Pushcart XLI: Elizabeth McCracken, “Mistress Mickle All at Sea” from Zoetrope  19.4

New Year’s Eve in a Rotterdam garret, the whole block blacked out, bottle rockets rattling the casements: Mistress Maggle, villainess of the children’s game show Barnaby Grudge, off duty and far from home, ate a cold canned hot dog in the dark and pronounced it delicious. These were the last minutes of the old year. She’d come from Surrey to visit her half brother, Jonas, whom she’d last seen in Boston just before their father had retired to Minorca. Expatriation was the family disease, hereditary: thanks to an immigrant ancestor, they all had Irish passports. The world was their oyster. An oyster was not enough to sustain anyone.

The question that most perplexed me about this story was answered when I found a short excerpt of the first paragraphs in an online teaser by Zoetrope. In my copy of Pushcart, the title remains “Mistress Mickle”, but throughout the story the name used is Mistress Maggle. I spent far too much time wondering why that was so, hunting for a hint. Turns out it’s one of those weird copyediting changes that sometimes happens with reprints, I guess. But it did rather distance me from the story. Then again, my concentration has been pretty compromised lately.

So, Mistress Mickle, or Maggle, whose real name is Jenny Early (“though 49 seemed too old to be Jenny and too late to be early”) is definitely at sea, literally as well as figuratively, going way beyond her discomfort with her own name. She starts out visiting her half-brother in Rotterdam, then takes a boat home to England – or, rather, back to England where she lives, since she’s from Boston, or Ireland, or I’m not sure, really, and I don’t think she’s sure, either. Along the way she seems to feel more lost by the minute. The encounter with her brother, complete with the news that his girlfriend is expecting, sends her down memory lane revisiting an old romance that didn’t work out. On shipboard, she encounters another children’s entertainer who genuinely enjoys entertaining children, and plays a much friendlier character rather than the scolding shrew she portrays; a mirror image of sorts. I get the sense that she’s desperately unhappy, yet unable to figure out just what to do about it.

The narration is a slightly odd voice, extremely close 3rd person, so close it almost reads like she’s the one narrating herself in 3rd person. The ending makes that narration crucial, since, well, she dies. Maybe. She is a bit of a hypochondriac, after all. But in that last paragraph the narration turns into direct address, zooms out, and interpret however you like.

In any case, it’s a sharp and very witty story, lots of clever jibes and twists of phrase that make it fun to read. I’d like to read it again when (if?) my focus returns.

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BASS 2015: Elizabeth McCracken, “Thunderstruck” from Story Quarterly, #46/47

This was her flaw as a parent, she thought later: she had never truly gotten rid of the single maternal worry. They were all in the closet, with the minuscule footed pajamas and the hand-knit baby hats, and every day Laura took them out, unfolded them, try to put them to use. Kit was seven, Helen nearly a teenager, and a small, choke-worthy item on the floor still dropped Laura, scrambling, to her knees. She could not bear to see her girls on their bicycles, both the cycling and the cycling away.… Would they even remember her cell-phone number, if they and their phones were lost separately? Did anyone memorize numbers anymore? The electrical outlets were still dammed with plastic, in case someone got a notion to jab at one with a fork.
She had never worried about grieving intoxicating gas from hefty bags. Another worry. Put it on the pile. Soon it might seem quaint, too.

I’ve always been interested in narrative technique, both how a writer chooses the point of view from which a story will be told, and the effect on the reader. As I read this story, I fell into the close first person, and, shame on me, never noticed the first switch until I noticed the second I’m not sure that’s what McCracken intended; after all, she divided the story into two sections, number them to emphasize that. There’s little more she could have done to have said, “Hey, this is starting something new,” but I rode right over it. Was I inattentive – my first assumption – or was I caught up in the story? Interesting, since I didn’t think I was that enrapt. In fact, I was thinking how interesting it was that I was so glued to the previous “lost child” story, but here I was more of an observer, interested and curious, but apart.

Helen hit her sister; Helen was shut in her room; afterward all four of them would go to the old-fashioned ice cream parlor with the twisted wire chairs. She and Wes couldn’t decide when to punish and when to indulge, when the child was testing the boundaries and needed discipline, and when she was demanding, in the brutish way of children, more love. In this way, their life had been pasted together with marshmallow topping and hot fudge. Shut her in her room. Buy her a banana split. Do both: see where it gets you.
Helen sneaking out at night. Helen doing drugs.
Children were unfathomable. The same thing that could stop them from breathing in the night could stop them from loving you during the day. Could cause them to be brought home by the police without their pants or good explanation.

