Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Karin Lin-Greenberg, “Housekeeping” from The Southern Review #56.1

Franco Tyrone’s suicide at the Corvid Motel was the biggest thing that had ever happened in Galaville.

The Publisher’s Weekly review of this year’s Pushcart edition reports: “The hilarious and quirky story ‘Housekeeping’ by Karin-Lin Greenberg revolves around the suicide of a TV actor in a small town, where a hotel maid finds the body and becomes an instant celebrity.” I find that description superficial and even a bit insulting. Yes, there are humorous elements, as the story plays with the peculiar twists fame takes, and pokes fun at the American public for obsessing about the unimportant. There’s a more subtle, dark humor (a suicide at the Corvid Motel, whose sign features a crow? By the way, the similarity between corvid, the technical name for the crow family, and COVID, is probably coincidental. I just love a good coincidence) as well. But I don’t think any reader will come away from the story thinking, wow, that was hilarious and quirky. The review is perhaps best considered ironic, in that it, too, promotes sizzle over substance, because the story is about so much more. Or maybe it just seems like that to me.

The story begins with the sentence quoted above, and continues by situating the suicide in the town and in the life of the narrator, a sixteen-year-old girl named Benny:

Franco had been in town to film an episode of his television show, Finding The Heart Of America. The day after he killed himself, he was supposed to talk to the LaBella brothers, who baked made-from-scratch fruit pies in an old pizza oven, and then he was supposed to interview Dizzy Garrity about tapping maple trees for syrup, and then he was scheduled to meet with me at Galaville Orchards and film me talking about how I make our famous cider doughnuts. I should say the doughnut were not actually famous, but a sign in our front window declared FAMOUS CIDER DO-NUTS, so Franco was supposed to call them famous and maybe, once they were on TV, they would become famous, and people from the city driving upstate to admire the fall foliage which stop and buy dozens. Like the doughnuts, I was supposed to be on television, and, like the doughnut, I thought I would get a little famous. Franco always made it seem as if the people he talked to on Finding The Heart Of America mattered, and the places they came from mattered too. I’d hoped being on television might make me someone interesting, might make it so I wasn’t at only thought of as just the smart, uptight girl, the nerd destined to be valedictorian of Galaville High.

This paragraph does a lot both to establish a voice for Benny, and to lay out the priorities for us: she plays second fiddle to the doughnuts, and hopes to become famous by proximity. The implication that she doesn’t matter, and won’t unless Franco makes her seem interesting, is kind of heartbreaking, but seems pretty common in a time when kids send TikToks into the world hoping to get famous and matter.

As it happens, the Doughnut Interview never happens, Benny loses her chance at fame. Her twenty-four year old sister Tess is the one who catches the wave instead by a macabre route:

My sister worked as a maid at the Corvid, and when she went to clean Franco’s room at noon, she knocked and then shouted out “Housekeeping!” three times and entered the room when there was no answer, and she discovered him hanging. She was interviewed by the Albany news stations and then, because Franco was famous, she was interviewed by the national news shows. Everyone wanted to talk to the girl who’d discovered Franco’s body.
Because Tess was beautiful, she became a meme, screenshots from the news interviews of her outside the motel appearing all over the Internet. In these screenshots, Tess was standing below the wooden THE CORVID MOTEL sign with the silhouette of a crow, her hair blowing in the breeze. Her image was superimposed with phrases like, “When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Sure Your Hair Is On Point” or “Stay Sexy Through Tragedy!” She became known as the Hot Crier online.

We’re only on the second page, but maybe it’s time to pause and process a few things.

Franco evoked Anthony Bourdain all over the place for me. There are similarities – both were in successful careers before their television careers which seem remarkably similar, both hanged themselves during an on-site visit, both showed empathetic connections with the people they interviewed – and differences – Bourdain died in a super-luxury hotel in Switzerland and was found by his friend, chef Eric Ripert, rather than by a housekeeper, and there was plenty to discuss about his life, since he’d been candid about his past, present, and possible futures, for years.

