Pushcart 2013: Laura Kasischke, “The Barge” from Florida Review, Summer 2011

"Futility" by Thomas Elliott

“Futility” by Thomas Elliott

One Wednesday a barge got stuck beneath the bridge. We were children, and we loved this fateful accident, this trouble occurring to others, this summer entertainment conducted under a bridge, just for us. We stood on the bridge all day looking down, waving our little stripes and stars at their hammers and sickles.
The men on the barge were patient with us. They had children of their own. They’d been stuck many times on barges under bridges in their own country in the past – which was a grey woolen blanket behind them, sodden with memories, like the sea.
They smoked cigarettes, ran their hands over the tops of their heads, waiting for something to happen.

I’ve noticed a Great Divide amongst readers.

Some readers like their stories to proceed in the usual narrative fashion of “This happened, then that, and oh, a long time ago, this other thing happened, and that applies to now, too.” They don’t want sentences that meander, ideas that wander off the page, or unusual narrative techniques. They want “normal” stories. Stories they can explain to their spouses and friends, with perhaps a capsule lecture on the symbolism or characterization or use of pace.

Those readers will not enjoy this story.

But there are those readers who can tolerate confusion, who don’t mind wondering, “What the hell is going on here?” Who trust the writer – especially a Pushcart-winning writer – to take them someplace worth going though they may not know where that is. They may not know where they are when they get there. They may not like where they are when they arrive. They may not even know where they are, or when they get there. But they will go, because the only way to explore the unknown is to explore the unknown.

Those readers will love this story.

Once, this boy had snatched a piece of watermelon out of my hand and eaten it in front of me while I screamed. Once, he’d grabbed the tail feathers of the dead bird in a ditch, and flung it at me. Once, he’d stuck a handful of snow down the front of my pants – keeping the hand there as the snow melted, staring into my eyes as if he were seeing into my brain.
That bird he’d flung managed to fly, flapping its wings mechanically over my head for a few seconds before it fell in front of me in a soggy heap to die a second time, and the soggy heap of that bird was what he saw inside my brain.

It’s a very short story – only about five pages. The primary narration is of a little girl on a bridge with a doll, watching a barge stuck down below. But then there’s a neighborhood tough molesting her, a dying grandmother, and a blonde woman being raped. There’s a quality of time, reality, a life, telescoping in on itself, with everything happening at once: a psychic singularity, where gravity – in the psychic sense – becomes so intense, there is no escape. Except (maybe) for the doll.

And so I’ve come to think of this story as a literary singularity.

Is this dissociation caused by trauma? A woman being raped and remembering a moment from childhood when a boy also abused her, prefiguring the rape? Is it an old grandmother on her deathbed remembering those events? Is it a young girl who sees something on the barge she doesn’t quite understand? A girl experiencing something, at the hand of a friend’s brother, she doesn’t understand? A girl who sees herself as a rag-doll, eyeless, voiceless, wishing only to be let go?

Please, she said, speaking to meet with no eyes. Please?
She meant the bridge, the barge, the men below us. Please.
Please, you know what.
She was trying to explain to me what I already knew but had not entirely believed. That she was getting older, as was I. That everything was about change – whether we accepted the change, whether we set it in motion ourselves, or tried to prevent it, or not. That there was birthdaycomingup. That there would be a new doll with blonde hair and human eyes, and what would become of Rag-Anne then?
We knew. We knew. We knew.
Why not?
Probably not, while there was still this chance? While there was still this barge below us on this bridge? Who knew how long until this chance, this barge, was gone forever from our lives? Could she not just, perhaps, please, give this other life a try?
No, I thought, clinging to her more tightly.

Or is she an allegorical character (in an interview with Fiction Writers Review, Kasischke admits she tends towards the allegorical), this girl about to have a birthday, about to give up her doll – the doll silently, eyelessly begging to be released – and this is the story of what, as a woman, she has to look forward to as she leaves childhood?

I don’t know. But for now, the questions and the unforgettable images are enough. I wondered, when I commented on “The Seventy-fourth Virgin,” how I could not really grasp the basics of what was going on in a story, and yet be so affected. That’s also the case here. It bypasses the mind and goes straight for the emotions.

I moved this story up in order when Celeste Ng (whose “Girls, At Play” in the 2012 Pushcart left me breathless, trembling, and awed) tweeted that she was looking forward to seeing my reaction to it. I think “breathless” and “trembling” is a start. I wish I could be more precise, more analytical (the theme of this week seems to be my own befuddlement), but it’s a whirlwind of a story; I’m still too confused, in an enticing way, to be awed. But it’ll happen. I’m sure of it.

One response to “Pushcart 2013: Laura Kasischke, “The Barge” from Florida Review, Summer 2011

  1. Pingback: Pushcart 2013: Ain’t More Thing to Climb* | A Just Recompense

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