BASS 2017: Lauren Groff, “The Midnight Zone” from The New Yorker 5/23/16

TNY art by Jason Holley

TNY art by Jason Holley

It was an old hunting camp shipwrecked in twenty miles of scrub. Our friend had seen a Florida panther sliding through the trees there a few days earlier. But things had been fraying in our hands, and the camp was free and silent, so I walked through the resistance of my cautious husband and my small boys, who had wanted hermit crabs and kites and wakeboards and sand for spring break. Instead, they got ancient sinkholes filled with ferns, potential death by cat.

Complete story available online at TNY

And now for something completely different: a horror story. At least, that’s the direction Groff’s Contributor Note leans in: “Part of the horror of this story comes from the narrator being stuck in a confined space, with intense responsibilities, and having no real way out.” We have a mother with her two small children and a fairly serious head injury in a cabin surrounded by Florida critters. Add in the context that she’s had trouble doing some typical mother things, like shopping and cooking, while she’s been wildly successful doing other things, like taking them on adventures.

I’m sure it must be horrifying to be incapacitated yet still be responsible for the kids. But I didn’t really feel any of that while reading the story, I’m sorry to say. I wasn’t worried about the panther, or whatever creature left scat, or the kids going outside. I’m afraid this one was lost on me. I was completely perplexed, and a bit annoyed, by two lines, phrases really, one at the very beginning: “…I’d lost so much weight by then that I carried myself delicately….” This implies a pre-existing illness, most likely cancer, but there’s no mention of anything like that in the rest of the story. I don’t understand that. Who leaves a sick woman alone in a cabin in the middle of nowhere surrounded by panthers and bears? Who takes a sick woman there? A debilitated condition would also have a huge effect on the head injury; is she just not willing to think about it? Has she blocked any thoughts that lead to death for so long, it’s just second nature now?

The second annoying phrase came at the very end, when her husband returns, an event that should signal Everything Is Going To Be Fine but instead signals perhaps The Worst Has Happened:

In his face was a thing that made me go quiet inside, made a long slow sizzle creep up my arms from the fingertips, because the thing I read in his face was the worst, it was fear, and it was vast, it was elemental, like the wind itself, like the cold sun I would soon feel on the silk of my pelt.

Again, I’m not sure what “the silk of my pelt” means. Has she died and merged with the panther? Or is she just delirious from the head injury? I don’t like feeling stupid, and this story made me feel very stupid. I kept going back to one particular place, a dissociative episode that I thought might bring me closer to understanding what was happening in the story:

I counted slow breaths and was not calm by two hundred; I counted to a thousand.
The lantern flicked itself out and the dark poured in.
The moon rose in the skylight and backed itself across the black.
When it was gone and I was alone again, I felt the dissociation, a physical shifting, as if the best of me were detaching from my body and sitting down a few feet distant. It was a great relief….
Where my body and those of my two sons lay together was a black and pulsing mass, a hole of light.
I passed outside…. I couldn’t go away from it, I couldn’t return, I could only circle the cabin and circle it. With each circle, a terrible, stinging anguish built in me and I had to move faster and faster, each pass bringing up ever more wildness. What had been built to seem so solid was fragile in the face of time because time is impassive, more animal than human. Time would not care if you fell out of it. It would continue on without you.

I don’t think she speaks with the kids after this, though one is lying snuggled up to her, chewing her hair as he did when an infant. Is that regression of a terrified child whose mother is lying dead on the floor, or just a scared kid self-comforting? There is a midnight zone as described in the story: the dark depths of the ocean. I’m going to imagine she’s in a metaphorical midnight zone, except that isn’t really satisfying either.

The story reminded me of another Groff story, “Eyewall” in which, as I recall (it’s been a long time), a woman took a personal journey into her soul while curled up in a bathtub during a severe hurricane. Then there was Kevin Wilson’s “A Birth in the Woods,” which added a more emphatic supernatural element. But I drew a blank here.

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BASS 2017: Mary Gordon, “Ugly” from Yale Review 104.1

The company was sending me to Monroe for six weeks. Of course, professionally it was a good thing, a sign of their regard, their trust, and that was a relief. Because I was always afraid that one day – and it might be soon – they’d realize that I didn’t belong. That my place at Verdance, a company that manufactured herbal remedies, was really stolen and its relinquishment might be demanded, and with perfect justice, at any moment. My background was neither in science nor in business…. I have left English literature behind me.

Complete story available online at Yale Review

Here again is a story that seems narratively familiar: a woman goes to a place she figures she’s going to hate, and instead truly loves it. It’s a story about what’s beautiful and what’s ugly, and how we often get them mixed up. This could be a rewrite of a dozen popular movies – “Sister Act”, “Doc Hollywood”, “For Richer or Poorer”, but again, the story kept me reading. Granted, I’m pretty much a sentimental sap, but there was something both distant and embracing about Laura’s approach to the town, her gradual realization that life existed beyond the boundaries of New York and that she could be a different person, lead a different life. If she wanted to be.

The story itself is something that is not Beautiful in a literary sense – no bold moves, no daring revelations or unique structural components, no triple-layered symbolism, just a familiar plot shared with, oh my God, all those goofy movies – but if we just give it a chance and don’t immediately try to pigeonhole it into a period or genre, we might find something Beautiful. And, come on, that self-referentiality is pretty interesting.

It’s all about the chair. And the Dao de Jing.

Laura begins her six-week stay on work assignment in Missouri in a horrible apartment furnished in gray Contemporary Bleh. She sees a vase in a local antique shop and thinks that will make the Bleh more bearable, if she has one nice thing she can focus on. In the shop, she discovers both the chair, and Lois. Both are ugly by New York standards, and Laura, by virtue of having been shopping for furniture recently with her architect fiance, knows well the kind of unwelcoming-but-conceptually-intriguing upscale chair that the comfortable, inviting, green chair is not. She is, nevertheless, immediately taken with the green chair, and eventually comes to be just as taken with Lois, moving into her quaint little basement apartment for the rest of her stay along with a set of dishes decorated with little roses. The kind of dishes that would be absurd in New York, but in Lois’ basement apartment, are perfect.

The roses have special meaning to Laura. In her former life as a literary academic, she designed her doctoral thesis around rose imagery:

I wanted to focus on three poems about roses, Thomas Carew’s, Edmund Waller’s, and William Blake’s, using the poems to examine larger questions – questions of time, desire, beauty, death – and see how the image of the rose could illustrate the cultural differences these questions raised. I was told that my topic was both too small and too large. Three short poems, but three large historical periods. The Renaissance people wouldn’t venture into the part of the seventeenth century that moved into the eighteenth, and the Romantics felt they had no access to the earlier periods.
And in the end, after months of fruitless arguing with intransigent professors, I began to feel it wasn’t worth it….
I gave it up, with a little sadness, but not without a riven heart.
Sometimes, coming in and out of sleep, lines of the poems still come to me.

Now, as a factual matter, this is pretty thin; I can’t imagine such a topic being so problematic for potential advisors simply because it crosses periods. But as a story trope, it’s quite telling: she doesn’t fit where she wants to be, so she goes somewhere else. Technical writing for a semi-legitimate nutritional supplement company, and finally human resources. And now she’s in Missouri to cut everyone’s benefits. But she still dreams of the poetry of roses.

Laozi was on my mind throughout. The passage that came to me, from the second chapter of the Dao de Jing, was emphasized in two different ways in the two Chinese philosophy moocs I’ve taken. The first translation, from Chad Hansen’s course, emphasizes the dualism that language, a social rather than a natural process, encourages, as the very act of defining beautiful also creates the concept of ugly:

As soon as you’ve created this concept of beauty and everyone knows to operate according to this concept, then you create what’s ugly, everything that’s left out that isn’t applied to with that name. When the world knows to call things that are good at or skillful “good at”, then there is clumsiness, badness, poor performance.
Here Laozi observes that when a learned, known shared social dào guides us to deem (為 wéi) beautiful things as ‘beautiful’, automatically there will be the ugly: things that are not deemed (為 wéi) as beautiful.

~ Chad Hansen, “Humanity and Nature in Chinese Thought”

The second course, Edward Slingerland’s Chinese Thought: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science, used a different translation and thus had a different interpretation that goes along with Laozi’s exhortation to embrace weakness to become strong:

I think the point is that when we label something, when society labels something as beautiful that then causes it to become ugly. When you call something beautiful, you now are setting up an ideal that maybe isn’t the right ideal. And this could be distorting our appreciation of what’s really beautiful.
When we set up something, we say this is what’s beautiful. We’ve now fallen into repulsive or ugliness, because what’s happened is we now have this artificial, distorted view of what’s beautiful. That harms our ability to appreciate real beauty.
And the kind of tricky paradoxical thing about this is the text claims that if you embrace the lower part of the dyad, you end up getting both. So if you embrace weakness, you actually get strength at some level. So by being weak you become strong. And I think the way to understand this is by being ugly, and ugly by social standards, you become beautiful…. So the idea is by embracing the things that are not valued by society, you actually get the real thing that you want.

~ Edward Slingerland, “Chinese Thought: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science”

Beyond the notions of beauty and ugliness, or perhaps alongside would be a better way of putting it, is Laura’s constant feeling that she doesn’t fit in to the places she loves. What strikes me as truly tragic about this story is that she defines herself by where she does fit in, and thus finds herself unsuitable for the places she loves. And, sentimental sap that I am, I found the closing paragraphs broke my heart:

There wasn’t really much for me to pack up. I had decided I would leave the dishes and the chair. There wouldn’t be a place for them in my New York life. Lois would resell them to someone more appropriate, she’d make a little more money, and they could live in a home where they belonged….
It was just before seven; the light over the lake was silvery, and the clouds were beginning to be underlit: peach and mango, and a dark gray, like the kind of eye shadow you would only wear in a city, the kind that magazines call smoky. I looked back. There was my chair, framed by the dim emptiness. But it was not my chair, and I wondered if it ever really had been. ‘‘You are beautiful,’’ I said to it. ‘‘You are very beautiful. You are fine, you are good, you are full of goodness and I am not. You don’t belong with me. You wouldn’t want to belong to me. You should be grateful that you aren’t mine.’’

I’ve always said I cry at the drop of a hat. I don’t like to go to movies because I’ll cry over anything. I cried in “Flubber” when the robot died (the 11-year-old I was with was humiliated). So yes, I cried over a chair. Laura and the chair deserve each other, and I mean that in the most beautiful way.

