BASS 2022: Alice McDermott, “Post” from One Story #280

“Reflection” by Jasmine Newman
I wrote “Post” to pay homage to Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, one of the first stories I was moved to reread as the pandemic began to unfold. Porter’s brilliant account of two young people falling in love in the midst of the 1918 flu epidemic and the First World War has always struck me as a masterpiece: witty, compassionate, devastating. Reading it in 2020, I recognized as well how honestly, how brutally, how generously, Porter’s story captured our own era’s collective confrontation with mortality. A confrontation popular discourse, or perhaps the politics of the moment, seemed reluctant to acknowledge. But how to pay homage to a classic while also making it new? Porter’s Miranda and Adam are at the beginning of their romance; I imagined my Mira and Adam as post.

Alice McDermott, BASS 2022 Contributor Note

I had an easier time than most adjusting to the shutdowns early on in the COVID pandemic. I’m retired, so didn’t have to worry about going to work, converting to working from home, or getting laid off. I’m something of a hermit, so reduced in-person social activities didn’t bother me; in fact, I found the increase in formerly in-person groups meeting online to be a plus, since I could attend things I’d never known about. Of course, that was all balanced against knowing I was more likely to die of the thing due to age, but that’s how it goes.

Perhaps to distract myself from horrifying statistics and grim images like refrigerated trucks storing bodies when morgues were overflowing, I wondered a lot about how this would affect people in the long run, particularly those who had rites of passage – senior prom, college graduation, a wedding a year in the planning – that would not happen now. I wonder if these few chaotic years will have aftereffects for specific generations. The COVID kids, like young Robert in “Detective Dog,” stuck at home, listening to ambulance sirens, writing a story about dancing morgues. I wondered about some hypothetical couple who just met at a bar, or on a blind date, or at a wedding, and felt a real connection. How would their relationship develop without the usual structures of going to dinner and movies and away for the weekend or whatever people do these days? Would it be better in the long run to have an online relationship, long talks about scary moments, about the anxieties of the day, than to engage in superficial pleasantries? Or would relationships just not happen because no one would have the energy to invest?

We won’t know for some time; it’s too soon yet to tell.

I can understand the impulse to tell this story, this reworking of a story set in a similar time. I wonder if it was too soon, set in the early part of the pandemic. I wonder if their outlook will change over time. “There are so many things we don’t know” is a repeated refrain in the story; add whether they would write a different story about the same time now, in two years, in twenty, to the list of unknowns.

They had weathered it together. Inadvertently, it seemed. Their relationship had mostly ended in early February, weeks before the shutdown began. A mutual lack of enthusiasm, they said. Which was too bad. They had gotten from all so well, pre-passion, as they called it then, well before they were saying pre-pandemic, back when they were just friends. They remained apart through the hellish spring and the long summer and the spiking fall, with only reports from mutual acquaintances that they’d each stayed in town, managing. In early December, he sent her a text, How are you doing in all this? She’d replied, Scratchy throat, fever, going for a test. Three times, he texted to the single word: Results? Until she finally wrote: Positive. Sleeping.

I found McDermott’s Contributor Note explaining the origin of the story had a lot of impact on my read. It was one of those “I wanted to explore… “ stories rather than, “I wanted to tell this story about these people.” I haven’t read the Porter story she’s paying homage to, but I can see its general bones here: a couple dealing with something they can’t escape. And while there wasn’t a war raging during our pandemic as there was in Porter’s, there was an election that often felt like a war. McDermott  doesn’t go there, however, not at all. She sticks to the pandemic.

The story interweaves an afterview with the actual experience of illness. We start off with Mira and Adam discussing Mira’s most noticeable sequela to her illness: marijuana now smells awful, like garbage, rot. But we end with a paragraph that indicates there are more profound consequences.

The story lingers initially on the isolation and loneliness of the two main characters. They were once lovers, but hadn’t seen each other for a while. Mira is surprised when Adam shows up at her apartment as she battles fevers and the exhaustion of troubled breathing.

“Call your mother,” he said. “And your sister. They’re frantic.”
“They called you?”
He shrugged. The mask made it difficult to tell if he looked good. She thought, yes. “Guess I’m the boyfriend of last report. Or resort. They called your friend Angie.”
“She’s in New Hampshire.”
“And your downstairs neighbors.”
“Roy and Carol went home to Virginia.”
“Your landlord. Who’s in the Hamptons.”
“I know.”
“And then me.”

