BASS 2011 – Caitlin Horrocks, “The Sleep” from Atlantic Fiction for Kindle

Al Rasmussen had wintered in Eden, we thought. We started to feel a little like suckers.

Though I never heard of her until recently, this is the third Caitlin Horrocks story I’ve read in the past few months: “Sun City” and “Steal Small” were the others, both excellent. This is the first one with a touch of goofiness. I live for goofiness.

Al Rasmussen’s had a tough time. His wife was killed by a kid driving drunk. The economy’s terrible. The town is pretty much withering. So he decides to sleep through the winter. He calls the town – the very small town of Bounty – to his house to explain what he and his kids are going to do. They think of various objections, but he’s considered everything. They’re going to hibernate through January and February. See you in March.

It works out so well (he has some wonderful dreams and misses a number of unfortunate events), other people think about doing the same thing. Over the years, more and more people join in. A lot of it is economic: far lower heating bills and food costs, no gas to buy. And if they hibernate the whole winter, no Christmas presents. But it’s more than that. Winter is not kind (presumably they’re in North Dakota or thereabouts). And the dreams… who wouldn’t rather dream than shovel snow? One chubby teen went to sleep in braces and woke slender and straight-toothed. “How easily, they thought, so much of the hard work of growing up had happened while they were asleep, while no one could make fun of them for it.”

Pretty soon most of the town is sleeping; they start sleeping in communal groups, in fact, to reduce heating costs even further. The librarian stays up to light the Christ Candle in the Lutheran Church on Christmas eve, and… well, you’ll have to read the story to see what happens to her. It’s available for Kindle (which I don’t really understand, so you’ll have to go find it yourself) and if you’re really careful and/or lucky, you might find it on GoogleBooks.

Eventually the media finds out about it, and lots of fuss gets made, which is pretty hilarious, all the more so because it’s so exactly what would happen. That’s why it’s so great a story: except for the idea that people can sleep for two or four or six months, everything in this story is perfectly logical. And, to rural people in the northern reaches, maybe not such a bad idea. In fact, according to the Contributor Notes, Horrocks got the idea of the story from an article “about historical sleep patterns, including alleged winter hibernation” and found herself curious, and a little jealous. As another Maine winter approaches, I can understand that.

It’s written in first person plural, and I’m pretty proud of myself that I realized that (thanks to reading a lot of Seth Fried stories lately that have sensitised me to it). The whole town is the “we” with various individuals in the spotlight throughout. Perfect use for it, too. The town is the protagonist, a town that is perhaps dying. Is the sleep curative, or the final descent? Are they adapting, or giving up? That seems to me the central question, and I still can’t decide. But maybe that’s because I’m dealing with some loss of my own, the economy’s terrible, and winter is coming.

Caitlin Horrocks: “Sun City” from The New Yorker, 10/24/11

New Yorker art by Peter Granser from his "Sun City" series

They floated into the afternoon in their little stucco submarine, the blinds shut against the sunlight and the swamp cooler whistling on the roof. Bev sat on the couch, Rose knelt on the matted carpet, and in the artificial air the two women wrapped jewelry in tissue paper and placed it in egg cartons. Rose had had this idea, the egg cartons, on the plane to Arizona, and it had made her feel organized. In the aftermath of her grandmother’s death, at least there were omelettes to be made. When she realized just how much stuff her grandmother, Vera, had owned, and how little of it Bev wanted to keep, Rose should have come up with a new plan. Instead, they just kept eating eggs.

Maybe this is how they do it, how they write a complex story where all the pieces fit just so:

First, start with something simple. Vera, 73, dies. She’s been estranged from her daughter Iris for years, because of a drinking problem (now resolved) and all the consequences of that. But she’s been in touch with her granddaughter Rose (who never had to put up with the drinking version of Grandma) all along, so at her death it’s Rose who travels to Vera’s home in Sun City, shared with roommate Bev, to take care of what belongings remain.

Then add a little twist to that.

Vera and Bev were both retired and hadn’t seemed to miss their jobs. They’d both been widowed, and had made it known that they didn’t miss their husbands…Bev had been an electrician. She kept her hair short and played softball and, in the photos Vera sent, wore overalls, until her weight ballooned and she switched to housedresses.

Aha, they are “roommates” (with quotes). Why not make Rose gay as well. But of course in her generation, unlike in her grandmother’s, it isn’t necessary for her to ignore that. Include that whenever Rose wrote her grandmother, she’d include a casual “Say hi to Bev”: “Each time, she felt as if she were winking, their eyes meeting over the decades, seeing something true in each other.”

And since Vera had a drinking problem that destroyed her relationship with her daughter, let’s make granddaughter Rose a bartender. “The three family members “had all figured out a way to live around, rather than directly with, one another….It was a careful dance around one another’s loyalties.” That would add the element of Rose seeing her grandmother Vera as a sort of future for her, one she may wish to embrace, or avoid.

Now flesh out Iris a bit more:

Rose’s mother worked at the U.S.A.Dry Pea and Lentil Council trade group. She was the kind of admin who prided herself on being able to merge across five distribution lists, kick the vending machine in the right place to free a stuck soda, and fix a paycheck, all at 4:55 p.m. on a Friday.

