Laura Maylene Walter: Living Arrangements (BkMk Press, 2011)

I have always considered the story “Living Arrangements” to be the heart of this collection. It introduces the theme of searching for a place in the world and feeling that something vital has been left in the past. Just as the narrator in the title story returns to visit her former homes, the other characters in the collection are determining where they belong and, often, reconciling the past as they move forward.

More people should be reading this book.

I found it through a series of coincidences: Walter’s website showed up on my blog as a referral, after she used one of the pictures from Zin’s Second Person Study in a blog post listing “Google Image Search Results for “Second Person”. I checked out her blog, and discovered she’d recently published a short story collection that sounded interesting; being already intrigued by someone who would bother to do a Google image search – an image search, you see – for “Second Person,” I impulsively requested it through Mainecat, my state’s interlibrary loan service. I’m glad I did.

I confess, I’m prone to overreading, but many of the stories here seem to invite it. It can’t just be a story about music lessons, or a dead sister; surely the little quirks that stood out to me must indicate something more. Whichever way they’re read, there are some beautiful stories here.

Not that they’re perfect. The stories tend to be short, and, with the exception of the last story, they’re perhaps not as fleshed out as those of a more experienced writer. Some snuggle right up to the line of cliché and sentimentality; a few step over it, but twist to step back. Most have familiar characters – the mother who pushes her child to succeed in the realm she once dominated, the brother who can’t let go of his dead sister, the scary Halloween fun that turns into real horror. But: they also have these little quirks that keep them from being the stories you’ve read a hundred times, they’re lovely to read, and resonate nicely. My tear count, and giggle count (always reliable indicators) were high.

The stories:

Living Arrangements” (American Literary Review, Spring 2011)

The first house is in upstate New York, a brick ranch with a sickly linden tree and a chain-link run for the Old English sheepdog. Your parents shave the dog in hot weather and then complain when his hair grows in coarse and wiry. He weighs more than your mother. She lets him pull her around the neighborhood on his red leash while she waves and laughs to the neighbors. Her hair is blond. She is the most beautiful during this time, but you wouldn’t know it. You are a newborn, a wrinkled girl confined to your crib, the high chair, the stroller.

Neither of your parents realize that this is the summer to remember. This is a time your family is happy, your mother vibrant and young.

A woman’s life is traced through the houses she’s lived in, from birth to death. We all have a longing for home; sometimes the tricky part is figuring out where “home” is. We learn the barest details of her life – parents, husband, dogs – but by the end, we know her.

Now you are in a room on the sixth floor, with a roommate named Monica and a window overlooking the parking lot. You had an apartment, once, overlooking a parking lot. And then there were cobblestones, and a bed frame, and a factory that produced time. So much time, rolling down the conveyor, the workers standing back to watch its measured march.

In her Fiction Writer’s Review interview Walter says she considered moving it from the lead spot; I’m glad she didn’t. The story sets the theme for the collection perfectly: the pull of home, a place, a time, a something that seems safer, better.

Live Model” (Crab Creek Review, Fall 2010)

There will always be people who think these horrible things about me, whether they show it through insults or keep quiet and kind.

Walter discusses the inspiration for this story on her website: on a bus trip, she saw an artist sketching a girl, unaware of his interest, and was struck by the sense of loving care she saw. She transferred this to an unlikely scenario: an ugly girl becomes a live model in the window of a lingerie shop. It’s completely engaging, funny until it turns heartbreaking, which is just as it should be. A lovely story about beauty, perception, admiration. The last scene on the bus takes it up another level, and ties it in to the theme of home; it’s a seriously good story, my favorite in the collection.

The Clarinet

When I asked my mother if she would still teach me the clarinet if I had been born a boy, she told me of course not, these lessons are for girls. She said one day I would have a daughter and teach her, too. That was when I learned how to put an instrument together, how to connect it piece by piece, and also how to resist: I decided on the spot that I would grow up and have only boys, who could play trumpet or snare drum or maybe even nothing at all.