Mira has friends, has acquaintances, has contacts, but they’ve all disappeared, no doubt looking for a safer place where the virus wasn’t spreading as rapidly.  Personally, I think Adam is an idiot for staying with her during her illness. “I’m careful,” he say, adjusting his mask. No, you’re not; careful is if you bring her orange juice and Gatorade every day and leave it outside her door and call to see if she needs anything in the afternoon. Careful is not moving in with someone in the throes of a contagious viral illness. And of course, as she recovers, he gets sick, and and the polarity reverses as she takes care of him. “I told you so,” I screamed at the page. (No, I didn’t, but I thought it).

I wasn’t interested at all in hearing about the course of their illnesses. Odd, given my fondness for all things medical, but nope, not this time. I felt it made up too much of the story, but I suspect the proportion of present to past had to be that way to lend balance, or perhaps even as part of the homage element, and present needed to include possible future as well. Some interesting  stories got mixed in the past. This timescape is quite different than how time is handled in prior stories. There’s no melting of time, blending present, past, and future into one. Instead, while there’s an acknowledgement that the future will look different because of the past, each tense is clearly delineated. It’s a much more traditional approach to time.

But the far more interesting parts were in the Afterview sections, when they got together to share their thoughts a few months later.

“Have you been over?” he asked her. And nodded toward the skyline.
She shook her head. “In the beginning, I pictured my office every day. Eerie and empty. My desk, the bathrooms, the elevators. Now I’m having trouble believing they still exist. Or ever existed. Over there.” “I miss the place,” he said.
“Me too.”
The water lapped, silver and black against the apron of rough stones. There were the usual odd bits of wood, the ugly brown tatters and frills of what might once have been seaweed, a rolling plastic bottle, a Starbucks cup. “We sound like refugees,” she told him. “A couple of lonely immigrants.”
Distractedly, his thumb brushed the shoulder of his own coat. “Exiles,” he said.

I suspect this is the most relatable moment for a lot of readers. Some things have changed; others haven’t. What’s most changed is the way they view things, how they feel about things. And the overriding question is: what now?

It was what she had wanted to ask him as they walked, what she had, in fact, called him to discover. But she hadn’t found the chance. As they walked, the question – what now? – had become a betrayal of something, some intimacy, some fear or despondence, that was too fragile for this emerging post-pandemic life.

Their downfall as a couple was intimacy. Now, as they kiss through masks in the final scene, I wonder if the restricted intimacy makes it more likely that they will try again, having shared an incredibly intimate experience that had nothing to do with sex. She mentions, when she misunderstands something he says because of the masks, that she feels like not only her smell and taste but her hearing and vision have altered as well. “Changed utterly.” Does that mean they might find themselves together, or does it mean they have found friendship more rewarding than a romantic bond? And… is this a ridiculously trivial concern when so many have lost loved ones in a country resistant to mourning?

I thought this was a successful transposition of how she describes Porter’s story, the “post” referring to post-relationship as well as post-illness. War makes brothers of strangers; can this kind of stress make friends of unsuitable lovers?

 I’m still a little uncomfortable with it being too soon for this kind of story, which was published in August 2021. But maybe it’s not so bad an idea to write stories too soon, before time yields more answers. It documents a moment, and this way it’s more honest than trying to remember how we felt when so much was unknown. I also appreciated her comment, when asked if she was going to write the great pandemic novel: “I said the author of the great Coronavirus novel probably I’m guessing short stories, with their narrower focus, don’t need this tincture, since she has indeed written one. Or maybe it’s the homage approach that allows it.been born yet. Tincture of time seems necessary here.” I’m guessing short stories, with their narrower focus, don’t need this tincture, since she has indeed written one. Or maybe it’s the homage approach that allows it.

*  *  * 

  • McDermott’s One Story author interview can be found online.
  • Jake Weber was less than impressed with this story, and he does a good job of explaining exactly why (with three reasons, to make it feel official) in his post on Workshop Heretic.

4 responses to “BASS 2022: Alice McDermott, “Post” from One Story #280

  1. Well, unlike Jake, I don’t think I have three reasons for disliking it. Maybe if I really devoted myself to thinking about it, I would find them. But I don’t wish to spend more time thinking about it. Didn’t like the tone, the characters, the conclusion. There you go. Three.

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