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.
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.
There will be no stars—the poem has had enough of them. I think we can agree
we no longer believe there is anyone in any poem who is just now realizing
they are dead, so let’s stop talking about it. The skies of this poem
are teeming with winged things, and not a single innominate bird.
You’re welcome. Here, no monarchs, no moths, no cicadas doing whatever
they do in the trees.
Back when I used to read submission requirements, I always smiled when I saw the dictum: NO RHYMING POETRY. Rhyme is so 19th century, so tenth-grade English class. We’ve moved beyond that now.
Apparently, there are additional rules. As the speaker lists them, I remembered: oh, this is paralepsis (yes, I had to look up the word even though I recognized the device), a form of irony and a clever way to bring them all into the poem, make it a celebration of the forbidden.
But why all the prohibitions in the first place? Because they’re not cool. They’re not cutting edge. We did that thing with the tree and the tiger and the daffodils already, we need to move on to new territory, and if your heart is moved by stars – or trees, or tigers, or daffodils – that’s just too bad. You’re stuck in the past, maybe take up book collecting and find your joy in those dusty volumes instead of turning conteporary poetry to mush.
And its that theme again, the theme the works in this anthology keep circling back to: irony vs. sincerity, cynicism vs. hope, where the earnest is intolerable while sneer and scorn and hard, sleek edges meet with approval.
I thought I was overreading again – I mean, come on, I must be stuck on this topic, seeing it everywhere, it can’t really be everywhere, can it? – but then I came across the poet’s contributor note:
I spent much of the last year unable to write. When I tried to listen to my interior, what I heard was a cacophony of accumulated voices telling me what a poem should be, what a poem should do—and, more disturbingly, what it shouldn’t. I began this poem as a genuine attempt to follow the rules I had internalized, but as I wrote the poem, I was interrupted by a strong urge to instead write about something that broke them—I wanted to write about the walk I took the night prior, in Madison, Wisconsin, and the brief, vital moment of joy that indicated my year-long depression might finally lift. I knew this risked sentimentality, earnestness, and vulnerability, things I had been told to guard against, but I was tired of the rules—I wanted to write the real thing, even if it wasn’t the ‘right’ thing. So I did.”
Paralepsis isn’t the only tool in this poem. I love her enjambments, mid-sentence line breaks that start you thinking in one direction then turn you around when you hit the next line. For example: “This poem has no children; it is trying /” leaves me thinking it’s trying to have children, but no: “ / to be taken seriously” as we all know a poem with children in it must be dabbling by some sentimental fool. Or the even more abacadabrous “no one / dies or is dead in this poem, everyone in this poem is alive and pretty” which is a pretty complete thought in itself, all the alive, pretty people, but again, the next stanza surprises us: “okay with it,” turning pretty into something else.
Then there’s the two-line stanza form. In the past, I’ve thought of that as a conversation between two people, even as walking (though terza rima kind of has that one nailed) but here, it’s more about this two-pole dichotomy, the tired (rhyme, stars, children) and the wired, which the speaker never really identifies. I’m thinking paralepsis, clever enjambments, and form emphasizing function might be within the Rules.
This poem will not use the word beautiful for it resists
calling a thing what it is. So what
if I’d like to tell you how I walked last night, glad, truly glad, for the first time
in a year, to be breathing, in the cold dark, to see them. The stars, I mean. Oh hell, before
something stops me — I nearly wept on the sidewalk at the sight of them all.
What a great ending. First, she ends with a single line: she has chosen a side after all. Then there’s that wonderful surprising enambment from “So what”: the ultimate in cynicism, the smart-ass answer to allt he sentiment, that resolves into this burst of earnest vulnerability she mentions in her Note, a burst that is made even more powerful by the denial that has preceded it.
I’m reminded of a Pushcart piece from a few years ago, Pam Houston’s essay “What Has Irony Done For Us Lately” in which she too defends sincerity against the Seinfeldesque quality of contemporary life. But here, the speaker uses irony and its variations (like paralepsis) to pay homage to the light of stars.
A long time ago, in some book I don’t remember, I read something like: “I was the rock and she the tide, but it’s the tide that shapes the rock.” Much more recently, I discovered that a couple of millennia ago Lao Tzu wrote: “Nothing in the world is softer and weaker than water. Yet, to attack the hard and strong, nothing surpasses it. Nothing can take its place.” We’ve left all we perceive as soft – vulnerability, earnestness – behind in favor of strength and power. As Houston asked, has this really been a screaming success?
* * *
Complete poem and Contributor Note available online at Poets.Org
Chatti reads the poem on the Academy of American Poets Soundcloud channel
Don’t forget the folder, she reminds herself. Don’t forget it, don’t forget it, don’t forget it. She turns the command around in her head, like a sentence in a foreign-language lesson: By whom will the folder not be forgotten? The folder will not be forgotten by me. What is the thing which will not be forgotten by me? The thing which will not be forgotten by me is the folder. What will I not do to the folder? What I will not do to the folder is forget it.
Back in the early days of this millennium, Christopher Guest, writer/director of the viciously funny movie Best in Show, made a film about folk singers titled A Mighty Wind. Roger Ebert was disappointed: “The edge is missing from Guest’s usual style. Maybe it’s because his targets are, after all, so harmless.” It’s one thing to light into self-absorbed people living out their narcissistic fantasies through their dogs; it’s another to rake a bunch of earnest people singing about love and brotherhood over the coals for their all-too-relatable human flaws. Sincerity is its own defense.
That’s how this story strikes me. It’s sincere, earnest. It’s also well-executed, the structure works, and the pieces interlock nicely. But …is it a little too safe, too sentimental? And again, the theme of this year’s Pushcart comes to the fore: cynicism vs hope, scorn vs sincerity.
I looked up the author to make sure this wasn’t one of those “high school kid wins a Pushcart” type things, but Jansma is an established and accomplished writer with top-notch credentials. I feel like I must be missing something about this story. To me it reads like a Creative Writing 101 assignment. Or am I missing something in me?
It’s structured as a human chain: the lab tech who stains the pathology samples, the woman whose biopsy is in the day’s lot, the pathologist who diagnoses the cancer, and the physician who delivers the bad news are all represented as people having their own problems. For some reason it comes across as a bit smug to me: “You think you have problems, see what some of these people have to live with!” But I think the intent is to escalate, so as to allow the last line to hit with maximum effect. It’s little touches like that, subtle things, that perhaps make this more than a 101 story, and earn its sentiment.
And let’s not forget that the samples of the title might refer not only to the pathology samples, but to the sampling of human experiences, good and bad, humorous and tragic, that the story shows us as it works along the chain.
We start with Sasha Trzynzki, who processes and stains the samples so the pathologist can read them. She’s very aware of what she’s handling, yet her job requires a level of detail that’s excruciating (and, frankly, not that interesting to read about unless you happen to be interested in lab science). Her personal concern is her son, and the stresses faced by a working woman raising a child, apparently by herself (no husband or boyfriend is mentioned as present, absent, or dead). She does have the funniest moment of the story:
Sasha lets herself into Dr. Von Hatter’s office at Park Avenue Pathology. Before even turning on the fluorescent overhead lights, she crosses the room to boot up her decrepit computer. The monitor glows. Blue light shines through the burnt-in image of a patient record accidentally left on the screen over a long weekend ten years ago: Mr. Abraham Clemente. Dead six years now from the very prostate cancer the record indicates.
Oh yes, those days of CRTs prior to screen savers and auto-off. That is one decrepit computer indeed. But even here, there’s a macabre undertone, as the patient whose name is permanently inscribed is indeed dead, making the computer something like a tombstone.
The story shifts to Irene Richmond, an artist working for an unreasonable gallery manager, which I take it is the equivalent of the emerging writer working as an adjunct teaching English 101. The biopsy results she’s waiting for zip through her mind briefly, but mostly she’s focused on getting to work and remembering to bring a folder of documents she’ll need at work, which brings us to the second funniest moment of the piece, quoted above.
Spoiler alert: she almost forgets the folder. But not quite. However, it does serve as a metaphor for her forgetting about the impending biopsy results.
Again we shift, this time to the pathologist who will read the slides Sasha has prepared containing Irene’s biopsy sample. His recital of Dickinson emphasizes that he’s not stopping for Death: at age 60, he’s working to get his times down and qualify for a triathlon. We share his practice bike ride. His deeper concerns take a more serious turn:
He’s been a pathologist for thirty-five years: at Mount Sinai Hospital for a long time and now in private practice. No patients anymore, just a microscope….
It sounds cold. He knows that. Most people don’t understand. Most people have never told twenty patients in a single day that they are going to die. That’s an honor pretty much reserved for wartime generals and pathologists. Most people will never see firsthand how a mother, spouse, or sibling reacts to such news.
Helplessness makes monsters of people.
I follow several doctors on #MedTwitter, and there are days when they just can’t take any more of COVID-19. I can sympathize with any doctor who prefers microscopes to patients; I don’t think it’s cold at all.
Next we shift to a duet: Irene meets with her physician, Dr. Zarrani, who must give her the bad news: she has cancer in her eye. They have an interesting discussion about priorities and negotiations; this is an artist, after all, facing the possible loss of eyesight following radiation treatment, but it’s hard to talk cancer into an alternate path.
We end with Dr. Zarrani, who, it turns out, lost most of her family in the Iranian Revolution, then escaped to Rome with her brother, who died of malaria along their escape route and was tossed overboard so as to not infect others. It’s one of those refugee stories meant to break your heart and lift you up at the same time, and it’s quite effective at both. It leaves us with a quaver in the throat:
Here she is. Watching Irene Richmond weep and holding her hand. She does this almost every single day. She pulls them from the shock of the cold water. With her touch she tries to express to them what she eventually came to understand after the sailor rescued her from the water: that just because it is all so very, very unfair does not mean there is not still great hope in the world.
I don’t want to be such a cynic as to dismiss the validity of such a moment. So, I have to dial it back a little and give this story latitude to be what it is: an unapologetically sincere and earnest effort to bring light into a world that needs it. And if it isn’t to one’s taste, let the reader look inside rather than to the story; the story has done its job. If one wishes to side with cynicism rather than hope, that is one’s choice.
* * *
Complete story available online (temporarily) at The Sun.
Coach says we are the sorriest bunch of lazy-ass motherflippers he’s ever seen in shoulder pads. If we don’t start acting like we want to win, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen. Coach says we must be a team—twenty-six boys, all on the same page. Coach says we have to execute. If every one of us would just execute, there’s no reason on the gol-dang planet every play shouldn’t go for a touchdown. But no. We don’t execute. Not us.
If there was ever a story that justified the use of first person plural, this is it: a story about a mediocre small-town football team whose clueless coach sounds like the stereotype of a clueless coach; a bunch of kids who do something incredibly stupid that has horrific, if forseeable, results; and a surprisingly strong group ethic that leaves justice and accountablility lying facedown in the dirt. A story for our time, a story from 2019 that was written for January 2021.
