woes of the unnamed first person narrator story. To be honest, I don’t even notice it when I’m reading. In fact, I’m a big fan of first person fiction, both as a reader and as a [sometimes] writer. It’s only when I talk about the story that it gets awkward to keep referring to “him,” especially if/when there are other “him”‘s who must be differentiated from the main character. In most cases, as in this case, the unnaming seems to me to be deliberate. No one in this story has a name, other than Stan Laurel. Oh, and a person who the narrator makes up, but that hardly counts. I just think it’s worth noting that the author makes up a nameless character who makes up a named character, and the named character is far less real than the nameless one) – is telling his story from the ballroom of an old mansion, where, as described above, he determines the fate of soldiers in The Great War. Unsurprisingly, his supervisor has provided guidelines for this. Dying while marching in rank formation, instantaneous death, and, when large numbers of deaths are called for, a single event such as a bomb killing many soldiers at once, are preferred. But not always possible.

In the next room, separated by a mirrored door which keeps swinging open due to a faulty latch, our narrator can hear the sounds of a movie production, probably Babes in Toyland, starring a very elderly Stan Laurel.

As a consequence, even when we are preparing for our most important battles – Verdun, for example, or Cambrai – we are constantly serenaded by the tinkling of toy pianos and the clattery crescendos of wind-up monkey cymbal bands.

Now, devotees of The West Wing will jump up and down at this point. In delight, perhaps (“Hey, this is just like the Season 4 episode The Inauguration, Part 2 – Over There), or annoyance (“Hey, this is a knockoff of when President Bartlet was deciding whether or not to send troops to Kundu to end the genocide and watched the Laurel & Hardy Babes in Toyland because it just happened to be what his visiting grandchildren left in the VCR and it inspired him to change American foreign policy”). We might even work in the faulty latch on the door in the Oval Office during the storm scene of the Two Cathedrals episode. West Wing fanatics never forget, and they still gather at TWoP because everything reminds us of TWW.

But what we have here is a very different story, even if it does use the juxtaposition of war and a goofy play-war movie.

Our narrator consults with a soldier whose mission, as it were, is about to conclude, as the supervisor puts it (reminding me a bit of A Taste of Armageddon from Star Trek, S1E23) and some difficulty arises. The soldier, quite reasonably, doesn’t want to die. He’s fine with someone else dying in his place. The narrator tells him to go find James P. Hall, who can help him, and the soldier leaves to find Mr. Hall.

The truth is James P. Hall is an entirely fictitious name that I conjured out of thin air. But I have every confidence that once the soldier gets down to the precinct where I directed him, and asks where Mr. Hall might be found, none of my colleagues will trouble to determine whether Mr. Hall actually exists. They will simply dispatch the soldier to yet another precinct, or to yet another authority. And every time he asks for Mr. Hall, this process will be repeated and repeated, until, finally, the soldier will either succumb to bewilderment and exhaustion, or develop the fortitude to accept his fate and go to his death with the dignity and resignation of a true hero – the encouragement of such fortitude being, of course, the primary reason we give soldiers the opportunity to come to terms with their fate in advance.

At this point I flashed to Catch-22. It also sounds like something a local city hall clerk might pull on someone trying to escape a parking ticket, or perhaps like an experience with customer service at Time Warner Cable (don’t get me started…)

It certainly occurs to me that this idea of personally facing people who are to die before you decide a cause is worth fighting for isn’t a bad one. In fact, I now recall the trailer for Rachel Maddow’s new book Drift which, though I’ve been hearing about the book for some time now on Rachel’s nightly show, I just viewed today, oddly enough, and heard her talk about the widening gap between the nation and the military – and how that separation is perhaps making it easier for “us” to decide when to send “them” to war. It might be harder if we had skin – ours or a loved ones – in the game ourselves.

Somehow I insist on jumping outside this story into others. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It doesn’t necessarily mean the ideas are derivative or well-trod, especially in this case, where a fresh twist is provided at every intersection with other material; it’s just that certain facets bring to mind something else. In fact, I like it when a story becomes a nexus for several other works. I just hope the author wouldn’t be too upset that television features so prominently. But I go where I’m led. And I will further say, the matter-of-fact approach to the surrealism of this story, complete with scrambled timeline references, strongly reminded me from the first paragraph of Seth Fried, a recently acquired literary crush. Not to mention the dream-like aspects, which are indeed in Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled as well as the story he wrote to practice for that novel, A Village After Dark. That’s quite a compliment. In fact, all the touchpoints, for me, have been complimentary.

In his One Story Q&A, O’Connor recounted his inspiration for the story:

One evening last summer, I was walking in the woods, idly thinking about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when suddenly I was struck by a bolt of guilt. Specifically, I thought that since I hadn’t worked hard enough to oppose those wars, I was to some extent responsible for them. The thought passed. The guilt receded—as my political guilt has a tendency to do—and two or three days later it was time to begin a new story.

Whenever I start something new, I try to keep my mind blank, and get out a first phrase or sentence without even thinking about it. In this case, what came out was my narrator’s statement about devoting every waking thought to the Great War. I had no idea why he was thinking about the war, or even that he was a “he,” but I did remember that bolt of guilt, and worried that I was in danger of producing an overly schematic political fable. So I decided to mix things up a bit and give myself a little more imaginative freedom, first of all by having my narrator working in the ballroom of an old mansion, and then by having that movie being shot in the next room—a movie which, to my surprise, turned out to star Stan Laurel.

So while there may be familiar elements – and there always are, in every story – this was an original and personal journey, and I’m thrilled to have been allowed to come along.

I see O’Connor has a couple of collections out, and I think I’m going to need to take a look at them. Anyone who takes me through Seth Fried, The West Wing, Ishiguro, Catch-22, Rachel Maddow, and Star Trek in 15 pages is definitely worth investigating.

Jim Shepard: “The World To Come” from One Story #161, 3/4/12

"Yes or No" by Charles Dana Gibson, 1905

"Yes or No" by Charles Dana Gibson, 1905

Sunday 6 May
My mother told me once in a fury when I was just a girl that my father asked nothing of her except that she work the garden, harvest the vegetables, pick and preserve the fruit, supervise the poultry, milk the cows, do the dairy work, manage the cooking and cleaning and mending and doctoring, and help out in the fields where needed. She said she’d appeared in his ledger only when she’d purchased a dress. And how have things changed? Daughters are married off so young that everywhere you look a slender and unwilling girl is being forced to stem a sea of tribulations before she’s even full grown in height.

We think we’ve invented everything. No one has ever known the hardships we’ve had in this time of economic woe; we’ve learned it all about love and relationships and sex and psychology and poetry and letters; when we have it bad, no one has ever had it as bad as us, and when we have it good, it’s a kind of good never before experienced.

Jim Shepard is here to tell us: Not so fast.

I’m not a big fan of diary format for stories, but he uses them frequently, and effectively, on his expeditionary stories. And this story can be seen as an expedition of sorts, into uncharted territories for the unnamed diarist, working with her husband Dyer on their upstate NY farm. We’re privileged to see her weekly writing at least of this period from January through June of 1856. It’s interesting this is the period chosen.

Sunday 1 January
With little pride and less hope, and only occasional and uncertain intervals of happiness, we begin the new year. Let me at least learn to be uncomplaining and unselfish. Let me feel gratitude for what I have : some strength, some sense of purpose, some capacity for progress. Some esteem, some respect, and some affection.
Yet I cannot say I am improved in any manner, unless it be preferable to be wider in sensation and experience.

After the calamity of Nellie’s loss, what calm I enjoy does not derive from the notion of a better world to come.

So we see her recovering from the death of her little daughter. I find it wonderful that this period is more interesting than what has already passed. Then again, given the parade of deaths and other tragedies in this little corner of the world during the six months we read of, death is not an unusual event. I’ve always wondered if parents who expected to lose a child grieved any less than we do today, in a time and place where a child’s death is fairly rare. It seems not.

The diarist and husband Dyer are rather distant, though kindly so. She is resistant to the idea of having another child, so has refused sexual relations. Dyer is rather solicitous: “My heart to him is like a pond to a crane: he wades round it, going in as far as he dares, and then attempts to snatch up what little fish come shoreward from the center.” He brings up plans to make a sleigh, a perennial project that apparently holds some delight for her, though she is less than interested. Theirs is not a marriage of love and compatibility, but of possibility. And if she is overworked and not content, he too has lost some dreams along the way:

As a suitor he was generous but not just, and affectionate but not constant. I was appreciative of his virtues and unconvinced of his suitability, but reminded by my family that more improvement might be in the offing. Because, as they say, it’s a long lane that never turns. And so our hands were joined if our hearts not knitted together.

As a boy he made his own steam engines… I have no doubt he would have been happier if allowed to follow the natural bent of his mind, but forces of circumstance compelled him to take up a business for which he had not the least love.