When, in the opening scene, daughter Helen is escorted home, sans pants, by the police, who report she’s been huffing, Laura and Wes don’t know how to handle it. Who would? Thus Laura’s plaint above: have they been too permissive, or to strict? Does any parent ever know? I’m not a parent, but I’ve been a child, and as I recall, each parental mistake seems monstrous at the time. The good news, for parents and kids, is that those mistakes shrink in time. If you get time.

Wes’ solution is to take the family to Paris for the summer, maybe have Helen take some art classes. But Laura agrees, entering into Wes’ fantasy: “Perhaps they’d understand her there. Perhaps the problem all this time was that her soul had been written in French.” I’ll admit, I don’t understand that kind of family, where such a trip is even a realistic option, or where it’s something one thinks of when a teenager needs attention. What, there are no artists, no French class, in their home town? Maybe I’m resistant to fantasy. But Wes knew what he was doing: Helen blooms in Paris, acting as translator and guide, becoming more cheerful by the day.

Everything was going to be All Right.

Except, of course, that would be a Hallmark Hall of Fame Movie, not a literary short story. Helen is suddenly in the hospital with a severe head injury. The only story they can piece together is that Helen has been sneaking out of the family’s Parisian flat at night to carouse with a group of French teenagers. And something happened. Now, coma. And now, the POV, though remaining in third person, switches to Wes:

“Helen,” he said, “Helen. You can tell us anything. You should, you know.” They depend the kind of parents who wanted to know nothing, or the wrong things. It hit him with a force of the conversion; although they believed what they didn’t acknowledge didn’t exist. Here, proof: the unsalable existed. “Helen,” he said to his sleeping daughter. “I will never be mad at you again. Were starting over. Tell me anything.”
A fresh start. He erased the photos and texts from the phone: he wanted to know everything in the future, not the best. Later he regretted, he wants names, numbers, the indecipherable slang-written texts of French teenagers, but as you scroll down, deleting, affirming each deletion, it felt like the kind of meditative prayer: I will change. Life will broaden and better.

See, that’s literary fiction: after daughter is in a coma, Dad decides Everything Will Be All Right, while the reader feels sorry for him.

While Laura sees the harsh realities, Wes burrows deeper into fantasy land. Laura shuts herself in her room; Wes goes out for ice cream. It’s an interesting technique, to use such a clear break in the story to show such a clear break in this family. I’m not surprised to discover that I understand the harsh glare of reality far better than fantasy. But both will be necessary for this family going forward; the question is, can they come out from their respective corners and work together, or will it be a continual conflict?

The surprise comes when the POV shifts, briefly but crucially, to Helen late in the story. The shift is far more subtle; no section breaks here.

Don’t let her take me, Daddy. Her mother hadn’t looked her in the eye since she’d come into the room, but when had she, ever, ever, ever thought Helen. All her life, she’d been too bright a light.

And here, the emotional climax, as the mystery is solved. Not the mystery of what happened to Helen (oh, it solves that too, but that’s rather mundane) but the bigger mystery: the fantasy, or the reality? Prison, or ice cream sundaes? The parents remain unaware; the reader is the only one who receives the solution. I wonder: is it better to know, or to believe?

BASS 2011: Elizabeth McCracken, “Property” from Granta

Art by Matthew Richardson, created for this story (a different image was used in Granta.

Art by Matthew Richardson, created for this story (a different image was used in Granta.

“We’ll unpack my storage space,” he said. “I have things.”
“Yes, my love,” she said. “I have things too.”
“You have a duffel bag. You have clothing. You have a saltshaker shaped like a duck with a chipped beak.”
She cackled a very European cackle, pride and delight in her ownership of the lusterware duck, whose name was Trudy. “The sole exhibit in the museum. When I am dead, people will know nothing about me.” This was a professional opinion: she was a museum consultant. In Normandy she was helping set up an exhibition in a stone cottage that had been owned by a Jewish family deported during the war. In Paris, it had been the atelier of a minor artist who’d been the longtime lover of a major poetess; in Denmark, a workhouse museum. Her specialty was the air of recent evacuation: you knew something terrible had happened to the occupants, but you hoped it might still be undone. She set contemporary spectacles on desktops and snuggled appropriate shoes under beds and did not overdust. Too much cleanliness made a place dead. In Rome she arranged an exhibit of the commonplace belongings of Ezra Pound; chewed pencils, drinking glasses, celluloid dice, dog-eared books. Only the brochure suggested a connection to greatness. At the Hans Christian Andersen House in Odense, where they were mere tourists, she lingered in admiration over Andersen’s upper plate and the length of rope that he traveled with in his suitcase in case of hotel fire. “You can tell more from dentures than from years of diaries,” she’d said then. “Dentures do not lie.” But she herself threw everything out. She did not want any one to exhibit even the smallest bit of her.