As I was looking around for any background on the piece, I discovered it was on the Short List for the UK’s Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award, a prize carrying a £30,000 paycheck. I was surprised. It’s a perfectly good story, I could see why it’s in Pushcart, but I wondered: is it that good? Did I miss something? So I started thinking about it more.
And here’s where serendipity came into play. I’d recently looked, again, into the hermaneutical approach known as four levels of interpretation. It’s typically applied to scriptural texts, having originated in early Christianity with St. Augustine, and flourished in the medieval period; it was incorporated into Jewish scriptural interpretation by the acronym PaRDeS, and today is part of the Catholic Catechism as well as various methods of literary analysis. The idea is that a sufficiently deep text has four levels: the literal, the symbolic, the moral, and the spiritual. Distinguishing between the last two is a bit tricky, but I found a pithy description: “While the moral is directed inwards to the human, the anagogical is directed outwards or upwards to the heavens or to the greater universe…” That was exactly the tool I needed.
One of the things about what happens is how fast it goes. About as fast as a single play in football. One pass. One run. Fast the way life concentrates its energy and potency and importance into spasms that leap without warning, brief fits in the long flatline of hours. By the time you realize what’s going on, it’s already raced past you; the whistle is blown, and you are looking back on it, gazing at the irrevocable statistics.
The literal level is as I’ve already described, and is similar to a lot of TV movies. Things start to get a little more interesting on the symbolic, or allegorical, level. One team member, Charles Qualls III, is the Bad Guy, the troublemaker. He hands out “speeders” at halftime when the team is losing to give them a boost; turns out they’re just caffeine pills, but that’s just the beginning of his pushing of boundaries. He has parties in the woods on Friday nights with more interesting subtances, moving through booze eventually up to shrooms. And of course he’s the one who puts a drop of acid in five cups of punch at the nursing home dance the boys are required to attend as volunteers.
Another team member, Jason Ashman, prays during halftime, and never attends the Friday parties. He’s the Good Guy. Not good enough to stop any of the shenanigans, mind you; just good enough to mind his own business.
The coach can be seen in all sorts of ways: an ineffectual leader who blathers rather than talks and doesn’t look or listen at all. A homophobe and bigot who uses racial slurs but tells the one Hispanic kid on the team he’s one of the good ones so it’s ok. A reflection of the town, who sees this guy as suited to coaching teenagers.
Of course, lots of us actually don’t know what happened. Most of us, in fact. We were coming apart way before the dance, we mighty Senators, back in the locker rooms when some of us took speeders and some prayed, back on the Friday nights when some of us drank at the desert keggers and some of us stayed home. But most of us who don’t know can guess. We could see it right on the face of Charles Qualls III, whose entire demeanor changed after the dance, taking on the pale blush of one who hides, a secret keeper, guilty. But none of us rats. Not even Jason Ashman.
Turns out giving hallucinogens to senior citizens can have some pretty bad effects, like heart attacks and hysteria. And two deaths. The local paper doesn’t mention the team was there when they report the story; other papers aren’t so shy. Investigation ensues.
On the moral level, a couple of things jump out. Only a couple of kids know what happened and who did it, but pretty much everyone has a good idea. Yet no one blinks when questioned. Is this honor? Is it stupidity, cowardice? Do they really feel like they’re doing the right thing, putting team before justice? Are the ones who knew at the time what happened, but didn’t do anything to stop it, culpable? Are the ones who were pretty sure, after the fact, what happened, culpable as well? And the coach: what of his responsibility? And what of the town?
I also noticed that there’s someone missing from the story: the family of the nursing home residents who died. I suppose they can be considered as part or the community, which seems split between those who are sure the boys are good kids and those who think they’ve always been trouble. “If we’d been a better football team, more people would probably have supported us,” thinks the team. They’re probably right.
The rest of the football season is cancelled, probably the only step that could be taken without some kind of evidence. Given they’re a lousy football team, and no one’s going to be depending on football scholarships, it seems like a ridiculously small punishment. Coach doesn’t see it that way.
He wanted to protect us from this, he says. He tried to get the school board to listen. To tell them we were good boys. That we don’t deserve this. That our lives would be forever altered, worsened, ruined. Ruined, he says. A season, cut short.
He stops. Stares into the gyms floor. We think he’s just paused, gathering his thoughts. We wait, not feeling ruined at all —just feeling that we were coming apart, we are separating, we are a team no longer, and that’s fine —until we realize he has nothing more to say.
It’s interesting the team — who is, after all, the narrator — feels itself coming apart, in spite of the united front under questioning. I’m guessing that’s because everyone knows whether they’re the sheep or the goats. Just because they don’t want to snitch, doesn’t mean they don’t recognize reckless criminality among those who think of themselves as “young princes, risen by lineage, coronated by merit? Who are we but the elect?” Are you going to take hits on the field for someone who did this thing?
And what of the coach: is he really so dense, or is that his defence? Is he just too invested in it all, not concerned about a football season rather than deaths, unable to even consider that at least some of the boys did this thing? He’s an adult; where is his concern for justice, for accountability, for the character of a boy who will escape any kind of punishment for his misdeeds?
When we get to the anagogical level, reflecting a larger spiritual or universal idea, I see the team — and again I think of that quote about the elect, the princes, words reeking of entitlement for no good reason — as putting itself above everything else. Superceding Jason Ashman’s religion. Overruling the authority of the investigators. Making itself superior to life itself. And that becomes the central problem of the story: where is the boundary between one-for-all-and-all-for-one, and each person’s responsibility to others on the planet? I read a cautionary tale about moral priorities, and how we need to be careful to whom we give our loyalty, and how far we take it. To put it more spiritually: we shouldn’t become our own gods.
So maybe it is a £30,000 story. But I see a different reason than Romesh Gunesekera, one of the judges of the contest, expressed:
The lightness with which the story moves is its strength, beautifully balancing out the great unsaid.
At the end of it, we leave the story wondering what happens next to the boys as they grow up, and how they must deal with the guilt of what they did.
Romesh Gunesekera, Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award
I can only hope the boys wrestle with guilt. It still isn’t enough.
It’s said that after Delmore Schwartz went bonkers, the aged wunderkind’s poems began to sag like his once lean body. Poetry no longer paid. I mention this because an uncle of mine had a brief connection to Schwartz during those final batty years. He wasn’t my uncle. Uncle Monroe wasn’t anybody’s direct uncle. He was an uncle in the way that every man of a certain age is an uncle. Technically, he was an uncle’s brother, Uncle Horace’s. Monroe wasn’t his real name, either. He’d been born Morton. Everyone in Fall River called him Mort. At some point, in the ’50s, just as he and Horace were beginning to make it as investment bankers, Mort changed his name to Monroe. At first, people laughed. “What, now your father sailed the Mayflower? The man arrived cargo from Danzig in 1919.” Soon enough the brothers were so rich, nobody thought Monroe’s new name was so funny.
This is another of those stories that really suffers in being described; it needs to be read, not read about, but since it’s not available online, we’ll have to improvise. It’s a bit of a conundrum. It jumps around from topic to topic, but it’s not disjointed; in fact, the transitions are fluid and while the prose is fast-paced — so fast-paced, in fact, that I felt a bit out of breath when I finished reading it — it’s not frenetic. Maybe crowded is a better term than fast-paced; a lot goes on. While very little is stated for certain, the images created out of shadowy realities are powerful.It’s not a linear narrative, but it’s not at all hard to follow; in fact, changing direction is half the fun. Three quarters, maybe. I find a lot of reasons the story wouldn’t work, yet it was a wonderful read.
The narrator is half in the shadows, a not-really-relative who has taken an interest in Mort for reasons that can be speculated but aren’t clear. He feels a kinship with Mort, since they both had wives with mental health issues (though it’s phrased less politely than that), and issues with Jewish identity: years before, the narrator briefly changed his name to Max to seem more Jewish, while Mort went in the opposite direction. Truth is uncertain, as it always is in family stories. Max (I’ll borrow the erstwhile name, since it’s easier than calling him the narrator) always heard one version of Mort’s death from his father…
The story goes that at a dinner party in Montauk attended by Sammy Davis Jr., Carol Channing, and a couple of sheikhs from Arabia, Monroe excused himself, saying, “Wouldn’t it be Jolly to have a look at the moon?”
He used a pearl-handled pistol.
… but his mother corrects that. Or, at least, she tells a different story. That’s a motif running through the piece: what is said, versus what is.
With Mort, we jump around three main aspects of his life: his poetry and lessons with crumbling poet Delmore Schwartz; his business dealings with his brother and partner Horace, business dealings that call to mind a certain ex-President (I can say with relief on this Inauguration Day); and his family situation. None of these arenas is simple.
Take the business dealings, for example, which depend on alternate realities until they can’t:
James Joyce says there’s one tony relative in every family. In my mother’s, there were two. The Sarkansky brothers made good. Made very good. Eventually: outlandishly good. Turned out they were only moving money around—first piles, then hills, then small mountains. The old con: Rob Peter to pay Paul and around and around and around. A happy circle until Paul stops getting paid because Peter, for whatever reason, starts sniffing around and asks one too many questions. When that happened, in the mid-’60s, Uncle Monroe shot himself, leaving Uncle Horace holding an empty bag with a fat hole in it. By then, the Sarkansky brothers were in hock to the tune of millions. Only the major investors got anything back.
As for the titular wife in Fall River, she’s also a bit shadowy. She started a fire; it was an accident; she was committed to an asylum; she was fine, just lonely. Her son was abandoned; he grew up normally. And she’s not around to tell her own story any more. A close read gives me a visual of the narrator, sitting at a desk with those books, considering Mort’s life, the parallels and perpendiculars to his own, and… and what? Why is he so interested? This isn’t his actual family.
I started out thinking Max might think he’s the child the Fall River Wife took to Kansas when she went into the hospital, but I don’t think the ages are right. The final scene of Max looking in the window of her former house, hoping to get some sense of her, is full of a longing to connect; maybe he’s thinking of his own wife:
Once, a few years ago, I peeped into a back window of the house on Locust Street. I must have thought I might be able to conjure a vision of at Addy’s oval face by looking into what she had looked out of. All I saw was someone elses life. A pair of glasses on a kitchen table, some car keys.
The poetry lessons are likewise vague. In spite of his lessons, Mort’s three published volumes were, well, crap. Max starts off speculating about those poetry lessons in general, and ends up going into great detail about what he imagines might have happened; it’s so detailed, it feels like he’s a fly on the wall. It’s an interesting transition, again playing with the blurring of lines between what is said and what is.
