Jodi Angel: “Snuff” from One Story #179, 5/28/13

After the accident, I would wonder if I had seen it coming, the shift in shadows, the sudden definition of a shape, a thickening in the air like a premonition, because when something goes terribly wrong there is always a before and always an after, but the moment itself is vague and hard to gather, and time jumps like a skip in a record, and so I tried to remember the before, tried to trace what happened during, but in the end, it all came down to after and we were spun hood up into a dry drainage ditch, the broken headlight suddenly finding its too little too late and pointing straight and strong at nothing more than wide open sky, the windshield shattered and fracturing the night into a thousand webbed pieces, and Charlotte bleeding from her nose and me with my mouth open to say something, but instead everything just hung quiet and still.

The teen brother-sister relationship takes many forms, from hero-worship and protectiveness to hostility and avoidance. I think, though, there’s a special kind of bond, regardless of the surface, that forms in kids dealing with a troubled adult. In this case, Shane and Charlotte live with their dad who frequently “talks to Johnnie,” as in Walker. He doesn’t sound like a total loser, since he’s concerned about Charlotte’s burgeoning sexuality and tries to lay down some pretty standard ground rules, but while we don’t get specifics, it’s strongly implied that he’s handy with a belt or a slap; the threat of him hangs over the kids for a good part of the story.

Shane’s coming-of-age all happens in the course of a few hours. He’s just seen his first snuff film, and may be as traumatized by the callous reaction of his friends as by the violence in the film. He leaves, and calls sister Charlotte to pick him up. She’s reluctant, but agrees for twenty bucks. These best laid plans go awry when Charlotte hits a deer. But that’s just the beginning: she thinks the deer she’s killed is pregnant, so she gets to work on a roadside c-section.

And there was a sadness in her voice that made me want to get back into the car and shut my door and slide onto the floor, let Charlotte deal with it and wait it out, because Charlotte was older and had always been the one to take the brunt, but I wouldn’t do that this time. I was the one who had called her out here. She came for me.

Charlotte shows great concern for the baby – she never calls it a fawn, but a baby – and great confidence that she can do the impromptu surgery because she’s going to be in Advanced Biology next year in school (amazingly, the photo above, from the UK’s Daily Mail, claims to be of a fawn delivered by c-section after the mamma deer was killed by a car). Shane has flashbacks to the snuff film as she sinks a knife into the carcass. In her One Story Q&A, Jodi Angel says: “I wanted to keep the relationship between Shane and Charlotte complicated and built more on what isn’t being said between them, rather than what is” and invokes Hemingway’s “iceberg theory.” I think she succeeded. She certainly created an atmosphere where reality is uncertain.

This is my second Jodi Angel story, following “A Good Deuce” from the Summer 2011 Tin House. I’m fascinated by a question about gender in her Q&A; it seems that in the first draft of “Snuff,” Shane’s gender was unclear most of the way through the story. When I read “A Good Deuce,” I’d thought the narrator was female until about halfway through. Seems she likes to write stories with teenage boy narrators, and her forthcoming collection, You Only Get Letters From Jail, will feature more – one of which, by the way, is available online right now at the Tin House blog.

For me, the most heartbreaking moment in “Snuff” was the fantasy:

Part of me hoped everything would happen like something on TV and we would make breakfast even though the sun had not begun to rise, and we would be inspected for injury, turned this way and that under the kitchen light, and our dad would take the fawn and come up with a way to feed it, make it a bed in a box, and he would look at the car and shake his head and be happy both of us were fine, and we would tell the story of how Charlotte had delivered the baby on the road from the deer we had hit and our dad would be so impressed that he would put his arm around her shoulders and say, That’s my girl! and he would repeat the story to his friends, too proud to keep from telling it over and over again for the rest of the week.

Amidst all the blood and violence and risky behavior both siblings have exhibited, this shoots out like a laser beam: this simple thing Shane wants, this quintessential scene from some family-friendly TV show. It’s obviously not going to happen this way – it would never happen this way, in any family outside of the Waltons – yet it leaves me hopeful for Shane: if that’s the dream, I think he might just be able to survive his adolescence and find his way to a safe place.

Jodi Angel – “A Good Deuce” from Tin House, Summer 2011

(sic)

It was Christy who’d found her, and I wished it was me – not because I wanted to spare Christy the sight of what she’d seen, but for the rest of Christy’s life she could fuck up or give up or not show up, and nobody would hold it against her because Jesus Christ you know her mother died, and she was the one who found the body. Christy had a free ticket to minimum. I came in when Christy called for me, but when your mother dies, there is no prize for coming in second. No one was ever going to keep some slack in my rope. The one who comes in second is the one who is supposed to spend the rest of his life cleaning up the mess.

