BASS 2018: Danielle Evans, “Boys Go to Jupiter” from Sewanee Review, Fall 2017

The bikini isn’t even Claire’s thing. Before this winter, if you had said Confederate flag, Claire would have thought of high-school beach trips: rows and rows of tacky souvenir shops along the Ocean City Boardwalk, her best friend Angela muttering They know they lost, right? while Claire tried to remember which side of the Mason-Dixon line Maryland was on. The flag stuff is Jackson’s, and she’s mostly seeing Jackson to piss off Puppy. Puppy, Claire’s almost-stepmother, is legally named Poppy; Puppy is supposedly a childhood nickname stemming from a baby sister’s mispronunciation, but Claire suspects that Puppy has made the whole thing up. Puppy deemed it wasteful to pay twice as much for a direct flight in order for Claire to avoid a layover, and her father listens to Puppy now, so for the first half of her trip, Claire had to go the wrong direction—to Florida from Vermont via Detroit.

Complete story available online at Sewanee Review

A Confederate flag (more accurately, the battle flag of Gen. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, but why quibble) showed up in my Twitter feed a few weeks ago. That didn’t surprise me – I follow several journalists, and they often post stories with images of things most of my feed wouldn’t normally post – but it did surprise me to discover that the tweet was from Jake Weber. Then I saw it was in reference to his post on this story, which I hadn’t yet read. I’ve been habitually retweeting him when he posts about these stories, but…did I want to retweet this? I did, based on four layers of trust: I trust that Jake, if he uses a Confederate flag to illustrate a story, has a good story-related reason; I trust Danielle Evans, here in her third BASS, to write stories that raise thoughtful issues; I trust Roxane Gay to select stories that matter; and I trust Heidi Pitlor to publish a volume that lifts up rather than tears down. My trust was richly rewarded: this is a terrific story, and, whether he intended it or not, Jake’s inclusion of the image fit perfectly and inserted me right into the text.

I don’t often dwell on structural qualities of stories, but this one demands that I do. The technique known as in media res – starting in the middle of things – then filling in the backstory along the way, has been the standard opening for stories since the Iliad opened nine years into the Trojan war. The inciting event is what gets the rising action rising: a change in the status quo, something that generates the conflict by which the rest of the story will propel itself. Here, we open with Claire putting on the Confederate flag bikini at the urging of her boyfriend Jackson (presumably named after Stonewall rather than Andrew), and his posting the image on Facebook, without her knowledge or permission, is the inciting event.

Or is it? As we learn more about the backstory, the possibilities for inciting event open up. Maybe it’s the death of Claire’s mother, or the accident after the party, instead. Maybe it goes back to Claire and Angela as kids, growing up together in Virginia, teasing brother Aaron with a silly rhyme about “Girls go to college and get more knowledge, Boys go to Jupiter and get stupider.” Maybe the inciting incident was the Civil War, or 1787, when the newly-written Constitution stopped short of abolishing slavery in the United States. Maybe it goes back to the first slave ships in the 16th century. Maybe it goes back to the dawn of humanity, and the first person who said, “Hey, she looks different from me, she must be bad.”

In any case, the story I feared was going to be a simplistic ain’t-it-a-shame fable about the mob-like mentality of social media quickly expanded into a wide-ranging examination of many of the divisive forces we all deal with every day, right now. And that, like Jake’s tweeting of the Confederate flag, again inserts me into the story: I kept changing my mind, my off-the-cuff instinct, about what the problem was and who was wrong.

But I can’t say I wasn’t warned. The story begins with a string of what I’ll call “is-but-isn’t” markers:

▪ Puppy’s real name is Poppy, and she’s the almost-stepmother.
▪ Jackson has “in spite of his lack of farming experience, a farmer’s tan.”
▪ St. Petersburg in Florida has “relentless sunshine, sunburn weather in December.”
▪ The bikini itself is an “awkward non-gift you give someone in an awkward non-relationship.”
▪ Claire sees herself, in the bikini, as “a hot someone she is not.”
▪ When her hallmate reacted to the picture, Claire “wasn’t really aware that hallmate was a thing.”
▪ Claire’s mom refers to Angela and Aaron as Irish twins though “they are neither twins nor Irish.”
▪ Claire isn’t sure about her own family, thinking of her father’s son from a prior marriage as “not a half brother, but half-a-brother.”
▪ Claire and Angela “live across the street isn’t technically true but close enough.”
▪ Claire and Aaron sleep together once but “don’t love each other that way.”
▪ Though she grows up in Virgina, her mom is from New England and her dad is from Minnesota.