BASS 2017: Danielle Evans, “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” from American Short Fiction #63

From the Edward James sculpture garden in Xilitla, Mexico

From the Edward James sculpture garden in Xilitla, Mexico

Two by two the animals boarded, and then all of the rest of them in the world died, but no one ever tells the story that way. Forty days and forty nights of being locked up, helpless, knowing everything you’d ever known was drowning all around you, and at the end God shows up with a whimsical promise that he will not destroy the world again with water, which seems like a hell of a caveat.
Dori must find something reassuring in the story. Dori is a preschool teacher and a pastor’s daughter, and she has found a way to carry the theme of the ark and the rainbow sign across the entire three days of her wedding…. The bridesmaid’s dresses are rainbow, not individually multicolored but ROY-G-BIV-ordered, and each bridesmaid appears to have been mandated to wear her assigned color all weekend; the red bridesmaid, for example, wore a red T-shirt to the airport, a red cocktail dress to dinner, and now red stilettos and a red sash reading BRIDESMAID for the bachelorette party. When assembled in a group, Dori’s bridesmaids look like a team of bridal Power Rangers.
Rena is not a bridesmaid but has been dragged along for the festivities thanks to the aggressive hospitality of the bridal party.

I kept thinking, This would make a great movie,. Something about the timing, the sequence of scenes, the wedding setting of course, the emotional progressions, just screamed “movie!” to me. At one point, Rena recognizes Dori’s actions “as a kind of apology. They are going to be friends now; they are going to seal it with intimate detail the way schoolgirls seal a blood sisterhood with a needle and a solemn touch.” It doesn’t quite work that way – the intimate detail is way more than Dori can process, and I doubt they’ll ever be friends in any case – but that’s the kind of cue I’m responding to: a kind of familiarity, a recognition of stock situations. A goofy bachelorette party, misunderstandings and suspicions, a road trip, an amusement park, revelations, a subdued epiphany. But the story has some great observations, and I found it highly readable with enough weight to keep it from floating away. I remember Evans from one of my first BASS reads; its good to see her here again, it’s been much too long.

Let’s clear up one thing right away: the title is a mnemonic for the colors of the rainbow. I was always a Roy G. Biv sort of gal, so I’d never heard this one before; it depends on where you went to school. If there’s something about Richard of York that makes him particularly relevant here, please let me know.

Weddings are great story devices. You’ve got this iconic event with built-in symbolism and expectations, a situation naturally filled with all kinds of emotional energy. The stage is pre-set for humor, drama, sorrow, regret, anger, fear, hatred, all part of any wedding; you can hang any nuance you want on it simply by altering, omitting, or amplifying an element. It isn’t even necessary to include the wedding itself.

Rena and Dori are from different universes. Rena’s a photojournalist, doing serious work about violence and oppression around the world, while Dori’s been waiting ten years for JT to stop finding new ways to avoid marriage. And now, when she’s finally getting him to the altar, he bolts at 4am. Rena’s his friend, having spent some brief intense time with him when their professional paths crossed five years earlier, so she’s wearing suspicion the way the bridesmaids are wearing colors, suspicion that only deepens since she happened to see him on his way out. When Dori asks where he went, Rena gives her an address, and Wedding Movie turns into Road Trip Movie.

Dori’s wedding is a stage setting for a more central drama – no, that’s not the right way to put it. It’s an emotional tether between the two women. Unbeknownst to Dori, Rena’s last involvement with a wedding was serving as maid of honor to her sister, now severely disabled since being shot in the head by her husband. Rena hasn’t visited her in three years, though she’s heard she’s getting to the point where she’s getting to the point where she might recognize a few words on good days.

All her adult life people have asked Rena why she goes to such dangerous paces, and she has always wanted to ask them where the safe place is. The danger is in chemicals and airports and refugee camps and war zones and regions known for sex tourism. The anger also sometimes took their trash out for them. The danger came over for movie night and bought them a popcorn maker for Christmas. The danger hugged her mother and shook her father’s hand.

This paragraph kept running through my head yesterday as I watched yet another death toll grow, this one in Sutherland Springs, TX: 17, at least 20, 26, including a dozen kids. We will all pay for our unwillingness to address this, some day, I believe.

One of the most interesting things about the story is more subtle. Rena tells Dori about the shooting twice, and both times, Dori makes it all about her: how could Rena tell her such an awful tale on her wedding day? And why did she give the sister’s address as where TJ had run off to?

“The house where your sister got shot was the first thing that came to mind when I asked if you knew where my fiance was?”
“It’s always the first thing that comes to mind,” Rena says, and she is too relieved by the honesty to be ashamed.

There’s another interaction I found particularly interesting. The disappearing groom texts the two girls on their road trip, telling them he’s back at the house, ready to get married. “He has come back to the place where whatever his decision is, it always stands.” Power. The person who cares less about the relationship always has the most power.

I’ll admit, the opening read of Noah’s Ark – we blithely chalk up the death toll to those who deserved it, but how is that possible? – had me on the story’s side from the beginning. Not only is it an apt metaphor for the wedding party being temporarily immune to reality, but it’s a good reading of the tale. It’s like the story of Job: it’s his suffering that’s highlighted when Satan murders his family as part of a bet with God. And then at the end, he gets a new wife and kids, so everything’s ok. But the old wife and kids are still dead, and no one ever thinks about them. Sort of like being so focused on your wedding that you never realize someone just told you her sister was shot. It’s not our fault, really; there’s only so much the consciousness can register, and something has to be relegated to “other”.

The story ends with Dori and Rena still on the road, with that sometimes-trite, sometimes-poignant postcard phrase “Wish you were here.” I can see many ways it might fit, but it seems to me – and I think Rena allows herself to acknowledge it – that her sister is here, always, here.

BASS 2017: Patricia Engel, “Campoamor” from Chicago Quarterly Review #23

Natasha is my girlfriend. Sometimes I love her. Sometimes I don’t think of her at all. When I met her she had a broken leg. I was visiting my friend Abel, who sells mobile phone minutes and lives down the hall from her in a building behind the Capitolio. I heard her crying, calling for anyone. I thought it was an old woman who’d fallen, but when I pushed the door open I saw a girl, maybe twenty-five, standing like an ibis on one leg, leaning on a metal crutch, her other leg bent and floating in a plaster cast. The stray crutch lay meters from her reach across the broken tile floor.
She looked angry even though I was there to help her. I stepped into her apartment, saw she was alone, picked up the crutch, and handed it to her. She slipped it under her arm and thanked me….
I asked her name and she told me Natasha, embarrassed the way we of our generation are to have Russian names.
“It’s ok,” I told her. “My name’s Vladimir.”

And again, as with so many stories in this year’s volume (or maybe I’m just noticing it more), there’s a dichotomy. Or rather, several dichotomies: Cuba and the world. The young, single girlfriend, and the older, married girlfriend. But most striking: the dichotomy of time. Past and future; then and now; now and some day.

It took a while for me to get oriented. I had no idea what the whole embarrassment about Russian names implied. I didn’t know that Cubans of 25 years ago gave their kids Russian manes. I’m American, so Cuba is a mystery to me, ironic since it’s so close and that very closeness is why it’s been shrouded in mystery. A Canadian friend once mentioned going to Cuba, and I was kind of shocked: isn’t that forbidden, or at least severely restricted? I had the same initial reaction when I read in Engel’s Contributor Note that she had gone to Cuba to research her novel The Veins of the Ocean. Of course, things are a bit different now, but the more things change…

Vladimir and Natasha’s quixotic romance plays out in the shadow of the Campoamor, the Havana performance hall closed in the 60s and falling to ruin. The metaphor is obvious (and yes, there is in real life an eccentric who lives in the ruins of the Campoamor). The mere presence of the building, more than descriptions of the bleak cityscape or their daily struggles, gives the story a melancholy tone, and creates the sense of multiple times existing at once, a crumbling reminder of the Havana of Hemingway and Sinatra.

We sit near what used to be the stage, where great performers once sang, where elaborate sets and intricate costumes were worn….Here in the Campoamor she is again that girl of the ripped sofa, who looks at me as if I pulled her out of darkness. Not the hard-edged girl I see walking on the street when she thinks she’s alone and doesn’t know I’m watching.
Here in the Campoamor I love only her.

Divided loyalties play out as Vladimir shuttles between Natasha and Lily, between staying and leaving. Home, however flawed it may be, is still home.

I find it interesting that for the second story in a row, we have a writer who doesn’t write. Vladimir’s description of not-writing is particularly acute: “I hear the sentences, see each phrase come together like pearls on a string, but when it comes time to write them they evaporate…..” I’ve heard editors frown on “writer stories” because they’re ubiquitous, but only a writer can do justice to not-writing. I’ve done some amazing writing when I’m in bed almost falling asleep, but by the time I get to a pen and paper it’s gone. Or maybe all that was there in the first place was the sense that something was there, a Campoamor of words in my brain.

I think the best guide to the story is found in Engel’s Contributor Note:

I wanted to write a story that reflected the ambiguous loyalties I observed in so many young people in Cuba, the ways that patriotism and survival are often in direct conflict, the negotiation of public and private life, and respective hidden desires…. I wrote it to remind myself of that particular time at the end of 2014, when there was a blend of cautious hope and skepticism that change might come to the island after decades of suffocating stillness.

~~ Patricia Engel

I’m not sure why dilapidated buildings are so evocative. Is it just me? Maybe they evoke the ruins of Ozymandias, or a sense of what could have been. Here in particular, the Janus faces are both lined with nostalgia and regret even as they glow with hope.

BASS 2017: Emma Cline, “Arcadia” from Granta #136

Granta art by Emli Bendixen / Millennium Images

Granta art by Emli Bendixen / Millennium Images

“There’s room for expansion,” Otto said over breakfast, reading the thin-paged free newspaper the organic people sent out to all the farms. He tapped an article with his thick finger, and Peter noticed that Otto’s nail was colored black with nail polish, or a marker. Or maybe it was only a blood blister.
“We draw a leaf or some shit on our label,” Otto said, squinting at the page. “Even if it just kind of looks like this. People wouldn’t know the difference.”

Complete story available online at Granta

That line about the black nail, coming in the first paragraph like that, stood out to me. I kept thinking about it; these aren’t city kids in a Brooklyn loft hoping to be discovered. Why would a farm guy would think another farm guy would be using black nail polish? It couldn’t be a throwaway line, not featured so prominently; no editor would stand for that. As I was reading the story, I kept making notations about public and private; it seemed like the crux of the story. But I think that’s a subordinate theme. The whole story is in that opening discussion: what’s real, what’s fake, what’s natural, what’s artificial about these people, and who’s kidding whom about the relationships among them?

It took me a while to figure out who was who. Otto and Heddy are siblings who are functionally parent and child. Heddy and Peter are… to call them lovers or engaged feels too romanticized, too deliberate; they’re basically kids who found themselves pregnant, so Peter moved in and they’ll get married at some point. “Peter had moved into Heddy’s childhood bedroom, still cluttered with her porcelain dolls and crumbling prom corsages, and tried to ignore the fact of Otto’s room just down the hall” kind of sums it up, and creeps me out.