Many stories trivialize things, material possessions, as being unimportant compared to people and relationships and memories. Of course, that’s true. But this story pays tribute to things – everyday things, not a special memento or souvenir or lock of baby hair, just routine stuff used every day – as a reflection, an abbreviation, of a soul, a time, a life. It’s as beautiful as it is surprising that it’s beautiful. And it touched me in a dozen sad, sweet, and tender places.

It’s a simple story. Stony and Pamela (pronounced pa-MELL-a) have been together three years, married, moving over Europe every few months for Pamela’s jobs as a museum consultant. They have plans to move back to the States, to Maine, “where Stony had accepted a two-year job, cataloguing a collection of 1960s underground publications; things printed on rice paper and Popsicle sticks and cocktail napkins.” But fate intervenes and delays this trip, permanently for Pamela:

She was still, as he would think of it later, casually alive. In two months she would be, according to her doctors, miraculously alive, and, later still, alive in a nearly unmodifiable twilight state. Or too modifiable: technically alive.

After her death, Stony delays the move to Maine and spends the summer in England mourning and drinking. He packs, but he’s unable to find the duck:

When he failed to find the duck, he remembered the words of the lovely Buddhist landlady in Edinburgh, when he’d apologized for breaking a bowl: “We have a saying – it was already broken.” Even now he wasn’t sure if we meant Buddhists or Scots. He would leave a note for the landlady concerning the duck, but of course the loss of the duck could not break his heart.

He makes the move to Maine at the end of summer, having negotiated with his prospective landlord to move into the rented house three months later than expected. When he arrives, he finds the house is not what he expected. It’s not a charming little Victorian, it’s a Sears, Roebuck kit, it’s filthy, and it’s full of junk: an old salad spinner, dozens of clay pots all the same color, paper posters and pages from magazines serving as art, a dirty rug, a ramshackle homemade platform bed, and, in the kitchen, dozens of supermarket jars of half-used spices aged beyond any possible use. When the landlady (whom Stony knows only through email and her daughter) is perplexed by his concerns and insists the house was cleaned in May, he throws out the spices and other kitchen garbage and moves the furniture, pots, and “art” to the art studio out back, since he won’t be using it; it was to be for Pamela.

He then goes about his work for the next nine months:

At work he catalogued the underground collection, those beautiful daft objects of passion, pamphlets and buttons, broadsides,. What would the founders of these publications make of him? What pleasure, to describe things that had been invented to defy description – but maybe he shouldn’t have. The inventors never imagined these things lasting forever, filling phase boxes, the phase boxes filling shelves. He was a cartographer, mapping the unmappable, putting catalog numbers and provenance where once had been only waves and the profiles of sea serpents. Surely some people grieved for those sea serpents.
He didn’t care. He kept at it, constructing his little monument to impermanence.

So many other wonderful passages appear, and it would be silly for me to invent plot-necessary ways to introduce them, so I’ll just list them as essential to getting the true flavor of this piece.

It was possible, thought Stony, that all American teenagers might appear damaged to him these days, the way that all signs in front of fast-food restaurants – MAPLE CHEDDAR COMING SOON! MCRIB IS BACK – struck him as mysterious and threatening.

It wasn’t grief, which he could be subsumed in at any moment, which like water bent all straight lines and spun whatever navigational tools he owned into nonsense – but a rational, detached thought: wasn’t that awful, what happened to me, one, two, three moths ago? That was a terrible thing for a person to go through.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, because after Pamela died, he’d promised himself that if anyone told him the smallest, saddest story, he would answer, I’m so sorry. Meaning, Yes, that happened.. You couldn’t believe the people who believed that not mentioning sadness was a kind of magic that could stave off the very sadness you didn’t mention – as though grief were the opposite of Rumpelstiltskin, and materialized only at the sound of its own name.

The summer comes, and Stony moves into another place, a modern place. He dithers for a while about whether he actually wants to move – he’s fixed the place up nicely, after all – but in the end, he does, so he moves back some of the essential furniture and leaves a note explaining where the pots, the art, the still-filthy rug, can be found. The landlady, Sally, calls almost immediately, since she’s decided to move back into the house. She leaves a series of messages: where’s her dishcloth? The bottom of the salad spinner? Her birth certificate, in the white desk that’s gone? And what on earth happened to the spices?