Oh, the lessons we learn from our mothers, without them even consciously teaching us. And the burdens we pass on to our children as gifts. It’s something of a familiar story: a mother who wants to pass on something to her daughter, maybe to relive her triumphs; one daughter who’s having none of it, and one who’s all in. What keeps this out of cliché territory is the focus on the conflict between the two daughters, and the line neither of them can cross. As an aside, I just wonder: are my double entendres hopelessly outdated, or is the clarinet more than just a musical instrument? I see a lot of preparation for life – for sex and marriage, especially, coming from a divorced mother of two – going into the clarinet lessons, which adds a level of nuance to the story.

The Ballad Solemn of Lady Malena” (South Dakota Review, Summer 2010)

And then she smiled at him, in her glitzy, flirty, showgirl way,and held out one long, trembling orange rose from her pile of congratulatory presents. He accepted it, and she pushed back from the boards and skated away. The purple skirt appeared paler now from this distance, dropping lightly against her skin as if even the fabric couldn’t believe what it had a hold of, what luminous body it captured in its clinging grasp.

It’s really great when you suddenly “get” a story. Unfortunately, like many great pleasures, that moment must be preceded by deprivation. I didn’t like this story at all on first read. Sure, the skating parts read perfectly (I’ve never skated, but I’ve been an avid viewer of any televised event since Peggy Fleming wore that awful chartreuse dress her mother made for her). I was a little interested that the would-be rapist takes such offense at the girl’s request for a smoke, in the interests of her health and athletic career; that he’s invested in her success. I understood her need to stop being such a good little girl and do something over the line for a change. But I wasn’t buying it. I thought it was perhaps a matter of timing, that I wasn’t in the mood for threat. But no, it was more that the story was too precise, too measured.

Then I “got” it. At least, I think I did.

I was in my dentist’s waiting room, about to begin the next story, when it struck me: the title. The title is the story. The choreographed quality I’d found so stilted was exactly that: choreography of a rape by a predator, a routine just as carefully planned as the skating moves the girl performs. The title doesn’t refer to the skater’s routine, but to the predator’s, complete with rehearsal and warm-up. I’m not sure if it’s significant that a film featured a prostitute named Malena (and was nominated for Best Original Score), or if that’s coincidental.

I’m still not crazy about the story – I felt the psychological quirks of both characters were straight out of Law & Order – but at least I understand it. I think.

To Elizabeth Bishop, With Love” (available online at Inkwell Journal, Spring 2011)

Here’s the truth: I write to you because you’re a secret.
I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but the average person today has no idea who you are. And not only my eighth grade students, who don’t seem to know much of anything, or the man who drives the morning bus or that woman in Armani always on her cell phone in the downtown café. When I say no one knows who you are, I mean no one knows anything about poets, period.
Not that I’m any better. I won’t admit this to just anyone, Elizabeth, but I’ve been known to watch reality TV.
I just realized you don’t even know what that is.

Sometimes you come up hard against how you’ve failed yourself. In this story, it only takes a glimpse of a National Geographic in a doctor’s waiting room. As I happened to be in a dentist’s waiting room at the time – albeit for something a lot more routine than the narrator’s mission – this one struck me right in the heart. Do you know that if you cry when the dental hygienist has you tilted back in the chair to get a better look at your gums, you get tears in your ears? Then she asks you if she’s hurting you, and of course she isn’t but you don’t want to have to explain, “See, there’s this story I was just reading about a woman who wrote a letter to a dead poet…”

I had dreams like anyone else. I was going to be a musician, Elizabeth. I was going to be a sculptor, I was going to be a poet. I was going to be someone more than a woman who leaves work tired at the end of the day, who watches two hours of television before grading some papers and visiting a few online gardening forums before going to bed.
My story is not a new one. I know this. What’s so surprising is to sit down and write you a letter only to realize how unlike my own self I have become.

I wanted to tell the narrator not to worry; she’s reached across a huge divide (she isn’t even real, after all, she’s just a figment of a writer’s imagination… isn’t she?) and tell her: you’re more like yourself than you realize.

The Second Rule of Yoga” (available online at The Northville Review, 5/11/10)

These rules of yoga amount to a promise. If you do all this, but especially the second rule, you will obtain what few people ever do. It might be enlightenment or inner peace; whatever it is, you are far from it. It’s possible you experienced it briefly in the past, but then you stopped to think about it, and disappeared.