And finally, the true complexity of the story: make nothing as it seems, nothing as it’s called, nothing direct. We already have the roommates who are really “roommates.” Add many small details to add to this: Bev goes to her backyard pool for a swim, sort of: “Bev couldn’t actually swim. She got from side to side somehow, but with wild movements of her arms and great gasps of breath.” Picture the neighborhood is a “giant suburban hamster maze.” Grass that’s dyed green so it looks lush and inviting to bare feet, but it’s actually dead and scratchy; a Hamburglar cup full of soda that turns out to be Whiskey and Coke.

For the clincher of this sense of semi-reality, have Rose discover her grandmother and Bev had separate rooms. Bev is uninterested in any keepsakes, and just wants to free up the room quickly so she can get a new roommate to help with the rent, what with homeowner-association fees being what they are. Neither is she interested in the cardboard box with Vera’s ashes: “You’re family, and it’s yours. And why would I?” she says when Rose asks if she’d like to keep the ashes. Are the “roommates” are just roommates after all?

Moving in with Bev had seemed like an explanation that justified everything, misbehavior and devotion both. But if Vera had died alone, surrounded by Kokopellis and pictures of someone else’s grandchildren, with a roommate, a guinea pig, and an estranged daughter, then what was her excuse? How angry was her life, and how small, there at the end, if it was without love?

Continue the unravelling of layers, mirroring in reverse the wrapping of jewelry in the initial paragraph quoted above. It’s really quite nice, though this wasn’t clear to me until I’d read the story for the second time. In fact, on first read, the initial paragraph had me thoroughly confused. Whose grandmother was Vera? I had trouble keeping the characters straight. And eating eggs, I still don’t get that. I’m not sure that confusion was the effect the author meant to have. Frankly, I came very close to giving up due to that first paragraph. But I’m glad I persevered, and it really came together quite nicely as Rose and Bev finally have their moment of honesty.

I do feel the bartending trope was a little overdone, and at the end felt a bit heavy-handed to me. But it was a nice kind of heavy-handedness, and my discomfort with it was tinged with guilt that I’d enjoyed it at the same time. I also enjoyed the author’s comments on this element in her Book Bench interview. After all, what does a bartender do? She listens, and she provides succor, or at least oblivion in a glass.

I never heard of Caitlin Horrocks until a couple of weeks ago, when I suddenly became inundated with her stories: one (the excellent “Steal Small“) in Pushcart 2011, this New Yorker fiction, and a third that’s waiting for me in BASS 2011. At least that’s what I told someone last week. Thing is, I was wrong. I have a copy of her One Story piece, “Life Among the Terranauts,” though I didn’t read it back then very thoroughly. I’ll have to take another look at it. Maybe it’ll turn out to be like this one, which improved with re-reading. So far, “Steal Small” is by good measure my favorite. In any event, I’m glad to have discovered her. Maybe she’s taught me something about how to write a complex story.

Pushcart 2011: Caitlin Horrocks, “Steal Small” from Prairie Schooner

“You need one of those shots?”
“Tetanus? I’m fine,” he said, but there’s no way of knowing with Leo if he meant fine because he’d had one or fine because fine’s what you are when you don’t think too much about yourself, about how you’re really doing and what you really need. We’re both of us fine most of the time.

There are people in this world who go around picking up “free to good home” dogs, and, occasionally, “found” dogs, if they can spin a line smoothly enough, to sell to laboratories and pharmaceutical companies for research purposes if they have a Class B Dealer license from the USDA or know someone who does.

There are people in this world who remember once when they were kids stealing a stick of butter, a teaspoon of baking soda, and an egg, to make cookies, and how the shopper who caught them (a woman with a cart full of Hi-C and fruit snacks) did not turn them in but did not help them either.

There are people in this world who zap 3200 cows between the eyes every workday, one very nine seconds on the slaughterhouse assembly line, and are the only thing keeping those cows from being butchered alive.

There are people in this world who work at Goodwill putting donated toys in plastic bags for two weeks to suffocate the lice, checking the inside of women’s pants for bloodstains.

There are people in this world who claim to be locked out of their garages to get little girls to “rescue” them, then reward the children with popsicles so they’ll do it again the next day.

There are people in this world who as kids used to hide in old-fashioned refrigerators, the kinds with the door latches that couldn’t be pushed open, because it’s better than “rescuing” the neighbor from the garage again, and now they go to college and study biology.

There are people in this world who want to let the “found” dog loose before it gets delivered to the Class B dealer but know it wouldn’t do any good so they endure the howling for a week and sleep better when its gone.

There are people in this world who sign letters, “love and squalor” and who become experts in somber truths at a very young age.

There are people in this world – and Caitlin Horrocks is such a person – who write about such people in a way that makes you love them, because you realize we are all being tempted into the garage with popsicles all the time, and we all hide in different kinds of refrigerators.

So I refuse to wish Leo nice, or the dogs free, or my sister happy, or myself forgiven, or much of anything all that much different than it’s likely to get. I just won’t wish them, and then when they all don’t happen, it won’t mean a thing to me. If this is what I get in the world, I’ll take it. Love and squalor, but mostly love. I’ll take it and I’ll take it and I will not be sorry.