BASS 2021: Going Out

Collage by Nell Painter: “With Arms Lopped Off”, 2014
In these pages are pleading attempts to be heard and seen … as well as desperate incantations against being erased, extraordinary moments of reimagination, inventive tales of escape. One look at the titles alone – with words like miracle, escape, paradise, and last days – reveals a steady gaze upward and outward.

Heidi Pitlor, Foreword

When I started this Read back in October with the introductory material that referenced the pandemic, political polarization, and increasing sounds of anarchy, I wondered, “What were the Introductions and Forewords about before the world went sideways?” Let me note now that I recognize the world has always been sideways, it just takes longer for some of us to notice the tilt. But I thought it might be interesting to look back at some of the older volumes I have on my shelf.

  • 2008: Salman Rushdie, in his Introduction, wrote at some length about the stories he chose. Heidi Pitlor, in her second year as series editor, went into a great discussion of what each word in the title “Best American Short Stories” means.
  • In 2009, Alice Sebold discussed her ambivalence about awards, while Heidi (may I call her Heidi? She feels like a friend by now) noticed how many stories took risks.
  • In 2010, the first year I blogged, Richard Russo told the Isaac Bashevis Singer story: What is the purpose of literature? To entertain, and to instruct. It was a charming narrative that didn’t mention the stories, or the reading process, at all. Heidi mentioned changes in the publishing world.
  • In 2011, Geraldine Brooks discussed her process of choosing, and the differences between stories, while Heidi wrote of common elements she saw in stories.
  • In 2012, Tom Perotta advocated plain language; Heidi noted the diversity of themes.
  • In 2013, Elizabeth Strout framed stories as telephone calls, and included a fairly extensive discussion of each one she chose. Heidi wrote about the tragedy of Sandy Hook, and on the difference between writing in the moment, and writing with the perspective of time: “…[W]hile we are grieving, we are now writing. We may be sacrificing perspective or depth, but this does not necessarily amount to lesser writing. if anything, there is a new sort of immediacy, a newfound intimacy and urgency in our fiction…”
  • In 2014, Jennifer Egan wondered where the stories were about the war we’d been fighting for ten years, the recession that derailed so much, before continuing with her process of choosing the twenty stories. Heidi wrote about uncertainty, and the need for diverse voices. 
  • In 2015, TC Boyle wrote about commercialization of fiction and the economic insufficiency of short story writing. Heidi focused on the landmark 100th volume.
  • In 2016, Junot Diaz discussed the short story form, and gave an extensive explanation of each story. Heidi acknowledged that so many issues had become political,, that stories have to compete with reality for attention.

That 2016 edition seems to me to be a turning point. It seemed far more diverse than earlier editions, and domestic realism – the dying marriage, the troubled parent, the lonely soul  – didn’t disappear, of course, but  took a back seat to sociopolitical issues, to examining how one’s economic situation influences one’s choices, how one person may have fewer choices than another simply by being born in one place or time or of certain parents.

From there on, both Heidi’s Foreword and the guest editor’s Introduction began to root themselves in the present, to view the stories as the product of a moment. Often, the moment shifted so quickly, a story written in one year, published the next, and anthologized still later seemed a bit dated. I mentioned the “Men Behaving Badly” volume of last year that refreshed the Me,Too movement begun two years before.

The stories this year did not specifically mention the pandemic or the political upheaval in which we find ourselves (with one exception), but they do deal with loss, grief, fear, struggle, and change. Those have been perennial topics in recent years, which have, in my opinion, made these volumes far more interesting than those that presented six ways a marriage could go wrong.

When I was a child, my grandmother Dorothy was the first person who taught me something of the power of narrative. She was a natural-born storyteller…. It was only when I was older and had spent years thinking about storytelling and stories, trying and failing and trying again to write good stories, that I understood this strange ending. I realized that with the telling of our family stories, my grandmother Dorothy had taught me so much about fiction, about what I valued in novels and short stories. How I wanted a story to be bracing, disorienting, and immersive. How I wanted it to grip me like the sea, pulling and pushing brine and bubbles up my nose, down my throat, leaving the taste of salt on my tongue. How I wanted it to scour me clean so that I forgot myself in the embrace of the wave, of the story. My grandmother Dorothy taught me that the narrative could be a different kind of sea – not the sea of loss, of grieving, but instead a life-giving, life-affirming ocean. Her stories made me value this: language that evokes and renders sharply and beautifully even as it confounds. Tales that surprise and subvert the reader’s expectations. Fiction so well told that it subsumes a reader’s awareness to the world of the story.

Jesamyn Ward, Introduction

I very much liked the way Ward sorted the stories into categories of time, character, place, youth, surprise, and immersion. The categories of course intersect, and I’ve noted this in my indiviual comments. I found myself struggling during the “problematic character” group, which says more about me as a reader than about the stories. That was, I think, the down side of reading in the groups as Ward listed them, rather than front to back as I normally do.

I’ve noticed something over the past couple of years: I might not be thrilled with the anthology while I’m reading it, but over the next year or two, as I look back, I view it far more fondly. This was particularly noticeable for the 2019 edition; I was a bit negative, but I think now that might have been more a matter of a wider division between the stories that worked for me, and those that didn’t. Again, this is all in the context of me as a reader, not as a critic; these stories were chosen three times by those with far more sophisticated palates than mine. As I look back over the Tables of Contents in pulling together my comments, I smile more than I might have at the time. Maybe I grow into the stories; maybe they grow into me.

This year, I had three stories on my A+ list, that is, stories I wanted to shove into strangers’ hands and exclaim, “You’ve got to read this!”:

  • Jane Pek, “Portrait of Two Young Ladies in White and Green Robes (Unidentified Artist, circa Sixteenth Century)”;
  • Shanteka Sigers, “A Way with Bea”;  
  • Jamil Jan Kochai, “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain”.

Many of the other stories also lingered with me, or, in  a few cases, I felt more of an intellectual admiration for their design and execution than an emotional bond. One of the most puzzling – or maybe terrifying – for me is the Saunders story, the last one I read. I’m still in its sphere of influence; I need to let some time pass before I can really see it and not see my reaction to it first.

I want to review these stories next year, maybe when I start the 2022 volume, or maybe when I wrap it up, and see how my view has changed.

I hope this collection offers you the opportunity for immersion, for surprise, for travel, for awe. I hope that as you sink into world after world, become character after character in these stellar stories, you can forget yourself, and then, upon surfacing, know yourself and others anew. I hope that return offers you some sense of ease and, as the best fiction does, a sense of repair.

Jesamyn Ward, Introduction

What might I yet do, rather than What should I have done? A place where action is possible. If a story takes me – takes us – there, keeps us there, it’s value is incalculable.

BASS 2021: George Saunders, “Love Letter” from The New Yorker, 4/6/20

TNY Illustration by Rodrigo Corral
It was also feeling that old dilemma a fiction writer feels in the middle of a crisis: how to write something that honors that which a short story is designed to do (show the reader how hard it is to live correctly in a fallen world by putting her on the horns of a true dilemma) while not somehow, via its neutrality and its focus on the long view, serving as a sort of enabler for evil. In particular, I was wondering what I personally should be doing at this moment of crisis and was noticing that I wasn’t doing much. And since writing is the only thing I’ve ever been able to do that has the slightest whiff of power about it, I decided to write a story “about” (that is, “out” of the moment I found myself in.)

George Saunders, Contributor Note

How fitting this should be, by pure coincidence, the last story I read in this year’s BASS. Or how terrifying. It comes straight to the heart of exactly why I feel, underneath everything else, a sense of inevitable doom, and a deep wish that I not survive long past November 2022 and, god forbid, not see November 2024 at all. I will take the responsibility for taking Saunders’ story, so clearly a call to action, and turning it into a reason to sink into despair.

It’s a story in the form of a letter from grandfather to grandson, a response to some potentially dangerous situation the grandson finds himself due to the activism of some friends. The details are not clear, just that the grandson is asking something along the lines of, Should I join the fight or keep my nose clean? and the grandfather is answering in two different modes. As a citizen: Do what needs to be done! As a loving grandfather: Keep yourself safe and be ready to emerge when things improve.

But how will things improve if no one every enters the fray?

Seen in retrospect, yes: I have regrets. There was a certain critical period. I see that now…. Every night, as we sat across from each other, doing those puzzles, from the TV in the next room blared this litany of things that had never before happened, that we could never have imagined happening, that were now happening, and the only response from the TV pundits was a wry, satirical smugness that assumed, as we assumed, that those things could and would soon be undone and that all would return to normal—that some adult or adults would arrive, as they had always arrived in the past, to set things right. It did not seem (and please destroy this letter after you have read it) that someone so clownish could disrupt something so noble and time-tested and seemingly strong, that had been with us literally every day of our lives. We had taken, in other words, a profound gift for granted. Did not know the gift was a fluke, a chimera, a wonderful accident of consensus and mutual understanding.

The grandfather is writing from a country that’s already gone, where cops pull him over to threaten him because he’s written Letters to the Editor protesting certain government stances, where the the lawyer who used to take on noble causes now mows the lawn. Some of the details are clear, but the overall structure of the present is vague, a technique that lets us draw the lines ourselves. It’s terrifying, because it’s all so familiar.

One of the most terrifying things about this letter/story is the first line: the date.

February 22, 202_.

First of all, for those of us who were around before the Powers that Be decided to consolidate Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays into President’s Day on a convenient Monday, that date used to be known as Washington’s Birthday. I don’t think he chose that date by accident.

And then there’s the year. Today is 2021, two weeks from now it will be 2022. The story takes place some time within the next 8 years. Not in the distant future, if he’d written 20__. This is what puts the chill in my heart, that single character, that 2.

But here’s where I turn ambivalent. Is this a story, or is it an essay in a more palatable form? If this had been written by anyone other than George Saunders – or any Big Name author – would it have been published, or would it have been returned with a terse, “Not what we’re looking for”? Or, has he in fact captured the searing anxiety of the moment – an anxiety that seems mostly absent from those with any power to do anything to prevent it – in a way that personalizes it, as fiction often does when confronting larger issues? I flip back and forth on this with the speed of a beating heart, or a trembling hand.

Ward included this in her “time” category, citing the tension between present and past. I also see tension between those at the beginning, and those at the end, as well as a laser-like focus on the present moment, which has now been going on for a year. This time-confusion shows up when the grandfather wakes after a dream:

Lying there, I found myself wondering, for the first time in a long while, not What should I have done? but What might I yet do?
I came back to myself, gradually. It was sad. A sad moment. To be, once again, in a time and place where action was not possible.

How we view where we are in this possible/not possible timeline may determine the course of history. Now that’s a story about time.

 *   *   *

  • Story available online at The New Yorker.
  • Jake Weber has a lot to say about this story at Workshop Heretic: ” Some theorists of narrative feel that “theme” in fiction isn’t really about an answer, but about phrasing the problem in a powerful and novel way. That’s certainly how the logic of “Love Letter” by George Saunders operates.”
  • Read another take on this story by Edwin Turner at Biblioklept
  • Ben Walpole of Short Story Magic Tricks shares his analysis.

BASS 2021: Jane Pek, “Portrait of Two Young Ladies in White and Green Robes (Unidentified Artist, circa Sixteenth Century)” from Conjunctions #75

Central Academy of Fine Arts, China
The Legend Of The White Snake is one of those folktales that I feel like I was just always familiar with, growing up in Singapore, probably from cultural osmosis. There are multiple versions of the story, but the ones I am aware of all focus on the titular immortal female snake spirit (the white snake) falling in love with a human man, and the trials and tribulations they have to undergo before they can be together happily ever after. But before any of that takes place, the white snake’s companion is the green snake, another female spirit, and I wanted to imagine that (to me) much more intriguing relationship.

Jane Pek, Contributor Note

I fell in love with Pek’s story “The Nine-Tailed Fox Explains” in last year’s BASS, and now I find myself falling in love all over again. It’s a very similar story about loss and grief and what one does with time when time in abundance is all one has left. It’s sweet, and sad, and beautiful. And, as I so often say, I’m never happier than when I’m learning something, and here I again learned a great deal. I’ve provided links below for anyone who might share that enjoyment.

The original story is outlined above. In Pek’s hands, it’s a story about two immortal spirits who love each other, but one wants something more: a baby. And that means giving up her immortality, becoming human.

You told me you had calculated the fate of the man who would be your husband based on the ten stems and twelve branches of his birth. He had a delicate constitution. He would pass in twenty-four years, before his fiftieth birthday.
I didn’t say anything.
You said, “What is twenty-four years to you?”
I said, “What will twenty-four years be to you?” I wasn’t thinking twenty-four. I was thinking fifty, sixty, your skin drying to parchment, your hair thinning and graying, your frame stooping ever closer to the ground in which you would—if you did this—someday rot.
You touched my face. I waited for you to ask if I would give up my own immortality, if I was willing to step with you out of the wilderness of myth and into the terraced rice fields and tiled roofs of history.
“You don’t have to stay,” you said.

What do you do when the person you love, have loved for aeons, needs to leave you to fulfill some desire? And though she intends to come back – “What is twenty-four years to you?” – it will not be forever. But even that respite disappears. So the spirit of the Green Snake follows her descendants over the centuries.

This is where Pek excels, in weaving history with the wandering Green Snake. She serves as guardian to the offspring of her beloved; she serves as a muse to such diverse figures as Arthur C. Clarke and Oscar Wilde – and possibly more that I didn’t recognize; you  have to keep an eye out for these things, they’re a delight when you recognize them.

Then there’s the painting, commissioned when they were both still immortal, and an object of her search afterwards.

Back then we didn’t think in terms of time. Our references were geography and action, places we had been, things we had done. In Xiangyang we had talked a jilted, impoverished artist out of jumping into the Hanshui River, and spun a pretext to give him a hundred taels of silver: we would ask him to paint our portrait. We wore our best dresses for it, you in white and I in green, tinted our cheeks and lips, put pins in our hair. We never collected the painting from him. We prided ourselves on traveling light, and, anyway, we saw no use for it, a record of things that would never change.

