Pushcart 2015: Rick Bass, “How She Remembers It” from The Idaho Review #13

They left Missoula with a good bit of sun yet in the sky—what would be dusk at any other time of year. The light was at their backs, and the rivers, rather than charging straight down from out of the mountains, now meandered through broader valleys, which were suspended in that summer light, a sun that seemed to show no inclination of moving. Lilly’s father had only begun to lose his memory, seemed more distracted than forgetful, then. He had been a drinker, too, once upon a time, though she did not know that in those days. It had been long ago, before she was even born. A hard drinker, one who had gone all the way to rock bottom, good years wasted, her mother would tell her later—but he was better now. Though recently those few memories he did still have—the reduced or compromised roster of them—were leaving. Even small things from the day before, or a week ago.

I found a lot packed into this story (available online, thank you, Idaho Review): the power, and limitations, of memory; the use of setting and perspective as story elements; free will; the fundamental meaning of empathy as it emerges in an adolescent.

Can a story contain all that? When I see so much in a story – too much, maybe? When I hear Martin Luther King and Dante in the same story, I have to wonder if I’m looking too hard, seeing what’s on my mind instead of what’s on the page. But… is that a bad thing?

Start with a fiction standard: Setting. Here, our protagonists – a father and twelve-year-old daughter Lilly – cross over The Divide into Paradise Valley on their way to Yellowstone, a valley that includes, in addition to the beauty one would expect, some distinctly non-paradisical features. A tacky neon sign from the 50s. A woman on her way down. A man already down. Lilly takes it all in; she doesn’t turn away. And she doesn’t sneer. She feels gratitude. In the lingo of this moment, she recognizes her privilege. If that sounds too determinedly au courant, think of it this way: she experiences empathy instead of superiority. It’s something we could all feel more of these days. All days, for that matter.

Memory is so pronounced a theme, it’s nearly a character in the story. It’s a story told in retrospect, so the very story itself is a memory. But it’s also the story of memory. The pair stop for a carnival, only to find it’s closing down; Lilly’s able to conjure up an imagined Ferris wheel ride to make up for the missed experience. Can imagination substitute for memory? Her father is watching his memory slip away, possibly aware of this at the time of the story (I’m not clear on that point), but eager to recapture what he can while there’s still memory left to do so.

Their route includes the lodge where he and his wife stayed years ago:

A garish 1950s-style faux-neon sign, hugely oversized and illuminated by rows of individual brightly painted lightbulbs, had been welded to an immense steel post to hold its colossal weight, the kind of sign one might see outside a lounge advertising itself as the Thunderbird or the Wagon Wheel, but would generally not expect to encounter back in a quiet grove of trees far off the beaten track in south-central Montana.
It pleased her father to see that the sign was still there, by the rushing little creek, and he got out and took a picture of it to show her mother, though he said that to appreciate it fully, one needed to see it at night.

“Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars…” Only when your memories are leaving you, do you treasure them – even the one of the awful eyesore smack in the middle of the grandeur of Paradise Valley. This man who spent some occasion there with his wife remembers the sign with more apparent appreciation than he shows the mountains, the forests, the river. But now memory won’t do to preserve this – so he takes a picture.

It must’ve been tempting for Bass to dwell on the father’s memory in light of his decline; but Bass instead focuses on Lilly. It’s an unexpected choice, to look at the memories she stores rather than those Dad loses. I’m absolutely sure it’s the right choice.

While Dad captures his memory on film, Lilly notices the marquee advertising a concert, and has a stab of compassion for the singer who will be performing in the middle of nowhere. Her ability to reach across boundaries of self into the needs of others is quite unusual for a 12-year-old, perhaps unbelievably so. Granted, the story is being told in retrospect, but is that the sort of thing your average 12-year-old would even notice? She hasn’t had the kind of hurt that sometimes limits how far outside our own skin we can see, that turns wonder to ennui or cynicism. Maybe that in itself is unrealistically unusual – or maybe we’ve just come to accept it as normal, to inculcate the notion of compassion as dangerous weakness, far earlier than the brink of adolescence. If so, shame on us.