Tallie, the wife on a neighboring farm, comes to visit in January, and our diarist feels… something: “There seems to be something going on between us that I cannot unravel.” The evolution of their relationship is told masterfully, in slow motion with great detail, beginning in February with a cold, wet foot, after Tallie has broken through the ice into a brook on her way over:

I made her remove her boot and stocking and warmed her toes and ankle in my hands. For some few minutes we sat, just like that. The warmth of the stove and the smell of the applesauce filled our little room, and she closed her eyes and murmured as though speaking to herself how pleasant it was.

The diarist looks forward to her weekly visits (“When she arrived my heart was like a leaf borne over rock by rapidly moving water”) and is distressed when they don’t happen. Eventually, they kiss: “Astonishment and joy. Astonishment and joy. Astonishment and joy.”

That’s about as far as things go, really; there’s no steamy sex scene. But Shepard does a lot with just a couple of episodes of kissing, let me tell you. Especially with the dog keeping watch for Dyer or other intruders. Because this must, of course, remain a secret. Which is why she’s writing it down. I suppose reading someone’s diary was considered unthinkable in that time. Or perhaps Dyer has read the diary. He does seem to have a pretty good idea of what’s going on:

Opened the mudroom door this afternoon to Dyer having returned from the fields, and he said with some asperity that it was pleasant to be greeted by the smile one values above all others only to see that smile vanish because it’s been met by one’s own presence, instead of someone else’s.

Aside from the tortured syntax (it is a diary, after all), this is to me where the real story lies, where the real love is. Is that shocking, for a woman to read a story about an overburdened, artistically imprisoned woman (more on this in a moment) and feel for the man in her life? Or is that part of the design? Because we are introduced shortly to Tallie’s husband, when she invites them over to dinner:

Finney said that no matter what misfortunes arrived at his doorstep, he would seek improvement of his lot with his own industry: he would study his options closely and attend to everything to which he’d believed he had already adequately attended, but with more venehymence….Finney said as an example that when he’d first begun farming he’d been so vexed by his inability to stop his dogs barking one January that during a storm he’d held the animal round the corner of his barn in a gale until it had frozen to death.

In his fiction, Shepard frequently relishes all manner of harshness and brutality while keeping love, passion, and light center stage, and he has done so again. If it wasn’t evident before, in comparison with Finney, Dyer is a prince. Both men seem to know what is going on between the women, and they have very different reactions.

In fact, Finney’s reaction, foreshadowed at that dinner, becomes even more extreme. He and Tallie move away suddenly; she isn’t allowed to say goodbye or even notify her friend of the move. All that’s left behind are a few pieces of furniture and a bloody handprint. The sheriff declines to investigate. Our diarist pines. Dyer waits patiently by. At last, a letter arrives…

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s the diarist’s story. And there’s no denying the hardship women faced in this era. It was handed down to them:

My mother told me more than once that when she prayed, her first object wa to thank God that we’d been spared from harm throughout the day; her second was to ask forgiveness for all of her sins of omission and commission, and her third was to thank Him for not having dealt with her in a manner commensurate to all of the offenses for which she was responsible.

And there’s always the question, what would the diarist, who is quite a writer (including the poem she wrote for her dead child), have been if she’d been able to continue in a setting more conducive to artistic ventures? But also, I can’t help but wonder, what might Dyer have invented had he become a builder, inventor, engineer? Two lives, two talents wasted. It’s also interesting that at one point Tallie shows the diarist her own poetry; it’s bad, really bad, and the diarist “could not support the rhyme,” which is a moment I love.

While on one level it’s the story of a woman awakening one spring, it’s a lot more than that. And when I read Shepard’s One Story Q&A on why he chose to use diary format, I was surprised by this:

I wanted to catch if I could the moment-to-moment and day-to-day nature of 19th century farming lives, as well as how seasonally based those lives were: the importance of the weather, and their meals, and of course the drudgery. But the journal nature of the story also seemed crucial when it came to capturing all of the little ways in which the narrator has let her Tallie down.

I don’t understand at all how she has let Tallie down. I’ve been thinking about it for several days now, and I’ve re-read the story several times, and I still don’t understand. Is he being facetious – that the woman is so used to taking the blame for everything, she will find herself to blame for this as well? I think this will require re-reading at a future point, to see what I have missed. My favorite kind of story, one that evolves over time.

[addendum: A nice addition to Best American Short Stories 2013]

Stephen Ornes: “Hilarious, In The Wrong Way” from One Story #160, 2/8/12

Claudio Alfaro Malebrán: "Un lago de mármol blanco" (A Lake of White Marble)

Claudio Alfaro Malebrán: "Un lago de mármol blanco" (A Lake of White Marble)

At the end of school, the intercom crackled and hissed before going quiet. Then the principal Mr. Weathers got on and said that Theodore was dead, and asked if we could have a moment of silence? The intercom was mounted over the door, concealed in a weathered wooden box that tilted so far from the cinder block wall it looked ready to fall down on someone’s head. I wondered if it had always been that way. I looked down and saw that my pencil still hovered over my paper because I hadn’t finished writing everything down from the board before Mr. Weathers said Theodore is dead.

That’s an interesting paragraph. Not just the content, but the details of form. For instance, the second sentence ends in a question mark, though it shouldn’t. If it was, “Mr. Weathers asked, Can we have a moment of silence?” that would be different, but it isn’t. That must mean something. Turning declarations into questions? Uncertainty? A barb at someone asking when really they’re telling? Not sure.

It becomes even more interesting when Ornes’ discusses, in his One Story Q&A, that the editors advised against his use of questions in the narrative:

…the generous editors at One Story pointed out to me that “questions from a narrator, however true they are to the character’s thoughts, leave the reader in doubt. Concrete details create confidence.” That’s also useful. After they pointed that out, I realized that I follow the same guideline in my science writing and avoid questions within copy as much as possible. Perhaps there’s no faster way to undermine your own authority than to pose a question to your reader.

Considering this advice, it’s incredibly interesting he chose to include a question, one that isn’t really a question, in the second sentence of the story.

I’m also intrigued by the switch of tense in the last sentence, though I think I understand that better. In the second sentence, he uses past tense: “…Theodore was dead…” and in the last, present: “…Theodore is dead.” It doesn’t take Ben long to take this journey, which somehow makes it more personal to him, going from what Mr. Weathers said to what is.

And of course there’s the content of Ben focusing on the angle of the intercom when he’s just heard of the death of a classmate, who, we’ll discover almost immediately, was a friend. We’ll further discover Theodore committed suicide by shooting himself with a shotgun.

Given how much I’ve found in this first paragraph, and the subject matter, I’m surprised to say that the rest of the story didn’t do much for me. It’s a fine story, but not at the level I’ve come to expect from One Story. Then again, that’s the problem with being my favorite literary magazine: you get held to very high standards.

We follow pubescent Ben through his process of adjusting to the idea that his friend is dead. Some great details come into play. Theodore had embarrassed Ben in front of Bethy a few days before, so he’d planned to put salt in his iced tea at the pot-luck dinner the night before. But Ben didn’t show. Ben remembers a look he saw on Theodore’s face at some point: “I’d seen this look before, when he seemed to have gone so far away that he wasn’t just lost, he also wasn’t coming back.” He remembers how Theodore had shown him a dead rat and offered to gut it in front of him: “…when Theodore went to the extreme, like he did with the rat, I valued him the most. It was thrilling and calming at the same time; I didn’t know anyone else who could do things like that.” Ben introduced him to ZZ Top; he doesn’t even like the music but listens to it anyway. He dabbles with hanging himself, just to see what it’s like, to have that kind of control.

Ben comes to a moment when he realizes something: “With every person I’ve ever met, and every person I’ll ever meet, either I’m going to die first or they are….” Saying goodbye is the price of living. And he realizes how precarious everything is:

…I stumbled, standing only on the ball of one foot at the edge of the dock for a moment, hovering over the water, like the split-second when a juggled ball hangs in the air, not rising or falling. Nothing had happened yet, everything remained.
Then gravity took me. The water smacked the back of my head like a shotgun. It blasted away Mr. Weather’s voice, Miss Ruckles’ hand, Justin’s bloody nose, ZZ Top, Theodore in an empty room, alone, with his finger flailing away from the trigger. The images appeared and vanished, water filled my open mouth, my eyes, my ears, my pockets. I flailed beneath the surface. I took water in every opening.

The doors between this world and its shadows were everywhere, always open and waiting.

Ornes is primarily a science writer, and used unstable equilibrium (“like a marble balanced on top of an overturned bowl: it can stay in place, as long as you don’t nudge bowl or the marble”) as the inspiration for this story: “I arrived at thinking about a character who, like an ignorant marble, suddenly realizes he—or anyone else—can slide down the bowl at any time.” He was successful in this, to a point.