He goes to the house to show her how everything was packed into the art studio, and discovers the paper art is moldy and the studio smells of mildew; he explains he threw out the past-their-expiration-date spices and as he sees tears falling down Sally’s perplexed face, understands the awful truth:

But he realized he’d gotten everything wrong. She had not left her worst things behind four years ago, but her best things, her beloved things. She’d left the art, hoping it would bring beauty in to the lives of the students and summer renters and other wayward subletters….She loved the terra-cotta sun that he’d taken down from the kitchen the first day. She loved the bed made for her in the 1070s by that clever, wretched man her husband. She bought herself a cheap salad spinner so her tenants could use this one which worked so well. If Pamela had been with him that day nine months ago, she would have known. She would have seen the pieces of key chain and clucked over the dirty rung and told him the whole story. This was a house abandoned by sadness, not a war or epidemic but he end of a marriage, and kept in place to commemorate both the marriage and its ruin.

The New Yorker editors would strike this paragraph as “explaining the story,” but it’s just lovely, and it fits in this story that doesn’t try to be sophisticated and artsy-fartsy.

And as I said, it hit me from all directions. When people come into my home, they see the tumbleweeds of cat fur in the corners, the dingy walls, and of course a cacophony of books stuffed every which way into shelves of varying sizes and styles. If they dare to move a teacup on the hutch, they discover inside and behind it is an archeological layer of dust. Occasionally they’ll feel a crunch under their feet as their shoe crushes a stray speck of cat litter. Washable throws and blankets cover every surface a cat might want to sleep on, which gives things a motley effect. Yet if someone, say a maintenance worker fixing the stove, tracks in mud on his shoes or leaves effluvia from his labors, I’ll know it, and spring to clean it up while he’s still there, hoping to shame him into tidying up after himself. It rarely works, since to him, it’s just a drop in the bucket. To me, it’s alien dirt, and unwelcome.

And then there are attachment objects: A glass pitcher I suspect my then-husband broke on purpose (which is an absurd paranoia, even to me). I remember my unexpected sorrow when a hideous winter scarf, not at all my colors and bought from dire necessity under duress of the coldest First Night celebration in the history of the now-defunct New Year’s festivity, was ruined by water damage from a fire in a neighboring apartment; the scarf somehow grew on me, becoming more and more beloved for its ugliness and some other factors too complex to explain here. My mother’s wedding china, I’ve lugged all over the East Coast, wrapping and rewrapping, not because I love it or use it, but because, well, it’s my mother’s china, and in the spirit of grief as a reverse Rumpelstiltskin, all evidence of her existence was removed from our lives by my father upon her death when I was nine, so as to not upset me and my brother. My surreptitious “theft” of my father’s polo shirt, lifted from his hospital room after he died (I was in my 30s), I can’t really explain; I threw it out years later, when it lost its power.

And, silliest of all – during one move in 1990 or so, we’d left a pile of oddball stuff in the middle of the floor next to the piano for the last trip, and when we returned, it was all gone. Apparently the landlord’s handyman had “assumed” it was junk and had removed it for us, thinking we’d abandoned the apartment (along with a mahogany console piano which thankfully he couldn’t get down the stairs so was still there). Included in that junk was a twenty-five-year-old 12″ black and white TV my father had won as a door prize and gave to my brother and then, after he left for college, me, missing the on-off button, with a coat hanger for an (essential; this was a very old tv set) antenna. I could live with the loss of the winter coats (most were too small, and I’d been planning on bringing them to a Salvation Army bin), various trinkets, a woebegone but functioning vacuum bought for $20 at a (then) newfangled “videotape movie rental” store (we joked the link between videos and vacuums in one store was the letter “v”), and while I wished they’d spared my winter boots, I understood why they were considered trash. But the tv, which had been my friend for some very (very) bad adolescent years, that broke my heart. But notice this: even the trivial items were connected to stories, memories, emotions, relationships.

I’m fascinated too by how this story came about. In her Contributor Notes, McCracken explains the plot, though not the characters, was autobiographical: “[W]hat prompted the actual writing of it was a landlord-tenant dispute….I suppose I’m grateful that the story helped me understand them, but still, I would like to make it clear; my motivation was not connection, but revenge.”

There’s something there about the Buddhist law of opposites. Or maybe it’s the Scots.