Pushcart 2014: Lorrie Moore, “Wings” from Paris Review, Spring 2012

Art by Timo Grubing

Art by Timo Grubing

Now, as she often did when contemplating wrong turns, she sometimes thought back to when it was she first laid eyes on Dench, that Friday long ago when he had approached her at an afternoon sound check in some downtown or other, his undulating tresses not product-free, a demeanor of arrangement and premeditation that gussied up something more chaotic. Although it was winter, he wore mirrored sunglasses and a thin leather jacket with the collar turned up: 150% jerk.
… Would it be impossible not to love him? Would not wisdom intervene?

I’ve never heard of a rat king (“Rattenkönig“) before. It’s pretty disgusting to contemplate: a mass of several rats entwined by tails “glued” together by dirt, blood, excrement. Apparently it’s been a real thing since 1564, and several examples are preserved in museums. Especially in Germany, for some reason.

Sometimes people get twined together, too. Sometimes one manages to disentwine. Sometimes it’s a bloody path; sometimes it just feels that way.

KC’s been entwined with Dench for a while now. Her “band” was never much of a band, and it’s unclear just how they come up with money to survive but maybe it’s best not to know. Dench has a new idea: let KC befriend the old geezer she passes when she gets his coffee (you don’t want to know how she gets coffee from Starbucks) and he’ll put her in his will. Dench certainly thinks ahead. Doesn’t he?

And of course it kind of goes that way… but not exactly. It’s from the “not exactly” that Moore shines.

I loved a lot about this story, starting with the name “KC” that transforms into Casey. As it happens, my initials are KC, and I went by that nickname at one point in my life; I suppose everyone with those initials does. Maybe that intensified the connection with the fictional KC, plus the fact that she’s entwined with a jerk. And a few other things about her.

Tears, she had once been told, were designed to eliminate toxins, and they poured down her face and slimed her neck and gathered in the recesses of her collarbones, and she had to be careful never to lie back and let them get into her ears, which might cause the toxins to return and start over. Of course, the rumor of toxins turned out not to be true. Tears were quite pure. And so the reason for them, it seemed to her later, when she thought about it, was to identify the weak, so that the world could assure its strong future by beating the weak to death.

I cry easily. It doesn’t matter to me, but it makes other people very uncomfortable. I try to convince them: you don’t have to comfort me, or cheer me up, or make it stop; it’s a simple physical reaction I can’t seem to control, like blushing or yawning; just ignore it. But I’ve learned the hard way that no one wants to talk with a crier; they only want the crying to stop. KC has now explained why: they’re fighting a primal instinct to beat me to death.

Her relationship with the old man, Milt (look up “milt” in a dictionary; the meaning is, shall we say, seminal) includes his free library, a stash of books placed in a little birdhouse-like shelter outside where anyone can take one or leave one. I’ve seen those around before; our public library maintains a few in the metro bus hub and a couple of coffee shops. KC would like to donate her own books, but she can’t:

“… They all have the most embarrassing underlinings. In ink.” Plus exclamation points that ran down the page like a fence by Christo. Perhaps it was genetic. She had once found an old copy of The House of Mirth that belonged to her mother. The word whoa appeared on every other page.

I recently got into an us-vs-them discussion with some ModPo book lovers, begun by photo-poet Erica Baum’s work Dog Ear, that was as sharply divided as any contemporary political discussion: is marring a book with folds or ink a sign of disrespect, or a sign of love and use? I’m strongly on the side of the latter, but I have to admit I’d be reluctant to lend books because they contain notes far more embarrassing than “whoa”. It’s also self-revealing: recently I had the opportunity to re-read a story in an anthology I’d marked up back in the 70s, and I was shocked at some of the notes I’d left back then.

Yes, it’s a love-gone-bad story, a domestic-relations story, a stranger-changed-my-outlook story, an epiphany-leads-to-change story. So where does the rat king come in?

At just the time KC becomes aware of the old man who gradually becomes a mirror to her life, she also becomes aware of a foul smell in the house she and Dench rent. It’s Dench who discovers the source: “The rot of a bad conscience”:

…[S]he saw at first nothing but dust and boxes. Then her eyes fell on it: a pile of furry flesh with the intertwined tails of rats. They were a single creature like a wreath, and flies buzzed around them (and excrement bound them at the center) while their bodies were arrayed like spokes. Only one of them still had a head that moved and it opened its mouth noiselessly.
“It’s a rat king,” said Dench. “They were born lilke that, with their tails attached, and could never get away.”

As it happens, Dench is wrong about that last point (rat kings are made, not born) but even this fits since his comments continue to reveal other things he’s wrong about (like the necessity of burning down the house), leading KC to yet another moment of truth: “She studied Dench’s face as if – once again – she had no idea who he was.” This is not a one-time out-of-the-blue epiphany; KC is undergoing a process something like the reverse of the entwining of the rat’s tails. A process takes time.