Six of these is-but-isn’ts occur within the first two pages. What we call something may not be what it is. The only thing that is what it seems to be is Claire’s red-tagged file, and after her life lived in is-but-isn’ts, she scorns its clarity.

Reordering the story not only got into the conflict faster; it affected how the story morphed as I read, which greatly heightened the aesthetic and emotional experience. It’s a great example of structure adding to effect. And it’s masterful storytelling, putting it back together in this order, to keep things changing.

The story is filled with lines, seemingly casually dropped in there, that are anything but casual. Jupiter is “unspectacular until you consider all it holds in orbit”: astronomically, 79 moons (at present; possibly more yet to be discovered), plus the entire solar system may owe its mechanism to the joint gravitational effects of Jupiter and Saturn. Grief, friendship, and a tragedy years before guide the motions of Claire. We all have some Jupiter in our lives. It’s been said by people smarter than me that slavery is the original sin for the nation, keeping us in separate orbits no matter how much it costs us.

When the hallmate, Carmen, relates her side of getting a picture of a Confederate flag slipped under her door, Claire is surprised to see fear. Why should anyone fear her? She’s not going to hurt anyone. She was pissed off, sure, but that’s all it was, not a threat. Turn it around: what if Carmen had slipped a different sort of picture under Claire’s door, would Claire have understood fear then?

And that monumental phrase, just slipped in there: “In the second grade, sometime after discovering that Angela is black, Claire writes a poem about their friendship for Martin Luther King Day.” Race is something we discover, something we learn, something we’re taught. The poem becomes an icon of interracial harmony and they are dressed up in stereotypical outfits (until someone finally objects) to recite it. This is why we can’t have nice things.

Claire and Angela, besties. Then both mothers get sick.

A year later both of their mothers are sick. It starts slow, with both of them, and then quick quick quick. With Angela’s mother it is a lump, with Claire’s a vague malaise. We should have caught it sooner, Angela and Claire say to each other, over and over again, as though their mothers’ bodies are their own. At first it seems as if, even in its cruelty, the universe is being kind, giving Claire a person to suffer through this with….
Mrs. Hall has been Claire’s second mother most of her life, and Claire fears that she will lose both her mother and her other mother, but it turns out that it is worse to lose only one, when it’s the one that counts. Claire knows as soon as she feels it the first time that there is cruelty in this sentiment, so much cruelty that it surprises her, but that doesn’t change the feeling.

Is this the inciting event, or the tragedy that follows later? Or the ensuing media storm after that tragedy? I could write another thousand words on the few paragraphs about the tragedy: what Aaron “should” have done, according to whom. Who gets the benefit of the doubt. Who is heard, who is ignored. All of which feeds into the end of the story, a town hall at the college to discuss the escalating conflict, where there are “two full rows of black students, more black people than Claire has ever seen on campus before—maybe, it occurs to her, more black people than Claire has ever seen at once in her life.” How must it feel to be two rows of black people in a room full of rows of white people?

I have no doubt some will read this and nod and think it’s vindication. Some will be outraged by what is left unsaid, what is implied; the silence at the end speaks volumes. In some stories, there are no villains; here, I see no heroes, though there are a lot of wannabes. It’s a story full of potential “teachable moments” but no one stops long enough to teach or learn. There is a difference between hate and stupidity, but at some point, isn’t there a responsibility to be less stupid? Is perpetuation of stupidity inherently hateful? In his post on the story, Jake asks an interesting question: what exactly, if anything, is Claire guilty of? Evans’ Contributor Note points out “what the desire to generously and forever forgive some people costs others.” This is a story I’m going to think about for a very long time. It’s an extraordinary story for this moment.

In my final post for the 2017 edition of BASS, I wondered about diversity. Yes, there were authors and characters of varying ethnicities, cultures, classes, and sexualities, but most of the stories supported, or at least didn’t challenge, views I already held. What about some other viewpoints? This story is something of an answer. There’s room for discussion here; there’s room for teachable moments. Or we can just go on in our orbits around Jupiter, getting stupider.

