Pushcart XLI: Melissa Pritchard, “The Carnation Milk Palace” from Ecotone #19

Was she beautiful, or was she only someone apart?
—Edith Wharton, “New Year’s Day”
 
Fourteen-year-old Charlotte fished the invitation from between unpaid bills—PG&E electric, her dermatologist, Dr. Gass—and a lapsed subscription to Ladies Home Journal. On the engraved card, cartoon bubbles fizzed from a champagne glass, bumped around the words: Join Glen and Stibsy! Ring in 1964!
The Haldens were the richest people her parents knew.

Complete story available online at Ecotone

I haven’t read the Wharton story quoted in the epigraph, but a few moments of Googling tells me it’s about an encounter at a New Year’s Eve party that, while quite innocent, fuels devastating rumors about one of the participants who prefers to keep the details private. In plot and tone, the two stories are quite different, but I can see the relevance of the quote to this coming-of-age story. Most of the characters keep things private: Charlotte’s mother goes to her grave preserving an open secret, and still regrets that she didn’t marry the rich boy; Dad is a great dancer, but spends his days doing probate law; Charlotte is put in private Catholic school, but the family is strongly atheistic.

On a metafictional note, the venue in which the story appears has great relevance as well. The mission statement for the journal Ecotone:

Ecotone’s mission is to publish and promote the best place-based work being written today….writing and art that reimagine place, and our authors interpret this charge expansively. An ecotone is a transition zone between two adjacent ecological communities, containing the characteristic species of each. It is therefore a place of danger or opportunity, a testing ground.

This story involves three biomes: the rich Haldens in their Carnation Milk Palace, the socially and economically disadvantaged Duffys, and Charlotte’s family right in the middle. Sort of a cross-section of America’s supposedly permeable class system. And Charlotte, traversing the ecotone on either side of her as needed. While she’s enchanted by Moira, her only visit to her home was uncomfortable. The transition up is much easier for her. What she may not realize is that the Haldens would regard her with the same suspicion and distaste as her parents have for the Duffys, but for the class-driven power they have to keep her from bothering them beyond an obligatory appearance at the annual party.

Charlotte’s relationship with Moira interest me far more than her brief aborted fumbling with the rich college boy on the coats in the Carnation Milk Palace, just above the ballroom where her parents were willing to humiliate her in their effort to feel beautiful for one evening.

Although she was outwardly docile, Charlotte’s inner life teemed….By contrast, Moira Duffy’s inner and outer lives were interchangeable. A willful bloom flashing up from the parched, rocky soil of her family, she intended to be a famous dancer in Paris or New York. Not ballet, deformity disguised as grace, but free, natural movement, modern dance. Her heroines were Isadora Duncan and Joan of Arc. Both, she told Charlotte, suffered unforgettable deaths, both stood for something.

Is Charlotte’s fascination with Moira because she is beautiful, or because she is someone apart? Whichever, Moira’s apparent openness (which, of course, might be the artifice of someone afraid of rejection) echoes the public/private self theme I hear mentioned in connection with the Wharton story. Charlotte’s mom went to her deathbed never knowing the secret she kept was long known. Moira is who she is no matter who likes it or doesn’t; she has nothing to hide. Charlotte has nothing to hide, either, and she’s trying very hard to hide that.

I find it interesting that the story gives us a glimpse of the future Charlotte, as well as her mom and dad and a school friend who doesn’t appear in the present of the story at all. Yet we don’t hear anything about Moira’s future, not even that they lost touch. That’s what stuck with me: what happens to Moira?

When she was sure he had gone, Charlotte stood, pulled up her torn tights, straightened her dress. Sitting back on edge of the bed, the room still whirling a little, she reached with her fingertips, among the richly textured coats, mink, camel’s hair, velvet, until she felt the cool, tight coils of black Persian lamb.

But at heart it’s Charlotte’s coming of age story. She encounters her first sexual moment, abbreviated as it is, with trembling. Is the trembling fear? Eagerness? Awe? I love the moment after, the burrowing for what I read as the tactile reassurance of her mother’s coat. The curly fur speaks to her impending adulthood; the rooting for mother, to the childhood she still has not fully left.

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