Yes, it could be a cheap sensationalist ploy, your standard climatic moment, except the story earns it, first of all, and secondly, KC has an even more climactic moment later on with Milt. The denouement is almost out of a fairy tale; if I wanted to complain about a cheap ploy, that’d be my pick. Yet it fits.

She never saw the sick children themselves – except at night, when they were ghosts in white nightgowns and would stand on the stairwell landings and recite their names and wave – as she roamed the house, thinking of them as “her children” and then not thinking of them at all, as she sleeplessly straightened up, but she would hear of their lives.

I only realized once I started working on this post that I have no idea what the title refers to. But that’s ok; there’s plenty in the story to keep me busy. Maybe that’s why I overlooked the wings.

I underlined a lot in this story. Lines about Milt’s house; “Two front doors! Life was hard enough – having to make that kind of decision every day could wear a person out” reminded me of the Chekhov line, “Any idiot can face a crisis, it’s the day-to-day living that wears you out,” a sentiment I have pinned to my bulletin board, and on the pitifully understocked and neglected “Quotes” page of this blog. And I underlined (or bracketed) a lot of KC’s astute observations about her life with Dench:

With Dench she knew, in an unspoken way, that she was the one who was supposed to get them where ever it was they were going. She was supposed to be the GPS lady who, when you stop for gas, said, “Get back on the highway.” She tried to be that voice with Dench: stubborn, unflappable, keeping to the map and not setting what she knew the GPS lady really wanted to say, which was not “Recalculating” but “What in fucking hell are you thinking?”

Problem is, KC got a little lost herself, until a man with two front doors showed her a better map. Everyone needs a GPS lady sometimes.

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Lorrie Moore: “Referential” from The New Yorker, 5/28/12

New Yorker illustration by Matthew Bollinger

New Yorker illustration by Matthew Bollinger

Living did not mean one joy piled upon another. It was merely the hope for less pain, hope played like a playing card upon another hope, a wish for kindness and mercies to emerge like kings and queens in an unexpected twist in the game. One could hold the cards oneself or not: they would land in the same way, regardless. Tenderness did not enter into it, except in a damaged way.

Some stories are shorter than they look – the descriptions aren’t really necessary. Oh, they are, to make the places and people real and add depth to the events, but once you get the idea – rolling green hills, dirty city buildings, picket fences and bicycles in front lawns, Mrs. with grey hair and glasses, Mr. glancing in mirrors and tugging at his tie – the rest of the paragraphs skim by forgotten. Description is a necessary structure, like the foundation of a house, and maybe carefully constructed, but not something anyone other than a builder is going to actually look at.

This story, on the other hand, is longer than it seems. Every sentence, even the ones just describing, is loaded with images that add to the narrative. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, the way writing classes teach it should be. But it seldom is.

Look at some of these images:

The jars were arranged by color, from the brightest marmalade to cloudberry to fig, as if they contained the urine tests of an increasingly ill person.

The love they had for Pete was long and winding, with hidden turns but no real halts.

…her now graying hair undyed and often pinned up with strands hanging down like Spanish moss.

….she, too, had removed her necklaces, earrings, scarves – all her prosthetic devices, she said to Pete, trying to amuse – …a new widowhood on top of the old widowhood she already possessed.…and she went out into the world like an Amish woman, or perhaps, even worse, when the unforgiving light of spring hit her face, an old Amish man. If she was going to be old, let her be a full-fledged citizen of the old country!

And that’s just the first column of the first page.

Where to start with this, a story so full of stuff it’s hard to believe it’s only three pages long. Mom, the widow, has a sixteen-year-old son in a mental hospital, and she and Pete (the only named character) visit him. They have to be careful what they bring – nothing that can be used as a weapon, which is just about anything, so she settles on:

…a soft deckle-edged book about Daniel Boone, pulled from her own bookcase, which was allowed, even though her son would believe it contained messages for him, believe that, although it was a story about a long-ago person, it was also the story of his own sorrow and heroism in the face of every manner of wilderness, defeat, and abduction, that his own life could be draped over the book, which was simply a noble armature for the revelation of tales of him. There would be clues in the words on pages with numbers that added up to his age: 97, 88, 466. There would be other veiled references to his existence. There always were.

This is referential thinking, a symptom of various mental illnesses from personality disorders to schizophrenia. I started thinking: isn’t that the purpose of writing a book, to inspire someone, to communicate? But that’s not the same thing. That’s communication. Referential thinking is when the author writes it for you, individually, or when rain starting at 3pm on Tuesday is a message from God or the planet Zolar or the CIA that it’s time to clean your house or poke out your kitty’s eyes.

Mom connects the dots.

…the thin scars on her son’s arms sometimes seemed to spell out Pete’s name, the loss of fathers etched primitively into an algebra of skin. In the carousel spin of the room, those white webbed lines resembled coarse, campground graffiti…Mutilation was a language. And vice versa.

And of course she’s right.

