Pushcart 2021 XLV: Polly Duff Kertis, “In a Good Way” from Hysterical Rag #2

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: “The Wedding Dance,” 1566
Barreling east on the Long Island Rail Road toward the wedding, i felt uneasy.
My date was a guy who was just my roommate Jacob. He had dated only guys, until we split a bottle of red wine and had sex, after which he left for his room on the other side of the wall, and I stared at the ceiling until deciding to take an Ambien. The next morning our platonic roommate friendship — according to the way he was acting, which was as if nothing had happened — returned to normal (but not). He sat on the couch engaging with his interests on his laptop. Usually, I’d cuddle up next to him and see what there was to see — most often memes about memes — but that morning I just felt bad for not having an enthusiasm of my own to intimately research over coffee.
The groom was a guy I’d had a one-night-something with about a year ago that didn’t involve any actual penetration but did involve me jerking him off and him saying it was “humiliating in a good way” and him spanking me so hard it left a dark and disturbing bruise, which I didn’t see until an aesthetician gasped, held up a mirror, asked me a question in a judgmental and unintelligible Scandinavian language, and waxed more of my pubes than I thought I’d asked her to, which was humiliating in a humiliating way.

Maybe I’m just too old for this story.

It seems to be about a woman  attending a friend’s wedding. Except it’s really about who’s slept with whom and under what conditions. I gather humiliation is a theme. And I think it’s supposed to be a raunchy, humorous good time of a story. I say all these things in an uncertain voice because I have no idea what the story is about. I just know it’s populated by characters who think about sex all the time. I mean, all the time. No wonder they’re all feeling humiliated. I wouldn’t want to be 20-something right now for anything.

The driving question is: should I tell the bride about the tumble I took with the groom a year ago? This seems like a false question to me; if the two co-conspirators decided at the time to keep it secret, a one-time indiscretion, then the wedding day is not the time to break that compact. It seems more like someone’s looking to create some drama, then finds plenty of other drama. After all, isn’t that why weddings are such rich settings for stories: they’re full of drama, of competing priorities, of expectations doomed to become disappointments.

I was going to let this percolate for a while, but I took a cue from by blogging buddy Jake Weber, who’s said a few times he doesn’t mind bailing on one story per anthology. Anyway, I have a feeling I’m just not a fun enough person to appreciate this story, so I’ll leave it to those who are.

* * *

Complete story available online at Hysterical Rag.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Naira Kuzmich, “My Father Recycles” (nonfiction) from The Pinch #39.2

Recycled Art: “Flow,” Kaneko Organization
My father: greencard holder, watching his breadwinner wife leave early in the morning, return late in the evening; my father, once a dreamer dreaming of his own shoe repair shop in East Hollywood, California, but soon a cynic, embarrassed of his accent, of who he has become, made to be, in this new country, in the America of the Americas, the always bigger and better, new city of Los Angeles. My father does not care about the environment, about green grass, about ozone layer and smog. He recycles only for the homeless who roam the alley behind his house with their grocery carts. At first, he collects the bottles in a plastic bag, just holds it out for any man or woman he sees rifling through other people’s trash, waits for them to come to him. But sometimes, he does not wait. …Watching the men and women in the alley, he quickly finds a favorite, likes the best discipline of one man, a man of routine, the homeless Mexican who comes by every week, loyal to his route.

At first glance, this essay – a three-page-long paragraph – might seem very stream-of-consciousness, like a diary entry written one long night, or a letter never meant to be sent. But even brief examination will show that it’s quite intricately constructed, weaving together many disparate threads – family, the immigrant experience, other immigrant experiences, tragedy, comedy, irony, bitterness, joy, grief – in a way that keeps everything firing at the same time.

The lead-off topic is the father’s recycling project, which isn’t recycling as we think of it but more like turning over redeemables to those who survive on such things. The concern is not for things, not even important things like the health of the planet, but for people who are now struggling as the father once struggled as a new immigrant with a family.

We get to see a little bit about that, how this family survived by redeeming boxtops:

I’m a nobody, an immigrant, too, once a five-year-old staring at her feet as she wandered the streets of her new neighborhood, collecting cigarette cartons, mama and daddy cutting out the paper barcodes to send in an envelope to a Marlboro catalog. A family exercise in getting by, getting what you can in America: a red duffel bag, an air mattress, a small portable grill. A family of nonsmokers, never-smokers, never-ever-smokers, advertising a tobacco company during Sunday trips to the beach. Me, a nobody immigrant, it seems, always and forever, at 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, taking the red duffel bag to countless cities and countries after I’ve left home, this house, left only a year after my parents sign on the dotted line, buy it, mortgage it, finally, finally, after fifteen years in America. The red duffel a handy carry-on, the perfect size, all this before my diagnosis, all this before 28, this year, this faithful year, now -where was I?

I don’t know if youngsters today know how popular boxtops were at one point. Cereals offered items in exchange for ten boxtops, something like trading stamps (I’m old enough to remember trading stamps, the messy job of pasting them into books, the trip to the redemption center where a hundred books – hours of work, thousands of dollars of purchases – would redeem an electric frypan or an ottoman; my cutlery is courtesy of Betty Crocker, in fact) and of course we all learned the word “facsimile” because we were told that would do, in order to get around sweepstakes rules if a purchase were required.

But what’s this about a diagnosis? And here’s where the architecture of the story demands our patience: we won’t find out for a while, as we return to the father and his interaction with the recipients of his recycling. But in a half page we come across the word cancer and we realize this isn’t about recycling bottles, it’s about something much larger.

Among the ironies is the one about Marlboro providing comfort and joy to a struggling immigrant family (“magically we had a bed, a red duffel bag, a novel way to cook our hot dogs”) of never-smokers and non-smokers (the words mean different things to epidemiologists) while the products most associate with lung cancer are, in fact, not involved in about twenty percent of annual lung cancer deaths.

Another aspect of this essay that I treasure is that bitterness is not overlooked or ignored or pretended away. The struggles of the family, the long road to finally signing the mortgage on their home, the daughter who was taking the world by storm when the right side of her body started dying, the blamelessness of her illness: these are not covered over with uplifting words of courage, though of course there must have been tremendous courage all along. And that blamelessness is recalled almost with embarrassment and connected to the blamelessness of all illness, in an act of generosity equal to the father handing out recycled bottles.

The Mexican man appears only a few years older than my father, but both are healthier than I. I can’t help but to think this sometimes, especially at night: luckier. You can google the statistics for lung cancer, you can take the time. I will take your pity. I will take anything you give me. Tell me: what can you give me that I can exchange for more time? I’ve already taken what the universe has given me and I’ve taken from the universe what I can. I’ve tried to make something beautiful happen here. But how can I say in words that I have never smoked, and where did that get me? How can I say it without suggesting others deserve my fate? Because they don’t. Still, which lyric turn holds my bitterness, the terrible surprise? What immigrant language can explain irony without resorting to coincidence, mere cliché? But I can say I’ve watched my father run, that I’ve watched him recycle. I can say I’ve come back home, to this house, to this city, the America of Americas, to be healed and to die. I can say it, I’m saying it. I’ve tried to make something beautiful happen here.

I do my due diligence: I look up the statistics on lung cancer, and more importantly, I look up Naira Kuzmich. She was an emerging writer with a singular voice, significant publications and a promising future  when she died in 2017. And that surprised me. Pushcart usually includes posthumous entries, and due to its nature delays are inevitable, but this one seemed to take longer than usual to work through the system. In any case, I’m glad this essay made its way here. It’s a bit of recycling itself, perhaps. And if some reader wishes to take the title “My Father Recycles” in a more universal sense, maybe even a religious sense, that we are all recycled through the memories of others and the love we left behind, well, that’s something too.

Shenandoah magazine ran an online memorial, including this recollection from Kuzmich’s writing mentor, a comment that ties in perfectly with the essay itself:

When I read our correspondence from years ago or her final weeks, it strikes me that we were always having the conversations some have only when they know they will lose each other. Imagine that your words spoken to friends at the end of your life are only a reiteration of the love you have given generously throughout. Naira did this without even knowing it was incredible. And those of us who knew her, whether in person or through her writing, will spend the rest of our lives saying to her: Thank you. For everything. It was so beautiful.

Josie Sigler Sibara, from “Naira, Fiercely: Remembering the Life and Work of Naira Kuzmich” in Shenendoah Magazine

It’s quite an effective piece. Add me to those who wish we could have seen what Kuzmich would have done, had she had more time.

* * *

“Naira, Fiercely: Remembering the Life and Work of Naira Kuzmich” available online at Shenandoah magazine

“Lung Cancer in Nonsmokers” available online at Yale Medicine

Pushcart 2021 XLV: John Rolfe Gardiner, “Freak Corner” from One Story #254

Art by Nancy Rourke: “Friends”
Freak Corner was the brothers’ name for the end of the block where our brick rambler stood across from Alfie’s house, identical but for some glass-brick courses in the Kipps front wall, too cloudy to see anything but shadows moving behind them. Our house, the other piece of their “freak corner,” being home to my sister Gayle whose limited vocabulary and floating inflections left a constant question on her face: Is this the way it should sound?

Back in junior high, there was a girl at our bus stop who was mercilessly teased about her looks. She wasn’t particularly odd-looking, but odd enough, so she became a target and retreated more and more into a semi-hostile, totally miserable hunched posture that invited more teasing from assholic adolescents. By the way, I still regret that I did nothing but stand by and watch, relieved it wasn’t me. I happened to see her one day in the school corridors, talking with some friends, and I was astonished: she was laughing, chatting, looking completely happy and at ease. I saw this again in college: a woman who was ignored and rather stigmatized in class took on a wholly different attitude when surrounded by friends. Even in the short run, environment shapes us.

This story features three different people affected by their environment. For one, changing that environment is a struggle but it is life-saving. For another, the environment was a choice. And for the third, character seems to persist whatever the environment; unfortunately, this is not good news.

Gayle, pre-lingually deaf, never heard a word our parents said, though it took them nearly two years to understand that placing herself in front of them when they spoke was not a child’s remarkable politeness but her need to see the movement of their lips. Accepting the diagnosis, they were determined, with little debate, that Gayle would be an “oralist,” a mainstreamed member of the hearing world.
Her early years must have been a time of dim confusion and bewildered anxiety. As she grew older, the indignities were felt if not heard: “Call her dummy. She can’t hear you.” Worse came later – subjection to a community pique at what it took to be her conceited diffidence, then to pity for her presumed cognitive deficit. I grieved with Gayle, which only gave fuel to her frustration.

The story takes place in the mid-50s, when American Sign Language was stigmatized; to a large degree, that stigma has faded as linguistic features of ASL have become better understood. Gayle’s story shows how her intelligence was hidden while trying to read lips and speak, then was revealed as prodigious when she began communicating in a language she could fully receive and transmit. This change in environment, resisted by her parents, resulted in a change as astonishing as my glimpse of the girl at the bus stop amidst friends rather than foes.

