Amity Gaige: “The Soul Keeps the Body Up” from One Story #173, 12/25/12

I want to address the first question that many observers are asking about my case:
Did the accused premeditated the abduction?
I’ll tell you the answer. The answer is no.
Or, not really.
Besides, the word “abduction” is all wrong. It was more like an adventure we both embarked upon in varying levels of ignorance.

My experience with this story was altered by my penchant for research. If I’d just read the damn thing, I would’ve been fine: The story read nicely, I enjoyed it, and was buried deep in thought about the father and the possibilities allowed by ambiguous ending. But no, I had to go check out the One Story Q&A and then the blog entry, which took the story I’d just read and turned it into something else. But, I have to admit, I also started thinking about some meta-issues, and that’s never a bad thing, is it.

But first, the story before us. Be forewarned: there will be spoilers. Not that it’s a surprise-dependent story. But I’ve been scolded in the past.

The opening paragraphs establish a divorced father (whose name we never learn) picking up his six-year-old daughter Meadow for weekend visitation, the existence of a contentious custody battle that could limit such activity in the future, and a covertly hostile relationship with the father-in-law. We also learn this is a recollection, that Dad is now involved in a “case,” and that the visitation will become abduction. Or adventure. It was an accident – Holy shades of The Borrower, Batman.

The abduction starts off innocently enough as a day trip, with the possibility of an overnight stay, to Lake George. But when Dad notices his father-in-law is following him, he gets a little stubborn. After all, his wife’s lawyer is better than his lawyer, so he may lose these weekends, be required to conduct visits with Meadow under supervision. No real reason for this is given, no abuse, no reckless behavior. In the past, that is. I suppose the abduction counts as present reckless behavior.

That Dad loves his daughter is pretty clear. But it gets perhaps a little needy:

The only thing I knew for certain was that I couldn’t bear it anymore, not just the suspense but the way the wind went out of the world on those Sunday afternoons when my father-in-law arrived to take Meadow away in his terrifyingly large SUV. When she left, the yards, the parks, the streets of Albany all seemed abandoned. The life went out of things, and I would experience a spasm of grief, a kind of spiritual lockjaw.

I’m not a parent, and my parents never seemed to give a damn about whether I was around or not, so I’m not sure if this is intended to be slightly pathological, but that’s how it reads to me. It could also be that his daughter, and her absence, has become a symbol for the loss of his family, and with it his self-image of The Family Man, which he later acknowledges: “I realized that my situation was irreparable – the loss of my marriage, the loss of custody, the loss of who I thought I was and who I thought Laura and I could be; none of this could be retrieved intact.… I would never be that man, walking to the ice machine in his boxer shorts with a bucket.” Funny, I knew exactly what that image meant. The ice bucket, symbol of so many summer vacation stops in tacky roadside motels, on the way to some exciting destination. It’s a great image. All the losses are telescoped into his daughter leaving on Sunday afternoons.

[Digression: I also compared my reaction to his “neediness” with that of the title character in “Demeter,” a mother who compared her six months without the custody of her daughter with the grief of the mythological Demeter that causes winter. I didn’t make any notations of pathology there; why not? There are a few differences: first, the separation was for six months rather than a couple of weeks, and second, the character was drawn as a little flaky, with this just one manifestation. That’s more than balanced out by Dad’s concern in this story that he could lose his daughter forever. So I’m left with wondering if I’ve just assumed a mother who grieves over an absent daughter is normal, but a father is pathological, which seems pretty sexist to me. It’s something to keep an eye on.]

The overtly pleasant images of the day are all tinged with dark edges. First, in an effort to ditch Pop Pop, he swaps out his Saturn for the Mini Cooper a friend has entrusted to him over the summer. This twangs my coincidence meter, but just a little, and it’s worth it to get a Mini Cooper into the story. Not to mention it introduces the first note of doom:

When he decided to go away for the summer, who else did he call to watch over his property, and occasionally run the engine of his new Mini Cooper and keep the battery from dying, but me? I had already visited this friend’s house once and had sat in the garage with the Mini Cooper running, noticing with dispassion that it wasn’t just a Hollywood plot device: you really couldn’t smell carbon monoxide. And it was this Mini Cooper that came to mind – with wonderfully changed function, as an Escape Car – as I headed west…

That’s pretty effective use of an image, a prop, so I’ll forgive it for just happening to be available when needed. It is a short story, after all, and there’s a limit to how much backstory can be covered.

The dark edges to the other bright and lovely images of the day continue. At the lake, Meadow heads out into the water, first to wade, then to swim. A neighboring beach-goer is concerned; Dad notices she’s going farther and farther into the water, calls her back, but doesn’t seem alarmed. I was alarmed. It was written, I believe, so I’d be alarmed. Even when Dad heads into the water to retrieve her, he describes the water as “heart-stoppingly cold” and reiterates, “I mean, I think my heart just stopped.” It’s artfully done, this blending of pleasure and threat: the subtle hint of danger in an otherwise charming scene, like the music in Jaws during the swimming scene.