But I find I liked the ideas, the tiny details like the first paragraph, and the inspirations and explanations, more than I liked the story. I had trouble getting through it. In fact, I put it down for a few days, then when Issue #161 arrived – Jim Shephard! – I knew I had to get going so I picked it up again and started over. Still, there are high points, and it’s worth reading, if only for those details and explanations and inspirations.

Paul Griner: “Open Season” from One Story #159, 1/14/12

The morning headline said that the season had just opened, which of course we knew; I’d paid for my permit and stored my clothes overnight in a dry-cleaning bag filled with sweaty t-shirts, a box of doughnuts and some bus exhaust, not easy to come by but absolutely crucial if I didn’t want to spook my prey.

Hello, I am Zin! And I get to talk about this story because it is the Zinnest story ever! Here is my advice: buy this issue of One Story. It costs $2.50. Because this story is so wonderful to experience! You should not have to be spoiled by my clumsy comments, which can not do it justice unless I copied the whole story here (and I thought about it… but that would be wrong).

I took my copy of One Story with me on the bus to the supermarket; the first paragraphs set the scene as a hunting story, and I thought, ok, that is fine, some hunting stories are good. Truth is, I do not understand the whole thing about hunting, but I have read stories where it is turned into a religious experience, and there is a great respect for wildlife and the “rules” and traditions and it becomes a struggle against nature which turns into a metaphor for life itself and often becomes a pretty good story, so I trusted One Story and read the first page, and the beginning of the second. The narrator and his friend Juan are having breakfast at Hopping John’s Diner on the first day of hunting season, before they get started.

And then something strange happens!

Yankees, [Juan] said, though he said it with the wrong accent – Yahn-keys rather than Yank-ease – so he didn’t get the word.
Pretty cheap way to bag your first one of the season, but he’d started it, drawing out the word and failing to capture it, so I said Yankees the correct way and when the word floated free, expanding to full size in midair, I grabbed it. What a word, I thought, balancing its heavy weight in my palm, sniffing it, finding it as fragrant as a ripe melon. Automatically I began field-dressing the little bugger, slitting it from anus to breastbone while taking care not to pierce the stomach – not wanting to lose my own breakfast from the smell – and finally reaching two fingers up into the chest cavity to grab hold of the windpipe and yank it loose. My game bag was in the car so I asked the waitress for some wax paper and foil….
I made a neat packet of the foil around both, careful not to bend the Y or get pricked by the pointed ends of the K. Captured, and without its entrails, the word made a nice small package.

Do you see what I mean, that this is the Zinnest story ever? I am so jealous that I did not write it! Or at least try; I do not think I could do it as well as this. But I remember the flash I wrote about Max and the Amazing Notes and I think I need to pull that out and start working on it, now that I see where I need to go with it!

But back to this story (I am not a narcissist, I just sound like one sometimes, and after all I started writing about stories to improve my own writing way back when I was still writing).

Look at how this is done, just the short paragraph quoted above. It is the perfect hunting story. It reads exactly like a scene in a story about he-men hunting! A hunter might treat a game bird this way; I am drawing on my limited experience with hunting stories, but it is very much like when Danny got a snowshoe rabbit or a partridge in Big Red. Except… the game is a word! And it reads with a straight face, the smell, the feel, the procedure of dressing it, we could be reading about rabbits and birds again, until it swings back to bring in the Y and the K again! It is amazing!

The story is like that. I thought, oh, that is nice, but he can not keep this up. I mean, how many words can gut? But this is a story by someone who knows what he is doing! It is not just a list of words he eviscerates! We learn about a field of lavender (when his wife divorced him because he was only interested in hunting words – “If I was a word, maybe you’d pay half as much attention to me. I didn’t think it would be good form to tell her she was right.” – she got the house and he got the field), and the bet he has with Juan is that whoever bags the most words on this opening day will win the field! A field of lavender! “After all, what color word could be better than lavender? Three syllables, even.” Aha, a new element – the number of syllables is something like the weight of a fish or the points on a buck or whatever hunters use to measure how valuable their catch is. And the field of lavender is like a wheat field, it is a crop. A crop of words.

See? This is not just a silly metaphor. This is carefully thought out!

The story continues with new elements, like the rumored shortage of words, which might lead to a shorter season or fewer licenses. There is a wonderful scene where Juan pulls ahead in their competition: he takes them to the Rotary Lodge where a Kentucky Wildcat flag flies proudly in the flag, and he coaxes blue, Wildcat, and Kentucky from the flag in a matter of moments:

Three words all at once, and a rare one, two, three-syllable trifecta at that; it was so good I couldn’t even feel jealous…. He let me have the first dibs smelling Kentucky. Is fawn a scent? It seemed so. Next came tobacco, rich and ruddy, followed by mint and fresh-cut grass and something swampy…

The detail is so precise and specific! But there is more to this story than accounts of each word bagged. After all, that would get tired fast. No, this is a better story than that! Someone who thinks of a way to bring hunters and word nerds together has more than a few smarts, so we discover more elements to morph the reverence most hunters feel for their sport into that which most writers feel for words:

Years ago, [Juan] replaced four molars with type keys from the city’s afternoon papers after they shut down. We’d gone to check out the press’s former site, son to be a sponge factory, the buildings long since demolished….
His hands shook as he handed me three letters, H, T, R. Think of it, he said, and closed my fingers around them. Each of these help stamp out thousands of words. He was so intense that his reverence was catching, and I keep the type keys now in my bedside table, fingering them blindly nights I can’t sleep.

I want some typewriter keys for my bedside table! I want to make shirt buttons out of them! Or jewelry!

In a further plot twist (or else it would be just toying with a metaphor instead of a story), our narrator (it is a first person story and his name is never given) has a problem this season. He has trouble speaking words. And this problem comes to the fore when, on the bus, he sees a prime word:

Yet the truth was I was stalling, because I’d frozen. It doesn’t happen often, maybe once every three or four years, but I’m staring at a word and can’t say it. Some kind of mechanical breakdown, I think….
The word was right there in front of me, tucked into a woman’s cleavage, trying to blend in with a crescent of tiny freckles and the sheen of sweat. Natural habitat, and all that; very smart, as multis usually are. When I glanced away to read some advertising placards about elocution lessons it came to me. Silicone, I said, and it was mine.

Again, I am awed at how good this is, how he talks about natural habitat and slips in the slang “multis” and attributes will and mind to the words, just like hunters do with their prey! And of course at the same time it is funny as hell! The word silicone hiding between the breasts of a woman? How could anyone not love this?

The story reaches its climax when they find a couple of agents clearing out a mailbox. This is why words are in short supply, of course; Special Ops agents take the words from mailboxes and telephone booths under cover of darkness. They catch a pair in the act, and the narrator knows what to do: he says, “Special Operations!” and just like that, words come spilling out of the mailbox, tumbling all over, like a slot machine paying off big time. And what does he see there? A special word – if you have been following closely you probably know what it is! And it leads to a change in him, because this is not just a goofy metaphor, it is a complete story.

Now you have to read it, yes, to find out what happens? You do!

I was so impressed by this story, I went looking for his website and found several other stories scattered all over the Web on cool online litmags like Dogzplot and Right Hand Pointing! Stay tuned, one of those will turn up on my Online Fiction etc. to Read and Love page the next time I update! He also talks about his story on the One-Story Q&A, and he has published two novels and a story collection. I think I will be reading more of this writer!

Pushcart 2012: L. Annette Binder, “Nephilim” from One Story #141, 10/15/10

"Water Rights" by Marcia Petty

"Water Rights" by Marcia Petty

God was a blacksmith and her bones were the iron. He was drawing them out with a hammer. God was a spinner working the wheel and she was his silken thread. Seven feet even by the time she was sixteen and she knew all the names they called her. Tripod and eel and swizzle stick. Stork and bones and Merkel, like the triple-jointed Ragdoll who fought against the Flash. Red for the redwoods out in California. Socket like a wrench and Malibu like the car, and she took those names. She held her book bag against her chest and she took them as her own.

I read this in One Story before I started blogging the stories I’d read. I was glad to see it in the Pushcart volume, though surprised: while I enjoyed it and thought it was different and moving and nicely written, I didn’t realize it was Pushcart good. I’m glad to see it is.

Freda is a giant (due to a pituitary tumor; the medical aspects are explained briefly, as if only to assure the reader this is not anything supernatural), and the story recounts her life as it intersects with that of Teddy Fitz, a little boy who moves in down the block. Legends of nephilim are interwoven throughout the story. They were the giants of the Old Testament, the offspring of fallen angels and women. Their bones became the mountains. We can almost imagine they were called whatever the 1000 BCE equivalent of Ragdoll or tripod, maybe Cedars instead of Red. They ate all the food, and the Lord ordered archangels Michael and Rafael to exterminate them so people wouldn’t be hungry. “Hunger is a terrible thing, Freda’s mother had told her more than once….But hunger was their burden, and they should have carried it.” Freda knows burdens, after all.