She finds the painting has ended up in a British museum thanks to the sleight of hand of a missionary who probably convinced himself he was saving it from destruction during the Opium Wars that started days later. In her Contributor Note, Pek acknowledges this is a contribution from her research on the Qing dynasty and the British greed.

She goes on to characterize the Green Snake as “someone who is really quite bad at dealing with that breakup.” It’s pretty arrogant to argue with an author over her intent, but I don’t think she handled it badly at all. In our lifetimes of seventy-odd years, a devastating breakup might easily cause a change in direction that lasts for several years. For an immortal spirit, it might last six centuries. What is six hundred years to her? She didn’t spend it sulking in her tent, but instead tended the descendants of the White Snake until there were no more, as well as her dabbling in archaeology and literature. As Ward writes in her Introduction explaining the stories she categorizes as moving through time:

Both of these artful, beautifully constructed stories tell a tale of time, of how it is mutable, alive, mysterious, and real. How all we have in this strange and bewildering present are those we love, and how even when the times turn terrible, that love remains. In this pandemic year, this was a particularly valuable lesson to read and remember….

Jesamyn Ward, Introduction

Forgive me if I reveal that  I finally had to hand-type the above quote because, while dictating it, I kept breaking into tears that rendered my voice-recognition software useless. Love lasts forever – but so does grief.

*   *    *

  • The story is available online via LitHub.
  • Jake Weber’s post on Workshop Heretic looks at the ekphrastic nature of the story: “The main secret of the universe Greenie has to share with us is similar to the one Keats often played with–that death is what makes life beautiful.”
  • One version of The Legend of the White Snake, nicely illustrated
  • About Stories to Caution the World, where the legend first appears in print.
  • The discovery of the submerged Koneswaram temple, written by Arthur C. Clarke: “Ceylon And The Underwater Archaeologist”

BASS 2021: Bryan Washington, “Palaver” from McSweeney’s #62

I’m always taken by stories within stories, and I’d wanted to write a narrative between this mother and her son for years. I’ve thought about these two characters for a while, along with the literal and imaginative distances between them. But I couldn’t land the narrative’s voice for anything. It always felt a little too distant. So it was only after I allowed the story’s structure to relax, given it breathing room and flexibility for both characters to reveal themselves, that the writing began to feel less like an impossible thing than something I could maybe navigate.

Bryan Washington, Contributor Note

I’ve often read what a horrible thing it is to include dictionary definitions in any kind of nonfiction writing. It’s overused; it shows a lack of imagination; it comes across as a stall for time. The thing is, when a story has a title like “Palaver” and I realize I don’t really know what the word means – something about talking – so I look it up, if I find the definition interesting in relation to the story, I’m going to include it.

Turns out, “palaver” has a range of meanings. At one end, it’s something like inane babble. At the other end, it was at one time used to describe communication between sailors and the peoples they encountered in distant ports, so came to mean a cross-cultural meeting. The conversations Washington brings to us between a mother and her son fit both definitions.

He made his mother a deal: for every story he told, she’d give him one of her own.
That’s hardly fair, she said.
Bullshit, he said.
It was the first time he’d used the word with her. And she let it slide, the first of many firsts between them.

That opening paragraph prepares us for the style of the story, but we still don’t know why they’re trading stories. It turns out she’s from Texas and he’s in Japan teaching English. He had another job but lost it when a client complained. “Because you’re Black,” says mom; he denies it, and we’re not sure whether he’s trying to forget about it, or if it was something else entirely. Because there is something else. He shares his first story with his mother: “Once upon a time, said the son, I fell in love with a married man.”

Apparently she wasn’t expecting that. Neither the married part, nor the man part.

We get some hint of backstory – no details, but a vague idea – via what his mother doesn’t say, an approach that works quite nicely.

Once upon a time, the mother didn’t tell her son, I thought I’d take you back to Toronto. Wed live with my sister. The two of us would leave Texas, in the middle of the night. We wouldn’t say a word to your father and we’d never come back.
Once upon a time, the mother didn’t tell her son, I thought I’d become an opera singer.
Once upon a time, the mother didn’t tell her son, I wrote poetry. I scribbled words in a notebook and hid it in the guest room. But one day – you wouldn’t remember this – I found you crying underneath the bed, and the pages were spread open, right at your feet. I think you were nine. I never wrote a poem again.

We see glimpses of their lives this way, through his actions – he goes out, comes home the next morning – and her lack of words. His relationship with the married man troubles him. Her relationship with his father has been troubling for a long time.  While mom is able to see his actions, he can’t hear the words she doesn’t say. He might have found comfort if he had. Or he might have been surprised.

There’s a change in the final exchange, however. Instead of going to a gay bar or his apartment, they picnic in a park, amidst people having fun. There’s a sense of lightening. And a sense that, while she refused to play the game, she’s coming to a different kind of agreement.

The teens in front of them slowed their dancing, falling all over one another. It was enough for the mother to grin despite herself. The world was bigger than anyone could ever know. Maybe that was hardly a bad thing.

Her final words seal the deal: “Tell me something else.” It’s almost like moving through the stages of grief, and now, she’s come to acceptance. And yes, there’s been plenty of the inane chatter as they’ve avoided what’s central to either of them. But now the last thing we hear from this cross-cultural meeting between mother and son is a note of hope.

Ward includes this story in her “problematic characters” group. Neither mother nor son are unlikeable, not at all. But also in that group she describes characters who are “more opaque, less open” and that certainly applies. I don’t get the sense that either of them wishes to withhold from the other, but rather they don’t want to hurt each other or expose themselves to criticism across the cultural divide between them. That they seem to be finding their way to communicating without those risks makes this a happy-ending story, or, at least, the happiest ending either could hope for given the circumstances.

* * *

Jake Weber does a great job analysing the communications in this story.

BASS 2021: Stephanie Soileau, “Haguillory” from Zoetrope: All-Story #24.2

Zoetrope art
The situation – an old man whose quiet morning of crabbing is rudely interrupted by a young family searching for a cat – was a gift from my old Cajun grandfather, who suffered such a morning himself. The thematic concerns of the story – whose suffering we grace with our sympathy and whose we deny, how we sometimes turn our own suffering into cruelty – came out of what I heard and observed in the time following Hurricane Katrina’s and Hurricane Rita’s landfall in Louisiana in 2005. Hurricane Rita’s devastation just a few short weeks after Katrina prompted, in someone like Haguillory (white, working class, and generally spiteful), not a deeper empathy for the suffering in New Orleans but rather a sense of grievance, a perception that he and others like him were being slighted by the media in favor of “New Orleans” (i. e., urban Black people). This attitude seems to be a pretty clear, if euphemistic, expression of endemic racism, and demonstrates how deeply both private and institutional racism divides people with common interests.

Stephanie Soileau, Contributor Note

Sometimes, when I come to write my posts on these stories, I find the author has done all the work for me, as here where Soileau lays out the themes and interpretations of the story. In this case, it’s a good thing she did, because I’m not sure I would have arrived at her points had she not hand-walked me there.

The story is a character study of the title character, focusing on one particular day in ways that display his contradictory attitudes towards his family and pretty much everything in his life:

When Haguillory woke at four thirty and went to the kitchen in his shorts and slippers, Dot was already there at the table, tanked up on coffee. He poured himself a cup without much looking at his wife. Outside the kitchen window, his tomatoes blushed in the moonlight. The blue crabs down in the Sabine marshes would have been gorging all night under that bright full moon, and this morning Haguillory planned to catch some.
He fixed his coffee and pretended there was nothing strange about Dot sitting up before dawn, when she was usually in bed until nine or ten. Her joints kept her awake late, and on top of that, she’d get herself all agitated watching the nightly news or reading the paper. How she could stand it, he didn’t know; it was always the same thing: New Orleans this, Katrina that, like those people were the only ones who’d been hit by a storm.

 I had a lot of trouble with this story. Haguillory seems something of a contradiction. He views his wife at times with derision, but is careful to clean up after himself when he gets up early. It’s not clear why she’s coming crab fishing with him on this day, but he doesn’t object. We get a strong hint that he did something to kill the neighbor’s pecan tree, but it’s not clear why; perhaps annoyance at the pecans it drops on his property? We know he’s been retired for five years, but not from what. His son adopted a daughter from “some country he’d never heard of.”  It’s no mystery why Ward included this in her “unlikeable characters” category.

At the marsh, as they’re setting up crabbing equipment, they cross paths with another family looking for their cat. The family is living in cramped conditions in a trailer, and it seems the father tried to get rid of the cat because it kept peeing on his son’s bed but had second thoughts.

“Y’all can’t imagine what it’s like,” the boy’s father said. “Three adults, two kids, and a incontinent cat. In a ten-by-thirty-foot box? Nobody can live like that. It’s been almost a year!” He stripped off his hat and beat it against his thigh.
Ç’est un bonrien, that FEMA,” Haguillory said. He spat into the canal. This young fella and his family, that little boy with his shirt too big—they’d never show that on the news. It was sad, how they forgot about some people, not about others. He himself was still waiting on payment for the damage Rita had done to his roof. “I’m sick to death of Katrina,” he said. “You don’t hear about nothing else!”
He was fixing to say more—about all the people in this world, like those looters in flooded New Orleans or that little adopted girl at Danny’s, who seemed to think their suffering entitled them to inflict suffering on others—when the cork on his fishing line dipped below the surface.

That’s an interesting line about people who feel their suffering entitles them to punish others, since that’s pretty much exactly what Haguillory seems to be doing. Turns out Dot knows exactly who her husband is, and she lets him know she isn’t pleased. Not that he’ll change, but he doesn’t argue. And again, there’s a contradiction: he gives the boy a pocket knife. I’m guessing he feels some connection with him, as an overlooked victim.

The last line is another one of those loud bells that rings long after the story’s read and put away: “There’s all kinds of meanness, and all kinds of mercy too.” Haguillory knows he can be a big SOB, but he also sees himself as kind. Does he think his final act in the story is a mercy? Is he, perhaps, right?

One of the disadvantages to reading these stories by category, rather than in order, is that I’ve encountered these “unlikeable character” stories one after the other. It’s been… difficult to move through and my posts have suffered as a result. More importantly, the stories deserve better. Lesson learned: when ordering short stories, variety works better.

The story, available online, is included in Soileau’s 2020 collection, Last One Out Shut Off the Lights, a look at life in Louisiana. Since I find myself without much to say about the story, I’m including links to a couple of interviews that further explore the author’s ideas.

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BASS 2021: Yxta Maya Murray, “Paradise” from The Southern Review #56.3

The 2017-18 California wildfire season caused more than $45 billion in damage and killed approximately 150 people. Paradise suffered one of the most violent of these conflagrations in 2018, when its citizens saw 85% of their town consumed. Five months later, President Donald Trump refused to sign a bill that would provide relief for these victims, as well as for those of the recent hurricane and flooding disasters. His reason? Puerto Rico would get too much money. “I don’t want another single dollar going to that island,” he said. That summer found me at Ucross, in Wyoming, watching videos of the hell-red passage that Paradise residents drove through while escaping certain death. It occurred to me that white supremacy is the worst strategy western civilization ever concocted. It does not even help its constituents. Fernanda, Wesley, and Jesse showed up in the midst of these musings, on a bad afternoon that found me fearful and perplexed in equal measure.

Yxta Maya Murray, Contributor Note

Back in 2018, I watched the Camp Fire in northern California from the safety of my New England living room, and still felt horrified by the images of fire consuming everything, leaving behind rubble and burned out hulks where stores, homes, and cars had been. Yet reading about it here was worse. Murray has a way with description:

At both sides of the road, the landscape turned into what looked I swear to holy Jesus like molten lava. Black-brown clouds streamed down through a bloody sky and onto a swell of hills that had fried deep black and were streaked through with flame. It was getting furnace hot in the car. It was close, like you couldn’t inhale right.

The story itself is a model of simplicity: a woman, her young child, and her father-in-law try to escape the fire.  Wes is a white racist son of a bitch who doesn’t want to leave his home behind, one of those “I’ll ride it out” types you see interviewed after they’re rescued from hurricane flooding. But a storm, while it’s scary, isn’t the same as a fire; we’ve all been through storms, even bad storms, and there’s reason to believe they can be survived. You see a wall of fire coming at you, and you change your mind right quick, though still perhaps too late.

Fernanda, some mixture of Pomo and Latina, is determined to get the hell out of Paradise along with her daughter, Jesse. She was married to Wes’ son, Mike, until he died of a heart attack a few years back. Wes never looked kindly on the marriage – “on our wedding day he sat in the front pew just shaking his head” – but he did have a fondness for his granddaughter, so he invited them to live with him after Mike died. Well, “invited” might be an exaggeration. He sent her an email that she could move into the back room, then told her to keep out of his basement, a room full of treasures – including a bronze statue of Custer – or else.

The conflict of the story keeps shifting. First it’s Wes and Fernanda, who go back well before she even knew Mike, to when she was a waitress at the café where Wes liked his steak well-done. On the morning of the story, it shifts to getting Wes to leave, since Fernanda is pretty sure they stand a better chance of getting out if they take his SUV rather than her little car. And eventually it shifts to the two of them trying to escape as the fires of hell burn around them.

Murray’s description, so effective in bringing us into the fire, seems a bit odd in other places, like the opening paragraph:

“I think we should go, Dad,” I said, shielding my eyes from the wind. The sheriff had tweeted an evacuation order for Pulga twenty minutes before. It was quarter to eight in the morning and the sky didn’t look right. Ten minutes ago it had turned from bright blue to a thick, pale orangy gray.
“I’m not going anywhere,” said Wesley, my father-in-law. He looked eastward with his face crinkling up. He was a big bull of a man, about five-eleven. He was white and bald and wore glasses. He had a chipped front tooth and his son’s blue eyes. He wore a Cowboys T-shirt and blue nylon shorts and black flip-flops. Eighty years old.
“That sky, though,” I said. I’m five-two with a big ass and strong arms. I’m forty-four. My black hair frizzed all around my head. I wore black nylon shorts and a pink nylon top and no shoes.