Peter feels the most familiar to me. He’s bewildered and a bit unsure of himself and his role in the family and on the farm, but he seems to have a straightforward, honest outlook. Except that he kind of read Heddy’d diary and stole her idea about setting up a website for the farm, a transgression that seems to bother him more than it bothers Heddy, if she’s even aware of it.

At the start of the story, Heddy, all of eighteen going on twelve, is starting junior college, armed with an array of notebooks and variously colored pens and ready to figure out how to cover her textbooks with paper bags, studying French and salsa dancing, going swimming in the afternoons for “low-impact exercise”. Turns out, she’s a lot better at getting ready to go to school than she is at school.

Which plays into the path of the story: I know nothing about life on a small Northern California farm, but I do know that change is hard, especially when you’re in a family that’s determined to maintain the status quo. As with the diary reading, whether Heddy’s aware or not is ambiguous; it’s Peter who realizes his vision of moving into their own place with “curtains for the nursery that she’d want to sew herself” is a fantasy, that they’re going to be living down the hall from Otto for the forseeable future.

And oh, by the way, Arcadia is the mythic Greek land of natural perfection – and the home of the libidinous woodland god Pan.

Then I come back to the black fingernail. Peter, the point-of-view character and observer/processor, doesn’t attach value to the options, whether it’s artifice, accident, or the remnants of a wound. He just notices, and presents the picture of Otto and Heddy for us to sort out.

BASS 2017: Jai Chakrabarti, “A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness” from A Public Space #24

Thursdays because it was on a Thursday that they had met three years ago, that time of year when the city is at its most bearable, when the smell of wild hyacinth cannot be outdone by the stench of the gutters, because it is after the city’s short winter, which manages, despite its brevity, to birth more funerals than any other time of year. In the city’s spring, two men walking the long road from Santiniketan back to Kolkata — because the bus has broken and no one is interested in its repair — are not entirely oblivious to the smells abounding in the wildflower fields, not oblivious at all to their own smells.

Complete story available online at Lithub

Where and under what conditions I read a story often factors in to my understanding and enjoyment of it. I started this one on a city bus, continued it waiting for another bus, and finished it up once I got home. I realized that was sloppy reading and invited sloppy comments, so I re-read it, and sure enough, I’d missed that the story takes place in 1979 or so. I’m not familiar enough with contemporary India to how much difference that makes, but everywhere, there are still places that are dangerous for gay couples.

It’s a rich boy – poor boy romance carried out in once-a-week visits every Thursday. The ping that sets things in motion is Nikhil’s desire to have a baby. Sharma has a wife of sorts, Tripti – friends without benefits – as protection, and Nikhil’s idea is to use her as the incubator. I use that language deliberately, because it’s more or less how he seems to see it. Sex with a woman would be somewhat unpleasant but “a small sacrifice for an enormous happiness.”

The problem is, Nikhil is in love, and that means he’s tone-deaf. Or maybe he’s just naturally tone-deaf; throughout there are many signs that he’s not particularly empathetic. He’s condescending as hell to Tripti, and a bit offended when she doesn’t show the expected deference. Interesting how someone ready to challenge norms only wants to challenge the ones that constrain him. I’m not convinced Sharma’s hands are 100% pure, either; I suspect love has nothing to do with it, as far as he’s concerned.

Much of the story is highly sensual; nothing more explicit is needed. I saw some moments as humorous, such as: Nikhil shows up at the foundry where Sharma works to show him baby clothes, and Sharma tries to keep up a pretense that he’s a customer complaining about a late order. It’s a nice read.

The story is driven to its climax when Nikhil visits Tripti to work out the plan with her, but she’s not buying it. He waits at the train station to catch a glimpse of Sharma coming home from work:

He saw Sharma as the crowd was thinning out. He was walking with someone dressed in the atrocious nylon pants that were the fashion, and perhaps they were telling jokes, because Sharma was doubled over laughing. In all their evenings together, he couldn’t recall seeing Sharma laugh with so little inhibition as now, so little concern about who would hear that joyous voice — who would think, What are those two doing? He watched Sharma walk along the dirt road toward his house, but it was an entirely different progress; he was stopping to inspect the rows of wildflowers on the path, to chat up the farmer who’d bellowed his name.
He kept watching Sharma’s retreating form until he could see nothing but the faint shape of a man crossing the road.

In his Contributor Note, Chakrabarti writes of his grandparent’s house in Kolkota: “I can sense the stories that these old walls must have seen… I imagine Nikhil’s perilous journey, up those steps and into the humid air that feels at once constricting and full of possibility.” Yet it was these two outdoor scenes quoted here that stayed with me the longest, due to their parallelism, and the message that seemed crystal-clear to me but stayed submerged in Nikhil’s subconscious as he snatched back his gift. That’s the teaser of the story for me: who’s the bad guy, who’s the victim – if anyone is either?

BASS 2017: Kevin Canty, “God’s Work” from The New Yorker, 4/4/16

Sander loves his mother. He walks a few steps after her, wearing a new black suit that has room for him to grow into, carrying a big black valise of pamphlets. When his mother goes to the front door, rings the bell, waits for an answer, Sander stands behind her, looking over her shoulder, with an expression on his face that he means to be pleasant.
It’s the second day of his summer vacation, but it still feels like spring. Lilacs bloom in every yard; irises wag their pink and purple tongues at him.
His mother is plain. She wears a gray sweater, despite the sun, and a black skirt that reaches nearly to her ankles. No lipstick, short, practical hair. Her name is Anna. She makes up for her plainness with a big galvanic smile. People are on her side right away, though they rarely open the screen door and almost never take a pamphlet. Nobody new ever comes to Fellowship. Anna doesn’t take this as permission to stop trying. She thinks the men and women and children in these sleeping houses will lose the chance to live life as God intended unless they take the message she brings them in the pamphlet. Sander thinks she is lovely and brave and admirable. Every day, she tries to save strangers. Selfless. Sander loves his mother.
Today! is the name of the pamphlet.

Complete story available online at The New Yorker

Those first paragraphs do a fair amount of work. We see the two major characters clearly in terms of their physicality, their relationship to each other, and their relationship to the scene. We may even suppress a little groan, depending on our backgrounds. But this woman is not the crazy mother from Carrie; she’s merely got a mission not many of us understand. And her son seems to believe fully in the purpose of his role.

But there’s more going on as well in the short paragraphs (maybe it’s in the short paragraphs that everything is always hidden). Sander notices it’s Spring, all abloom with pink tongues. And then there’s that line in the fourth paragraph: “Today! is the name of the pamphlet.” It’s amost poetic how those two short paragraphs are placed, spring coming between mother and son, followed by a dramatic, capitalized, italicized, and exclamation-pointed notice of “Today! at the end, a notification that this will not be just another day. As an aside, I remember another story (“Happy Endings”) where Canty did something very much like this, a character’s noticing the blooming spring paralleling his own sexual blooming.

The story follows an almost, but not quite, predictable path. Yes, there’s a girl. And yes, she’s from Sanders’ school, and he’s caught between God and Mammon just like most of us are, but to him it’s a much bigger deal. Because he’s really, truly serious about God; and he’s acutely aware that he looks dorky, especially with the bad haircut he just got. There’s also the girl’s dad, who seems to enjoy making a bit of sport out of baiting proselytizers, much to the girl’s dismay.

It is exactly the person he was afraid it was, Clara Martinson, she of the ripped T-shirt, raccoon eyes, pierced anything, the next grade up from his, this girl who looks and dresses the way every teen girl would if there was nobody to tell her she couldn’t. Which there isn’t. Please, dear God, make me disappear, Sander thinks. Send me to the solar surface and vaporize me.
“What do you want?” she says. Then she notices Sander in his black suit and haircut. O.K.: there is something in each of us, in every sinner (and Sander knows that we are all sinners), that wants to climb toward the light, and for a moment, in Clara’s eyes, Sander sees the longing for grace.
Then, just as quickly, the window shuts. She says, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, Dad.”

Here’s where we expect she’s going to play Eve and tempt Sander right out of the Garden. But that isn’t exactly what happens. She seems sincere, if dubious, about the longing for grace, showing up for Fellowship several times, dressing more respectfully for walks with Sander, even rejecting his timid advance. And then her father whisks her away to parts unknown, possibly to keep her from getting involved with what he considers charlatans. Or maybe he whisks her away for another reason. In any case, she’s gone, and Sander is left with his longings.

I see pretty clearly now, after three stories, what Heidi Pitlor meant in her Foreword when she said these stories “reflect a country profoundly divided.” In the first story, we had two realities based on memory, as well as two brothers separated; in the second, we had Old and New battling it out. Here, we have Believers and Heathens. But it’s not the medium, it’s the centrality that medium plays in their lives, and the calcification of a position that excludes all others from validity. Here, it’s religion, but we can become rigidly embedded in all sorts of single issues that overshadow everything else life has to offer and become pigeonholes for judging people: political beliefs, social or class customs, even artistic tastes.

Canty reveals in his TNY interview that he based the story on a real life situation, a kid tagging along with his mother passing out religious literature. He wanted to explore the conflicts the kid might feel between sin and salvation.I didn’t find Sander’s struggle with overcoming temptation as interesting as I found the overall oppositional structure of the two families. Clara’s dad seems to delight in being anti-religious as much as Anna delights in the Lord. And in between are the two teenagers, each used to their worlds, and curious about the other side. What might’ve happened if dad hadn’t intervened? Would the two have found a middle ground in spite of their parents, each of them understanding the world beyond their own boundaries a little better? Or would it have gone all Romeo and Juliet?

But the story before us is the story we have. It’s interesting, considering that Canty had no clear path in mind when he set the characters in motion, that he chose one that seemed, to me, the least interesting possibility, a sudden and completely unexplained departure, taking the decision out of Sander’s hands entirely and leaving him with only memory. Will it fester, destroy his faith from within? Or will it heal in time? And by the way, how does someone pull up stakes and move so fast? Maybe that’s a part of the world outside my experience that I need to explore further.

BASS 2017: T. C Boyle, “Are We Not Men” from The New Yorker, 11/7/16

The dog was the color of a maraschino cherry, and what it had in its jaws I couldn’t quite make out at first, not until it parked itself under the hydrangeas and began throttling the thing. This little episode would have played itself out without my even noticing, except that I’d gone to the stove to put the kettle on for a cup of tea and happened to glance out the window at the front lawn. The lawn, a lush blue-green that managed to hint at both the turquoise of the sea and the viridian of a Kentucky meadow, was something I took special pride in, and any wandering dog, no matter its chromatics, was an irritation to me. The seed had been pricey—a blend of Chewings fescue, Bahia, and zoysia incorporating a gene from a species of algae that allowed it to glow under the porch light at night—and, while it was both disease- and drought-resistant, it didn’t take well to foot traffic, especially four-footed traffic.

