BASS 2017: Eric Puchner, “Last Day on Earth” from Granta #134

“We’re going to the animal shelter, “ my mom said one afternoon. She was sitting at the kitchen table, holding a glass of white wine. I’d never seen her have a glass of wine before six o’clock. I inspected the bottle on the counter – it was half-empty, sweating from being out of the fridge.
“I told your father that if he didn’t come get the dogs this morning, I was taking them to the shelter. I’ve been asking him for six months. It’s past one and he isn’t here.”
“They’ll put them to sleep,” I said.
“You don’t know that for sure.”
“No one’s going to adopt some old hunting dogs. How long do they try before giving up?”
“Seventy-two hours.” My mom looked at me, her eyes damp and swollen. “Your father won’t deal with them. What am I supposed to do?”….
“We should do something for them,” I said, “before we take them to the shelter.” I needed time to think.
“Good idea,” my mom said, looking relieved. “Where’s the happiest place for a dog?”
“The beach?”
She smiled. “Of course. The beach. My God, I don’t think they’ve ever been.”

You know what’s going to happen right from the start of this story. You know the kid’s going to run to Dad, tell him about the dogs so he can heroically save them from the cruel fate Mom has devised. And you know the kid’s going to be disappointed, because Dashing Dreamers with Big Ideas never come through in the day-to-day crises; that’s why they married Practical Partners in the first place. And you know the dogs are going to be vivid symbols of the Family Left Behind.

This could be turned into a routine tearjerker, but Puchner steers clear of the biggest pothole: now an adolescent, the boy has little attachment to the dogs. Now all he has to do is outgrow the hero-worship for his father. As an additional inoculent against sappiness, the story handles the crucial scene with a subtle, bittersweet innocence, as if seen through the lens of additional experience that underlined how important this day was.

To me, the heart of the story had little to do with the dogs, but about a shifting of loyalties. A coming of age (as much as I hate the term), as the kid realizes not just that he’s outgrown the dogs and the uncritical admiration of the big-dreaming dad, but how valuable – and even amazing, superheroes who can walk on their hands – a practical, reality-based mom can be.

I was surprised to find, via the Contributor Note, that this story was mostly autobiographical. It takes some discipline to find a way to move away from the personal, bring it to the universal; to keep the emotion from sapping up the later recollection from tranquillity (apologies to Wordsworth).

I have a soft spot for Eric Puchner; his “Beautiful Monsters” from BASS 2012 was one of my favorite stories from that volume. I’m glad to see both stories are included in his collection, published earlier this year, that uses this as the title story, a collection focusing on all the perturbations of family.

BASS 2012: Eric Puchner, “Beautiful Monsters” from Tin House #50, “Beauty,” Winter 2011

Lillume: "Heads on Spikes, Yikes! (122/365)"

Lillume: “Heads on Spikes, Yikes! (122/365)”

The boy is making breakfast for his sister – fried eggs and cheap frozen sausages, furred with ice – when he sees a man eating an apple from the tree outside the window. The boy drops his spatula. It is a gusty morning, sun-sharp and beautiful, and the man’s shirt flags out to one side of him, rippling in the wind. The boy has never seen a grown man in real life, only in books, and the sight is both more and less frightening than he expected. The man picks another apple from high in the tree and devours it several bites. He is bearded and tall as a shadow, but the weirdest thing of all are his hands. They seem huge, grotesque, as clumsy as crabs. The veins on them bulge out, forking around his knuckles. The man plucks more apples from the tree and sticks them in a knapsack at his feet, ducking his head so that the boy can see a saucer of scalp in the middle of his hair.
What do you think it wants? his sister whispers, joining him by the stove. She watches the hideous creature strip their tree of fruit; the boy might be out of work soon, and they need the apples themselves. The eggs have begun to scorch at the edges.

I often have trouble with the science fiction presented in BASS. I have since I lambasted Wells Tower’s “Raw Water” (and then felt so bad about it, read Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned and loved it). I cut my SF teeth on the classics – Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, Ellison. It takes a lot to impress me.

But I’ll give this one credit for doing a really good job with a standard plot, for playing with ideas like the resilience of human instinct, and the lengths the beneficiaries of the status quo will go to when it’s threatened. And it’s done pretty smoothly – it’s all in the details.

Look at the opening paragraph above. The first sentences create a picture – house, trees, hypermature responsible kid (are the parents dead, drunk, working, sleeping?), intruder, danger. Then we come to “The boy has never seen a grown man in real life” – and it’s a whole different ball game.

I have to admit, I have this prejudice against stories using the construction “the boy” or “the woman” or any “the noun” subject. There’s no logical reason for this, but it grates on me, the same way having a character go to “the park” grates on me (like a park is a given). I’ve learned to put these quirks aside, since there’s no legitimate reason to ban these things; I just dislike them intensely.