I’m not sure what all this description adds at this moment. I’m also puzzled that five-eleven is seen as a “big bull of a man.” Even with a heap of solid muscle weight, that doesn’t seem that big to me, and I’m five-two as well. I wonder if the point is, to a brown woman, a five-eleven white racist looks a lot bigger. I’m also confused about the blue eyes, since later Mike’s eyes are specifically described as green, and daughter Jesse inherits them, giving Fernanda genetic reason to assume some white heritage. Is this to contrast brown eyes with not-brown? Is it an editing glitch? I doubt it, given the level of publications we’re dealing with, but it’s not impossible.

I had to laugh at the swipe Wes takes at 45, while maintaining his bigotry:

“I’m never going to make back what I lose,” Wes said. “I’m too old.”
“Insurance will cover you and then Trump will make you a rich man with one of those disaster packages,” I rattled on. The sky was really starting to darken, and I could see a thick haze of smoke coming in fast on a current.
Nancy moved onto Pearson. I inched the Yukon to the stoplight. I turned on my turn signal like she had because we all had to become robots.
“That asshole will leave us stranded,” Wes said. “He’ll piss on some more hookers and burn it all on golf.”
I started laughing. Tears were streaming down my face. “You liked him, I thought.”
“Only on Mexicans and Puerto Ricans,” Wes said.
“Right.” I laughed some more.
“Not you,” Wes said.
“I don’t care, it’s okay,” I said. “because if we get out of this alive I’m going to punch you till you sneeze teeth, you old son of a bitch.”
“Okay,” Wes said.

I’m not sure I’d be able to laugh if I were Fernanda. But she’s weighed the cost of moving into a house with a Custer statue already, taken the insult of being warned not to steal, for pete’s sake: “I knew I had to eat the grits he gave me.” She’d compromise just about everything for the sake of her daughter, who Wes really does dote on. (By the way, the funds for California and Puerto Rico were finally released, after much dramatic threatening about using them to build The Wall.)

I’m not even sure how much time passes on the road out of town, as the fire burns around them. I envision Wes imagining himself being thrown into Hell for his sins; the metaphor is there, regardless of how the character sees it. And, as someone fearing eternal damnation, he starts begging for mercy, for atonement, for grace, for forgiveness:

“Tell me you forgive me,” he wept.
I watched the hellfire sweep across the trees to our right and kept my foot steady on the gas.
“Tell me,” he said.
“I forgive you, you Custer-loving bastard,” I lied.
…The red underworld rose up to heaven, exploded in the pines, and whirled above us like naked stars. The pale spot of clear sky continued glimmering ahead, though, and I aimed for it, without praying, and filled with something less like faith then a blind keeping-on. And what I hoped was not my last thought was What a Native woman’s got to put up with in this goddammed life doesn’t stop until the minute that she dies.

That last sentence is a gem, and echoes with me still.  And it played a big part in resolving what was my biggest uncertainty.

I wanted to categorize this differently than Ward did. I felt immersed in the fire. I’ve never been in a fire, never been near a threatening fire, only carefully tended campfires and bonfires. I found it terrifying. Ward instead considered it as part of the “problematic characters” group; she describes Wes  as “brusque and unyielding and racist, but the story peels away the layers of his personality so that by the end we feel empathy for both of them.” I felt his racism had become more of a defense, now perhaps a substitute for grief over the passing of his son.

Then I realized I was seeing him as Archie Bunker:  funny in his absurdity, but well-meaning underneath; he’s not really one of those racists, the ones who would kill and exclude and let die by the side of the road, but more the Norman Lear racist with a warm, gooey inside.

Nothing in the story indicates that. Although he offers them a home, he’s clear it’s for Jesse, and he’d throw Fernanda out in a heartbeat if he had an excuse, and Fernanda’s laugh is not one of humor but of bitter acceptance. So I have to recognize my own delusion here:  that he feels the need to beg for forgiveness as he faces Judgment indicates consciousness of guilt. And again, as with his size, Fernanda no doubt sees him very differently.

Again, I say it: the power of story, to see the world through another’s eyes.

* * *

  • Jake Weber’s post at Workshop Heretic pointed out some weak spots in this story: “We’re halfway through before we really get to the point where someone wants something.”

BASS 2021: Christa Romanosky, “In This Sort of World, the Asshole Wins” from Cincinnati Review #17.2

Many of the stories I write take place in an area of Appalachia similar to where I grew up, where there are few jobs and high levels of opiate and meth use and hydraulic fracturing has poisoned the water. This is where the story takes place, but that’s just the husk. When I began writing this piece, I wanted to explore how people love and how people survive. And the more I explored this, the more I was sure I wanted to write about how people hate too, at how vital hatred can be for survival….

Christa Romanosky, Contributor Note

The title says it all: This is not a feel-good story.

On first read, I thought it was surprising that this wasn’t in the “unlikeable characters” group of stories, but instead in “immersion.” But now I get it. Tiff is not likeable, but she is not unlikeable in the sense, as Roxane Gay put it in her great article, “Not Here to Make Friends,” one of those characters who “aren’t pretending, that they won’t or can’t pretend to be someone they are not…. They are, instead, themselves. They accept the consequences of their choices and those consequences become stories worth reading.” Tiff isn’t asserting her independence or marching to the beat of her own drum; she’s angry, the kind of deep-down angry that comes from being on the losing side of life for a long time. She doesn’t accept the consequences of her choices because she doesn’t see them as choices as much as last resorts.

We get some indication that there was abuse of some kind in her younger years, abuse overlooked by her parents, followed by cutting episodes. Then came her husband, who recently died of an overdose. So she, and her son Bucky, are staying with her parents, trying to survive. How she chooses to survive is questionable, but given the environment, it may well be her choices are pretty slim.

The hillside was eroding, shale crackled like mangy dog skin, road cut out and rocky, but between two ravines about a half a mile back, Grubber John turned off the engine. Below the heavy ridge of rock and clay, a pit entrance, shaded by crab-apple trees, sumac, milkweed, thistle. “Here we are,” Grubber John said, handing her a flashlight. “We are the forgotten people, owner of the forgotten things. And this is my humble abode.”

She has to rely on second-hand favors of friends of her husband, favors from people who aren’t particularly worried about making sure Don’s lady gets a fair shake. Grubber John’s favor includes something like a job that involves drugs and sex. Some Bitch, her name for another Friend of Don who gives her a ride, rips her off when she isn’t looking. This is not a feel-good story about the disadvantaged pulling together. It’s about the rage that forms when there’s no one on your side.

Except maybe Bucky, her toddler.

At home she shut a window, slammed a door. Turned on the radio, the AC. When Bucky finally woke up crying, she cuddled him to her chest. “I got you, baby,” she said, rocking him. “Something woke you up, huh? Something scared you.” He smelled like mint and vinegar, baby powder. Her mouth emitted the heat of her sore bottom teeth, and she inhaled him like a fugue.

One of the things Romanosky mentions in her Contributor Note is how trauma is passed on through generations. Who knows what Tiff’s parents went through, but now she wakes up her baby just to feel protective. Is this minor, the down-and-out version of waking up your baby just to see him smile? Or is it another adult depending on a child, instead of the other way around?

The final sentence is one of those “oh” things, a thought that sends shivers down the spine.

Tonight Bucky smelled like mint, old sweet milk. She pressed her mouth to his lip, as though he held the source to the only oxygen in the room. And when Bucky finally stirred, she said, “You having a bad dream, baby?” But he slept on, oblivious to how much Tiff loved him. Enough to consume him, she thought. What a funny way to feel about a thing you love.

And this is the problem, isn’t it. Love as consumption rather than nourishment. If love can’t be trusted, what is left but, as Romanosky clearly states, hate. This isn’t a case of pushing people away until you learn to trust them; there’s no one to trust here. It’s about coming at everyone with a machete before they come at you. And if your baby is the sole source of nourishment for you, then someday he, too, will distrust love.

We all love stories about the plucky character who manages to survive under incredible stresses: she talks her way into a terrible job and hangs on until she meets someone who gives her a better job, or finds Mr. Right who sees beyond the poverty and lack of education to her pure soul. But this isn’t Pretty Woman; it’s more akin to the original script where Vivian was drug addict and ended up thrown out on the street instead of being whisked away by the Knight in Shining Armor. It’s not a great date movie, but it’s probably more real. And may God, or whoever is watching, help Bucky.

BASS 2021:  Tracey Rose Peyton, “The Last Days of Rodney” from American Short Fiction #71

I wrote the first two pages and set it aside. I wasn’t sure how to continue, let alone whether it was a story I should even try to tell. I still worry about it, even though the story being told is a fictional one. Lest there be any confusion, I should say up front that the portrait of the protagonist is a fabrication, one that utilizes a few major details in the public record and no more. No attempts were made to utilize the true names, stories, or recollections of King’s actual kin. I believe their memories are their own, and aren’t tchotchkes to be made available for public consumption.
What feels apt for exploration instead is a public memory. “The past that is not past reappears, always to rupture the present,” great Christina Sharp in her brilliant book In The Wake. I wanted to explore that rupture and its afterlife, in hopes of seeing what it might reveal.

Tracey Rose Peyton, Contributor Note

I’m glad to see Peyton admits worrying about whether this, a fictional imagining of Rodney King’s last few days on earth. I’m pretty nervous about it as a reader. Other writers have used public figures as characters: Lincoln, Dickinson, Kahlo, O’Keefe, Hemingway. But Rodney King became a public figure against his will. Then again, he made some media appearances afterwards, so he didn’t shun the spotlight entirely. I tend to get nervous when fiction and fact are blended together, but I can’t complain about a story clearly presented as fiction.

Then I wonder about the line between fanfic – which, if I understand correctly, is sneered at by “real” writers – and this sort of thing. Isn’t this taking an existing character and creating a story line within the canon of existing work? Isn’t that what fanfic is? Granted, it’s done by a talented writer so it’s certainly far better fiction than the stuff that floats around online, but… is it existentially different?

Leaving that aside, the character study she gives us looks deeply at how King’s trauma affected him even years later, and his reluctant acceptance that some parts of his life would be all anyone would see of him, even now:

He was known most everywhere—a face, a caption, a grainy video clip—but it had been over twenty years now, and he was still trying to forge a new chapter unconnected to the first. Wishful thinking, he knew. It would always be connected. No one would ever bring up his name without mentioning the past, without talking about the public spectacle of a private beating that almost killed him, but didn’t. And when his heart slowed and breath filled his lungs, he was someone else.

You have to be heading into middle age at least to remember America’s first nationwide glimpse of police violence against an unarmed black man, courtesy of a plumber – a white man – who wanted to try out his new video camera (he died a few months ago, of COVID. A friend told NPR he was not vaccinated). The story version of King considers himself lucky, since now, not only is the violence more frequent (or at least more frequently seen), it’s often more deadly.

I have trouble recalling what happens during the story, because plot is quite secondary. He’s a couple of dollars short at the convenience store, so foregoes the lottery tickets; he offers his son a chance to play hooky, but there’s this field trip with someone named Kia, and a dad can’t compete with that; he visits his dad in the nursing home and worries that he’s not eating. In short, a lot of things in his life are falling through.

Peyton doesn’t soft-pedal things. He’s two years sober, and that’s about to end. He’s made some bad financial decisions regarding the money he was awarded in the civil suit, but he still has a nice house: a house with a swimming pool, a pool he hates taking care of but his wife loves the symbolism, and he understands because “it felt like they had won something, stolen something they were never meant to have.”

And that leads to the beautiful, tragic end:

He did a talk show once where he heard someone say water is always remembering, always trying to get back to itself. It was funny to think of water with memories. “Can we trade?” but he knew he didn’t want water’s memories, he just wanted to give his up, have them disappear like those people on soap operas who get amnesia like most folks get the flu. He wanted amnesia for himself, for others. Isn’t that a baptism? The washing away of sins. That whatever happened before is no longer.…
He stepped down so his feet were on the pool floor, the water rising up to his thighs. Make me clean. Make me new. He drifted toward the deep, darker end of the pool and the water climbed higher and higher. He lowered himself into it, first his shoulders, then his head. Just a moment now, and then one moment more. When he came up, it would all be different.

Wikipedia’s article on King notes:

On Father’s Day, June 17, 2012, King’s partner, Cynthia Kelley, found King dead underwater at the bottom of his swimming pool. King died 28 years to the day after his father, Ronald King, was found dead in his bathtub in 1984.

Wikipedia

These head-exploding juxtapositions within this story are accidental, but they’re there nonetheless: It’s almost humorous that Ward considered this story one of immersion in a character’s life. “When I ascended out of their worlds, I could breathe a little easier in my own skin…” she writes. I hold my breath and can’t help but wonder if Rodney found everything different when he came up. I hope so.

BASS 2021:  David Means, “Clementine, Carmelita, Dog” from Granta #152

Granta art
For fourteen years I lived with a dog, Bartleby, a miniature dachshund, and observed him as he observed me, paying an incredible amount of attention – because I loved him in the same unconditional way that he seemed to love me – to all his gestures…. In any case, when Bartleby died, I waited a few years and then, on an impulse during the summer began to write a story about a lost dog. It’s really that simple. The complexity of writing the story came from trying to locate and maintain a dog’s point of view, focusing on the olfactory as much as possible, while also realizing that no matter what, I’d be writing a projection onto the animal mind and that the story would ultimately be about the human world. Writing from an animal perspective, as far away from the human as I could go, was a relief – to be eased of the burden of the political social upheaval during that time.