Complete story available online at online at TNY

I’ve gone back a few times to figure out when I first realized what was going on in this story; it wasn’t in the opening paragraph. Oh, sure, a cherry-red dog is odd, but it was a scene of chaos and confusion, so I expected it to be explained in a few paragraphs – he’d been covered in blood, or paint, or maraschino cherry juice for that matter, something. Or the speaker was on drugs. The grass didn’t really strike me either, since most lawn grasses are hybrids; maybe it was a little weird getting down to the gene level, but again, I chalked that up to the speaker’s point of view. What I wrote in the margin was simply, “Colors!”

It’s a credit to the story that it took me so long to realize this wasn’t stylistics or character, but genetic engineering via CRISPR-Cas9. I mean, I’ve taken moocs about this stuff. And Tim Blais at Acapella Science made one of his most spectacular videos on the subject (seriously, even if you’re not interested in genetic technology, his riff on “Mr. Sandman” is extraordinary, go take a peek). So for the introduction to smoothly dive into near-future speculation without a lot of heavy-handed exposition is a credit to the story. Or maybe I’m just dense, but I’d rather go the other way.

Once the setting is nailed down (and there’s plenty of heavy-handed exposition in the middle for those who haven’t been spending a lot of time in biomoocs) the story’s a tragicomic romance about a couple of neighbors bonding over the micropig killed by the cherry pit (the name the marketers came up with for the maraschino-red dog) and the out-of-lab procreation that results…. But screw that, my favorite part is the crowparrots.

(I don’t know if you have crowparrots in your neighborhood yet, but, believe me, they’re coming. They were the inspiration of one of the molecular embryologists at the university here, who thought that inserting genes from the common crow into the invasive parrot population would put an end to the parrots’ raids on our orchards and vineyards, by giving them a taste for garbage and carrion instead of fruit on the vine. The only problem was the noise factor—something in the mix seemed to have redoubled not only the volume but the fury of the birds’ calls, so that you needed earplugs if you wanted to enjoy pretty much any outdoor activity.)
Which was the case now. The birds were everywhere, cursing fluidly (“Bad bird! Fuck, fuck, fuck!”) and flapping their spangled wings in one another’s faces.

When you consider that parrots only repeat what they’ve heard often enough to learn it, it’s pretty hilarious. It’s all a terrific situational setup.

But… does the story go anywhere after it’s set up? You’ve got a guy caught between new and old – his wife impregnated with a custom embryo via CRISPR, the neighbor who he just impregnated the old-fashioned way – and a teenage girl as an onlooker. Just as the story finishes the exposition and is ready to really start, it ends with a hint that the new world is going to destroy itself, just as the dogcat destroys the crowparrot.

In his TNY interview with Deboran Treisman, Boyle commented at length about his concerns about CRISPR. It’s a valid concern. But I’m brought back to something Heidi Pitlor wrote in her Foreword: “…fiction tends to be more successful without forceful agendas”.

I’ve read stories that connected me with issues I’d never heard of, that drew me closer to issues I already cared about, and I’ve read stories that shaped my views on some things. George Saunders won my heart with his early anti-consumerism work. But this wasn’t one of those. It read to me like George Saunders on a bad day.

I loved Boyle’s Burrito story from Pushcart XLI. I mentioned then that I wondered if I’d been a little harsh on some of his stories in the past. I think it’s more the case that, for me, he’s hit or miss. That one was a hit; this one’s a miss. But obviously other people liked it. Or maybe they liked the issue.

BASS 2017: Chad B. Anderson, “Maidencane” from Nimrod 60.1

Torsten Warmuth: “Life is but a memory”

Torsten Warmuth: “Life is but a memory”

Nowadays, the memory starts like this: there’s a rush in the red dirt, and you and your brother snatch up the tackle box and run from the girl. She flings her fishing pole at you and yells that her daddy will just buy her another tackle box. And another, and another. The girl’s echoes follow you along the riverbank. The river is green and appears desolate—no motorboats, no fishermen, no teenagers cannonballing, no herons stretching, no feral cats pawing the muck for crayfish, frogs, or mice—which only sharpens the sounds: the orchestra of insects, the whistles of birds, the girl’s fading echoes, your steady breath. Your and your brother’s white t-shirts are smeared with mud, and he has a cassette tape in the back pocket of his jean shorts. You wish you could remember the songs he liked. There’s only this Saturday left, and you two are only a day from losing each other.

Complete story available online at Nimrod

Which is more important: what we remember, or what we forget? Our protagonist has been recently haunted by a long-ago day that started out like any other, but that ended up signalling a big change: parental divorce, estrangement from a trusted brother. As it happens, it’s the other events of the day that end up preserved in crystal clarity.

It’s a story that’s packed with interwoven elements, making it hard to write about in a linear fashion. So, I’ll start with a list of what I noticed, and do the best I can to not get too tangled up in connective tissue.

The second-person narrative: I’m very fond of second person, and I’ve hypothesized before that might be because the ones that get published must be exceptional to break through the “Oh, no, second person again” editorial resistance. Typically, in this kind of direct second person (as opposed to “instruction manual” style), the narrative voice is the protagonist speaking either to him/herself, or to another character. I found it particularly interesting that this is not the case here: there’s an extended passage revealing the death of girl on the dock, beginning with “You don’t know this” and ending with “All of this you don’t know.” This adds an element of something akin to dramatic irony, where the reader is aware of something but the character is not. This second-person voice zooming in and zooming out reminds me of the “voice of God” writer Thomas Kearnes once mentioned as a way he used second person in a particular story.

It also fleshes out an earlier sentence: “You don’t know your brother any more, and the girl on the dock is dead.” Here, we assume the protagonist knows the girl is dead; we don’t find out for a page or so that this is not the case. It’s also an interesting place to use different senses of the word “know”: “You don’t know your brother any more” indicates the status of a relationship, not information. “You don’t know” could attach to “the girl on the dock is dead” – or it might be a separate clause. Knowing, not-knowing, is on precarious footing in this story. This is exquisitely careful writing.

You feel embarrassed, as if you’ve foolishly believed something for a long time and suddenly your brother has revealed to you what maybe, just maybe, everyone else has known all along: the girl on the dock does not exist and your brother never thought much of you and you are more broken than you ever understood.
“Never mind,” you tell your brother. Across the room, your boyfriend looks at you with such pity, as if he, too, has always known during all of your stories and memories and confessions that you were misguided, silly, a fool. That look of pity, which you’ve never seen on his face before, at least not for you, feels brutal, like a betrayal, like a hook snagged in flesh. You want to hurt him.

This precarious state of knowledge comes to fruition in the final scene, when our protagonist, contacted by the long-estranged brother, tries to build a path between them, a way to get to know the brother again, using this memory. Turns out, the brother’s memory is a bit different. He’s edited out the girl entirely, and shifted some details of agency. Is his modified memory a way of protecting himself from blame and guilt? Was it more trivial than the protagonist has led us to believe? Or – and here’s the precarious nature of knowledge – has the protagonist changed the memory? What really happened that day? We can’t know. So the narrator’s words apply again, but this time it’s the reader who hears them: “You don’t know this.”

It’s heartbreaking how the failure of this connection seems to mean, to the protagonist, that rekindling a relationship with the brother is not worthwhile, and further generates resentment of the boyfriend’s reaction of pity. But this fits with something else that kept nagging at me as I read the story: gender.

I reread the story very carefully, and I find no place in which the protagonist’s sex is explicitly indicated. I read him (and I will use that pronoun for convenience from here on) as male. The sibling relationship seemed male to me, his reaction to the girl on the dock seemed male, and if the kids had been one boy and one girl, I would think Mom would take the girl and leave the boy with Dad. I probably also subconsciously kept in mind the male name of the author, since I’ve done that before. But I keep thinking of something Meg Wolitzer said in her introduction, that in giving students “surprise ending” stories so frequently, teachers were training students to expect that, to read for that, and to reject what didn’t fit. And here I was, yes even in 2017 with daily doses of feminism in my twitter feed, reading masculinity on the thinnest of pretenses.

The precarious state of knowledge, indeed. This is not accidental. The protagonist is unnamed. He has a boyfriend and a girlfriend. And, by the way, the two most important people in his life are his brother, and the girl on the dock, a boy and a girl, neither of whom he knows any more.

I’ve been mulling this story over for a couple of days, and I keep coming up with new things to add, so who knows what I’ve left out. Just a few more things:

Considering the story is about connections – the protagonist’s connection with the girl on the dock, and with his brother – it’s interesting that the story connects two scenes of action, one at the beginning and one at the end, with a long stretch of exposition and backstory. That’s almost cheating, since the “action” at the end is a phone call and a look across the room. The contrast is that, while the connections described in the story don’t work, the connective structure does. Granted, it’s not an edge-of-your-seat story, but the moodiness is kind of hypnotizing, as in this passage:

Of all the bars you manage, you like the one by the harbor the best, despite all the tourists it attracts. You work the late shifts, and when it’s closed and the crew is mostly gone, you stare at the water. It is here where your mind becomes its most acrobatic, its most macabre and fantastical. You imagine the bodies of the dead in the bottom muck; you imagine sunken boats and cars and guns rusting, breaking down; you imagine sick, rugged, bruised fish, no-nonsense and one-eyed. You imagine walking among the fish, joining them, just stepping off the edge and plunging into the water, and the fish swarming you, using the hooks of failed fishermen to snag your skin and drag you down to live in the metallic post-apocalyptic landscape they’ve created among the skeletons of people and machinery. They will eat you, bit by bit, and it won’t hurt at all, and you’ll be just a few little pieces, feather-light and scattered across the waters of the harbor and the Patapsco and the Chesapeake and the Atlantic. And one day, you’ll rise, evaporate into a cloud, and rain down on anyone who ever said they loved you, cling to their hair and drip into their ears, explore the thickets and tunnels of their minds for every thought they’ve ever had of you.

I think if I have one complaint about the story, it’s the fishhook. He gets a lot of mileage out of it, but maybe it’s a little too on-the-nose?

And about the title: maidencane is a kind of weed, it seems. But more than that, it covers the grave of the girl on the dock, a grave neglected even by her parents. She is the memory of that day, a day that ended so much, a memory covered over by time, forgotten by all except one melancholy bar manager who still remembers, but can’t connect.

BASS 2017: The turn of the leaf

I have a theory that it’s more difficult to hide ourselves when writing fiction than nonfiction, even certain memoirs. So much is revealed in the poses that we choose to strike, the silences we allow, and the conflicts we dramatize. And if fiction tends to be more successful without forceful agendas, the genre does tend to offer at least a window onto an author’s aesthetics and emotionality, and often their values.
The stories in this volume – bold, intimate, enlightening, entertaining – reflect a country profoundly divided.