The story comes from Orner’s 2019 collection of “interlocked” stories titled Maggie Brown & Others. Forty-four stories, some very short, plus a novella, look at various lives from Fall River. I’ve seen story collections described as “linked stories” or “a novel in stories” but the “interlocked” descriptor seems to up the ante, and I wonder if our narrator Max, the poet Delmore Schwartz, brother Horace, or Mort’s wife Addy — or her mysterious son — appear in any of them. I think I might enjoy reading this collection, a sort of Fall River Jewish companion to Jason Brown’s compendium of Maine WASPS. Orner himself is a fascinating writer, switching from fiction to non-fiction, from Fall River to Africa, with seeming ease (how have I not encountered him before this?). Yes, I think I’d like to see more.
Humair first saw the girl, brittle and angular as a kite, from the window of the train. She stood near the tracks looking up at the sky, her arms in the air, ready to catch something, whatever it might be, in her hands. He had laughed when the pilgrims talked of roadside djinns but he thought of them now, lying in wait for souls to steal. His mother-in-law, Rashda, was sitting next to him. She had fallen asleep, and her head bobbed against his shoulder. Last night, he’d woken whenever the train stopped, which was often, and each time he’d found her awake, staring out the window. Now that she had finally dozed off, her dupatta had slipped from her head and he could feel the sweat pooled around her hairline, damp against his shirt. He shifted, but shamefully; he knew he should sit still, that since Saima’s death the old woman slept little and poorly, and that was his doing.
As with the last story, this one looks at grief within a particular cultural context. It’s a context that’s unfamiliar to me: the Urs of Lal, a festival at a shrine of the Sufi saint Lal held in Sehwan, Pakistan. This seems to be something akin to Lourdes: “The Urs was for the desperate, for the sick and the dying in search of miracles.”
Humair’s wife, Saima, died a year ago when they were both in a motorcycle accident; they’d only been married three months. Rashda, his mother-in-law, asked him to take her to the Urs; his mother had already arranged a meeting with another woman, a potential wife, and resented the request, but Humair honored it. He and Rashda are still grieving.
For the last year, she had regularly visited the house he shared with his mother and sister, the house in which Saima had lived during the three months of their marriage. He would find Rashda there almost every day when he came back tired and depressed from his work at a government school. She sat in the small living room, her eyes drifting across the crumbling paintwork, as though Saima might have left some trace of herself there. She would press her lips to the tea cup in a kiss, and occasionally she flipped through the stack of old magazines left in the rack by the table, and he knew what she was thinking: Saima drank from this cup, Saima’s fingers ran along these pages. He knew it because that’s what he thought as he watched her.
Humair keeps running into a strange girl, Imli, a mere teenager who, he discovers later, is pregnant, on the way to the shrine and while at the festival. I can’t quite figure her exact role in this: for Rashda, she seems to be a replacement daughter; for Humair, she seems to be more of a spur on his grief.
The story takes us deeper into the grief the two are experiencing. They are both awash in guilt. For Humair, there’s regular guilt (was he to blame for the accident?) and an extra helping of survivor’s guilt on top of that (why did he survive?). For Rashda, she remembers how she came to the Urs years before to pray for a child, promising to return with a gift; she had Saima, but never returned with the gift.
I thought I had something of a handle on things until I read Ahmad’s Interview at One Story:
I really struggled with the ending. Given the enormity of Humair’s mistake, it didn’t seem possible for him to reach any kind of clear resolution during the course of the story, but I still wanted it to feel as if he had traveled somewhere by the end of it. But whenever I wrote an ending, Humair seemed to drift towards it. It was when Patrick Ryan came to the story with fresh eyes and a suggestion about giving Humair more agency that I think I finally found the ending.
Aamina Ahmad, author interview for One Story available online
I’m not sure what enormous mistake Humair made. The accident itself is a possibility, and he mentions it as a mistake though he isn’t sure exactly what the mistake is, so his guilt isn’t based on anything specific. He shows a lot of hostility towards the girl, Imli – gets her thrown off the train, scolds his mother for being kind to her – but I’m not sure that’s a mistake as much as it is an attitude. There is an exchange with Rashda in which he seems to commit a fauix pas: when he finds out his mother has invited Imli to come home with her, he lashes out:
“It would be madness to take her with us. Imagine what everyone would say, Saima would – “ He froze, startled by the sound of it, by the ease with which it had tumbled from his lips. Rashda turned to look at him, as if she too were appalled by his lapse; Saima might have been his wife, but Rashda’s expression said her daughter was really a stranger to him. He wanted to look away but couldn’t.
I’m not sure why this is such a mistake. Is there a prohibition against speaking the name of the dead? Or is it more about the presumption of speaking for Saima to support his own point of view?
The bigger mistake, it would seem to me, would be Humair’s move away from faith. When he alerts the conductor to the girl’s presence on the train without a ticket, he feels the kind of compassion fatigue many of us are familiar with: “Humair was tired of all the sharing of food, of blessings, the forgiveness of every transgression, as if nothing really mattered any more.” He says he doesn’t understand God’s rules, and when Rashda praises God as master, he mutters, “Who knows who our master is.” But again, as with the accident, there isn’t a specific mistake or a moment of losing faith; it’s more of a change in outlook.
I’m uncertain about the final scene as well. I think it indicates tragedy, but given how vaguely I’m tracking with this story, I wouldn’t want to say. It’s interesting that it’s Imli who leads him to the final scene; maybe that has been her purpose all along. Or maybe she’s just a streetwise girl, desperate to find a safe place for her and her baby and willing to jettison anything – or anyone – who stands in her way.
It’s clear that Humair has drowned in his grief, while Rashda has worked it out and pushed through it. And Imli has served as the mechanism for both.
It was a good two-mile walk to reach the county highway along the network of gravel roads that linked the community together. He knew that any interaction had the power to make him change his mind. If someone asked him to lend a hand with something, he wouldn’t be able to refuse. But he met no one.
He hadn’t been up Cording Road since the evening of the accident, but because the accident had everything to do with his decision this day, it seemed necessary to pass the spot where his boys died. There was no visible sign, and he resisted wading into the ditch grass to search for one. And then he saw, on the fence, the remnants of a bouquet someone had tied there with twine. Anyone who didn’t know about the accident would assume it was just a tangle of wildflowers blown off a windrow after haying.
People grieve in different ways, goes the cliché. As we follow Abraham Zimmerman through his grief for his dead sons, it may seem somewhat familiar: the urge to escape, the bottling up of emotions, the insistence of memory. But consider how the story is written: how it uses negative space to great effect, and how it shapes itself very much like the Hero’s Journey. Abraham’s grief may seem different, but when it comes down to it, grief is pretty much the same for all of us, even an Amish roofer.
I’m using the art term negative space to refer to the narrative technique of shifting third-person narration from one character to another, sometimes called head-hopping. It’s drawing Abraham through the eyes of others, through background characters:
Simply put, the definition of negative space is the area around and between a subject. It appears in all drawings and paintings, and one of the best examples of it is the optical illusion called Rubin’s vase.
…. Negative space traces the outline of a subject to reveal its form.
Each person Abraham encounters sees him from a slightly different perspective. Some of the other characters know who he is and are aware of his recent loss; others seem to have no idea he’s a runaway Amish. A couple of the encounters have elements that seem almost sacred, while others contrast sharply with Abraham’s straightforward honesty. The encounters often evoke memories for both participants. This enriches the portrait of Abraham beyond his own thoughts, but it’s still subjective, unlike an omniscient third-person narration might be. All of the participants are, if not unreliable narrators, at least narrators with factors affecting their impressions. Most of the characters who meet with Abraham end up lost in their own memories; in this way, he affects them at least as much as they affect him.
The Hero’s Journey is first evoked by the existence of two worlds – the Amish, and the Other – both of which have signs that indicate passage between them at the beginning and end. The paragraph above shows the sign of a wreath of flowers as Abraham first sets out. The existence of two worlds is referred to both by Abraham himself, and by several of those he encounters. His shedding of his Amish identity in encounters with the barber, the clothing store, the car salesman, the bartender, and the thief, are all challenges along the way with different elements. And when Abraham decides to return home, he recognizes another sign and knows he’s back in his world:
Getting to his feet, Abraham Zimmerman realized he was desperate to get home. His desire was akin to thirst. He started running down the road until he came to a sign he recognized. It was a yellow caution sign, warning cars that they were in Amish county. The sign held a black silhouette of an Amish horse-drawn buggy. Someone had shot up the sign but not hit the image of the buggy.
I love the detail that, although the sign was defaced, the buggy was intact, as though the Other World was held responsible while the Amish World was held safe. It’s a repudiation, an undoing, of what the barber had heard from other townspeople who adopted a more blame-the-victim mentality.
He remembered the days after the accident, how his customers had talked of what a tragedy it was, then proceeded to offer their opinions, which, aside from slight differences in tone, were more or less the same: if the Amish insisted on driving buggies on county roads, they’d better be prepared for the occasional accident. The men didn’t say that that’s what you got when you tried to live in a dead world in the midst of this living one, but that’s what they were all thinking.
Nelson Julius respected the Amish, even admired them. They seemed not only of another time but of another dimension…. One world had met another on that road, and Nelson Julius was of the world that had triumphed, and that made him feel guilty.
Now who’s world has triumphed?
I mentioned sacred elements in some of the encounters; the barber is a prime example of that. He takes a very professional approach to the thick Amish beard – “surprisingly soft, almost silken” – and switches out his electric razor for his old straightrazor kit when Abraham flinches at the sound of the clippers. His focus and expertise are eloquent. When he searches for and applies the rosewater, this feels more like an anointing than aftershave. The reader won’t know until almost the end of the story, but there’s also an irony there: in this sacred space is evil that will make itself known. But it’s evil that will bring about peace.
Throughout Abraham’s day, we’re aware he has little knowledge of the Other World. Often common sentences make no sense to him. He buys a t-shirt because he likes the color, unaware that the slogan “Much Fishigan” has a meaning to those he encounters. These might add a touch of lightness, but I’m not sure I’d call it humor. Ok, the shirt is funny, particularly when a guy giving him a ride asks what he has against Michigan. But it’s still quiet humor.
We follow Abraham as he breaks every tie with his Amish identity: he has his beard shaved, buys new clothes, buys a car, and gets drunk. It seems perhaps that he’s angry at the injustice of his loss and is turning his back on the community that seems to have somehow let him down. But we find out that’s not his motivation. The title informs the story, though we don’t realize it until we find out one more thing about Abraham’s youth:
Around this time, a cousin had left the community. Most who went through Rumspringa promptly came back, but this cousin hadn’t. The world had gotten ahold of him like a river you try to cross, underestimating its current, that bears you away. The elders never spoke his name, as if, by entering the world, he was dead to them. But Abraham Zimmerman regarded this vanished cousin with awe. His leaving the community had opened a door that he hadn’t even know was there. Maybe this was why, when it came time for his own Rumspringa, Abraham Zimmerman had declined to take it. He was afraid he would be sucked into the world like this cousin had.
Though it’s not explicit, I get the feeling that this late Rumspringa isn’t Abraham making up for lost time, or seeing what the world has to offer. It’s in honor of his boys, who never got to take their turn.
