Pushcart 2015: Emma Duffy-Comparone: “The Zen Thing” from One Story #175

"Family Day ~ At the Beach" by KJ Carr

“Family Day ~ At the Beach” by KJ Carr

Each year, like a shifty circus in a truck, the family unpacks itself for a weekend on a beach and pretends to have a good time….Expectations are low.

I didn’t particularly like this story the first time I read it. But since I have faith in One Story, I put it aside, and came back to it after a few weeks. That doesn’t always work, but this time, it did.

Initially it seemed like another dysfunctional family exposé, with one quirky character after another. To some degree, it is that, though who’s dysfunctional and who’s not is debatable, an interesting feature in itself. But more importantly, there’s a reason for these characters; their quirks serve a purpose beyond humor. They’re deliberately constructed, of course, and maybe that’s what put me off at first. But I have to admire what’s accomplished: a young woman in a tough situation looks at all her futures – and all her pasts – embodied by her family on a day at the beach.

Anita’s boyfriend, Luke, seems to have it all – movie-star looks, charm, earnestness, Rumi quotes – and then some. It’s the “then some” that’s the problem. He’s older; he’s married. He was her art professor; they moved in together five months ago following a two-year affair:

Luke has taken to drinking each night before he calls his daughter, Matilda, who is eight and who, because he cannot bear to tell her, and because his wife is certain he will come back, still thinks he is on a business trip.

It’s odd how an earnest guy who’s “gentle and curious and frequently undone by factual tidbits from the BBC” can look different in another light. Say, beach light. It’s quite a trick to make someone look sensitive when he’s being brutal. The scene reminds me of the quip about the guy who murders his parents, then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.

Anita’s pushed up against her family on this beach trip, each of whom have little tendrils into her situation. Sister Theresa was a wild child, but recently started flying straight and is now married to a rich Libertarian insurance agent and takes parenting her two-year-old very seriously. Through her, Anita sees what it is to grow up, but also what Easy Street costs in human terms. She isn’t sure she likes what she sees:

She has turned into an important, scolding mother. Anita liked her sister better when she wore a Budweiser bikini and made great mix tapes, when they stayed up late watching movies and scratching each other’s back for ten minutes apiece.… Theresa sits down, too, picking grains of sand, one by one, off her arm. She is most likely afraid they will interfere with her tan. Her diamond is a sparkling mouse on her finger.

Anita’s grandmother married Frank five years ago; through them, she discovers her horror of aging, all the while acutely aware that Luke is 25 years her senior. Her mother has her quirks (she still gets hot flashes, “which make her stop whatever she is doing, unhitch her bra, and whip it out of her sleeve like a rabbit from a hat”), but when Frank has a problem, she’s the one who, though her dislike for Frank is well known, steps up. And her mother is also still bitter about her own father, who left the family when she was eleven.

Amidst all this, Anita finds herself thinking about Ben, her former boyfriend.

She has been thinking about this situation more than she would like to admit. She has been trying to remember what was so bad about him in the first place. True, he pronounced supposedly “supposably.” He gave her noogies sometimes. Once, when she asked him if he found her attractive, he said, “I like the buttons on your jacket.” Still, when she is fifty, he will be only fifty-two.

In her One Story Q&A, Duffy-Comparone shows us the process behind this story: it was inspired by her own awkward family beach trip, so she “thought of something Very Awkward and then put everyone in a bathing suit.” It was also written very quickly, in one night – “I couldn’t get precious about every sentence.” Though I’m sure it’s undergone significant editing since then, I think perhaps my initial reaction to the story might have been related to this; some sentences read awkwardly, like the one about Anita’s mother: “She has been talking a lot about death lately, and her own father, who left the family when she was eleven and years later got drunk, drove up an off ramp and was killed before Anita’s mother got around to forgiving him.” I’d assumed this was a stylistic choice for that particular sentiment, since in other places, the prose is positively poetic:

She watches children crouch and slap their hands in the tidepool that is winding across the flats. All the women, breasts heavy and tired in their suits, pull wagons and strollers across the sand and begin to set up shop. Everything is a production. There is sunscreen. There are so many toys.

I did have a few issues with the story. There’s a lot of character exposition up front (the story is all about character; there’s virtually no plot) and all that quirkiness gets a bit wearing. I found the ever-popular ambiguous ending less than satisfying; it felt more like additional character exposition. Maybe that’s the point: our lives are one long character exposition. Or maybe it goes back to the title. Or maybe it’s an ironic twist, and Anita remains in her rut, because breaking out of it, even with all the evidence around her, is just too damn hard. But I still found myself intrigued and impressed by this parade of complex people – people who are both good and bad, people who are doing the best they can, people who have a lot to teach Anita about the road that lies before her – and was glad I watched them spend a day at the beach.

Addendum: I wrote this post in March 2013 when I first read this piece in One Story. I didn’t clearly remember it at this point, but had an impression of a roll call of crazy people who, when looked at from one angle, messed up their lives, but when looked at from another angle, have what they need. Except Anita, who’s the camera, looking forward and back at the same time, taking in this day at the beach that is no day at the beach. Because, really, every day at the beach means sand in your shoes.

And now this story kicks off Pushcart XXXIX. In his Introduction to this volume, Bill Henderson explains it “became the first-ever-first-published story to be featured as a lead in thirty-nine years of Pushcart volumes.” I wonder why. Now that I’ve read the second story, I’m looking at the past-present-future theme, but that could be my own invention. Last year started off with Davy Rothbart’s non-fiction “Human Snowball”, another ensemble piece of oddball characters, and in XXXVII, Millhauser’s “Phantoms” started things off on a mysterious (as well as ensemble) note. Either approach is a fitting way to introduce the works of this anthology.

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