BASS 2022: Elizabeth McCracken, “The Souvenir Museum” from Harper’s, January 2021

Illustration for Harper’s by Icinori
A lot of stories can give you a great theme, but this story weaves at least four themes into it, blending them and then letting them stand alone for a time the way a great symphony can. Indeed, much like in listening to Beethoven or Rachmaninoff, I find myself enjoying each new motif as it comes along so much, I’m disappointed when it’s interrupted, only to find I like the new one better, until it’s interrupted again by an even better one. The experience builds until all the themes are brought together.

Jake Weber: “Solid and Mutable Both”, post on Workshop Heretic

Regular readers, if there are any (given how my blog stats tend to swell in September and February, I gather my readers are typically English Lit 101 students who are desperately looking for something to say when a story is assigned in class) may have noticed that a few years ago, I shifted from using quotes from the story as a lead-in, to quotes from the author’s Contributor Note on how the story originated, or the guest editor’s Introduction on why the story was chosen, or perhaps an online review, either to generate interest in the story or to highlight an important aspect. I’ve never used one of my blogger buddy Jake’s posts before; it just felt a bit inbred or something.

It’s not that the other options weren’t eminently appropriate. McCracken discusses the importance of setting and how she uses real-life places in her stories, and how this one was chosen because she encountered a huge stone statue that looked just like her father in a Denmark museum. There’s also a very brief reference to her having been on her way to an exhibit of “stone noses that had lost their statues” when she saw her father’s image; she has a way of making these drop-dead references consisting of two to ten words that have more impact than any other author’s three elegantly crafted paragraphs.

Likewise, Greer celebrates the humor of the story, via his appreciation of seeing a character’s flaws as well as strengths, and how the seriousness of life is underlined by its absurdity: “how else could you tell the story of an old boyfriend discovered at a Viking reenactment park except with laughter?”

But I chose Jake’s post because it is extraordinary. While he often – even when he says he’s working hard on his comments – comes up with insights I have missed, here he not only displayed the structure and purpose of the story, but did so with the metaphor of a symphony, a vehicle I always appreciate but usually find trite. Here, it’s perfect. I could have replacd this entire post with the words “See here” and a link, but I have sworn to write something about each story, each year (which is the hard part; try it, no one other than the two of us has lasted more than three or four stories) and so I shall. But definitely, see there (link provided below).

To give myself due credit, I had begun a post using two elements Jake mentions: the coming-of-age story, and the blending of past, present, and future into a kind of melted-time soup that features so prominently in virtually all of the stories in this volume so far. So let’s begin at the beginning:

Perhaps she should have known that she would find her lost love—her Viking husband, gone these many years—in Sydesgaard, on the island of Funen, in the village of his people. Asleep in the hut of the medicine woman, comforted by the medicine woman, loved by the medicine woman, who was (it turned out) a podiatrist from Aarhus named Flora. The village itself was an educational site and a vacation spot where, if you wanted, you could wear a costume and spin wool for fun. As for Aksel—was he Joanna’s common-law ex-husband, or ex-common-law husband? Eleven years ago they had broken up after living together for ten. “Broken up”—one summer Aksel left for Denmark, and she never heard from him again.
Not never. He sent an apologetic postcard from London. But never after that, nothing for eleven years. She’d married, been made a mother, lost a mother, been legally divorced, finally was fully orphaned by her father’s death. Her father, who had been heartbroken when Aksel disappeared, for his own sake.

This opening paragraph introduces the three generations that form the backbone of the story: Joanna and Aksel as the middle generation, Joanna’s father as the elder, and, tangentially, her son Leo as the younger. I find it interesting that, in a sense, they all go through a kind of coming-of-age, though not the traditional one.

What is a coming-of-age story? The Masterclass site (where, for $15 a month, you can watch videos of Margaret Atwood talking about writing, or Gordon Ramsey talking about cooking, etc etc) has a how-to section and lists four kinds. Emily Temple gives her criteria and examples on LitHub. Other definitions abound. Since everyone seems to have their own idea of what it is, I might as well make up my own definition.

Coming-of-age has nothing to do with age, but with transformation, with ending one phase of life and starting a new one. The key element is sacrificing one element of comfort and safety for an element of growth and freedom: The safety of dependence is given up for the risk of self-determination; or, passivity becomes activity; or, innocence becomes experience. In this story, it’s more like a view of the past, a view that has buffered against pain, is sacrificed for honesty and the ability to move forward unimpeded by one’s own history.

In the case of ten-year-old Leo, this shift is made quite literal via a pair of eyeglasses:

He was newly bespectacled, having failed a vision test at school. Because he hadn’t cared, she’d picked him out a pair of square black frames, so that he looked not like the bookish skinny wan pubescent boy he was, but like a skinny wan Eighties rocker. Wow, he’d said, stepping out of the optician’s, scanning the parking lot, the parking lot trees, the Starbucks and the Staples. Wow. Just like that, both he and the world looked different.

