BASS 2019: Kathleen Alcott, “Natural Light” from Zoetrope All-Story #22.1

Having lost my parents in my early twenties, I often considered how I might maintain a relationship with each – which stories of theirs might take on different meaning as my life changed, which objects left behind might alter in emotional valence. But at the center of these thoughts was a certain dynamic: myself as protean, my parents’ lives as fixed where they left them – never, as the story begins, providing any new information.

Kathleen Alcott, Contributor Note

The quick takes on this story emphasize the inciting event: a woman in her thirties comes across a photograph, at a New York museum exhibit, of her now-deceased mother doing … something. “I won’t tell you what my mother was doing in the photograph”, Daughter promises in the first line of the story. She drops hints, however, that strongly suggest a sexual act with overtones of mainlining, things not usually associated with suburban mothers of adult daughters.

Shows like these are a dime a dozen here, and they are not of the sort I seek out, having lost most interest I might have had in the type of lives and rooms they always feature. Bare mattresses on the floor, curtains that are not curtains, enormous telephones off the hook, the bodies always thin but never healthy. Eyes shadowed in lilac, men in nylon nighties pour liquor from brown paper bags into their mouths. A woman with a black eye laughs, her splayed thigh printed with menstrual blood. These photographs are in color, the light strictly natural.

While this is dramatic and forms the foundation for the story, there’s a lot more to it, namely, a network of relationships involving our protagonist (who I’ll refer to as Daughter), laid out against her intrusive thoughts of suicide.

The relationships – Mother-Daughter, Father-Daughter, Husband-Daughter, Mother-Father – show some interesting parallels. Then there’s the Photographer-Mother relationship, of which we have testimony only from one side, and the Photographer-Daughter relationship, which is quite different in that we see only its genesis when Daughter wants to meet to discuss the circumstances of the photograph. It serves a specific purpose in the world of the story, and as a writing element, providing an escape and/or an ending.

The idea of natural light – unretouched reality – plays throughout the story, contrasted with ways we routinely soften, cleanse, and civilize what we see. Daughter had gone to the museum to see a different exhibit, landscapes “refashioned with a particular pink glow the painter must have felt when he saw what inspired them.”

The story gives several other examples of this softening. Mother gave up perfume years before, but on her death bed wore foundation to mask her pallor. Father has his own technique:

It was one of a thousand of precooked phrases he had on hand: canary in a coal mine, teach a man to fish, taste of your own medicine. Language to him was the same set of formations and markers, certain maxims always leading the way to others. After you pulled up your bootstraps, you reaped what you sowed. It was something he had adopted in recovery, I thought, the beginnings of which took place a decade before I was born. For my whole life, he had referred to himself that way: in recovery. It seemed cruel to me one had to adopt that title for the duration of living, but for my father it became a helpful boundary, a gate he could close on any conversation he wanted.

This precisely parallels the Daughter-husband relationship, or non-relationship, as they are estranged:

Contact between us now consisted mainly of three words, even the contraction never parted into its constituents. Hope you’re well, he wrote. Hope you’re well, I wrote. Hope you’re well! Hope you’re well! The statement never altered into a question, and with time it began to read to me as a kind of threat, beveled, ingenious. To his last hope you’re well, six weeks before, I had not replied, and I believed that was the end he had in mind. ….We had been separated a year.

There’s a different kind of natural light in the Daughter-Husband relationship. Daughter has what could be classified as either intrusive thoughts, or suicidal ideation; it’s not entirely clear from the story which is the case. They seem to be random, triggered obliquely by something she encounters. “Pills in a blender with strawberry ice cream, I thought. An email scheduled a day ahead of time with very clear instructions” follows her recollection of the email exchange with Husband. “A hotel suite uptown, I thought, a maid you’d somehow apologize to beforehand” occurs while at the museum. When Photographer says “I’d like to shoot you sometime,” we get “A gun shop, I thought, where you bantered a little outside your politics with the owner, some bald man with ideas about a woman’s instincts for self-preservation, who congratulated your investment in personal safety.”

I have no professional qualifications, but my understanding is that suicidal ideation is the repeated image of one scenario, complete with extensive plans. Hey, who hasn’t fantasized about the scheduled-ahead email. Husband seems inordinately freaked out by these thoughts. It’s sort of the reverse of the softening effect: he’s shining a glaring spotlight, increasing the harshness of the situation. Or… is Daughter softening her view, taking things too casually? There’s a strong indication that might be the case, given the language of her dismissal:

It is true there were parts of me that must have been difficult to live with, namely an obsessive thought pattern concerning various ways I might bring about my own death, but also clear that I rose to the occasion of this malady with rosy dedication, running miles every day and recording the impact of this on my mind, conceiving of elaborate meals, the hedonistic pleasures of which I believed spoke to my commitment to life. Could a person who roasted three different kinds of apples for an autumn soup really be capable of suicide? I asked him this question laughing, wooden spoon aloft, during an argument about a drug I did not want to take. Doesn’t the one cancel out the other, leaving you with a basically normal wife?