One of Gayle’s allies was a tutor, hired to teach reading and speech but who secretly taught her sign as well. Another advocate was a neighbor, the Kipps’ son, who had some changes of his own going on:

The new Margaret Kipps made her switch without going under the knife. This in mid-twentieth century when an operation for the full change might have been offered in Scandinavia, but not to Alfie Kipps of Arlington, Virginia, who became Margaret in dress and address in the summer of 1953. No loss or gain of genitalia.

Alfie, in his late twenties, still living at home, had been working, he told us, in the city, in the circulation office of a trade magazine as a punch-card operator, that once pervasive data management job, long extinct. The change was more shocking because Alfie had never shown us a feminine inclination. In fact, there were young women who used to drive into our development to wave at the Kipps porch, coming and going. We assumed it was a mark of Alfie’s popularity, not a sign of social reticence or sexual confusion.

The description of the Kipps house as having those glass bricks, “too cloudy to see anything but shadows,” is an appropriate metaphor, since we’re never sure what’s happening with Margaret/Alfie, and what is supposed changes. At first he’s assumed to be turning himself into a woman a la Christine Jorgensen, a trending news topic at the time. Then he’s seen as a transvestite, visiting clubs for such people.

When we finally discover Alfie’s environment is more of a choice than Gayle’s, it’s one of those astonishing surprises good fiction throws at a reader. I’m not so sure it works, however. It feels forced to me, yet I can’t find a reason for my hesitance. It’s appropriate to the time – and, though extraneous to the story, fits the literary community of the time as well – and, while a bit esoteric, is no more so than the reality of Gayle’s academic explorations. That is, it’s readily available to an average reader, though probably not the first thing one would consider. That Alfie would reveal his secret to Gayle even makes sense, for who would she tell? Yet it still feels a bit off to me.

The third leg of the triangle is a pair of brothers, the neighborhood bullies who come up with the sobriquet “Freak Corner.” They are minor players in the story; their only real contribution to plot is the event that sends Alfie on his way. They are more symbolic of the kind of miscreant who is not the product of his environment, but rather his fundamental character makeup. This is emphasized as they are shown heading into adulthood, and out of the neighborhood, without much change. Plant stinkweed in the finest soil, and it will still reek.

The story is narrated by Gayle’s sibling; as I read, I considered her a sister, but I think it’s probably a brother. In his One Story interview (which I consider a bit spoilery, so be forewarned), Gardiner indicates the story started out in third person but moved to an observer-narrator somewhere along the way, because “using one of the protagonists would surely complicate the telling—having a voice that pleads for itself while simultaneously pleading for another.” I’ve been thinking of this ever since; what a great lesson for a class, to consider how the choice of narrator would change the story.

I’m unfamiliar with Gardiner’s earlier work, but it seems he set most of his stories in a historical framework that became integral to the theme and plot. Which, of course is exactly what he has done here. I find it interesting that this was first published in One Story, a litmag more associated with what are now called emerging writers than with grand masters. 

* * *

Author interview (caution: spoilers) and editor remarks can be found online at One Story.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Lydia Davis, “A Beloved Duck Gets Cooked” (nonfiction) from VQR, Summer 2019

Art by Wesley Merritt for The Saturday Telegraph Review
The traditional literary forms—the novel, the short story, the poem—although they evolve, do not disappear. But there is a wealth of less traditional forms that writers have adopted over the centuries, forms that are harder to define and less often encountered, either variations on the more familiar, such as the short-short story, or inter-generic—sitting on a line between poetry and prose, or fable and realistic narrative, or essay and fiction, and so on.

Lydia Davis comes up with the most interesting things. Sometimes they look like ordinary things, but they turn out to be something different than expected. This is something of a craft biography: her journey through tradition, the waystations of non-tradition, and how she found ways to bounce off these works and create her own pieces.

While acknowledging the traditional literary background of the Canon – she specifically mentions short-story writers Cheever, Mansfield, Updike, etc. – she also gives credit to writers of less standard narrative styles as contributors to her own art: Beckett. Kafka. Borges. She mentions a few writers I’ve never read – Grace Paley – and some I’ve never heard of (Russell Edson). She traces works, particularly Kafka, that are unclassifiable, blending parable, diary, and notes jotted down on the back of an envelope. As I  am fond of unusual narrative styles, this is right in my zone.

I keep meaning to read more Davis, but somehow she never makes my lists. I’ve read only one short story, “After Reading Peter Bichsel” which seemed almost like nonfiction and borrowed from another work of hers, “Eating Fish Alone,” collected in the Madras Press edition of food stories titled Stuffed Animals. I love this mini-collection, and carry it in my rucksack for short reading spaces in transit. My favorite piece is “Kafka Cooks Dinner,” a monologue of insecurity, overthinking, and second-guessing that feels like a microscope into my own psyche.

And coincidentally – oh, you know how I  love these coincidences – a JCO tweet came across my feed the other day that touches on this idea of genre, respectability, and the Canon:

strange to have come of age reading great novels of ambition, substance, & imagination (Dostoyevsky, Woolf, Joyce, Faulkner) & now find yourself praised & acclaimed for wan little husks of “auto fiction” with space between paragraphs to make the book seem longer…
it’s as if expectations have withered with readers’ attention spans & the rise of social media. as a juror for several literary competitions I am grateful for anything that seems to have required more than diary-like entries: works of actual imagination, ambition, risk, wonder.

Joyce Carol Oates tweets

I suspect she was reacting to something specific, maybe an assignment or a competition featuring inadequate attempts at what is being called autofiction. While a lot of replies agreed with her, others pushed back, pointing out that new forms arise from breaks with tradition (while poetry and drama go back to antiquity, the novel and short story only came into existence in the modern era) and there are cultures that treasure a kind of stark minimalism where precision, rather than volume, creates meaning. I had just read Davis’ article, praising the use of one’s own life as a fictional form, and had to wonder if JCO had read it. No one’s questioning Davis’ literary chops: not only does she give credit to the Canon, but she has done translation with all the contemplation that requires. It was an interesting serendipity to read these two together.

I’m glad to be reminded again that I want to read more of Davis, whatever genre – or blended genres – she creates.

* * *

Complete essay available online at Virginia Quarterly Review.  

Short Story Club

This idea came out of my general sense of upset at having the two college literature classes I was meant to be teaching unceremoniously cancelled a week before the semester was to begin due to low enrollment across the campus. It was a huge bummer for obvious reasons — financial, motivational, etc. — and I gave myself — am still giving myself, if we’re being honest — permission to sulk about it for some time. But, in addition to that sulking, I thought it might alleviate the sting a bit if I was still able to have the opportunity to talk about the stories I’d rigorously selected to include on the syllabus with some like minded people. That’s where you come in!

Vince Scarpa, founding email of Short Story Club

Do I want to join a group of readers, writer, and literature/writing teachers discussing contemporary stories? Do I!

I first became aware of Vince Scarpa last year when I was trying to get my bearings on Joy Williams. She happens to be his favorite author, so of course he’d written about her work. His analysis of the rate of reveal in a story added to my list of things to look for. I started following him on Twitter. When he asked if there was interest in a group like this, I couldn’t believe my luck. I am always eager to hear more of this type of in-depth analysis, in the interests of improving my own fumblings at writing about short stories.

The first meeting was last week, and was as rich with material as I’d expected. The four stories were all new to me; they struck me as “writer’s stories,” the kinds of pieces I struggle with because I know something’s going on beneath the surface but I don’t know how to identify or articulate it. This is where the value lay for me: hearing how people who know what they’re doing talk about stories. It was like having my blogging buddy Jake Weber, times ten or twelve, with everyone seeing something a little different in each story.

I was reminded of technical elements like narrative distance, which came in handy, by the way, when I read the last two Pushcart stories, since they differed dramatically in narrative distance while addressing different problematic sociopolitical aspects of contemporary life. Both approaches were highly successful, and I’ve been wondering if they would work if reversed, if the first story was up close and personal, while the second was official and distanced. I don’t think so, but that could be because I’m just unable to let go of the way things are and see the way things could be.

Most of the discussions had to do with the overall tenor of each story: where they started, how they proceded, and what that said about the characters being stuck, or confused, or trapped by institutions that were failing them. There was some discussion of context as well, about the writer’s process and research and how that created opportunities within the story for dramatic moments or subtle turns of phrase.

Someone mentioned “Short Story Club” being perhaps the least imaginative name possible for such a group. But not if you read it ironically. I usually have trouble with irony, but here it seems perfect.

I kept very quiet during the meeting. Part of that was intimidation, part was my continuing trouble with online meetings (or in-person meetings, for that matter, any time another person might be listening to me) and part was really an uncertainty about the stories themselves. That’s why I found it so valuable. Some stories I don’t need help with; stories like these, I do. It isn’t a matter of “liking” a story, but of having a sense of why the story was written in the first place, and of appreciating what the writer is doing and how it affects the reading. Maybe I’ll have something to say as time goes on, but for now, I’m listening.

So it really sucks for Vince that the classes were cancelled, but they’re loss, our gain. It’s really great that he’s generous enough to share with the rest of us. The next meeting is tentatively scheduled for mid-April. If you’d like to try it, track Vince down on Twitter, or let me know (comment, tweet or email) and I’ll give you the contact info. I’m hoping to keep learning more about discussing stories, to improve my own understanding, as well as my posts.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Chris Stuck, “Give My Love to the Savages” from Bennington Review #7

Everyone was pissed off and confused, an odd mix of anger and exhilaration hot on their faces. Some ran from one side of the street to the other and then decided they didn’t like it there and ran back. Some held bricks and rocks in their hands, just waiting for a worthy target, like us. As we weaved through, their white-people radar must’ve gone off, because they all stopped rioting, turned around, and watched Pop and me like we had horns growing out of our heads. I wanted to tell them we were the good guys, or at least that I was. Something like, “Hey, my mother’s black. Like, really black. I’m one of you.” But Pop took a different approach. “You don’t have bumpers on your black asses. Get out of the street, numbnuts.”
I elbowed him and said that probably wasn’t the best thing to say right then.

In my post about the prior story “The Shame Exchange,” I noted how  distance and an impersonal approach, contrary to the way most stories like to approach big issues via individuals facing the conflicts involved, was surprisingly effective. This story takes the more traditional path: it covers several major social issues, as well as some interpersonal ones, through the soul of one antacid-guzzling college student. Considering the big issues competing for attention in this story – the Rodney King verdict, the subsequent riots, the overall frustration of any attempt to find justice, daddy issues, mommy issues, the psychological effects of biracial identity in a society that loves to categorize things as this or that and downright resents being forced up against shades of gray – there’s also a lot of subtlety going on. And somehow, this is also often a very funny story. Sometimes it’s an ironic funny, but it’s often just funny.

Junie was flying from Boston to LA for his annual Spring Break working at one of Dad’s car dealerships when the flight attendant announced riots were breaking out in their destination city. (It’s hard to believe the Rodney King riots were thirty years ago, and the progress that’s been made is: cops can now murder unarmed black men because they’re scared of them, and no one will find them guilty or even press charges if there’s the slightest excuse not to. And the problem is still viewed in terms of lawless rioters.) His mom back in Boston is black, his dad in LA is white, and Junie is one of those racially ambiguous people who is generally taken for white, especially when he’s with his dad.  Who is, by the way, an asshole, quite aside from his racism.   