In lesser hands, this could be clunky. However, McCracken makes it a small part of a whole; it doesn’t bear the entire weight of the story. It’s just Leo’s visual experience. He has other experiences which supersede it: his discovery that Legoland, even to a Legofan, is a cheesy rip-off, and that playing Viking hoop rolling with a Danish boy could be more fun than he’d expected. And that he needs – wants – his mom, still.

The Danish Iron Age Viking village serves as the meeting place for Aksel and Joanna, bordered by the memory of Joanna’s dad on one side and the presence of Joanna’s son on the other. Aksel seems to have made his major coming-of-age transition years earlier, though he does go through some transition in the scene with the watch. He and Joanna argue. They both consider it might be better to give the watch to Leo, Joanna in the hopes that he might take an interest in horology, Aksel in the interests of getting rid of old ties. This is all amidst a dreamy world of in-between: “The Viking village was all around them, smoke in the air, the bleating of sheep that didn’t know what millennium they were in, either.”  While arguing about, on the surface at least, a watch.

He retrieved the watch from his pouch, his Viking pocketbook, and weighed it in his hand as though he himself would throw it bogward. Instead he wound it up—later, when Leo did become interested in old watches, she would discover this was the worst thing you could do, wind a dormant watch—and displayed it. First he popped open the front to exhibit the handsome porcelain face, the elegant black numbers. “Works,” he remarked. Then he turned it over and opened the back.
There, in his palm, a tiny animated scene: a man in a powdered wig, a woman in a milkmaid’s costume, her legs open, his pants down, his tiny pink enamel penis with its red tip tick-tock-ticking at her crotch, also pink and white and red. It was ridiculous what passed for arousing in the old days. She was aroused.
“Old Walter,” said Aksel. “He lasted a while, then. He started taking care of himself?”
“No. He got worse and worse. He was eighty.”
“He never wanted to be,” said Aksel, in a sympathetic voice.
“I know it.”
He offered the watch. “In four years perhaps your boy will be interested.”
Ah, no: it was ruined. Not because of the ticking genitalia, but because it was somebody else’s private joke, and she the cartoon wife wanting in, in a robe and curlers, brandishing a rolling pin. Even a cartoon wife might love her rascal husband. She did.

It’s a tough thing to do, let go of the past we believe in, and accept the past that was.

So where was the Souvenir museum? It was tucked in between Legoland and Odins Odense.  It’s a quantum world when time melts: effect precedes cause. We are thus prepped for the Passing of the Pornographic Watch, and then for the descent into quantum time that makes up the final few paragraphs, where there is no present, no past, no future, just a boy deciding he still wants his mother, and a mother deciding she wouldn’t trade the present for the past after all.

I urge you again to read Jake’s post. He claims he only scratched the surface, but I, a master of surface-scratching, think he did a lot more than that.

*  *  *  

  • The story is (at least temporarily) available online at Harper’s.
  • Jake Weber’s insightful post about this story can be found online at Workshop Heretic.  
  • The MasterClass discussion of coming-of-age stories
  • Emily Temple discusses coming-of-age stories on LitHub.
  • Do you really want to know more about Legoland after reading this story? Do you? Really?
  • And Odins Odense? Surely you want to know more about the European Iron Age version of Plimouth Plantation?
  • And just because it’s so cool and where else could I ever fit this in: you might want to know about the museum collection of “stone noses that had lost their statues.”

Pushcart 2021 XLV / BASS 2020: Elizabeth McCracken, “It’s Not You” from Zoetrope All-Story #23.3

When I was a young writer trying to come up with ideas for short stories, I felt, always, desperate. Lonely, even, not for characters but for ideas…. Nothing could happen without an idea , I thought then, even though in those days that wasn’t how I wrote. My actual stories – the ones that panned out – arrived in my head as a single sentence in a strangers voice.
Now that I’m middle aged, I think ideas are essential for novels but in some ways besides the point in short stories. My short stories, I mean. My short stories now generally begin with some scraps of material I have scavenged from my life.
…In the case of “It’s Not You,” I’d traveled with my husband, Edward Carey, and our kids to Galveston. (I’d already written a story that took place in Galveston, based on another trip.) On our way home to Austin we stopped at a hotel in Houston that upgraded us to a suite: two rooms, two bathrooms, a dining room table with room for eight, a couple of chandeliers. The hotel wasn’t deluxe, just entertainingly garish. The next morning a lovely man with a Cesar Romero mustache and braces brought free breakfast. On that little trellis of reality I decided to train a story about youth.