A nice little meditation; in the structure of the collection, it’s a welcome break after so much intensity in the preceding stories. Can someone driven to perfection turn it off and just breathe? Or does that turn into its own drive for perfection?

Festival of the Dove

That was the beginning. When Abi grew older and became the star of every swim meet, Jeremy took credit. When she won college scholarships for her diving, he went around telling everyone he was the one to teach her.
And when, as a college freshman, Abi went with her friends to a quarry and dove straight in and never came up again, Jeremy was responsible for that, too.

In an interview with Averil Dean, Walter said she was amused that this story was critiqued in workshop as “a New Yorker story” because it didn’t have an ending. I see a clear ending; I see a several things, which heightens my concern that I’m overreading.

Jeremy’s dealing with the death of his sister Abi, an up-and-coming diver good enough to win a college scholarship, in a grief group at his college. In the paragraph quoted above, I think it’s interesting that the tense changes from future (“you’ll rise up,” “it will be”) to present (“your body arcs like a song,” “they can’t see”) to past (“an entire quarry wasn’t big enough”). It’s a little story right there, in a few sentences; that’s cool writing, how the most significant event of his life plays like a train coming, running him down, and moving on.

Jeremy taught Abi to dive, but he never warned her about quarries. He never said, “A day will come. You’ll be nineteen. You and your friends will drive out to a quarry, maybe have a beer or two, and then you’ll rise up in that perfect form and position yourself to fly. It will be your last dive, and to your friends sitting at a distance your body arcs like a song without even parting it. They can’t see what you never considered: the rocks on the bottom, the shallowness. How an entire quarry wasn’t big enough to hold you.”

I’m intrigued by the title. The Festival of the Dove is an event at Jeremy’s college, coinciding with the end of the story. The Dove is, of course, a sign of peace. It’s also the (lesser-used) past tense of “dive.” From the millions of festival names Walters could have picked, settling on this one couldn’t be a coincidence.

Three characters, and the moves they make towards and away from each other, play important roles in the story: Jeremy, of course; Gretchen, another Grief Group member, recovering from the loss of her father, who was dead in the attic for two days before she and her mom noticed; and Susannah, the inexperienced leader of the group. Jeremy makes some mild overtures to Gretchen; she’s cool with that, until he tells her she looks just like his sister Abi. Is this deliberate distancing on his part? Because it gave me the creeps. In fact I started doubting myself, seeing sibling incest in something that was probably a close relationship that’s entirely within normal limits, or at least the desire for incest in his interest in Gretchen. Have I become so twisted by “pushing the limits” literature that I see the ick factor in everything? Or is that the idea?

The Last Halloween

I didn’t know it yet, but that would be the last year I believed in Halloween. It was the year my best friend and I would walk deeper into the dark woods toward the pale glow of fire. But at the time, after our pumpkin was carved and the ghosts hung outside, I was only thinking of my costume.

Once you start with a ten-year-old dressing up as Sylvia Plath for Halloween, anything is possible.

It’s possible you’ll laugh at the first half, at her repeated attempts to explain to candy-givers who she is. And even while you’re laughing at a great line like “This was the year I finally graduated from carrying one of those plastic pumpkins because if you were serious about candy, you needed a pillowcase,” you recognize there’s an undertone there. And on second read, you realize that the plastic pumpkin becoming a pillowcase is not a casually-chosen image; it’s very precise, and perfect. This is a dark coming-of-age tale, as Genevieve and her friend Ariel (who, Ariel’s mom emphatically informs her, was not named after Plath’s poem) travel through the woods towards the fire and more than they bargained for. Terrific build, great use of imagery; the transition from humor to horror feels natural. Sure, it’s been done before, this shift from fun-scary to scary-scary; it’s pretty much the plot of a thousand teenage horror movies. But I thought it was used well here in conjunction with the growing-up symbolism. And, well, I have two Plath biographies and two editions of The Bell Jar plus Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams on my shelves, what more could I want in a story.

