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.

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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.