Teddy is her main contact with humanity now that her mother is gone, it seems. He does chores for her: shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, planting flower bulbs. She sees him through his parents’ arguments and his mother’s departure as he grows up. We see her mobility decrease (cane, walker) and his increase (skateboard, bike, car). When he leaves for college, there is a moment of connection, and then she’s alone.

He returns years later, his wife (three inches taller than him) and child in tow, and Freda is in a wheelchair. In a heartbreaking decision, she won’t open the door when he comes to visit. Her health has deteriorated, and she’s wheelchair-bound.

He wouldn’t have said anything about her jawbone or her bent fingers or how her back was shaped like an S. He would have taken her hand and knelt down to greet her, but she stayed in her spot by the windows. His face was like a mirror, and it was better not to look.

Binder discusses her process in the One Story Q&A. She has a story collection, Rise, coming out in August.

Aimee Bender: “Bad Return” from One Story #158, 12/20/11

"Memory" by Bin Xu

"Memory" by Bin Xu

“Plastic doesn’t recycle.” She shrugged off her coat. “Right? We can re-cycle it, but it can’t do anything on its own, and all it can ever do is be itself again. It is the worst kind of reincarnation. Lame! That is so lame! And it’s everywhere!” she cried, going to the bathroom to wash marigold dirt off her fingers.

This story is unrooted in time, and I think that’s deliberate. Look at the opening sentence:

I met Arlene in college, in the freshman dorm.

This implies that Claire, the first-person narrator, is telling the story from a time after college, yet after the exposition covering Freshman year, it’s specifically set “March of our senior year, just about two months before graduation” in an apartment Claire and Arlene share, with a brief flash-forward to the following year. But given what happens on that night, I can understand why the voice sounds memoir-ish. Time-travel via recycling. Or reincarnation.

Claire and Arlene, who ended up as Freshmen roommates and then friends by sheer chance, are very different, and the description of their differences provides an entertaining exposition. Arlene goes for “brute jocks” and favors a perm to give “a look of energy” to her hair. Claire prefers poets, and approaches her appearance differently.

…[P]art of trying to attract those poet-men was to look a little like I had wandered onto campus by accident after having spent ten years with the wolves behind some farmhouse living off scraps and reveling in the pure air like a half-girl Mogli, half-woman Thoreau.

Most of the poets Arlene meets don’t actually write poetry. Instead, they have

….books partially filled with the same poem, over and over, called “Life” and/or “Life II” and/or “Why Love Is An Illusion” – these men didn’t always want to touch a woman, or a man, but rather mostly themselves. It took me until senior year to find a poet who actually wrote poetry, and he took off my clothes very gently and spent nearly an hour on my neck and back, and when were were done and I felt all my waiting had been worth it, he explained that part of his education as a poet was to meet as many women as possible, and so this was now to be goodbye. He suggested I pretend he was going off to war on a boat. “What boat?” I said, clutching the blanket. “We live in Ohio.”

He leaves her with a bad poem (“Your breasts are fortune cookies, full of small wisdoms”) and she wants to show it to Arlene, but “although she had never been anything but sympathetic about my history with men, I couldn’t bear the thought that she might laugh at me and not him.”

I know that feeling. It’s very lonely. It’s also very familiar. No, not me, I went for nerds, not poets. I’ve always been skeptical of poets, for exactly the reasons given here. But it sounds just like Gail Parent’s Sheila Levine in Sheila Levine is Dead and Living In New York (which, by the way, is a favorite, though dated, book of mine).

The story moves on to senior year. Arlene’s been a bit tense, perhaps because of Hank. Their neighbor Hank was a voracious recycler, not even trusting the trucks that pick up curbside recycling bins, so he drives to the recycling center with his bins, except he accidentally hit and killed a doctor one day, a doctor who operated on children with cancer. It goes from there to an anti-war rally/orgy/mass-robbery, and a strange old man who needs help with a light bulb and has a ring Claire threw in the river back in California five years before; he advises her to stay friends with Arlene. As usual, Aimee Bender manages to tell this story so it flows completely naturally. At all times I was caught up in reading. It wasn’t until I finished the story that I wondered, hey, what was that? So I read it again, expecting to see new things that connected the elements. And again, I was in the moment throughout. This sounds like a good thing. And it is, of course. But it leaves me wondering about the overall story: How do the pieces fit together?

I have no doubt there are layers of symbolism here. Hank (who was the idea that started the story, according to Bender’s One Story Q&A), recycling, the old man, the rally, Arlene. But to be honest, I’m not really interested enough to bother. And that’s the problem with this story, for me. I like Aimee Bender. I loved “The Third Elevator.” I didn’t really explore the levels of symbolism there, either, but I enjoyed the story tremendously without the effort; this one doesn’t work for me the same way. There’s the same evolution, as the story turns into different stories. I like that effect. And I like the individual elements of this story. But as a whole, it loses me. Maybe I’m just impatient with reincarnation in all forms; I have a friend who sort of forces the issue on me once in a while, and I’m a bit weary of defending myself for not being interested. Aimee shouldn’t have to suffer for that, nor should her story. Nevertheless, she does, and while I like the exposition and denouement, I find the middle of the story, the primary plot, less than compelling.

We end up with the two roommates again (and, by the way, the last One Story #157 was also a college roommate story, which is neither here nor there but is too interesting to ignore). And here’s where I catch up with the story again.

I didn’t know what to ask her. How to be a person?… In the fall, she would be doing the Peace Corps or Teach for America, depending on which program took her first. Arlene, who made sure every used item went into the right bin because she wanted all things, everything, to find its way back into the world, new.

In spite of my misgivings about parts of the middle, and my lack of interest in figuring it out, I loved the beginning and end. And maybe that’s a place to start, especially for a story about recycling. Or reincarnation. Or both.

Karen Shepard, “Girls Only” One Story #157, 12/1/11

"Bridesmaids" by Julie-ann Bowen

"Bridesmaids" by Julie-ann Bowen

They’d met freshman year of college, thrown together by default when it turned out they were the only people in their dorm not in an a capella group. Some of them could sing, and they loved getting on stage as a group on karaoke night and belting out songs., but really, who could stand all that constant harmonizing? They’d always walked the line between teasing and cruelty. It gave their relationship energy and power, as if they’d been told to hold hands and make their way over a cable across a canyon. Holding on was hard but letting go worse.

It’s so exquisitely written, it needs to be read, not summarized and excerpted. This, I’m learning, is the mark of a really good story: when to leave out one paragraph, one line, is to diminish the impact of the whole.

This is the second Karen Shepard story I’ve read, and in some ways, I’m recognizing the character Zizi from “Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When” in all the girls here. I think it’s a more complex story, though. There are more relationships, and they interweave in a more subtle way, bringing together several themes: frenemies. How women treat each other. Group dynamics. Group inaction, diffusion of responsibility until there is none. Truth that follows you no matter how far and how fast you run, “like something heavy and uneven had been rolled down a flight of stairs” when it’s finally revealed.

It’s written in third person plural – “they” – and I have to say I’m pretty pleased with myself that I recognized that before reading Shepard’s One Story Q&A. Overall it’s about a group of five girls who met in college, spending a week together as bridesmaids for the first wedding amongst them.

There’s Cleo, who’s “spacey, tone-deaf” and “made her living as an escort.” And Anna, “legal aid lawyer and former President’s great-great-granddaughter”; “she’d spent her life with these girls feeling like the one Catholic schoolgirl at the party.” Gwen is “the Asian, the smart one with a tendency toward the self-righteous and the cruel.” Tician is a performance artist who somehow makes a living using drugs; “her parents had named her after the painter, and misspelled the name.”

And then there’s the bride, Daphne, who is marrying Jack, an ad exec thirty years older, with two kids older than she is. When she told her parents about her engagement, “her father sent her an ad Jack had written for Metamucil.” This is Shepard’s gift, these little touches, like the misspelled artist, that reveal parents and backgrounds in a sentence. Daphne was in college what in my era was called “loose.” She slept with the lacrosse team one weekend. And she’s low girl on the totem pole in her little clique. “They were never more in harmony than when talking about her. She was the one who made them feel better about themselves.” This in particular struck me: I’ve been that person. A couple of times. I never realized it until I read these sentences.

There are hints scattered through the first half of the story of something that happened in college. It starts with a great metaphor: Daphne was ok with marrying a stable older man, because “she wanted to ride shotgun the rest of her life.” The others are a little dubious. “They all knew what could happen if you got into the wrong car.” As the story progresses, we hear about Charlie: “He’d been the worst of the cars she’d gotten into.” This slow tease is really artful, since it’s woven in very skillfully, with subtlety. It could almost be overlooked.

