Pushcart XL: Brandon Hobson, “Past the Econolodge” from Noon, 2014

After all that, they told me to take out the trash and leave. I put everything into a duffel bag, including the lighter and book I stole from Whitefeather’s dad. The little girl was crying but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her goodbye. They wanted me gone. They called my social worker and made me wait outside in the yard. It was getting dark and I could see road dust settling from a truck that drove by. But I didn’t want to go back to the shelter, so I left on my own. I jumped the fence and walked all the way to Highway 51, past the EconoLodge and to the gas station across from it.

Writers are frequently advised to start their stories in the middle of things, then use various techniques to fill in the details. That doesn’t usually mean starting a story with a phrase like “After all that…” but I have to admit, it really does put the reader in the middle of things.

Hobson fills in some details, but most of them he leaves to us to  imagine. The detail about taking out the trash… now that’s a twist of the knife. Don’t just kick him out, make sure he does something useful when he leaves. Taking out the trash: the perfect thing to ask someone to do when you’re throwing him away.

What “all that” might this teenage boy have done to be kicked out of his foster home so abruptly? We already know he’s stolen some items, and by the end of the story we know he can be something of a slob, and is capable of treating people with contempt. We don’t know who Whitefeather is, presumably a friend, probably a girlfriend, possibly someone from a previous foster family, but it doesn’t matter: what matters is that we know our narrator stole a lighter and a book. A lighter? Possibly a practical choice, possibly an item that can be sold. A book? I really want to know what book. Is it significant to the father, to Whitefeather, to our narrator? Is it stolen to take something of value away from the father, perhaps in retaliation for the father taking Whitefeather away from him, or is it just a book he liked, or just whatever was on the table as he left, next to the lighter, and he wanted to steal something? And then I start wondering again about why they’ve so emphatically kicked him out.

The right details create lots of maybes in my head. In a story as short as this one is (not even two full pages) the details have to do a lot of the work. I think the tone does a lot of the work, too.  It creates a distinctly ominous tone throughout, though I can’t quite articulate how; as I read, I kept waiting for some catastrophe to occur, and by the end, although no catastrophe is described, I’ve got a bad feeling about this. Face it, the “after all that” wasn’t described, either; this is a story that leaves a lot in between the lines, and in the echoes after the last sentence is read.

The text gives no answers, only directions. But they’re good directions, and it’s a marvelous study in subtlety, in conveying a lot in a small space.

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