Heidi Pitlor, Foreword

When photography was first developed, cameras were classified as philosophical instruments, following the custom from ancient times of referring to science as natural philosophy. The idea that photography could be art seemed absurd. A photograph didn’t create, it showed what was there, what was real. This changed, of course, as it became evident that the point of view the photographer chose, the focal point, the subject itself, the degree of sharpness or blur, use of light and dark, were indeed artistic choices. In a similar way, nonfiction has grown into art – hence the emergence of the category creative nonfiction. And while it may seem an author can hide the personal behind characters and plot points, it is the person, the psyche of the author, who chooses what characters and what plot points. The truth will out, even in fiction, whether joyous or grim.

I found something in the foreword to be oddly comforting: following her question, “How does one even read short stories now?” Pitlor refers to the introductions of the 1942 edition, issued on the heels of Pearl Harbor. While that may seem more grim than comforting, what I scribbled in the margin was something along the lines of: “We survived then. We can survive now.” I don’t really believe that at this moment, but, as they say in twelve step groups, fake it ‘til you make it.

I confess to some degree of ignorance vis-a-vis Meg Wolitzer. I know the name, of course, but for whatever reason, I haven’t yet encountered her work. Let’s say I’m unencumbered by expectations. I hope her choice of stories will reveal her to me.

[Y]ou might not necessarily gasp; but without a doubt you will find yourself in a place you didn’t know about before. A place where you didn’t expect.

In short stories, I don’t think characters or their situation or their surroundings change as frequently as they turn.
The stories in this year’s edition… live, and breathe, and again and again in them there is some kind of turn.

Meg Wolitzer, Introduction

She uses the conceit from my own favorite O. Henry story “The Last Leaf”, a parable of hope and love with a trick ending. But trick endings, she points out, often serve as the only reason for the rest of the story to exist. Hence her preference for the turn over the surprise, the subtle shift rather than the grand epiphany. I think Wolitzer is right when she says we’ve been conditioned to expect certain things by what we’ve read in the past. Maybe it’s time to recognize a story’s defiance of our expectations not as flaw, but an opportunity. There’s plenty out there to read that fits what we know; the unfamiliar grows new sensibilities.

As usual, I see some very familiar names in the table of contents (Jim Shephard, Jess Walter, Lauren Groff, T.C.Boyle, Amy Hempel), some I’ve read only once but am pleased to see again (Danielle Evans, Eric Puchner), and many I’ve never seen before (which isn’t saying much, since I’m pathetically under-read). But enough of this standing poised on the edge; it’s time to jump in.

What is art going to give us now? Will the leaf clinging to the vine be proven to be not art but purely artifice, a false comfort that can’t actually save anyone’s life and in fact is pretty much good for nothing?

Meg Wolitzer, Introduction

I choose to believe (today, at least) in the art of the leaf. I need to believe in it. I will fill my walls with painted leaves. And if it turns out it’s artifice, what difference does it make, if we see the Spring.

Pushcart XLI: Reading in the Time of Solastalgia

Trini Schultz: “The Sound of Rain”

Trini Schultz: “The Sound of Rain”

Solastalgia is a very good word, made by combining the Latin solacium (comfort) and the Greek root -algia (pain). Philosopher Glenn Albrecht created it to define “the pain experienced when the place one lives and where one resides is under assault.”

~~ Lisa Purpura, “Scream (or Never Minding)”

It’s a question I seem to hear amongst the smartest, most creative, most engaged people I know: Does writing matter, now, in this time? So many of us feel our space is under assault on multiple fronts. I can only write so many letters, donate so much money, to do what I can to keep light in the world. The psychic, spiritual, and emotional nourishment from reading, thinking about what I’ve read, and forming tiny essays in response, seems far better than curling up in bed and pulling the covers over my head.

These characters, poems, these stories fictional and real – a rejected teenager trying to find her art, a charmingly goofy children’s author from the Faroe Islands, a New Orleans rapper, a Russian mobster, a fungus-lady, a burrito maker, a Brazilian telegraph operator, a disabled vet and the animal shelter worker who accidentally euthanized his dog, a woman on a strange trip through Vienna, an anorexic college student, a farmer recovering from great loss, a Jewish family over decades of change, an unwilling drug cartel participant – are a precious resource and we would be poorer without them. I’m grateful to the writers who put these words on paper, and I hope they know they serve a vital purpose, “holding open a space that is always under threat of being shut down” as artist Jenny Odell put it.

As I progressed through the volume, I tried to keep an eye on connected themes. It seemed we started with explorations of art in its many forms: its purpose, effects, practitioners. The body came into focus, shifting to embodiment and the joining of the body with the natural world, turning to psychic connections with each other and with something outside ourselves. Then disconnectivities, whether through chance or choice, emerged, just in time for the reader to disconnect from the book and move on. Of course, I could be imposing my own moods on defenseless entries, seeing Orion in unrelated stars or a face on the surface of Mars. That’s always the thing about art: it’s a collaboration between artist, medium, and beholder, and all have their say.

I confess to feeling a bit guilty that I may not have given all these pieces the attention and thought they deserved. Time was not so much the issue as my mood, affected by matters public and private. Not all of those moods were negative, by the way; I’ve discovered it’s just as hard to focus under the influence of joy and enthusiasm as when overcome with anxiety, anger, sorrow, or hopelessness. But I did not give up.

And so, one day at a time, we read, and write.

Pushcart XLI: Lauren Slater, “Bloodlines” (nonfiction) from The Sun, March 2015

I put my hand on the mound of dirty laundry, then lifted my palm to my nose and took in the scent of him. I felt happy because, well, here he was, the man I’d married, his scent the same now as it had been twenty-odd years earlier…. I recalled an experiment I had once read about: A group of men wore simple cotton T-shirts for a couple of days, perspiring in them, sleeping in them, and finally peeling them off and giving them to the researchers, who then asked female test subjects to select the T-shirts that smelled the best to them. The researchers found that each woman consistently rated highest the T-shirts from the men whose immune systems contained important components that hers lacked, thus ensuring that any offspring they produced would have a robust defense system. In other words, women are drawn to men who have deep genetic differences from them — immunologically, at least. Why would this be? Because evolution does not want us to pick mates with genomes that are the same as ours. Evolution wants diversity; the more, the better.

Complete story available online at The Sun

This essay – it’s listed as an essay, and is included in the 2016 Science & Nature volume of the Best American series – sweeps from a dissolving marriage (Wikipedia indicates Slater is now divorced) to home DNA testing for ancestry and medical markers to what it’s like to live with cancer even after a ten-year “clear” period. I had a lot of thoughts about this as I read, but I’m not going to share many of them, since my thoughts have been a bit unreliable lately.

Opposites may attract, but living with them is a different story.

We have been married for twenty-two years. Everything was fine until, twelve years into it, we had kids. Our children changed us. They brought out in B. a love so fierce, so focused, that I fell off the edge of his world, plunging into some sea where, no matter how much I flounder and flail, he fails to toss me a line.
My children often seem to be apparitions, floating forms, people of poured glass, ghostly and beautiful and beyond my reach.
I recently told my husband that if we want to save our marriage — in which whatever common ground we had has long since eroded into rubble and slid down some steep slope — then we need to spend time together without the children. It works like this, I told him: The husband and wife are a team of two. That team has to be the priority, or the family collapses.
It works like this, my husband told me: We need to do more things together as a family. If I would join them when they play Scrabble or Clue, then our marriage would improve.

I found it an odd choice for the final entry in the volume, given that Pushcart, unlike BASS, can determine the order. But this could be the product of my unruly thoughts at this time. I’ve been waiting for those thoughts to settle down, but they show no sign of doing so, and time moves on. I must do something; and since I’m unwilling to commit myself in white and black on this one, I’ll just leave these passages and the link to the original publication for those who’d like to pursue it.

Pushcart XLI: Daniel Peña, “Safe Home” from Ploughshares 41.2

Cuauh always greases the landings. If the winds are strong, he lands in the desert north of Obregon, on a sand strip outlined by burning tar barrels, desert oak, and split saguaro cut lengthwise to catch the neon sun. But if the winds are calm, Cuauh lumbers his aircraft, an aging M20J, onto a neighborhood street in Lomas de Poleo just inside Ciudad Juarez. All of the homes abandoned. Everyone gone from the drug wars.

Storytelling is a great way to turn information into an emotional experience. That’s what Peña’s done here: this story began as academic research. He tells the story’s story in the Houston Chronicle: how, during his own pilot training, he’d seen Mexican planes at lots of Texas airports; how he learned of their connection to drug cartels; how he researched drug cartels, and the effects of American policy, both in graduate school at Cornell and continued his research in Mexico City as a Fulbright Scholar. He could have written something academic or journalistic, but instead he turned it into this story of Cuauh, an undocumented worker flying crop dusting planes in Texas until he’s deported. Nonfiction generates sympathy; fiction creates empathy. At least, this fiction does.

This was in the beginning, when Cuauh was freshly deported. The new pilot from Texas who’d once been a drop duster. He was kidnapped in Nuevo Laredo right after he’d walked the bridge, and ever since, he’d been lonesome in that briny way – sulking, scared, stone hopeless.

Around the time I was reading this story, I saw a news story about one Beatriz Morelos Casillas, deported for driving without a license after 20 years – just a shade too old for DACA – and sent to Nuevo Laredo, “one of the most dangerous places in Mexico and where the State Department issued a travel warning in December 2016 due to violent crime.”

Life meets art.

Cuauh’s crisis begins when he sees the purple cowboy boots hanging out of a familiar truck. He knows whose feet are in those boots. He isn’t exactly friends with Lalo – friendship isn’t a wise investment in their business – but he’s well-enough acquainted enough with the guy to wish him no harm. What he doesn’t yet know is the role he’ll have to play in that harm. And refusing is just not an option.

The cell chiefs kept names and addresses of relatives. Even if they couldn’t find you they would find your brother or your parents. It was the thing that kept Cuauh from simply talking his plane and flying off into the north. It was the fear of it that kept him coming back, day after day, to the desert strip or the little road in Lomas de Poleo.

It’s a grim story, a story I almost wish I hadn’t had to read. But that’s the power of storytelling, for better or worse: it shines a spotlight in places we might not want to think about, and lets us see people we might think we already know in a different light.

Jacob Weber: Don’t Wait To Be Called (Short fiction collection; WWPH 2017)

It’s common for short story collections to “go together,” to have common plots or subjects. These stories are the result of my disparate life, which feels like about twelve different lives coincidentally lived by the same person. I couldn’t begin to thank everyone who helped me survive every one of those little lives within the larger life I’ve lived…. Thanks most of all to God, whom on any given day I’m 51% certain does not exist. If I’d have been more certain God did exist, I’d never have been able to write these stories.