Apparently the lack of suitable fodder regarding the fictional Franco made Tess more focus of interviews for a gossip-starved world. We discover she was unable to return to work at the motel after finding Franco, so while it might seem she deliberately played on her moment in the spotlight, it’s just as likely she didn’t know how to turn it off. It’s interesting the media coverage and memes never mentioned her trauma; we find that out via Benny.

We also find out that six years ago, Tess was made Benny’s guardian, as the girls’ parents were “unsuited for the responsibility of parenthood and could not resist the lure of opioids.” Benny would have been ten at the time, and Tess became her ersatz mom at the age of eighteen. This also seems to be left out of the memes, in favor of her hair, which is better fodder for humor.

In the aftermath of the media storm, Tess is invited to appear on a dating show similar to The Bachelorette. Since she’d broken up with her small-town boyfriend some time before, she grabs this opportunity, seeing it the way Benny saw the doughnut interview: a chance to get out.

That’s where the weight of the story lies: the urge to get out of a small town, to live a more interesting life, and the impossibility of doing so; the feelings of the ones who leave, and the feelings of the ones left behind, the conflict between roots and wings. We get a glimpse of the power of these issues when Tess tells Benny about a teacher of hers from high school:

“You know he e-mailed me a couple of times in the past few years, encouraging me to apply to college?”
I hadn’t known that. “Did you?” I asked.
Tess laughed. “Of course not,” she said. “How?”
There was so much packed into that one-word question, so much about how it would ever be possible for Tess to afford college, go to college, and so much unsaid about how my presence, my always-present presence, stood in the way of Tess moving forward.
…. I wanted Tess to win the show and be happy and never have to work again, and I wanted her to lose and come home. I wanted a lot of things, most of them in opposition to each other.

This is where my heart lurched in my chest. I remember my brother, five years older than me, leaving for college. Our relationship was typical brother-sister stuff, with a layer of hostility for the world to see, and I hid any anxiety about his leaving as I was expected to do. A year or two later, I overheard our dad tell our stepmom that it was unlikely my brother would return for the next Christmas, or ever, and I hid my feelings about that as well, and started playing “The Only Living Boy in New York” and, later, “Daniel,” a lot.

The story ends with a scene between Benny and Ricky, Tess’s rejected hometown boyfriend, watching a video of Finding The Heart Of America and sharing their loss, starting with why Tess broke up with him in the first place. This feels to me like a reprise of the title: this time it’s Benny knocking on the door, calling out “Housekeeping,” and via Ricky’s explanation, finding something she didn’t want to see.

“And look,” he said, pointing to the screen, “just because someone leaves home, travels, sees the world, it doesn’t mean they end up happy.”
I nodded. I always thought I would be the one who would get out, and I’d always imagined Tess would be here, ready to welcome me home anytime I wished. I had pictured myself older, coming home to visit, and Tess cutting up an apple for me, spreading peanut butter on every slice, asking me to tell her about my exciting life. Tess was an inextricable part of my conception of Galaville, and maybe it was that way for Ricky too. Sure, she’d come back for a while, try to make things work, but Galaville would feel different, small and stifling. I knew how these things went, how people cast on reality shows started dreaming big, started wanting different lives from the ones they lived.

The story resists easy answers, it avoids the comforting epiphany or the definitive act of change. But in this ending scene, it projects into the future, and lets us wonder where Benny is now, how Ricky’s doing, and if Tess grabbed the brass ring she was reaching for.

A year or two after my brother left for college, I overheard our dad tell our stepmom that it was unlikely my brother would return for the next Christmas, or ever. I hid my feelings about that as well, and started playing “The Only Living Boy in New York” and, later, “Daniel,” a lot. And a few years later, I left, too. Some people leave home to get away from something, some to move towards something. I haven’t spoken to my brother since the 90s when our dad died. Turns out, I was one of the things he was getting away from. It took me a long time to understand that.

Anthony Bourdain was, I think, both moving away and towards.

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach

But, while for me he’s inextricably linked to this story, it isn’t about him. It isn’t about Franco Tyrone either. Come for the humor and quirks, if you like, but stay for the ones who leave, and the ones left behind, in the Heart of America.

