Pushcart 2014: Sarah Frisch, “Housebreaking” from The Paris Review, Winter 2012

from "Thirty-Five Erasures" by Teju Cole

from “Thirty-Five Erasures” by Teju Cole

Seamus lived in Wheaton, Maryland, in the last house on a quiet street that dead-ended at a county park. He’d bought the entire property, including a rental unit out back, at a decent price. This was after the housing market crashed but before people knew how bad it would get—back when he was still a practicing Christian Scientist, still had a job and a girlfriend he’d assumed he would marry. Now, two years later, he was single, faithless, and unemployed. The money his mother had loaned him for a down payment was starting to look more like a gift, as were the checks she’d been sending for the last year to help him cover the mortgage. His life was in disrepair, but for the first time in months he wasn’t thinking about any of that: he was sitting out back on a warm spring day with a woman. Her name was Charity, and she was a stranger.

I read these pieces in fairly consecutive order by genre. Before my MOOC hiatus, I took one short story, one non-fiction piece, and one poem per week; because I just realized there are more that 20 poems, I’ve decided now to double- or even triple-up on the poems per week, but I still read in order as they appear in the volume. When ordered this way, I noticed a great many of the early pieces dealt with truth; then there was a “time” phase.

Now we seem to be deep into “America’s bloody thumbprint on the world,” which politicians’ rhetoric ignores, leaving it to storytellers and poets to trace the whorls and loops and arches to remind us that, while we often do great deeds, we sometimes do great harm. These themes might not be evident if you simply read cover to cover; “Consequence” was on p.383; “Self-Portrait with Exit Wound”, on pg. 257; this story, on p. 421. But dividing it up the way I did, everything came together at the same time.

It’s been a rough week.

Seamus has been having a rough time, too. His perfectly normal middle-class existence, including his job in the tech department of a human rights non-profit, was disrupted by an unexpected trip. A trip he wasn’t really qualified for by training or disposition – documenting effects of drone attacks on the civilian population of Pakistan – but the videographer slated for the mission got sick, the investigator is a woman, and, as his boss put it, “given the area we think it’s probably a good idea to have a man along.” It’s one thing to read about drone attacks in the newspaper. It’s another to sit in a room with a family that’s been devastated by loss, listening to them tell their story, even if you’re just holding the video camera. Even when it’s clear, as the local security escort shows up carrying a Russian semi, that no one knows the good guys from the bad guys, including the good guys and the bad guys.

After that, his life goes to hell in a handbasket…

After that he found that he was done for the day, and when he got home he knew he was done for good—that he’d arrived at a jagged slab of stone at the edge of the world, with no ground ahead. He called his boss and left a message on his voice mail saying he quit.
“I lost my faith over athlete’s foot,” he told his girlfriend. She said he was being reductive and flip and she couldn’t help him if he didn’t tell her the truth. A few months later they broke up.

…until Charity comes along.

Yes, the name is a little glaring; a bad pun about it is even incorporated into the story. But it’s just one more thing that doesn’t quite make sense, in a story about things that don’t make sense. Drones attacking funerals, killing children. Athlete’s foot rotting faith. And a girl named Charity who works for the PR firm from hell: “It’s an exclusive firm. We only take clients who can demonstrate a total absence of social conscience.” Ok, so she takes the money. But she did turn down an assignment writing a PR release absolving Halliburton of responsibility for a gang rape, and the woman who took the assignment is now a VP, so she’s found a way to live with herself.

Everything about Charity is off. She just shows up one day, looking for the back-lot cottage Seamus rents out, and stays because, well, “for all those years when he’d believed there was no life in matter, he’d never had to contend with something that felt this good” (this is what it’s like for a Christian Scientist to lose faith: he’ll want medical treatment for athlete’s foot, and he’ll finally believe that sex feels good). She has an ex-boyfriend (who’s maybe a husband and maybe a common-law husband) who’s a hippie who works at Verizon and breaks into other people’s houses because personal property is sooo capitalist, and she’s having trouble breaking free. Maybe. It’s all a little off. But Seamus is, at first, so depressed, and later, so turned on, he doesn’t see it.

A week later Seamus was in a suit, riding the Metro…. He was almost asleep when he felt a tap on his knee. A boy, maybe nine or ten years old, stood in front of him in a rubbery, forest-green raincoat that looked a couple of sizes too big for him. His hand was in front of him, and he was holding a fistful of paintbrushes, which stuck out of his fingers at angles, like twigs he’d scooped off the ground.
“You want to buy some brushes?” he said, staring at a spot just beyond Seamus’s shoulder with eyes that looked as if they had a film of algae growing over them. “They’re premium art-store quality.”
Seamus wondered if the kid had been kidnapped by a criminal ring of some sort, and then, because it seemed like the least he could do, he took out his wallet.

This magnificent scene – a day, really – continues with his job interview with a company that makes widgets for drones, and ends back on the subway ride home with a young couple arguing about who’s worse, Hitler or Stalin. It’s the perfect encapsulation of things-that-make-you-go-huh-what?

But the story ends with an even more perfect scene, an image, really, involving a toilet auger, Charity, and the hippie/burlgar’s mother. The last line is a cry of pain. It’s not the dreaded “trick ending” – the story works fine without it – but more of an exclamation point. A lot of things in this world – including a lot of things done in my name by my government, and how you can’t be sure the Fair Trade coffee you’re spending extra on is really helping anyone or how pretty much anything you buy at on Main Street USA could be the product of child labor somewhere in the world – stopped making sense to me a long time ago.

I envy the blinders of patriotism – and I mean true patriotism, not the hatred or self-interest that sometimes wraps itself in the flag and calls itself “The American Way of Life.” I envy the moral absolutists who know, always, at a moment’s glance, what is right and wrong. Me, I’m with Seamus: I don’t understand. But what choice do we have, to keep going, to try?

Like I said, a rough week. Literature is not for wimps.

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