“Cops in this town think their shit don’t stink. But that don’t make it cool for every black mope and his fat mother to turn the city into a goddamn ashtray, know what I’m saying?”
I just shook my head. “Black mope? Fat mother?”
“You see any white people out here other than us?”
“You mean other than you?” I scanned the street and spotted a scruffy white guy in two seconds. He maneuvered a shopping cart full of Budweiser with a perverse glee. “What about him?”
Pop blinked at him and then glanced at me. “An anomaly,” he said.
“I’m just saying, Pop. You sound kind of Aryan right now.”
“Do I? Well, I guess beating up a bunch of Indians makes you Martin Luther King.”

Before getting into the thing about Indians – and there was only one Indian, not a bunch, and Junie didn’t do the beating – that casual “other than us” reveals how Dad has erased all the black from his son. Granted, there might be some ex-wife hostility mixed in there, and I suppose it’s better than rejecting the son because he can’t get around his blackness… no, I take that back. If you have to erase half of your kid to accept him, that’s not much better than anything. Mom’s not happy about the white part  either, though she seems more focused on the traits that echo Dad: “You can’t change the fact that you got some white in you, Junie, but it doesn’t mean you gotta act like your father’s white ass.” For that matter, that’s what bugs Junie too.

Now, the Indian. Junie’s living with boys named Tyler, Tucker, and Chase (“they sounded like a law firm”) who, during an aimless drive one night, decide to beat up a kid wearing a turban because… well, because he’s there, and he’s not white, so sure, let’s beat him up. Junie makes a weak effort to make them think twice, but stays in the car while they have their fun.

When Chase said, “Junie, don’t you want a piece of this little fucker?” I thought of all that, jealous of that poor kid. I almost got out of the car. A part of me wanted to hurt him, but I decided to stay put. Chase punched him and then looked back at me, laughing. “You sure?” “Yeah,” I said. “I think I’m good.”

There’s that subtlety again. “I think I’m good.” Good for staying in the car. Maybe not, for not doing more to stop it. Maybe more not good for wanting to join in, though I’m on the side of the guy who isn’t always pure in thought but is able to curb his nastier tendencies.

The legal case that follows is hilarious, inverting the naïve-white-boy-corrupted-by-the-evil-black-friends narrative. When the lawyer gets Junie the lesser sentence by painting him as a “racially confused kid with neglectful parents,” it’s another subtle twist of irony that Junie thinks he’s wrong. And yes, attention can turn out to be neglectful, especiallly when each parent neglects the half of Junie that doesn’t come from them.

What really makes this piece sing is the ending, when Junie has a real heart-to-heart in his head with a group of rioters who don’t particularly want to mess with him, but he literally asks for it. It’s a scene that simultaneously works in at least three different ways, but the prominent one is a conversation between the two halves of himself, one desperately needing to atone for the sin of passing, of using the magic power of whiteness when it suits, and the other reluctantly agreeing to provide it in honor of those who can’t avail themselves of that privilege.

I see a lot that harks back to the inciting incident of the whole thing, the beating of a prostrate Rodney King by a crowd of police officers. The title – a sentence spoke by Dad, of course, referring to the rioters – focuses our attention on just who the savages are, both in real life and in the story. And one paragraph reflects the side-by-side existence of horrific violence (the truck driver whose head gets bashed in by a rock is Reginald Denny) and destruction, and utter absurdity:

We were the only bystanders out there, pushing our luck in a new Porsche among all that lawlessness. But, relatively speaking, things didn’t seem that bad yet. No one was bothering us. No one seemed to even notice us. Across the street, a Payless shoe store was being ransacked, the parking lot littered with empty shoeboxes. Down the sidewalk, an interracial couple steered a new leather sofa dollied on two skateboards. Even some guy clutching an armful of bathrobes rambled by, touting, “Robe. Robe here,” as though peddling peanuts at a Dodgers game. Who knew what would happen next.

In looking for header art for this post, I came across a photo of that Payless shoe store. I debated using it, but went with the inciting incident instead.

And there’s good news:  It turns out this is the title story in Stuck’s upcoming debut story collection. Given the descriptions of some of the other stories examining issues around race, and given Stuck’s skill in writing a captivating story with great depth (I don’t think I’ve gotten at half of it), I can’t wait to read it.

* * *

Story available online at Bennington Review.

Story collection Give My Love To The Savages scheduled for release in June 2021

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Karen Bender, “The Shame Exchange” from Yale Review Online January 2019

YRO art: Nicolae Tonitza, Bread Line, 1920
No one knew who originally proposed it; the government would mandate an exchange of shame. Citizens who held too much shame, which interfered with their lives and productivity, would come to an official site where their shame would be handed to a government official who had none. Many people, in both the federal and technology sectors, were involved in organizing this exchange, and it had not been easy to agree on the terms. The government was, for years, not sufficiently responsive to the needs of its citizens and this was what a panel finally decided to do.

When I read this first paragraph of the story, I yelled out, “YES!” Fortunately I was alone in my living room at the time. I was thrilled that someone had put into words, into a scenario, what I’ve been feeling – what many of us have been feeling – over the past few years. That a deficiency of shame has been the most destructive force in dismantling fairness and justice. Not just a deficiency of shame: a negative transfer of shame, from sanctimonious politicians and commentators to the people they judge to be less than, while making sure those people stay less than. It works at the top (deciding not to hold a hearing on a Supreme Court judge nine months before an election because it’s too late, then cramming one in one month before the next election, just because you can)  to the bottom (creating an arcane system of rules and restrictions around SNAP and WIC so that it’s almost certain the people behind a coupon user in the grocery store are going to get annoyed, and guess who they get annoyed at. I’m convinced the purpose of such restrictions is the creation of this annoyance – increasing shame within the person’s immediate vicinity – than than any monetary or nutritional benefits. Of course, this is just my uninformed opinion, and I’m sure there are a dozen reasons it’s wrong, but I still think it’s confusion by design for the purpose of stigmatization). Then there’s blaming meat packers and poultry processors for the explosion of COVID-19 in their ranks because they live in their own cultural conditions, conditions like crowded households of multiple families required by the low wages they are paid. And that’s just off the top of my head, a starter set of things some officials should be ashamed of.

Whew. That felt good. But this is supposed to be about the story, about writing.

The tone of the story – from the nebulous, distant third-person narrator – is almost as bureaucratic as the solution it provides for the imbalance of shame: Those judged to have too much shame will undergo a procedure that turns that shame into a physical substance – “It was generally the size of a large pillow and resembled a raw steak” – and report en masse to a building where they line up across from a line of officials judged to have too little shame – get your hands out of your pants, Rudy, you’re not tucking in your shirt and we all know it – for the exchange. The politicians wear masks to conceal their identity, and resist the procedure. But it happens. Afterwards, one group goes skipping away for ice cream, and the other slinks into their limos. Guess which is which.

There is no central character, except perhaps the narrator and the never-identified government body that mandates the exchange. Normally, a story personalizes such events, tracing one person’s story, which brings the reader closer to feeling the humanity behind the situation. But here, the relief of the shame-givers, and the discomfort and arrogance of the shame-receivers, is clearly shown, but the emphasis is on the societal role, rather than the effect on individuals. It helps us get a little closer to demanding that government, instead of being a rule-enforcing bureaucracy, create solutions to problems, even the problems it creates itself.

So much work had gone into this exchange, so much planning. Was this, finally, the strategy that would help the nation? The organizers watched the officials get into their cars. The cars started, turned, and drove onto the highway. Those at the warehouse stood, watching the cars vanish into the distance, and then everyone—carefully—cheered.

Bender made an interesting choice to end the story with the exchange, explicitly asking the question, “Was this, finally, the strategy that would help the nation?” This “Lady or the Tiger” ending sets up a debate for readers, who can imagine and discuss different possibilities. The most optimistic view: the officials will find shame so painful they will stop giving themselves tax breaks while the people who work the hardest – and don’t kid yourself, food service, chicken plucking, housekeeping, personal care are harder than writing reports or trading stocks, and for the past year, more deadly – get less and less. More realistically, perhaps, is that the shame recipients are psychologically hard-wired to reject shame, which is why they have so little of it to begin with. Or they will leave office and a new crop of the shameless will come into power.

Logistics aside, we can even ask if a deficiency of shame is the overall problem. Does greed – and you can argue over whether greed for money or greed for power are different things – play into it as well? This is why the story makes a wonderful avenue into thinking about how society can – should? – be structured, into looking at the question (borrowing from T.M. Scanlon and Chidi Anagonye), what do we owe each other.

One brief wag of the finger to Pushcart: they list the story as an essay. That happens from time to time. There is an essay-like quality to the prose, but, obviously, it’s fiction.

I was so intrigued by this story, I went looking for Bender, to see if it appears in any of her books. No, it doesn’t, but the description of her 2018 collection The New Order appealed to me, so that’s on its way to me now. Whether I’ll get to it this year, I don’t know – my In-Between-Reading bookshelf is sagging under the weight of rereads and new reads I’ve been picking up over the past several months – but l want it in the lineup. I think Refund will find its way here next year.

Yes, this is one of my more impulsive, less thought-out posts. I may regret it some day. But the idea of bringing back shame to public servants bypasses the inhibition center of my frontal lobe and has me writing from the emotional center, rather than reason, at a scream. That’s what an effective story does.

 * * *

Complete story available online at Yale Review.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Lydia Conklin, “Laramie Time” from American Short Fiction #69

“I want to have a kid with you.” I meant the words to sound basic but invested with meaning – inflected emotion on “kid” and “you” – those two words the sum total of my future reality. But the sentence spilled out like a sneeze.
“That’s amazing.” She spoke flatly, her unseasonable tennis shoes sinking into the slush. Why was she speaking flatly? “I’m glad you came around.”
I expected the conversation to be joyful. Matty had begged me for a kid for years. She should have jumped into my arms when I agreed. She should have fucked me right there on the Boulevard, even though it was winter in Laramie, even though we’re lesbians, so fucking wouldn’t help with getting the kid.
“Aren’t you happy?”
The bubble of a tear occluded one eye, but she squeezed it closed, squeezed both eyes closed. When she opened them, they were clear. “Thank you. I am happy.” She sounded like a robot. But sometimes she was like that – a sweet little logic robot. She waited until we stepped onto the curb on Custer Street to clamp me in a cold hug.

For a straightforward story, there’s a lot going on here. I keep trying to lay everything out in neat little piles with arrow pointing from one to the other, but it really works better as kinetic art, everything in motion, more implicit than explicit. Or maybe I’m just not up to the task.

The straightforward part is: half of a lesbian couple wants to have a baby, and the other half has been deferring. Now she agrees, but suddenly something else comes up, and it’s all complicated again, at least in her head. That’s part of what’s going on here: we only see Leigh’s point of view. Everything else, including Matty’s behavior and thoughts, are filtered through her. And we learn much later that Leigh isn’t anywhere near as clued in to Matty as she thinks she is.