We find out about Charlie and what happened in a two-page flashback so perfectly tuned I really want to quote the whole thing. It’s not even clear what exactly happened. Charlie in the dorm suite with Daphne while the others are trying not to listen. Other boys, maybe three, come in. Belt buckles hit the floor. “All the sounds they heard might not have been sounds of distress. Some of them still told themselves that.” The roommates do nothing but try not to listen. Bystander syndrome, it’s called, or Genovese Syndrome after Kitty Genovese, raped and stabbed to death while her neighbors listened and no one called the police. It’s also based on a real incident Shepard heard about, she says in her Q&A. Later, Daphne is frantically blasé about it; Charlie “got a little weird.” They try to forget the sounds of the belt buckles. They try to forget how Daphne went quiet.

And now the night before the wedding, Cleo claims to have slept with the groom-to-be (and gotten paid for it). She’s lying – she came onto him but he declined – but she’s the only one who knows that. They debate telling Daphne just who she’s marrying. But they decide not to:

They imagined telling her everything. They imagined how far back they would have to go…And they understood that they wouldn’t be gathering again any time soon. Life, they’d tell themselves, had gotten away from them. Because it was one thing to have a secret shame and it was another to have to confess to yourself that you were never going to face it.

They do get together again, a year later for their ten-year reunion. Charlie shows up at an after-party in a local watering hole, and it leads to a confrontation between Daphne (now getting divorced) and the rest of the crowd that’s, again, too exquisite and complex to summarize. It prods Cleo to talk to Jack and explain what happened back in college, during Dead Week. This might be the one false note in the story. I understand it provides some symmetry, some redemption for Cleo, and it separates her from the group thus giving her the opportunity to act decently for a change – but it just doesn’t sound like something someone would actually do. Mostly it provides the opportunity for some remarkable explanation, including:

Why did girls do these things to each other?
And Cleo, surprising herself, offered what she knew: Because, she said, that’s what girls do. They do stupid hurtful things until they figure out not to.

Then there’s a return to the wedding, to the bridesmaids singing karaoke at the reception. In retrospect, this denouement seems a bit incongruous to me, this additional jump in time, but while I was reading, provided some breathing room for all that’s gone before, a kind of levelling-out phase, and it returns to the harmony metaphor from the beginning. So it was effective. It just doesn’t sound like it was when summarized.

That’s why the story has to be read: because the telling, the little details, the tone, the nuance, is why it works.

C. Joseph Jordan: “The Quiet” from One Story #156, 11/10/11

"PTSD" by Alex Lasher

"PTSD" by Alex Lasher

He wore his new glasses and his service uniform….He couldn’t get used to the pressure of the temples against his skull, and though he could see clearly for the first time in years, the hugeness of things overwhelmed him and plunged him into fits of nausea…. The other passengers were in sharper focus than he desired: he could see the wax in their ears, the cracked capillaries on their noses; indeed he felt he could see their intentions and dark purposes.

Staff Sergeant Malick is on his way home from his tours in Vietnam, and he’s not doing so well. In addition to the new glasses, he’s adjusting to the idea that the plane he’s on is almost certain to not crash, that the car he’s in will not hit a booby trap – “That no one in this world truly meant him harm.” And he’s worried that his mother will have some kind of party for his homecoming. He’s not in the mood for a party. He’s a man with secrets, “secrets that he never intended to share, though for his sake or that of the people he loved he could never be absolutely sure.” We’ve learned to call that PTSD now. Back then, it didn’t really have a name.

During the course of his welcome home party, we’re given a look at how he’s lived the past several years. He fell in love for the first time in Australia, and got his heart broken. He killed someone in Vietnam. He visited home after his first tour, while his father was still alive but was gaunt with cancer, and immediately signed up for a second tour. The story moves around in time, keeping us informed by use of his titles (a technique I like, though I still find the zigzagging timeline to be a bit convoluted): he’s Adlai Malick first, then Private, then Corporal, and Sergeant, and then, now, Adlai again as he finds an empty room in the basement of a house full of friends he no longer knows, a house where is dead father’s memory still haunts.

This was the story that convinced me to take a few days off. I have such high expectations of One Story, after all. It isn’t that the story is bad. It’s fine. It’s a bit of a workshop story, except for the awkward timeline, which would never get past a workshop (and I love it when editors of One Story calibre allow for some coloring outside the lines). And considering how many terrific stories One Story has sent me lately, they’re allowed a dud now and then. That sounds bitchier than I intended. It’s not a dud. It’s a fine story. I don’t particularly like war stories. Especially Vietnam war stories.

I love that One Story publishes work of MFA candidates like Jordan. I love his bio: “When he was a boy, he once dug a neck-deep hole in his mother’s garden and filled it with water. He then stood in it until all the water had seeped into the earth. This experience prepared him in untold ways for life as a fiction writer.”
I love how he explains, in his Q&A with One Story, how difficult the research for this story was. Not the details of the war, but the little things: “what would a Marine have called his rations? His time away from his unit? What was the name of the local high school in that part of Oregon in 1965? Where might a working class guy from Edinburgh have worked in the 1950s?” I remember doing some lighter-weight research like that for a story I wrote: what’s a working class town and a low-key ski resort near Denver? What kind of root beer would’ve come in glass bottles in 1985 New England or Denver? (I never found the answer to that question, in spite of locating a self-proclaimed root beer historian).

He also explains the origins of the story, in the experiences of present-day soldiers returning from current wars, and in a character in another piece who needed a backstory. I can appreciate what went into this story.

So I feel like I’m kicking a puppy when I say it didn’t do much for me, but I felt it didn’t really deliver much substance beyond a boilerplate homecoming story, flavored with a son’s yearning for paternal approval that never comes. The girlfriend is a slight twist, but that felt like something out of a WWII movie. Again, YMMV. Someone without my biases might enjoy it a lot. I hope so, because it’s well written, and obviously grown with love and care. I regret it just isn’t my particular cup of tea.

Pushcart 2011: Joe Meno – “Children Are the Only Ones Who Blush” from One Story

Art school is where I’d meet my sister each Wednesday, and then, the two of us would travel, by cab, to couple’s counseling. Although Jane and I were twins, by the age of nineteen, she was already two years ahead of me in school, and because both of our parents were psychiatrists and because I had been diagnosed with a rare social disorder, a disorder of my parent’s own invention, Jane and I were forced to undergo couple’s therapy every Wednesday afternoon. The counseling sessions were ninety minutes long and held in a dentist’s office. As both of my parents were well-known in their field, they had a difficult time finding a colleague to analyze their children, and so they were forced to settle on a dentist named Dr. Dank, a former psychiatrist who had turned his talents to dentistry. He was an incredibly hairy man who smoked while my sister and I reclined in twin gray dental chairs. Dr. Dank did all he could to convince me that I was angry at my twin sister for being smarter and also that I was gay.

Let’s start with weird.

I’m a big fan of weird. But there are different kinds of weird. There’s weird as in surrealism, magic realism, fantasy/sf, and the other ways of altering reality. Then there’s the weird of everyday life. I get the impression that what we have here is the everyday weird (granted, really really weird, and creepy as well, but obeying the laws of physics) perceived by the narrator as surreal. Siblings in couple’s counseling. A psychiatrist-turned-dentist conducting said counseling in dental chairs. And that’s just the first paragraph – we haven’t even got to the balloons yet.

Fact is, to a kid whose parents are manipulating reality the way this kid’s parents are, life must seem very surreal, and reality is a, well, fluid concept.

Jack, the narrator, has a fear of bodily fluids, and as a result he’s flunked gym class so is still in high school at 19. His gym teacher will give him a pass in exchange for valium. In spite of his parents’ and sister’s insistence that he’s gay, Jack seems to have very few sexual leanings at all, though given his aversion to bodily fluids, it’s hard to tell. And, by the way, the fact that he’s still standing while subjected to his family is a testament to the tenacity of his mental health. Then he meets Jill Thirby, an art student trying to make things fly with balloons.

A little bit of Up there. A little bit of Jack and Jill. A little bit of “Sweet Jane” by The Velvet Underground, whose lyrics supply the title (I’m not familiar with the song but I’m sure it’s important). A lot of subliminal incest – I don’t think it’s an accident he meets Jill at art school, where he usually meets the sister he’s in couple’s counseling with.

Yep, weird.

I’m favorably disposed toward Joe Meno because of his “An Apple Could Make You Laugh” from Zin’s Second Person Study. And I’ve been panting over One Story about as much as a non-canine can (I’ve encountered so many wonderful stories from there recently, both in the mag itself and in these “best” collections). But this story just seemed pointedly weird, with no real reason for it to be. It’s enjoyable, sure. I can get behind weird. But for me, it’s weirdness that doesn’t go anywhere, and it’s not on the level of the other stories I’ve read in this Pushcart volume.

Of course, I’m sure I’m overlooking something very important. Or several things.

