BASS 2021:  Shanteka Sigers, “A Way with Bea” from The Paris Review #234

Photo: Simon Bastien (Paris Review art)
I was in grad school and my advisor, Hari Kunzru, wanted a brand-new story in a little less than two weeks. Bea was the little sister of the protagonist of another story I’d published. I knew her well, so off the shelf she came.
I was never sure about what might happen to the other children in that story, but Bea was a survivor. I knew she was going to live a different life than the one that appeared to be unfolding for her. But how?
I gave Bea a teacher. Teachers change kids’ lives all the time.
I started writing observations of Bea’s presence or absence in class in chunks of barely connected narrative. But the teacher was flat, less of a character and more of a device. Right away, Hari (and several other wise readers, both advisors and students) wanted more. So over time the teacher grew a real marriage. And a legacy to live up to. And a desire to teach with her full self.

Shanteka Sigers, Contributor Note (first half)

On first read, I thought, eww, creepy, why is every other story in this year’s anthology so creepy?  Then I read the Contributor Note; not the part above, but the second half, which will show up later when we need it. That made me laugh. And I realized, I’d read the story all wrong. 

Let’s start with Bea, a student of undetermined age (I’m guessing 6th grade?), showing little evidence of being cared for at home.

Bea walks into the classroom wearing the clothes she had on the day before. The Teacher understands that this is going to be a bad day. Bea’s hair is uncombed, face unwashed. She arrives precisely twelve seconds late. Not so late that the Teacher has to make a big deal about it. But not on time. Bea walks like a prisoner forcibly escorted, snatching herself along, step by step, then pouring her thin body into the seat. She has no books, no pencil or paper. She drapes herself over the desk and waits for the Teacher to continue or challenge.
….
The Teacher dissects Bea as the girl walks toward her classroom. She looks like a doll made for tea parties that was thrown outside to fend for itself. A nobility lives in Bea’s bones, an ancient, undiluted beauty that most eyes have forgotten. She grows in angles. The broadness of her nose and the wide, sculpted divot leading down to her lips and the deep, delicate hollows behind her collarbone. The disorder of her swarming hair, misshapen and dusty, but still a laurel.

Bea and her family – brother Aldous and mother Flora – are the only characters in the story who get names. Everyone else is identified by role. This shines a spotlight on Bea, even though The Teacher is the point-of-view character.

The Teacher – who is the only teacher not identified by a subject, reflecting her broader role than, say, the Gym Teacher or The English Teacher, even though she is, we eventually learn, a science teacher – is hyperconscious of Bea. We get the sense she very much wants to help her in whatever way she can, but isn’t sure how.

Sigers mentioned her gradual additions to the Teacher as the story developed. Structurally, it’s as though we can see those pieces dropped into the core story. That sounds like a mistake, like they should be better incorporated, but it works perfectly.

The Teacher has a strained relationship with her husband, though we aren’t sure why. Then we get a hint:

The teacher puts down her fork and stares at her husband period of warm white tablecloth edged in lace tries to put her in the spirit of their honeymoon. But it is hard to remember the man who grinned at her across lopsided wooden tables in tiny restaurants in the Caribbean while looking at him here with his mouth only half lifted in a smirk. She leans back, withdrawing from him. “I am aware that teaching is not going to be like a made-for-TV movie or an after-school special, and fuck you,” says the Teacher.

The Teacher has enough doubts of her own, hearing those internal voices many of us hear when someone says something nice about us: “You’re a great teacher. Not as great as your grandmother, or great aunt, or your cousin. You’re a great teacher. Not as great as the National Teacher of the Year.” After all, she can’t do anything about Bea, though she dreams of caring for her, fixing her hair, fixing everything, sending her off to Stanford in a few years. But she’s realistic enough to know there isn’t enough hair grease in the world to do that.

We enter the rising action phase of our narrative, as Bea’s behavior becomes, well, creepy, then angelic, then creepy again. [Addendum: I just noticed something when I checked that the tweet of this story was released properly: the title is also something of a pun with two meanings. “Away with Bea” is the attitude of the faculty discussing one of the creepy behaviors; “A Way With Bea” is the Teacher’s approach.] But The Teacher seems to know what’s happening. After all, this is a girl who corrected an  inaccurate drawing of the endoplasmic reticulum of a cell. The Teacher figures out a way she might help Bea. It helps that the husband’s ancient cat finally died, perhaps of grief because the husband is out of the country on business.

And now, that second half of the Contributor Note:

You should also know that my family has two cats, Meyonce and Principle Nelson. Somewhere in this timeline I’d invited our vet to participate in a Jack and Jill career day event. She is a delicate, bright-eyed Black woman, passionate about animals and science. I had watched her table from afar, noting a clear delineation between kids who leaned into her display of bones and organs and kids who recoiled in disgust. Later I visited her table and examined tiny parts in jars.
“Where’d you get that cat skull?” I asked.

Shanteka Sigers, Contributor Note (second half)

That’s where I laughed. And everything made sense.

This gets translated into The Teacher’s life by giving her a childhood in the country. Country people have a more intimate connection with death; they see it all the time, they view it as the natural result of life. They have a different way of regarding animals as well.

The teacher knows of two ways to get animal bones so smooth and glossy they seem unreal, almost manufactured. She remembers her great-aunts, the unsentimental efficiency of their land, soft denim coveralls, and a summertime discovery of luminous little skulls. The life in good Alabama soil can do all the work, reclaiming the meat and polishing the bones. That’s one way. The other is to boil them.

It may seem like I’ve lost my mind, enthusing about this story, laughing about dying cats and… other things. But I promise you, every step is there, and it fits, and it feels like hope for both The Teacher and Bea. And that two-ways-of-polishing seems to reflect how the Teacher, with her country roots, and Bea, from Chicago, require different polishing methods, so they can both end up gleaming and smooth. Maybe Stanford isn’t that much of a pipe dream; this is a way better road than hair grease.

Then there’s the final line, which plays on the double meaning of “take care of.” I don’t know if it’s gangster movies or crime movies in general, but there’s a sense in which “I’ll take care of him” implies dispatch with extreme prejudice. But of course it generally means to care for, to nurture, or to treat with respect when it’s too late for nurturing. That’s the sentence that made me laugh out loud on second read: the Teacher’s tense relationship with her husband makes it work as a subtle taunt, as well as in the country sense.

What is left out of the story is just as important as what is written. We don’t know exactly what the husband said that caused The Teacher’s resentful outburst. Do we need to know? Isn’t it more powerful to leave it to our imagination, to just put his smirk and her reaction before us and let us create it out of our own experience? Not in all cases, obviously, but here it worked. Even in the Contributor Note, second half: we don’t need to hear the veterinarian’s reply. The writing style invites it: a patchwork of short paragraphs, little scenes, bits and pieces of incidents with scant connections. The rate of reveal is perfect, particularly towards the end.

This story was included with the “Surprise” group, for good reason. That last page sure is a  surprise, boy, is it ever. The best kind of surprise in a story: an ending that changes the reader’s perception of what has gone before as the story turns into a unified whole.

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