Another thing that’s going on is the life of the creative worker. Leigh is a cartoonist, author of a comic about lesbian turtles, while Matty has recently abandoned work on a novel. Creative work is more unpredictable than, say, office work or food service or academia. Leigh’s stated reason for wanting to delay baby-making has been her career, but now it looks like her comic is about to take off as a TV series (someone’s gonna do this, aren’t they? Or have they already and I’m just so uncool I don’t know about it?) so that excuse no longer holds. But it leads to the other issue of having to move to LA whereas Matty is a New Yorker through and through. Oh, and about Laramie, smack in between NY and LA:

We’d moved to Wyoming at the end of the summer to “think about it” in a neutral zone while we lived off the rent from our subletter in New York. We nicknamed this period The Laramie Time. Matty had abandoned her career in academic publishing to finish a novel. Our close friend, Arun, a chatty professor, had spent years making the forgotten town with its wide streets and slouching wood frame houses and staring white men seemed cool. He assured us cougars crossed the highway and food was cheap. He even secured us free housesitting for his colleague who’d left on sabbatical.
Arun insisted that the famous hate crime had unfairly stigmatized the town. Matty had been straight her whole life before me, and the idea of Laramie bothered me more than it bothered her. Arun looked at me when he explained that the whole town knew that Matthew Shepard and his killer had been lovers. The crime wasn’t political, but personal. As though that made it so much better.

Laramie as a setting stirs in a lot as undercurrent: danger, betrayal, anger, grief. The cost of living life as the person you are. Unspoken truths, spoken lies. All reflected in Leigh’s acknowledgement early on: “She’d have known better than to count on me.”

The backbone of the narrative is the process of baby-making. No, not that process, the more complicated process when the prospective parents have only ovaries to work with: where to get that necessary sperm? This provides some comic relief that keeps the story from sinking into a depression. And then there’s the issue all parents face: what to name the child. Matty, sick of “pretentious names,” goes with Jane or Michael. Leigh feels a moment of regret that they won’t be considering Jiminy or Puck. 

It’s during the sperm-transfer process that Leigh becomes aware of something that shifts her perspective. That creativity, it’s glorious, but it’s also out to get you, and mixing up the writing and the sperm with deception is perfect. Leigh could be an adult about it. She could face it squarely and work it out. But I don’t think she’s been really on board this whole time, so she goes deceptive herself, in a rather shocking way. But let’s face it, Matty doesn’t win any awards for straightforward adulthood herself. The fallout is only speculation; we don’t see the actual morning after. Given the levels of deception, and buried emotionality, on both sides, it must’ve been epic, even if only in its absolute silence.

Yes, this is a story that’s better left in motion, not pinned down. It flies just fine on its own.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Shena McAuliffe, “Marceline Wanted a Bigger Adventure” (non-fiction) from True Story #26

I would not have come across the grave of Marceline Baldwin Jones by chance…. I looked up Marceline’s grave on findagrave.com, and then located it on the cemetery map. I have visited deliberately, driven by twin habits of walking and curiosity. I do not know exactly what I am looking for.
It is a hot day in early spring, and I have sweated through my shirt. I have not brought water. I stand before the headstone. I see no evidence that anyone else has been here recently—no flowers or plants, no folded scraps of paper or envelopes. I hear the banging of a construction site somewhere far beyond the row of slender trees that marks the back edge of the cemetery. A few birds chirp.

The question that comes up in these opening paragraphs is, of course, who is this Marceline Baldwin Jones whose grave McAuliffe is visiting? A relative or friend – it can’t be someone very close, since she had to look up the grave – maybe a colleague, mentor, someone who was important to her at one point, who gave her good advice, who got her started on a good path? Or someone more distant, a friend-of-a-friend who just recently became known to the author recently (oooh, a juicy story, perhaps, a long-hidden love?), a local figure enjoying some resurgance of fame for some reason?

Why would you look up and go to the grave of a stranger? To pay respects, to report back to the living that you had gone, perhaps with a picture? To contemplate more deeply the effect she’d had on your life?

In the next paragraph, it clicks into place.

Marceline Mae Baldwin was born in Richmond, Indiana, in 1927. She was a Methodist, a daughter and sister. She was, by all accounts, a generous and mild woman all her life. According to her cousin Avelyn Chilcoate, Marceline longed for a life outside the small town; the two young women, both nurses, had plans to move elsewhere together, maybe to somewhere in Kentucky. But then, in 1948, Marceline met a strange young man named Jim Jones, an orderly at the hospital where she worked, and together they stepped into the stream of history.

I was in my mid-20s when the news of almost 1000 deaths, almost all by suicide, broke. I was busy with my own stuff, as most 24 year olds are, so it was a bit hazy, but the pictures of fields of bodies were clear enough. And then there was the Congressman and his staff, about to return from a fact-finding mission, who were shot to prevent their departure.

A few years later, a TV movie came along to explain the events to those of us who payed more attention to entertainment than news. Powers Booth was impressively creepy as the adult Jim Jones who went from an earnest preacher genuinely trying to help the poor and needy to a paranoid drug and power addict constantly fleeing perceived persecution, eventually all the way to South America. A lot of scenes stuck with me, though I was never sure how accurate they were. One such scene was of his wife, Marcy, passing out the poisoned Kool-Aid, then, with a sense of utter resignation, drinking a cup herself and laying down to die.

That was Marceline Baldwin Jones.

I suppose I am walking here to meditate on Marceline, though I do not valorize her. She is mostly a mystery to me. Thinking about her makes me wonder about loyalty and love and how they can blind us, about agency and belief, about devotion and delusion. Perhaps I am only a lookie-loo, seeking her grave to stand safely near tragedy without truly experiencing it, to feel the buzz of some electrical darkness. It has been forty years since the deaths at Jonestown. There is nothing here but names on stones, bodies deep in the earth, invisible, still, and decayed.

Although McAuliffe traces the path of Jim Jones in some detail – in fact, I would guess he gets the majority of the word count – she nevertheless keeps bringing the focus back to Marceline. One way she does that is by bringing in a couple of similar stories of hard-to-break-away-from groups: her husband grew up in a commune that underwent several fractious changes, and her parents got roped into Amway. We all know people who’ve stayed in destructive marriages too long. Loyalty, persistence, determination to succeed, these are positive traits, yet need to be tempered.

Be moderate; love reasonably, her story whispers, opposing every message of love and idealism and generosity I have ever heard. This whisper is part of what drew draws me to her story and to her grave, part of what puzzles me. Why did you do it, Marceline? What happened to you, Marceline? Why this blind spot? Why did you stay?

I don’t see that Marceline had any answers for McAuliffe, but I’m not sure she knew the answers herself.

I know from experience that sometimes chaos doesn’t look like chaos from the inside. Some of us have ways of seeing things as not too bad, as fixable, even as they get incrementally worse. The occasional indigestion that eventually has you taking pills and swallowing antacids seems manageable until you start vomiting blood. The husband who comes home drunk once in a while, then once a week, then always, can start to feel normal at each level. We can tell ourselves it’ll be ok right up until we pour ourselves a cup of Kool-Aid. And then we realize it’s too late, so we just drink it and lay down to die.

Guest Post by Jonathan Duelfer: Review of “The Wind” by Lauren Groff, from The New Yorker, February 1, 2021

Jon reviews short stories and books on his website The Inquiring Reader. As a Software Developer, he is developing the beta version of a web application for reviewing and discussing articles from magazines and journals, named The Commons App.

I am typically moved most by short stories that focus on a single event, a single emotion, and swiftly make progress to their objective. Writers tend to pause in their narrations. They tend to change topics, setting, or embroider their language in lieu of a steady plot.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with this. Experimenting with form and style is what makes such a wonderfully diverse, literary landscape. But what moves me most is when I feel an overwhelming urgency, too afraid to put the story down in the fear that if I look up, it will leave me.

This sense of passion and urgency is what I felt from Lauren Groff’s masterful piece, “The Wind.” There is a single emotion that surfaces above all others: despair. It builds gradually throughout the story, entirely nonexistent at first, until it becomes the driving force behind it all. It reaches its breaking point and shatters into pieces of sorrow, remorse, guilt, and even a bit of optimism.

I found Groff’s prose to be captivating. It reminded me of Hemingway in its directness, its simple pronouns representing characters, and its rolling sentences combined with endless “ands.”

So the daughter had risen as usual and washed and made toast and warm milk for her brothers, and while they were eating she emptied their schoolbags into the toy chest and filled them with clothes, a toothbrush, one book for comfort. The children moved silently through the black morning, put on their shoes outside the porch.

Groff uses an interesting narrative structure. The story starts off as if told from an unrelated third-person, referring to the characters as the mother, the daughter, the older boy. All of a sudden, the narrator’s true voice breaks in.

He was six, his brother was nine, and the girl was twelve. These were my uncles and my mother as children.

The narrator tells the story as herself, but also as if she was summarizing the words of her mother, Michelle, at the time the events occurred. It’s an intriguing structure, providing us a sort of redemption that at least some of the characters survive while the story spirals into chaos and sorrow.

It doesn’t start off all doom-and-gloom. It begins seemingly lighthearted, as if the siblings are playing some practical joke on each other. One of the brothers tells the narrator’s mother that “Kids are going to make fun of you, your face all mashed up like that.” I imagined that Michelle had done something to herself on accident or as a joke simply to mess with her brothers.

The tone changes as the kids jump onto the school bus. The driver, Mrs. Palmer, makes a sarcastic comment about Michelle’s “shiner,” slang for a black eye, as if she didn’t know its provenance. Then, Michelle asks Mrs. Palmer, very seriously, to drop them off at a stop before school to meet their mother. Mrs. Palmer immediately knows something is wrong. But why didn’t she acknowledge it before?

Mrs. Palmer lets the kids off the bus. They get into the car with their mother and drive to her work to pick up her last paycheck. She plans to get them all out of town as soon as possible. As they walk into the restaurant where the mother works, the manager changes the mood.

Without looking he barked, You’re late, Ruby. But then the children caught his eye, and he saw the state of them, and put the potatoes down and reached out and touched my mother’s face gently with his hot rough hand. Lord. She get it too? He said. She’s just a kid.

As the reader, we are no longer kept in the dark as to what could have happened. We are no longer spared the grim details.

Shoved his gun in my mouth this time, my grandmother said. She didn’t bother to whisper, because the kids had been there, they had seen it.

It’s clear that the kids got off the bus to meet their mother and escape from their abusive father. But there is an undercurrent of futility coming from the community. They seem to notice the abuse – Mrs. Palmer on the school bus, the manager in the store – but don’t take action the change things.

This is because the father is a police officer. For the sake of the short story, it makes the situation even more dire, but I found this detail to be allegorical more than anything. What happens when the entire structure of society is bent against you, your freedom, and your well-being?

Groff throws us a rope, suggesting that the children make it out of the situation – although deeply scarred. In the middle of her narration, she changes settings momentarily, to a point sometimes in the future when the children are grown up and out of the town.

My younger uncle reached out his little hand, and Joseph, who hated all show of affection, held it. Ralphie had a fishing accident when I was a teenager, and my cold, dry uncle Joseph fell apart at the funeral, sobbing and letting snot run down his face, all twisted grotesquely in pain.

