Otto told me that our opportunity had been squandered and that i should have felt compelled to contribute something. He said, “It is too bad you don’t understand what is happening here.”
And, I saw that it was true – that I had failed to do my best.
This was to be our short interregnum. How to proceed next?
That morning the wake-up radio music alarm had been set, but the volume knob had been wrenched by somebody, counter-clockwise, full on. My first thought was that the window must be open and that the wind had caught at the blinds and that it was blowing across the fins – the slats, rather – and that they were vibrating and causing this tremendous sound before it dawned on me that this blast was something other and it made me afraid.
I’ve said many times that the context in which a story is read can change how it’s perceived. This was a case in point, though quite by accident.
I originally read the story back at the end of February, and had no idea what to make of it. Because it’s so short – a page and a half – I somehow skipped over it and went from “Hao” to “Pattycakes”. I say somehow, but it’s possible that I mentally filed it as poetry; I won’t deny the possibility that I just didn’t want to deal with it at the time and ‘accidentally’ moved my bookmark. In any case, I forgot about it until my friend Andrew (hi, Andrew!) asked if I’d read it and what I thought. So I turned to it again, on this weekend where reality feels apocalyptic, and it’s a different story.
In our defense, Andrew and I, Williams isn’t the easiest author to read. In his introduction to The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, Ben Marcus writes:
Diane Williams has spent her long, prolific career concocting fictions of perfect strangeness, most of them no more than a page long. She’s a hero of the form: the sudden fiction, the flash fiction, whatever it’s being called these days. The stories are short. They defy logic. They thumb their nose at conventional sense, or even unconventional sense. But if sense is in short supply in these texts, that leaves more room for splendor and sorrow. These stories upend expectations and prize enigma and the uncanny above all else. The Williams epiphany should be patented, or bottled—on the other hand, it should also be regulated and maybe rationed, because it’s severe. It’s a rare feeling her stories trigger, but it’s a keen and deep and welcome one, the sort of feeling that wakes us up to complication and beauty and dissonance and fragility.
That gives me some freedom to go with gut feelings without searching for hard evidence on which to base them. And here’s where context comes in. I see this as a banal love story written as apocalyptic literature, with an ending that signals recovery.
The title was instrumental in that. To me, a transport is a military operation, generally moving troops and equipment around. Holocaust literature refers to the trains to the camps as transports. The title set up a grim tone for most of the story.
The word interregnum in the third paragraph reinforced this. While it’s a term that can apply to many situations, it stems from the time between reigns of kings. A standard dictionary definition goes, “a period when normal government is suspended, especially between successive reigns or regimes.” Normality is suspended. In the story, it seems to be the period between staying together, and moving apart. A period of questioning, of deciding. Denial and settling is over, but they’re not yet at the point of moving on. Disruptive and chaotic.
The story is great at conveying this sense of suspended normality. It feels like a desolate time, a place of destruction, but what is really there? A radio alarm, and Venetian blinds. Granted, there’s a scene in which they create a moment of chaos, but if that’s all the chaos you have in your lives, count yourself lucky.
Then there’s the ultimate commonplace, a cheating spouse. Is this to underline the narrator’s sense that her world is crumbling, even in is ordinariness? To show how threatening the benign can look when the psyche is in pain? Is this the root of the chaos?
“Where did you go?” I asked.
“Kay,” he said. That’s my name.
“You’re all I have. Where did you go?”
“Do you like it here?” he said.
“No, I don’t like it here. Why should I?”
“I know. I know,” he said. “Some water?” He had to walk and to walk, to go such a short way, it seemed, to get that for me.
We had another such dialogue the next day.
Adding on the “that’s my name” seems awkward, but the Cary rule applies: it means something. Not only do we get the first-person-narrator’s name, which is handy, but in the next dialog – and calling it a dialog adds a theatrical element, a play two people are putting on for themselves with set lines, rather than a conversation in which two people communicate – he gives the name of the woman he was with. It’s something like effect-before-cause: she has to tell us her name is Kay, so we’ll understand Suzette is the other woman in an almost parallel scene in which the other woman replaces her. And, by the way, Suzette is the perfect name for a younger, other woman you want to hate.
The Important Transport comes at the end:
I have had to wait for my own happiness. I married Eric Throssel, who is a good companion – and I thought I was very happy when we had finished supper one night. But the more important transport occurred on route to Long Grove while I was driving.
Eric spoke, and his words I don’t remember them, but thank God they served to release the cramping in my neck, and in my shoulders and my back and they provided for an unexpected increased intake of oxygen and can we leave it at that?
When in doubt, I go back to the dictionary, and discovered a meaning of transport that I was vaguely aware of, but had completely forgotten about:
an overwhelmingly strong emotion.
“art can send people into transports of delight”
Broken hearts can mend. Is there anything more trite than all this? Yet this is all wrapped in enigma, as Ben Marcus indicated in his introduction. We don’t know what Eric said, and she isn’t going to tell us, because what difference does it make. The point is, tension evaporated and it was a breath of fresh air. A hint of the orgasmic in there. Who knows what she thought happiness was; now she knows it’s better.
Why tell a routine love-lost-and-found story in such a way? Those of us who have known love as war and disaster might understand. In literary terms, I’d call it defamiliarization. But in a broader sense, at this moment when for most of us normality is suspended, the upbeat ending is like an oasis. Let’s hope we all get there.