They floated into the afternoon in their little stucco submarine, the blinds shut against the sunlight and the swamp cooler whistling on the roof. Bev sat on the couch, Rose knelt on the matted carpet, and in the artificial air the two women wrapped jewelry in tissue paper and placed it in egg cartons. Rose had had this idea, the egg cartons, on the plane to Arizona, and it had made her feel organized. In the aftermath of her grandmother’s death, at least there were omelettes to be made. When she realized just how much stuff her grandmother, Vera, had owned, and how little of it Bev wanted to keep, Rose should have come up with a new plan. Instead, they just kept eating eggs.
Maybe this is how they do it, how they write a complex story where all the pieces fit just so:
First, start with something simple. Vera, 73, dies. She’s been estranged from her daughter Iris for years, because of a drinking problem (now resolved) and all the consequences of that. But she’s been in touch with her granddaughter Rose (who never had to put up with the drinking version of Grandma) all along, so at her death it’s Rose who travels to Vera’s home in Sun City, shared with roommate Bev, to take care of what belongings remain.
Then add a little twist to that.
Vera and Bev were both retired and hadn’t seemed to miss their jobs. They’d both been widowed, and had made it known that they didn’t miss their husbands…Bev had been an electrician. She kept her hair short and played softball and, in the photos Vera sent, wore overalls, until her weight ballooned and she switched to housedresses.
Aha, they are “roommates” (with quotes). Why not make Rose gay as well. But of course in her generation, unlike in her grandmother’s, it isn’t necessary for her to ignore that. Include that whenever Rose wrote her grandmother, she’d include a casual “Say hi to Bev”: “Each time, she felt as if she were winking, their eyes meeting over the decades, seeing something true in each other.”
And since Vera had a drinking problem that destroyed her relationship with her daughter, let’s make granddaughter Rose a bartender. “The three family members “had all figured out a way to live around, rather than directly with, one another….It was a careful dance around one another’s loyalties.” That would add the element of Rose seeing her grandmother Vera as a sort of future for her, one she may wish to embrace, or avoid.
Now flesh out Iris a bit more:
Rose’s mother worked at the U.S.A.Dry Pea and Lentil Council trade group. She was the kind of admin who prided herself on being able to merge across five distribution lists, kick the vending machine in the right place to free a stuck soda, and fix a paycheck, all at 4:55 p.m. on a Friday.
And finally, the true complexity of the story: make nothing as it seems, nothing as it’s called, nothing direct. We already have the roommates who are really “roommates.” Add many small details to add to this: Bev goes to her backyard pool for a swim, sort of: “Bev couldn’t actually swim. She got from side to side somehow, but with wild movements of her arms and great gasps of breath.” Picture the neighborhood is a “giant suburban hamster maze.” Grass that’s dyed green so it looks lush and inviting to bare feet, but it’s actually dead and scratchy; a Hamburglar cup full of soda that turns out to be Whiskey and Coke.
For the clincher of this sense of semi-reality, have Rose discover her grandmother and Bev had separate rooms. Bev is uninterested in any keepsakes, and just wants to free up the room quickly so she can get a new roommate to help with the rent, what with homeowner-association fees being what they are. Neither is she interested in the cardboard box with Vera’s ashes: “You’re family, and it’s yours. And why would I?” she says when Rose asks if she’d like to keep the ashes. Are the “roommates” are just roommates after all?
Moving in with Bev had seemed like an explanation that justified everything, misbehavior and devotion both. But if Vera had died alone, surrounded by Kokopellis and pictures of someone else’s grandchildren, with a roommate, a guinea pig, and an estranged daughter, then what was her excuse? How angry was her life, and how small, there at the end, if it was without love?
Continue the unravelling of layers, mirroring in reverse the wrapping of jewelry in the initial paragraph quoted above. It’s really quite nice, though this wasn’t clear to me until I’d read the story for the second time. In fact, on first read, the initial paragraph had me thoroughly confused. Whose grandmother was Vera? I had trouble keeping the characters straight. And eating eggs, I still don’t get that. I’m not sure that confusion was the effect the author meant to have. Frankly, I came very close to giving up due to that first paragraph. But I’m glad I persevered, and it really came together quite nicely as Rose and Bev finally have their moment of honesty.
I do feel the bartending trope was a little overdone, and at the end felt a bit heavy-handed to me. But it was a nice kind of heavy-handedness, and my discomfort with it was tinged with guilt that I’d enjoyed it at the same time. I also enjoyed the author’s comments on this element in her Book Bench interview. After all, what does a bartender do? She listens, and she provides succor, or at least oblivion in a glass.
I never heard of Caitlin Horrocks until a couple of weeks ago, when I suddenly became inundated with her stories: one (the excellent “Steal Small“) in Pushcart 2011, this New Yorker fiction, and a third that’s waiting for me in BASS 2011. At least that’s what I told someone last week. Thing is, I was wrong. I have a copy of her One Story piece, “Life Among the Terranauts,” though I didn’t read it back then very thoroughly. I’ll have to take another look at it. Maybe it’ll turn out to be like this one, which improved with re-reading. So far, “Steal Small” is by good measure my favorite. In any event, I’m glad to have discovered her. Maybe she’s taught me something about how to write a complex story.