The fascinating narrative structure doesn’t stop here. Before finishing the story, Groff makes it seem like they all escape to safety. But the narrator knows better. Of her mother’s retelling, she says that “behind her words I see the true story, the sudden wail and my grandmother’s blanched cheeks shining in red and blue.” For a moment, we had a light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe all we are left with is despair.

This was the way my mother later told the story, down to the smallest detail, as though dreaming it into life: the forsythia budding gold on the tips of the bushes, the last snow rotten in the ditches, the faces of the houses still depressed by winter, the gray clouds that hung down heavily as her mother drove into the valley of the town, the wind picking up so that the flag’s rivets on the pole snapped crisply outside the bus station, where they waited on a metal bench that seared their bottoms and they shuddered from more than the cold.

It has been sometime that I’ve read a short story so moving and well written. I believe this last paragraph speaks for itself for how skilled a writer Groff really is.

On the other hand, the author of this website, Karen, made a fantastic point when I asked to write guest post on this piece. She said that it reminded her of Alejandro Puyana’s “The Hands of Dirty Children” which she reviewed last year.In that review, she writes “somehow it feels – not is, feels – manipulative of the reader and almost exploitive of the real-life kids.”

Could we interpret Groff’s story in a similar way? Could she be exploiting the terror at the heart of this story for “shock value”? As she says in this interview with the New Yorker, the story was inspired by a person she really didn’t know a “few decades ago, in a ratty booth at some bar in Philadelphia.”

Given this background, does Groff have the right to use this story? She says the “the original teller would never recognize their story here” but that she kept the “truth at the center of it.”

I’m not able to come up with an answer. I lean towards thinking that it’s more representative than “exploitive.” Either way, it’s a very good question to think about. I also may be more susceptible to shock value than other readers, as I am a fan of Cormac McCarthy’s oddly gruesome novels (you can read my review of Blood Meridian if you are interested).

Regardless, I think the story is well-worth the read. It’s emotional, gripping, powerful, and extremely well-written. On my first Read, it completely blew me away. Coming back to it after briefly discussing the story with Karen, it lost some of its allure, but I still cannot help seeing it as an excellent piece of short fiction.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Julia Armfield, “Longshore Drift” from Granta #148

Photograph: Jidan Chaomian
There are basking sharks in the upper layers of the water – prehistoric things, nightmare-mouthed and harmless. Plankton-eaters, the way all seeming monsters are. They fill the coastal waters in the summertime, rising up to trawl the krill blooms. Puckered with barnacles, blasé as window-shoppers, they can grow over a lifetime to twenty feet in length.
There are warning flags along the wrack line: SHARKS – SWIM AT YOUR OWN RISK. The threat is actually minimal, basking sharks being liable to give you little more than a bump on the knee, but the effect of the signs is still an odd one. There are no barriers, the water is open, creating the sense of a curiously lackadaisical approach to public safety. Danger, but do what you want, we’re not the police.

I’d call this a quiet story. Not much happens – two teenage girls running an ice cream truck at the English shore on a cold, grey day have little luck until they run into a group of teenage boys – but there’s a lot of nuance in the depiction of the relationship between the girls. I’ve always said there’s a natural law that the person who cares less about the relationship has the most power. This story is all about that law. Alice, the POV-character and the less-desired friend, is confused about herself (though she has no interest in boys, she’s pretty sure she’s not gay; I was sure they were a gay couple, but no), about her friend Min (whose confidence tends to overwhelm any objections), about her future.

I’ve been the Alice in relationships with people like Min. In any disagreement, she feels wrong. A great example: she sees Min is about to throw some trash out of the truck window, and, given her uncle, whose truck it is, has put signs on it like “Litter Makes the Future Bitter,” asks her to stop.

‘Oh, don’t,’ Alice says, regretting it almost immediately – the mumsy tone. Min raises an eyebrow at her, though she does withdraw her hand from the open window, throwing the napkin instead in the cupholder beside the gearstick.
‘Fair enough,’ she nods, and while her tone is light Alice feels she can detect the faintest note of mockery. ‘Mustn’t be bitter with my litter.’
It can be like this, sometimes. A sudden quirk of the lip. Alice biting back the wrong words. Sitting together in History, passing notes until Alice writes something stupid or uncool, underlines the wrong thing, and Min crumples the note in her fist.
Fair enough’, this stock phrase, its cringing detachment. The sudden removal of camaraderie and Alice clawing after it.

The thing is, there are indications it’s Min who needs Alice more than Alice needs Min. Alice can drive, so they have access to the ice cream truck while Uncle is laid up. Min frequently gives out a phone number to boys who pester her, but it’s Alice’s number, and Alice has become a good mimic, able to discourage them on the first call. Strange how that works, isn’t it.

A group of boys waves to the truck. Since they haven’t sold much all day, this is a good sign. I love the description of the boys: “clutching preposterously at surfboards” since the sea is calm. But, like Min, they have confidence. So they get away with not paying for the ice cream, with a promise to pay when the girls join them later on in town for drinks.

Sharks open and close the story. But not Great Whites: no, these are basking sharks, harmless, though they look terrifying. Exaggerated stories abound, lies all. But Min finally earns her keep, and we know she understands perfectly well who needs whom more.

In her author discussion for Granta, Armfield explains her use of the shark:

The story starts with a shark, a choice I made predominantly because that is how Jaws starts, and I could think of no better way to establish that summer is not to be trusted. The shark sets the tone for the summer ahead – a pleasure beach with warning signs strung up along the wrack line.

Julia Armfield, First Sentence at Granta

Her own analysis of the story deepened my understanding, and is well worth a read.

* * *

Story available online at Granta.

First Sentence contributor note available online at Granta: “It’s the basking shark’s sheer mundanity that I was interested in.”

Pushcart 2021 XLV: V. V. Ganeshananthan, “The Missing Are Considered Dead” from Copper Nickel #29

When my husband disappeared, my closest neighbor, Sarojini, hurried over from her house across our Batticaloa lane to tell me she had seen him being picked up and taken away. That is how we Tamil women talk about disappearing in my village, which is still my village after all this time, even though it has been stripped to its bones: we say disappearing when we mean kidnapped, and being picked up and taken away when we mean probably on the way to be killed. Sarojini had always liked to feel important, and although Ranjan was not standing next to me, smiling in the quiet way he had of letting me know he shared the joke of considering her a gossip, I saw no reason to stop her from telling me her version of the story. I didn’t listen to her; I thought about Ranjan. Where was he? I was at the very beginning of a kind of wondering that would later become like breathing to me, if my own breathing could be not only necessary but also intolerable.

With this story we return to the theme of grief. All along I’ve been saying grief looks different in different people, but often the circumstances of grief affect its expression as well. In this case, the grief is almost crowded out of the picture by other factors: poverty, demeaning work, and, most of all, uncertainty and rage. How do you grieve when you aren’t sure there was a death? And how do you grieve when it’s as much a bureaucratic problem rather than a personal one? Yet, the grief is only almost crowded out; it still crops up throughout the story: in memories,  comparisons, a wish. In outrage. And in the uncertainty itself.

In an interview about this story, among other things (link below), Ganeshananthan characterizes the narrator as “a ticking clock.” That’s a great description, and indicates the kind of tension present in this story.  Apparently there are so many missing men in the country – kidnapped? Murdered by the government? Forced into military service? – that a bureaucracy has been set up to compensate widows for their husbands. But there is a three year waiting period before that can happen. We’re with the narrator, counting down three years from the disappearance of her husband, when she will be eligible for desperately needed compensation. But in the meantime, she and her son still have to eat. How can mere grief compete with all that?

The widow-to-be takes a job cleaning the local school where she herself used to be a student, the only job available to her. It’s not an easy place to be.

The students were kind to me, and the teachers ignored me, which was also a kindness; I think they knew that I was humiliated, working there, when I had once been good at maths, and even better at English, so good at English that some people thought I might go abroad, to the Middle East or even Europe. Now when there was a concert or special event at the school, I stood in the back with my broom, and everyone acted as though I were not there, so that I could also watch and feel that I was a part of the world, although I was less than a wife and less than a widow, and had never even been a Tiger. Even then, I imagined Ranjan next to me, his width and breadth, the space his body would have taken up. His untidy mustache, his smile. Your son will study here someday, someone said to me generously, and I hated that I was supposed to be grateful.

The climax of the story comes when, a few weeks before the three year waiting period is up, the military bring a man, beaten and bloodied, to her, saying he claims to be her husband. Here is where my hazy understanding of the context makes it difficult to fully appreciate what is happening here. Is this her husband? She seems to hear him use an endearment they shared. Or is that wishful thinking? Why are they bringing him to her? She seems to think she can help him by claiming him; I’m not sure how that works. Is this some way of invalidating the compensation she is owed?

But even though I’m not sure exactly what’s going on, her grief fills the page. The title is the line that runs through her head, a phrase spoken by a government man during a meeting at the school, a phrase actually used by government officials. Death, its grief denied, posed a bureaucratic problem. Raise your hand if you think this might have any relevance to the past year.

In her interview, Ganeshananthan tells of the rather unique origin of this story:

I started writing it for a conference in Edinburgh years ago. A friend of mine is an anthropologist asked me to read there, and I didn’t want to read from the novel I was working on, so I thought I would start a new story. And then I started the story, but I didn’t finish it in time for the reading. So I did something very weird where I just kind of read to an audience of mostly social scientists who do fieldwork in Sri Lanka, and then they were kind enough to want to know what happened. So I finished the story…. And it takes its title from something that the prime minister of Sri Lanka said in a speech in Sri Lanka a few years ago, which which I thought was super offensive, he said, The missing or considered dead. So the story is from the point of view of woman whose husband is missing.

“Sugi” Ganeshananthan, Animal Riot Press Podcast #35

Grief may look different, but it always finds a way.

* * *

Story available online at Copper Nickel.

Interview transcript available at Animal Riot Press.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: John Philip Johnson, “The Book of Fly” (poem) from Rattle #63

B/W version of cover
I went to ReaderCon in 2011 to meet Mike Allen. He was the editor of Mythic Delirium, a magazine that, along with Goblin Fruit, had liberated me from the academic poetry tradition. I had learned to have fun with poetry, thanks to them, and I wanted to meet Mike and learn more. He gave a workshop on genre poetry in which he mentioned flipping perspectives. He made a stray comment about flies knowing their purpose was to die. I mulled that line over for years, and this came out one summer afternoon. I was sunning myself, in my wife’s garden. I had my notebook with me, as I usually do. There were flies around.

John Philip Johnson, Contributor Note online at Rattle

Checking out this poem has included more “You don’t see that much” moments than I’ve ever had checking out any poem. Like for instance, a contributor note in the original publication. A writer who writes science fiction, now writing graphic poetry. Graphic poetry. Poetry as comic book. Or is it comic book as poetry? A poem I thought was just fun, then took me somewhere else (whether it was supposed to or not). A book that’s hard to order (nevertheless, she persisted. Damn. I swore I would stop ordering poetry books) and turns out to be $2 cheaper than advertised.