David Means, Contributor Note

Just to be sure, I browsed through the table of contents for the past three years: Nope, no animal stories in BASS for a while now. And yes, this is a story about dog who gets lost, is taken in, and eventually gets lost again back to his original home. Indirectly, it’s also about the people involved, and how the dog serves as a connection.

To say it’s told by a dog, however, would be incorrect, yet it does give us a dog’s point of view, and in particular shows us how a dog’s perception, how certain aspects of its mental life, differs from that of a human.

Let’s start with memory:

Here I should stress that dog memory is not at all like human memory, and that human memory, from a dog’s point of view, would seem strange, clunky, unnatural and deceptive. Dog memory isn’t constructed along temporal lines, gridded out along a distorted timeline, but rather in an overlapping and, of course, deeply olfactory manner, like a fanned-out deck of cards, perhaps, except that the overlapping areas aren’t hidden but are instead more intense, so that the quick flash of a squirrel in the corner of the yard, or the crisp sound of a bag of kibble being shaken, can overlap with the single recognizable bark of a schnauzer from a few blocks away on a moonlit night. In this account, as much as possible, dog has been translated into human, and like any such translation, the human version is a thin, feeble approximation of what transpired in Clementine’s mind as she stood in the woods crying and hungry, old sensations overlapping with new ones, the different sounds that Norman’s steps had made that morning, the odd sway of his gait, and the beautiful smell of a clump of onion grass – her favorite thing in the world! – as she’d deliriously sniffed and sneezed, storing the smell in the chambers of her nose for later examination while Norman waited with unusual patience.

For those wondering about the narrative style: hold onto that, I’ll get there, I promise. But let’s focus on memory here. I don’t know how much research Means did into animal cognition, but he seems to be describing what was, until very recently, the predominant theory of dog memory: they don’t have episodic memory of specific events, as we do, but rather, associative memory. His “fanned-out deck of cards” example does a very nice job of giving us some idea of what that means without a lot of cogsci jargon.

Two studies, one from 2017 and one from 2020 (links below) indicate dogs may indeed have some degree of episodic memory, at least for their own actions. One of the articles speculates that this may indicate some degree of self-awareness, though that may be different from human self-awareness. I keep saying that every time someone comes up with a hard-and-fast boundary between people and animals, someone does a study to show that animals possess the same quality.

But as to the story: memory plays a big part as our dog, the lost Clementine, finds a new home when Steve finds her wandering in the woods:

That was all it took. One bit of spicy meat and she reconfigured her relationship with the human. She felt this in her body, in her haunches, her tail, and the taste of the meat in the back of her throat. But, again, it wasn’t so simple. Again, this is only a translation, as close as one can get in human terms to her thinking at this moment, after the feeling of the cold water on her tongue and the taste of meat. One or two bits of meat aren’t enough to establish a relationship. Yes, the moment the meat hit her mouth a new dynamic was established between this unknown person and herself, but, to put it in human terms, there was simply the potential in the taste of meat for future tastes of meat. The human concept of trust had in no way entered the dynamic yet, and she remained ready to snap at this strange man’s hand, to growl, or even, if necessary, to growl and snap and raise her hackles and make a run for it. Human trust was careless and quick, often based on silly – in canine terms – externals, full of the folly of human emotion.

Means doesn’t sentimentalize things, as a story for children would do. But does he assume people trust easily? If someone found me wandering in the woods, I might gratefully accept a meal at their table, but I wouldn’t necessarily feel safe for quite a while. However, it again compares Carmelita’s reaction – for she is now renamed, her old name unavailable to Steve and Luisa – to people, and firms up this pattern. And, by the way, gracefully and subtly shows how impermanent and artificial names are. A rose by any other…

The pattern of using Clementine/Carmelita/dog’s perception to illuminate the people in the story now becomes a centerpiece as we come to the emotional center:

Even in her excitement over her new home, Carmelita was experiencing a form of grief particular to her species. There are fifty-seven varieties of dog grief, just as there are – from a dog’s point of view – 110 distinct varieties of human grief, ranging from a vague gloom of Sunday-afternoon sadness, for example, to the intense, peppery, lost-father grief, to the grief she was smelling in this new house, which was a lost child (or lost pup) type of grief, patches of which could be found in the kitchen, around the cabinets, near the sink, and all over the person named Luisa. It was on the toys upstairs, too, and as she sniffed around she gathered pieces together and incorporated them into her own mood.

Carmelita’s examination of grief is in a smell. I wonder if there is a scent of grief that dogs, or other animals, can recognize. I wouldn’t be surprised; emotional tears, present only in humans (at least, that’s the story right now) have been shown to contain different chemicals than baseline hydrating tears or tears produced by a physical irritant. These sections are very moving, as they convey Steve and Luisa’s human story through Carmelita’s perceptions.

Now about that narrative style…

If there is one way the classic novels of British literature – the kinds of things that show up on high school reading lists and in college classes for English majors – differ from contemporary stories, it’s in the use of the intrusive narrator, a third-person device by which the narrator, while not part of the story, can hold forth on a subject deemed important to the purpose of the novel and insufficiently conveyed by the actions, thoughts, and speech of the characters. It’s why so many of us (ahem) dislike old-fashioned fiction.

The narration of this story ranges from reader address to explanation to free indirect discourse. There’s nothing forbidden about any of these, but it’s unexpected. Maybe that’s the approach that’s needed to tell a story from a dog’s point of view without resorting to anthropomorphics. I have to say, though, that whatever your opinion of this style, it would make a superb example for teaching.  

And then there’s the defamiliarization, which is a bugbear of mine; I don’t know why, but I just don’t like it. In this story, it’s often ameliorated by the narrator, who tends to jump in and explain what it is that Clementine/Carmelita recognizes but can’t describe in human terms.

This morning he’d dangled the leash and while she was waiting at the back door, he’d gone to the kitchen and got a tool from a drawer, an oil and saltpeter thing that made a frightening sound, Clementine knew, because once he had taken her along to shoot it upstate. (Don’t get me wrong. She knew it was a gun but she didn’t have a name for it – it was an object that had frightened her.) The thing was zipped into his bag when he came to the door.

Yeah, I’m liking that intrusive narrator thing less and less.

But that scene brings me to my third complaint: we literally have Chekhov’s Gun here, and not only is it not fired, it’s never mentioned again. Are we supposed to wonder if Norman took his dead wife’s beloved dog for a walk, let her off the leash, then shot himself? Is that intended as the driving force of the narrative – at least until we read that Carmelita smells him a few months later? Or at that point are we supposed to wonder if she smells his rotting corpse, because of course we assume, if she can smell grief, she can smell death, but whatever happened? Am I getting this worked up over a dog story? Does that mean it was successful, even if it annoyed me?

Apparently Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Pitlor, and the editors of Granta thought it was highly successful, though I suspect you have to be someone of David Means’ literary stature to bypass the slush pile.

Ward included the story in her “immersion” category, “stories that shocked me out of my own experience and completely immersed me in another.” I might have wanted a category called Grief, since that is what binds the dog and both her companion humans together. And what so often binds people together, if we can get over ourselves long enough to recognize the pain of the other.

*  *  *     

Scientific American: Karinna Hurley, “Your Dog Remembers Even More about What You Do Than You Think”

Nature Magazine: Claudia Fugazza et al, “Mental representation and episodic-like memory of own actions in dogs”

Smithsonian Magazine: Joseph Stromberg, “The Microscopic Structures of Dried Human Tears” (Rose-Lynn Fisher, photographer)

In the category of I-Wish-I’d-Seen-That, Jake Weber’s post on Workshop Heretic made a connection to Brandon Hobson’s story “Escape from the Dysphesiac People.”

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

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

Shanteka Sigers, Contributor Note (first half)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, that second half of the Contributor Note:

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

Shanteka Sigers, Contributor Note (second half)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

  • Jake Weber has an excellent take on the A-story vs B-story here.

BASS 2021:  Eloghosa Osunde, “Good Boy” from Paris Review #234

Troy Michie: “Doubling” (detail)
The entire story flowed out in the character’s voice. When people ask me about how I ‘crafted’ the tone, I try to tell the truth: I didn’t craft it, I listened to it. I remembered from the inside and transcribed it. He reminds me of someone I know and love, actually, so it wasn’t difficult to hear him.
The most fascinating thing about the process of writing that story, for me, was that the ending came first. We hear (and read and watch) so many stories about queer characters being disowned by their parents because they came out or were outed. Those stories are powerful, but I was curious about something else: a character who a) centres his own experience, b) lives his full life, c) decides for himself who he wants to let in on the truth about who he is, d) never comes out to his parents, e) is thickly loved through his obvious messiness and f) draws a line between himself and what he is(n’t) willing to let go of for the sake of being accepted.

Eloghosa Osunde, First Draft interview with Republic.ng magazine

I know what Osunde means when she says she heard the voice and wrote it down. In the film Amadeus, the character Salieri is amazed that Mozart’s written music has no corrections: “He had simply written down music already finished in his head! Page after page of it as if he were just taking dictation.” It sounds like Osunde had a similar experience with this story. The voice is distinctive: occasional grammatical and vocabulary variations captured in long paragraphs with organizing structures such as lists and orderings.

I’ve always had a problem with introductions. To me, they don’t matter. It’s either you know me or you don’t—you get? If you don’t, the main thing you need to know is that I am a hustler through and through. I’m that guy that gets shit done. Simple. Kick me out of the house at fifteen—a barged-in-on secret behind me, a heartbreak falling into my shin as I walk—and watch me grow some real useful muscles. Watch me learn how to play all the necessary games, good and ungood; watch me learn how to notice red eyes, how to figure out when to squat and bite the road’s shoulder with all my might. Watch me learn why a good knife (and not just any type of good, but the moral-less kind, the fatherlike kind) is necessary when you’re sleeping under a bridge. Just a week after that, watch me swear on my own destiny and insist to the God who made me that I’m bigger than that lesson now; then watch my ori align….Second thing to know about me: I know how to make the crucial handshakes. Third thing: I no dey make the same mistake twice.

Even though I’m not familiar with the voice, after a few pages I could hear it as I read. I can’t say I fully understood all of the references, but I got the gist. I was interested in the phrase “watch my ori align” and discovered ori is literally “head” but figuratively means something like soul or fate, maybe something like a personal Tao, a path.

Most of the story is an extended monologue providing backstory that is the story: how a fifteen-year-old kicked out of his house with nothing when found with a gay lover manages to not only survive, but thrive, and now lives with his partner in luxury. This all leads up to meeting his estranged father after so many years, finding him gravely ill, paying his bills to return him to health. And when Dad asks to meet the woman he will marry – “Won’t you let me see you whole?” – the son does just that. “Yes, sir you will see me whole.” The ending uses a linguistic play that succeeds wildly; I didn’t think I was that emotionally engaged in this coming-out story, but following the struggle just outlined, it gave me goosebumps:

Are you sure you understand, Dad? I asked. By then my voice was hot iron. No one, I decided there and then, is allowed to kill me twice. Using my child-voice he said, Yes, sir, and using his dad-voice, I said, Good boy.

This twist of voice – a triple twist, a switch of owner, nature, and role, a kind of end-parenthesis on the initial comments about his father – sold me on the story. It shows who has matured and who has some growing to do. In a story made of voice, it was unexpected. That might be why Ward put it in her Surprise category. It also might be what won it Paris Review’s  George Plimpton Prize for 2021.

*   *   * 

  • Author interview with Republic.ng magazine.
  • Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic looks at the story as a picaresque.

BASS 2021:  Brandon Hobson, “Escape from the Dysphesiac People” from McSweeney’s #61

Stephen Mopope: “Two Eagle Dancers”
Like a lot of my recent writing, “Escape From The Dysphesiac People” came out of thinking about the years I spent as a social worker. In this story I was especially thinking about colloquial language and the way certain authorities talked with a common acerbic aggression, exaggerated in this story, of course. For a while I worked in juvenile services and had to make referrals for kids to go to placement at boys’ ranches and other long-term facilities. I was also thinking about how Natives were once removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools, where they were forced to cut their hair and change their speech in an attempt to rid them of their identity.

Brandon Hobson, Contributor Note

This story makes for an interesting comparison with Zhang’s “Little Beast,” which it follows, due to the order in which I’m reading the collection. They both involve a hazy line between imagination, imagery, and reality. But where Zhang’s story felt creepy without ever stepping over to the supernatural, this story abounds with some kind of, well, call it magical realism, yet seems far more rational.

Perhaps it’s the vantage point from which it’s told. It’s in the form of a letter to the protagonist’s grandchildren, so he must be mature, if not elderly, at this point, well past the fifteen years of age he was when the action of the story took place. He survived, and flourished enough to have beloved grandchildren:

Beloved grandchildren: Dr. Estep has recommended I tell the story of how, many years ago, I escaped from the Darkening Land and returned home. I escaped from the men who talked funny, the ones who removed me from my home and cut my hair and put me on a train….
You might know that such trauma – the removal from your home, from your family, from your own identity – causes unease even after years of talking about it, and so be it, my beloved! But this is not so much a story of a traumatic event as it is a story of escape. This is not a melange of distorted events, nor is it a call for sympathy. You must know the history of removal, and this is my own history – my way of remembering those weeks when I was gone.

That action is as straightforward as it is grim. He is removed from his home, from his family, and transferred to some kind of state custody because he is Indian, possibly because he’d committed some infraction only Indian children would be punished for. Or perhaps this was the wholesale re-socialization that was a routine practice in the US and Canada up until the middle of the 20th century: an attempt to teach Native kids to be white.

The first thing they do is cut the boy’s hair and change his name.

