Pushcart XLII: Lydia Conklin, “Counselor of my Heart” from Southern Review 52.1

After crossing Memorial Drive onto the bank of the Charles, Molly let her quasi girlfriend’s dog off leash. Chowder bounded next to her, limbs flapping against the snow—so puppyish she wanted to push him over. But nothing could annoy her now, not even the stupid dog. She had a day off from the hot dog stand. The air smelled like fire.
She was just wishing the dog away when she became half-aware of the squirrel skittering over the frozen river, making the sound of a rake dragged over plastic. Later she’d wonder why she didn’t turn and face the squirrel, seriously question his purpose on the ice. Did he think he’d buried a nut out there? Had he, actually? Was it floating, swollen, an inch above the river bottom?

There’s a certain kind of character I seem to have a lot of trouble reading. Maybe it’s because I’m intimidated by people like them in real life: anyone, but usually someone fairly young, defended by an air of ironclad self-confidence with little discernible foundation, and armed with withering disdain for everyone else.

In Molly’s case, her self-confidence is an act, since she’s already dodged some emotional outpouring Beth (that’s the quasi-girlfriend) was ready to drop on her. And now she’s here dogsitting in a Harvard dorm where Beth RAs, and she’s none too happy about it. I don’t mind people who hate dogs; I mind people who hate everything. And kill dogs.

Yeah, that’s the inciting incident. Molly doesn’t kill Beth’s dog, exactly, but watches it fall through the ice. I can’t tell if she realizes there’s really nothing she can do (most of us have seen the PSAs about the impossibility of broken-ice rescues), or if she thinks her dislike for the dog is the reason she didn’t try to pull him out. In any case, she spends the rest of the story worrying about what’s going to happen when Beth returns, first by herself with the aid of some White Kush, then with the student who comes by RA Beth’s to report someone smoking pot in the building. Molly’s disdain soars to new heights with him, probably because she’s a Northeastern grad.

I liked the scene with the squirrel – what was it doing out there, besides providing a target for the dog, which helps the story but doesn’t answer the question – but the rest of the story went by me. I’m probably going to discover, at some later date, that it’s a sensitive portrayal of the conflicted female psyche torn between independence and attachment, or a profound statement on relationships between lovers of unequal professional status. To me it just felt like one of the art school kids sneering at me in the elevator because I obviously don’t measure up. I have enough adequacy issues in real life without absorbing them from fiction.

This is the second story I’ve read from Conklin (who, by the way, is a Harvard grad). I quite enjoyed her “Rockaway Beach” for its use of language. I wonder if my level of discomfort with Molly was also a product of her use of language; if so, it’s a feature, not a bug.

Pushcart 2012: Lydia Conklin, “Rockaway” from New Letters Fall 2010

"Human Balance" Sand Sculpture by Helena Banger and Jooheng Tan

"Human Balance" Sand Sculpture by Helena Banger and Jooheng Tan

Dani and Laurel hold hands. Laurel leans on Dani’s shoulder, even though Laurel’s taller. She likes Dani’s shoulder blade bumping her temple at each stride. Dani is tough but junior-sized, with long, gelled curls that stand between her and real-boyhood. Laurel is mixed race – Puerto Rican and black and a little Chinese – with an ironed spray of ponytail. There’s a scar on her jaw from opening a bottle with her teeth. Sometimes tears and sweat or milky drips of moisturizer form tiny ponds in the scar. Dani monitors the ponds as they change with the light of day. She kisses them out of their beds. They’re salty.

Part of the appeal of this story, for me, was the placement. It followed an essay by B. H. Fairchild on the love of language, and a poem about the seductive nature of language (I’ll be dealing with the poetry and essays in this volume in separate posts later on). Then comes “Rockaway,” which uses language perfectly.

That isn’t to say it’s elegant or poetic. It’s just evocative as hell.

Dani and Laurel are a couple of fifteen-year-old lovers from the projects who visit Rockaway Beach to search for whale barf. They’ve heard a rumor someone just found a small piece that netted him eight thousand dollars, so off they go. They don’t know what whale barf is, what it looks like, or why it’s so valuable. They just go.

It’s sort of how they fell in love. Their moms got pregnant together as teens, and they grew up across the hall from each other, though they ran in different crowds until one day, Laurel noticed Dani “was more boy than girl.” They’ve been keeping it quiet, with Laurel sneaking into Dani’s bed late at night and leaving before her mom wakes up. Now Laurel wants to tell their moms about their love. Dani’s more cautious:

Dani wonders what would happen if she ever wanted to dump Laurel. They’re in love, really, and she can’t imagine it ending. But there’s the option. If they tell the moms, and then Dani wanted out, she’d be stuck. The moms would give her shit for the rest of her life for hurting Laurel. Before Laurel, anytime Dani got sick of a girl clinging on her she blocked her number and IM, looked away on the street. Some of the girls got mad, hit her in public. The boys on the block gave her high-fives and winks, had her back if things got dangerous. It was only time they respected her. Now that they sense she’s settled down, they’re dicks again.

Dani keeps putting off the issue; they’re at the beach looking for whale barf, after all.

A few things happen at the beach, including a party in a hole in the sand, that clarify the relationship, and it’s all very beautifully handled. The kids are in that adolescent state of zigzagging from hypermature ‘hood toughness to needy infancy to motherly tenderness at a moment’s notice, and the language lets them do that. Little touches – like “clinging on her” instead of “clinging to her” – matter.

The story works on face value, and it works in symbolics as well – the elusive ambergris, the hole in the sand at the beach, the adolescent view of committment. Very nice, but not intrusive. It’s just there if you want it.

Conklin, a Harvard grad, was an MFA student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when the story was originally published. She’s an artist, cartoonist, and now writer. Given her ability to use language, that seems right.