The poem in its original form is available online (link below); go ahead, I’ll wait, it’s short, won’t take you more than a minute. Following the Biblical (or Taoist, maybe) format of the title, “The Book Of…” (could be Job, Esther, — Tao te Ching — but it’s Fly), it’s numbered following Biblical chapter:verse format. Chapter 1 is about living. Chapter 2 is about dying. The Living verses contain discrete sentences, one per verse. The Dying chapter, taking a somewhat different format for its somewhat different tone, is one longer sentence, divided for semantic impact.

Some of the Living verses are applicable only to flies (unless one really wants to build a towering metaphorical structure), to wit:

1:1
Feeding on the living is good,
but feeding on the dead is better.
 
1:2
Nestle your offspring in the rancid.

 
1:4
Shit is beautiful.

Some of them, however, easily apply to people:

1:6
If you land on the wrist that holds the swatter,
consider yourself lucky, not clever.

 
1:7
Remain humble, if you think of anything.
 
1:8
You only have a few days;
stay simple.

I can not only imagine those adages framed on the walls of my apartment (and oh if we could only see such sentiments in other places as well — university provost’s offices, corporation headquarters, Congress…), but also in minuscule cross-stitch on tiny little pillows in some fly’s house somewhere.

But it’s when we reach the second chapter that things turn somehow beautiful.  Even though the diction lays it out in the starkest terms, somehow it all feels poetic and metaphorical:

2:1
And when you are licked
by the frog’s tongue,
or swallowed by a songbird,
or felled in a cloud of nerve gas
and lie twitching, unconcerned,
 
2:2
know that it is the honor of a fly,
it is its purpose,
to die.

When I first read this, I felt a rush of regret for all the flies I had so honored. The humor came second, and then a consideration, helped along by the comparisons invited in the first chapter, to our own situation.

Since we all do, is it our purpose to die?

A great deal of Christian rhetoric places death as the entry into Glory, the transition from the world to heaven. I’ve always found it perplexing that, in spite of that, the mostly Christian West resists death with every tool available to it, and mourns rather than celebrates a passing. Eastern religions as well see a transition rather than an end. Yet living is given its purpose, and death is an interruption, not a purpose in itself. Would we approach life differently if we believed that death was our purpose?

I do remember an Archaeology/Anthropology course from long ago in which the professor stated haughtily that the most important natural process on Earth is death: it allows for consumption, and makes way for new, and sometimes improved, life. Death as purpose is not completely out of the realm of possibility.

I started this poem thinking, Oh, how cute, and ended up contemplating purpose. That’s quite a journey to take on so few words.

When I discovered Johnson is  primarily a science fiction writer who moved away from academic poetry to something called genre poetry, I laughed out loud. Then I discovered his 2019 collection, The Book of Fly, containing this work, and promoted as: “Graphic poetry, like Twilight Zone episodes! 48 Big Pages! Full Color. Enjoyed by people who don’t like poetry!” It isn’t that I don’t like poetry; it’s that I so often don’t understand it, don’t understand why it’s poetry instead of prose. Here, I understand the format, its connection to the text. So, in spite of my vow to not buy any more poetry books (a vow I already broke once this year), I ordered the poetry comic book. I’ll let you know how it goes.

* * *

Complete poem available online at Rattle.

Other poetry – graphic and text – can be found at Johnson’s website (where The Book of Fly can be ordered as well).

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Annie Sheppard, “We At Old Birds Welcome Messages From God, Even If Unverifiable” (nonfiction) from Fourth Genre #21.1

Though we tend to lose sight of the fact, it is not unheard of for the occasional missing species to be rediscovered. An entire taxonomy — the Lazarus taxon — has been created for species thought to be lost forever but found again.…
Although it seems wrong to complain when a lost species is found, on the whole I think it preferable that our missing things say missing. If we find these things definitively, we need no longer go looking for them come, and we clearly need stuff to look for. This is a view I inherited from my father, who always favored things that were missing over things that were found.

This is one of those essays that seems to meander — from the Lazarus taxon to birdwatching to an aging father with a complicated legacy — but manages to say something quite profound along the way, even if it’s not entirely clear how it hangs together. And, here’s a tip: when someone’s described as complicated, that does not mean good things.

The Lazarus Taxon originated in paleontology, classifying species that disappeared from the fossil record for a substantial time, only to re-emerge in later eras. It’s now been broadened to species thought to be extinct but discovered alive. Dozens of such species have been found in recent decades.

This seems to be the closest thing to a unifying theme here: just when you think they’re out, they drag themselves back in. This certainly applies to the complicated father:

And he took liberties with his daughters. He took things from us — innocence, trust, confidence — that were not is to take, and he has been, so far, more defensive about this then repentant.
Dad’s an old bird now, held in captivity well past his natural lifespan. He’s tangled up in his diaper, he’s weathered and hairless. He has, at best, a handful of rather grim years left to him. Science says that’s all he has. One chance, you blew it, too bad. But the Lazarus taxon says otherwise.…The world — the natural world — speaks a language more hopeful than the language of science. It says life is as resilient as it is beautiful. It says things come and they go and they come back again. They return.

I would say it isn’t the father himself who will return, but the effects he has had on his daughters, and through them, the world. I get the sense that the family has done a good job of moving past his destructiveness, though that might be wishful thinking on my part; yet the past is always lurking, ready to spring out at a vulnerable moment, making self-defense a skill perpetually carried at the ready.

The title, which lends some jocularity to the piece, comes from a different idea:

A citizen science website that someone should create but not me is Old Birds. This would be both a reporting site and a literary Journal. Subjects sought by the editors of Old Birds: aging, dying, birds, anything numinous. Artists please submit. …Your long hindsight will find a home here, as will how dumb you still feel, even now, when you have been promised wisdom. We at Old Birds also welcome possible messages from God and any other sightings of a holy nature, even if unverifiable.

We wait all our lives for Wisdom to come. Could we have had it all along, but didn’t recognize it?

Pushcart 2021 XLV: David Wojahn, “Fifty-eight Percent is Concrete Road, 12 Percent Loose Sand” (poem) from The Southern Review, Spring 2019

Sachsenhausen Memorial
Inside the iron gates of Sachsenhausen,
a dozen prisoners unloading shoes,
 
boxes littering the ground in teetering columns.
The Gypsies, the queers, the malingerers & Jews:
 
the shoe-walking unit, who will now test the soles
of a new synthetic rubber. Before them,
 
The shoe-testing track, winding to the horizon
& surfaced with Teutonic precision. Fifty-eight percent
 
is concrete road, 12 percent loose sand,
10 percent cinder path, 8 percent mud & meant
 
to stay continually underwater, 4 percent cobblestone
(looted from cities in West Pomerania);

This is one of those poems that has so much going on it makes my head explode. And that’s just the stuff I can recognize; I’m betting there’s a lot more I’m not equipped (yet) to see.

One of the few things that has stuck with me from the poetry courses I’ve taken is that the voice of the poem cannot be assumed to be the poet; in fact, I was corrected so many times when I started out with “The poet says” to make it “the speaker says” that it’s become habit. This poem takes full advantage of that concept of separating The Poet from The Speaker.

The poem starts out with facts and figures, rather tedious, really, though it gradually brings the humanity of the situation into focus. At first there’s a reference to the looting of Pomerania at line 12, then to prisoners at line 15; we begin to see the horror of the scene – drugged prisoners on a forced march in icy rain, “the shoes prove more resilient than the men,” and the focus narrows to one prisoner fallen and drowned in the mud of the track. Then at line 26, The Speaker begins to emerge as distinct from the poet:

A chain-smoking corporal stoops to examine
 
the drowned prisoner’s upturned soles. Measurements
are taken. & thus David Wojahn has found some content,
 
another web search satisfied – prurient, calculated, cruel.
& now he retrofits these horrors into rime royal,

This is the point where the poem shifts, from recounting the story of the Nazi concentration camp Sachsenhausen to recounting the poet’s rendition of that story; and The Speaker is Not Happy. The Speaker recognizes the work of the poet, using words and phrases such as device, skill, cunning, couplets, pixels, craft. The Speaker also seems to recognize that the poet means well, that he frequently invokes themes of social justice. But it’s not enough for The Speaker:

I would ask David Wojahn to step closer, to gaze
upon the shoe-walking track anew. The shoe-walking dead:
 
Bend down, bend down & touch. Stroke this bloated face,
with the left hand first & then the right, a bookkeeper from Danzig,
 
open-eyed. A bookkeeper, like your mother. You have fashioned him
& have betrayed him utterly. & for this you will not be forgiven.

From percents and concrete, we are brought to this intensely personal place, where The Poet is rebuked for his handling of an intensely personal tragedy. At some point The Speaker shifts from third person – “I would ask David Wojahn” – to second person – “like your mother,” moving even closer. There is no more intimate gesture between strangers than touching of the face, and not just once, but with both hands separately.

I’m fascinated by the grammar – yes, the grammar – of “open-eyed’: does this insist that David Wojahn remain open-eyed as he performs this intimate gesture with the bookkeeper drowned on the track he described in such detail, or does it refer to the bookkeeper, his eyes open in death? Or both, so they can gaze into each others’ eyes?

And that ultimate personalization, the dead man has something in common with The Poet’s mother. I’ve seen some social commentary to the effect that people suddenly become more sympathetic to another’s difference – be it drug abuse, sexual identity, or mental illness – when they discover someone in their immediate family is dealing with the same thing. Here, The Speaker uses similarity to connect The Poet to the bookkeeper, who is the subject of The Speaker’s Poem, rather than the composition of the walking track.

Now about rime royal: a seven-line pentameter with rhyme scheme ABABBCC. There are some aspects of the poem that fit this – the first four llines are ABAB, then there’s a couplet that has no rhyme, followed by another four ABAB lines. But the meter doesn’t really fit. The poem altogether has 42 lines, which divides by seven, so I guess if you squint it might work as a variant. But what I see is a progressive disordering of the rhyme scheme until it’s almost sporadic. Is the poem, which started out so rigidly with its percentages, fighting back? Was it initially under The Poet’s control, his voice, but then was taken over by… someone else?

Which brings us to the question of: Who is the speaker? Who is it who admonishes the speaker, who is it that will not forgive him for turning the agony of millions, represented by one drowned bookkeeper who can’t even close his eyes in death. Into proportional analysis? Who is it who is inviting more intimacy than those percentages can provide, who wants us to touch the face of the victims instead of counting grains of sand?

I think this is the question of the poem. Is it the poem itself, a poetic spirit of some kind who wrested control from a poet turning horror into neat little squares and precise rhymes? Is it broader than that, the aggregate spirits of the dead, or something that could be called God?

Whenever I write about stories that use dreams or premonitions as plot devices, I turn them back upon themselves and look at them as elements of the character. In this case, I turn The Speaker back upon The Poet. It’s the reading I’m drawn to: The Poet realizes his architecture fails his subjects, and rather than start again, he writes his own self-admonishment into the poem, and turns his self-rage into art.

Which might be the truest flow of any art: to simultaneously expose inhumanity, and turn pain into beauty. To comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.