In the Backyard

This is the moment that dreaded feeling starts to creep up on you, no matter how much you try to push it away. It is your biggest fear, the one you keep secret and far: Maybe he really isn’t a monster. Maybe you are making a mistake. Maybe he will die, and you will spend your whole life thinking, I should have forgiven him. I should, I should. But this, too, you push away.

This is a very skillful telling of a story without actually telling the story; it’s like looking through a mirror. A few flashbacks, remembrances, really, are scattered throughout, but it’s solidly set in the present as the unnamed second-person narrator attends a family gathering at her paternal grandparents’ home. We gradually realize there’s been an estrangement for some time. The details are never spelled out, but it’s pretty clear her father sexually abused her at some point when she was younger. And somehow she’s the bad guy, the one who won’t forgive. The impression is it’s not a he said/she said situation, but more of a “let’s not deal with this unpleasantness” sort of thing.

I’m a little torn here. On the one hand, I want more information. What made her decide to go to the party at all – for that matter, how was she invited? Is it an annual event she’s always skipped in the past? Or was the invitation unexpected? She thought they’d welcome her, they missed her; is that based on anything, or is it a wish? I’m fine with the specifics of the offense being blurry – I think it’s a great choice, in fact – but I’d like to know more about the woman’s motivation. But on the other hand, it’s all about her indecision, the flipping back and forth – “He’s a monster/Maybe he’s not” – and anything that distracts from that is well omitted. When in doubt, I go with the author’s instincts.

I love the use of second person here (but of course, I would). In this story, second person creates a talking-to-myself feeling, a se eerie sense of dissociation, which is perfect for this situation. The eggplant balloon is probably just a little over the top, opening and closing the piece, but I love it; I’ve never seen an eggplant balloon, and I hope someday, I will, and I’ll think of this story.

A System Based on Counting

“Tabby,” her mother says in that measured, even tone that once infuriated Tabitha but now is a comfort, “You sound positively terrified.
“I am.” It feels good to admit it. I am, I am, I am.

Even without the Sylvia Plath Refresher Course of “The Last Halloween,” I would’ve recognized those “I am”‘s from The Bell Jar where the line occurs twice – first, without commas (“I am I am I am.”), then later, with (“I am, I am, I am.”). I once wrote a paper on those commas (I wasn’t kidding about being a chronic overreader; you don’t want to know what I did with the fig tree dream sequence). I’m pretty sure it’s significant that the commas are included here, given where they appear in the story. But maybe I’m overreading again.

Tabitha is obsessive-compulsive, may be developing an eating disorder, has a boyfriend she doesn’t want and a girlfriend who doesn’t want her – not as that kind of girlfriend, anyway.

She wonders if, after she leaves him, he’ll find out he was never the one she really wanted. Tabitha closes her eyes and thinks of someone darker, someone smoky and rich and swelling with life.

It’s a story about hitting bottom, and, keeping true to the volume’s theme of returning somewhere home-like, about rebounding. Not my favorite piece – but oh, those commas!

How to Speak Czech” (available online at Mason’s Road, Summer 2010)

Milena wrote in shaking pencil on the backs of used note-book paper everything she planned to make during her granddaughter’s visit. Lentil soup, spiced with pepper. Cabbage noodles. Dumplings stuffed with prune butter. Pairs of sweating sausages. A vat of creamed spinach, steaming green and dotted with bread torn ragged from the loaf.

The three women in this story may all drive each other crazy, but each has a backstory that makes them highly sympathetic to the reader. Milena just wants to nourish her granddaughter, pass along what she knows, to show her life, her skills and knowledge – she – still has value. Granddaughter Alema, a 33-year-old plant biologist determined not to need anything, is trying only to ease what she sees as Milena’s burden by supplying her own fast food for dinner, in a sweetly heartbreaking, almost “The Gift of the Magi” setup. Lida, Milena’s sister and an unmarried woman raised to believe her worth is measured in children, frequently steals the show with her cakes and pies, but is just trying to borrow a little bit of the daughter she should have had.