The story ends with hope. Abraham’s quest is successful:
It was only another mile or so, though he had never measured it that way. There was the oak that the road seemed to bend around, and the old house they had harvested stones for fences from, though not so many that it wouldn’t be able to stand, and the farm where his cousin Aaron lived with his wife Hannah and their sons, Jacob and Daniel and Moses, and their daughters, Mary and Rebecca. He passed their house, candlelight dancing in the windows, and the thought of those children, which had pained him before, made him so glad that he started running, his jeans slipping down his waist.
The pain of other children has left him – it will probably come back from time to time, but now he can see it’s possible to be happy rather than sad – and the clothes of the Other World, clothes that never fit well because he had no idea about sizes, fall away from him. The story ends with thoughts of his now-naked face as tears fall down, and of the barber who so carefully shaved him “without drawing even a single drop of blood.” Abraham knows he was anointed, and he can use that to move forward.
I had trouble getting into the story. It took me several tries to get past the first page. But persistence paid off; it’s a really nice story. And now rereading, I can’t imagine what it was that kept bogging me down. I read some reading advice recently: if you keep getting stuck at the same place in a book, start after that place; you can go back and pick up anything you need later. Maybe the short story version is: just keep reading. Either it’ll start to work, or it won’t, but if you don’t keep going you’ll never find out.
* * *
Complete story is available online at Narrative (registration is required, but it’s free and painless).
While I deliver the opening prayer and announcements, Eli still tinkers with individual notes, playing them over and over again to get them right. Then he closes the lid and takes to the bench to play, as a test, a scale and an etude. Already the congregation is impressed. The rest of the hour, with the hammer and forks and pins and mutes still scattered across the sanguine carpet, Eli seduces us with the most beautiful pieces. The bass notes rumble like the voice of the mountains while the treble notes flirt and fly with impishness. No one can understand how only two hands and ten fingers are capable of all the notes we hear.
On first read, I loved this story, but it was one of those “Do I love it because it’s about church music so it happens to hit one of my literary G-spots, or do I love it because it’s a good story?” So I thought about it for a while, and read it again – it’s quite short, and it’s online, there’s a link at the bottom of this post – and realized, there’s some interesting stuff going on here. Ok, sure, I went down a couple of rabbit holes, which I’m prone to doing. But maybe there’s something in those rabbit holes.
It’s about three people and how their needs, desires, and deficiencies interact in a way that creates a beautifully functioning system, if those deficiencies can be accepted. And that’s what led me to think about Rebecca Goldstein’s novel36 Arguments for the Existence of God which I read back in my 2019 In-Between period, a book that made the case that we can have religious experiences without necessarily believing in God: by sacrificing one’s desires for one’s community, for example, or by offering comfort to a stranger. The three characters of Kinsey’s story very much act in the spirit of God, though their actions – and their beliefs in God – vary. The structure of the story also plays into the system of religious experience these three create, in a more subtle way.
That’s a lot for one story to do. So my love of this story is quite definitely earned, even though it was a love at first sight, you might say, before I realized there was more to this than a cute smile.
The minister needs to care for his flock and save souls; he wants to get the piano tuned; his deficiency is the inability to reach the gifted non-believer Eli, and his strangely unwitting injury to the incompetent but earnest Nancy. Eli, the minister’s friend from college, needs to believe what he believes; he wants to help his friend by tuning the piano and playing for the service since he’s already there; his failure to believe is, in the eyes of the minister and thus in the context of the story, his deficiency. And Nancy, the church pianist who gets the day off, is deficient in that “plays as someone whose fingers cannot bend”; she needs to work very hard to maintain her minimal competency; and she very much wants to be the church pianist.
In the end everyone gets most of what they want: Eli tunes the piano and plays for the service, thus helping the minister; Nancy remains church pianist; the minister gets his piano tuned. Eli retains his need to be separate from the church, Nancy continues to be dedicated enough to practice, and the minister has cared for Nancy by keeping her and Eli by letting him go. And each retains their deficiencies: Eli will not believe, Nancy will not become a better pianist, and the minister cannot save Eli’s soul. He does, however, make up for his unintentional slight of Nancy by reassuring her of her position as church pianist.
What’s interesting about this is you have to wonder what would have happened if Eli decided he liked playing for the church, and was willing to do so in spite of his nonbelief – or, for that matter, if he changed his mind and became a believer. The stable three-body system would have collapsed on itself and become a mess. Stability depends on keeping him on the fringes, perhaps an occasional guest but not a regular.
I wonder if that’s where the title comes in. I had a feeling Thyatira was not a randomly chosen name for the town (there is a town of that name in Mississippi, and another in Georgia), so I went looking. It’s one of the Seven Churches of the Revelation, churches Jesus praises, scolds, and/or corrects in John’s vision of the Apocalypse. Thyatira was praised for works and faith, but scolded for allowing Jezebel – an eponymous false prophet – to lead them astray into immorality and idolatry. Would Eli have been the minister’s Jezebel, the idolatry being worship of beautiful music and the immorality the cruelty of casting aside the faithful servant Nancy in favor of the talented Eli? The upright in the title “Upright at Thyatira” can refer to the piano, which is an upright (that is, the strings and soundboard are vertical in the case, rather than horizontal as with a grand piano), but upright is also an adjective indicating strong morality. This fits (if you squint here in the rabbit hole) with the idea of rejecting idolatry and immorality.
Long ago in my reading, I came across a term, a single word, used to describe the phenomenal blending of voices that can occur when close blood relatives sing together. I have forgotten the term and have not run across it since, nor have I had any success in looking it up, but one of my fondest memories from going to church, long before becoming a minister, involves singing with my father and my little brother, who both had bright, clear tenor voices. Without discussing it, one of them would choose the harmony, the other the melody, and though my voice was always much weaker than theirs, they would carry me through the hymns, and I could feel my voice transforming in my throat as it strove to match theirs in power and tone. The effect was so noticeable, so startling and disruptive, that we would glance up from the hymnals at each other to acknowledge that our three voices had melded into a single instrument.
And now, the structure. The first paragraph seems completely unrelated to the rest of the story. On first read, I thought maybe the story had been mislabeled in Pushcart (that happens once in a while) and this was a non-fiction piece. But in light of having read the whole piece, there’s this element of harmony, which is, itself, a system that works perfectly, reflecting the way these three interact and bounce off each other in a stable system. I did look for a single word that means the harmony achieved by family members, but wasn’t able to find one; the best I could do was sibling harmony, which is a recognized effect, though whether it’s due to physical similarities of bone structure in the face, or the process of growing up and singing together is unclear.
She acts flustered when I tell her she is the church pianist and always will be, as far as I am concerned. “I know I’m not musically gifted, but I try so hard,” she says, and her voice becomes rough and glottal. She starts to weep. I get to my knees in front of her recliner and embrace her and speak into her ear. I tell her she is a great service to the church, and as I am hugging her, my arm is brushed by something on her garment. I back away and see a tag hanging from her blouse. Noticing how the seams stand and how the floral print is somewhat dull, I feel obligated to tell her that she is wearing her blouse inside out.
And now for Goldstein and her 36 Arguments. Each of these three people displays divine characteristics. Eli comes when called; he doesn’t barter, or argue, he just shows up and helps out as he’s been asked. Nancy gives her talents, such as they are. The minister accepts both of them: Eli in his nonbelief, Nancy in her lack of ability. It’s akin to the Christian God loving sinners even though they are sinners. The final scene witih Nancy is so gentle and loving, it’s as if Jesus himself is in the room.
I tried to find out more about the author, but ran into problems. There is a Darrel Kinsey (possibly more than one) who published a few books over a decade ago, and there was an H. Darrel Kinsey, minister of music and holder of a degree in piano performance, who passed away in mid-2019. I finally tweeted NOON, who helpfully told me not only is the Darrel Kinsey of this story alive and well, but he has another piece about Thyatira coming out in their 2022 issue.
Regardless of my meandering down rabbit holes, it’s a great piece. And the best thing about it is that on its surface, it’s just as moving. I just happen to like rabbit holes, even when I’m not sure they’re relevant.
Between 1999 and 2007, I lived in China on and off….
I was having my own passionate relationship with China. Just to be awake was to absorb – the language, ways to live – like a baby learns the world. Every day I was touched. Many times, by friends, by strangers, by the lady who swept the street by the courtyard where I lived. By the water sellers, the restaurateurs, by old men playing chess, by people I didn’t know. Most I would never meet again. I was handled, pushed, pulled, leaned upon, stroked, my hand was held. And it was through these small, intimate, gestural moments that I began to get a hold on how macro changes imprinted themselves onto people’s relationships and inner lives.
As I type this, it’s early January, 2021. Over 4000 people in the US died yesterday from COVID-19; a total of 365,000 Americans have died since last April. In Portland (ME), city busses shield drivers from passengers with impromptu plexiglass doors. The supermarket sprays shopping cart handles before returning them to the store, and has red discs painted on the floor to show where to stand in line for the cash register so as to maintain six-foot social distancing. Nearly everyone encountered in public is masked.
Reading this article now is a very different experience than it would have been when originally published by Granta in February 2019, before COVID became part of the vocabulary.
I felt buoyed and buffeted by this touch. I sometimes felt like I was bouncing or bounding from one person to the next like a pinball, pushed and levered around the city from arm to arm. If the state was like an overly strict patriarch, then the nation, society or the people on the streets were the becalming matriarch. This way of handling each other felt like a gentle, restorative cradle at times. At other times all the hands on you could be another kind of oppressive smothering. But usually touch was like a lubricant that eased the day-to-day goings-on and interactions in the city, and made people feel at home.
It’s ironic that Sebag-Montefiore starts her examination of touch in China for several reasons. First, of course, because that’s where the disease first emerged in large numbers. But also, because strict measures, including absolute city-wide quarantines when outbreaks occur, have significantly controlled the pandemic. I wonder if there’s a lot of touching going on in China today.
The article, however, points out a change was occurring even in the early 2000s. She examines the effects of urbanization on the cultureof touch, of the construction required for the 2008 Olympics and the restrictions placed on laborers from the countryside, of class differences over time, of the strictures of Mao’s communism and the harsh control of the contemporary State over bodies, of the addition of psychotherapy and modern techniques that avoid or downright prohibit touch to traditional Chinese medicine, which relies heavily on touch.
Then she ends up in my favorite zone: neuroscience.
Francis McGlone’s work centres around nerve receptors in our skin called C-tactile afferents. They’ve only been recently discovered in humans. They lie within our hairy skin, and are particularly concentrated in our back, trunk, scalp, face and forearms. They respond to slow and light stroking. None are found in the genitals. When stimulated, through stroking, the C-tactile afferents produce pleasure. It’s not a sexual pleasure, but the kind of feeling brought about by the touch between a mother and baby. Neuroscientists call this ‘social touch’.