* * *

Excerpt of poem online at Project Muse

Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum website

Rime Royal described by the Poetry Foundation

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Nickalus Rupert, “Aunt Job” from The Idaho Review #18

Scott Musgrove: Dwarf Basket Horse
From their exalted seats in the front of the car, Mom and Dad glare at me in a way that reminds me I’m one of those kids. Oversensitive. Scared of what shouldn’t cause scare: grasshoppers, Spanish moss, clover honey. Dad likes to say my microphone’s turned up too high — I’m picking up signals that aren’t even there. He’s been talking like this ever since he won his settlement against Norah Jones for allegedly stealing his lyrics.

It’s a story that says: Ok, all you moral relativists, how about THIS? Thing is, true moral relativists probably wouldn’t turn a hair over it. But it makes the rest of us kinda squirm.

What saves it is the tone, the voice, the narrator. It’s all done with such a sense of jocularity, it’s hard not to smile, even at the parts that should require a trigger warning (oh, and consider this your trigger warning). Our narrator is the soon-to-be-fourteen-year-old introduced in the quote above. But instead of seeing him as too sensitive, the typical reader will most likely see him as the only normal one in the bunch.

It’s time to stop beating around the bush (groan) and get to the point: in this alternative present, it’s customary for a boy, on his fourteenth birthday, to receive a ritualized hand job from his aunt.

“Dude,” Dad says, “we’ve been over this.” He uses a red light to give me a you’ve-made-me-take-my-eyes-off-the-road-look. “It’s only a hand job. It’s not like you have to sleep in Aunt Elyse’s bed. It’s not like you have to take her to dinner at Cracker Barrel and buy her a bag of fucking jelly beans from the gift shop.”
….”Why only the boys?” I ask Dad. “You going to let Unc Carl finger Megon when she turns fourteen next year? Have you thought about that?”
“Enough, you little perv,” Dad says. “We didn’t make the rules.”<br. How am I the only one who finds the rules insane? Boys get one mandatory hand job from a maternal aunt to make sure their plumbing doesn’t get backed up. Otherwise, they’ll supposedly turn into violent, horny little maniacs.

I hate to interrupt the fun – and it is fun, every time I read a section again, I find a new pun – but it’s also interesting to take a more anthropological view of things. The celebration of male potency, the shielding of female sexuality. The family involvement and ritualization prevents anything close to intimacy, sexual or otherwise (in his author interview with Idaho Review, Rupert points out “the event is so heavily codified that it’s utterly joyless”). The designation of an aunt, rather than a mother, distances the event from the nuclear family, keeping the home safe from the incestuous associations. And, on the story level, as I’ve already said, the humor (especially the eccentric theatricality of the aunt) gives us room to read it in the first place. If this was written in more somber tones – more along the lines of Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s “The Era” which also had a teenager questioning society’s norms – it would be a lot harder to read. Humor defuses what we deem dangerous.

But there’s also the rest of the story, which expands it from a one-trick pony (groan) novelty story to a metaphoric examination of the sexual ritual via a safer, if even more disgusting, custom: Hot Hot Horsies at the Hard Rock Café. No, it’s not a band. It’s dinner.

They are part of a new and controversial line of appetizers designed using so much genetic modification but Dad has to sign a waiver.
….They’re penned in a kind of wire basket, whinnying in terror. Our mohawked waiter pops open the little wire door and out they step. They are served raw, their heaving flanks crusty with dry rub. According to the waiter, their bones are mostly cartilage. Say what you will about Hard Rock, but their appetizers are unforgettable.
“They should have thrown these guys back,” Dad says. “They’re supposed to be rat-sized. These are hardly in the mouse range.”

It isn’t just sexual assault on children (as we see it) that’s part of the culture in this world; it’s a kind of violence that runs from Auntie insisting Unc perform feats that break his legs, to sister Megon keeping a vicious fighting lizard, to the consumption of live animals. Because “served raw” is a euphemism.

The story line takes mercy on us  via a case of appendicitis, and brings us to a surprisingly tender moment of seeing things through another’s eyes, but then leaves us with a final image that, if it weren’t presented with humor, would give us nightmares. “I find that there’s often a fair amount of slippage between humor and horror,” says Rupert in his author interview. I think he’s found a pretty good way to mine that slippage.

In fact, the more I read this story, the more impressed I am. Or maybe I’m just trying to justify my enjoyment of it, given how truly horrific the reality it reveals is. And again, I return to the author’s own words: “It seems to me that one of fiction’s duties is to help remind readers that the reality they inhabit is already unthinkably strange.” I have to agree. The absurdities of our reality’s recent years didn’t come out of nowhere, after all.

* * *

Rupert’s Author Interview is available online at Idaho Review.

His first story collection, Bosses of Light and Sound (including this story), was released in January 2021.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Colleen O’Brien, “Charlie” from Gettysburg Review,Summer 2019

I am a little mystified when I hear about people who are friends with their college professors. They exist, these people, who correspond regularly with scholars decades older than they are, some famous in their fields. As students, they celebrated Thanksgiving at these professors houses, house set for them whole summers, took care of their pets, their lawns, their kids. Years after graduation they invite them to their weddings. How did these friendships form, I want to know. ….There was one professor I stayed in touch with after college.

I connected with that first paragraph right away. I’ve always assumed I never earned any interest – or was even noticed – because I showed little promise. Then again, I went to a commuter school that was mostly a place for non-traditional students (that means older than usual) to finally get their degrees, so I suppose no one took any of us seriously.

In any case, I started out with great interest in this story, but that kind of faded as I kept reading. The narrator was something of a wild child, getting drunk and falling into bed with whoever was handy. Her connection to Charlie seemed as haphazard as the rest of her life. She reads one of his stories, they have one in-person meeting, and then she follows him from a distance as he ages and dies, by which time she’s settled down into the twelve steps, marriage, and motherhood. I was left wondering, so?

When I read it a second time, I started to recognize something: again, it’s this tension between irony and sincerity, between being flip and light and quick with a joke to deflect anything real, and being introspective and thoughtful and feeling things. And this is her attachment to this professor: he is the matter to her anti-matter.

The story she reads almost by accident – it’s the first time she picks up a literary magazine – becomes the tether that binds her to him, or to the idea of him at least.

It was the loneliness in that story, the vivid, articulate loneliness, I’d been so moved by. I couldn’t say that without sounding like a naïve kid, romanticizing the loneliness of a self-absorbed academic. But I wasn’t. There are a few things in my life I don’t have to laugh at scornfully, and this is one. Anyway, the story wasn’t about Charlie. … The character right away is bitter and defensive, addressing the world as if he knows its tricks and won’t be taken in. He deals with loneliness and social awkwardness by trying to sanctify his solitude, like some kind of monk, when he’s really a guy with a cube job, a crush on a coworker, who watches a ton of TV. He knows this too — the cube, the crush, the TV embarrassed him, as do his fantasies about solitude, which, when he comes out of them, he calls pathetic. Reading it had felt like reading about myself. The anger, which had no end, and the worthless ways I tried to give it dignity.

And there it is, that rift between being too cool to care, and caring anyway then feeling foolish about it.

One point in the story impressed me: a sex scene between the narrator and her boyfriend. I’m not a prude – truly, I’m not – but I’ve never been a big fan of sex scenes in books. Maybe I’m missing some psychosexual perceptive sense, but it seems to me they rarely add anything that couldn’t be accomplished by a brief descriptive sentence, or even a single adjective: “We made businesslike love” is something I read somewhere, and that conveys a lot more than any description of who put what where.

Here the scene uses positioning to convey the kind of relationship the two have. It starts out with breakfast and a computer.

When I got Charlie’s email, I was using todd’s computer , sitting cross legged at his desk in just my underpants while he made morning coffee.
“Aw,” I said , as he such a Cup in front of me. “My old professor.”
He leaned over and kissed each of my breasts. “You look so sexy like that,” he said.
“He’s going to be in town,” I continued.
Todd turned the swivel chair so I was facing him and got on his knees so he could kiss my belly, slide my underwear down, give me head. Then he stood me up, bent me over his desk, and fucked me from behind. I stared into the multicoloured fractals of his screen saver, the outline of my reflection in the black behind it.
“He’s a really good writer,” I said later, clothed, drinking coffee at the tiny folding table in the corner of his studio.

Todd seems a bit competitive here; sure, you’ve got a professor interested in you, but look what I can do for you. That he never seems to actually be face-to-face with her during the sex – it’s not really intimacy, is it – makes her seem more connected to Charlie’s email, via her reflection in the computer screen. She returns to the subject of Charlie once she’s clothed and in a less fuckable position.

Compare that with her later meeting with Charlie, at which she tells him she’s read his story:

“I loved it,” I said and then had to look down. “I’m glad,” he said. I gathered myself to look up again, and when I did, Charlie looked down, and I could see I’d made him happy.

Although the eye contact has its limits, there’s more intimacy, more feeling, in those lines than in above. Ill forgive her need to look away; this sincerity thing is new to her, so it’s going to take some time for her to get it right.

It’s interesting how I missed this  restatement of the recurring theme I’ve notice through this volume, in the first read. I was waiting for something to happen. And something did happen, but it was more subtle than I’d expected.

* * *

Audio of O’Brien reading this story (38 minutes) is available online at Thisthisthispod.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Janisse Ray, “The Lonely Ruralist” (non-fiction) from The Georgia Review, Fall 2019

GC Myers: “The Isolation”
When people departed Altamaha, they took the quilting bees, barn-raisings, hay-mowings, syrup-makings, and peanut-boilings of rural Georgia society in the early- to mid-twentieth century. They took the lowing and bleating of farm life, the beating of hooves on red clay. They took the fiddles and mouth harps. My neighbors, the last of the old guard, spool out their lives in these home-places, too old to square-dance or raise beams. In our ten years here Ben died, Leta Mac died, Howard died, Lynease died, Bill died, John had a stroke.
Almost every day on our farm, therefore, is a day with three people in it—myself, my husband, and our teenage daughter. I have seen days in which no car passed.

I’m hesitant to say much about this essay because I’m not sure I get it’s point. I think the point is, yes, rural life can be isolated, but it doesn’t need to be lonely if you attune yourself to what that isolation offers: a quieter place for reflection, for introspection, for connection to the natural world instead of the social world. Some things are not available, but other things are only available here.

On her way to getting there, however, she has some paragraphs that puzzled me. Some sounded like snobbery, like people who don’t read the latest hot book or care about yoga can’t be thoughtful and have ideas worth sharing. Like, everyone in the rural wilds are right-wing reactionaries. Like, gentrification is a good thing.

There’s a wonderful passage about a time when she tried to recreate the kind of attachments a person not born to rural life would have in more populated settings. We first hear about the delight she felt in sharing the birthing of a calf with her daughter, and then:

Cow society or not, Facebook or not, I needed people. To that end, therefore, at least part of my daily life became an engagement with creating community. I organized countless events, from full-moon potlucks to organic conferences to clothing exchanges to cheese-making workshops, from readings to concerts to harvest festivals.
People came—usually from Savannah, the closest city—nostalgic and hungry for a country life.
And then they went—back to their homes far from mine.

