Pushcart XL: Dan Chaon, “What Happened to Us?” from Ploughshares, Spring 2014

Rusty Bickers went walking through the fields at dusk, Rusty Bickers with a sadness and nobility that only Joseph could see. Joseph dreamed of Rusty Bickers at the kitchen table, eating Cap’n Crunch cereal before bedtime, his head low, lost in thought; Rusty Bickers, silent but awake beneath the blankets on his cot, his hands moving in slow circles over his own body, whispering “Shh…shhhh… hush now”; Rusty Bickers standing in the morning doorway of the kitchen, watching Joseph’s family as they ate their breakfast, his shaggy hair hanging lank about his face, his long arms dangling from slumped shoulders, his eyes like someone who had been marched along way to a place where they were going to shoot him.
Joseph heard his mother’s bright voice rang out: “It’s about time you got up, Rusty!”

For the second time this week, I find myself wondering more about my reaction to a story, than to the story itself.

Dan Chaon wrote a favorite story of mine (“To Psychic Underworld”, Tin House #46). I was drawn to the oddball Critter and his searching for connection. This current story also features an oddball in the character of Rusty, and he too is desperately searching for a connection following the death of his parents in a house fire (which he is under suspicion of starting); but I was too creeped out by the ominous threat looming over Joseph to care much about Rusty. That’s one. I was also disappointed by the resolution; it didn’t live up to the impending doom. That’s two.

One? Two? One, two what? One, two weird reactions I wish I hadn’t had. But I did, so I need to examine them and see what’s going on.

Siding with Joseph was natural; he was presented as vulnerable. Rusty, I need to realize, was just as vulnerable, though he turned his vulnerability into unappealing and frightening behaviors. Still, his need was there. Joseph sees it: that line in the opening paragraph, the haunted eyes of someone surviving a death march and just waiting for the end. But my compassion for that pain got lost when I got scared. That’s the malignant effect of fear.

As for my second reaction, I suppose I could chalk it up to ever-escalating violence of real life. After all, a single-victim shooting doesn’t even make the news any more. Or, the plethora of violence in pop culture. Those explanations would be accurate, but incomplete. I think it’s that I don’t recognize the final tragedy as… all that tragic, beyond the ho-hum what-a-shame. In fact, it was more of a relief, and that is indeed tragic. At a minimum, we’re left with “gentle, helpless unknowing” of the last sentence, and the lonely, alienated future that implies. But the loss is much greater than that.

The title asks, What happened to us? I ask, What happened to me?

I’ve been taking a couple of moocs dealing with ancient Chinese philosophies recently. We’ve been discussing the Confucian concept of ren 仁, which Confucius never explicitly defined but considered crucial. It’s often translated as “benevolence” or “humanity”, that which makes us human, which makes us see others as parts of the whole of humanity. I toyed with the idea of “empathy” for a while, but it seems more expansive than any single word. This story has shown me how far I have to go to discover ren.

Dan Chaon – “To Psychic Underworld:” from Tin House Issue #46 Winter 2010

Fragile Future – Electronics and Dandelions by Lonneke Gordijn

“He would never, ever have written a note for people to find lying around the library or on a sidewalk. It would have seemed grotesque to him. Maybe that was what bothered him so much about these things that he kept coming across. He had the image of his own personal thoughts softly detaching and being carried off by the wind like dandelion seeds, floating through the city. That was one of the things that grief felt like, he thought. Astral traveling, he thought.”

Critter’s a big, hairy, shy man who just lost his wife. He and his year-old daughter, Hazel, are living with his sister Joni since things have been pretty rough for him, just until he can get back to work as an electrician. But he keeps finding these notes. Notes left by strangers. There’s a dollar bill on the library steps, with writing around the edges: “I love you I miss you I send this out to you please come back to me….” And a poem on an index card just lying on the sidewalk: TO PSYCHIC UNDERWORLD: STOP ASTRAL TRAVELLING TO MOLEST/DECIEVE OTHERS (ANIMALS TOO). ANIMALS ARE NOT MADE OF HATE. CEASE AND DESIST. Now, this may seem strange, but his wife and his sister have lots of these types of things. They’ve been collecting them for years. So Joni shows him her collection, and he remembers some of the ones his wife had. He feels like he’s suddenly paying attention to something that’s been around the whole time: “as if he were some kind of long-dormant radio station that had begun to receive signals – tuned in, abruptly, to all the crazy note-writers of the world.”

It’s fitting that his wife was hit by a car as she was reading her students’ papers, and the papers flew all over the place as she was knocked down. It’s fitting that he deals with electricity, electrons passing from one atom to the next. And it’s fitting that he starts wondering what message the world is sending him, that he starts seeing messages where there are none (YARD SALE becomes YOU SUCK. Bird footprints in the sand look like letters. Brick walls, telephone wires, tree branches, all these become things people might be able to read. Other people. Not him. But he writes something on a dollar bill and lets it fly out the window…

It’s a beautiful little story, soft and gentle, and while there are hints of supernatural communication, they’re just hints. This might be a bit too sentimental for some, but there’s enough of a goofiness to it to keep it from wallowing. The ending allows me to take a little trip of my own. But just a little one. I kept thinking of the Post Secret site, and the Message Tree in Boston one First Night several decades ago, where I wrote something and hung it on a tree in hopes of a happy New Year. And Internet blogs where we all leave notes someone might read as they pass by. Because we’re all hoping someone is listening.