“Drink this,” he said. He sat on the edge of the bed. “There will be work for you to do here. Ah.”
I shook my head.
“Mah,” he said. His face twitched. “You’ll choose your name, son. How about Jim? Think about it, ah, or maybe we’ll just call you Chief.”
“I don’t want to change my name,” I said.
“Chief it is. Oh, ah, you’ll need to learn to act and talk just like us.”
I shook my head. “Mah,” he said “your hair looks good short. You are in better territory, ah, away from the dusty plains. Away from the tornadoes and the rattlesnakes. You’ll be happier here. Oh. Ah.”

The strange manner of speech is highlighted throughout the story, and in the title. It’s hard for me to grasp the kind of prosody exemplified by the written dialogue; I assume the mahs and ahs are hesitation sounds of some kind. I wondered if dysphesia was an actual word; I’m familiar with aphasia and dysphasia, but maybe this was something different, so I went googling. Imagine my surprise when I ended up at David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Twenty-Four Word Notes” as printed in his posthumously-published collection Both Flesh and Not.

Dysphesia     This is a medical noun with some timely nonmedical applications. We often use aphasia to refer to a brain-centered inability to use language, which is close but not identical to the medical meaning. Dysphesia can be similarly extended from its technical definition to mean really severe difficulties in forming coherent sentences. As anyone who’s listened to our current president [George W. Bush] knows, there are speakers whose lack of facility goes way beyond the range of clumsy or inarticulate. What G. W. Bush’s public English is is dysphesiac.

David Foster Wallace, “Twenty-four Word Notes” from Both Flesh and Not

I can’t find the spelling with an ‘e’ anywhere else, so I’m going to assume it’s a little twist of irony (dysgrephia?), though it may be some grammatically-justified vowel shift I’m unaware of. In any case, it’s not a term used in the letter itself, but in the title by the author, which adds that same little twist of irony to the story.

We watch as the boy (I’m not comfortable calling him the State-assigned names of Jim or, god forbid, Chief, and his actual name is not mentioned) deals with hard work, little food, and no education. And, of course, fear and loneliness:

Beloved: I saw many people that first night. Apparitions of women and men with blankets over their shoulders, walking down the hallway. I saw children being carried. I saw people crawling and reaching out to me for help. They kept coming and coming, walking and crawling down the hallway past my bedroom. In the dark I couldn’t see their faces, but their bodies were struggling against a wind, pushing forward. My ancestors, I thought. My ancestors walking the Trail.

The Year of Removal in which the boy was taken was not the first Removal in Cherokee memory. Cultural memory is a powerful thing, which may be why white America is so determined to erase it for everyone they’ve removed, enslaved, exploited.

The boy’s mind is on escape all along, but he doesn’t act on it until he comes across a barn full of mannequins. I confess, I don’t really understand what’s happening here; one of the wardens (whatever their title, that’s what they are) tells him they’re just for pictures. Mannequins without eyes or mouths. Were these used to create the apparitions the boy saw, to frighten him? Whatever is going on, it scares him enough to send him running.

Along the road, he meets another Native, whose name is Tsala. It’s a scene as beautiful and gracious as the previous scenes were harsh. They share coffee and a smoke, and Tsala gives him a piece of rose quartz: “For overcoming grief. You can begin healing.” Tsala gives him directions to get home, then turns into an eagle and flies away. And now you see what I mean when I say this blending of imagery and the supernatural is more rational than the teenager’s in the prior story. Is this imagination, a dream, a hallucination?  Folklore so ingrained, it becomes memory? Or a reality some of us can’t understand?

Hobson’s recent novel, The Removed, included a character named Tsala. I’m not sure if the story is from the novel, or just shares Tsala. He discussed the origin of the name and the character with Ailsa Chang from NPR:

Tsala’s an ancestor. And Tsala’s name is a shortened version of Tsalagi, which is actually the word Cherokee in Cherokee language. And so Tsala was actually based on a real man named Tsali, who was killed for refusing to leave the land….Killed by the U.S. government, absolutely, because he refused. And he fought them for refusing to leave and was killed for it. And I had been reading about Tsali. And so I based Tsala on him and being a spirit ancestor

Brandon Hobson, NPR Intervew on his new novel The Removed

Ward included this story in her “surprising” group. She specifically mentions language as one of the elements that featured in surprise, so it’s no surprise when she calls it “surreal and hypnotic, due to the rhythm and building of the prose.” The dysphesiac people may be seen as incoherent simply because they tell lies as truth, claiming the Boys Ranch is a better place for the boy, taking him in the first place. Turning from them (and the mannequins) to Tsala is an enormous relief. Literary fiction rarely involves happy endings, but in this case, we end on, if not happiness, at least the beginning of regaining happiness: the last word, the last word is Home.

*   *    * 

  • Read Hobson’s interview quoted above on NPR
  • Jake Weber’s post on Workshop Heretic has an interesting take on the interplay of culture and religion: “‘Harmony’ — a frequent subject in American Indian lit– means not just erasing the lines between the self and nature, but between the sacred and the secular.”

BASS 2021:  C Pam Zhang, “Little Beast” from BOMB #153

What does it mean to grow up as a girl when the models for girlhood that you see in the media are dead, or maimed, or “ruined,” or abused, or endangered – and when the public’s rapt attention on these girls gives them an aura of desirability, even sexiness? I don’t know any woman or girl, however strong and educated, who hasn’t been subliminally warped by the constant narrative of girls as victims and sex objects both. For that matter, I don’t know any living human who hasn’t been warped by it. In “Little Beast” I amplify this creepiness with the creepiness inherent to any very insular society: here, an elite all-girls school.

C Pam Zhang, Contributor Note

Creepy is a good word for this story – but it’s a fine-tuned creepiness, a creepiness that creeps up on you (sorry!), and plays with the borders between intense imagery, horror, and psychosis.

Zhang is right about the societally-bestowed nobility granted to those who have suffered trauma. That’s somewhat justified; it takes a lot to survive violence. But it can have the strange effect of making violence seem desirable, at least for a vulnerable few who see no other route to grandeur.

At thirteen, I felt my body slopping. Though I sat in the middle of the nurse’s height-weight chart, though I’d memorized the textbook diagram with its cake-like cross-section of flesh (epidermis, dermis, hypodermis stippled yellow with fat), my problem went deeper than biology. Mine was a more fundamental failure. My posture was liquid and my spine nonexistent despite containing the requisite thirty-three vertebrae. I spilled into conversations and overshared the banal. My words manifested as spit on listeners’ cheeks. Even teachers wore expressions of disgust when my hand shot up—expressions blotted away by sympathy like a napkin blots grease.

Our protagonist is the young teen at the elite school Zhang sets up, a school populated by bright-eyed, shiny-haired future movers-and-shakers, daughters of current movers-and-shakers. Except for Girlie, who is the daughter of the janitor, admitted on scholarship. Her classmates aren’t Mean Girls; courtesy and respect seem to be, at least on the surface, drilled into them as much as posture and promptness.  They even make occasional mild overtures of friendliness towards her. That doesn’t make it any easier.

We never learn the name of our narrator. Her father used to call her Inch, then switched to Girlie, a shift that hovers over the story until it’s resolved on the final page, but remains ambiguous. The story connects her to her father, a man as loving as he is clueless about teenage girls; and to a group of girls at the school. No, not the bright-eyed shiny-haired girls; they aren’t the ones who appeal to her. It’s the other girls that interest her.

The girls I yearned to know were the ones wrapped in silence. Even teachers didn’t bother calling on them. Not glowing but shadowed girls, skinny wraiths with bitten nails, dark circles, dry hair. An exhaustion that made them seem older and wiser. Such girls had no hobbies or sports teams that I knew of—though participation was mandatory at Alta. It was as if whatever drained them was extracurricular enough.
A bit strange, was the strongest thing I heard said about the silent girls, thanks to Alta’s rampant kindness. Mostly those girls were buffered in silence as they passed through the halls. There were maybe five of them, though the precise number was slippery; they disappeared or reappeared from class at will, reinforcing the sense that they belonged not to Alta’s world, but a different one. A world my father couldn’t see into. Under Alta’s bright lights, these girls’ lashes drew vertical bars over their eyes. More than anything, I wanted to know what inside them needed caging.

I can understand that. She would always be an outsider with the Sweet Valley High set (I’ve been reading Roxane Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist, and this story kept coming to mind as I read her essay about her Sweet Valley obsession). She could belong to the silent girls with something caged within. Maybe. If she tried.

The methods of fitting in with this group are all self-destructive. Anorexia. Cutting. The cutting was more or less an accident with celery, but she’d already discovered “even these girls weren’t born with nothing behind their eyes. They had ways of inviting it in.” The celery served as an admission ticket. It also implies that no one is born with a beast within; it must be acquired, and some of us are better at rejecting it than others.

The cutting is noticed by a teacher who sends her to some kind of support group with the misfit girls, because if we’ve got a school of perfect future senators and a couple of weirdos, by all means let’s put the weirdos in a room where they can learn from each other. It’s more of a classroom for Girlie than where she learns Biology.

A strange room, down a half-flight of stairs I’d never seen. Subterranean light, the ceiling dusty and low. One barred window. A cage.
It was run by a woman who resembled a mouse, whose trembling voice bid the others to welcome me. Into our fold, the mouse said, as if they were four sheep instead of something else. The four ignored her—half a mouthful of a woman, not worth the effort. It was me they watched.
Seen up close, their differences became clear. A tall, dark one with shivering pupils. A freckled one with sunken cheeks and fat ankles. An elfin one with unwashed hair and skin, emitting a faint mushroomy smell. And the one who’d taken my wrist, who armored herself with a too-big uniform, who wasn’t beautiful but sat as if she were.
And me.

I’m struck again by the imagery of animals and cages. And here’s where I may be undervaluing the power of this description: I’d assumed it was imagery, the product of an adolescent mind turning everything up to eleven, tiptoeing right up to a horror story. It wasn’t until I read an excellent post about the story on Life As A Shorty (link below) that I considered this was delusion, psychosis, on top of the other mental illness symptoms. The story keeps it vague enough that the reader can decide, and can privilege one reading over another depending on their past experience and preference.

Girlie’s relationship with the pack (hey, if we’re doing animal imagery, I’m gonna get into it) falls into jeopardy when they catch her faking cuts, so she pulls out all the stops. And runs over her father – loving, clueless – in the process. Horror doesn’t have to include the supernatural, or the physically dangerous. Sometimes a camera and a lie is all it takes.

This moment unlocks her memory of the moment, when she was eight, that her father started calling her Girlie, and, I think, the moment the beast was born in her: not of rage or violence, but of fear. I’m perplexed by the actions that took place, why her cutting up her father’s favorite book led to him giving her the sole bedroom in the house, instead of the couch. But the emotions come through loud and clear: “It wasn’t triumph I’d felt when the door to the bedroom clicked closed five years ago. It was despair.”

And there we end, back at despair all over again.

This is another of Ward’s “young people” story. I’m impressed by the control Zhang shows in this story. It’s open, mysterious, fluid, and elusive. But it’s anchored by a few rock solids, like a father who loves his kid, and doesn’t get that she’s about to sacrifice him for the pack.

*  *  *    

Complete story online at BOMB magazine

Jake Weber holds another Literary Court – and showed me something I’d completely missed in my read.

Story commentary by Keith Lesmeister at LifeAsAShorty

BASS 2021:  Kevin Wilson, “Biology” from The Southern Review, Winter 2020

The story began with something from my past – a teacher I really cared for who was involved in an ill-advised sporting contest for money with bad-ass middle school girls – and I just started building the other elements around that. And I think what kind of amazes me about writing these stories is how, when I work my way through the confusion and the weirdness, at the heart of these stories is tenderness, of wanting to somehow tell the character, and maybe myself too, that they made it. That they’re still in this world, still alive. Maybe that’s all I’ve ever wanted from a story.

Kevin Wilson, Contributor Note

I’m very fond of the BASS contributor notes. They go beyond the biographical and bibliographical details included in most publications, and give the author a chance to describe the process of writing for a particular story, why they wrote it, how they wrote it.

I sometimes get distracted by a very different question I haven’t seen addressed, either as a writer or a reader: in the world of the story, why is the narrator telling this story now?

In fact, in last year’s BASS, Wilson’s story “Kennedy” raised that issue for me. I mentioned it in the Sonoma Novel Reading Group I mentioned in this year’s opening post, and one participant had a great scenario: Kennedy had just been released from prison. While plausible, and appealing, that wasn’t written into the story.

Maybe that question is something you’re not supposed to ask of a short story. However, sometimes the story provides an answer, as in this case. It’s an envelope story, beginning and ending with short sections from the present that explain why Patrick, our first-person narrator, has recalled his middle school years on this particular day: he reads a Facebook notice that his former biology teacher, Mr. Reynolds, died. We then find out, in something like an extended flashback, why that has significance for him.

In eighth grade, like every single grade leading up to that year, I was unpopular. I was too fat for sports and I had all these weird habits, little tics, that, even though everyone in our town had grown used to them, kept me from getting close to anyone. I cried sometimes if people smiled at me too long. I grunted a lot when I was reading to myself. I was an island, but not far enough away from this huge body of land that was the rest of my town, so I could easily feel the separation.

As it happens, Mr. Reynolds is himself “famously weird.” His car is a clunker literally held together with masking tape; he lives with his mother; he dresses stylelessly and monotonously.

It’s kind of a familiar story: awkward kid connects with awkward teacher. But there’s an element that lifts it out of the humdrum: the Death Cards.

Since I was about eight or nine, I’d been updating and revising this card game I’d invented called Death Cards. It was this big stack of index cards, and most of the cards had interesting life events like graduating high school or winning an astronaut scholarship or having sex for the first time. But there were also death cards that featured people dying in horrific, graphic ways. Nobody would play the game with me, so I just played against myself. By eighth grade, there were more than four hundred cards in the game. I couldn’t stop playing, finding my way to whatever kind of life I could have before I died violently.

The Death Cards are both the means by which Patrick expresses his anxiety about his future, and by which Mr. Reynolds helps him find a different way of looking at things.

