Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Erin Singer, “Bad Northern Women” from Conjunctions #70

Michelle Tsosie Sisneros:  Six Sisters Harvest

Michelle Tsosie Sisneros: Six Sisters Harvest

In the culture in which these women were raised, power is physical strength, fear, money, respect. Power is male. The mom might be able to skin a deer and pay the light bill, but she’s a poor mother of four and that means she eats shit every day. It would never occur to the Tocker sisters that they might be powerful.

No matter how hard their mother works, no matter how important she thinks her family name is, no matter how many bad bitch stories she tells her daughters, the girls see that their father just has to stroll in the door and he has more power.

Erin Singer, author interview with Catapult Magazine

That’s really the story right there, but it’s quite remarkable how many different ways Singer packs it in to what is a fairly short text, only eleven pages. It’s told from the point of view of the teen daughters of the family in first-person-plural narration. They know how their parents see the world; they know how people outside the family see the world; and they themselves see the world. Then they come to a decision: stay with Mom, or go with Dad?

We are Tockers, descendants of thirty-six feet of long lean Saskatchewan woman: six Tocker sisters, six foot tall, exemplary ax-women all, so says our mom. At the kitchen table this morning we are mixing our Nesquik and Mom is quoting from Taking Our Time: A History Of Tockers. Citing each Tocker triumph she stabs the book with her file, showering its curling cover with fingernail dust. Tocker Trucking! Compass Sawmill! TT’s Laundromat! Stab! Stab! Stab! Mom plants the file in an old baby corn can crammed with white pencil crayons and shards of rulers and dried out pens. She rubs her eyes until mascara moons arise underneath. Our spoons clack inside our plastic cups.

That opening paragraph contains a lot. They see Mom as stabbing the book of family history. Does Mom feel like she’s stabbing it, or does that perception belong to the daughters? In other words, is she really doing subconscious violence to her family history, or are the girls overlaying that in a kind of wish fulfillment, seeing as it’s what keeps them bound to their mother, and their mother bound to the town. And the file: I read the word file and see a manila folder, but the little detail of fingernail dust, and the perception of stabbing, makes it clear it’s a nail file. Something you really can stab with, after you’ve erased part of your body to make it more acceptable. The old can and its contents cry of a life filled with junk.

The daughters’ lackadaisical interest – you’d think a mom doing a that pontificating and stabbing would arouse some curiosity, or maybe alarm, rather than continued focus on stirring chocolate milk – gives a hint that this is a recurring event, not something unusual for a Saturday morning.

We get a glimpse of Dad, who notices the scratches on their legs from the stray dog he brought home. But there’s something more important to notice about Dad: he’s got one foot out the door, and the girls know it. This, too, seems like a recurring event.

The tension of the story hinges on whether Mom and the girls will go with him. Or, maybe just the girls. That seems to be a delicate question. Does he want them, if Mom isn’t coming?

We see life in the town through the girls’ eyes, and it isn’t pretty. They don’t seem to have friends; the other girls ignore or ridicule them. And their future doesn’t look so great, either, as they make clear in an apostrophic address to the town:

Before we die we’ll slick your Teen Burgers with Teen sauce, make chicken salad on a cheese bun and keep your kids from drowning in the public pool and we are jolly bun fillers of sub¬marine sandwiches and we ring up your Trojans and Lysol and scented candles, and we shovel your snow and push your babies on the swing set, pare your grandpa’s toenails, harvest your honey, detail your urinals, hold the papery hands of your dying, nestle newspapers in the rungs of your mailbox and ladle gravy on your French fries and we push logs through your sawmill, bring you size-ten Sorels, then size eleven, then size ten and a half, and climb onto our mattresses at night with gasoline on our hands and dog bites on our ankles, chicken fingers on our breath, cigarette smoke in our hair, ringing in our ears and our men’s hands snaking up our thighs.

This is powerlessness. The symbols of size and power are everywhere, from their dream of owning a truck “big enough to cruise around town looking down on everyone else’s roof” to mom’s story about the eagle who catches a fish too big for him and drowns. This interplays with the thread of who’s going with Dad when he leaves. “In the morning, Dad gives us one final pitch. He asks us who we want to be.” And we find out something very interesting about Mom, something that may have everything to do with the girls’ decision, or nothing at all.

It’s one of those rare literary stories with a happy ending. The interview above brings out the use of “distant future” to reassure us that the girls’ decision is the right one. It’s very satisfying in a way that doesn’t glorify poverty or dead-end lives, a trope I’m so tired of seeing. This feels more honest. Life isn’t perfect, but there are moments when you have a shot at making it better, and Singer does a nice job of illuminating one of them.

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