Later, on the drive home, she finds more meaning in the orchard:

She knew that the world had not been created to speak just to her, and yet, as for her son, sometimes things did. The fruit trees had bloomed early, for instance – the orchards they passed were pink – but the premature warmth precluded bees, and there would be little fruit. Most of the dangling blossoms would fall in this very storm.

This is more of a metaphor than the manipulation of the weather and the trees aimed at her. It’s normal human reaction, to see yourself, your situation, in the world. To refuse to do so is its own malignancy. We all know them, people who think nothing has anything to do with them, who think their actions are unrelated to the chaos in their lives. Mental health is a very tricky balance. It’s a wonder anyone manages it. Or as the story puts it:

“So where have you been?” her son asked Pete.
“Good question,” Pete said, as if praising the thing would make it go away. How could people be mentally well in such a world?

The real story is yet to come: this is just setting the stage, setting up Mom and Pete, boyfriend of ten years, from before Son’s illness moved from “a vaguely brooding and fearful expression” to referential thinking, cutting, and suicide attempts:

At one point, he had been poised to live with her, but her child’s deepening troubles caused him to pull back. He said that he loved her but could not find the space he needed for himself in her life or in her house. (He did not blame her son – or did he?)

At home after the hospital visit, with Pete staying for a drink or two, Mom tells him she’s bringing Son home the next week. The phone rings, and she tells him the caller-id shows it’s a call from his apartment; he doesn’t show any surprise, or denial, just prepares to leave. He evades her goodnight kiss so it falls on his ear; she remembers this happened when they first met, when “he was in a condition of romantic overlap.”

She…had invented the part about it being Pete’s number, but he had made it the truth anyway, which was the black magic of lies and good guesses, nimble bluffs.

I get the sense this is her form of self-mutilation, another way she will be a full-fledged Widow of the Old Country; similar to taking off her jewelry, she’s taking off her last chance of romance. Except she doesn’t amputate, she just stands under the blade and wonders if it would fall.

The ending is one of my favorites of all time, as the phone rings again after Pete has departed:

The black panel where the number should appear was clouded as if by a scrim, a page of onionskin over the onion – or, rather, a picture of an onion. One depiction on top of another.
“Good evening,” she said loudly. What would burst forth? A monkey’s paw. A lady. A tiger.
But there was nothing at all.

I was amazed by this story, underlining and circling something in virtually every paragraph (as you can tell from all the quotes). Which is why I thought, as I was reading, that this is a very long, very short story.

But there’s another reason it’s so long, one that I didn’t know about until I finished reading, one that adds a meaning to the title “Referential”: it’s an homage to Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” (plus the reference to WW Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” at the end), down to the jam jars. Moore’s online interview discusses this process of creating a tribute. I’m humiliatingly unfamiliar with classic short stories beyond the standard Top 10, and that’s something I want to remedy, so I’ve printed out both stories and I’ll be looking at them next week, with an eye towards relating them to this story. But for now, I found plenty to savor here.

[Addendum: I’ve commented on Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols.”]

[Addendum 2: No surprise to encounter this in Best American Short Stories 2013; it provided me with quite an education.]

The Second Person Study, Part 11: Self-Help by Lorrie Moore

Hello, You are Zin, Helping Yourself

Begin by meeting him in a class, in a bar, at a rummage sale. Maybe he teaches sixth grade. Manages a hardware store. Foreman at a carton factory. He will be a good dancer. He will have perfectly cut hair. He will laugh at your jokes.

Here is a book that even announces it will be an instruction manual! Not all of the stories are second person, but most of them are, and I have to admit, I got tired of it pretty quickly.

Part if it, I think, is time.

I got this book from the library and just started reading the stories without looking at any preface or introduction or jacket blurbs. And I kept thinking, This feels like the 80s. And you know what? It was published in 1985! It was her debut collection! I did not realize this. Oh, the 80s. Madonna, Reaganomics, MTV, AIDS, and Women Who Love Too Much. Women who in the 70s had learned to live alone and get professional degrees and have sexual desires without feeling ashamed and give orders to men and who pays at a business lunch when the host – uh, hostess – is female. Women who already went through the cute answers to “What does your husband do?” and no longer have to get his signature to apply for credit or have a tubal ligation. And now these women in the 80s were sitting around wondering, so why are we so miserable? and looking right back at themselves because it must be their fault, after all, so do not love so much, do not love the wrong men, learn to meet your own emotional needs, as you learned to meet your sexual and reproductive needs via a variety of appliances and medical procedures.

So Robin Norwood wrote Women Who Love Too Much and Lorrie Moore wrote Self-Help. I found Norwood annoying at the time. I find Self-Help annoying now, and I am sad about that. I wonder if 20 years from now I will find “How to Leave Hialeah” annoying. I wonder if I would find it annoying if I read it now. I wonder if I would have found Self-Help annoying if I had read it then.

But I am happy I read it! I now know that the instruction-manual form of second person, what Richardson calls the “hypothetical,” is best used in infrequent small doses.