BASS 2013: Gish Jen, “The Third Dumpster” from Granta, Spring 2012

Granta Art by Robert Frank Hunter

Granta Art by Robert Frank Hunter

The origins of stories are always murky for me. No doubt my own parents were on my mind when I wrote “The Third Dumpster.” They never viewed assisted living as an option for a million reasons, starting with the food; and it’s true that I felt that the older they got, the more clearly you could see how difficult it was to have come to America – what an opportunity it was, but what a price they had to pay in terms of connection and community. How, though, did this feeling – a feeling that I’ve had for at least a decade – suddenly become story material? How did it suddenly become funny? Painfully funny, of course, but nonetheless funny. Liberatingly funny.
I don’t know for sure….But probably the story behind the story was that I myself had hit some tipping point in dealing with my own real aging parents, where I needed to “throw off the too heavy burden imposed… by life,” as Freud puts it, “and win the high yield of pleasure afforded by humor.” That’s to say I wrote this story because I myself needed to laugh and had somehow found a way to do that.

~~ Gish Jen, BASS Contributor Note

I’ve never faced Jen’s situation. My mother died when I was nine, my stepmother at a relatively young age, and only twelve days elapsed between the time my father realized he could no longer live on his own, and his death; ten of those days were spent in the hospital, eight in the ICU, three in near-coma. Had he been offered a choice on the first of those twelve days between living with one of his children – we were all theoretically willing, and he knew that – and the path to come (complete with two surgeries, five heart attacks, and a respirator), he would’ve eagerly chosen the latter. I’m sure of it. So I’ve never been in her shoes, nor in those of the Lee boys, the main characters of this story.

Maybe that’s why I had trouble seeing the overall humor Jen refers to; while I’m of course aware these situations exist, my experience is of a different parent-child dynamic, thus my story experience was different. The pain, however, came through loud and clear.

Not that I didn’t see any humor:

Morehouse, following them in his car so that he would have a car at the hospital, called Goodwin on his cell phone.
If they ask whether Dad needs a translator, tell them to fuck off, he said.
Does he need a translator? asked the admitting nurse.
He’s lived here for fifty years, answered Goodwin politely.
The nurse was at least a grown-up. The doctor looked like a paperboy.
Does he need a translator? he asked.
Fuck off, said Morehouse, walking in.

… but overall I was enraged at these two brothers, not so much for how they deal with their parents (I find that tragically understandable) as for their overall interaction with the ethics of everyday living.

I had trouble telling them apart at first, though the names are very different; I had to separate out passages later to discover that Goodwin has decent instincts but isn’t strong enough to live them, and Morehouse is just your garden-variety know-it-all seitan-eating hypocrite shedding unwanted responsibility like a duck sheds water. But they, too, have reasons for not living up to my standards of perfection. If there’s one thing literature teaches me, it’s to consider that those who trespass against us have travelled some road to become who they are, and we seldom know what that road is, or what it would have done to us had it been ours.

Goodwin and Morehouse, unemployed contractors, are fixing up a dilapidated house, one even the local “housing shark” had passed on, for their parents. Mom can’t climb stairs any more, assisted living is unthinkable, and this new house, horrible as it is, has a first-floor bedroom. And it’s practically free. They’re contractors, they can do this. Morehouse makes ethically dubious choices; Goodwin sputters but goes along, because, as Morehouse keeps reminding him, there is no choice. Except, of course, there is always a choice we make, and Goodwin finally gives voice to it.

You seem to think we have no choice, but we absolutely do have a choice, declared Goodwin then. We could, for example, take Mom and Dad into live with one of us.
For this was the hot truth; it seared him to say it.
Morehouse, though, gave him the look of a man whose wife brought home the bacon now. It was the look of a man who knew what would fly in his house, end of story.

As I said, I don’t always know the road someone’s travelled, so maybe I’d better keep judgment in check. The dumpster of the title is one of Morehouse’s unethical choices, but, like the situation it metaphorically refers to, it’s one I understand. That confrontation is uncomfortable, but we can only change what we face, and that’s where Morehouse falls short.

I’ve rather deliberately skirted around the issue of ethnicity, though it’s front and center in the story. I am curious about how the sons of such thoroughly Chinese parents ended up with such distinctively Western names, and I wonder if there’s something to think about there. But I chose to leave ethnicity, for the most part, out of this post, because I think it’s a universal story. And there’s this: I usually forget that that I, too, am the child of an immigrant. When the immigration is from Sweden, and the immigrant is more easily able to assimilate because he “looks American” and so he makes it his mission to leave his heritage behind and blend in and never draw attention to himself, never be “different,” there’s not much impact on the next generation. Right?

Maybe I didn’t leave ethnicity out after all.

I’m aware I haven’t talked much about the story itself. That’s because it took me places, places inside myself. Isn’t that the purpose of literature, anyway?

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