Pushcart XL: Josh Weil, “Long Bright Line” from VQR #90.3

VQR Art by Stephanie Shieldhouse

VQR Art by Stephanie Shieldhouse

The Society for Aeronautical Enthusiasm. Sometimes, when she was sad, or scared, or simply felt the inexplicable weight of herself, she would intone the strange words like an incantation: Aeronautical enthusiasm, aeronautical enthusiasm, aeronautical … She said it now … enthusiasm … starting up the station steps … aeronautical … shoe-clacking through the empty lobby … enthusiasm … to the shut door … aeronautical enthusiasm. She knocked.
Inside it was all smoke and suit backs, elbows at her head level, her father bending down, face flush as drunk, but eyes clear, grin pure, whoop a straight shot of glee. He scooped her up.
“Fifty-nine seconds!”
How long had it been since her father had held her like that?
“Eight hundred and fifty feet!”
Lifted her so high? With each hoist and drop she felt her years shake off, seven, six, five, her brother’s age, Larry in the corner watching, this is what it’s like to be him.
Before her face: a piece of paper, some smiling stranger lifting and lowering it for her to read. At the top, the stationmaster’s name. At the bottom, that of the man her father called their father: Bishop M. Wright.
“The Flyer!” Her father raised her high again. Near the ceiling the air made her eyes water. “The Flyer!” He lifted her into the pipe-smoke clouds.
But she wasn’t, wouldn’t be. The balloon ride he’d won—best guess at time and distance of the first flight—was a prize he unwrapped on the cold walk home: how they would scale the sunset, skim beneath the stars, a Christmas present more miracle than gift. Just not for her. Why? The basket size, the limits on weight. Besides, he said, ascending so high would surely swell that head of yours. He tugged her braid. No doubt big as the balloon itself. Laughed. While around them little Larry ran in circles, whooping.

~~ Complete story available online at VQR.

We live in a time when we believe you can have anything you want, if you work hard enough. It’s a lie, of course, but we repeat it over and over until we believe it, bolstered by those rare tales of those who have persevered through the impossible, the Rudy Ruettigers who played football at Notre Dame, the Jamaican bobsled team, the Forrest Gumps who changed the course of history … oh, wait, that one was fiction. Sometimes it’s hard to keep them apart.

It’s true, Clara probably could have become a flyer. But after her mother died, her family needed her, and though her love for flight never subsided, she made her peace with her place on the ground:

When summer came she stole away to Asbury Park. Walked to the train station, bought a seat east, saw the ocean for the first time, the boardwalk, the beach, slept on sand, discovered the affect her shoulders had on men, her smile, snapped up a ride, attained a ticket, was there on the field when Brookins crashed into the crowd, when Prince plummeted 6,000 feet, held her breath with everyone else, praying for his parachute to open (open! open!), felt the spectators’ communal shudder, would sometimes feel it again, back home, alone in the kitchen cracking the back of a bird, or serving a spatchcocked half to her brother, or sewing a split in her father’s yellowed longjohns, or stepping off the train onto the platform of her small Ohio town the day that she returned. But for one August night, at the edge of the Atlantic, looking up, she had been struck by a sudden sureness that it would be all right. The moon. The Milky Way. The Stardust Twins swooping through. That was what the papers called them after that first night flight, Johnstone and Hoxsey circling each other in the lunar glow, their pale-winged biplanes soaring smooth as owls. And her, beneath them, swept by the peace of certainty. Neck stretched back, face flat to the sky, she knew it: She was not meant to be up there; she was meant to be down here, here like a cairn seen from above, a landmark, her.

Then she worked the hell out of her cairndom, accidentally becoming a world-famous artist by using her own point of view and creating designs only fully visible from 1000, 5000, 10000 feet.

The art Clara creates sounds wonderful in concept (it’s very hard for me to visualize most of it): shadows of planes, as they would appear had an actual plane been flying overhead, reaching across the ground; mirrors creating the long bright line of the title by reflection of the sun, only visible from an altitude until the FAA forces its dismantling; a Japanese haiku in the snow, obliterated by the Army for fear it might be some kind of signal to the enemy. She marries a man “for his location”; the reason that location is desirable to her is one of the many tiny and delightful surprises sprinkled through the story; there’s often a delicious, desire-multiplying delay between the raising of a question in the reader’s mind, and the understanding of the answer. Her journey as an artist changes over time, as does aviation, and the story follows her through the decades.

I’ll be honest: I missed a lot of the details, and thus a lot of the impact, simply because, like my difficulty visualizing the art, I found the prose style very hard to read. Fortunately, it’s available online (link above) so while I regret what I’ve missed, it’s lost only to me. And perhaps only temporarily; I can always try again.

Five years ago, I read a story by Josh Weil in One Story, a tale that completely charmed me. It was in some ways similar to this one: set a century back in a rural place, the plot revolving around a piece of technology (an electric light) that captured a woman’s imagination. Because I enjoyed that story so much, I tried to read his The New Valley, a trio of novellas, but they didn’t work for me. Sometimes it’s like that: I’m captivated by a story, but it’s idiosyncratic. It’s why I have yet to find a “favorite author”. But so what, I’ll approach the fictional world one work at a time. Accepting where you’re meant to be doesn’t have to be a defeat. It can also be freedom.