For one something, it was written for live reading at an AWP conference session with Dorothy Allison and ZZ Packer, which Meno describes in his One Story Q&A as influencing the story in some general ways. Then there’s the song. And in his comments on the Akashic Books website review of Demons in the Spring, the collection containing this story, he says, “The problem in the story is a simple one: the unending conflict between imagination and intellect, the wisdom of art versus the wisdom of intelligence.” I completely missed that. I feel pretty stupid. I thought it was about how shrinks have their heads up their asses most of the time, and how parents with enough letters after their names can be as abusive as they want and get away with it. And about how some kids blossom in their own time, when they’re lucky enough to run into someone on the same wavelength.

I love what Meno says about short stories in that same One Story Q&A: “The biggest advantage and disadvantage in working with short stories has to do with the size of the audience reading them: it seems that the short story is going the way of poetry, or jazz music, enjoyed by a highly informed, smaller audience. I think in some ways it’s incredibly liberating and allows for much more experimentation. The era of being able to live off the money you make writing a short story is all but over, which means any story you write is more an expression of your art than it is a way to pay the bills. There’s also something ridiculously archaic about short stories, which I really love.”

Now there’s something I get about the difference between the wisdom of art vs. the wisdom of intelligence.

David James Poissant: “Refund” from One Story #155, 10/7/11

A man shouldn’t marry someone smarter than him. He does, and he’ll spend the rest of his life feeling like something less than a man.

I’ve mentioned several instances in the past when reading in public places became embarrassing as stories made me cry. Little did I know, that was nothing compared to the embarrassment of a story that made me giggle uncontrollably yet insisted I read the hilarious passage again and again, going into fresh spasms of laughter each time. While at a bus stop. After a visit to the neurologist for a skin biopsy which was still oozing bright red into the bandage on my leg.

No wonder people moved away from me.

But this story was worth it. And it’s about being out of place, in so many ways. A house out of place in a neighborhood. A man out of place in his family. A kid out of place in his class.

One important scene, on the second page of the story, reveals everything we need to know about this family’s dynamics, stemming from that most common of problems: six-year-old Josh won’t get Oreos until he eats his broccoli:

In the pantry, the Oreos waited, their torn cellophane and the stale ones I always skipped on my way down the row to the cookies that still snapped when halved. I said nothing. A limp stalk hung from Josh’s fork, wet and terrible, and all I could think was how I hadn’t eaten mine.
Josh didn’t whimper. He didn’t whine or cry. He was a quiet kid. If he had complaints, he kept them mostly to himself. His fork rose, pushed the pale, little tree past his lips and into his mouth. He chewed, eyes closed, hating it.
“Let the kid have an Oreo,” I said.
Joy’s look let me know that, once again, I’d fucked up. We were supposed to be a team, be a unified front. But we both knew who was Abbott in their marriage and who was Costello, who looked like the idiot and who called the shots. And, even if I got the boy’s laughs, it was Joy who got the last goodnight kiss, the first hug home from school.
Josh shoveled what was left on his plate into his mouth, chewed, and chased the broccoli down with milk from a coffee cup, the blue one with the steam engine circling the mug.
“Very good,” Joy said. She pulled the Oreos from the pantry. Our rule was two, but, because he’d been such a good boy, Joy gave him three. Josh beamed, squeezed her arm. That I had been his Oreo advocate had, it seemed, slipped his mind.
Joy was always doing this, stealing the moment. Just that morning, I’d surprised the family with breakfast, only for Joy to cry – when Josh came stumbling, sleepy, into the kitchen – “Look, sweetie, pancakes. We made you pancakes!”

Well, I lied. It doesn’t tell you everything you need to know. There’s one more thing. They’re called to a teacher-parent conference, at which they learn Josh is gifted. “So, he’s not in trouble?” Joy asks.

On the floor, Josh brought two trains together in a head-on collision. He pulled an engineer from the cab of one and pantomimed a spine-crushing dive to the tracks below.
“I’m on fire!” he yelled. “Help! The pain! The pain!”
The other engineer joined him, screaming, “Stop, drop, and roll! For the love of God, stop, drop, and roll!”
The plastic men were spun up and dow the tracks. They muttered in fiery agony.
“Look, Joy,” I said. “Our boy’s a genius.”

That, by the way, was the passage that had me in giggles at the bus stop. In his One Story Q&A, the author says his biggest challenge was dialing back the funny. It’s a good thing he dialed it back; otherwise the police might have been called on me.

He does hit that sweet spot, where humor and poignancy mesh and the laughter prepares way for the tears. He’s also accomplished the other thing he says he set out to do: “I never could get the story just right, until it hit me that Sam and Joy were unhappy in their marriage. For a while, I felt like I was writing two stories, one about Sam and Joy, and one about Sam and his son.” But he got what he calls the “double helix” to come together, and it works beautifully.

Sam worries about Joy’s embrace of Josh’s genius as she buys a carload of educational toys. When Josh says goodnight in Japanese, Sam sees him “for the first time not as a father does but as another first grader might.” The scene is as heartbreaking as the fire scene is funny. I think that’s what works in this story – nothing is by accident. Trains. Lipstick. “The power of a single word to make you suddenly, unaccountably sad.”

All of this above is preparation for the main event of the story, a neighborhood “gifted and talented play group” at which Josh encounters his nemesis, a bully-girl named Marcy. There’s a walk up the stairs that had me aching. In fact, the rest of the story had me aching for them all, the oblivious mother, the befuddled father, the little boy who only knows he loves trains more than chemistry sets and hates broccoli and is afraid of Marcy and he’s been shoved at these things one by one.

In the same Q&A, Poissant is asked his view on the future for these people, and says, “That’s probably what will happen: As the two men discover that they have less and less in common, they’ll grow apart.” He wrote the story, he should know. But I have a very different take. I picture a young man in the future remembering the afternoon of the play group, and how his father stepped up, and at what cost. I don’t think Josh will realize this for some time, but he will. He’s smart enough.

Benjamin Solomon: “Who Cycles Into Our Valley” from One Story #154, 9/10/11

Art by Coco de Paris, "Vintage Men on Vintage Bicycle"

So momentarily connected are the father and son that both instinctively know the other is just about to speak, and yet neither produces an utterance, patiently awaiting the words of the other, and then like strangers on a sidewalk attempting to pass one another but veering in the same direction, both father and son find themselves a little jarred by the unexpected silence, and each thereafter feels suddenly bereft of what he was planning to say, though just now it had been on the tip of his tongue. And like that the moment passes, the road inclines, and they begin to pedal hard against the steepness.

It’s funny how my reading seems to run into clusters. A couple of weeks ago, I ran into two pieces from very different sources that involved Huntington’s Disease within a matter of days. And now, in the space of a few days, I’ve encountered two explorations of the multi-generational parent-child relationship through a road trip. And, they are both from One Story, though I discovered “Housewifely Arts” through BASS 2011.

This story is about fathers and sons. It’s a meditative story. The “action” is merely the pair riding through a road in Spain on a tandem bicycle. A very prominent narrator tells the story, switching between father and son POVs. It’s made up of the memories and feelings the sparse action evokes. Father (the characters are not named) is divorced, his wife having declined to come to Spain: “She had arranged it so that, physically at least, he had been the one to leave her.” Son is involved in his own troubled relationship: the dog his girlfriend brought home died, and “his very first feeling, before sadness, had been relief because there was now one less thing that tied him to her.” But he has other worries: “…he is pretty sure she only pretended to swallow the morning-after pill they agreed she would take three weeks ago.…”

The climactic scene, if such a story can be said to have a climax, comes when father and son trade places on the bicycle; son moves to the front seat, and they move forward, with Son “realizing that all along the father’s job was harder than his own…..” This scene culminates in a beautiful final paragraph:

….for the second time today our cyclists arrive in a place of remarkable unity, an alignment so close that for the briefest moment neither man remains himself, but seeps free from his skull into a thoughtless will that hovers just above their bodies as they hurdle down the hill. Both feel it, the single-minded disembodied stillness in the relentless rushing, a sensation so delicate it vanishes at the moment of perception, and when it leaves both experience the same unsettling feeling of having somehow returned to the wrong body, our son within the father and our father in the son…. It is a feeling that will trouble them for years to come….

In his Q&A interview with One Story, the author describes writing 55 “distinct drafts” of the story over six years. He describes his biggest challenge: “Figuring out that nothing needed to happen. I wrote drafts and drafts of this story in which different things happened—everything from flat tires, to long and tense conversations, to a major crash that kills both bikers. All of that had to go when I finally realized that a central feature of long-distance cycling is silence and the opportunity for memory and rumination that it provides. Once I made the choice to sacrifice surface plot for memory and introspection, the current story began to take shape.”

It’s a lovely story, full of richness as we trace the relationship of father and son through their memories, and see how much alike they are, and how different. The elements of connect and disconnect are wonderful. Again, from the author’s interview: “I think that in the same way that the tandem bicycle gave me a physical vehicle to express the characters’ interdependence, the expatriate identities helped me express something about their shared loneliness and sense of disconnectedness from their loved ones.”

