On our way to the yearly party Yahlie’s friends throw, we encounter a woman and her baby. The drive is one day from Santa Fe to Amarillo, one to Austin. Maybe Yahlie and I will do it in less, with our feet up on the dash and Styrofoam cups of soda in the cup holders. She and I felt the need to get out of town. In our house, the stereo is broken, and we can’t find the cable to hook up the VCR we found. Texas feels like a step down from where we’ve come from, devilish and mean. Her friend Kirsten, who Yahlie says is belligerent and doesn’t listen, said we could stay for a while, which we might. We have $220 between us.Complete story available online at Gettysburg Review
So many stories and poems live and breathe in tone, something conveyed not by nailing down timelines or plot points, but something far more subtle: a kind of unease, a sense that something’s happening just out of sight. I’m still not sure exactly how it’s conveyed – and it requires reader participation, to be sure – but as I read this story, both times, I could feel a dry heat, yellow dust settling on my skin, until the very end.
It’s a road trip within a road trip: Kate and Yahlie, a couple of college-dropouts-turned-catering-waiters head to a party, and along the way find themselves on a side trip, courtesy of the woman running the antique store they happen to explore. But on a deeper level, it’s about recovering from great loss, with the help of a friend.
I’m not sure if I’m overreading, but it seems to me lots of things take on great significance through reference. “Out here it’s more yellow than gold, and nothing at all is green” – am I still too attached to Ponyboy or is this right out of Frost, adding in yellow as a cheap imitation of gold? The woman in the vintage store has a baby named Pearl, which always brings me back to the Pearl of great price from the Bible via The Scarlet Letter. The story lingers on the name, as the woman dismisses her own: Beverly, which she says has no meaning. But it does: one who lives near the beaver stream. She’s wearing yellow. But in her store is a green wooden chair that Kate falls in love with. Which brings us to chairs: the wheelchair, and the brocade couch at the “installation” at the Austin party – an installation that seems, with its brocade and shelves, to mimic the cheap vintage store that couldn’t find space in Austin. The baby in the antique store: there’s something there about past and future, while the present isn’t going very well.
And doors. Lots of doors. A metaphorical door Kate slams shut on Yahlie over a simple question, a reaction that seems inexplicable until a few pages later. Real doors, like the shop door that keeps the green chair safe – or holds it hostage until it’s redeemed. A door that won’t open until Kate, who understands doors (and roofs, and windows, and chimneys, and soffit, rake, and slope from her architecture studies, abandoned at the last minute) puts her boot to it. “I knew where to kick.”
There’s a wonderful moment where Kate characterizes their conversation as “a little like Franz Liszt playing the piano, a little like prison inmates” only to illustrate this when Yahlie comes out with “We’ll go right after this. You’re not comfortable with other people’s discourses.” I do that sometimes. I used the phrase “ethos of violence” at a party once, and the woman I was talking to looked aside and smiled. I think she was laughing at me.
It’s not until the end of the story that we finally get what we’ve been feeling, but not understanding, all this time. And Kate asks Yahlie a crucial question, and gets the reassurance she has been desperately needing, all this time:
“It just might not be in the cards for me,” I say.
What I don’t say is, Because if I ever sat still I might die. Because I don’t believe I’ll ever be lucky, because I think I’m a slum. Because right here, it’s enough.
“Yes, it is,” she says, softly, her eyes ringed in gold.
The certainty of it! It felt like a gift. I wondered if this was the moment when a door might open, when this feeling would become something I could just pass through the window, or sell to someone for a high price, or just abandon on a wooden sidewalk.
And the doors, the chairs, the gold and green and pearl, all come together and brush away the yellow dust, and I can breathe freely again.
I noticed the nomination notation at the end of the story: Robert Long Foreman, who I “met” a few years ago when his story was in Pushcart 2014. I’ve had a few brief Twitter conversations with him, and at one point he graciously agreed to my request to answer questions about his work to an online writing workshop. So, as I’ve done with a couple of writers in the past, I asked why he nominated the story. I learned something interesting about Pushcart: authors can be nominated. He had nominated Ray; he didn’t read this particular story until it appeared in the anthology:
I remember thinking the story was one that accomplished a lot given its limited space–that it did what a certain kind of good short story does, which is to tell a story that’s bigger than the sum of its parts. The meaning that the story creates somehow exceeds the number of words in the story. I’m always bowled over by that, when it happens.
That seems to be one of the secrets of art: something beyond technique, a kind of cramming a thousand clowns into a tiny car so the reader can watch them spill out, and marvel at how it was all done. I keep reading, trying to find out, but maybe no one really knows.