Pushcart XL: Richard Bausch, “Map-Reading” from Virginia Quarterly Review, #90.3

VQR art by Stephanie Shieldhouse

VQR art by Stephanie Shieldhouse

They were to meet at the Empire Hotel lounge on West 63rd Street and Broadway, across from Lincoln Center. She told Benton she would be wearing a blue woolen hat shaped like a ball and a lighter blue top coat. “They have a great wine list,” she said. Then, through a small nervous laugh: “I’ll be early, and get us a table away from the piano.” A pause, and then the laugh again. “Believe me, it’s good to be away from the piano.” She sounded good over the telephone. A soft rich alto voice, full grown. She was now twenty-two. Benton was fifty-one. A half-sister he had never had a conversation with in his life. Kate. Katie.

~ ~ Complete story available online from VQR

Neither toxins nor sunlight can get through a wall. When we cut ourselves off – even as a necessary step of self-preservation – we also might cut ourselves off from sources of support. And when we run away, we forsake more than that which we seek to escape.

Benton’s a 50-ish high school teacher who’s somewhat emotionally distanced himself from his family of origin, particularly his father. His parents were long ago divorced and remarried; sister Alice, who seems somewhere between devout and around the bend, judgmentally disapproves of both the divorce and Benton’s gayness. But she arranges for Benton to meet, for only the second time in his life, his half-sister, Katie when she’s in town. What Alice knows about Katie is anybody’s guess, but Benton’s in for a big surprise.

He’d kept that image for a time. The little sister’s uplifted hand in the window of the car. The very heart of possibility. And as the years went by he thought of her now and then, imagining her growing into a teenager, growing up in that house with Benton Sr., with his judgments and his temper, and Della, who had seemed so fragile and worried. But he could never see Katie as anything but that little girl. Alice’s children, two little boys and a girl, were not much older than she. How strange to think that the little girl straining to put her hands in the water of the fountain in the lobby of the Peabody was another sister. And grown now.

A prominent image in the story concerns the Peabody ducks. They’re a real thing, I’ve discovered (maybe I’m the only one who’s never heard of them before). The Peabody Hotel in Memphis has a fountain in the lobby where, during the day, five ducks swim merrily; every afternoon, with great fanfare, they’re escorted from fountain to elevator to their overnight accommodations somewhere in the hotel, only to return the next morning.

I’m thinking the connection between story and ducks is the notion of Katie looking for someone to follow, someone to lead her, and finding no one there. And yes, there’s the element of training, routine, and public show, followed by whatever goes on after the elevator doors close, though I don’t get the sense that either Katie or Benton is performing for anyone. In any event, it’s a nice element, rich with texture.

For me, however, the story lived in Benton’s explicit sense of regret, as he realizes the ramifications of the door he closed behind him. The foundation for this is carefully laid from the first paragraph, with that tiny glimpse of affectionate tenderness in his repetition of his half-sister’s name, the progression from formal to familiar: he wants to get it right. Here’s hoping he gets it right going forward.

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