Josh Weil: The New Valley (Three Novellas)

I checked this book out of the library after reading Weil’s story “No Flies, No Folly” from One Story. It was billed as three linked novellas about a variety of people in the New River Valley of Virginia. It received a glowing review from Anthony Doerr in the NYT as an example of how character comes from place, one of Doerr’s specialties, and as mastery of the novella form.

While I loved Weil’s One Story piece about a turn-of-the-century Jewish peddler and an Amish housewife enchanted by the newfangled electric light bulb, I found these novellas to be much to slow and plodding for me to enjoy. I only completed the first one, “Ridge Weather” which concerns Osby, a thirty-something farmer whose father just shot himself in the head. The story starts with the funeral, then proceeds to follow Osby as he discovers how lonely he is. He rides a schoolbus just to talk to the driver. But he doesn’t really want to get too close to anyone. This approach-avoidance thing is quite intriguing to me, but as I said, it moves very slowly. While at a convenience store, he decides, at the cashier’s urging, to rent a room, and puts up an ad. When the roomer moves in, Osby doesn’t want to go home any more. He returns to the convenience store and the cashier realizes he’s looking for, ahem, company. She has some problems with her propane tanks, and he offers to fix it. He’s thrilled with the idea of being needed – he’s hoping she has lots of broken things around the house so he’ll have to come back. She’s in the convenience store bathroom trimming her pubic hair with a Swiss army knife (as her ex told her men like it neat) and he’s thinking how nice it’ll be to have someone ask him for help. It’s a touching, funny-sad little scene. He has more of an emotional relationship with a steer sick with something called grass tetany which apparently causes paralysis and almost always results in death, though it’s sometimes reversed by a medication known as Cowdex. He does his best to help the cow, injecting him with Cowdex in the jugular (I’m always astonished at what farmers and ranchers can do), lies in the meadow with it, but is aware his father would’ve said, “Just put a bullet in its head.” Which of course his father did. But Osby won’t. He finally visits the site of his father’s suicide and maybe makes some decisions about moving forward. But it takes so long to get to that point, I just wanted to finish the damn thing, not really understand it. There was definitely a story there, one that deserves respect and proper attention. I regret that I failed to provide the latter.

I started to read the second story, about a man stealing a tractor (apparently some kind of antique classic tractor no longer in use) but I just got tired of slogging through it. I’m all for “thought” stories, where most of the story takes place in someone’s mind (and I usually get slammed for it, by the way) but this just got tedious.

So, with some regret, I abandoned the book. This is the second book I’ve abandoned recently, but I’m more adventurous in trying things on the strength of one story, so maybe that’s just the way it works.

Josh Weil: “No Flies, No Folly” in One Story #143 11/30/10

I was not always a peddler. I was once, too, a lighter of lamps. Street lamps. In the city of Providence. I was once a seller of lemons in Baltimore. I was a greenhorn seeing from the deck of a ship for the first time the lights of New York. I was a beggar. I was a deserter. Once upon a time I absconded from the Army of the Tsar. Once upon a time I was a soldier. A draftee. I was a Russian, a Jew. A brother. A son. The small sound you cannot hear in the dark on this road beneath the clanking of my pack is my spit landing. The other one you cannot hear is my sigh.

One of the most powerful story openings ever is: “And God said: Let there be light!” We of the Judeo-Christian traditions are fascinated by light. We see the light. We light the way. We look for the light at the end of the tunnel. A lamp unto my feet, a light unto my path. Light is life.

So cross-pollinate a Jewish peddler with an Amish housewife in the late 19th century, just at the time when incandescent light was developing. Add a little strange eroticism. And you end up with a helluva story. This booklet was a little thicker than most One Story’s, so I was dubious, but I ended up mesmerized.

Yankel visits the Hartzler farm about every three months. This provides the structure for the story. With each visit, he becomes a little more involved with Mrs. Hartzler, who is very interested in light bulbs. Then in generators. Yankel, who has his own interesting history as sketched in the early paragraph above, goes from carrying a rucksack to pushing a wheeled pushcart to driving a mule and wagon. Mrs. Hartzler – Esther – goes from an interest in light bulbs to generators to batteries. And their relationship becomes more intimate, albeit in unusual (and usual) ways. Let’s say you’ll never look at a light bulb the same way.

According to the Q&A with the author, the story was edited down by about a quarter to fit the One Story space requirements, though he plans to include it in a collection focusing on humanity’s lust for light. Yankel’s background is based on Weil’s great-grandfather whose life followed a similar path.

The prose is a little unusual (I thought it was charming, appropriate, and totally readable) since the story is set over a hundred years ago and the characters are from cultures that use other languages – Yiddish, German – freely. In fact, language is yet another erotic touchstone for them, and sort of reminds me of, forgive me, Wanda’s obsession with foreign languages in A Fish Called Wanda. It’s not really played for humor, though if you’re familiar with the movie, you may smile, as I did.

It’s well worth a read, as almost all One Story selections are. Oh, and the title? It has to do with Ecclesiastes, which is as much of a hint as I’ll give.