Pushcart 2021 XLV/BASS 2020: Carolyn Ferrell, “Something Street” from Story #5

“Something Street” was inspired by news events and by my own loyalty to characters who are eternal underdogs. I’d wanted to use the various settings of Parthenia and Craw Daddy as organizing tools for this piece but came to the realization – with the help of my great reading angel, Martha Upton – that plot was missing in that approach. I wanted to make the fragments of Parthenia’s life cohere, illustrate her transformation. I also thought about challenging the notion of the good old days – which we hear about from those allegedly wanting to make America great again. Latin lessons notwithstanding, the good old days are forever in the making. They are actually here, as reality and dream. And isn’t it already a given that fiction is what makes the world great in the first place?

Carolyn Ferrell, Contributor Note

In the late 60s when I was in junior high and hopelessly lame, my older brother kept bringing amazing comedy albums home from college. Firesign Theater. Tom Lehrer. And Bill Cosby: Buck Buck, Fat Albert, “Hey hey hey!” I never really got into Cosby, via comedy or I Spy, never watched The Cosby Show, but always felt some degree of fondness from hearing those albums. Until we all found out what was really going on behind the scenes. And that’s the news event that Ferrell captures in this story: decades of abuse and rape, but from the point of view of the wife.

“The comedian my husband” is how Parthenia refers to Crawley Stevenson, better known by his stage name Craw Daddy, fifteen times in this story. It’s divided into forty-five sections designated with Roman numerals; some are a sentence long, others a page. The present of the story is Craw Daddy’s Farewell Performance at Hampton University, previously Hampton Institute where Parthenia began her education, interrupted by marriage and children. But Ferrell’s technique is to blend together the marriage, a performance by Mahalia Jackson at the Institute, and The Complaints, with that performance, creating a final scene of something approaching confession, atonement, and salvation.

The metaphor of water runs through the story from the beginning, section II:

Our marriage in 1956—with the understanding that some things get better and some worse but bottom line you ultimately float somewhere near the surface. Yes to the women fans, yes to the terribly late forays, yes to the pee smell of breath. Yes as long as he comes home by dawn and doesn’t wake the children, yes yes. You float and float with affirmatives; you may not be kicking but you will be gulping.

Complete story available online at Story Magazine

Much of Parthenia’s understanding of tolerating intolerable behavior comes from her training at a young age via the Sable-Tea Club, apparently a group of white ladies who generously showed Mahogany Maidens how to act white in the public interest. And I suppose when your husband grows into a superstar and the money flows in, it’s hard to walk away.

The voice is so sharp and evocative, I’m tempted to just copy entire blocks and leave it at that. It’s eloquent, but perfectly natural, a difficult balance to hit, and it works all the way through. Linking all of the time vignettes while maintaining a forward momentum of the plot is not an easy task, particularly when there are sections of Craw Daddy’s performances – clearly modeled after Cosby – that distract from Parthenia’s story, just as his career distracted her from her own soul.

One of the bits involves a broken fire hydrant that floods a church – again with the water – where an engaged couple is dragged by the tractor, then blown out by the water:

Velvet must hold fast to the scraps that are her only covering; of course, Stanley Morehousehead is too stupid to try and rip his gown from his body and shield her.
(The audience roll from their seats into the aisles; it is too much, too much indeed!)
Velvet grabs her fiancé and together the (still unwed) couple allow themselves to be pulled along like a dog on a leash, her good cream-clotted skin turning red with humiliation, his dusky hue growing nightier by the minute. They flow out the church all the way to Buck River. There, the bridegroom catches hold of a tree (a weeping willow, of course) and frees himself from the flood, from Velvet. My mother always warned me about girls like you, he cries. Velvet is last seen washing along Buck River’s tides toward the tobacco field, where the workers have long since elected to carry out their day.

And while the audience is howling with laughter, Parthenia is caring for a baby, trying to hide her recently acquired black eye, and keeping an eye on Eboni, the stage assistant who probably just ripped off a few quick ones with Craw Daddy during intermission. The question is whether she had a choice or not. It’s not by accident that the comedian’s crazy story shows Velvet stripped bare and discarded while her man first ignores her nakedness, then saves himself. And everyone laughs.

The baby turns out to be a grandson, child of their third daughter, left on their doorstep five days before with a note: “Time for you to make amends seeing as you didn’t hear me the first time.” I’m still not sure what the first time refers to. There was a scene that indicated Craw Daddy was bedding the daughter’s friend – again, whether consensually or not is unclear – but it might be more than that. In any case, the baby is a turning point for Parthenia, or maybe it’s that Craw Daddy is about to go to prison as a result of The Complaints: eleven instances of sexual assault. Parthenia provided excuses for each one in court. She needs this turning point.