I can’t help but remember Seth Fried’s description of his process for writing his wonderful story, “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre” when he was an undergrad: he had a page in a notebook titled “Massacre Ideas” and sometimes worried that if someone looked through the notebook, they’d think he was a dangerous lunatic “plotting to kill people by means of strategically set-loose gorillas” among other methods. I wondered if Wilson had a similar notebook, or maybe a file on his computer that might give someone the wrong impression (and, by the way, Patrick has a death card featuring a gorilla as well. Gorillas seem to be popular fantasy death machines).  But I discovered, via his author interview with Preety Sidhu at Southern Review, that his methodology was much more personal:

PS: In a recent interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, you explained that the spontaneously combusting children in Nothing to See Here were partly inspired by your own experience with Tourette’s syndrome, in which violent images such as “falling off tall buildings, getting stabbed, catching on fire” would suddenly burst into your head. To what extent was this also the inspiration for the Death Cards in “Biology,” in which players might suddenly draw cards “that featured people dying in horrific, graphic ways”?
KW: They’re completely connected. I keep trying to figure out ways to deal with these things in my head. I never made literal Death Cards, but I would do it in my head, trying to imagine my life and seeing how long I could go before I fell into a combine or something, because I knew that was always coming. And that ending in “Biology” to play the game without the Death Cards, was an incredibly cathartic thing for me, which sounds so fucking corny, but it’s true. I am grateful for that teacher in the story, for that moment of kindness. It helped me.

Author Interview, Southern Review

While Patrick does blurt out that he thinks he’s gay, the significance is that Mr. Reynolds, who appears to be asexual, takes it in stride. We’re reassured that things did get better for Patrick by the envelope, in which he has a relationship and seems to be living at least a reasonably happy life.

This is another of Ward’s “young people” stories, showing how kids survive in spite of whatever is going on with them. It’s a warm, funny story that makes great use of its structure – and gets a lot out of a made-up card game.

* * *

  • Complete story available at Southern Review.
  • Author interview at Southern Review.
  • Jake Weber looks at this story at a slightly different time, and it makes a big difference.

BASS 2021:  Madhuri Vijay, “You Are My Dear Friend” from TNY, 8/11/2020

Rajesh Laxman Mor: Jackfruit Tree
I’m fascinated by what I see as the fundamental alienness of children. Even the most affable, well-adjusted child seems to me unknowable in a way that many adults are not. But outside of fairy tales and folktales, which allows children the degree of darkness and opacity they deserve, most fiction tends to treat them either as dim innocents to be protected or, if they are the troublemaking type, wild creatures to be tamed and won over. I wanted to write about a child who refuses to fall into these categories, who is immune to protection or taming, who retains her privacy and her unknowability to the very end, even if it comes at a painful cost to all involved.

Madhuri Vijay, Contributor Note

After having read this story four times, I have a hypothesis: the story itself is unknowable, refusing recognition. I hear my own voice in my head telling me I’m incompetent. And I wonder if that’s what Vijay was going for, or if I’m just really stupid and grasping at straws, looking for anything that will make sense of it.

The story starts with Geeta as an au pair for the Bakers, a British couple living in India. She’s great with their kids, and they depend on her, so they treat her well and she has a lot of free time when the kids are in school. This generates the title:

… it was possible that the maidservant resented her for her relative freedom. To ward off any ill feeling, every so often Geeta brought home of trinket for the girl, who was a chatty, dimpled creature from Jharkhand. Geeta was from Odisha and had nothing in common with her, except the fact that people in Bangalore knew almost nothing about where either of them came from.
At various times Geeta had bought the girl an alarm clock, a pair of leaf-shaped earrings, and a fake-silver pendant engraved with the words “You Are My Dear Friend.” She worried that she might have overdone it a bit with the pendant, but the girl loved it and loved Geeta for it.

Geeta sees Srikanth, who will become her husband, at one of the Bakers’s parties. It’s unclear what he’s doing there; apparently an invited guest brought him, but it’s possible he just crashed the party, as the Bakers have no idea who he is or who he came with. She runs into him a few days later at the market, and things go from there. He’s older – she’s twenty-nine, he’s fifty-three – but a husband’s a husband.

Geeta discovers she can’t have children. The maidservant from the Bakers suggests what sounds like a gray-market adoption, and Rani, eight years old, comes into Geeta’s life. She sets her up in a room with a lovely view of a jackfruit tree:

“Do I need anything?” the girl repeated. Her voice had an anesthetized quality, but within it twitched a slippery, mocking thing. Then she smiled. It was an unnerving smile to see on an eight-year-old face, somehow innocent, cunning, and flirtatious at the same time, and Geeta, to her shame, panicked.
“Then I’ll leave you to rest,” she said, turning her back on both the girl and the view. Her first failure, as she would later come to think of it.

Rani turns out to be a nightmare. Geeta tries to be sympathetic, since the girl has had an awful life, but things deteriorate as she demands Geeta send her mother jewelry and a man shows up with stories of her father. Srikanth kicks her out at one point, then runs after her to bring her back. He eventually turns it into Geeta’s fault:

“She’s too much for you,” he said. His breath smelled of onions and filter coffee. “Admit it,” he pressed her. “You can’t do this. You are not capable. Look at you. Your hair is a mess. You don’t take care of the house anymore. You hardly look at me. You only think of her.”
A month ago she might have protested, but it no longer mattered what was and wasn’t true. The threats had become too many, too nebulous. Later she would think of this as her final failure. The first and the last, the only two clear in her mind.

He talks her into giving Rani up; it reads like a seduction scene more than anything else. Their life post-Rina forms a sort of epilogue in which Geeta happens across a cosmetics salesgirl:

She would never go so far as to say that the girl – whose name is Ruby – remind her of Rani. No, that would be too easy, cowardly, as if all girls who have come from unknowable places to stand in front of her were somehow the same. It is the relationship that is the same: Geeta and Rani, Geeta and Ruby. The girl stands there blazing and exposed, and Geeta circles her, unable to look away.

The entire story seems to be about being unknowable, and Geeta’s fascination for that quality. Geeta and the housemaid, who never gets a name, are frankly described as unknowable to each other. The necklace means one thing to the girl, and another to Geeta; its cheap quality underscores the insincerity of the engraving. Srikanth is unknown to the Bakers. It occurs to me he might have crashed the party and is stalking Geeta, in which case, he succeeded. He and Geeta both speak several languages, but have only passable English in common. Rani is unknowable, as are the shadowy figures of her parents. As the story progresses, Geeta becomes unknowable even to herself: “She had lost the habit of speaking of herself, and now it was impossible to recover the details that could have made her permanent.” In her later life, she is unknown to the shopkeepers, who think she lives in an exclusive apartment complex.

And as I’ve said, as a reader, I don’t  know what the story is doing. At first, I thought the initial portion was incongruous, but it’s necessary, not only to include the housemaid and the necklace, but to allow Geeta to meet Srikanth, and to give us the sense that she can indeed take good care of children who aren’t semiferal. 

I have a feeling this story may have more meaningful layers for those who are familiar with the nuances of Indian cultures and the implications of the various locations and qualities mentioned. That adds to its unknowability for me; there’s only so much Google can help. Some comments on The Mookse and the Gripes gave me some idea of the kind of subtext that’s operating here.  

This was another of the stories about young people according to Ward’s intro. I see it as less about Rani and more about Geeta. I might be tempted to include it in her “problematic characters” classification as well, since I find the three primaries to be hard to fathom.

* * *

  • Jake Weber follows the gold: “Even a small emotional inheritance can be powerful in providing the necessary resilience and self-esteem necessary to survive.”

BASS 2021:  Nicole Krauss, “Switzerland” from The New Yorker, 9/21/20

I was interested in trying to capture the way a young woman tests her strength and will against the realities of her life: among them, that she is physically vulnerable to men, that to comply with the expectations of others requires containing herself or making herself small, that her sexuality comes with inherent dangers. The Dutch banker doesn’t lead or determine this story – on the contrary, the story centers on Soraya’s struggle with her sense of her own power, and he, at least as he is seen by the narrator, is only an accessory to that. He is merely the arena in which her performance of self plays out.

Nicole Krauss, Contributor Note

Of all the things that interest me about this story, that central focus is the one that interests me the least. Go figure.

We have a younger (thirteen years old) narrator observing the behavior of an older (eighteen) classmate at a Swiss post-finishing school. That, by the way, is one of the things that interests me more than Soraya’s dangerous waltz with the Swiss banker, as our narrator recounts what had landed Marie and Soraya, the two older girls in Ecolint:

Wildness – sex, stimulants, a refusal to comply – was what had landed them both in Switzerland for an extra year of school, a thirteenth year that neither of them had ever heard of….
He yanked her out of Thailand and deposited her in Switzerland, known for its “finishing” schools that polished the wild and the dark out of girls and contained them into well-mannered women. Ecolint was not such a school, but Marie, it turned out, was already too old for a proper finishing school. She was, in the estimation of those schools, already finished. And not in the good way.

I seldom find myself wanting to edit a published piece (good thing, since I  have no training for it) but I had remembered this paragraph about being “finished” without that final line “And not in the good way” and was shocked to find it there in print. Leaving the reader to discern the two meanings of “finished” – first, to polish and perfect, and second, to be doomed – would have been a better approach, allowing us to admire Krauss for knowing how to use the idiom. Adding the final line merely trumpets, “Hey, did you see what I did there?” or assumes the reader isn’t bright enough to get it on her own. Strange that a six-word sentence can affect me so negatively, but I see it as a huge mistake.

I also wonder what the thirteen-year-old narrator is doing in that school, since she is nowhere near finished, in any sense.

But the story Krauss is interested in telling revolves around Soraya, who plays her sexuality against the depravity of the unnamed Dutch banker. There are numerous signs that she is losing – a bruise on her throat, following his orders about phone calls – but she persists. When she disappears for several days, it becomes a more serious matter; parents and police are called in. “In the end Soraya came home on her own. On her own – just as she had gotten into it on her own, of her own choosing.” When people talk about choices, it’s often as if those choices come from an infinite palette, whereas in reality, most of the choices people make are between a few options, some of which may be worse than the ultimate decision. Soraya’s father was royal engineer to the Shah of Iran, and had to flee during the revolution, “making a mockery of the physics of safety.” Do you suppose this might have had some impact on what Soraya perceived as her choices?

The story is written as a recollection years later, when the narrator recognizes something of Soraya in her now twelve-year-old daughter:

She has a proudness about her that refuses to grow small, but if it were only that I might not have begun to fear for her. It’s her curiosity about her own power, its reach and its limits, that scares me. Though maybe the truth is that when I am not afraid for her, I envy her. One day I saw it: how she looked back at the man in the business suit who stood across the subway car from her, burning a hole through her with his eyes. Her stare was a challenge. If she’d been riding with a friend, she might have turned her face slowly toward her, without taking her eyes off the man, and said something to invoke laughter. It was then that Soraya came back to me, and since then I have been what I can only call haunted by her. By her, and by how a person can happen to you and only half a lifetime later does this happening ripen, burst, and deliver itself.

The terror I might feel as a mother, seeing this in my child, knowing what it could lead to, seems to be absent from the narration. I understand the envy, but not the cool detachment. I suppose there’s a fear so deep it stays curled up inside, and to let it out would help nothing.

I’m also interested in how Krauss phrases the writer’s choice to make the Dutch banker “the arena in which” Soraya conducts herself, making her the agent and him the environment. I’d like to understand that better: how it’s enacted on the page, what a different approach would look like. I’m guessing his relative unimportance is why he isn’t named.

Ward includes this story with her “youth” group, highlighting “the ways they coped or didn’t cope.” I found it  a dramatic contrast with the prior story, “The Rest of Us,” which I characterized as “hot”. This story feels “cool” to me. I’m sure the narrator, worried about her twelve-year-old feeling a little too secure about her control of situations by use of sexuality, does not feel cool, but that’s how the story struck me. Possibly it was just an association with Switzerland, but I think it’s more the distance, the reserve, of the narrator.

* * *

  • Jake Weber sees a similarity to Emma Cline’s Los Angeles from a couple of years ago, and enjoys the “symbolic grist” in this story “about the treacherous balance between tenderness and violence.”

BASS 2021:  Jenzo Duque, “The Rest of Us” from One Story #268

PR: Where did the idea for this story come from?
JD: It’s really the result of so many moving parts. This story doesn’t exist without “We” by Mary Grimm, a first person collective story about suburban women that I read during my MFA and thought, “How would I do this?” Next came Boyz n the Hood, which I re-watched the summer of 2017, and I was like, “Man, this movie was so iconic to us growing up,” and then—bam—I had an entry point for that “us.” From there it was a blend of slam and spoken word poetry, hip-hop, and also wanting to write a love letter to my childhood, my neighborhood, my city. I also need to shout out Danny Brown here, because listening to his music has always hit close to home for me, and I don’t think a lot of my ideas would materialize without the landscapes Danny creates through music and storytelling.
PR: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
JD: I would say the collective’s transition from childhood into adulthood, along with reconciling the opening of the story with its conclusion.

Author interview with Patrick Ryan, available online at One Story

In these posts about stories, I usually try to focus on what about the story works, or doesn’t work, for me. Is it something about the subject matter that interests me (like religion or science), some situation I identify with (a dilemma I recognize, a family issue I’m familiar with), a technique I appreciate (like the use of second-person)? I tend to avoid the phrases I see so often in book reviews: “a sensitive portrayal,” “unique voice,” “beautifully written.”

And then I come across a story like this one where all I can say is, “Dayum, I couldn’t stop reading it, I loved this kid, I delighted in his youthful goofiness and cried for him when it all fell apart. It was a sensitive portrayal of a character I otherwise wouldn’t have known at all, told with a unique voice in beautiful writing.”

Well, no, that’s not all I can say. It’s told in first-person-almost-plural. There’s a definite I but there’s a definite sense of we as well. The title hammers this home, and leaves me wondering. I like a story that doesn’t hand me all the answers, but lets me propose a few different possibilities.