Elizabeth McCracken, Contributor Note

When a man breaks her heart, what does a woman do? She has a good cry, trash talka him to her friends for a while, then goes out and find a rebound love.

But what if he doesn’t break your heart? What if you’d only been seeing each other for a couple of weeks, and he just did the “It’s not you, it’s me, I just can’t do a relationship now” mea culpa, and you were fine until you saw him with another woman, necking in public – necking, for god’s sake, adults necking in public – and you realize, it wasn’t him, it was you, all along. What do you do then?

If you’re our narrator (who is, surprise surprise, unnamed, take a shot), you basically do the same thing. Or at least the first part:

Hotels were different in those days. You could smoke in them. The rooms had bathtubs, where you could also smoke. You didn’t need a credit card or identification, though you might be made to sign the register, so later the private detective—just like that, we’re in a black-and-white movie, though I speak only of the long-ago days of 1993—could track you down. Maybe you anticipated the private detective, and used an assumed name.
Nobody was looking for me. I didn’t use an assumed name, though I wasn’t myself. I’d had my heart broken, or so I thought, I’d been shattered in a collision with a man, or so I thought, and I went to the fabled pink hotel just outside the Midwestern town where I lived. The Narcissus Hotel: it sat on the edge of a lake and admired its own reflection. Behind, a pantomime lake, an amoebic swimming pool, now drained, empty lounge chairs all around. January 1: cold, but not yet debilitating. In my suitcase, I’d brought one change of clothing, a cosmetic bag, a bottle of Jim Beam, a plastic sack of Granny Smith apples. I thought this was all I needed. My plan was to drink bourbon and take baths and feel sorry for myself.

And maybe the next morning while you’re feeding your hangover, you run into a local radio shrink, Dr. Benjamin. It looks like he’s there for an assignation with Dawn from Baton Rouge but got stood up, so you both have a drink in his room and you nearly drown in his bathtub  – the bath thing was a serious part of the deal – and then you get up and go home. “There isn’t a moral to the story. Neither of us is in the right. Nothing was resolved. Decades later, it still bothers me.”

Time is all jumbled in this story. From the first line, we know it’s told from a future point in time, but it’s told like 1993 was a lifetime ago. Wow – it was, wasn’t it? But do hotels really change so much in that period of time?

The time span is emphasized by using black-and-white imagery in that first paragraph, like the hotel scene would be filmed in black-and-white while the contemporary contemplation would be in warm color. Except, no: “The worst thing about not being loved, I thought then, was how vivid I was to myself. Now I am loved and in black and white.” It’s as if time came forward, then went back.

But that’s just a warm-up for the kind of identity reversals that go on during the story, identity reversals courtesy of the Narcissus myth. Or, rather, myths, because there are several, and they all contribute to a symbolic fluidity that makes the most of metamorphosis. The most common Narcissus myth, after all, is from  Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection of stories about transformations. If you get bored being Narcissus, now you can be Echo for a while. Or Ameinias, from the version by Conon. And to give things another twist, there’s always Dali and Freud. Time to dig in…

From the start, the Narcissus imagery is obvious, but there’s a lot of free-floating stuff as well. The narrator works at a radio station – not the same one as Dr. Benjamin – in Human Resource, so she “lived with voices overhead”. That calls to mind Echo, who faded away from unrequited love for Narcissus until all that was left was her voice. The entire phenomenon of talk radio, for that matter, is disembodied voices, both for the callers and the talent. The narrator even refers to the shrink’s would-be paramour as a disembodied voice after her bathtub mishap.

Don’t forget, both the narrator and Benjamin are spurned lovers. Probably; we don’t actually know for sure why he’s waiting for Dawn from Baton Rouge with a high-end stuffed animal, maybe it’s a therapy session, but an affair seems a lot more likely, particularly since they both seem to have come a significant distance to meet.

But the narrator, with her fixation on baths (she took three the night before she met the shrink), not to mention her self-focus, is clearly identified with Narcissus as well. When Benjamin walks in on her as she’s enjoying his bathtub, it becomes crystal clear:

Then he came in. He was wearing his cowboy boots and slid a little on the marble. Now he looked entirely undone. In another version of this story, I’d be made modest by a little cocktail dress of bubbles, but no person who really loves baths loves bubble baths, nobody over seven, because bubbles are a form of protection. They keep you below the surface. They hide you from your own view. He looked at me in his bathtub with that same disappointed expression: just like you to bathe in your birthday suit.

She doesn’t want to be hidden from her own view. And one other interesting point: there are other versions of this story, just like there are other versions of the Narcissus myth.

