Pushcart XL: Dan Chaon, “What Happened to Us?” from Ploughshares, Spring 2014

Rusty Bickers went walking through the fields at dusk, Rusty Bickers with a sadness and nobility that only Joseph could see. Joseph dreamed of Rusty Bickers at the kitchen table, eating Cap’n Crunch cereal before bedtime, his head low, lost in thought; Rusty Bickers, silent but awake beneath the blankets on his cot, his hands moving in slow circles over his own body, whispering “Shh…shhhh… hush now”; Rusty Bickers standing in the morning doorway of the kitchen, watching Joseph’s family as they ate their breakfast, his shaggy hair hanging lank about his face, his long arms dangling from slumped shoulders, his eyes like someone who had been marched along way to a place where they were going to shoot him.
Joseph heard his mother’s bright voice rang out: “It’s about time you got up, Rusty!”

For the second time this week, I find myself wondering more about my reaction to a story, than to the story itself.

Dan Chaon wrote a favorite story of mine (“To Psychic Underworld”, Tin House #46). I was drawn to the oddball Critter and his searching for connection. This current story also features an oddball in the character of Rusty, and he too is desperately searching for a connection following the death of his parents in a house fire (which he is under suspicion of starting); but I was too creeped out by the ominous threat looming over Joseph to care much about Rusty. That’s one. I was also disappointed by the resolution; it didn’t live up to the impending doom. That’s two.

One? Two? One, two what? One, two weird reactions I wish I hadn’t had. But I did, so I need to examine them and see what’s going on.

Siding with Joseph was natural; he was presented as vulnerable. Rusty, I need to realize, was just as vulnerable, though he turned his vulnerability into unappealing and frightening behaviors. Still, his need was there. Joseph sees it: that line in the opening paragraph, the haunted eyes of someone surviving a death march and just waiting for the end. But my compassion for that pain got lost when I got scared. That’s the malignant effect of fear.

As for my second reaction, I suppose I could chalk it up to ever-escalating violence of real life. After all, a single-victim shooting doesn’t even make the news any more. Or, the plethora of violence in pop culture. Those explanations would be accurate, but incomplete. I think it’s that I don’t recognize the final tragedy as… all that tragic, beyond the ho-hum what-a-shame. In fact, it was more of a relief, and that is indeed tragic. At a minimum, we’re left with “gentle, helpless unknowing” of the last sentence, and the lonely, alienated future that implies. But the loss is much greater than that.

The title asks, What happened to us? I ask, What happened to me?

I’ve been taking a couple of moocs dealing with ancient Chinese philosophies recently. We’ve been discussing the Confucian concept of ren 仁, which Confucius never explicitly defined but considered crucial. It’s often translated as “benevolence” or “humanity”, that which makes us human, which makes us see others as parts of the whole of humanity. I toyed with the idea of “empathy” for a while, but it seems more expansive than any single word. This story has shown me how far I have to go to discover ren.

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