I push that pram along from the cobbles to the rocky breaker blocking the rushing water; as I do, I long to pick up one of the cigarette butts at my feet. If I were a different kind of grandmother-type, I might stow this baby in a pie safe and run off looking for a tobacco field of my own.

A couple of striking images appear towards the end: “I’m resting on a rock, like the girl on the can of White Rock soda.” And she sits “onto a grassy tuffet.”  I’ve never seen the word “tuffet” outside of the nursery rhyme, and have no idea how or if it relates. The story is a stream of powerful input coming over and over, and culminates in Parthenia finally being able to let someone else see her true self instead of the carefully manicured façade that has been her defense for so many years.

This is one of those times when I realize I’m reading a story I’m not really equipped to handle. Just about every word is important; one resonance falls on top of another. Yet it’s an engrossing read; it doesn’t feel difficult until I try to explain it, and then I realize I’m overwhelmed by how much there is.

Back in 2018, Ferrell had another story in BASS, “A History of China.” I found that to be overwhelming in a less comprehensible way. In fact, I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, beyond the very basics. Now that I’ve read this story, I want to go back to that one, and figure out if there’s as powerful a thread going on there as here. If so, it will be very worth the effort to decipher it.

* * *

Other takes on this story can be found at:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “Parthenia sees herself as part of the “better class” of black and charged with upholding the higher class of blacks, but she’s a victim of the very class hierarchy she is supporting.” I can’t recommend Jake’s post highly enough; he connects the story to the post-Reconstruction divide in black culture between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B.Du Bois.

Jim Harris at Auxiliary Memory: ““Something Street” is exactly the kind of story I was looking for when I bought The Best American Short Stories 2020 (BASS 2020). It’s a Category 3 hurricane in its emotional intensity, with anguished gusts pushing into Category 4.”

Ann Graham at Short Stories All the Time: “That’s the theme of the story, for me, a woman is cut down before she’s achieved her potential.”

5 responses to “Pushcart 2021 XLV/BASS 2020: Carolyn Ferrell, “Something Street” from Story #5

  1. I had a similar reaction to you, that no matter how many threads I tried to pull in this story, I’d never be pulling nearly enough. I mean that in a good way. It’s a decadently rich story, and it succeeds so much that the only problem for the reader is in noticing all the ways it has succeeded. The next one struck me the same way.

    • Yeah, it’s insane – I feel like I’ve been giving these stories the short shrift, because I’m trying to catch up and get through them by the end of the year – but I have a feeling I could spend a week on this story and still not do it justice.
      I finally settled on focusing on water, but then there’s rocks, and rocks + water has biblical and sexual connotations, then there are the colors – Eboni is a whole palette in herself – plus the Sable club and the black eye, and then there are the names, and the whole issue of the baby’s father, the height or elevation references, blending into the historical black culture you such a great job with, Institute to University, Washington vs Du Bois, I hadn’t even thought about any of that. Damn, you could write a book about this story.
      And yet it’s very readable, both on a sentence level and as a narrative. Really nice work.

  2. Pingback: BASS 2020: Of Mythologies and Misbehaving Men, Among Other Things | A Just Recompense

  3. I’m reading through BASS 2020 right now, and Something Street was the first one I needed to re-read. My first reading, I found it interesting but confusing. So many clipped moments. So many hints to something I wasn’t fully grasping. The second read through…whoa. It all began clicking. I felt all of it, especially her silence as she stood by a monster through her moral obligation. I felt it as a woman. The way she puts herself last. The way her daughter blames her for not knowing, or for turning a blind eye…or both. The way she wonders at the plight of the stagehand, but still remains silent. And the obligation she continues even when she’s starting to put the pieces together. The author did a magnificent job of showing both sides, but through a rarely thought of lens – the wife of the accused. This was an incredible story.

    • Hi Crissi, welcome to BASS 2020 – this is one of four stories from that volume that was awarded a Pushcart as well, and I think it’s probably the most complex, as Jake’s comments about the intersection with black culture, going back to Reconstruction, brought new insights for me. It’s one of those contemporary stories that draws on generations of history.I have a feeling if I read it again in five years I’ll see brand new things in it.
      I hope we can touch base on other stories in this volume as you keep reading.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.