Maile Meloy: “Demeter” from The New Yorker, 11/19/12

New Yorker art by Silja Götz.

New Yorker art by Silja Götz.

When they divided up the year, Demeter chose, for her own, the months when the days start getting longer. It was easier that way. It meant that she delivered her daughter to her ex-husband in the late, bright Montana summer and she could handle it then, most of the time, with a little pharmaceutical help. She could not handle giving her up in the dead of winter.
Hank could have fought for sole custody, since Demeter had a reputation for erratic behavior. But granting her half the year had been a gesture on his part: generosity as a sign of power. He would not have it said that he took a child from her mother. He was always more subtle than that.

In Meloy’s first collection, Half in Love, she introduced Demeter and Hank in the story “Four Lean Hounds, CA. 1976.” Now, ten years later, Demeter appears again. Reading the review of the old story changed my view of this one; there’s an element of backstory that’s not included in the newer one, and it lends an air of dramatic irony that I think I would’ve liked. But that wasn’t Meloy’s choice.

I love the start of this story. In her Page-Turner interview, Meloy equates the mythological Demeter and Persephone with shared child custody. That’s a great connection. And Perry, the teenager being shared, kind of sees it that way, too. Except she has a slightly different metaphor:

Married, they had tempered each other, made compromises in the way they lived their lives. Apart, they had gone to opposite extremes. Perry said that joint custody with them was like jumping back and forth between a hot tub and a snow bank.
“Which is which?” Demeter had asked.
“You know what I mean,” Perry had said. “You’re just different.”
But Hank would be the hot tub, of course. Which left Demeter the snowbank.

This is Hank’s “more subtle” way of “taking” the girl from her mother: with television and junk food and jet skis. Though he has the more logical mind, he’s the “fun” parent.

But that’s just background. The story meanders through a trip to a local swimming pool so it can culminate with a playful run across a pool tarp in a freak August snowstorm. As an aside, while I have no doubts that snow can fall in August, I have serious doubts that, in the time that passes in this story (at most, a half hour), it can fall enough to stick. But, of course, that isn’t the point: the coming together of winter and summer, combining the hot tub (pool) and the snowbank, is (I think) the point. Demeter would have no problem with this. Hank, with his logical mind, would.

Instead of succumbing to gloom, Demeter experiences joy; the snow on the pool, goofing around with kids, including Annie, the daughter of the guy she was cheating on Hank with when he died in a diving accident (that accident, and the funeral, is the topic of the earlier story):

That was the bad old days, summed up. It could be a kind of haiku:

I slept with my friend.
Then I got high.
Spring of ’76.

She discovers, in the course of the time between leaving Demeter with Hank and going for a swim, that she wishes she’d never had a child. That’s a remarkably brave thought for a woman to have, to admit, even to herself. And of course she’s ambivalent about it, but there’s still that notion that, if she weren’t a mother, she could enjoy the kind of freedom she’d known as a child. I’m not sure this is developed well, but it’s part of the final scene as she joins Annie and the kids in horseplay she’d normally consider too risky.

For a few steps she was magically on the surface. She was sixteen and unfettered, untouched by grief. Nothing had consequence

I always wonder about people who have that kind of memory about their teens. Were they not paying attention? Were they stoned all the time? Or is it just wishful thinking, the view of being sixteen from forty-two? Because I remember a different kind of sixteen. Sure, I didn’t have bills to pay, but I had plenty of worry, of fear, of doubt, of grief. Maybe some of those worries seem ridiculous now (though most still hurt, at least a little), but that doesn’t mean they weren’t serious problems then. “Unfettered” is the last term I’d apply. But I get the idea. I’ve known moments of freedom. It’s just that, for me, most of them have come in the past ten years. Maybe I’m just a late bloomer.

It’s a nice enough story, though not a profound one, I don’t think. I made the rounds to see if there was something I’d missed, but I see most other bloggers were fairly tepid. That’s ok. TNY has been really cooking for me since late summer; maybe it’s time for its turn in the underworld, and how appropriate if this should be the story to mark that.

One response to “Maile Meloy: “Demeter” from The New Yorker, 11/19/12

  1. Pingback: Amity Gaige: “The Soul Keeps the Body Up” from One Story #173, 12/25/12 | A Just Recompense

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