I’m a little worried, though. Much of my reading is in service of my writing. I’ve been trained over the past few years to avoid the whole “man sits on a rock and thinks about the end of the world” thing (I actually wrote that story. ICBMs are headed his way, and the military general sits on a rock smoking a cigarette thinking about his family and the world. I took a lot of grief for that one. Little did I know, I should’ve put him on a bicycle). Is this a new trend? Was I ahead of my time? Is my grasping for plot – a task I’ve abandoned recently as I’m not very good at it – a waste of time? Do I need to learn how to do the internal piece better, rather than to stop doing internal stories?

Not sure. But I know I’m fiercely jealous of Benjamin Solomon for writing a story I wish I’d written.

BASS 2011: Megan Mayhew Bergman, “Housewifely Arts” from One Story

Fernand Leger, "Study for Women and Parrot" (Etude pour Femmes au Perroquet)

Fernand Leger, "Study for Women and Parrot" (Etude pour Femmes au Perroquet)

What maniacs we are – sick with love, all of us.

In his review of the Ron Howard film Parenthood quite some time ago, Roger Ebert felt it succeeded because the main characters, who were simultaneously parents and children themselves, struggled to reconcile their criticism of their parents’ parenting skills with their own parenthood. This story does much the same: the main character is both a parent raising a son, and a child dealing with the loss of her mother.

I read this in One Story last year, and for some reason didn’t write about it then. Maybe it was before I’d started blogging notes about stories I was reading. Or maybe the tiny booklet got buried in the mess on my desk or bookshelves. In any event, I didn’t recognize the title or the author until I read the Contributor’s Note before starting the stories, and remembered the parrot.

The story is structured around an interesting premise:

I lost my mother last spring and am driving nine hours south on I-95 with a seven-year-old so that I might hear her voice again….We’re driving to a small roadside zoo outside of Myrtle Beach so that I can hear my mother’s voice ring though the beak of a thirty-six-year-old African gray parrot, a bird I hated, a bird that could beep like a microwave, ring like a phone, and sneeze just like me.

The rest needs to be read, not summarized. The language is beautiful, the feelings true. It’s told in zig-zag fashion, going from present to various places in the past over and over again, and while it isn’t confusing, it’s a little unsettling. It’s not terribly subtle, since everything that happens in the present brings up a memory or association to the past. But there’s such depth of feeling and wonderful imagery, I think it earns the right to be what it is. It’s very honest, and what else can you hope for in a story. In her One Story blog entry, Karen Friedman comments:

As the story unfolds we learn their relationship had been full of the little fault lines that develop between mother and daughter over a lifetime.
Precisely because of their size, those little fault lines are what grabbed my attention. There’s no physical abuse, no drunken betrayals – nothing that screams, “pay attention, for now we’re in the realm of dramatic truth”. It’s a deceptively simple story about people trying their best, and sometimes falling short.

I read somewhere that children are our punishment for what we did to our parents when we ourselves were young. The narrator is just beginning to realize this, as she remembers her mom and watches her son grow up: “Will you love me forever? I think to myself. Will you love me when I’m old? If I go crazy? Will you be embarrassed of me? Avoid my calls? Wash dishes when you talk to me on the phone, roll your eyes, lay the receiver down next to the cat?”

But it’s not all grim; there’s a great deal of humor here. The narrator is trying to sell her house to move to Connecticut for a promotion, but that’s not going so well thanks to a humpback cricket infestation in the basement (in her One Story Q&A, Bergman admits this was based on her own experience). Ike, the son, is “a forty-three pound drama queen, a mercurial shrimp of a boy who knows many of the words to Andrew Lloyd Webbers’ oeuvre.”

And the parrot, Carnie, is a riot. He bites, he fusses, he repeats all the wrong phrases, and Mom’s house becomes smellier and smellier. But he serves as a prism, bringing Mom into focus, and he provides a telling moment, in one of the last scenes between mother and daughter:

The man of the house is not here, Carnie said. He’s dead.
You really take it easy on those telemarketers, I said, looking at Mom.

The two houses – the narrator’s cricket-infested house, and Mom’s house – provide additional foci for the emotion of the story, as well as structure for the plot to wrap around. The title adds another element.

I’m not sure I understand why it’s a great story, technically; the alternating now-and-then, the straddling the edge of sentimentality, are elements that make me a little nervous, and I’m not 100% sure it’s a strong enough story for so many theme elements – the parrot and the houses and the housewifely arts and Ike and Mom and single motherhood. But I am sure it’s a beautiful read, and I’m glad it’s in this volume and I got another shot at it.

Pushcart 2011: Seth Fried, “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre” originally published in One Story

Art created for the story by Brandi Strickland

Last year, the people in charge of the picnic blew us up. Every year it gets worse. That is, more people die. The Frost Mountain Picnic has always been a matter of uncertainty in our town and the massacre is the worst part.

This is how the story starts. I was befuddled. I moved along anyway. I’m not befuddled any more – I’m awed. I between, I was amused, angry, and heartbroken. Oh, this is good stuff.

It’s so good, you should spend $2.50 plus postage and order it from One Story if you don’t have either the Pushcart volume or his just-out collection The Great Frustration (Soft Skull Press 2011) which includes it, or don’t want to check either of them out of the library. Seriously. It’s that good. It’s so good, I’m willing to become a marketing tool for an anti-consumerist work. The irony just sings, doesn’t it?

I’ve spent several days trying to come up with a way to comment on this story, and I still don’t know how to do it. I got all analytical about first person plural – the “we” voice. Rarely used, and something I consistently confuse with a sort of omniscient first person (which, I guess, is what the “we” voice really is; I’ll have to go see what Brian Richardson has to say about it in Unnatural Voices, and who knows, maybe I can get Zin to start a First Person Plural study). I copied large chunks of text, tried to break them down into sections. For example, the peculiar ways the massacres happened each year – not just bombings, but hot-air balloons that sail away never to return, port-a-potties containing venomous snakes, a radioactive Bouncy Castle. Methods so bizarre and yet real they maintain an air of fantasy and a grounding in reality at the same time.

There’s little Louise Morris, one of the victims the year of the silver-backed gorillas (not just gorillas; that would be buffoonery, but to specify silver-backed gorillas, that is a fine touch there) who is remembered and honored and so generates many changes – impeachment of the mayor, deportation of four Kenyan exchange students, and a three-day holiday in Louise’s honor – so many changes, that “the only thing that seemed at all the same was the Frost Mountain Picnic.”

But I can’t seem to get a summary that captures it. How do you capture this – parents who bring their children to this picnic every year, children who insist on going, because “all children are born with searing and trivial images hidden in their faces, the absence of which causes them a great deal of discomfort. It is a pain only the brush of a face painter can alleviate… ” – and when an alternative is considered:

It has been suggested that perhaps it would give our children more character if we were to let them suffer under the burden of the hidden images in their faces, forcing them to bring those images out gradually through the development of personal interests and pleasant dispositions, rather than having them crudely painted on….
None of us has the confidence in our children to endure that type of thing.

Oh, there’s so much more, the “difficulties we face in attempting to extricate ourselves from the Frost Mountain Picnic” because “most of us are involved with the picnic on many different levels, some of which might not even be completely known to us.” Are you getting the drift of this? Because while so much of this is giggle material, the story also makes a powerful point about the society we live in and allow to continue, how economics and war and politics and everyday life are tied together. And how we have, under the guise of making sure our children have it better than we had it, maybe done them a great disservice in perpetuating this intertwined network.

In his One Story Q&A with Pei-Ling Lue, Fried says he started out writing a story version of Dylan’s “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues,” though it evolved into its own thing. He gives a hilarious account of how he came up with so many strange methods of massacre:

I was still finishing my undergrad when I wrote this story. While generating ideas for the story, I had a page in one of my course notebooks that I titled, without realizing how creepy I was being, Ideas for Massacres. I filled it up with as many ideas for ridiculous massacres as I could think of while pretending to take notes in class. I then proceeded to lose said notebook. As a result, I spent the rest of that semester terrified of the possibility that someone would find that notebook and that I would be arrested for plotting to kill people by means of strategically set-loose gorillas.

When I was an angst-ridden adolescent, my father often told me to stop listening to “depressing” music and do something fun for a change. He never understood how alienated I felt by forced happiness, and how comforted I was to hear the lyrics of Don McLean’s “Vincent” or the words of Herman Hesse – somebody else out there got it, I wasn’t alone! And Fried makes a similar point: “If any of the anxieties expressed in this story are familiar to readers, I hope that readers will take comfort in seeing those anxieties on the page. I always feel relieved when I read a story and the author is expressing some concern about the world that I share. It’s cathartic.”

Maybe if enough people can see that what we have been thinking is normal is not-so-normal, the picnic will eventually change.

James Zwerneman: “Horse and Rider Thrown Into the Sea” from One Story, 8/1/2011

"Struggling Woman" by Roland Benjamin

"Struggling Woman" by Roland Benjamin

I was afraid in those days, afraid of my island, afraid of my own crooked heart inside me.