It’s this duality that runs through the first four-fifths of the essay, this sense that the country is great but it’s not enough, that confuses me. But I think that was the path she took, and those were the missteps along the way, before she arrived at her way of embracing rural life without giving up herself and without trying to recreate the city on a farm:

Rural people can self-actualize, even in the vacancy and the vacuum, and this sense of self-actualization derives from the relationships we do have in the rural, relationships with ourselves, with our beloveds, with our places, with art and ideas, with our sense of what some might experience as the divine and others might experience as the essential. After a while, anything that was not this quiet, deliberate, even transcendental consciousness felt dead to me.
Community is attachment. Much of what people suffer is caused by disattachment. In hollowed-out places, disattachment looks different than it does in populated places. Rural loneliness can look impenetrable, dark, roadless, like a thicket. It can look like a wall. So the attachment must look different, too, maybe something like a meadow or a gate. A bell, a nest, a wood.

I find myself pushing back against things I usually push back against, in particular, that the online is no substitute for the in-person. One line in particular annoyed me:  “If they live online, do they exist?” I suppose I’ll have to write my own essay about how online relationships are tailor-made for some of us who struggle to relate in person (a ten-second pause to analyze the query “How’ve you been” and formulate a response appropriate to the questioner and the circumstances makes most people uncomfortable, so I give up and go with “Fine” which makes me seem not quite real in person), but that would just make me look deficient and pathetic. So I assume goodwill and the validity of a different viewpoint and move on, until she lands it in the last paragraphs.

I doubt it ever occurred to Ray that her essay, written some time prior to fall of 2019 when COVID-19 was yet to become part of the commonplace in the US, that her essay would be read in a time when many of us were undergoing a cold-turkey withdrawal from previously active work and social lives. There is a difference, of course: her move to rural Georgia was a choice, not a public health crisis, and it was something she needed to adjust to over the long term. Most of us now feel like the degree of isolation we’re experiencing, however great or small (because it varies depending on several factors, from geography to demographics political affiliation) will end at some point and we’ll get back to “normal.” So the ways we fill in the gaps – with Zoom and online schooling and virtual parties – are seen as stopgap measures rather than permanent changes. Ray’s experience was quite different.

I wonder if normal will seem normal when we get back to it. If.

* * *

Complete article available online at The Georgia Review.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Karl Taro Greenfeld, “The Golden Age of Television” from ZXZZYVA #114

Our job as writers on this sixth-season show was to build another level upon the sixty-episode edifice already erected on which to scratch an original, or at least not totally cliched, sentiment. Save for The Show Runner, I was the oldest writer in the room, which itself made me an example of our diversity, discrimination against older writers being the subject of occasional Writers Guild of America emails urging showrunners to consider scribblers over forty. There was no one type in our room but instead an array of the intelligent and insecure …. Surely, my peers thought to themselves, by their mid-forties they would be show runners themselves. In this frequently alleged era of peak TV, we accredited television writers more pigs in shit. What was my excuse for not having my own drama on one of the premium cables or a subscription service?

I have a feeling there’s some overarching metaphor in this story that writers – people who’ve been through MFA workshops and agent presentations and marketing meetings and, yes, TV writing rooms – would recognize. I’m afraid it escapes me, though, so for the second time in two stories, I’m a bit at a loss. And I don’t even have grief to fall back on. There is a death in the story, but grief feels pretty far away. Then again, as I’ve mentioned in the other grief stories, everyone grieves differently.

I tend to like stories about writers, but I’m not sure what the actual story is. There’s the writing room thread, a bunch of writers trying to come up with Season Six. None of the writers has names (but the girl who types up the notes does), and the Show Runner is referred to by that title, which, as I understand it (which is not very far) is a Big Deal in show business.

We lived like house plants in desperate need of the sunshine of his praise. Otherwise we withered. Beneath the joviality, the witticisms, the laughter, was seething competition and bitter resentment of the smallest successes of one of our peers.

There’s the story of our narrator and his roommate, The Bick, an older physician fallen on hard times since his pain clinic, aka pill mill, got shut down, and his gambling has cleared out his substantial nest egg though not enough to diminish his drug habit. And then there’s our narrator, who becomes this guy’s roommate for reasons that aren’t explained.

If at one point I had imagined I would be a steadying influence on The Bick , it quickly became clear that instead of being rescued by the life preserver thrown by me into his vortex, he would pull me down with him.

And that’s basically it. Those three threads interlace but really don’t go anywhere. The Bick shows up at a work party and The Show Runner recognizes him as a great character, so he becomes a model for the Season Six villain. “We were only as good as our villain,” which is one of those writing truisms that’s so corny it hurts to hear but happens to be true. But the character Bick ends up something else, is turned into a woman, and the writers move on.

The Bick himself isn’t so lucky, as he ends up with cancer, making his pill habit convenient and appropriate. Our narrator starts out with a brilliant idea under the influence of Oxy, then loses it in the final draft and ends up in rehab but relapses before the ink is dry on his discharge papers.

If I sound like I’m just listing plot points, it’s because I am. That’s how the story read. Maybe it was supposed to, a clichéd script from a bad TV show. The irony of the title goes with the absurdity of the writing staff, but that doesn’t feel like that’s where the story is. The moment that makes me think this is all meta comes at the end, when the narrator sums it all up:

So I went nowhere, gained nothing, didn’t change or improve my being or consciousness in any way, and certainly didn’t learn a damn thing from The Bick’s dying.

That’s such a writing trope – the character changes, or, if he doesn’t change, goes into some self-analysis to realize the fatal flaw that keeps him from changing, some kind of epiphany either way – that it made me wonder if the story is about an author – Greenfeld – trying to write a story but his characters keep screwing it up on him. I used to hear writers talk about characters as if they had wills and motivations of their own, independent of the writer. “My character did something totally unexpected and now I have a different story to write.” “My character just won’t do what I need him to do.” “I’m fighting with my character, she’s decided to go a different way so I’m going to follow and see what happens.” I never understood that. Maybe that’s why I was never any good as a fiction writer. Or maybe it doesn’t really happen. The people who said that were in the wannabe stage.

Then again, I checked Greenfeld’s bio: he did some work on tv/movies. Maybe this is just his experience, something he wanted to get out of his head. I’ve read several of his other stories and quite liked them – one in particular I was quite impressed with – so I was a bit disappointed here. Not in him; in me. That I wasn’t able to read what was there.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: David Means, “Vows” from Granta #148

Van Gogh: “Roadway with Underpass”
One night, standing over my son as he slept, while the snow swirled around outside, it struck me that if we ever had another renewal ceremony, a kind of third-time-is-a-charm deal, we’d have to simply act as our own authority before God and avoid all the formal trappings. (Those are the fun parts, Sharon said, her voice light and happy, when we were planning the second ceremony. The trappings are the part you’re required to forget the first time you get married. We were too young, and uptight, and we forgot them. The point of a renewal ceremony is to have a deeper awareness and enjoyment and focus so you actually experience the trappings, she said. I said, I don’t like the trappings, but you might be right. You’ve got to have some kind of sacred space overhead, some sense that the vows are being taken in a holy environment. Even if you get married on the beach, there has to be a consecrated vibe in the air, and she said, Yeah, right, with an edge to her voice, not bitter but not sweet.)

We return, now, to the many faces of grief, the other theme that has presented itself a few times in this Pushcart edition. It’s a bit of a spoiler to point that out, since we don’t find out  it’s grief until about halfway through the story, and even then we don’t know for sure until the end.  

Our narrator’s grief focuses itself on the renewal of vows he and his wife took after they both had affairs. I wonder if the symmetry made it easier to reconcile; neither has clean hands, so neither can point an accusing finger without turning it back on themselves (after initial resistance, I have become a fan of the singular they for purely practical reasons). He does a lot of musing about the vows: did they cancel each other out? Didn’t they, the whole recommitment ceremony, just expose to the world the rift in their marriage? What is the purpose of vows anyway when the first ones are so easily broken?

Several times, the narrator recounts a look exchanged with someone: a guest at the ceremony, a friend over  shared cigars and brandy, his son Gunnar. He interprets these looks accusingly, and I have to assume it’s his own thoughts being reflected back at him, since how do you assume a small child is blaming you for having created him? It’s an interesting way to get into a character’s head.

He recalls other moments with his wife: their second honeymoon in Ireland, and their lunch with their now-teenage son and his first girlfriend:

Before meeting Gunner and Quinn at the restaurant, Sharon and I had gone to a museum, stood before a Picasso painting of a lobster fighting a cat, and then moved on to examine a Franz Kline, a few wonderful thick blue brushstokes splayed in cross-hatch, and then, downstairs in the cool lower level, a Van Gogh, a small, secret scene of a shadowy figure of a lonely woman, or a man, passing out of (or into) a pedestrian tunnel in the glow of dusk.
As we walked south that evening at a leisurely pace towards Grand Central, we were feeling a contentment that came from the fact that we had passed from the cool, secretive moment together before some of the finest works of civilization, out into the blazing heat, and then into a restaurant on Lexington, and then, two hours later, back out into a cooler dusk alone together.
Years after the fact, I can still feel the vivid sensation of seeing my own situation within the one that Van Gogh had selected for his painting, out of an infinite set of possibilities, and the feeling would linger with me for the rest of my life.

These also serve as glimpses into his thought processes. But for all these glimpses, I still have no idea what makes him tick. In fact, I have no idea what the story is about. I see individual moments that are beautifully rendered; I see how they play into the grief, not a fresh grief but one that has aged for a year, and I see a kind of gratitude that it was possible to mend the marriage and go on, to have those additional years which yielded so much. But I’m still left wondering what it is I’ve just read.

Maybe that’s because of the nature of grief. I love the cartoon that shows us that, in spite of the ovular theory presented by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the late 60s, grief is a messy process with a lot more than five steps. Or maybe that’s an excuse because I’m just not up to the task.

So I let it sit a few days (percolation time, that luxurious step I had to forego in the last BASS reading), but it didn’t help much. I’ve encountered David Means several times before, and this is the first of his stories that has eluded me. Yet did it elude me, if I found so much of it to be beautiful to read?

That night, somewhere in the sixties, or perhaps farther south in the fifties, we glanced to the right and saw what remained of the sunset, framed by the length of the street all the way to the Hudson, a slab of pure lavender light, gloriously perfect, combining with the cold, concrete edges.
That’s as beautiful as anything Rothko painted, I said to Sharon.
(Oh dear, wonderful Sharon. Oh Sharon, love of my life. Oh beloved sharer of a million eternal moments. Oh secret lover of secret situations. Oh you who day by day shared a million intricate conversations.)
That vision has stayed with me. It illustrates how the window looks right now as I sit here with my drink, with the hazy deep blue light edged with the serene, pure black of the window frame, as I sit alone in a room, a year after that night in the hospital, thinking about my wife, about our life together while the river out beyond the window quivers and shakes with the last sunlight of the day. I have come to believe, in this time of mourning, that only in such moments, purely quiet, subsumed in the cusp of daily life, can one – in the terrible incivility of our times – begin to locate a semblance of complete, honest, pure grace.
In an average life lived by a relatively average soul, what else remains but singular moments of astonishingly framed light?

So I’m left with a story that’s beautiful to read, then evaporates into an undefinable mist.  No moment of light, but maybe for this story, the mist is enough.

* * *

Complete story available online at Granta