This happens again, during a boat ride, when Meadow insists she can fly:

She said, “but I can fly. Watch.”
She climbed a metal bench on the deck. Stretching her arms out for balance, she placed both sneakers on the armrest “careful,” I said though she was well clear of the railing. She wheeled her arms, exposing her belly in front, looking ungainly, the whole sky behind her. She longed out into the air, a blur of tangerine, her hair in streamers.
“I’ll eat my hat,” I said. “You can fly.”

This calls on a host of images from newspaper stories to bad TV dramas – I can’t be the only one who vaguely remembers, not specifically but generally, an entire army of kids draping towels and sheets around their shoulders and declaring themselves Superman, only to crash to earth broken when the fantasy is over; did those kids actually exist, or is that just a cultural memory? This segues to the day as a whole, to the abduction as seen from the safe distance of time and rationality. I’m sure that while this was going on, Dad believed he was Superman, a towel draped over his back, and that he would land safely again, with Meadow in his arms, when it was over.

These incidents set up the appalling final scene:

I carried her out and later in the truck, checking the towels around each limb. She looked comfortable enough. I patted her shoulder. She would sleep through it, I told myself. The journey over the border would be less than fifteen minutes and then we would have all the time in the world, a much or how little of it we wanted – no, we’d be outside of time, we’d be free of it. I returned to the backseat for Meadows backpack and tiptoed through the gravel to place it at her feet, only to find her open eyes staring up at me.
“What are we doing, daddy?” She whispered. “Why am I in the trunk?”…
But tell me, isn’t that what childhood is? An involuntary adventure? Something one never agrees to?…
Tell me, because I want to know what you think – and I’ve got all the time in the world to mull it over now. Tell me, when did you consent to your own life?

Somehow I flashed on the Grinch and Cindy Lou Who here: “Why are you taking our Christmas tree, why?” Gaige has set up three prior scenes with hints of tragedy that never happened, but this, this is different. There’s nothing inherently threatening in the fun-filled images of the Mini Cooper, a swim in the lake, or a boat ride; it was all in the telling. But there’s simply no warm-and-fuzzy charm to putting a child in the trunk. And that phrase “all the time in the world” – which appears several times throughout the piece – in conjunction with Dad’s “case” seem to point to a tragic outcome beyond parental abduction. If there is a tragedy, is it deliberate, in the “if I can’t have you no one can” sense? Accidental – in the “it’ll only take fifteen minutes” but something goes wrong and extends that sense? Is it even possible to suffocate in the trunk of a Mini Cooper? Or even a more metaphysical sense, as in “all the time in the world” actually equals eternity? I couldn’t leave out the possibility that, since in the other scenes where shadow intruded onto light, all was well, that was the implication here as well: that they would cross the border and live happily ever after in Canada, at least until Meadow remembers she misses her mother and her friends and her school and wants to go home, and this loving father (and I believe he is loving) would have no choice but to take her and face the consequences for his actions.

I was mulling over these possibilities, checking for more clues to a single intent, weighing the evidence to decide if one outcome is more likely, and considering the possibility that I’m just twisted to see all these hideous scenarios in the first place (I don’t think so; there’s clearly an intent to lead the reader into darkness, and if I get overanalytical about it, well, that’s what you get for handing me a story with harsh bass notes and an ambiguous ending). I also considered whether the end was annoying or not. I didn’t find it so; I’m getting more and more down with projecting the story beyond the last period.

Then I read the Q&A.

It’s not a story at all. It’s an excerpt. An adapted excerpt, from the forthcoming novel, Schroder.

I was pretty outraged; for the second time in a few months, One Story has snuck a novel excerpt into their lineup of what is supposed to be, ahem, ONE STORY. Maybe I was especially annoyed because I was tricked; it read like a short story, if one with an ambiguous ending. I felt that the material provided allowed enough information for the reader to draw her own conclusions, and resolve the story in a satisfying, if horrifically tragic, way. But all my possible projections are wrong, if one looks at the synopsis of the novel. There’s even an element of Dad’s life that was hinted at, in a vague way, but becomes so specific to the novel, it’s crucial and (probably) changes my evaluation of the character. And I cry foul over that.

Which leaves me wondering: Does it matter whether or not the novel exists? Is it ok to use an excerpt of a story in a way that changes the experience? Should it be viewed as separate aesthetic experiences, or do they have to exist in tandem? Is it a different point of view, or is it a marketing trick?

I don’t think I’ve encountered this before. Most excerpts don’t end up in different places as stories than they do as chapters… do they? Or is that necessarily a function of excerpting, with things missing and an end point that isn’t where the story puts it? If a novel ends badly for a character, must an excerpt end that way, too? Would it be just as much of a lie to have this pair ride off into the sunset – which, in fact, they do in the novel, as they spend a week vacationing before it all hits the fan. Is it possible that this excerpt really worked as a story – it ended where it ended, as a requirement of the story form – and that’s why it feels like deception, because that isn’t where the novel ends? Is it artful to bring in the element of threat, a child in the trunk looking up trustingly, the trunk about to close – or is it just a tacky manipulative gesture designed to get people to read the book to see what happens?

I have to reluctantly give props to this excerpt for raising such questions. Reluctantly, because I was duped (but really, really well). And is that really how you want to treat a reader?

Then again, if the reader is dupable…