It’s a story that means well, with its heart in the right place. I try to take what the author gives and go with the choices made, but I wonder why some of those choices were made here. The POV changes between characters; I have no problem with this in itself; it’s a common enough technique in contemporary literature, but in this case, I think I’d appreciate the more subtle approach of showing everything through Milena’s eyes. I found the initial switch to Alema to be particularly grating, almost of the bad chick-lit quality in an attempt to describe her and her job, most of which is included later in smoother fashion. Her visit to her friend in Chicago didn’t add much to the story; their conversation doesn’t include anything new, and I’m really not sure why the scene is there: to provide a road map, a concrete sign of the distance between her life and Milena’s? I didn’t need the section inside Lida’s head, either; it seemed like Walter was worried the reader wouldn’t get how devastating her childlessness has been, or how she views Alema as the daughter she should have had. If so, she’s a better writer than she realizes. Though Milena’s view of her as “stealing” Alema is harsh, I had no trouble imagining a more desperate motivation at the root of her actions.

Max, Milena’s son and Alema’s divorced father, is an empty character with no real function in the story but to stock Milena’s fridge with what he knows Alema will really want, the Tastycakes and Lean Cuisine and soda. It’s kind of interesting how Max hasn’t absorbed the culture Milena so wants to pass on to her granddaughter; then again, he’s a man, so his lessons would be different. It’s quite possible he embodies the “through Milena’s eyes” approach, as she doesn’t seem concerned with including him in her cultural education process. Or maybe she feels she did her best when he was a child who lived with her, and he’s a lost cause. It’s a difficult thing, to see yourself becoming obsolete in the course of two generation. That’s why this story is so very much worth reading, in spite of what I see as its flaws.

The emotional punch at the climax seems overblown and doesn’t really proceed out of any need on Alema’s part; it’s almost as if it’s forced on her, much like the food. I’m not sure the placement of the story in the collection helps it, either: after a story about an eating disorder, do you really want to put one that screams, “Food is love”?

But on the last two pages, I forgave all the above when Alema chooses which will be her first words of Czech. I love the overall theme of battling generations. We all have them with our parents, who want to pass along what they treasure. In this, it’s similar to “Clarinet Lessons” but while that story had a whiff of cliché, this one nearly reeks of it. And I have to wonder it it’s me: why am I having such a strong negative reaction to the first 7/8 of the story? Maybe I need to make some Kroppkakor or Vetebröd, (I still have my Aunt Elsie’s hand-written recipe), and to remember my few long-ago words of Swedish – “Tack så mycket,” ” Svenska flicka.” Any story that evokes that – the writer’s decisions can’t have been that bad.

The Wig Shop

Right away Margot sees that they are arranged for two different types of customers: the sensible wigs in muted blonds and browns, and then the section of hot pinks and purples with spikes of glitter combed through. Those are the fun wigs. Those are the wigs for people who are not dying.

A very talented writer and litmag editor I know hates cancer stories. And for good reason: it must be hard to read the thousands of submissions containing malignancies. When you see a story titled “The Wig Shop” you know it’s about cancer. This one starts out pretty much the same, but it alludes to one truth of this mother and daughter: every daughter of a mother with cancer wonders if it’ll happen to her, someday. And then there’s the secret Daughter is hiding from Mom, the secret at the heart of the piece, the secret that changes the read.

Return to Stillbrook Farm

A stable was a place full of risk and heartbreak and the potential for disaster. If she had learned nothing else growing up, she had learned this.

This story felt far more “mature,” if I understand the use of that word, than most of the others. There’s a fullness to the story itself, the details included, the multiple situations encountered, that makes it read far more like something from One Story. Following the death of her mother in a riding accident, Caroline returns to the horse farm after an eleven-year absence. Her father, long divorced from mom, and Mom’s long-time partner Denise round out the cast in this play about what you can and can’t leave behind when you leave home. If I may veer into music for a moment: many of the other stories read like melodies, with a single thread, the purpose of which is to bring us to a single point. This one feels more like a small ensemble, with harmonies running throughout. With a story more directly about returning home, it serves as a nice close to the collection.

One of the nice touches is the inclusion of an author interview and discussion questions at the end of the book. I’m fine with coming up with my own discussion questions – most of which no author thinks of – but I always welcome more insight into the intent of the author.

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