Sarah Braunstein: “Marjorie Lemke” from TNY, 4/1/13

She was only twenty but had an old person’s name. How she despised her name: its merry sing song, its too merry vowels, its very M. L., benign initials that in fourth grade inspired Tommy Sugarman to crow, “Major Loser, Major Loser, Major Loser.” Was she a loser? Yes. Now. But then? An eight-year-old in nubby knit tights, a girl with glistening pigtails who carried a Muppets lunch box? No. Back then she had been merely a girl…. She had not yet become a pregnant nineteen-year-old.

I’ve always been interested by the way names are used in fiction. Who gets a name, who doesn’t. What the names indicate. When the names are used between characters, and in what form: with honorifics, as nicknames, etc. As a technical matter, how a first-person narrator’s name is conveyed to the reader. Names are intensely personal, personally important, importantly significant in their use and misuse.

This story begins and ends with names.

Marjorie’s a huffer, straight for seven months, cleaning hotel rooms and pushing her baby Della around in her cleaning supplies cart. That connection alone – the baby nestled right there with the products she formerly used to get high – is so subtly slipped in, it didn’t register until the second time I read the story. What was precious to her, what now is precious to her, right there with her. Her temptation, and her reason for resisting, side by side on that cleaning cart. And she’s a good mother. She calls the clinic repeatedly about Della’s gum sore, and they keep telling her it takes ten days to heal. That seems unfair to her.

Gabe is the occupant of one of the rooms she’s cleaning; she walks in on him, possibly by mistake, possibly by (his) design. He’s just had his stomach stapled to lose weight, and he’s accompanying his wife, a union-buster (a union buster), as she travels about infiltrating union shops to disrupt them. While she works, he reads, mostly about history. At least at first.

In her Page-Turner interview with Willing Davidson, Braunstein doesn’t follow Davidson’s lead in assuming Gabe seduces Marjorie: “Who seduces whom? It happens off the page.” The initial advance may happen off the page, but the seduction itself, which seems pretty mutual, unfolds beautifully:

He was Butter Rum all the way. She was a Sweet Tarts and Laffy Taffy girl. In the motel bed, fully clothed, leaning against the headboard, they started by talking candy. As a kid she’d loved black licorice in the shape of an old-fashioned pipe. Sherlock Holmes candy. Did he remember it? He did, but black licorice tasted like paint to him. Next they examined the easy things: hairlines, knuckles, years then it was time to show, just a little. He pointed to his appendix scar and the glazed place on his back wherein iron once passed, the tattoo of an ox on his upper arm. She unbuttoned her uniform and there, on the warm saddle of her belly, where the stretch marks. When looking felt like too much, they talked again. He wanted to know if she had any nicknames. No, she said. She didn’t say that Clive used to call her Buttercup.

I love the dance of intimacy in this scene. And the candy: remember, Gabe has undergone surgery to lose weight, and they’re talking about candy, while the cleaning cart with all the chemicals stands nearby. Later, he muses that when this trip is over, it’ll be his turn to get what he wants: to rule the roost while his wife cooks low-fat lasagna any time he wants. But he has to super-chew his food; it’s interesting he thinks of his wife cooking as “ruling the roost,” similar to Marjorie, the former huffer, using cleaning products all day long.

Marjorie tells Gabe, and later, Gabe’s wife, the baby’s name, almost instinctively, though she realizes immediately it’s none of their business what the baby’s name is. But she knows where that instinct comes from:

She supposed it was to make people like the baby. She feared someone might complain to management – maybe they wouldn’t if they knew the baby’s name. A name mattered. It had been Marjorie’s instinct to say her own name when Bobby Miller’s uncle had taken her into the basement. If you knew someone’s name you’d be gentler – or that was the idea. “I’m Marjorie,” she had said several times. “Marjorie Lemke.” He had done what he was going to do, but who knows how much worse it could have been.

This captured my heart – this woman, this girl, trying to defend herself against all manner of assaults armed only with her name, and not doing so well so far. She’s living in her aunt’s basement, sleeping on a pull-out sofa bed:

“The world performs miracles,” her aunt often said. “Don’t forget that. Work hard, wait, and something extraordinary might happen.” Her aunt’s income was alimony and lotto tickets; Bell’s palsy had slackened half of her pretty face. She didn’t seem to be in a position to talk about miracles.

While Marjorie is able to appreciate the irony in her aunt’s optimism, she isn’t able to see how her repetition of her name wasn’t much protection against Bobby Miller’s uncle. She still has faith in the protective power of a name.

And the chemicals: she breathes them in sometimes, but only accidentally. She describes the effect she got from them in such poetic terms, I almost want to start huffing myself:

The cleaners tricked Marjorie’s nostrils into believing she was at the beach. They made her close her eyes and feel the sea air and made her believe she was sitting on a dock in a plaid sundress, or a polka-dotted sundress, she had a whole closet of sundresses,… and then if she vomited it wasn’t awful It wasn’t gross. She tasted salt, as if she’d been swimming, as if she’d been swimming and had been playfully battered by a giant wave and now lay sprawled on the beach, spread out in shimmering sand, pretty, immovable, like a mermaid.

Playfully battered? Maybe that’s how you look at battery, after Bobby Miller’s uncle takes you down to his basement. Her aunt’s got nothing on her in the optimism department. Or the denial department, right down the hall.

And when the lady at the clinic turns out to be right about the baby’s gum sore, and it does heal after exactly ten days (which still means ten days of pain that only Marjorie seems to care about), she comes to a decision.

I see the story take an ominous turn there. She’s already discovered Gabe has to give up chocolate, a deprivation that horrifies her, to maintain his weight loss. When she comes to a decision about the baby, is she doing it for the baby, or is she giving away the best protection she has against relapsing? What has sobriety offered her: a job cleaning motel rooms, a sofa bed in her aunt’s basement, and she can’t even fix her daughter’s gum sore.

I seem to be alone in my appreciation of this story; neither the crew at The Mookse and the Gripes nor Cliff Garstang were enthusiastic about it. I have to admit, I may be a bit biased, since Sarah Braunstein is a Maine writer and Zin and I happened to attend the Literary Death Match last October where she read a recently-written fanfic explaining Barack Obama’s poor performance in the first debate. She didn’t win, but it was inventive and funny and touching and very topical (the debate had been a little more than a week earlier). If I’d been paying closer attention to local current events, I could’ve gone to her local celebration and reading. Though I suppose if I really want to support her, I should read and comment on her novel, The Sweet Relief of Missing Children. But come on, there is a limit to the number of books and stories I can actually read. It’ll have to go on my to-be-read pile.

It’s cold up here in Maine; we have to stick together. Though for this story, camaraderie wasn’t all that necessary, as it hit many of my sweet spots.

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