~~ Jake Weber

For the past couple of years, Jake Weber and I have been trading comments on stories from BASS and Pushcart, both here and on his blog. I was delighted to hear that his story collection been selected by the Washington Writers’ Publishing House for publication, and of course bought it and planned to write about it. But in the background I was a little worried, as I always am when someone I know publishes: what if I didn’t like it? As usual, I needn’t have worried.

Don’t Wait to be Called is full of stories about people I came to care about, sometimes in spite of myself and my pre-existing attitudes. It transforms the vague current-event descriptor “refugee” into flesh and blood and tears and hope in people like Daud and Hiwet and Tesfay. A sensitive, insecure wreck of a bodybuilder idolizes the wrong role model, a teenager tries to connect with his dying father through algebra, and a veteran with longstanding self-doubt deals with, shall we say, a very personal injury.

Through it all, I wondered about the title of the collection, a collection that begins and ends with calling. I heard an exhortation to reach out, to help. I wouldn’t know until the last story that I was wrong, which, in addition to generating some self-reflection, led me to view the entire collection in a different light, almost as different stories: instead of presenting hurting and flawed characters as needing help, it presents them as active agents getting what they need. I asked Jake if this ambiguity was planned, since it had such an impact on me, but it turns out he had something else in mind:

Ultimately, I just love the proverb the last story plays with: dogs and days don’t wait to be called. Time moves on, as much as we don’t want it to. That compels decisions before we’re ready to make them. Our whole lives come to an end eventually, built on a series of hurried decisions. So the title of the book to me is maybe a little bit about letting yourself off the hook for making imperfect choices. Like what title to give your book, for example.

I also asked about how the stories were ordered, one of my favorite guessing games.

I had a mess of stories that didn’t go together. Other than the four Eritrean/Ethiopian stories, I was all over the place. When I looked at it a little closer, I felt like Brokedick, Dawn Doesn’t Disappoint, Strongest I’ve Ever Been and What Every Parent Should Know… all kind of fit the category of “bro lit.” That left four miscellaneous stories. So I took the four immigrant pieces, the four bro-lit pieces, and the four miscellaneous pieces, and decided to just layer them like lasagna. Sauce-noodles-cheese. That’s all the thinking that went into it, other than I altered the formula a bit so it would begin and end with Eritrea/Ethiopia stories, and hopefully start with some of my best stuff. Other than that, the order was just as they felt right, trying to break things up for the reader between heavy and light so the whole book wasn’t a downer.

While many of the themes and situations were disturbing, the book wasn’t a downer at all. When I think of downer books, I think of Jim Shepard’s Like You’d Understand Anyway, which so overwhelmed me with macho self-destruction I gave up halfway through. Jake’s most desperate characters are never hopeless, and while his bro-lit does involve macho posturing, the characters retain a humanity that made them relatable. Ultimately we’re all dealing with the same insecurities: Am I good enough?

A few of my favorites:

“Everything is Peaceful Here Except for Missing You” from Bartleby Snopes

He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
-Matthew 5:45

 

After hello, there are five phrases in Tigrinya you must repeat at least several times each in every phone call. None means anything, which is why they are so important to say over and over. Mama has hit them all at least twice. She’s surprisingly adept at using Skype for a woman who never had a phone growing up or a computer until eight years ago.
How are you? Is everything peaceful? How is your health? How about your family? We are all fine here, except for missing you.

The opening story is quite short and exists in what is unsaid; such restraint is a gift few writers have. We come to realize, through the simplest of narrations, that family is family, a mother is a mother, no matter who the son may be.

Whenever a white middle-class American writes about African refugees, there’s a tendency to wonder if they know what they’re talking about. Jake is, in fact, a translator who knows Tigrinya (and Korean and Spanish) and has worked with newly arrived refugees from Eritrea and Ethiopia; his stories come from real life rather than news and partisan commentary. I asked him if he worried about being accused of appropriation:

I don’t know what is good and bad appropriation, given that all artists steal something.There’s definitely good and bad ways to do it. You hit on some of the bad ways. White savior, talking over them, etc. I mean, I kind of have to speak from a white, male perspective. I have to temper my stories written with the hope of giving voice to someone else by knowing it’s also my voice in there, too. But there’s a way to do that in good faith and a way to do it as theft. I hope I did the right one. I just know I have to write about what moves me. Sometimes, that’s weight lifting and male enhancement. Sometimes, it’s the cruelty of the world to most of its inhabitants….I realize that my reading of Ethiopians or Eritreans is filtered through my own, privileged, white, male, Western perspective…That doesn’t mean it’s an invalid, immoral, or unworthy perspective.

“Brokedick”

Standing in a row on a counter next to Chase were four foam phalluses, in varying shades of purple, mounted to a plastic display tray. They reminded Chase of stele lined up to meet the sun by a tribe lost to history millennia ago, a tribe whose sole remaining heritage brought busloads of European tourists to guess wrongly at their purpose. Periwinkle was for the completely limp dick, already leaning over on its own. Phlox was the penis that could get hard, but not hard enough for penetration. The one that could penetrate but not maintain erectness was thistle. Finally, the fully erect rod capable of satisfying an entire cheerleading squad, the penis the pills could give you, was a deep, throbbing, royal purple.

I never realized I have a policy against reading stories that begin with prosthetic penises, until I read that paragraph. It’s a good thing I ignored that subconscious quirk, because this ended up not only one of my favorite stories in the collection, but one I’ve come back to over and over. It’s beautifully plotted, paced, and played.

Funny stories can be told many ways. This funny story is told with grim seriousness that recalls an old definition of the difference between comedy and tragedy: comedy is when you fall on a banana peel and break your leg; tragedy is when I fall on a banana peel and break my leg. It’s easy to laugh at a guy who breaks his penis (and, yes, it happens; seriously, google “penile fracture” if you don’t believe me) while screwing his girlfriend in her dorm room. The detail – he screams, punches her laptop (“the backspace button was still falling back down from where it had ricocheted, knew before it landed upside down again just three keys away from where it began…”), and transfers for a semester in Mexico to get away from the rumors that he was “the Marine with PTSD who’d beat some girl in the dorms nearly to death.”

But when the backstory comes in, and the Marine Corps reunion rolls around, we stop laughing. If we’re lucky, we know what we need. If we’re very lucky, we know when we don’t need it any more.

I was inspired by my experience in the Marine Corps during a time when there weren’t a whole lot of wars going on to write a story about a former Marine who feels like his manhood is invalidated by his own lack of a war record.

Mr. Sympathy

It isn’t that my father had no love to give me. His love merely stayed balled up as potential energy, always wanting to be unleashed like a wound spring if I ever managed to be good at the thing he wanted me to be good at….

Math stories are rarely about math, and this one is no exception; it provides plot and setting around which characters revolve, hide, fall down, get up, grow.

Corfu – yes, like the Greek island – is struggling through remedial math class. His father is the actuary’s actuary. As he puts it: “I had an unconscious tendency to change math problems from the problem in front of me to the problem I wanted it to be.” Coincidentally, he turns his father’s terminal cancer into the desire to learn algebra and ace the SATs in two months, which is, of course, not about math and all about connecting. As Dad’s illness gets worse, he loses his voice which turns out to be exactly what was needed: because love can be conveyed with little circles that look like tadpoles, and the smell of Ben-Gay on a math book can equal parental pride.

…I had something of a breakdown on Saturday night. Suddenly, numbers made no sense to me. What did they even mean? Were they real? How could zero mean nothing and also still be a number?

I immediately thought, “This kid’s a mathematician, he just doesn’t know it yet,” because that’s exactly the sort of thing a mathematician would think – not formulas and equations and what a negative exponent means, but the nitty gritty about zero. Worrying about whether numbers are real wanders into mathy philosophy territory, also a fun place, and so much more fun than the quadratic equation and solving for x. And sure enough, Corfu became a math major.

I did have some qualms. The remedial-math-to-quant path seemed a bit much, for one thing. For another, I have to question the pedagogy outlined; anyone who can learn algebra from doing the odd-numbered problems in a textbook either didn’t learn algebra, but rather learned how to answer textbook algebra problems (in which case, he never would’ve made it through an undergrad math degree) or wasn’t that confused to begin with (in which case I’m interested in his actual problem). And again I checked in with Jake to see how he developed Corfu’s path:

I was good at math in elementary school, then progressively worse as it took more and more caution and care to get answers right. I nearly failed it my junior year…. I learn from reading. A few months before I started college (after a six-year break after high school to go into the Marines), I picked up an algebra book. I taught myself algebra by doing the odd-numbered problems. Then I taught myself geometry. I really wish I’d kept going.

We’re going to have to talk more about math, Jake and I; but this is all peripheral to the heart of the story, which remains one of my favorites as is.

American as Berbere from Baltimore Review

For Meb, and everyone I know like him.

 

When he was twelve, Tesfay came to the conclusion that all Habesha music had a drumbeat that sounded like somebody had chucked two shoes into a Laundromat dryer, and soon thereafter developed a contempt for Ethiopian music—and perhaps Ethiopia in general—that stuck with him. There had been a few years, soon after he came to the United States at eight, a fugitive of famine and the Derg’s policies he knew nothing about, when he would listen with admiration to the beat of the kebero, as the horns and krar and flute-like thing with the name he couldn’t pronounce all worked around it, like pilgrims weaving their strands around a May-pole. But over time, it became harder for the Greater D.C. Tigrayan People’s Cultural Center to find anyone who knew how to play the krar, so they settled for a competent drum player and a synthesizer. In this arrangement, Tesfay heard only the drum’s repetitious “ba-bump, ba-bump” drubbing away at the same speed. It filled him with a sense of futility, that no matter how many times someone hit the drum, the cycle would just keep going around, until someone finally yelled “d’rub!” and the drummer sped up to reach the merciful death of the song.

There’s something about running that makes for a great story, even for non-athletes like me. Maybe because it’s both a simple sport – just the runner, and time – and a complex one involving physiological and psychological strategy. Maybe because running borrows off the journey metaphors.

Tesfay’s journey is again an immigrant story. His family showed up in a fanfare of publicity, since he’d been one of the starving children in a fundraising video, but they were forgotten shortly after and became just another struggling family trying to get by and Tesfay becomes the butt of jokes as the images make the rounds at his school. He becomes a runner by accident, after making a deal with his phys ed teacher to run the whole period instead of subjecting himself to peer torment in whatever game the class is playing.