Speaking of which, let’s turn to Ameinias from one of those other versions. He’s another of Narcissus’ admirers, but Narcissus gets tired of him hanging around and gives him a sword, which he promptly uses to kill himself at Narcissus’ door. In this version, Ameinias asks the gods to punish Narcissus for his cruelty, and that’s how he ends up falling in love with his own reflection and either fading away to a flower or drowning (versions of a version). What if instead of giving him a sword, Narcissus gave him a bathtub and a few bottles from the minibar, and then checked out of the hotel while Ameinias died in his room? So at the same time, the narrator drowning in the bathtub could be both Ameinias and Narcissus, while Benjamin is also Narcissus. Talk about fluidity of identity!

By the way, amidst all these versions of the myth, we have a narrator insisting “I don’t plan on coming in versions.” We all do, of course. But seldom in the course of a story have I see so many.

Now, what’s this about Dali and Freud, and what does it have to do with the story?

I happened upon a talk (link below) by art historian and Surrealist specialist Dawn Adès that accompanied an exhibit of Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus. It seems the surrealists were big fans of Freud, since they both used the unconscious to get at what they needed: information for healiing neurosis, or artistic inspiration. The fifteen minute talk mentioned a lot of concepts that seemed to relate to the story. It also reminded me that Freud, and psychoanalysts in general, sat behind their patients, unseen. They were disembodied voices. Dr. Benjamin isn’t necessarily a psychoanalyst, of course.

Dali’s painting included two images, one of Narcissus, one of a stony hand holding an egg out of which grew a flower. But his drawings showed the two images combined. Adès thinks it’s possible he was referencing stereoscopes, devices from the mid-19th century that held a card with two images. Viewing the card from the correct distance combined the images into one three-dimensional image. She also calls it his “exploration of critical paranoia, a systematic misreading of the world around you according to an overriding obsessional idea.” It’s possible our narrator has a few of those. In fact, I suspect we all do, to some degree.

I was reminded of the two characters, the narrator and Dr. Benjamin, overlapping, changing back and forth. Of course, if McCracken wasn’t aware of the painting, and this theory of it, as she wrote the story, it would be less about the story and more about my misreading of the world. Still, it’s an interesting coincidence.

Adès sums up Dali’s painting as being about “change, death, and love”, and here we have a story where the characters seem to change into different aspects of the Narcissus myths, between versions of the myth, while despairing about love. And death?  

In those days, it was easy to disappear from view. All the people who caused you pain: you might never know what happened to them, unless they were famous, as the radio shrink was, and so I did know, it happened soon afterward, before the snow had melted. He died of a heart attack at another hotel, and Evaline Robinson the Love of His Life flew from Chicago to be with him, and a guest host took over until the guest host was the actual host, and the show slid from call-in advice to unexplained phenomena: UFOs. Bigfoot. I suppose it had been about the unexplained all along. All the best advice is on the internet these days, anyhow. That person who broke my heart might be a priest by now, or happily gay, or finally living openly as a woman, or married twenty-five years, or all of these things at once, or 65 percent of them, as is possible in today’s world. It’s good that it’s possible.

So much of this story raises questions rather than handing out answers and fitting into neat little interpretations. Another hotel; another affair? Was he waiting for Dawn from Baton Rouge, or another caller? Was his wife aware of all this, or did she learn about it at his deathbed?

And, more importantly: Why does McCracken plop this paragraph here? It seems important, a return to the present while still looking at the past (man, the timeline is convoluted), but I don’t see why it’s important we have this information here. I’m sure there’s a reason – writers like McCracken always have reasons – but I have no idea what it is.

Then there’s the ending, which brings more questions, this time about the narrator:

You would recognize my voice, too. People do, in the grocery store, the airport, over the phone when I call to complain about my gas bill. Your voice, they say, are you—?
I have one of those voices, I always say. I don’t mind if they recognize me, but I’m not going to help them.

Has she metamorphosed into Benjamin, becoming a radio personality? Fluidity of character…

I have to go with Curtis Sittenfeld’s take from her Introduction to the anthology: she loved this story “because I underlined the sentences in it I thought were clever or funny and by the end I’d underlined about 50 percent of the entire story.” It’s not just clever lines, it’s the ones that made me wonder, why is this here? Why does she always love the waiter? Why six apples?

And Kindness, which runs through the story. Forgiveness that transforms; forgiveness of self, and of those who hurt you. And yet, there’s a cynicism revealed by the final paragraph. It’s very puzzling.

But she warned us there wouldn’t be a moral to the story.

* * *

Other takes on this story:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic:  “We tend to think of narcissists as people obsessed with how wonderful they are, but self-loathing can also be a form of narcissism. Whether you’re staring at yourself to see how beautiful you are or how ugly you are, either way, you’re staring at yourself.”

The story is available online at Zoetrope: All-Story.

HENI talk by Dawn Adès (15 minutes; it’s worth it).

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.

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.