BASS 2017: Danielle Evans, “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” from American Short Fiction #63

From the Edward James sculpture garden in Xilitla, Mexico

From the Edward James sculpture garden in Xilitla, Mexico

Two by two the animals boarded, and then all of the rest of them in the world died, but no one ever tells the story that way. Forty days and forty nights of being locked up, helpless, knowing everything you’d ever known was drowning all around you, and at the end God shows up with a whimsical promise that he will not destroy the world again with water, which seems like a hell of a caveat.
Dori must find something reassuring in the story. Dori is a preschool teacher and a pastor’s daughter, and she has found a way to carry the theme of the ark and the rainbow sign across the entire three days of her wedding…. The bridesmaid’s dresses are rainbow, not individually multicolored but ROY-G-BIV-ordered, and each bridesmaid appears to have been mandated to wear her assigned color all weekend; the red bridesmaid, for example, wore a red T-shirt to the airport, a red cocktail dress to dinner, and now red stilettos and a red sash reading BRIDESMAID for the bachelorette party. When assembled in a group, Dori’s bridesmaids look like a team of bridal Power Rangers.
Rena is not a bridesmaid but has been dragged along for the festivities thanks to the aggressive hospitality of the bridal party.

I kept thinking, This would make a great movie,. Something about the timing, the sequence of scenes, the wedding setting of course, the emotional progressions, just screamed “movie!” to me. At one point, Rena recognizes Dori’s actions “as a kind of apology. They are going to be friends now; they are going to seal it with intimate detail the way schoolgirls seal a blood sisterhood with a needle and a solemn touch.” It doesn’t quite work that way – the intimate detail is way more than Dori can process, and I doubt they’ll ever be friends in any case – but that’s the kind of cue I’m responding to: a kind of familiarity, a recognition of stock situations. A goofy bachelorette party, misunderstandings and suspicions, a road trip, an amusement park, revelations, a subdued epiphany. But the story has some great observations, and I found it highly readable with enough weight to keep it from floating away. I remember Evans from one of my first BASS reads; its good to see her here again, it’s been much too long.

Let’s clear up one thing right away: the title is a mnemonic for the colors of the rainbow. I was always a Roy G. Biv sort of gal, so I’d never heard this one before; it depends on where you went to school. If there’s something about Richard of York that makes him particularly relevant here, please let me know.

Weddings are great story devices. You’ve got this iconic event with built-in symbolism and expectations, a situation naturally filled with all kinds of emotional energy. The stage is pre-set for humor, drama, sorrow, regret, anger, fear, hatred, all part of any wedding; you can hang any nuance you want on it simply by altering, omitting, or amplifying an element. It isn’t even necessary to include the wedding itself.

Rena and Dori are from different universes. Rena’s a photojournalist, doing serious work about violence and oppression around the world, while Dori’s been waiting ten years for JT to stop finding new ways to avoid marriage. And now, when she’s finally getting him to the altar, he bolts at 4am. Rena’s his friend, having spent some brief intense time with him when their professional paths crossed five years earlier, so she’s wearing suspicion the way the bridesmaids are wearing colors, suspicion that only deepens since she happened to see him on his way out. When Dori asks where he went, Rena gives her an address, and Wedding Movie turns into Road Trip Movie.

Dori’s wedding is a stage setting for a more central drama – no, that’s not the right way to put it. It’s an emotional tether between the two women. Unbeknownst to Dori, Rena’s last involvement with a wedding was serving as maid of honor to her sister, now severely disabled since being shot in the head by her husband. Rena hasn’t visited her in three years, though she’s heard she’s getting to the point where she’s getting to the point where she might recognize a few words on good days.

All her adult life people have asked Rena why she goes to such dangerous paces, and she has always wanted to ask them where the safe place is. The danger is in chemicals and airports and refugee camps and war zones and regions known for sex tourism. The anger also sometimes took their trash out for them. The danger came over for movie night and bought them a popcorn maker for Christmas. The danger hugged her mother and shook her father’s hand.

This paragraph kept running through my head yesterday as I watched yet another death toll grow, this one in Sutherland Springs, TX: 17, at least 20, 26, including a dozen kids. We will all pay for our unwillingness to address this, some day, I believe.