Some time ago, I came across a magnificent turn of phrase by writer Michelle Janssens Keller: the immigrant as palimpsest. One story written over by another. Tesfay’s story weaves together the American and the Ethiopian in ways both harmonious and discordant: Tesfay and his cousin Robel; ambition versus faith; celebrity versus scorn; violin versus kebero. And throughout, Tesfay is moving between two cultures, never fully at home in either. A subtle but devastating clash during the Olympic trials 10K brings us to the climax of the story, and Tesfay finds his own path.

While I’ve picked these four as detailed examples, other stories stand out. “A Cinnabon at Mondawmin” outlines the two Americas in a way even earnest commentary can’t. “Savage, Maryland” creates a fascinating character in an old misanthrope who constructs a bath house so he can just soak his retirement away, and had me on the edge of my seat at the end. “The Strongest I’ve Ever Been” had me angry, sad, and amused in rotation, then finally landed on a resolution neither sentimental nor tragic.

I asked Jake the question I always ask authors I’m lucky enough to talk to: what question do you wished I’d asked?

I just like talking about the stories with people who liked them, trying to figure out what they mean. Did Tesfay come in second? Does Bill end up with Alisha? Does Chase call the girl when he gets home from the reunion? Is the guy at the end of “Dawn” really happy, or was that a false epiphany? Those kinds of questions. I have my answers, but I like to discuss these things. And now that the book is out, of course, my answers are not final.

I felt a little guilty since I didn’t address those things at all in these posts. The resolutions felt clear to me – of course Bill and Alisha get together, but they later come apart as most couples do. Chase doesn’t need to call the girl any more, he’s going to work on getting his shit together for real, and he’s probably going to lose it again, but he’ll even out as time goes on and he realizes war and sex are neither necessary nor sufficient for manhood. It doesn’t matter where Tesfay finished, he’s going to be fine. The guy in “Dawn,” well, that I had some trouble with; it was the story I least liked (hey, there’s gotta be one, or I’m not being honest) so I’d rather think about all the other wonderful people I met in these pages. But I’d love to discuss other opinions; maybe someone will change my mind.

And finally, I asked about the cover of the book. The Acknowledgment mention his brother did the design; was there anything he’d like to share about that?

Oh, man, I thought my brother was going to never talk to me again at one point. I’m just not a visual art guy. I can go to a museum and find something to like. Matisse moves me, for example. Maybe I just like bold colors. So I kind of said to Ben, “Here’s the manuscript, read it and come up with something.” He refused to do it without some collaboration from me. I had no good ideas. Originally, the best I had was to put all the animals from the last story on there: a red cobra, a dog, a chicken, a cow. I had in mind some weird, minimalist, neo-cubist thing. It didn’t work, because it was too busy for a small cover. Eventually, I said maybe he could just have the dog on there. He threw something together and I loved it. It was exactly what I wanted without knowing it. I feel like the deeper yellow around the two black figures calls forth another motif from a different story: the endless circles of “American as Berbere.” I was just really happy with it, after it was almost a disaster. I’m sure Ben’s glad it’s over, too! I’m a nightmare for an artist to work with, even though I was just trying not to be too picky.

Jake’s working on a satirical novel “about the adventures of a translator of a pretend language working for a government agency” and blogs at Workshop Heretic.

Pushcart XLI: Tatiana Forero Puerta, “Cleaning the Ghost Room” (poem) from Hawaii Pacific Review 2/25/15

Mami made me dust
the ghost room as she swept
the kitchen downstairs, washed the fruit-
shaped porcelain dishes.
 
I objected, tearing up and shaken, clutching
to the dust rag, heart pounding. She said,
it builds character of high caliber, camaraderie
with the spirits. You want the dead on your side.

Complete poem available online at Hawaii Pacific Review

Most of us have deeply ingrained attitudes towards the dead, and fear probably ranks highest. To a young girl, the idea of dusting in a room where someone died – we never know who Mr. Traynor was, a tenant, a patient? – must’ve been terrifying. She imagines him in the rocking chair where he spent most of his time. But Mom saw it differently.

While the first four stanzas express the child’s discomfort and resentment, the last three acknowledge the lesson that was taught and the gratitude felt towards a mother who made her “wipe / the mirror clean to reflect my / fear up close”, to “see myself in its pupils.” And as mother prepares child for an inevitable eventuality, so the poem prepares us for the last lines.

Pushcart XLI: Steve Almond, “Dritter Klasse Ohne Fensterscheiben” from Ecotone #19

"Different Trains" by Steve Reich (composer) and Bill Morrison (filmmaker)

“Different Trains” by Steve Reich (composer) and Bill Morrison (filmmaker)

In the spring of 1889, Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Constantinople for the first time. He was enchanted—by the Topkapi Palace, the promontories of the Golden Horn, and in particular (as the rumor went) the exotic gyrations of the Sultan’s harem. The German Emperor, then at the height of his power, became convinced that the destiny of his kingdom resided in the expansion of its frontier into what he whimsically called “the Sultan’s forlorn flank.”
The discovery of vast oil reserves beneath Iraq ratified this notion and led to the conception of the so-called Bagdadbahn, a railway intended to connect Berlin to the Persian Gulf. Using the Ottoman Empire as a fueling station and trade depot, Germany would challenge the imperial dominance of Britain and Russia.
Historians may debate to what extent these ambitions contributed to the First World War. This much is known: in 1912, the Deutsche Bank transferred Wilhelm Geist, a Jew of modest birth and steadfast manner, from Berlin to Constantinople to oversee the project.

If you think that story opening is so dry you have to blow the dust off it to read it, well, I won’t disagree with you. It’s kind of odd to encounter in the “knock their socks off with an exciting first paragraph” age. I suspect the story would be savaged in a workshop setting, and without Almond’s name, would never get out of the slush pile (a few months ago, my blogging buddy Jake Weber had similar comments about another Pushcart-winning story that would never have seen the light of day without a “name” attached to it. But I promise, here the detachment adds to the story, since it’s indicative of character. And, by the way, there’s plenty of action. A visit from the Kaiser. The tension of a project failing in the setting of a losing (literally) battle. A terrifying train ride. There’s also a great deal of emotional depth as the focus shifts from Wilhelm to his wife to their daughter over the years covered in 16 pages. And it all comes down to this: you can never outrun the past that made you who you are.

The Bagdadbahn was a real project in the early 20th century, and in fact still exists although its use is limited to certain stretches and purposes. Herr Geist, however, appears to be a fictional character, or at least his contribution is too obscure for Google. We start with his obsession to complete the railway, an obsession he never realized; it was abandoned at the end of WWI, and only completed in 1940, just in time for another war. But that’s not part of our story.

As it becomes evident that Germany is losing the war and Constantinople is in danger, Frau Geist (we never learn her first name) and child Leah board a train for Berlin; they will never see their husband and father again, only hearing of his death months later.

They make a larger journey than planned on that train ride, however. From a privileged life of respectful servants and social status, Frau Geist is now merely a homely defenseless Jew. While it will be a few decades before Germany adopts genocide as policy, their lives are changed. The train they ride is commandeered for military transport of wounded soldiers, and they are evicted from their comfortable compartment. It’s only by the grace of Frau Geist’s small stash of gold coins that they are not thrown off the train and abandoned in Hungary or Romania.

Frau Geist pulled Leah under her mink and whispered, “You see? We’ve found a cozy place to sleep!” Thick bodies resettled themselves against her, seeking warmth. She smelled the putrefaction of their wounds. The stars whistled and zoomed.
As dawn filtered into the car, Frau Geist surveyed the pine benches, the filthy water closet. Daggers of ice dripped from the window slots. Her shoulders jerked silently. Leah heard her mother murmur a single phrase with such bitterness it was as if the words were a poison released onto her tongue: “Dritter Klasse Ohne Fensterscheiben.”
Third class without windows.

With Geist’s train building obsession, and Frau Geist’s traumatic journey, and the general aura of Germany and war, albeit WWI, in mind, I couldn’t help but flash on Steve Reich’s “Different Trains”, a musical statement about the Holocaust. Sometimes we’re lucky we’re on the train we’re on; sometimes not. Sometimes we don’t know for years which it will turn out to be.

We see mother and daughter make it to Berlin, and out of Berlin just in time. We watch as their lives unfold in perhaps predictable ways. And then we see them come together again, since they are perhaps they are the only ones who can understand each other.

Leah picked up one of the anise biscuits her mother had set out with tea. It crumbled on her tongue. All women are hostages, she though suddenly. They believe themselves protected by beauty or wealth or powerful men. But in the end the world takes hold of them and they are left to protect themselves.

Like I said: it’s not a dry story at all. The initial tone sets it up like a relationship: the story only lets us come closer as we get to know these women better.

As I noted a few posts ago, Ecotone publishes fiction that shows a special connection to place, particularly transition between places: “a place of danger or opportunity, a testing ground.” Our characters move from Berlin to Constantinople to Eastern European railroad beds to Munich to New Jersey and Chicago, but nothing is ever left behind.

Whenever I read a story by Steve Almond, I think of his teeny-tiny book of writing advice/microflashes, This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey. One of those flashes got me to cry over Richard Nixon. Reeling me in to the Geist saga wasn’t ever in doubt. Love your characters, he advises. Push them up against their deepest fears. Turns out, all our deepest fears – failure, loss, loneliness – are pretty much the same, though they happen in many different settings.

Pushcart XLI: Douglas Milliken, “Blue of the World” from Glimmer Train #94

May 24th, 1965
Walked the orchard line with the boy today after the service, from the house to the north end of the property. All the blooms had blown off the limbs, so just a foamy wash of white or dried-up yellow petals were left here and there on the ground. Very many small green apples have started, few much bigger than the head of a nail. The trees looked good. I do not much fear a late frost ruining everything that’s begun. But in this, I’ve been wrong before.

A mysterious start: who is “the boy”, why is he with the rancher, what was the service, why is there so much tension in these opening paragraphs? We don’t know for several pages that the boy isn’t a neighbor’s kid or some distant relative comet to visit but the rancher’s own son, and the service was the wife’s, the boy’s mother’s, funeral. The central mystery: how does a family recover from great loss?

We might think Dad is cold and hard, but then we see the colors. It’s a story told with color, the blue of the world in the title referring to, at one level, the pre-dawn night that brightens into dawn, though of course the meaning expands as the story proceeds. The sky, the flowers, horses, crops, all have colors, and this man we thought might be cold and hard records them in his diary, along with comments like “It’s hard to enjoy a thing when your memory of it is sweeter.” This is a man who is so engrossed in watching a black beetle on a brown stump pick at a dead bird that he misses the blue disappearing from the world. This is a man who takes weeks to refer to his son as our boy, a man who occasionally sees and talks to his dead wife. This is a deeply feeling, painfully wounded man slowly healing from fresh grief.