Yep, I should’ve started reading this Tin House from the beginning, instead of picking stories at random.

I can hear the workshop voices now: the writing is too careful, not troubled teenage boy at all, “it takes me out of the story.” You know what? It’s amazing writing. It’s beautiful. There are sentences, paragraphs, metaphors, images that touch the face of God. And they’re bitching about taking them out of the story? Deal with it! This is gorgeous, a wonderful read, another example of everything happening being inevitable yet surprising, little things being dropped in so casually there’s no sign of their importance until they become important, and all of it works together to illuminate the heart of a scared kid. Don’t blame her if you’re distracted by exquisite emotion.

So this is about Roy. It’s first person, and for the first half of the story I thought the narrator was female. I’m not sure why, there were plenty of clues. As in the quote above: “the rest of his life”, I even noticed that, thought it was sad that a girl would switch the pronoun because “he” is typically used to include both sexes. And the ticket to the army recruiting station, I didn’t find it odd at all that a girl would be given such a thing, after all, girls join the army these days. And Phillip the best friend – well, girls have male best friends now, too, right? The Robert Redford movies helped. After all, why would boys watch Robert Redford movies? Even when Phillip was described as “six months older, four inches taller, and thirty pounds heavier, with shoulders broad from the football he thought he might someday play” I read that as in comparison to a girl. It wasn’t until they discussed which one would get Veronica, and which one would get Candy, that I realized the narrator was a guy. I kind of wish the name Roy had been dropped in a little earlier. But I liked the way I read it, too. I don’t know why I clung to the female narrator for so long, maybe because the author is Jodi-with-an-I-female? I’ve become interested in gender perception in fiction lately, so maybe it’s something I just did to amuse myself.

Anyway, Roy’s mom just died of an overdose. Just, as is yesterday. Apparently it wasn’t the first overdose but it was the first time she died. Little sister Christy, 13, gets taken away by Grandma Hannah. Roy does not, perhaps because he said some cruel things to her when he was eleven and maybe saw a Nazi armband in grampa’s closet, or maybe that never happened, or maybe he saw something and thought it was a swastika. Anyway, Roy gets the ticket to the Army. Best friend Phillip – the one who has a nice home and two stable parents but comes over to see what it’s like not to sometimes then goes back to his world, leaving Roy both grateful and resentful – comes over and they watch Robert Redford movies for nineteen hours. I’m guessing The Sting, Jeremiah Johnson, maybe the ski movie or Sneakers, not The Way We Were or The Horse Whisperer (sigh). Then they decide to go out for a beer, because Phillip knows a place that doesn’t card. “We got out of the car and stretched and kicked at the gravel for a minute. Neither of us wanted to be the first one through the door, and even though Phillip had been positive that we could drink here without a hassle, I could tell that he wasn’t so sure now, and maybe he wished he hadn’t opened his mouth back at the house and we were still watching movies in the dark and debating over a pizza, because when push meets shove, it’s a lot of responsibility to have an idea.” This is so perfect, that cockiness-uncertainty that teenagers have, and the final phrase is gasp-worthy in a story about being lost and adrift and getting slack and free tickets to minimum.

Candy and Veronica pick the boys up, though Roy doesn’t realize much of what’s going on (he gets lost in a memory of his grandma Hannah making him drown kittens that spotlights differences between him and Phillip, between Candy and Veronica; I think I actually did hold my breath for a couple of paragraphs there) until Phillip asks him which one he wants, the ugly one or the fat one. The climax is coming-of-age-in-the-face-of-tragedy-predictable, perhaps, but it’s highlighted by a few twists that make it special. And even though it’s a dog that’s barking, I swear I could hear kittens screaming.

Here’s my problem: I don’t know what “a good deuce” means. Is it something obscene? Hey, I’m still trying to figure out… well, never mind, just know that I’m not really up on all the x-rated lingo. Does it mean she weighs 200 pounds? Or she’s a good egg? A good lay? I’ve seen scatalogical references, but I don’t see how that’s relevant. Maybe Phillip means one, then it morphs into another? I don’t know. It feels important. But it’s out of my reach.

While I’m at it: there’s a typo in the story: the last paragraph on page 26, “mouthif” – I’m all for linguistic variance but I can’t believe that’s intentional. Shame on Tin House! And the online story graphic has the title misspelled, another huge disappointment. As disappointments go, not that huge, really, but noticeable. I used it anyway. 😉

What counts: The story is awesome. Read it.

[ETA: when the issue was current, the story was available online. It’s not any more. The good news: the typos are now moot. Moral: does every cloud have a silver lining, or does every silver lining have a cloud?] [Oh, stop complaining, sometimes a moral is a question.]