One of the most interesting things about the story is more subtle. Rena tells Dori about the shooting twice, and both times, Dori makes it all about her: how could Rena tell her such an awful tale on her wedding day? And why did she give the sister’s address as where TJ had run off to?

“The house where your sister got shot was the first thing that came to mind when I asked if you knew where my fiance was?”
“It’s always the first thing that comes to mind,” Rena says, and she is too relieved by the honesty to be ashamed.

There’s another interaction I found particularly interesting. The disappearing groom texts the two girls on their road trip, telling them he’s back at the house, ready to get married. “He has come back to the place where whatever his decision is, it always stands.” Power. The person who cares less about the relationship always has the most power.

I’ll admit, the opening read of Noah’s Ark – we blithely chalk up the death toll to those who deserved it, but how is that possible? – had me on the story’s side from the beginning. Not only is it an apt metaphor for the wedding party being temporarily immune to reality, but it’s a good reading of the tale. It’s like the story of Job: it’s his suffering that’s highlighted when Satan murders his family as part of a bet with God. And then at the end, he gets a new wife and kids, so everything’s ok. But the old wife and kids are still dead, and no one ever thinks about them. Sort of like being so focused on your wedding that you never realize someone just told you her sister was shot. It’s not our fault, really; there’s only so much the consciousness can register, and something has to be relegated to “other”.

The story ends with Dori and Rena still on the road, with that sometimes-trite, sometimes-poignant postcard phrase “Wish you were here.” I can see many ways it might fit, but it seems to me – and I think Rena allows herself to acknowledge it – that her sister is here, always, here.

BASS 2010 “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere To Go” by Danielle Evans

BASS 2010 “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere To Go” by Danielle Evans

I did not want to read this story. As soon as I saw it was about a soldier going to Iraq and leaving his girlfriend behind, I thought, uh oh, it’s either a PTSD story or a she-done-me-wrong story. It couldn’t be a she-did-me-right story because, well, those aren’t found in literary fiction – happy stories do not exist. But neither do cliched stories, at least not in BASS, so I shouldn’t have worried.

And there is some PTSD and some relationship stuff, and it’s important, because it feeds into the main story about the main character, Georgie, and his girlfriend’s five year old daughter, Esther. It gets into how pretend-just-to-make-us-feel-better turns into complicated lies, and how that has consequences. It’s about how obscene war is, how obscene Iraq was, how obscene the mall is, how obscene Hannah Montana is (I don’t actually know which $500 a pop celeb Mindy is based on, the muppets? Do they cost $500?), how obscene the news media is. It gets almost funny towards the end – it would be actually funny if it weren’t for the fact that this is all about Georgie who really wasn’t out to hurt anyone, let alone this little girl, and just like the little girl in Iraq, he did hurt her. By the end of the story I admired it, though it took a while to get there.

Best line: the reporters demanding how this could have happened – “there were so many things they could never understand about how, so many explanations they’d never bother to demand. How could it not have happened?” I wanted to stand up and cheer. The reporters are part of how it happened, and why aren’t they demanding to know how Iraq happened, or how a $500-a-ticket show for children happened, or how manicures for 3-year-olds happened, or how any of it happened?

As a writer, I need to adjust my thinking about in media res, because I think I’m misinterpreting it. The heart of this story starts when Georgie returns, but the situation with Lanae when he left – how she told him she wasn’t waiting for him, and he knew she wouldn’t – is of course crucial, as it sets up the oddness of his relationship with Esther. The incident in Iraq with the girl in the house is crucial. And his early discharge is crucial. I’ve been interpreting structure as using flashbacks for these things, but I think maybe I need to look at starting stories earlier. This one skips over a year in a few pages.

One final note of irony – I was poking around looking for comments about this story, and came across the author’s website. She has a note there, explaining that she isn’t the Danielle Evans who won America’s Next Top Model, “if you got here by accident”. To be fair, she also explains she isn’t the martial arts champion or the, um, something else accomplished by another Danielle Evans. I wonder if the ANTM winner has to put a note on her website that she is not the author (since at 26 Ms. Evans has accomplished quite a bit more than winning a modelling reality show). And then I want to go back to obscenities above, because, well, of course not.