The right-off-the-block problem for any writer is the defamiliarization that’s pretty much necessary to any science fiction story. It’s very hard to make it feel organic, not put on. Asimov wrote a great intro to one of his books explaining how hard it is – you don’t feel the need to explain “I’m turning on the light switch now” when you walk into a room, but characters in SF stories tend to explain various apparati just for the sake of cluing the reader into details necessary to understand 1) there’s lots of cool stuff in this world, and/or 2) this is how some situation later is going to be resolved. That’s the hard part of writing SF: informing the reader without being obvious about it.

And that’s a little how it is with the “never seen a grown man” thing – a writer of a typical story wouldn’t feel the need to explain that an urban character had never seen, oh, say, a giraffe. But it’s necessary to put this sentence in the story, in this opening paragraph, to clue us in: this is an alternate world, something like ours (eggs, sausage, apple trees) but also, very different. That it’s done at a moment when we might be thinking his shock is due to an intruder in his yard, lets it fit in more naturally, I think. Add in the sister’s use of “it” to refer to the man, and you’ve got some idea of the kind of world this is. All in the first paragraph; that’s pretty effective exposition, and it’s reasonably natural.

The boy and his sister are about 30 years old; they’re physically children but function more like adults, with jobs and bills and moral debates about kindness and loyalty. They take the man, starving and injured, into their home, and they learn from each other. There’s the obligatory riff on reproduction separated from sex and love and parental love; this is used to trigger buried instincts in the boy and the girl, so it isn’t thrown in just for the “gee whiz” factor. And, of course, aging is presented as a disease, now cured, except for a few holdouts (there are always a few holdouts) who live in hiding (and the ending scene of adult-children parading with heads mounted on pikes, emphasizes why). Along the way, we’re introduced gradually and naturally, to the vocabulary: Perennials. Senescents. Policeboys.

Sometimes defamiliarization can work really well, like when it’s turned on its head by this upside-down family, these adult/children who’ve never known what it is to be parented:

Sometimes the man yells at them. The outbursts are unpredictable. Turn that awful noise down! he’ll yell if they’re playing music while he’s trying to watch the news. Once, when the girl answers her phone during dinner, the man grabs it from her hand and hurls it into the sink. Next time, he tells her, he’ll smash it with a brick. The worst thing is that they have to do what he says to quiet him down.

The man tries to teach them how to be kids, something else they’ve never been, having been grown in orphanages after hatching until their encoding with “all the information they’ll ever need.” Paper airplanes. Horseplay. Silly stuff, to a boy who builds houses for a living and is worried about the financial implications of an impending work furlough. But he’s intrigued.

But the boy’s favorite part is hearing about the disease itself: how exciting it was for the man to watch himself change, to grow tall and hairy and dark-headed, as strong as a beast. To feel ugly sometimes and hear his voice deepen into a stranger’s. To fall in love with a woman’s body and watch a baby come out of her stomach, still tied to her by a rope of flesh. The boy loves this part most of all, but when he asks about it, the man grows quiet and then says he understands why Perennials want to live forever. Did you have a baby like that? the boy asked him yesterday, and the man got up and limped into the backyard and stayed there for a while, picking up some stray airplanes and crumpling them into balls.

The man and the boy confront each other, and the worlds they represent. For a while it looks like the man is winning them over. But when he entices the siblings to do a puppet show, they all discover there are some attitudes too ingrained to change:

Let’s play capture the graveyard.
In 70 years I’m going to die. First, though, I will grow old and weak and disease-ridden. This is called aging. It was thought to be incurable, in the Age of Senescence.
Will you lose your hair?
I am male, so there’s a four in seven chance of baldness.
If you procreate with me, my breasts will become engorged with milk.
I’m sorry.
Don’t apologize. The milk will feed my baby.
But how?
It will leak from my nipples.
I do not find you disgusting, red puppet. Many animals have milk-producing mammary glands. I just wish it wasn’t so expensive to grow old and die.
Everyone will have to pay more taxes, because we’ll be too feeble to work and pay for our useless medicines.
Jesus Christ, the man says, interrupting them. He limps over and yanks the socks from their hands. What’s wrong with you?
Nothing, the girl says.
Can’t you even do a fucking puppet show?
He limps into the boy’s room and shuts the door. The boy does not know what he’s done to make him angry. Bizarrely, he feels like he might cry.

That’s the tension in the story that gives it depth: they’re on opposite sides of a great divide. Will the Senescent convert the siblings to childhood, or will they remain true to their encoding and turn him in, especially since there’s a reward which will come in handy when the furlough starts? If the man is facing the difficult truth of the unbridgeable gap between them, the boy is facing something else:

But something has changed. The boy looks through the empty window square beside him and sees the evergreens that border the lot. Before long they’ll turn white with snow and then drip themselves dry and then go back to being as green and silent and lonely-looking as they are now. It will happen, the boy thinks, in the blink of an eye.
There is a utility knife sitting by his boot, and he picks it up and imagines what it would be like to slit his throat.

Not a bad story at all.