This wonderful story – a story-teller’s story – is set on the island of Grenada, but it took a while for me to pick up on that. Initially I was thinking somewhere in India (mangos, mongoose), then Jamaica (ganja and Rastas), then Indonesia (monsoons); finally a lightbulb went off. But oddly, I wasn’t disconcerted by the lack of exact placement, because it could’ve been anywhere a single mother worries about her boy, anywhere women find strength in each other and face what must be faced to raise their children, anywhere people in poverty struggle against overwhelming forces and learn forgiveness via much practice.

James Zwerneman lived in Grenada for six years, and explains in his One Story Q&A: “I had written a few stories in a row that felt hollow to me, so I kind of leaned on my Grenada years, which are some of my favorite years. I wrote about 40 pages of sketches. When Wini emerged I liked her and felt happy to orbit the sketches around her.” This is his first published story. It’s a remarkable beginning.

The title comes from a victory hymn, often used at Passover but also in Christian churches, based on the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus:

I will sing unto the Lord,
For he has triumphed gloriously,
The Horse and Rider thrown into the sea.

The Lord my God,
My strength and song
Is now become my victory.

The Lord is God
And I will praise Him,
My father’s God, and I will exalt him.

The story is told in 13 very tiny numbered chapters. I wonder if the “13″ is a coincidence.

The story is told from the first-person POV of Winifred, single mother to Jeremiah. They live next to Miz K, an older woman who’s raised her children already (“You raised some right and wrong before,” Wini tells her. “But this is my only one. If I raise him wrong, I will not be able to bear it.”) yet takes in a “stray” boy named Lester. Elroy, sweet on Wini, lives along their path in the jungle as well. Wini isn’t interested in Elroy unless he gets a job, a truck, and quits drinking. Elroy isn’t a bad guy, just weak, I guess you could call it, and she has him over for juice and dinner on occasion. She finds out he’s got a job as part of the Mongoose Gang, thugs who act on behest of the corrupt government, and he’s spying on Dr. Jake, a white American doctor with the Church.

The boys, fast friends, steal eggs from one Mr. Sylvester, a man of some means. The two women send him to work for Mr. Sylvester to pay for their crime, and in time they decide, with his help, to build their own chicken coop and sell the eggs at the Tuesday market. It’s a lovely sequence, and of course eventually heartbreaking in multiple ways. It just isn’t safe to be capitalists, even just to sell a few eggs, in this place and time.

Many wonderful scenes are woven into the story – some humorous, some wistful, some tragic – all of which do exactly what they should do: they engage me in Wini’s life, and lead me to care about her and her son, and Miz K and her acquired son.

In the final scene, Wini has Dr. Jake and his very white, very clean family over for dinner. And of course, whenever you have a special event, something unforeseen happens: a swarm of wood ants (similar to moths; he describes his personal experience with them in his Q&A linked above) invade the house, something that happens sometimes just before a storm. This last “unlucky chapter 13″ sums up the story, the people, the island, the world in some ways. Wini thinks: “And in a younger time it might have flustered me. It might have set me to thinking I was cursed in somehow….It may all keep happening, all of it, but you will keep praying and hoping anyway, and that is how you will do until the end.”

This attitude had me a bit frustrated – for a spark of anger can be a good thing, bringing with it a commitment to bring about change. Then again, for a lot of people, it’s all they can do to raise their kids on goodness and hope instead of despair and vengeance. Maybe that’s the point.

An interesting aside: I was looking for art to go with this post and ended up on FineArtAmerica, where there’s a whole “Grenada” category. And what did I find there, but a painting by one Mary Zwerneman (addendum: her art has since disappeared from the site). Since I already knew the author lived on Grenada, and since I assumed Zwerneman is not a common name, I emailed the artist and discovered she is indeed the author’s sister. I didn’t use her painting (it featured an American flag, and was an expression of her life as part of two cultures) because I’d found one that better fit the story – I found a wealth of images, including hers – but it was such a surprise to “meet” someone in that way. How connected we are – and how easily we still can become lost to each other.

Elissa Schappell: “The Joy of Cooking” from One Story

“I have an announcement to make.” Emily cleared her throat dramatically. “Today, I became a woman,” she said. “I bought a chicken. I did. With legs and everything.”

This line becomes more and more ironic as the story continues. But let’s back up a little. I very much enjoyed reading this story. It’s a little close to movie-of-the-week material, to being “an anorexia story.” I don’t think it goes there – it’s a mother story – because of the wonderful artistry of the telling of the tale.

It’s part of a brand-new collection of linked stories, Blueprints for Building Better Girls. In her Q&A at One Story, Schappell says she had to tell the story: “You can’t write a book that deals intimately and truthfully with the experiences that shape American women’s lives without writing about our tortured relationship to food.” She chose the mother’s POV because: “In the typical narrative, the daughter is a victim, her mother a controlling monster. The thing you don’t know, can’t say, is sometimes it’s the daughter who is the monster.” I don’t think this is the case at all – but I would guess I’ve seen more Movies-of-the-Week than she has (which, in case you’re wondering, is not a good thing). I think she was extremely successful in capturing Mom’s measured response, in the face of incipient panic, to Emily’s immaturity, attention-seeking, and neediness. But you know, sometimes, nobody’s a monster, everyone’s just doing the best they can within all their limitations.

The story opens with Mom getting ready to go to yoga before going to the department store to buy a new shade of lipstick – “My mother always said that a woman should have a signature lipstick the way a man had a signature cocktail. I’d married and divorced Emily’s father, Terry, in Cherries in the Snow.” Then she is going to meet co-worker Hugo for coffee. “…let’s just say it had been a long time between cups of coffee. 1,825 days to be exact. Five years. Not that I was counting.”

But daughter Emily calls to announce her womanhood via poultry purchase. Mom (who has no other name in the story) is surprised, as Emily doesn’t cook and doesn’t really eat. “At 24, Emily has been anorexic for almost half her life.” At this point I’m not sure if that description is casual – in the joking way people who know nothing about anorexia describe someone who eats carefully – or for real. The behavior described – eating salads, ordering restaurant food steamed with no sauce and not eating a lot of it – isn’t that far off what a lot of extremely figure-conscious women do. It also isn’t that far off what a lot of anorexics do.

But Mom’s serious when she says Emily is anorexic. And now Emily is in love, and wanting to cook is a symptom. She met him at the Social Security office. This is serious anorexia, to qualify for SSDI. The man, who gets no name, is an actor and mimes picking roses and handing her a bouquet while she waits her turn in the waiting room. He is funny and brilliant. His reason for being in the Social Security office – he’s driven his grandmother there, he’s got his own SSDI qualification – is not disclosed. It’s something that worries me, but Mom doesn’t seem to think about it. I’m guessing she’s learned the hard way not to pry.

Emily has a bad moment when she touches the chicken – “Eek, Mommy, it’s slimy. Its legs won’t stay closed – I’m putting on rubber gloves – bad chicken, slutty chicken.” This isn’t comedy. I don’t know how, but it’s conveyed with total seriousness. The “mommy,” the rubber gloves, and the “slutty chicken,” this is anorexia, all right (though I admit, I hate handling raw chicken. I do it, but I hate it). Mom gives her instructions. Mom’s call-waiting beeps – it’s Paige, the younger daughter in pre-med who never needs anything – and Mom doesn’t switch over. This, too, is anorexia. No, I’m not anorexic, but I’ve known quite a few. Getting all the attention is what it’s all about. Call waiting beeps a second time later in this story, and is ignored a second time; then Paige is forgotten. The daughter who made it into pre-med gets telephonically lost. At the end of the story, I still wondered what Paige was calling about – because somebody has to. I wonder if this thing about Paige not needing anything is Mom’s wish, her invention, because she had nothing left to give her.

There’s another little moment – this story is full of them – when Emily mentions how everyone thinks they look great together, she and her new beau. Mom goes to: how many people have you introduced him to, before you’ve introduced him to me? Because introducing him is still not in the picture here. She’s there for cooking instruction only. Mom doesn’t say anything. This is so loving-motherish, it breaks my heart.

There’s a wonderful sequence in which Mom counts back the years by Emily’s birthdays – at 15, she refused a party, ate angel cake crumb by crumb and started complaining about clothes not fitting, not coming in size double-zero. At 14, she wanted butterfly cakes and had an elaborate party and careened between elation and despair. Back to her first birthday, Mom’s marriage and Emily’s illness are traced. It’s always interesting to see things this way, to see how things progressed backwards. Great technique, effectively used.

The cooking continues, along with other revelations. Finally, we discover the kicker: it isn’t a chicken at all, it’s a Cornish game hen. Emily is that distorted. Now, half a Cornish hen is a meal, in fact. But you cut it in half and serve it that way, you don’t roast it and carve it at the table. It’s not a chicken. Unless you’re anorexic.