Pushcart 2014: Lorrie Moore, “Wings” from Paris Review, Spring 2012

Art by Timo Grubing

Art by Timo Grubing

Now, as she often did when contemplating wrong turns, she sometimes thought back to when it was she first laid eyes on Dench, that Friday long ago when he had approached her at an afternoon sound check in some downtown or other, his undulating tresses not product-free, a demeanor of arrangement and premeditation that gussied up something more chaotic. Although it was winter, he wore mirrored sunglasses and a thin leather jacket with the collar turned up: 150% jerk.
… Would it be impossible not to love him? Would not wisdom intervene?

I’ve never heard of a rat king (“Rattenkönig“) before. It’s pretty disgusting to contemplate: a mass of several rats entwined by tails “glued” together by dirt, blood, excrement. Apparently it’s been a real thing since 1564, and several examples are preserved in museums. Especially in Germany, for some reason.

Sometimes people get twined together, too. Sometimes one manages to disentwine. Sometimes it’s a bloody path; sometimes it just feels that way.

KC’s been entwined with Dench for a while now. Her “band” was never much of a band, and it’s unclear just how they come up with money to survive but maybe it’s best not to know. Dench has a new idea: let KC befriend the old geezer she passes when she gets his coffee (you don’t want to know how she gets coffee from Starbucks) and he’ll put her in his will. Dench certainly thinks ahead. Doesn’t he?

And of course it kind of goes that way… but not exactly. It’s from the “not exactly” that Moore shines.

I loved a lot about this story, starting with the name “KC” that transforms into Casey. As it happens, my initials are KC, and I went by that nickname at one point in my life; I suppose everyone with those initials does. Maybe that intensified the connection with the fictional KC, plus the fact that she’s entwined with a jerk. And a few other things about her.

Tears, she had once been told, were designed to eliminate toxins, and they poured down her face and slimed her neck and gathered in the recesses of her collarbones, and she had to be careful never to lie back and let them get into her ears, which might cause the toxins to return and start over. Of course, the rumor of toxins turned out not to be true. Tears were quite pure. And so the reason for them, it seemed to her later, when she thought about it, was to identify the weak, so that the world could assure its strong future by beating the weak to death.

I cry easily. It doesn’t matter to me, but it makes other people very uncomfortable. I try to convince them: you don’t have to comfort me, or cheer me up, or make it stop; it’s a simple physical reaction I can’t seem to control, like blushing or yawning; just ignore it. But I’ve learned the hard way that no one wants to talk with a crier; they only want the crying to stop. KC has now explained why: they’re fighting a primal instinct to beat me to death.

Her relationship with the old man, Milt (look up “milt” in a dictionary; the meaning is, shall we say, seminal) includes his free library, a stash of books placed in a little birdhouse-like shelter outside where anyone can take one or leave one. I’ve seen those around before; our public library maintains a few in the metro bus hub and a couple of coffee shops. KC would like to donate her own books, but she can’t:

“… They all have the most embarrassing underlinings. In ink.” Plus exclamation points that ran down the page like a fence by Christo. Perhaps it was genetic. She had once found an old copy of The House of Mirth that belonged to her mother. The word whoa appeared on every other page.

I recently got into an us-vs-them discussion with some ModPo book lovers, begun by photo-poet Erica Baum’s work Dog Ear, that was as sharply divided as any contemporary political discussion: is marring a book with folds or ink a sign of disrespect, or a sign of love and use? I’m strongly on the side of the latter, but I have to admit I’d be reluctant to lend books because they contain notes far more embarrassing than “whoa”. It’s also self-revealing: recently I had the opportunity to re-read a story in an anthology I’d marked up back in the 70s, and I was shocked at some of the notes I’d left back then.

Yes, it’s a love-gone-bad story, a domestic-relations story, a stranger-changed-my-outlook story, an epiphany-leads-to-change story. So where does the rat king come in?

At just the time KC becomes aware of the old man who gradually becomes a mirror to her life, she also becomes aware of a foul smell in the house she and Dench rent. It’s Dench who discovers the source: “The rot of a bad conscience”:

…[S]he saw at first nothing but dust and boxes. Then her eyes fell on it: a pile of furry flesh with the intertwined tails of rats. They were a single creature like a wreath, and flies buzzed around them (and excrement bound them at the center) while their bodies were arrayed like spokes. Only one of them still had a head that moved and it opened its mouth noiselessly.
“It’s a rat king,” said Dench. “They were born lilke that, with their tails attached, and could never get away.”

As it happens, Dench is wrong about that last point (rat kings are made, not born) but even this fits since his comments continue to reveal other things he’s wrong about (like the necessity of burning down the house), leading KC to yet another moment of truth: “She studied Dench’s face as if – once again – she had no idea who he was.” This is not a one-time out-of-the-blue epiphany; KC is undergoing a process something like the reverse of the entwining of the rat’s tails. A process takes time.

Yes, it could be a cheap sensationalist ploy, your standard climatic moment, except the story earns it, first of all, and secondly, KC has an even more climactic moment later on with Milt. The denouement is almost out of a fairy tale; if I wanted to complain about a cheap ploy, that’d be my pick. Yet it fits.

She never saw the sick children themselves – except at night, when they were ghosts in white nightgowns and would stand on the stairwell landings and recite their names and wave – as she roamed the house, thinking of them as “her children” and then not thinking of them at all, as she sleeplessly straightened up, but she would hear of their lives.

I only realized once I started working on this post that I have no idea what the title refers to. But that’s ok; there’s plenty in the story to keep me busy. Maybe that’s why I overlooked the wings.

I underlined a lot in this story. Lines about Milt’s house; “Two front doors! Life was hard enough – having to make that kind of decision every day could wear a person out” reminded me of the Chekhov line, “Any idiot can face a crisis, it’s the day-to-day living that wears you out,” a sentiment I have pinned to my bulletin board, and on the pitifully understocked and neglected “Quotes” page of this blog. And I underlined (or bracketed) a lot of KC’s astute observations about her life with Dench:

With Dench she knew, in an unspoken way, that she was the one who was supposed to get them where ever it was they were going. She was supposed to be the GPS lady who, when you stop for gas, said, “Get back on the highway.” She tried to be that voice with Dench: stubborn, unflappable, keeping to the map and not setting what she knew the GPS lady really wanted to say, which was not “Recalculating” but “What in fucking hell are you thinking?”

Problem is, KC got a little lost herself, until a man with two front doors showed her a better map. Everyone needs a GPS lady sometimes.

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