These nerve fibres are ancient, they existed early in the life of the species, long before language, and even before the receptors that tell us to move our hand away from pain. This is a sign that they’re vital for the protection of life and health. In early times we needed people nearby throughout our lives to help us groom and to clear us of parasites. The reward for sticking together was pleasure.
Sometimes I wonder if, behind every human behavior, there’s a neuroreceptor or neurotransmitter affecting a sensory-regulatory system.
It’s a fascinating article, available online (link below). But before you run off, read that first quoted paragraph again, especially that last sentence: “I began to get a hold on how macro changes imprinted themselves onto people’s relationships and inner lives.” And think about what it might mean for the coming years, that we have all gone so long maintaining a six-foot distance from each other, starving our C-tactile afferents for touch.
with a full gospel choir crooning behind him,
with twenty thousand spectators surging to their feet,
with an arena of flashbulbs flashing its approval,
and I’m spellbound, thinking it’s all so spectacular, until
the broadcast team weighs in,
and Charles Barkley says, “That wasn’t the greatest dunk,”
and Marv Albert says, “But the presentation was pretty fun,”
and I’m made to revisit what I thought I saw
as one question replaces all others—
Was it truly extraordinary?
When I read Doerr’s story “The Master’s Castle” a few days ago I went back and forth between the ending being one of hope, or one of delusion. This pivoted on my mood, varying from wonder and sincerity to a bitter cynicism. This poem crystalizes that pivot, beginning with a basketball dunk.
I’m totally ignorant of basketball except for the bits and pieces I see on Twitter (there’s someone named Steph Curry, right?) so I had to look up the scene that begins the poem. Fortunately, there’s a clip on Youtube that shows some kind of dunking contest, and this guy jumps over the hood of a car to plant the basketball in the basket. And, indeed, there is a gospel choir. And, indeed, one of the announcers (he’s a basketball player, too, isn’t he, this Charles Barkley?) immediately disses the stunt.
Now, I understand where he’s coming from, though I have no way to judge whether it was an astounding feat or not. In nearly every human endeavor — literature, art, figure skating, music, politics — there’s flash, and substance, and flash always impresses the audience while substance impresses the experts. There could be some jealousy there as well, but as I say, I can’t judge. But which it is doesn’t matter; the fact that there’s a difference is what the poem zeroes in on.
….I want to believe
in the marvelous, not because it feels authentic,
but because the alternative
is a world where no one dons a cape to leap over buildings.
No one turns lead to kindness.
No one sings the kraken to sleep.
In a kingdom that insists on repudiating all enchantments,
I feel catastrophic and alone.
Cynicism erases the marvelous, the enchanted, and leaves us with getting through the day; it leaves us feeling alone. Wonder lets us believe in things we don’t understand, in things greater than ourselves. In the extraordinary ability of an athlete. In miracles.
Do we have a choice between a viewpoint from cynicism or from wonder, from a hard edge of irony or a jumping-off point of sincerity? How firmly is it woven into our personalities to be one or the other? Pam Houston’s 2019 essay “What Has Irony Done For Us Lately” pled for a more earnest approach to life; I had some quibbles with parts of her argument, but overall agreed. I think a lot of us have see-sawed between cynicism and belief over the past few days years, so it may not be totally under our control. It may not be beneficial to be wide-eyed with wonder in all circumstances, but neither is a sneer the best approach to everything.
The poem then turns intensely personal: the speaker’s wife had collapsed at work, and a visit to the emergency room sent her home with no answers as to what had happened. Or if it would happen again. In the absence of knowledge, which do we go for, hope riding on a sense of wonder, or despair under the weight of cynicism?
The speaker makes a choice:
I will cling to any rationale offered.
I might pray or go to a church where a priest
tells a story about transubstantiation,
hands me a chalice filled with possibility.
And I know there’s no blood in there.
I know the wine will taste like wine. Still—
I lift the cup.
The Pushcart edition has an interesting typographical change here: “lift” is italicized. In the original poem as shown online, it isn’t. The lifting itself recalls Blake Griffin leaping over the car, rather than the dunk, which is downward. What does the italic do? Emphasis of the motion? A lift of voice? Does it add a degree of confidence to the lifting of the cup, thus to the wonder and hope that provokes it? And, of course, it could be a simple mistake, in which case, says the cynic, it’s meaningless; and says the believer in wonder, it’s not quite meaningless, since it’s that word that is mistaken, and maybe someone typing copy subconsciously heard a something slant.
Basil Bebbington from Bakersfield isn’t good at basketball, wood-shop, or talking to girls, but he’s fair at physics, and guts his way through Technical College, and lands a job grinding lenses for Bakersfield Optometry, and his parents moved to Tampa, and Hurricane Andrew floods their basements, and by age twenty-two Basil begins to worry that he’s missing out on things – women, joy, et cetera – so on a whim he applies for a job as an optics technician at an Observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii.
Now that’s how you zip through time, while still accomplishing a lot.
I could have done without the alliteration, but it’s probably there for a reason. It gives the paragraph a sing-song quality that starts things out on a light note, until we get into Basil’s deficiencies and the woes of his life. The literal grinding job makes his work seem like a grind (fun fact: Spinoza was a lens grinder, and used some concepts in his philosophy). His job also adds a touch of irony in that his work assures the correct reception of signals, while Basil himself misreads signals throughout the story. The mention of Hurricane Andrew and Basil’s age places us in time (1992). And then there’s Mauna Kea, the fourteen-thousand foot summit on which is situated the astronomical observatory that serves as the setting for the first couple of pages.
Elevation – literally, the measure of height – becomes a metaphor on which Doerr strings a story of this guy whose biggest mistakes, fears, and disappointments are the result of his misinterpretation of signals, his tendency to imagine things as better -or worse – than reality. All of which is set to a backdrop of Stevie Wonder, as the advice Basil gets from his coworker Muriel is: “When you get lonesome, put ‘Higher Ground’ on repeat.”
Muriel and Basil work opposite week-long shifts in the Observatory, overlapping only by a one-hour swap. That’s enough for Basil to become quite taken with her over a few months:
One hour each Sunday: that’s all the time he ever sees her, sixty minutes on the boundaries of their respective shifts. Yet on the calendar of his life, what hours have shone more brightly? Muriel never touches him, or asks about his week, or notices his haircuts, but neither does she mention a boyfriend, and she always meets him at the door looking woozy and grateful, and ensures the cot in the control room has clean sheets, and one wonderful Sunday, after they have traded shifts for five months, she pokes him on the shoulder and says, “I always say, Basil, if you want something, you need to just go for it.”
Now, I’ll admit, there’s some room for interpretation in that comment, though, given her restraint otherwise, there’s also a lot of room for caution. While Muriel seems to be passionate only about the search for other planets in the universe, an invitation for coffee wouldn’t be out of line. Unfortunately, Basil goes full-on Say Anything, “cuts fifty paper hearts from the pages of a protocol manual” with gushy lines like I love you like a fish loves water written on them, and leaves them all over the work space where they will surprise Muriel fifty times anew as she opens cabinets, pours cereal, and uses the bathroom during her next shift. Basil is fired for “inappropriate advances.” Going for it has its risks. Shades of Misbehaving Men from BASS 2020 – and, yes, this story was listed as one of the Other Distinguished Stories in that volume.
Stylistically, it’s notable that Doerr inserts a capitalized sentence before the last paragraph of this section:
AROUND THIS TIME OTIS STARTS WEARING AN OFF-BRAND BLACK SUPERHERO CAPE DAY AND NIGHT.
Like the alliteration in the first sentence, I’m not sure how to react to this, but it’s so unavoidable it must be important. It turns out to be a sentence that occurs a page later, in a different life context. It’s one of three such out-of-place sentences in the piece; two are in advance of their actual occurance, and one is after. It strikes me as saying something about time – just as the piece’s present-tense voice does – but I’m not really sure what to make of it. There are links to scientific phenomena: First, on a large scale: by the time we see a star or planet or nebula, years – centuries, hundreds of centuries, depending on distance – have passed; and, on the smallest scale, in the quantum (sub-atomic) world, experiments have shown that effects can precede cause. Maybe the point is that in our minds, we sometimes have premonitions that would be useful if we knew how to interpret them, and of course memory lets us connect to the past. But that’s weak.
Then I looked at content: one seems to be a warning of a difficulty that will present itself; one is simply a statement Basil makes at a highly emotional moment; and one can be thought of as a signal of something unknown, something anticipated with dread. Signals of various kinds show up throughout the story, and Basil has already demonstrated a deficiency in his interpretation of signals. Is the idea to throw the reader signals out of context and see how well we interpret them? If so, I’m clearly as deficient as Basil.
In any case, Basil returns to sea level in Idaho, working at a Lenscrafters. This seems quite a comedown, professionally and emotionally. He gets married, and has a son, Otis, who indeed does become fixated on his superhero cape, while his wife takes to Wild Turkey.
And another worry, one outside of his family, presents itself. The comic store across the street from his house has been sold, and a sign proclaiming the Master’s Castle is Coming Soon, complete with metal skulls with high-beam lights shining out of their eyes, seems to promise something less than wholesome. Basil fixates on some kind of sex club for some reason, but remember, his skill at signal interpretation is not to be trusted (I would have thought gaming or MMA, but my signal interpretation skills aren’t so great either).
… it’s hard not to worry that the Master’s Castle is going to be some kind of S&M dungeon, that soon Clark Street will be clogged with perverts in hot pants, that Basil’s already battered home value will sink to zero, that his wife needs the kind of help he can’t give, that his son might be damaged in some fundamental way, and that his life has descended to a nadir only a few, very particularly sorry lives reached.
The use of the word “nadir” hammers home the point that this is not higher ground.
But the promise of higher ground is just around the corner: Basil’s wife comes out of her alcoholic stupor long enough to declare herself ready to “clamber back on top of the heap”. She has all sorts of plans for the day, including taking Otis, the cape-wearing son, to his therapy appointment after school. Another signal for Basil to interpret, and he takes it at face value. But on his way to higher ground, he trips: he discovers Muriel, the Muriel of Mauna Kea and of his heart, is now leading a NASA team of exoplanetary observers (I’m guessing this is based on the Kepler and K2 projects) and has written a book, Memoirs of a Planet Hunter. He downloads it and discovers there’s only a vague mention of a co-worker who may, or may not, be him. Ouch.
Then he realizes it’s way past time for his wife to be home with their son.
At this point, the story, as a PWreviewer put it “veers off into sentimentality.” Yes, it does get a little precious with Basil having his epiphany – realizing flying to Florida to stay with his parents is not a good idea – and any time you have a damaged kid trying to be brave and leading the adult to reason, it’s going to be kind of schmaltzy. But I think the story’s tone has been light enough to handle the sweetness without cloying.
The Master’s Castle turns out to be nothing like the horror Basil envisioned. The final moment reprises Basil singing “Higher Ground” at sea level, watching a plane fly overhead – maybe at fourteen thousand feet? – giving the impression that he’s caught on, that higher ground has nothing to do with elevation. I don’t have much hope that he can keep his signals straight for long; there’s still his wife to deal with, and while Otis might have had a moment, he’s not yet done with his cape.
