Jason Ockert: “Still Life” from One Story #171, 11/9/2009

Self-Portrait by Carol Peace (altered)

Self-Portrait by Carol Peace (altered)

Everett Zurn had grown accustomed to his station at Strand High. He wasn’t an athlete or an anarchist. He had never given the counselor any reason to include his name on the “At Risk” list. He came from a modest family: his mother cashiered at the Handi-Mart and his father worked two-week stints in the coal mines of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The boy was often left alone, but he did not mind it. He was not smart and was not stupid, did not really try or rebel – just another of the vast minority of through-the-crack slippers.
Once he finished high school, he’d become a miner. It’s what Zurn men did. He was mostly fine with this. It didn’t matter that teachers overlooked him; he be underground soon enough. All the same, Everett sometimes felt the future waiting for him pressing down, making it hard to breathe. And the only time this pressure let up was in art class.

I gave up on Glee last week. I’ve hung in there, hoping it’d recapture the absurd irreverent humor I loved when I accidentally stumbled across the “Think of the mail!” scene three years ago while channel surfing towards something more dignified but less entertaining. But no more. It was “Dynamic Duets” that finally did me in – the plot of two arch-enemies, rivals for the same girl, becoming all buddy-buddy in the space of 43 minutes (minus songs, which have gone downhill, too, since someone decided to ban anything from the prior millennium). It was just too pat, too convenient, too easy.

I didn’t care for this story for the same reason. But I feel really bad about it. First, because One Story is my favorite litmag. And second, because Jason Ockart, from his website, seems pretty cool: I’m crazy about his “boxing rabbits” GIF, he’s a featured author at Dzanc Books, and his CV contains some high-rent litmags. But this story, gee, I don’t know. He’s got some terrific elements here. But he’s also got a cardboard cutout of a character, and an ending that’s not only straight out of Hallmark, it’s unearned.

In his One Story Q&A, he says he likes to “take disparate characters, clack them together, and see what sparks. Part of the joy comes in the surprise of discovering undetected similarities.” He did that here, I’ll admit. He did it a little too well, for my taste. I could almost hear “cue the violins” in the stage directions at the end when lonely man and lonely boy find themselves less lonely together.

The lonely boy is Everett Zurn, ignored by parents and teachers alike, including his art teacher, lonely Mr. Ralph. But while I had some sympathy for Everett Zurn – being the sort of kid who got ignored a lot myself – I found Mr. Ralph, failed artist turned disgruntled, unenthusiastic teacher, to be whiney and void of redeeming qualities, yet not particularly interesting in his inadequacies. He’s in a special funk at the time of the story because girlfriend Millie has taken off for Albuquerque to make dreamcatchers with someone named Spirit (a detail I love, though it’s unsupported by the other information we have about her). I say, good for Millie; it’s a step up from Ralph.

Mr. Ralph assigns a self-portrait to the art class, and Everett completes it at home, his parents off somewhere doing something more important than parenting:

Outside, he slumped into a green plastic chair on the front porch in the dwindling evening. He hid inside his brown hoodie. His father’s portable Coleman grill reclined next to Everett, and the distorted image staring back resembled the Grim Reaper. He drew a grinning skull peeping out of the hood. Mr. Ralph had mentioned that the face should come alive. So Everett added flesh to the mouth and flushed the cheeks. Wheat-colored hair cascaded across his forehead. He had always been good at noses. The eyes, though, were difficult. Not the shape, the depth. He tried and tried. Then, fortunately, it was night. Life somehow felt more natural in the absence of light. Without thinking about it, he rummaged through the grill and rubbed charcoal briquette lightly over his portrait. He entitled it, Me, in the Dark.

This portrait is so wonderful I was tempted to give the rest of the story a pass just on the strength of this one paragraph (though I could do without the cascading wheat-colored hair). But I couldn’t; it is good – sketching a self-portrait, then covering it with charcoal? It’s spectacular – and it deserves to be seated in a story that lives up to it.

Mr. Ralph, of course, doesn’t “get” the portrait; he’s too busy mooning over Millie, and gives it a D.

Did you ever imagine your own funeral, maybe when you were a kid, one of those “they’ll be sorry when I’m gone” things? Everett finds a way, during a field trip arranged by Mr. Ralph, to manage that, while also getting back at Mr. Ralph for the dissing of his artwork. He places the carcass of a road-kill deer on the railroad tracks before the train comes through, at first just to see it burst open in a bloody explosion. This is all a little overcomplicated and doesn’t quite ring true, but just when he’s about to lose me, Ockert throws in my other favorite element of the story: Everett starts talking to the dead deer. And the deer talks back.

I could be something more, the dead deer said.
Everett squinted at the carrion in the wavering afternoon balm. “Like what?”
A lesson. An expression. A way out. You adopt me, I adopt you.
At first, this didn’t make sense to Everett – a coy riddle conjured from a dead deer.
And then it did.

As Ockert says, “It’s true; there are not a lot of stories with reanimated and conversant buck carcasses.” And as I said about the self-portrait: it’s a great element, and it deserves to be in a better story.

Everett puts his hoodie with the mangled carcass, and hangs out in a cave while everyone assumes it’s him in the carnage. Then he heads home, keeping up the conversation with the deer: at last, he’s found someone to pay some attention to him.

The narrative switches back to Mr. Ralph, on the hook for the field trip and thus Everett’s supposed death, telling himself it’s Millie’s fault, wondering how he’s going to get out of this mess. A nasty character is one thing, but this guy isn’t even a villain, he’s a sniveling coward; he doesn’t deserve redemption. He heads to Everett’s to deliver the bad news to the (still absent) parents, and finds, instead, Everett. Epiphany: and here’s where the music starts. He’s going to be a better person, a better teacher, (neither of which will be hard since the bar is set so low), blah blah.

The theme of invisibility is so appealing here, and rendered so well in the drawing, it’s a shame what happens to it. There’s an attempt at symmetry by having Ralph see himself in the same grill cover that Everett used to create his art, but for me it fell flat; it’s too obvious. Like his insight, his change of direction, it’s unearned. Ralph’s struggle is too simplistic, his angst too self-centered, to count towards his redemption. A couple of hours of whining is not the same as a tortured night of the soul. It’s cheap grace.

I wonder if it’d be better if, instead of switching narrative points of view, Ralph was described through Everett’s eyes. That way, he could be just as limp a dick, but the reader would assume the view was skewed and might be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. That wasn’t the choice Ockert made, however, and the story is the worse for it.

But, ah, that portrait, and oh, that deer – they give such lovely light!