BASS 2017: Amy Hemple, “The Chicane” from Washington Square Review #37

When the film with the French actor opened in the valley, I went to the second showing of the night. It was a hip romantic comedy, but it was not memorable in the way his first film had been, the bawdy picaresque that made his name.
More than thirty years ago, my aunt Lauryn had been hired to accompany him on interviews and serve as an interpreter. She was a student at the university in Madrid, taking a junior year abroad from her home in the States in the American midwest.
Lauryn was lively and funny, a passionate girl with evenly tanned skin. The actor remained in character, and when she wrote him a month later to say that she was late, she did not hear anything back.

Amy Hempel is one of those writers who consistently writes stories I’m not sure I understand, but I love them anyway and think about them long after reading because I want to get to the heart, I can tell there’s something important and beautiful there. Stories like this one. On the surface, it’s easy to read, but there’s a huge vein of subtext throbbing through it and I’m not sure I’ve yet tapped into all the power it has to offer.

Every story must be read in a particular present, and by a particular person with real-life experiences. Sometimes the present is immaterial; sometimes it’s a flashing neon light. Reading this story, this week, was a bit surreal. But it’s important, I think, to separate what’s on the page from what’s in the news or what’s in one’s memory.

The events of the story are clear, if intricate and interwoven. The long-ago seduction by a French film star that resulted in a pregnancy and suicide attempt, both of which were unsuccessful; a later marriage to race car driver Macario from Portugal; his transplantation to Middle America (“She wanted an American husband after all”); and a second, successful shot at both the pregnancy and the suicide. All of this took place years in the past.

A chicane, I’ve learned, is a little bend in a road, intended to slow traffic. It’s also found on one of Macario’s race courses. And, of course, many of our lives have little twists that require care to negotiate.

The inciting incident for the story is Macario’s revelation, to our narrator niece only, that he has, courtesy of the Portugal police routinely recording trans-atlantic calls at that time, a tape recording of Lauryn’s last phone conversation with her mother, as she was dying while on a jaunt to Portugal:

I am sure that if Lauryn had wanted a doctor to come and pump her stomach, she would have phoned the front desk of the Ritz Hotel and told them to send one up to her room. She wanted to talk to her mother, and hear her mother tell her from thousands of miles away that James was sleeping in the guest room in his crib, and that it was hard to make out what she was saying – could she speak up? – and that she would feel better when she woke up in the morning, and then ask her mother to stay on the line while she sang herself to sleep.

While the events are laid out plainly, the motivations are not. I find aeons of mystery in this scene. Was the phone call a passive-aggressive act on Lauryn’s part, or was she truly looking for a little comfort as she lay down to die? Or, was she hoping for rescue as before, but the reprised suicidal gesture turned tragic? Does the niece hold Mom accountable for not knowing something was wrong and taking some action? Does Mom hold herself accountable? Is she accountable? Why did Macario reveal this to the niece, and no one else? Did he need company in his misery, or was it some kind of confession? We see only his surface in the story; is that to hide something, or to reveal it? The psychology of these people is a depth I can’t plumb, but it’s fascinating to speculate.

What the niece does with the information about the tape is another twist laden with possibilities. She visits the film star from the first affair. Is this a transference of blame and resentment outside the family? Or does she somehow hold him accountable for Lauryn’s later troubles?

The encounter is incognito, and makes a wonderful scene:

I introduced myself as Lauryn, and spelled out where the y replaced an e. Did I expect him to flinch? With his arm around my shoulders, he narrated what we looked up and saw. I would not have known if he was right about the constellations. His accent almost worked on me. But when he stopped talking, and leaned in for the kiss, I ducked, and said, “You can remember me as the girl you showed the new moon to.”
“But darling,” he said, “there’s a new moon every month.”

The last paragraph in many ways extends that scene, and, you might say, carries on the family tradition. There are those who will insist that for writers, the trappings of grammar are unimportant, that all that matters is to tell a compelling story. Here, we see the other side: tense and punctuation, the tools of a writer, are everything.

Hempel’s Contributor Note only adds more poignancy. It seems there is a cassette tape in her life, and she has been waiting decades to write the story, to find the way to put it together. “I felt a particular weight of responsibility to get it right.” I wonder if that sense of purpose came through the words, made me want to understand more than I do, made me willing to think longer and deeper about these people and their motivations.