I mentioned in my Intro to this volume that I read both the first story, which ends on a devastated note of fear and existential threat, and this one, which at that time seemed to go through the darkness and come out on a note of hope. But: “Then I read it again and thought, this isn’t hope, it’s delusion.” I’m still undecided, but I think that’s how the story is written. Will Basil go back to believing in higher ground, but find himself following all the wrong signals to get there? Or is this a moment of change? Doerr has left it up to us to decide. What we decide may depend more on our iimmediate emotional state as on the story. But at least it offers the possibility of hope.
It’s not particularly relevant to the story, but it was originally published in the final print issue of Tin House. Several years ago, I subscribed to a small selection of print litmags for a couple of years; Tin House was my favorite. Each issue beautifully produced, with great content, and, silly as it sounds, I loved the smell of it, probably due to the use of color ink. Realizing the source of this story renewed the pang I felt at its closure. Pushcart often includes pieces in honor of writers who have left this world recently; it’s fitting they honor literary magazines that have passed, as well.
In the late summer of 2017, I moved to California after a year spent writing abroad. For much of my life I had willfully disregarded the concept of place, but something had shifted inside me and suddenly it was all I could see: how my body responded to and situated within a new climate, a new architecture, a new demography and geography. I’d mailed in my absentee ballot for the 2016 election from England; afterward I’d sunk into a lonely despair. It was supposed to be a time of joyful creation, but I felt totally alienated from my work, and spent most of my days, like many, reading the news and crying. Now I’m back in America. I was aware I had entered a new disaster scape. Writing “in the event “ was one attempt at navigating this disaster escape and of trying to find inside it a place of meaning and art.
Meng Jin, Contributor Note
Chenchen, new to San Francisco, is becoming more aware of potential disasters. Earthquakes, of course; now she finds out her boyfriend Tony’s office is in a liquefaction zone. “I didn’t know what liquefaction meant, but it didn’t sound good.” Yeah, it’s not. Then there are landslides and tsunamis. Tony gives her details on the potential for nuclear attack in their area: high. While she’s worrying about this, the wildfires break out. Remember the 2018/19 wildfires, the orange skies, the smoke? We’ve forgotten all about that, haven’t we, except the people who lost everything. Then comes the heat wave.
Hey, Chenchen, just wait ‘til 2020.
In the event of an earthquake, I texted Tony, we’ll meet at the corner of Chinaman’s Vista, across from the café with the rainbow flag.
Jen had asked about our earthquake plan. We didn’t have one. We were new to the city, if it could be called that. Tony described it to friends back home as a huge village. But very densely populated, I added, and not very agrarian. We had come here escaping separate failures on the opposite coast. Already the escape was working. In this huge urban village, under the dry bright sky, we were beginning to regard our former ambitions as varieties of regional disease, belonging to different climates, different times.
The story is somewhat familiar: Chenchen, control freak, tries to imagine and prepare for all sorts of disasters, and yet it’s the one she never saw coming that gets her in the end. Ain’t that always the way it goes.
But it’s the details along the way that make this story beautiful. Not just the details of San Francisco, but the details of family, of the past, even of Chenchen’s music. She describes how she and Tony have families that followed opposite reversals of fortune: his family went from rich to so-so, hers from poor to educated elite. There’s a Thanksgiving scene that was fun to read – and scrumptious – at this moment. But it’s the family interaction at Thanksgiving that sheds more light on Tony and Chenchen: a squabble breaks out, peaks, then fades away and everyone’s laughing and chatting again.
It was like a switch had been flipped. In an instant the tension was diffused, injury and grievance transformed into commotion and fond collective memory.
I saw then how Tony’s upbringing had prepared him for reality in a way that mine had not. His big family was a tiny world. It reflected the real world with uncanny accuracy—its little charms and injustices, its pettinesses and usefulnesses—and so, real-worldly forces struck him with less intensity, without the paralyzing urgency of assault. He did not need to survive living like I did, he could simply live.
As someone from a family where every word and action included the warning, “Now don’t ruin Christmas,” I can relate.
Chenchen’s music, too, shows her desire for control, though I have to admit I have no idea what it is she’s doing. She calls it “electric folk songs with acoustic sounds,” but it’s dance music. Then, following the failure of the previous year, she went in a new direction. She describes the process and the reason for her technique, and I’ll present it verbatim, since I have no idea what she’s doing:
But I had the temperament of a conceptual artist, not a musician. Specifically, I was not a performer. I hated every aspect of performing: the lights, the stage, the singular attention. Most of all I could not square with the irreproducibility of performance—you had one chance, and then the work disappeared—which, to be successful, required a kind of faith. The greatest performers practiced and practiced, controlling themselves with utmost discipline, and when they stepped onto the stage, gave themselves over to time.
This was also why I couldn’t just compose. I wanted to control every aspect of a piece, from its conception to realization: I did not like giving up the interpretation of my notes and rests to a conductor and other musicians.
I wanted to resolve this contradiction by making music in a way that folded performance theoretically into composition. Every sound and silence in this album would be a performance. I would compose a work and perform it for myself, just once. From this material I would build my songs. If the recording didn’t turn out, I abandoned the mistakes or used them. I didn’t think about who the music was for. Certainly not for a group of people to enjoy with dance, as my previous album had been—I, too, had been preparing for celebration. My new listener sat in an ambient room, alone, shed of distractions, and simply let the sounds come in.
It’s that last thing about the listener sitting alone in a room that strikes me. It sounds like the storage room she decides will make a good disaster shelter, where she loads all the water and sleeping bags. She’s making music for disaster. “The song was about failure’s various forms.”
She’s also listening to disaster on audiobook. She plays the end-of-the-world novel on 1.5 speed, because she can’t wait for the end of the world to get here. Again, I can relate.
She gets a kind of warning of the disaster that will change everything. No flood, fire, or earthquake. But the warning seems like a mistake. Then, the night it happens, there’s a persistent beeping – “a high C”, and she would know, she has perfect pitch – that she can’t find. It’s a great penultimate scene, she and Tony trying to find the beeping device, removing batteries from clocks, smoke alarms, everything electronic, and yet the beeping continues, because that’s what a warning does, just before the end. In this case, as T.S. Eliot always knew, the end is a whimper that conveys a tragic acceptance. As with the book, she’s glad the worst has finally happened.
On a more personal note: I read the entire story perceiving Chenchen as male. Maybe it was the rainbow flag at the beginning, plus my unfamiliarity with Chinese names (both male and female Chenchens come up on Google). It made the final disaster a little more striking, but otherwise had little effect. I wonder if I’m just not evolved enough to recognize subtle signs, or if we make too much of gender.
* * *
Other takes on this story can be found at:
Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “Chenchen strikes me as likely being some type of neuro-divergent person; she has a hard time shutting out sounds sometimes, to such an extent they nearly cause her a panic attack at one point. The world is too much with her in almost every way.”
The story can be found online in its entirety at Threepenny Review.
The Pushcart Prize exists because of the spirit of our little tribe of word nuts. We know what we write, edit or read will often have little effect on what is happening to our planet, our species, or other animals that share our round neighborhood.
But we persist. We endure even as we battle yet another pandemic – a viral one – on top of the continuing pandemics of global climate change, persistent nationalism, and fraudulent, power crazed politicians.
Bill Henderson, Introduction
The first thing I noticed: Pushcart’s Intro has shrunk down to under two pages.
The next thing I saw was that four stories were overlaps with BASS 2020. For a couple of years now, there haven’t been any duplicates, though there were usually one or two in the past, and three in 2016. Four is a high-water mark.
Even more interestingly, the lead-off story – which Henderson has acknowledged in the past is carefully chosen to set a tone for the volume, a tone that will change as the pages turn but nonetheless reflects an overall sense of the rest of the work – is a BASS story about a woman terrified of disasters, from earthquakes to nuclear missile attacks, while she composes the electronic music that is her life’s work. It’s a story that ends with the sentence: “I was wondering if there was any place in this city, in this world, where we’d be safe.”
That certainly was how 2020 felt. And, as so many are looking forward with relief to the end of this year, I wonder why we think 2021 is going to be any better.
But I turned the page, and, because I happened to have time, read the second story in the volume. It’s a story that’s also full of personal disaster, that mires down into despair, but ends on a beautiful note of hope to the tune of Steve Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” I started to cry.
Then I read it again and thought, this isn’t hope, it’s delusion.
That’s my mindset, going into this volume. I so want to hope, but I feel so cynical and jaded. C’mon, Karen. Higher Ground. Act As If. Raise up your sword and shield. Just read; let the reaction take care of itself.
I’m going to stick with last year’s approach of blogging all the fiction and nonfiction, but only blogging the poetry that speaks to me. Last year, that was one poem. Thing is, I’ve discovered things speak to me if I listen, and I listen better when I search for something to write about them. So I suspect I could work harder at poetry, and would find more. But at a time when getting out of bed and greeting the day is hard work, I’m not going to commit to that.
I see a count on the back cover: “64 stories, poems, essays, and memoirs.” The count from each of the last four years has been 71 or 72. It seems to me there’s far less nonfiction this year, only nine pieces. Makes sense; it was, after all, a bad year for non-fiction, in the most frightening sense. And more fiction, twenty-three stories; that’s within normal limits, but on the high-normal side. Yes, I’m reading the table of contents as if it’s a blood test. Keep in mind, blood tests are often wrong. But at a glance, this shows the effects of 2020: more fiction, less truth. And less overall.
Don’t think I’m complaining. Managing to put a book together at all gets a round of applause. I keep wondering, nervously, if Pushcart or I will cease first. And it isn’t me I’m worried about.
So dear writer, dear editor, dear reader thank you. You have made a difference in these forty-five years. As the energy of these stories, essays, memoirs and poems indicates, we will all survive, indeed we will triumph because of our empathy, our joy and our sense of the sacred.
“Howl Palace” began with a real dog….
I tried to write about her for years, with little success, but I kept putting her in the wrong situations. Only when I started thinking about the women in Alaska I knew who had married and divorced multiple times (not an uncommon situation , considering the skewed ratio of males to females in Alaska), women I cared about and loved, did I find a way to talk about her. Initially I had put her in the center of the now defunct stories. As the prime mover. But once she was off to the side, raising havoc – and renamed Pinky – I could explore the characters I was most interested in getting to know.
Leigh Newman, Contributor Note
When you read a lot, you find stories you’re reading remind you of other stories you’ve read. Not necessarioy overall, but in certain ways. This story reminded me in a very general way of Jason Brown’s “The Last Voyage of the Alice B. Toklas”: quirky characters defined by their place and their history. It reminds me structurally of “Ralph the Duck” by Frederick Busch: a subtly humorous interaction among characters that is greatly deepened by the revelation of a long-ago tragedy towards the end of the story.