The double use of forms of “rose” makes me think maybe she’s the one painting the picture in soft light, like those landscapes with the “peculiar pink glow.” At the same time, the humor reminds me of her mother’s gesture as she dismisses her youth in New York. And that brings in her description of Husband’s tendency to dismiss her routine upsets: “Rather than responding to my speaking, he took to waving at it, scenery to be considered later…”.

Thus, the language of this story is incredibly important on a micro level. At times, it’s maddening. All the references to light, to pink (she wears a rose-gold watch), carry meaning. Syntax comes into play as well:

When my husband met me, twenty-two to his forty, he saw a girl with a rough kind of potential, and he tended to me as one might a garden, offering certain benefits and taking others away. He did not wish me to grow in just any direction. That I allowed him this speaks just as poorly of me. I was once a girl with an exquisite collection of impractical dresses – ruched chiffon, Mondrian prints – and a social smoking habit, a violent way with doors and windows. I left him in taupes, my arches well-supported, my thinking framed in apology….
Growing up his beliefs as their rigidity dictated, I was something like an espalier, the distance between the vine and the thing that trained it almost imperceptible.

That last sentence requires some concentration to parse (who is growing up?), but subtly introduces another element: how much of this metamorphosis is simply the natural byproduct of growing up, rather than an unnatural pruning of unwanted traits? Given what we learn about Mother’s past, didn’t she go through the same process of putting away childish things? Maybe meeting Father was the catalyst, or maybe she was just ready to grow up and move on. It happens to all of us; we change throughout time, and sometimes we want to forget our past lives.

That brings the overt theme of the story: how much do we get to know about the past of those close to us? It’s clear Mother didn’t want to share the details of her youth with Daughter, evidenced by “a gesture she would make…: a low hook of the hand, swiped an inch or two to the left. Total dismissal.” (Does that recall Husband waving at Daughter’s concerns?) Father amplifies this at the end of the story. Is our past our property? I can’t think of any practical reason Daughter has a right to know her mother lived, by all indications briefly, a seedy life. Is there an emotional reason to shine natural light on a Mother who would rather be seen in muted half-light? Is it an intrusion, a violence, to press the issue even after her death?

Syntax connects the relationships as well:

Of course, the thoughts had disturbed me enough that I had confessed to having them, about a year after my mother died, in the dark after sex in the middle of the night. This was the time he wanted me the most, calling me in from where sleep had taken me, his body my reintroduction to the living world.

I was startled by that first sentence, since the ambiguous clause arrangement made it sound like Mother died in the dark after sex in the middle of the night, an odd notion since she was so ill towards the end. Then I realized that was instead when Daughter told Husband about her intrusive thoughts. This grammatical blending of Mother and Daughter adds to all the confusion of identity, the connections between all of these people.

The story contains a line I adore, for my own reasons: “Anything can be lived around, so long as it’s only you who has to do it.” My husband and I spent fifteen years playing “Who’s turn is it to be crazy?” That sentence is the first time anyone’s validated my own sense that, as much as the well-meaning try to push me into social circles, I’m really better off alone, where I can be crazy without anyone feeling the need to do something.

What I see more than anything else is that Daughter is denied on all fronts: Mother, Father, and Husband all refused to give her what she wanted from them. Was she entitled to what she wanted? Maybe, maybe not. But the fact is, all the doors were closed. The only one open was the Photographer.

And then we come to the end. More connections via language and images. Backtrack to language: her husband wanted her most in sleep. She agrees to be shot – photographed – when she’s asleep. I see two connections to prior suicide thoughts: shooting, and dying in a temporarily occupied (hotel) room. So when I read:

I’m open to being photographed, I wrote to the photographer, so long as I’m asleep.
A field, I thought then. A yellow caned chair. A room up some stairs that was empty.

I think this is the real thing. Pills, booze maybe, to assure sleep that deepens. Photographer, the only open door. More than a little passive-aggressiveness towards the woman whose relationship with her mother predates hers. I’m betting the emails would be all set up and ready to go. Then again, ask me in a year, and I might read it differently.

That’s what’s fun about a story like this, the different takes. Jake Weber went in another direction in his blog post, and introduced me to the art term mise en abyme, a picture within a picture, while expanding it to a literary use here.