Pushcart XLIII: Leslie Jill Patterson, “Brace Yourself” from Prime Number #113

You like to claim you landed at Eagle Hill by mistake. A misunderstanding of some kind. Truth is, Billy Scales and his ranch hands found you in a bar named True Grit, and they knew, from minute one, who you were.
They knew you stuffed your suitcase in a hurry and surely didn’t come to Colorado for camping in the mountains—because it was fifty degrees outside and dropping, and, even so, you wore a sleeveless dress and city-girl sandals with leather daisies arching over your foot. You avoided eye contact, propping a book around your plate and pretending to read when they took the bar stools next to yours. You ordered off the kid’s menu and packed half of it out in a to-go box, so you were clearly guarding every dime. They probably even knew you tucked your wedding ring inside your purse before you walked through The Grit’s door. And when Billy invited you to his equine program—where women caught in hazardous marriages learned to tug a rein resolutely, steering their lives away from vows they should have never spoken—your story was so obvious, he pitched his invitation in the same pragmatic vein that he mentioned where you could find a low-rent apartment and which local bank offered free checking.

Complete story available online at Prime Number

I’ve said many times I like second person, how it both distances the reader from the story and draws them in. In her interview that accompanies the story online, Patterson tells us why she chose this often-disparaged pov. It was less about deliberate literary technique than about her ability to write about something that was very close to her, the character of Billy and the other cowboys. She needed the distance to present the story she wanted to tell.

In places, the story tells of the life the narrator has escaped by telling what is different here: when she struggles with the hose filling water buckets in the barn and squirts water all over, no one yells at her. I wish there had been more of that; it tells her story, but tells it slant, as Emily Dickinson wrote.

We don’t get to know the name of the narrator, which is typical for second-person stories, but here it serves the characterization: she’s on the run, so anonymity is part of her life. One of the cowboys calls her Dolly, which seems a bit demeaning, but he’s the one who helps her the most by bringing her into his “horseriding for abused women” program. I kept waiting for the cowboys to turn into something nefarious, so I felt a great deal of tension for much of the story. That put me right in the narrator’s shoes; she acknowledges the fear, and the hope that these men, this place, this time, it will be different. And although the story doesn’t end with a clear declaration, I had the sense that she has found a place to heal. Another reader might find something different.

Ambiguity seems to be the hallmark of this story. Are the cowboys good guys or bad guys? How does an English professor end up in a roadside bar? How does the professor spouse in the nice suit turn out to be a bad guy? How does a cowboy, a complete stranger, happen to have a solution to her problems? That, for me, is a breaking point of coincidence: of all the gin joints in all the world, she walks into one where a cowboy runs a program for runaway spouses.

There is one overwhelming peculiarity about the story; not the story itself, but how it’s presented in Pushcart. It was published in Prime Number, an online zine, as the winner of a fiction contest; the judge’s comments precede it on the website, while bio and brief interview follow it. Pushcart printed the judge’s comments as well. I’ve never seen that before. The closest I’ve seen was last year, when the introduction to the volume included part of a letter Charles Baxter sent along with the story he nominated, which was chosen as the first entry. But that’s a very different thing than including comments with the story; I thought it set the story up for failure.

I was really thrown by this, and checked Jake Weber’s blog post about the story to see if he’d had any reaction; indeed he did. One of his reader/commenters said it made it seem like a metafiction story, which of course it isn’t. That was exactly what happened with me: I was expecting some kind of story about writing a story about writing a story. Even the best traditional-narrative story would be disappointing after that kind of expectation. Then, too, there’s the thing about someone telling you what a wonderful story something is; there’s something about human nature that just goes, “Well, we’ll see about that.” Again, that’s an obstacle the story has to get past.

It’s ironic this presentation is done to a story about an abused woman whose husband constantly sets her up for failure. It might well look like mansplaining as manipulative sabotage, to someone who’s been there. Or maybe that’s paranoia. More ambiguity. And if I were a writer, I’d likely be thrilled to have such praise preface my work, so who am I to say.