Lilly sees all the juxtapositions of beauty and ugliness as they travel: the lovely songbird outside a house where the poverty and despair hang in the air like smoke; the storm and the clearing. She doesn’t avoid any of it. She accepts it all as reality, non-judgmentally. Maybe that’s because she’s twelve, and she’s only travelling through.

One of these interactions predominates: Lilly first sees the woman in the Cadillac feeding an ice cream cone to her chihuahua. Later, they see her car broken down on the side of the road. For me, it was the most powerful scene in the story, the true crossing of the Divide:

She thought she understood why her father hesitated—why he was annoyed, even, that on such a perfect morning, there was this complication to their day, this unwelcome challenge or summons to Samaritanhood—but she was surprised by the anger she felt there in the car.
He actually drove on past the woman, not really deliberating—she and her father both knew he was going to stop and turn around, and go back—but instead allowing himself, she thinks now, the brief luxury of believing he could keep going. Of believing he was free to keep on going.
The woman watched him pass but made no gesture, no outreach or call for help other than to make a sour face briefly as she confirmed once again that she understood how the world was…

I’m reading the Purgatorio section of Dante’s <emCommedia at the moment, a continuation on my own of the reading I started last Fall through the Georgetown University MOOC, so I'm primed to mentions of free will. This one struck me: how important it was to Dad to make sure he, and perhaps Lilly and the woman in the car as well, knew he had the free will to drive by. It was an option. Maybe it was the default. He needed to make clear – to himself, if not to Lilly – that he consciously chose, that he was capable of choosing compassion. Lilly gets it. She's a little impatient at first, but she gets it.

We make choices every day. How far will our compassion extend today? Is this woman good enough to waste compassion on? How many times have you heard, "I'll save my compassion for [someone deserving]." :Why do we insist that compassion is a limited resource? Just in the past few days I've been reading Cantos XIV and XV, which, among other things, discuss the human obsession with things that can't be shared, versus love that reflects back and forth among sharers and thus multiply – "for like a mirror each returns it to the other." I'd like to believe we can have compassion for everyone, and not only will it not run out, but we will find it multiplies.

What would it be like, to be him—the man in the stained T-shirt, porch-staggered and blinking groggily at the bright sunlight? It was only her own victory of being loved deeply that allowed her the luxury of such indulgent imaginings, such frightful considerations of slumber, detachment, escape.
It was only her own victory of being loved deeply that allowed her the luxury of such indulgent imaginings, such frightful considerations of slumber, detachment, escape.

I’d like to live up to Lilly’s level of compassion.

Memory is clearly a theme of the story; the rest is probably my overreaching. And memory is a marvellous thing. Lilly is recalling this story, a story about memory, and look what she remembers: yes, initially, it’s about pretty scenery, but most of her memories are far more personal. The Ferris wheel ride that didn’t happen. Some people less lucky than she is. The scenery is lovely – and is captured in a photograph or, now, is available via Google. But what about the things that change us? Can they only live in our synapses? And what happens when those connections fail? What is left behind, is what they changed us into, how we went forward from that time, how we entered into the memories of others: the human organism as a network of memories.

How do you want to be remembered?

I was skeptical when I started this story. It seemed like it would be your typical “Aww, how sweet” road story about a father and daughter bonding, or maybe failing to bond, in a natural setting that would underline each mood shift. Instead, it went much deeper. Most of that is certainly coincidence, my own state of mind at the time. I’m pretty sure Lilly’s father wasn’t thinking of Dante when he turned around and pulled over to help, nor was Rick Bass when he wrote this story. And neither would I have been but for the coincidence of time and my tendency to become obsessed with whatever project I’m working on. But reading is a journey, and this was the road I found. Not the worst road to travel.

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