Pushcart 2012: Susan Steinberg, “Cowboys” from American Short Fiction, Spring 2010

From The Getty Collection

There are some who say I did not kill my father.
Not technically, they mean.
But the one who say I did not kill my father are the ones who want to have sex with me.
They say I did not kill my father because they cannot have sex with a woman who killed.

It’s one of those stories where every line contains something important to the whole, so it’s not easy to discuss without copying the whole thing. It’s stark. It’s touching. It’s true.

She’s not much for artifice, this woman. She recognizes the desire and need for it, like when the doctor called to tell her that her father, an abusive addict long estranged, was on a respirator and a decision needed to be made.

The doctor said my father would be a vegetable, and upon hearing this word, I imagined a plate; I imagined vegetables on this plate.
One does not want to imagine this. One wants to imagine one’s father spinning through a field, arms spread, something dynamic like that.
Even something totally made up like that.
My father would never have spun through a field.
He was mad, yes, but not that kind of mad. He was not that kind of happy mad. He was the other kind He was ferocious.
And besides, what field. And where.

She’s living in Missouri, where there are cowboys and tornadoes and brown recluse spiders. A guy at work was bitten by one, in his own bed.

Because he was trying to tell me the bite dissolved the skin on his ass. Because he was trying to tell me that this just wasn’t right.
The technical term is necrotized.
The point is, I was not always serious.
No, the point is we’re limited.

She captures the family outcast perfectly as she comes up against this wall of artifice and pretense, all their sighs because she won’t go along with it, similar to the guys she sleeps with who sigh because she doesn’t do what they want: “The woman is supposed to know the subtle difference between being a woman and performing one.” There’s a scene about dipping french fries in a milkshake, and a scene about organ donation (everything but the eyes), and some direct address to the reader, first as to why she’s writing this story now, since it happened years ago, and second, to assure the reader:

There is no intentional meaning in this story.
I would not subject you to intentional meaning.
I would not subject you to some grand scheme.

The closing half-page, from a better place than Missouri, is astounding. And I wonder, is this a suicide note? A letter to someone? Or, as she assures us, just a story she wrote down, and I’m just one of those who insist on finding intentional meaning where there is none?

I was debating about the choppy style. It’s distracting, I thought. Yes, it is, isn’t it. Distracting, from the father’s death, from Missouri.

There I was, just some poor soul. Same as you.

But there’s no intentional meaning there, I’m sure.

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