We start out with Frail Boy as a little brown kid in urban Chicago, connected to everything around him:

I was an only child, and todo el mundo kept an eye on me, parents, grandparents, even the neighbor lady Doña Rosa who was blind as a bat but somehow always knew when I was getting into something, could just feel it…. Yeah, I had a lot of attention. I think that’s why I got out. But we didn’t have it so bad. We went to pick up soccer games at Montrose Field and it was like the whole city came out: Colombians, Ricans, Mexicans, every inch of grass covered in folding chairs and pastel blankets depicting La Virgen. You’d think it was the World Cup…. We had my front porch, it was the tallest. We used to take turns jumping off of it, feeling the shock in our legs as we made impact on the grass, competing to see who would cross the railing and then pussy out, cross back, and take the walk of shame. More often than not it was me – I was the frailest, and that’s what they called me, Frail Boy – but sometimes it wasn’t me taking that walk, and then I’d let them have it for real… And we had imagination. For every intersection we could not cross, another was invented in our backyards…. For a while we didn’t have to worry about the world beyond our gated lawns. Our parents did their best to hide us from alleyways and trap houses, from the vatos with tattoos crawling up their thick necks. All of life was play life; basketball, tag, paletas, football, Mario Kart, kiddie pools, scraped knees, teasing kids, wrestling moves,…. All our stories were play stories.

It’s easy for those of us who didn’t grow up in places like this to think of them as hellholes, but we forget there’s joy as well and Duque submerges us in that joy, that sense of community. It’s hard to resist smiling as we read.

I try to avoid ellipsing more than once in a quote, but pulling quotes for this story made that difficult. The above passage comes from a section that’s four pages long, and reads in one breath. But even I, who sometimes takes advantage of Fair Use, wouldn’t quote that much, so I’ve (painfully) chopped it up to preserve the content at the expense of the sense of continuity. It’s the very beginning of the story, so it sets Frail Boy and his friends up as indelible characters for what lies ahead. It’s great writing, a great opening.

And, of course, kids grow up. I was sad to move on, leave the child Frail Boy behind, but Duque, again, made the transition less painful by the way he handled it:

And then there was change. Time got the better of us. We grew fuzz above our lips, our balls dropped overnight, voice cracks morphing into booming laughter until that was just how we sounded now. I remember I looked in the mirror one morning and poof: those puffy brown cheeks – hay que liiiiindos – that tía fingers couldn’t resist pinching were gone.

What’s interesting is that Frail Boy and his friends keep a sense of play even as they start working for crack dealers. I’m not sure how that’s possible. Things do get dark, of course; how could they not. But for a moment there’s a sense that they’re going to survive this, it’s just a phase before they find something else to do.

It isn’t a phase. It might have been, but they’re urged to up their game, strive “for that next level.” Geez, capitalism plus drugs, what could go wrong. Everything. And though this is tough business, it’s irresistable: the “elephant in the room” paragraph of who wasn’t anywhere when Mickey-Dee got shot is artfully told, with denial and confession wrapped up in one paragraph, followed by honor among thieves and how it all goes to hell.

Then there’s the page-long paragraph of a mother looking desperately for her son who’s disappeared, a paragraph that switches back and forth between English and Spanish and Motherhood and God’s Plan. In his Contributor Note (I switched it up and used the One Story interview as lead-in this time) Duque says, “To my bilingual brain, language is music.” That’s evident throughout the story, but it’s in this paragraph that it rivals Beethoven.

The story isn’t about Frail Boy’s rise and fall; it’s about the neighborhood, about the community, about how time washes away the past for the present to take over the future. Frail Boy becomes not only the protagonist, but also the witness, the Stage Manager, the narrator.

Now this area is too busy to think about or remember what we went through…. Can’t say I’m surprised by the newcomers, but even our own people don’t believe us. Kids whose folks I used to roll with – who were too young to remember what life was like on this block – saying things like Our parents used to know you, Frail Boy. They made this place better than how you left it. Can you believe that? Like I wasn’t a part of our history. Spics with no sense of roots, out here ruining it for the last of us. Because our parents had no papers, the first thing we were taught in life was that we were the tellers of our own stories. When we were little, José, Cristian, and me knew that well. Time after time our parents gave us the talk – sometimes together – about how we had to be prepared for our world to end. Who to tell the day they disappeared, how to dial a calling card long distance, what to say to the gringos who’d come knocking at our door. We knew that before we knew how to ride a bike. And sometimes we were tested on it. What would we do first if they never came home. How would we be believed. Look: we had to get our story straight. So we don’t care if you don’t believe us.

“We were tellers of our own stories.” That line rings out to me, as Duque is the teller of his own story, not the story those of us who never lived anywhere like his Chicago neighborhood imagine in our head, the story of a kid who grows up and keeps a sense of joy and community and family, and finds himself in danger of being erased, dismissed. We need witnesses like this.

I remain puzzled by a few things. The title, for one. Who is the us? Who are the rest? In the end, Frail Boy is the only one left, so he might be the rest of us. But that final section of reproof to the next generation makes me think it’s bigger, the rest of us are the ones who came before, the past on whose shoulders, for better or worse, the present stands. Or it could be the shifting us throughout the story: Mickey-Dee was one of us until he wasn’t.

I also wonder about something Duque said in his One Story interview:

PR: Finish this sentence in just one word—the word you think best captures it: “This story is about __________.”
JD: Resistance.

Author interview with Patrick Ryan, available online at One Story

It’s something he also mentions in his Contributor Note:

As a first-generation citizen, a lot of my life has been spent hearing people tell me about things I couldn’t do. I could never be American enough, I could never be Columbian enough, and I could never force the literary industry to value my bilingual experience on my terms. Likewise, a lot of my identity as an artist has been forged in resistance to convention, and I’ve produced works in an effort to reject the supposed rules of writing.

Jenzo Duque, Contributor Note

I’m not sure what rules of writing he feels he’s breaking – maybe the first-person-almost-plural approach? The code-switching? I don’t see them as rule breaking but as techniques that have grown more popular in recent years, decades. I can imagine (though not agree with) a tenth-grade composition teacher frowning on some of this, but this is the stuff MFA programs are designed to generate… aren’t they? How would I know. In any case, whatever he’s resisting, I hope he keeps resisting it, because he’s found a means of expression that’s exquisite.

Ward classified this story with those about young people struggling, coping (or not), surviving. I might also see it in her immersion classification, as I could feel myself submerging in the language. It was very much like the first story I read from this volume, Kochai’s Metal Gear story: I never expected to care so much, to understand so deeply a child’s world so different from mine. That’s the power of story.

* * *

  • Jake Weber commented on his blog Workshop Heretic: “One notable characteristic of this story is that feels a lot more like a creative essay than a short story. It has the logic, chronology, and vocabulary of creative non-fiction more than fiction.”

BASS 2021:  Rita Chang-Eppig, “Miracle Girl” from VQR, Summer 2020

VQR Art by Aya Kakeda
“The Miracle Girl” started out as a class prompt: write the beginning of a fairy tale. Instead of turning to knights and princesses, I recalled the stories my mother told when I was a child, especially those about her early years of poverty in Taiwan and her creatively vicious fights with her sisters. But the stories that always made the deepest impression on me were those about the missionaries, specifically the stories they told her, one of which made it into the final draft. Even as a child I perceived a fundamental problem with them, despite not understanding the concept of racism or, for that matter, knowing the word. What it must have been like for her to grow up believing that God ranked people by race and that she would never be the best-loved! Some of their messages remained with her well into adulthood and, as these things often go, got passed on to me.

Rita Chang-Eppig, Contributor Note

The idea of second-best permeates this story, from the personal view of a girl who can never match her older  sister’s piety, to the socio-religious view of Western missionaries who bring the Good News to the Taiwanese who’ve fled Communist China: Even though you aren’t God’s best work, you can still get His love that’s left over when he’s done blessing us.

Xiao Chun was ahead of Xiao Xue from the start. She had the advantage of age:

Xiao Xue had liked the missionaries at first, even Sister Eunice, who doled out candy to any child who could perfectly recite a Bible verse or prayer in English to her. Xiao Xue had chosen the Lord’s Prayer because it was relatively short and easy to read. Sister Eunice’s face, normally still as a pond, had quivered into a smile, little ripples spreading near the corners of her mouth and eyes. She laid a warm, heavy hand on Xiao Xue’s head, and Xiao Xue swore to herself that she would memorize every word in the Bible if this was going to be the typical response. The piece of candy, a doubloon of chocolate, she split into four pieces so she could continue to savor it until she was done memorizing the next passage.
But then, without even being asked, Xiao Chun had recited the Apostles’ Creed in front of the whole assembly, in Latin. In that moment, Xiao Xue saw clearly her place in Sister Eunice’s eyes (and by extension, she supposed, God’s). She never recited again, even when Sister Eunice called upon her to do so. There just didn’t seem to be a point.

When Xiao Chun exhibits stigmata, there is no question of who is more blessed. Xiao Xue isn’t sure she wants that kind of blessing – “Does it hurt?” she asks – but then the pilgrims begin arriving and the missionary Sisters speak with awe of the girl who used to just be her older sister but is now a symbol of what it is to be the best.

The village as a whole is familiar with this notion of second-best:

The teachers liked to tell this story: One day, God decided to draw mankind a bath. He took one group of people and cleansed them first. They, having bathed in pure water, emerged white. Then God took a second group of people and cleansed them. They, having bathed in slightly soiled water, emerged yellow. Finally, God took a third group of people and cleansed them. They, having bathed in heavily soiled water, emerged black.
“I don’t like this story,” Xiao Xue said to her sister once, after a teacher had retold it. “It says we’re dirty.”
“We’re not the dirtiest,” Xiao Chun said.
“It says God loves the foreigners more than us.”
“God has infinite love. You’re misunderstanding the story.”
But Xiao Xue didn’t believe her. How could her sister possibly understand, the honors student, the village beauty? How could she understand the pain of imperfect love, a star delicately cut from golden paper and then roughly torn? Sometimes second-most was second-least. And sometimes second was simply last.

God has infinite love, but any mathematician will tell you there are different kinds of infinities. Dante insisted that the joy in God’s heaven was absolute even for those who, having shown flaws in their faith, were placed well outside the Empyrean Rose. I’ve been reading a lot about how white supremacy has been woven into evangelical Christianity from its foundation, going so far as to call slavery a blessing because it led to the conversion of so many Africans. As the Bible says, Jesus wept.

Not all the Taiwanese families are troubled by the missionaries. One man is particularly moved by the stories of Moses parting the Red Sea, identifying it with his dangerous escape from mainland China. His son is quite fond of the Sisters. “They were the only ones my grandma could talk to about how much she missed China.” Ah, the enigma of the refugee, pining even as they flee for their lives, because the recent past is only the tip of the iceberg of what they’ve left behind.

Ward includes this story with those about young people, the “painful truths about what it is to be a child in this world.” This sense of second-best grows up with us. Buzz Aldrin is now remembered as the second man to walk on the moon, only because it was such a big gotcha-question years ago. And if you’ve ever watched the Olympics, you know how disappointed the silver medalists often are – and how the media usually portrays them, first and foremost, as having lost, because being second-best in the world just isn’t good enough.

Something else occurred to me as I read this story. This is what the conversation about different voices is about. I can remember one year reading several stories of Americans working at NGOs in various African countries; the stories were about their lives, loves, and interests, because that was the point of view. There are no doubt many stories written by Western writers about missionary encounters with non-Western communities, and many of them probably portray the receivers quite kindly. This story tells a truth from the other side, and it’s a necessary voice to hear.

* * *

Complete story available online at VQR.

Rhiannon Morgan-Jones has a great detailed analysis of this story on her blog, Notes from this pretty sight, with an interesting interpretation: “It actually felt like I was reading an origin story of some kind….It almost feels like a prequel, like we are learning that two superhero nemeses were actually sisters, once.”

At his post on Workshop Heretic, Jake Weber focuses on what he sees as the moral lesson of the story: “Whether the mirror of this story reflects your status as Xiao Xie or Xiao Chun in the roulette wheel of life, it’s a story relevant far beyond its specific historical moment, one that speaks volumes to a status- and social-media-obsessed world that wants to demonstrate God’s favor through by self-marketing evidence of their own favor.”

BASS 2021:  Vanessa Cuti, “Our Children” from West Branch #94

I wanted to explore and exaggerate the idea of a flawed parent and how it becomes especially unacceptable to be flawed if the parent in question happens to be a mother. From the start, from the way the very first line appeared to me, the story had the feeling of a fairy tale. So I kind of leaned into that as I went through it – cold stepfamily, little cabin, survival in the woods. Even though there is this heavy sense of the magical, I wanted the reader to feel like this scenario was only just outside of reality. If that.

Vanessa Cuti, Contributor Note

Cuti was wildly successful in this goal she stated, as I had no idea, over several readings, where the story drifted off into – fantasy? Dream? – and where it came back to reality. If it ever drifted off at all. But that’s ridiculous, of course it drifted from reality… didn’t it?

The story begins fully grounded in a somewhat messy, but very concrete, domestic reality: our narrator is the wife of a married couple who fell in love with the husband of another married couple, resulting in divorces and child custody agreements as is quite common. This is told with such a breezy nonchalance as to give the impression that the narrator doesn’t see anything, from weekly child swaps to her new husband, as any big deal. It’s not that she’s icy; she just skates above it all.

