Pushcart 2013: Benjamin Percy, “Writs of Possession” from Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2011

When Sammy knocks, when she says, “Sheriff’s Office,” she stands to the side of the apartment door. No one has tried to shoot her, not yet. But you never know.… Every day people are falling behind – every day there is a taller stack of evictions, small claims notices, repossessions of property, wage garnishment for unpaid debts – and every day there is another address to visit, but door to knock on, sometimes to kick down.

This story will break your heart in nine different ways.

The first of the nine sections introduces us to Sammy, the deputy, as she serves an eviction notice. She hates her job. It’s potentially dangerous. And it takes her into “dumps like this,” places that are dirty and smell bad. Sammy’s not a bad person, not at all. She has a heart. But she’s like most of us; she’s got some idea about how people get themselves into these things.

She supposes she feels bad for people. When they cry or bake or point to their grubby children and to say, you are doing this to them. Maybe pities them, maybe that’s a better way of putting it. But then a dog will come padding out of the back room or she will spot a videogame console, a pool table, a cappuccino machine. And she’ll decide from their carelessness that they’re getting what they deserve. She’ll want to say, “How much do you spend on dog food a month?” or “How much you think you could have sold that Xbox for?” But she won’t. Instead, when people show their teeth or kick over chairs or get down on their knees and take her hand and beg, she simply says, “I’m no judge, no jury,” so that people contain their anger and sadness, bottle it up for someone else.

Sammy’s about to learn something.

The story as a whole is, I think, about the different nature of this recession. About how deep it reaches. About how it’s not about the fools and wastrels any more, it’s about veterans, teenagers, middle-class neighborhoods. It’s about people who probably felt like Sammy did, not so long ago, before they ended up laid off or bankrupted by medical bills or priced out of their lives or thrown away. Or maybe it’s just trying to challenge our notions of people deserving what they get.

In this first section, we get a hint of the lesson Sammy is about to learn.

But Frank is old. And alone. And though she is used to dealing with people who have made the wrong choices, they are, almost all of them, young and furious and seemingly capable of rectifying whatever ruin has come to them. He is different. A lone cloud coming apart in grey filaments, a few drops of rain. She feels, no other word for it, sad.

In later sections, we meet John, who’s finally fixing up his house now that his wife has left him and his daughter’s about to leave for college, fixing it up five years too late to enjoy it since he won’t be able to keep up the mortgage with the furloughs his company is imposing. We’re with John as he pulls apart the posts supporting the porch and finds his own metaphor, “the skeletons of four birds along with their rotten wig of a nest.”

He guesses the birds were nesting when the house was being framed, maybe up in the rafters, and the builder climbed a ladder and cradled the nest in his hands and clued and whistled at the baby birds and then tossed them inside the post before hammering on its And whispering goodbye.

We’re with the homeless teenagers who hunt for a big house, four or five stories, one without any signs of dogs or kids, then find a way in and live in the basement for a while, getting to know the pattern of the homeowner before finally moving upstairs during the hours he’s at work. They’ve been there a month now, the longest they’ve ever been able to hide anywhere, and they’re watching tv in the master bedroom feeling almost like normal kids when the guy comes home and asks them – not shouting, not yet – “Who are you and what are you doing in my house?”

In another story, they might have told him their names. They might have told him about their father running off, their mother drinking heavily – the social workers with their tired eyes and a sleepy-sounding voices, the cat is stinking foster homes decorated with crosses and strangely colored paintings of Jesus picking sheep. And the man might have listened.…
… “No,” he would say, his voice softer this time. “Stay. Please.” And the brother and sister would shrug at each other when he motioned them downstairs, when he led them to the kitchen, where they would make sandwiches and poor tall glasses of milk and eat together in the breakfast note that overlooked green expanse of lawn that ran into a pond with a concrete Swan vomiting and ark of green water in the middle of it.
When they finished eating their sandwiches, when they licked their lips and settled back in their chairs, he would look out the window and quietly asked them if they would like to stay.… They would know he meant it, that he wasn’t going to trick them and call the police, that maybe the house felt a little too big for him, that maybe he needed them as much as they needed him, and they would all smile and finish their glasses of milk.
But that is another story

Each vignette uses a different technique to break your heart in a different way, whether it’s about the neighbors turning into a destructive mob, or a kid just playing around, or a little boy who isn’t sure what “We’re under water” and “we’re going into foreclosure” means, but he thinks it’s related to Noah and the flood and the place called Iowa where a town was washed away.

Then we’ll end up back with Sammy, and we’ll know what she knows now: they aren’t so different from us, these people. Maybe all of us are just one bad break, one layoff, one bad decision away from them.

Maybe Rand Paul should’ve read this story during his filibuster. Maybe Congress should’ve read it, instead of the botched attempt they made at reading the Constitution, a couple of years ago. Maybe everyone in Washington should read it now, as they wait for the other side to blink and end the sequester. Because it’s about all of us.

To get back to the literary aspects: I’m tremendously impressed with a website I discovered while researching this story: Great Writers Steal. You may recognize that as part of a quote often attributed to TS Eliot (stolen by Aaron Sorkin and probably others): “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.” I have no idea who’s behind the site, but it’s genius: it does in a quarter of the space what I’ve been trying to do for years, extracting the craft from the story. It’s kind of depressing, actually; makes me want to close up shop and leave it to someone who knows what s/he’s doing. Then again, I never would’ve found it if I weren’t stumbling around on my own mission. I’ll be adding it to the Cool Sites for Readers and Writers page in the near future (it’s about that time again, I think, probably later this week) but the post for this story is worth checking out now. If only for the comparison to Les Miserables.

It’s one thing to write about the impact of the economy, how many tens of thousands are foreclosed, the unemployment figures, the politician’s favorite phrase since the Clinton years, “People are hurting.” It’s another to bring us inside the lives of a few of them, one by one, and let them break our hearts. In nine different ways.

3 responses to “Pushcart 2013: Benjamin Percy, “Writs of Possession” from Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2011

  1. Hey, thank you for your kind words about Great Writers Steal! (I suppose I should make it clearer who is doing the site; I guess I was trying to put the focus on the idea and the essays.) In case you’re curious, I’m Ken Nichols; I earned my MFA at Ohio State and I teach writing at a couple colleges. I like your blog, too! Short stories and creative nonfiction need a lot more critical attention!

  2. Pingback: Pushcart 2013: Jennifer Percy, “Azeroth” (Non-fiction) from AGNI #74, 2011 | A Just Recompense

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