His son knows this too, doesn’t seem to need much comforting for his own grief. I wonder how much that costs him, how much anger will show up eventually when he’s able to express it. The roles are somewhat reversed, the son now the wiser parent, willing to let Dad mourn. But not indefinitely. He reminds Dad that, though he was taken out of school early, he will be returning in September. He tells his father the neighbor’s good will has a time limit. He even explains a common-sense version of the social-norms vs market-norms theory Prof. Dan Ariely researched: introducing money into a social relationship decreases, rather than increases, cooperation:

He said I was getting it all backward. Said we ought to have lent the mule to the Haskells for free as a favor, and only charged him if the beast got hurt or took ill. He insisted that favors are worth more than dollars, as the price of gold goes up and down but a favor is always a favor. At the very least, we should have traded services….
Then he did something that surprised me. He was squatting down in the potato mounds, but he’d stopped picking weeds. He was looking at his hands in the cool, dark earth. Then he said that people’s sympathy for me was wearing thin. He said I was eating up our neighbors’ goodwill by being a greedy fly. I told him sympathy was another name for cancer. I’d be happier when it was gone.

The story moves slowly, its rhythm one of diary entries that recount the realities of ranching amidst plain spoken lyricism. It’s one of the longer stories in the anthology, but I was buried in it throughout. Somehow I never thought in terms of resolution, and it’s just as well. The epiphany (yes, of course there’s an epiphany) was more implied than realized. Things could go either way for this family. But it was a remarkable read.

I discovered Milliken is another Maine writer, making that two in one Pushcart. I haven’t encountered him before, so I’m happy to make his acquaintance.

Pushcart XLI: Sara Batkie, “Laika” from New Orleans Review #41

Andrew Wyeth: "Christina's World"

Andrew Wyeth: “Christina’s World”

Babette came to the home the same week we got a television. They arrived three days apart, both dropped unceremoniously at the front door. Madame Durance never bothered much with the girls but was very put out by the lack of paperwork for the strange machine. “We need to keep track of these things,” she said, nudging the box with her sensible shoe. “What if it makes us all sick?” Hollis the orderly had it hooked up within an hour. It was 1957, the year Khrushchev looked up to a stardrunk sky and found a new world to conquer. We were all hankering for the unknown, though that could be hard to find in Nebraska.

I’m reminded yet again of my writer-friend Marko Fong describing a particular use of first person past as “memoir voice.” Transposed to fiction, it mimics nonfictional memoir, as it “assumes that the narrator and the ‘character/survivor’ are effectively two different first person ‘I’s.” This story makes great use of that: The distance of those 50 years gives the writer the ability to write the events in 1957 in a more mature voice, to imbue the ordering and details of the narration with insight atypical for a teenager, but readily available to the older survivor who is the narrator.

It was an unspoken rule that the girls not ask each other what brought them to Durance Home. It was simple enough to guess some of their troubles, the ones with space pod bellies already in orbit. They’d grow big, disappear for a day or two then return with bodies evacuated of their heroes. Nothing left but tears. The rest were dragged in by their mothers. I was brought by my brother, the only family I had, my slippery fingers having found their way into one pocket too many. He bought me a chocolate malted on the drive, the last ice cream I would taste until adulthood.

I loved reading this story; it’s full of small moments and observations that create an atmosphere for the subtle plot. Like the boys running alongside the bus the girls took on occasional field trips, waving and pressing their palms against the windows: “This was the only touch of a boy I’d ever known: partitioned, ghostly, and quick to fade. I liked it that way.”

I saw twin themes of isolation and hope weaving throughout the story. Not only are the three main characters isolated in their own ways, but the two prominent symbols of the story are as well. First, there’s Laika, the Russian space-dog who captures the narrator’s attention:

I thought about Laika, looked up at the sky above us, the impossible cradle that carried her. I imagined her passing through the stars, being accepted as one of their own, each small bright ball leading her gently along her path. I thought of her smile flashing across the television screen, all the hope she held in her, and I wished her safely home.

Another powerful scene introduces the narrator to Christina, the subject of Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World”.

Her name was Christina, so the plaque said. Though suffering from polio, she refused the use of a wheelchair. The artist was inspired to paint her after watching her crawl across a field from a window in his house.
It must have taken her hours. What sort of person could just stand by and observe something like that? But it was a hopelessness there’s no helping. Like Laika. Like all of us, I suppose. Perhaps capturing it was all that could be done, was, in its way, the only chance of honoring it.

Wyeth’s comment on Christina: “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.” At 14, the narrator knew both sides of hope, the -ful and the -less. Hopelessness is its own isolation, isn’t it. After this passage, I started thinking of the unnamed narrator as Christina: hobbled, but going forward in the way she knows best over a great expanse towards an isolated house. I’m grateful for the painter-writer, the survivor-narrator, with the patience to wait.

The plot hinges on the source of Babette’s pregnancy. She claims it’s another divine intervention; whether that’s from naiveté or shame isn’t entirely clear for some time,but eventually shows us another kind of hopelessness: the help that is not forthcoming. This becomes tied to the hopelessness of our narrator, who recalls Babette, Christina, Laika by name but doesn’t get a name herself (just as we never see Christina’s face, but only her weakened legs and her longing). Just as Madame Durance only gets part of a name, and then I know: she was the first generation of isolation by hopelessness.

Laika died in orbit. Our narrator reveals the details in a tribute to that “memoir voice” and the power of time to change perspective, to change reality itself. The plan was humane by standards of the time: she was poisoned by her last meal to prevent extended suffering as the craft was not designed to survive re-entry. This was November, 1957. It was not publicly known until 2002 that she actually died much sooner than was planned by failure of the heat control system; she cooked, alone in the capsule. Laika was, by the way, a stray, plucked from the streets of Moscow. And when we read here that the scientist in charge of preparing her for the mission took her home the night before launch to play with his kids – “I wanted to do something nice for her…. She had so little time left to live” – we can’t help but think of a 14-year-old taken for her last malted on the way to Durnace Home. I can’t help but think of our narrator, fifty years later, still there, finally, patiently, telling us the truth about Babette.

I found an extra delight waiting for me after the last line, the last period of the story, where Pushcart lists those who nominated the piece for the anthology. Typically it’s the original publisher, often accompanied by one or two writers, former Pushcart winners who recommended it. This story was nominated by Seth Fried, whose terrific work has been reflected several times over the years in these pages. I thought I recognized some elements from his writing, particularly a story titled “Those of Us in Plaid”. Seth has a sense of humor (I sent him a goofy fan email once, and he responded in kind) so I asked him if he’d be willing to share his reasons for nominating the story. And, bless his heart, he responded kindly:

Aside from Batkie’s great writing in general, I was struck by the moral complexity in Laika. You compared the story to “Those of Us in Plaid” and I think it is circling a similar idea. We’re seeing someone powerless struggling with feelings of being complicit in the face of ugliness and abuse. That’s something I explored with morbid comedy in “Plaid” and that Batkie takes on with a stark lyricism that I found affecting.

Seth Fried (nominator)

We never find out what happens to Babette, beyond that she leaves after her space pod belly empties. Our narrator’s complicity is an angle I’d like to consider more. Is this story her plea for absolution? Time becomes a character as it allows consideration, but also delays revelation. I wonder how Babette would tally up the net effect.

Pushcart XLI: Jericho Brown, “The Tradition” (poem) from Poem-a-day

Jacob Lawrence: Harriet Tubman series, panel 4, 1940

Jacob Lawrence: Harriet Tubman series, panel 4, 1940

Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning
Names in heat, in elements classical
Philosophers said could change us. Star Gazer.
Foxglove.

Complete poem available online at Poets.org

The final line – go ahead, read it, it’s only 14 lines – is a knife to the heart. I wasn’t expecting it, though I see now the ground was prepared – it was our dirt, philosophical advice, father, brothers, even the blossoms fast-forwarded to see them in time. It’s all there, I just wasn’t really reading, I saw flowers and thought, oh, flowers. Yes, flowers, blooming so beautifully until that turn in the last line and then they aren’t.

I thought about just putting the poem here to speak, which it does more eloquently than any commentary could. That felt like cheating somehow. I thought about doing more with sonnet structure. About looking more closely at the flowers mentioned: don’t flowers have individual meanings or something? I waited a couple of days for some inspiration, for something I could write that would be the right setting. I think I should’ve gone with my first instinct.

The poem serves as an epigraph for The Fire This Time, the 2016 anthology of essays, poems, and written work edited by Jesmyn Ward dealing with race in America. And now it’s 2017. Damn it.

Pushcart XLI: Ron Currie, “Cross Your Fingers God Bless” from Wigleaf

The Flammarion engraving, 1888

The Flammarion engraving, 1888

Because she was not a superstitious person, in the days leading up to her solo hike in the thickly wooded ridges Annie ignored several warnings proffered by the universe regarding what was about to happen.

Complete story available online at Wigleaf

It’s less than 600 words long, but boy does this story use structure and rhythm to its advantage.

The four opening single-sentences paragraphs just keep layering it on. The rational impulse to ignore coincidence. Increasing coincidence, increasing rationality. We know something’s coming, and it’s going to have to do with a bear. But the event itself is never spelled out, just foreshadowed and then reflected from a later point of view. I love this, because the story isn’t about a bear attack or even about whether the signs meant anything or were reconstructed out of late-arriving confirmation bias: the story is in the human struggle to understand reality, and particularly in the conflict existing relationships undergo when Annie’s view shifts.

Like Annie, we’re in an environment of determined binarism. But what if reality isn’t so neatly arranged? What if there are elements of physics and metaphysic, of the natural and supernatural, everywhere? What if they’re the same thing seen from different viewpoints, or times, or dimensions? I spend a lot of time taking moocs about such blended views of reality, like investigations of whether physics leads back to some creative divinity leads back to physics, or if there’s cognitive science to support Daoism. I wonder if we’re not headed for our own bear attack if we don’t start listening to what we’re screening out.

But I think the point is more in the realm of, what happens to friends and family when we change our beliefs? We tend to congregate with people who have belief systems reasonably compatible with our own; what happens to friendships and family ties when that changes? What does that say about the strength of those beliefs? If it’s uncomfortable to be around a Christian-turned-atheist or liberal-now-conservative, does that reflect on one’s confidence in one’s beliefs in the first place? World-views are messy; they involve paradoxes and conundrums. How many of us have examined our beliefs beyond the surface? How many of us really want to?

Two metacomments about this piece: First is that Ron Currie Jr. is a Maine writer, so shout-out for that. I read his second novel, Everything Matters, a kind of weird but, in the end, truly touching book about second chances; Second is that I’m so glad that the tiny (free) online flash journal Wigleaf gets some Pushcart love these days. Bill Henderson has been an outspoken critic of online fiction for as long as there has been online fiction, but he seems to have made a reluctant peace with electrons. See, the stuff you’re screening out can be fun.