I’m also reminded of some thoughts Jim Harris had about Emma Cline’s “The Nanny” a few weeks ago about the very technique of revealing something towards the end of a story that changes everything that was read before.
Is it good storytelling to hold off a surprise until the end? Personally, I would have preferred to know the ending right up front, and then got to watch Kayla closely throughout the story to understand all the interactions of the characters. If we had known the ending at the beginning, then these paragraphs at the front of the story would have taken on different meanings.
I happen to like it when I suddenly find out something unexpected late in a story, something that makes me rethink everything I’ve been deciding all along. To a large degree this is personal preference, but it also depends on the story, on the shift that happens. In “The Nanny,” we were kind of at sixes and sevens without information; the delayed reveal was more of a suspense element. In this story, delay has a different effect. From the start we build our view of Dutch, of her relationship with Carl, and of the ambivalence she feel about selling her house. It seems like a fun little story, with familiar feelings running through it, until we find out what’s beneath the goofy surface. The new information doesn’t fill in gaps: it changes our reading. It’s the emotional equivalent of The Sixth Sense. That’s why I find it so much more effective in this story – and in Busch’s – than in Cline’s. Reading the last quarter of this story made me want to go back and read the story again, not to understand what was going on, but because it was now a different story with different nuances.
Dutch’s plan to sell her house forms the narrative backbone of the story, and gives Newman a framework on which to hang all the interwoven plot points. Each point, deftly balances humor and tragedy, giving greater impact to both. Humor has all kinds of restorative functions: it can relieve emotional pain, defuse situational tension, and provide temporary distance while one adjusts to a grim reality. In a story, it can entertain us, connect us to the characters, lay a foundation on which complex lives – which include both humor and tragedy, as well as drudgery, excitement, hope, despair, and all the other contradictory pairs of human experiences – are built.
Ambivalence about selling a house is common enough. Dutch breaks out enough cookout food for a couple of hundred people: fifty pounds of caribou, forty moose dogs, forty-five avocados for guac. I don’t know if that many people show up for an open house or if she’s inviting everyone in a ten-mile radius (which, given it’s rural Alaska, might not be that many), but it seems comical to me. And this becomes the setup for the dog.
Dog? What dog? The dog Carl shows up with. Carl, the man who got away, but not very far.
As Carl told me long ago, “inside you hides a soft, secret pink balloon of dreams.” He wasn’t incorrect, but the balloon has withered a little over the years.
We think he’s just the lost love, until we find out the real loss is yet to come. The pink balloon is the enduring image of the story, but not just metaphorically: he brings a black lab he named Pinky for Dutch, who doesn’t really want another dog. But that plays into more story as well. It’s the kind of plotting I like, where every element feeds into another element, so nothing can be taken away without collapsing the story.
The Clamshell Grotto might just be for fun (there’s a subtle sexual element as well) but it’s the Wolf Room that Newman makes the most of. The house itself was named Howl Palace by a neighborhood child after she saw the Wolf Room. We don’t really know what the Wolf Room is until we see it through Dutch’s need for mental quiet, and then it’s a combination of weird (emphasized by the open-house participants viewing their potential purchase) and sad (since we now have some idea of why the Palace is Howling). There’s a unique sensation to howling: part song, part threat, anger, beauty, fear, loneliness. This image of Dutch finding quiet in that room is so counterintuitive, it’s funny – Cry like a rainstorm, howl like the wind, in a quiet fur-lined windowless room. The combination of softness and savagery, the happy memories that live nestled up to the tragic ones.
And there was no way to explain what I wanted, which was everything the way it was before, years before. Neighbors in the backyard. Charcoal smoke. Bug dope. A watermelon. People showing up with a casserole, leaving with their laughter and wet hair after a dip in the hot tub. Whatever my private upheavals, there was always that, at least.
A duck paddled past my duck, blown over by the current that was ruffling the surface. I missed wind socks. Everybody on Diamond Lake used to have a rainbow wind sock tide to their deck. It added a cheerful note to the shoreline.
The dog’s disruption of the cookout could just be a hilarious mess, what with Silver, the real estate agent, trying to snatch normalcy from chaos.
Outside, at the far end of the dock, Donald went on tossing out his rope, calling across the water, “Here, Pinky. Even before the open house was officially open, people were pulling into the driveway, clutching phones. Silver had hosed down the backyard and sprinkled baking soda all over the grass. There was nothing left to do, she said, but hope for the best. One of her ways of hoping was to stick Donald down on the dock with his rib and his rope, where he would look like an imaginative, playful boy. Calling to his dog. Possibly homeschooled…..
“Here, Pinky,” his voice squeaky with anticipation, his casts surprisingly sure-handed.
Pinky, I almost told him, was long past coming to anybody.
He cast again. And cast again. “Pinky!” He said, unable even now to give up.
And of course it’s more than that. It’s how life is what happens when you’re making other plans. And if Dutch never gives up on her pink balloon, save for the occasional retreat to the Wolf Room, more power to her.
* * *
Other takes on this story:
Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “Every year, there’s an entry in Best American Short Stories that breaks some cardinal rule of narrative, and in a lot of ways, these are some of the most interesting stories to read. “Howl Palace” by Leigh Newman breaks a couple of rules, all in the last few pages of the story.”
When I was a young writer trying to come up with ideas for short stories, I felt, always, desperate. Lonely, even, not for characters but for ideas…. Nothing could happen without an idea , I thought then, even though in those days that wasn’t how I wrote. My actual stories – the ones that panned out – arrived in my head as a single sentence in a strangers voice.
Now that I’m middle aged, I think ideas are essential for novels but in some ways besides the point in short stories. My short stories, I mean. My short stories now generally begin with some scraps of material I have scavenged from my life.
…In the case of “It’s Not You,” I’d traveled with my husband, Edward Carey, and our kids to Galveston. (I’d already written a story that took place in Galveston, based on another trip.) On our way home to Austin we stopped at a hotel in Houston that upgraded us to a suite: two rooms, two bathrooms, a dining room table with room for eight, a couple of chandeliers. The hotel wasn’t deluxe, just entertainingly garish. The next morning a lovely man with a Cesar Romero mustache and braces brought free breakfast. On that little trellis of reality I decided to train a story about youth.
Elizabeth McCracken, Contributor Note
When a man breaks her heart, what does a woman do? She has a good cry, trash talka him to her friends for a while, then goes out and find a rebound love.
But what if he doesn’t break your heart? What if you’d only been seeing each other for a couple of weeks, and he just did the “It’s not you, it’s me, I just can’t do a relationship now” mea culpa, and you were fine until you saw him with another woman, necking in public – necking, for god’s sake, adults necking in public – and you realize, it wasn’t him, it was you, all along. What do you do then?
If you’re our narrator (who is, surprise surprise, unnamed, take a shot), you basically do the same thing. Or at least the first part:
Hotels were different in those days. You could smoke in them. The rooms had bathtubs, where you could also smoke. You didn’t need a credit card or identification, though you might be made to sign the register, so later the private detective—just like that, we’re in a black-and-white movie, though I speak only of the long-ago days of 1993—could track you down. Maybe you anticipated the private detective, and used an assumed name.
Nobody was looking for me. I didn’t use an assumed name, though I wasn’t myself. I’d had my heart broken, or so I thought, I’d been shattered in a collision with a man, or so I thought, and I went to the fabled pink hotel just outside the Midwestern town where I lived. The Narcissus Hotel: it sat on the edge of a lake and admired its own reflection. Behind, a pantomime lake, an amoebic swimming pool, now drained, empty lounge chairs all around. January 1: cold, but not yet debilitating. In my suitcase, I’d brought one change of clothing, a cosmetic bag, a bottle of Jim Beam, a plastic sack of Granny Smith apples. I thought this was all I needed. My plan was to drink bourbon and take baths and feel sorry for myself.
And maybe the next morning while you’re feeding your hangover, you run into a local radio shrink, Dr. Benjamin. It looks like he’s there for an assignation with Dawn from Baton Rouge but got stood up, so you both have a drink in his room and you nearly drown in his bathtub – the bath thing was a serious part of the deal – and then you get up and go home. “There isn’t a moral to the story. Neither of us is in the right. Nothing was resolved. Decades later, it still bothers me.”
Time is all jumbled in this story. From the first line, we know it’s told from a future point in time, but it’s told like 1993 was a lifetime ago. Wow – it was, wasn’t it? But do hotels really change so much in that period of time?
The time span is emphasized by using black-and-white imagery in that first paragraph, like the hotel scene would be filmed in black-and-white while the contemporary contemplation would be in warm color. Except, no: “The worst thing about not being loved, I thought then, was how vivid I was to myself. Now I am loved and in black and white.” It’s as if time came forward, then went back.
But that’s just a warm-up for the kind of identity reversals that go on during the story, identity reversals courtesy of the Narcissus myth. Or, rather, myths, because there are several, and they all contribute to a symbolic fluidity that makes the most of metamorphosis. The most common Narcissus myth, after all, is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection of stories about transformations. If you get bored being Narcissus, now you can be Echo for a while. Or Ameinias, from the version by Conon. And to give things another twist, there’s always Dali and Freud. Time to dig in…
From the start, the Narcissus imagery is obvious, but there’s a lot of free-floating stuff as well. The narrator works at a radio station – not the same one as Dr. Benjamin – in Human Resource, so she “lived with voices overhead”. That calls to mind Echo, who faded away from unrequited love for Narcissus until all that was left was her voice. The entire phenomenon of talk radio, for that matter, is disembodied voices, both for the callers and the talent. The narrator even refers to the shrink’s would-be paramour as a disembodied voice after her bathtub mishap.
Don’t forget, both the narrator and Benjamin are spurned lovers. Probably; we don’t actually know for sure why he’s waiting for Dawn from Baton Rouge with a high-end stuffed animal, maybe it’s a therapy session, but an affair seems a lot more likely, particularly since they both seem to have come a significant distance to meet.
But the narrator, with her fixation on baths (she took three the night before she met the shrink), not to mention her self-focus, is clearly identified with Narcissus as well. When Benjamin walks in on her as she’s enjoying his bathtub, it becomes crystal clear:
Then he came in. He was wearing his cowboy boots and slid a little on the marble. Now he looked entirely undone. In another version of this story, I’d be made modest by a little cocktail dress of bubbles, but no person who really loves baths loves bubble baths, nobody over seven, because bubbles are a form of protection. They keep you below the surface. They hide you from your own view. He looked at me in his bathtub with that same disappointed expression: just like you to bathe in your birthday suit.
She doesn’t want to be hidden from her own view. And one other interesting point: there are other versions of this story, just like there are other versions of the Narcissus myth.