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Amy Hempel: “A Full-Service Shelter” from Tin House, Summer 2012

They knew me as one who shot reeking crap out of cages with a hose—and liked it. And would rather do that than go to a movie or have dinner with a friend. They knew me as one who came two nights a week, who came at four and stayed till after ten, and knew it was not enough, because there was no such thing as enough at the animal shelter in Spanish Harlem that was run by the city, which kept cutting the funds.

Reading this story is a lot like watching that Sarah McLaughlin ASPCA spot on a continuous loop for 20 minutes. But Tin House provided fair warning in their Introduction to the Summer Issue in which it appears: “Consider this summer reading as providing a few grains of sand in your suntan lotion, a little bit of grit to remind you of the depth and breadth of the human condition.” Welcome to an exploration of Miserabilism.

They knew us as the ones who had no time for the argument that caring about animals means you don’t also care about people; one of us did! Evelyne, a pediatrician who treated abused children.

I’m not so sure it’s a short story, no matter how flexible you are in your definition, or fiction, for that matter. Chuck Pahalniuk, Amy Hempel’s #1 Fan, called something by the same title an essaytwice – though he also said it was about to appear in Electric Literature back in August and October 2011 and now here it is in Summer 2012 Tin House, so it’s possible he was referring to something else. Amy Hempel does in fact volunteer in a Manhattan animal shelter. She’s listed as one of the founders of the Deja Foundation which attempts to rescue dogs on shelter kill lists. And she already wrote the haunting flash “In The Animal Shelter” which isn’t about the animals at all but shows a familiarity with shelters that goes back .

But all that said – and I’m aware I haven’t yet addressed what the story is, at all – it’s great writing.

They knew me as one who decoded the civic boast of a “full-service” shelter, that it means the place kills animals, that the “full-service” offered is death.

The paragraphs alternate between “They know us” and “They know me” with more standard declarative sentences thrown in to keep it from getting sing-song. But that sentence structure keeps the silent, unseen subject, the dogs in the shelter, at the forefront at all times. To me it also invokes the biblical “By their works you shall know them.” There’s no plot; it’s a string of brief scenes, some uplifting, some outrageous, all heartbreaking.

It’s also informative. I watch the Westminster Kennel Club dog show – both nights – every year, and yet I’d never heard the terms “molosser“, “catahoulas,” or “presa canario” before.

The first line is from a short story, “In The Fifties” by Leonard Michaels, from his second collection, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could. It also uses the “They” construction, though much more sparingly.

They knew me as one who asked another volunteer if she would mind holding Creamsicle, a young vanilla and orange pup, while I cleaned his soiled kennel and made his bed at the end of a night. I knew that Katerina would leave the shelter in minutes for the hospital nearby where her father was about to die. She rocked the sleepy pup in her arms. She said, “You are working too fast.” She kissed the pup. She handed him to me. She said to me, “You should take your time.” We were both tired, and took turns holding the pup against our hearts. They saw this; they knew this. The ward went quiet. We took our time.

If you have your tissues and your Paypal account handy (you’ll want to make a donation to someone somewhere afterwards), you can read it online while the Summer 2012 issue is current (addendum: too late). It’s quite short, and it is beautiful writing. And for me, knowing it isn’t really fiction only makes it better.

Addendum: I’m delighted to see this is included in the 2014 Pushcart volume. I don’t have much more to say about it, certainly not enough for an extra post, but I do find it interesting, in view of my current obsession with the theme of “truth” I see in the early stories (of which this is one, the very first fiction piece, in fact), that I initially wasn’t sure if it was fiction or non-, and concluded that it was called fiction, but was really closer to truth. This is what you do with nonfiction when you want to make little changes that improve the narrative flow, or combine events and people into more easily writeable scenes. This had the ring of truth when I originally read it, and still does.

New Additions to “Online Fiction, Etc. To Read And Love” page

I’ve added four more wonderful online stories to this page – enjoy!

Flash

Watson, Douglas – – “Life on the Moon” – from Tin House blog’s Flash Fiction Fridays. A new version of “the grass is always greener.”

Iskandrian, Kristen – – “Phonics” – from Tin House blog’s Flash Fiction Fridays, 10/21/11. Perhaps the roots of a very specific brand of hate.

Hempel, Amy – – “The Orphan Lamb” – from Harper’s, September 2010 (found on Page 11, lower left). A jaw-dropping micro about what love is all about.

Short Story

Beams, Clare – “We Show What We Have Learned” from Hayden’s Ferry Review #46, Spring/Summer 2010. Zin encountered this in The Best American Non-Required Reading 2011,” and fortunately it’s available online. A teacher falls apart – literally – and imparts an important and unforgettable lesson.