Lin-Greenberg published a prize-winning short story collection back in 2013; she has another one, titled Vanished, coming out this year, and a novel, You Are Here, scheduled for 2023. I’m going to keep an eye on those.

* * *         

  • Excerpt (first ~4 pages of 15) read by Lin-Greenberg on Soundcloud

6 responses to “Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Karin Lin-Greenberg, “Housekeeping” from The Southern Review #56.1

  1. Amazingly, I love this story, too. What a beginning to my reading of this collection. Two out of two. I want to read the prize-winning collection, and all the newer stuff, too. And a reviewer who thinks that this is a hilarious story needs a heart transplant, or a new career. Profoundly sad, I’d say, incredibly real, touching. Love all the questions, all the realizations, the lack of any answers for any of the characters. This is a writer who deals with life, who understands people, the open-endedness of everything, the absence of pat answers. When we are able to relate, to see our own life in a new light, you know you are reading a good story. I am thrilled by this one.

  2. This story has my number- understated and unresolved. I love it. I’m from the Albany area, and always appreciate stories set in or near my hometown. I actually grew up in a small town called Glenville- not that different from the story’s invented setting, Galavile. Turns out the author teaches at Siena college (just outside Albany) where I went to undergrad back in the 80’s. I’ve been reading her stories all day- really loving her style.

    I appreciate the personal turn your writing took. It’s pretty astounding how deep a story can reach into our heart if we let it. -cnb

    • Hi Curt, great to hear from you again. I’m so glad you liked this story too. And how cool you share a link with the author! Are you reading her 2013 collection, or finding more recently published stories in various litmags?
      Several years ago, I started cutting down on how I connected to stories personally in favor of more objective reading ( someone told me my posts reminded him of devotionals, and I wasn’t crazy about that description). But for some reason I’ve been drawn back to it with this Pushcart edition. I figure, I may not be the most proficient literary analyst, but I’m the world’s leading authority on how a story affects me. And when something hits me as hard as this one did, it just feels like the right approach.
      How is teaching going for you these days? I know it’s been more difficult for some than for others; I hope you’re getting the support and cooperation you need. And as always, I love hearing how your students find any of the stories I’m familiar with!

      • Hi Karen- Yes, I am reading Lin-Greenberg’s 2013 collection ‘Faulty Predictions’ as well as her online work. I’ve also found a few in our library’s Ebsco database. Really digging everything so far. A reviewer in Antioch Review says of the collection- “These are stories you can easily enter and dwell in, but which not only don’t shy away from the difficult–they head straight for it.” I am definitively dwelling in her work.

        Because your writing has such a strong voice, I find that it naturally, and beautifully, balances the personal and the analytical. This is the kind of writing I invite my students to do. Rather than traditional literary analysis papers, I assign a hybrid genre–the personal academic essay.

        And speaking of teaching, I am actually on a sabbatical this semester, with a research project focused on the practice of ‘social reading’ of texts through online annotation tools- fun stuff. And without the teaching workload, I am able to read a lot right now- and loving it!

        I’ve not ever read the stories in the Pushcart anthology, but I’m beginning to dabble after reading a few of your responses. Thanks for your reading hospitality! – cnb

      • I love Pushcart because it’s a bit more edgy than BASS (thanks to the focus on small presses, eliminating TNY et al) and I like the mix of genres – most of the nonfiction wouldn’t tempt me if I saw it on my online feed, but it’s almost always great reading. Problem is, the book as a physical object is horrible. It’s too big – and a significant part of it is literally old news, past winners, lists of submitting presses complete with addresses. It’s cheaply produced, which I appreciate since I can get so much material for about $20, but, well, it’s not pretty. And there are often errors – misclassifications, in particular. I miss the BASS-style contributor notes. But, you can’t have everything.
        Your research on social reading sounds interesting. I take a lot of moocs, and they sometimes use one of those readers for articles. Georgetown’s mooc on Dante made heavy use of them, for instance. I’m taking a philosophy mooc through Wesleyan right now that uses Perusall; I’ve been ambivalent about these things in the past, since I can’t save them to my own computer for later reference, and I’m a bit shy about jumping in, but I’m trying, and your mention of it as research has encouraged me to try harder!

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