Speaking of which, let’s turn to Ameinias from one of those other versions. He’s another of Narcissus’ admirers, but Narcissus gets tired of him hanging around and gives him a sword, which he promptly uses to kill himself at Narcissus’ door. In this version, Ameinias asks the gods to punish Narcissus for his cruelty, and that’s how he ends up falling in love with his own reflection and either fading away to a flower or drowning (versions of a version). What if instead of giving him a sword, Narcissus gave him a bathtub and a few bottles from the minibar, and then checked out of the hotel while Ameinias died in his room? So at the same time, the narrator drowning in the bathtub could be both Ameinias and Narcissus, while Benjamin is also Narcissus. Talk about fluidity of identity!
By the way, amidst all these versions of the myth, we have a narrator insisting “I don’t plan on coming in versions.” We all do, of course. But seldom in the course of a story have I see so many.
Now, what’s this about Dali and Freud, and what does it have to do with the story?
I happened upon a talk (link below) by art historian and Surrealist specialist Dawn Adès that accompanied an exhibit of Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus. It seems the surrealists were big fans of Freud, since they both used the unconscious to get at what they needed: information for healiing neurosis, or artistic inspiration. The fifteen minute talk mentioned a lot of concepts that seemed to relate to the story. It also reminded me that Freud, and psychoanalysts in general, sat behind their patients, unseen. They were disembodied voices. Dr. Benjamin isn’t necessarily a psychoanalyst, of course.
Dali’s painting included two images, one of Narcissus, one of a stony hand holding an egg out of which grew a flower. But his drawings showed the two images combined. Adès thinks it’s possible he was referencing stereoscopes, devices from the mid-19th century that held a card with two images. Viewing the card from the correct distance combined the images into one three-dimensional image. She also calls it his “exploration of critical paranoia, a systematic misreading of the world around you according to an overriding obsessional idea.” It’s possible our narrator has a few of those. In fact, I suspect we all do, to some degree.
I was reminded of the two characters, the narrator and Dr. Benjamin, overlapping, changing back and forth. Of course, if McCracken wasn’t aware of the painting, and this theory of it, as she wrote the story, it would be less about the story and more about my misreading of the world. Still, it’s an interesting coincidence.
Adès sums up Dali’s painting as being about “change, death, and love”, and here we have a story where the characters seem to change into different aspects of the Narcissus myths, between versions of the myth, while despairing about love. And death?
In those days, it was easy to disappear from view. All the people who caused you pain: you might never know what happened to them, unless they were famous, as the radio shrink was, and so I did know, it happened soon afterward, before the snow had melted. He died of a heart attack at another hotel, and Evaline Robinson the Love of His Life flew from Chicago to be with him, and a guest host took over until the guest host was the actual host, and the show slid from call-in advice to unexplained phenomena: UFOs. Bigfoot. I suppose it had been about the unexplained all along. All the best advice is on the internet these days, anyhow. That person who broke my heart might be a priest by now, or happily gay, or finally living openly as a woman, or married twenty-five years, or all of these things at once, or 65 percent of them, as is possible in today’s world. It’s good that it’s possible.
So much of this story raises questions rather than handing out answers and fitting into neat little interpretations. Another hotel; another affair? Was he waiting for Dawn from Baton Rouge, or another caller? Was his wife aware of all this, or did she learn about it at his deathbed?
And, more importantly: Why does McCracken plop this paragraph here? It seems important, a return to the present while still looking at the past (man, the timeline is convoluted), but I don’t see why it’s important we have this information here. I’m sure there’s a reason – writers like McCracken always have reasons – but I have no idea what it is.
Then there’s the ending, which brings more questions, this time about the narrator:
You would recognize my voice, too. People do, in the grocery store, the airport, over the phone when I call to complain about my gas bill. Your voice, they say, are you—? I have one of those voices, I always say. I don’t mind if they recognize me, but I’m not going to help them.
Has she metamorphosed into Benjamin, becoming a radio personality? Fluidity of character…
I have to go with Curtis Sittenfeld’s take from her Introduction to the anthology: she loved this story “because I underlined the sentences in it I thought were clever or funny and by the end I’d underlined about 50 percent of the entire story.” It’s not just clever lines, it’s the ones that made me wonder, why is this here? Why does she always love the waiter? Why six apples?
And Kindness, which runs through the story. Forgiveness that transforms; forgiveness of self, and of those who hurt you. And yet, there’s a cynicism revealed by the final paragraph. It’s very puzzling.
But she warned us there wouldn’t be a moral to the story.
* * *
Other takes on this story:
Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “We tend to think of narcissists as people obsessed with how wonderful they are, but self-loathing can also be a form of narcissism. Whether you’re staring at yourself to see how beautiful you are or how ugly you are, either way, you’re staring at yourself.”
The story is available online at Zoetrope: All-Story.
HENI talk by Dawn Adès (15 minutes; it’s worth it).
“Something Street” was inspired by news events and by my own loyalty to characters who are eternal underdogs. I’d wanted to use the various settings of Parthenia and Craw Daddy as organizing tools for this piece but came to the realization – with the help of my great reading angel, Martha Upton – that plot was missing in that approach. I wanted to make the fragments of Parthenia’s life cohere, illustrate her transformation. I also thought about challenging the notion of the good old days – which we hear about from those allegedly wanting to make America great again. Latin lessons notwithstanding, the good old days are forever in the making. They are actually here, as reality and dream. And isn’t it already a given that fiction is what makes the world great in the first place?
Carolyn Ferrell, Contributor Note
In the late 60s when I was in junior high and hopelessly lame, my older brother kept bringing amazing comedy albums home from college. Firesign Theater. Tom Lehrer. And Bill Cosby: Buck Buck, Fat Albert, “Hey hey hey!” I never really got into Cosby, via comedy or I Spy, never watched The Cosby Show, but always felt some degree of fondness from hearing those albums. Until we all found out what was really going on behind the scenes. And that’s the news event that Ferrell captures in this story: decades of abuse and rape, but from the point of view of the wife.
“The comedian my husband” is how Parthenia refers to Crawley Stevenson, better known by his stage name Craw Daddy, fifteen times in this story. It’s divided into forty-five sections designated with Roman numerals; some are a sentence long, others a page. The present of the story is Craw Daddy’s Farewell Performance at Hampton University, previously Hampton Institute where Parthenia began her education, interrupted by marriage and children. But Ferrell’s technique is to blend together the marriage, a performance by Mahalia Jackson at the Institute, and The Complaints, with that performance, creating a final scene of something approaching confession, atonement, and salvation.
The metaphor of water runs through the story from the beginning, section II:
Our marriage in 1956—with the understanding that some things get better and some worse but bottom line you ultimately float somewhere near the surface. Yes to the women fans, yes to the terribly late forays, yes to the pee smell of breath. Yes as long as he comes home by dawn and doesn’t wake the children, yes yes. You float and float with affirmatives; you may not be kicking but you will be gulping.
Much of Parthenia’s understanding of tolerating intolerable behavior comes from her training at a young age via the Sable-Tea Club, apparently a group of white ladies who generously showed Mahogany Maidens how to act white in the public interest. And I suppose when your husband grows into a superstar and the money flows in, it’s hard to walk away.
The voice is so sharp and evocative, I’m tempted to just copy entire blocks and leave it at that. It’s eloquent, but perfectly natural, a difficult balance to hit, and it works all the way through. Linking all of the time vignettes while maintaining a forward momentum of the plot is not an easy task, particularly when there are sections of Craw Daddy’s performances – clearly modeled after Cosby – that distract from Parthenia’s story, just as his career distracted her from her own soul.
One of the bits involves a broken fire hydrant that floods a church – again with the water – where an engaged couple is dragged by the tractor, then blown out by the water:
Velvet must hold fast to the scraps that are her only covering; of course, Stanley Morehousehead is too stupid to try and rip his gown from his body and shield her.
(The audience roll from their seats into the aisles; it is too much, too much indeed!)
Velvet grabs her fiancé and together the (still unwed) couple allow themselves to be pulled along like a dog on a leash, her good cream-clotted skin turning red with humiliation, his dusky hue growing nightier by the minute. They flow out the church all the way to Buck River. There, the bridegroom catches hold of a tree (a weeping willow, of course) and frees himself from the flood, from Velvet. My mother always warned me about girls like you, he cries. Velvet is last seen washing along Buck River’s tides toward the tobacco field, where the workers have long since elected to carry out their day.
And while the audience is howling with laughter, Parthenia is caring for a baby, trying to hide her recently acquired black eye, and keeping an eye on Eboni, the stage assistant who probably just ripped off a few quick ones with Craw Daddy during intermission. The question is whether she had a choice or not. It’s not by accident that the comedian’s crazy story shows Velvet stripped bare and discarded while her man first ignores her nakedness, then saves himself. And everyone laughs.
The baby turns out to be a grandson, child of their third daughter, left on their doorstep five days before with a note: “Time for you to make amends seeing as you didn’t hear me the first time.” I’m still not sure what the first time refers to. There was a scene that indicated Craw Daddy was bedding the daughter’s friend – again, whether consensually or not is unclear – but it might be more than that. In any case, the baby is a turning point for Parthenia, or maybe it’s that Craw Daddy is about to go to prison as a result of The Complaints: eleven instances of sexual assault. Parthenia provided excuses for each one in court. She needs this turning point.
I push that pram along from the cobbles to the rocky breaker blocking the rushing water; as I do, I long to pick up one of the cigarette butts at my feet. If I were a different kind of grandmother-type, I might stow this baby in a pie safe and run off looking for a tobacco field of my own.
A couple of striking images appear towards the end: “I’m resting on a rock, like the girl on the can of White Rock soda.” And she sits “onto a grassy tuffet.” I’ve never seen the word “tuffet” outside of the nursery rhyme, and have no idea how or if it relates. The story is a stream of powerful input coming over and over, and culminates in Parthenia finally being able to let someone else see her true self instead of the carefully manicured façade that has been her defense for so many years.
This is one of those times when I realize I’m reading a story I’m not really equipped to handle. Just about every word is important; one resonance falls on top of another. Yet it’s an engrossing read; it doesn’t feel difficult until I try to explain it, and then I realize I’m overwhelmed by how much there is.
Back in 2018, Ferrell had another story in BASS, “A History of China.” I found that to be overwhelming in a less comprehensible way. In fact, I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, beyond the very basics. Now that I’ve read this story, I want to go back to that one, and figure out if there’s as powerful a thread going on there as here. If so, it will be very worth the effort to decipher it.
* * *
Other takes on this story can be found at:
Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “Parthenia sees herself as part of the “better class” of black and charged with upholding the higher class of blacks, but she’s a victim of the very class hierarchy she is supporting.” I can’t recommend Jake’s post highly enough; he connects the story to the post-Reconstruction divide in black culture between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B.Du Bois.
Jim Harris at Auxiliary Memory: ““Something Street” is exactly the kind of story I was looking for when I bought The Best American Short Stories 2020 (BASS 2020). It’s a Category 3 hurricane in its emotional intensity, with anguished gusts pushing into Category 4.”
Ann Graham at Short Stories All the Time: “That’s the theme of the story, for me, a woman is cut down before she’s achieved her potential.”