As this was one of the stories Ward included in her “transformation of place” category, I paid particular attention to that aspect. While the most significant transformation occurs later in the story, we are introduced to a more typical transformation right away:

Every other weekend our house swelled with them: a new population. They congregated. They organized. They became fresh in the breakfast nook where I said we had pancakes but not waffles. They sat for hours in the living room, bare feet leaving heat marks on the glass of the coffee table, juice cooling, crumbs everywhere you could imagine. They hooted at the chug of machine guns and grenades in the games they played. I knew they pointed their controllers at my back when I turned to walk out, arms full of plates, crumpled napkins….
When they left, when the house was empty again, even the fabric of the area rugs became cooler to the touch. I heard the high frequency hum of electronics and the tumble of the dryer, the soft lap, lack of hand towels one onto another, floors down. I stood in the doorway to the living room and it appeared to me as a glacier: cold and empty and white.

Notice how many senses Cuti involves in this transformation: not just an influx of children, but there’s mess, and heat, and sound that goes from presumably cool to hot to cool again as they leave. While the narrator doesn’t really state a preference for either state, I get the sense that she’s more about cold and empty and white than messy and hot and noisy. So much is inference in this story.

Anyone who’s ever studied writing is familiar with the phrase “show, don’t tell.” I felt that was incorporated into the character herself: she tells us a lot, but doesn’t show much. In the above quoted scene, we aren’t shown annoyance at the children or relief at the return of order; it’s all in the telling, the language, the tone. But for all we know, she feels lonely hearing the electronic hum and the rhythm of the dryers, and wishes for her children back again. In fact, it could be my reading that affixes values to the two spots, whereas she is merely reporting and feels little about it.

This telling becomes particularly acute in one sentence in particular:

I did sometimes wonder. Wish. That we had met when we were young, before everything. Before we made our lives. But the children, your children, something always chided. This thing that chided, by the way, was not My Best Self. Not my voice. It was choral, all altos. The moan of disappointed mothers. Then you would not have your beautiful children, the mothers said. And this is true. But I would have made and met other children. I would have loved these other children just the same because I am capable of so much love.

I can almost see “Looks directly at the camera” printed over this, the irony is so heavy. Or maybe it’s me who is thinking, it’s because she doesn’t love her children that she could see them replaced with other children. The love she considers herself so capable of is more of a distance, a kind of judgment-free acceptance without attachment. I’m re-watching The Crown at the moment, and it seems to be the Queen Elizabeth way of parenting. Yet there is a moment of judgment: when her children are packing for a week in a cabin in the woods, they take books, while the husband’s children take videogames. This is the most worked up she gets in the story, outside of the dream state.

I’m still not exactly sure what happens during what I’m calling the dream state during their week in the woods. There is clearly a transformation of place:

But when I woke up in the night something had happened. It was that black tail of smoke from the fire. It was the rot from between the beams in the walls, seeping. It was that chipmunk being eaten, limb by limb, by a raccoon under the deck. I heard the chew and crunch. I didn’t know what to do. I lifted my hands to brush back my hair, but they were heavy. Too heavy. Laden with hate, anger, sleep, something.

She tells her husband they have to leave the children. That’s exactly what she says: “We have to leave them here…Not forever. Maybe we come back for them. When they’ve grown a little, found their way.” Interesting how she makes it sound like it’s for their sake they must leave them, not for her sake. There’s no sense of guiilt, as in “I’m ruining them, they’re better off without me”; there’s really no sense of anything other than she wants to get away from them. While that is fine as part of the character, I’m confused about her husband going along with it, and for that reason, I assume we’re in dreamland, or fantasyland, or something. She seems rather surprised at his acquiescence, too.

They leave the children, collapsed in exhaustion in the living room (following a day of hard play calculated to wear them out) and go back home to do adult things like drink wine and smoke weed and screw on the kitchen floor (seriously, I get the novelty, but isn’t a bed so much more comfortable?). then she starts thinking about the children, and here’s where the real fantasy comes into play: the children do, indeed, grow up. Her vision is quite specific, and, while disturbing at times, isn’t completely out of line with the typical raised-by-wolves mythology.

The couple returns the next morning to the same scene of kids sprawled on the living room floor, still asleep. And I’m confused. Did they actually leave their children overnight in a cabin in the woods? Or was that part of the dream? I’m not a parent; is that something parents would do, leave their four five-to-seven-year-old sleeping children overnight in a cabin in the woods? I suspect my confusion is the point, the effect the story wants to have. In that case, it worked great, but it’s not an approach I enjoyed as a reader.

In the end, I had such a hard time pinning down the story, all that stays with me is that one Looking Directly  At the Camera moment, that moment of declaring the lack of love to be loving, which is essentially what happens when she wants to abandon them to grow up on their own, for their own sake. And I’m struck by the distance between what she shows, and what she tells.

* * *

Rhiannon Morgan-Jones, in her blog post on Notes From This Pretty Sight, takes a mothers-eye view of the story, and finds significance in the title, and naming conventions.

Jake Weber’s post on Workshop Heretic is a master class on character motivation – or, in this case, the lack of it: “This isn’t the kind of story that’s going to beat us over the head with explanations of motivation. But maybe we can think of what makes choices three and four different from choices one and two.”

BASS 2021:  Gabriel Bump, “To Buffalo Eastward” (McSweeney’s 59)

A few summers ago, during an intense mental crisis, I moved to Buffalo to sort myself out, get grounded. That was a summer of long drives…. I remember getting to the Mackinac Bridge, pulling off the highway, taking a picture of the water and huge sky. It’s hard to explain what I felt. Rebirth, I guess; drowned in natural splendor. I wrote this piece, which I hope turns into a novel, based off that feeling.

Gabriel Bump, Contributor Note

In a recent online reading group, we were all puzzling over a story when one participant said something like, “If the author wanted to make it clearer, they would have written it that way.” Sometimes, as with this story,  I’m not sure if the author was deliberately being coy, or if I’m just dense. I’m not even sure whether the first-person narrator is male or female, let alone exactly what the relationship is with Pidge, who Flip is, and why they’re travelling to Buffalo in the first place (I’m still uncomfortable with they as a singular noun, but I’m working on it because it truly does make things easier).

I’m not sure any of that matters. The story is more about the feeling in moments, in bookstores in An Arbor, in Toledo, in Cleveland. On the roof of an office building. The next morning, leaving. I don’t really see the rebirth, the natural splendor, but Bump doesn’t say he’s writing about that, just that it was the feeling he was writing from.

Count the rhetorical repetition in the opening pages. The bookstores, for one. The decision to stop smoking “after just this last one” for another (yeah, we all know that one). The almost-anaphora of “At a liquor store in Ann Arbor”… “In a grocery store parking lot in Ann Arbor”… “Outside a house party in Ann Arbor”… “There was a bookstore in Toledo”.

I wasn’t confused about gender at first; I’d assumed the narrator, whose name we never learn, was male, simply because the author is, presumably, based on his name, male. We’re going to have to start watching those assumptions, aren’t we. The self-description could’ve gone either way, but I read it unquestioningly as male:

Here’s how I look: tallish; medium-brown freckles around my nose and eyes, on my ears; a broad nose with a little point, a little hook; strong-chinned; weak-bodied; soft, thin, broad-shouldered; my nails get too long before I chew them down; my foot arches are too high; without thinking, I walk on my toes; if I’m not mindful, my eyebrows can meld into a single thicket.
I have this ambiguous brown skin. People wonder if I’m Egyptian, Aboriginal, Brazilian, Mexican, Dominican, half of this, a quarter of that.
I have this long hair that grows up and out in curled waves. People don’t know what to make of it. In middle school, this classmate would pull at my hair, try to yank strands out, hold my curls up to the light.

I’m guessing, since “when I was little, people thought my mother was my nanny,” that Mom is black, and Dad is white, making our narrator biracial, but of course there are lots of shades in between those. I’m not sure it makes a difference in this story, though it always makes a difference, doesn’t it. Then there’s this:

Before I left, my mother gave me an industrial wrench for protection, in case my car broke down in Ohio and some local boys wanted to take advantage.

That phrase – “take advantage” – sounds far more like something a mother would say to a daughter than a son. But we could, as with race, be talking some in-between here. I know a lot of people don’t think there is an in-between for gender, but it seems more and more people are finding out there is. Maybe ambiguity is the better word for it.

What’s really interesting, and a lot more pertinent to the story, is the narrator admits he’s terrible at telling stories. This reminded me of something George Saunders wrote, in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, about the story “Singers” by Turgenev, that maybe he knew he wasn’t good at traditional subtle, smooth transitions so he made them massive and intrusive to turn them into an asset. I don’t think it’s that Bump knows he isn’t good at backstory – I have no doubt he could have written this one in perfectly linear form, given how the rest of this story proceeds – but I think he didn’t want to be bogged down by it all, and wanted to leave it vague and disjointed. This especially makes sense since I gather this is now part of a novel. This vague, partial  backstory gives us a sense of confusion and a lack of stability that sets the stage for the confusion and lack of stability that follows, which, by the way, the narrator tells perfectly clearly. I love that: tell the truth but tell it slant; tell the confusing parts clearly and the clear parts confusingly. The heart of the story begins when our narrator meeting a carpenter in a bookstore:

There was a bookstore in Cleveland. There were stacks so tall you needed a ladder to reach the top. I asked a man with a ponytail if he could help with those Raymond Carver collections up there. He was a carpenter, not a librarian, he told me as much, hand on his hip, other hand holding Joyce and Morrison. He told me to climb the ladder myself, it wasn’t that high, I wasn’t that small.
When I came down, the man asked me to drink with him.

This scene starts out one way – rude, aggressive – then turns into something more like amiability. I have a feeling the carpenter asserting dominance and forcing the narrator to climb the ladder himself is key. How badly did he want those Raymond Carver collections? And, while it sounds so sophisticated that they’re reading Carver, Joyce, and Morrison (presumably Toni), if they’re that sophisticated, why don’t they already have copies?

A couple of girls join them at the bar (bolstering the case that the narrator is male, btw; two women would be far likely to join two men than a male-female couple) and the literary display increases: the carpenter gives his name as Sancho Panza, the girls choose Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker, and our narrator is…  Invisible Man. “The lights!” yells one of the girls. Yeah, the lights. That was nice; presumably he’s not referring to HG Wells.

Through all this we’re still hearing about Pidge, so our narration is still a bit confused. We find out more, but still have no clear idea what the narrator is doing here.

But it no longer matters once he starts doing it:  the carpenter takes them up on the roof a three-story office building he owns. Then he hands out pills. “That wasn’t the first time I had taken pills from a stranger’s pocket,” our narrator tells us, then we hear about that time in high school in the abandoned house with the (probably hallucinatory) muskrat in the sink (maybe). I’m not a big fan of drug scenes, but that night on the roof – and remember, it’s only a three-story building, we’re not talking a skyscraper – is pretty cool.

Back on the roof in Cleveland, Sancho Panza wanted to know if the pills we’re working — could we feel ourselves turning inside out, exploding like a flower?
“I could wake up in Egypt,” Jordan Baker said.
“What difference would it make?” Daisy Buchanan asked.
“I’d have all the sand I could want,” Jordan Baker said. “There is sand in Ohio!” Daisy Buchanan said.
“Not the same,” Jordan Baker said, sat on the ground. “It’s just not the same.”
I found myself yards away come up walking in a circle, counting at my revolutions.
Sancho Panza grabbed my ankles, begged me not to let him drown. I had my hand on Sancho Panzas collar when I noticed the sky, swirling and wavering, preparing to rupture. Out there in the distance, toward downtown, the sky sucked up tall buildings.
“It’s coming for us,” I said.
Sancho Panza had stopped swinging at my throat and screaming. He went limp, took deep breaths, turned an ear to the roof, coughed, and spit up thick brown mucus.
“They’re working,” Sancho Panza said. “I think they’re working.”

Interesting that the guys (?) are having frightening hallucinations, while the girls are talking about sand. But it’s  the use of full literary names that makes this particular drug scene appeal to me. Not Jordan or Sancho, but Jordan Baker and Sancho Panza. They aren’t names with two pieces; they’re labels, one piece. Sancho Panza, the helper who serves the make-believe Don in the hopes of governing his own private island, then discovers being in charge isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The sanity to Quijote’s madness. Daisy Buchanan, the clueless romantic. Jordan Baker, the hardened realist who is willing to cheat to get what she wants.

They go inside the building and have a good time raiding desks (Family photos! All that liquor stashed in bottom drawers! A “list of underperforming employees”! I’d love to do this kind of thing) then fall asleep.

Curled up against these whacked-out strangers, I felt a unique warmth, one I hadn’t known before. I felt clear and directed, anchored. I had found peace. Here, I belonged.

Of course. Because, first of all, you’re drugged, and second, with strangers, there’s no history, no tomorrow. You don’t have to worry about anything but now. With family, with friends you’re going to see every day for years to come, there are debts and obligations, apologies to make. Again there’s this mismatch: peace comes from being anchored in the moment, versus the chaos of being attached for a lifetime. And of course he dreams of Pidge (yes, I’m going with male, the mother’s comment notwithstanding. It’s just one more mismatch).

The last two paragraphs return us to travel; they’re beautiful, in a plain-spun way, and carry us into the future, to Buffalo, or wherever he’s going.

Ward put this story in the “transformation of place” category, and it’s easy to see why. The rooftop becomes all sorts of things; the offices below become a playground, a bedroom, a place of peace rather than somewhere boring people do boring jobs filing papers and writing emails. But the story surrounding the office building makes me curious about the narrator, why he’s headed to Buffalo, and what he’s going to do once he gets there. I hope he remembers what it feels like, that sense of peace, direction, solidity. I hope he finds it again, this time with people who will be around for a while.

* * *

Rhiannon Morgan-Jones posts about the story on her blog, Notes From This Pretty Sight: “The openness to strangers, the slivers of space by which you might enter each other’s worlds, that can happen while traveling is something I recognized from my own experience.”

Jake Weber’s post at Workshop Heretic uses the literary works referenced as a starting point: “I’m going to suggest that my half-assed familiarity with these three novels makes me, in fact, the perfect reader of this story. That’s because the narrative is full of characters who perform half-assed readings: of songs, of books, but mostly of people.”