BASS 2015: Megan Mayhew Bergman, “The Siege at Whale Cay” from Kenyon Review, #36.4


Georgie woke up in bed alone. She slipped into a swimsuit and wandered out to a soft stretch of white sand Joe called Femme Beach. The Caribbean sky was cloudless, the air already hot. Georgie waded into the ocean and as soon as the clear water reached her knees she dove into a small wave with expert form.
She scanned the balcony of the pink stucco mansion for the familiar silhouette, the muscular woman in a monogrammed polo shirt chewing a cigar. Joe liked to drink her morning coffee and watch Georgie swim.
But not today.

Descriptions of short story architecture usually run something like: The status quo is disrupted by an event that starts the narrative action; the action then increases in complexity and intensity until a climax is reached, at which point there is a fundamental change in a character or social structure, followed by a denouement which may clean up loose threads or clarify the effects of the change. This story follows that pattern nicely – except that the fundamental change may be in fact a refusal, or perhaps an inability, to change.

Marian Barbara “Joe” Carstairs was a real person, a real heiress, a real WWI ambulance driver, and a real champion speedboat racer. She did purchase and “reign” over an island, in the Bahamas where she imported glamorous actresses for rollicking weekends and various beautiful women for in between. As with much historical fiction, fact is the setting, but the real story happens in a place not included in the historical record, in this case, in the heart and mind of one of Joe’s companions.

When Joe transplanted Georgie from the Orlando mermaid show (I grew up in Florida, I remember ads for Weeki Wachee) to the magical island, it must’ve seemed like a miracle. Imagine, being plucked from the ordinary life of breathing underwater in front of hundreds of strangers, to live on a tropical island paradise flowing with champagne and extravagant glamour. “’What I like about you,’ Joe had told her on their first date, over lobster, ‘is that you’re just so American. You’re cherry pie and lemonade. You’re a tickertape parade.’” But when Marlene – Dietrich, that is – arrives for her turn with Joe, Georgie starts to feel cherry pie just isn’t good enough:

She pulled her hair up using two tortoiseshell combs she’d found in the closet, and ran bright Tangee lipstick across her mouth, all leftovers from other girlfriends, whose pictures were pinned to a corkboard in Joe’s closet. Georgie stared at them sometimes, glossy black and white photographs of beautiful women. Horsewomen straddling thoroughbreds, actresses in leopard print scarves and fur coats, writers hunched artfully over typewriters, maybe daughters of rich men who did nothing at all. She couldn’t help but compare herself to them, and always felt as if she came up short….
She loved the way Joe’s lavish attention made her feel—exceptional. And she’d pretty much felt that way until Marlene put one well-heeled foot onto the island.
Georgie wandered into Joe’s closet and looked at the pictures of Joe’s old girlfriends, their perfect teeth and coiffed hair, looping inky signatures. For Darling Joe, Love Forever. How did they do their hair? How big did they smile?
And did it matter? Life with Joe never lasts, she thought, scanning the corkboard. The realization filled her with both sadness and relief.

Much of the story looks at Georgie’s inner landscape, and it’s a tribute to Bergman that it’s every bit as interesting as Joe’s flamboyant life. We see her gradually realize she’s still performing, and she’s only one in a long parade of performers who have preceded, and will succeed, her. She’s traded the public exhibition of the mermaid show for a private exhibition. When we come to the end, we expect her to realize it’s time for her to go, as many things on the island, beyond her illusions, are beginning to collapse. But it’s more complicated than that. Could you leave Paradise that easily, even when you’d noticed the tarnished edges?

David Lynn of The Kenyon Review gives an interesting take on what he calls “the first quiet paragraph” of the story (the first quoted section above) in his Why We Chose It article: he was drawn to the implications of the word “alone.” I had a similar reaction to the sentence just following that opening: “Curious, Georgie toweled off, tossed a sundress over her suit and walked the dirt path toward the general store, sand coating her ankles, shells crackling underneath her bare feet.” We’ve gone from a pleasant morning swim to the irritation of gritty sand and sharp shells – much as Georgie goes from the idyllic status quo of being Joe’s cherry pie, to the uncomfortable comparison with the Beautiful People who arrive.

I was also interested in how diving and swimming, which start the story, played out. When Georgie wants to get Joe’s attention, she uses her own area of mastery: she dives into the ocean. And at the end, when she’s considering her options, again, she dives. I wonder if she realizes that she has a talent. Of course, there isn’t a swimmer alive who can outrace a speedboat, but sometimes we choose the arenas in which we must compete.

The story was part of Bergman’s collection, Almost Famous Women. In her interview with Bustle, Bergman said, “Somehow I felt like writing about their first person perspective just felt too on the nose, and I felt interested in what it was like to orbit those people who had fame.” Her BASS Contributor Note likewise indicates a fascination with Joe.

But I read it as clearly Georgie’s story. Maybe that’s because, while Joe is glamorous and eccentric and fascinating, it’s Georgie I understand. Or maybe it’s because I like this method of tucking one story inside another, of using glamour and fame as a setting to highlight the true star: the mundane choices of the heart we’re all faced with. I suppose “Gatsbyesque” is a way to describe it, but I somehow thought of abysses. Here, Georgie doesn’t even realize there’s an abyss to look into, until she notices it looking into her, swallowing her whole. Joe doesn’t care about abysses, she just skips right over them. I’m naturally drawn to the abyss-gazers.

BASS 2011: Megan Mayhew Bergman, “Housewifely Arts” from One Story

Fernand Leger, "Study for Women and Parrot" (Etude pour Femmes au Perroquet)

Fernand Leger, "Study for Women and Parrot" (Etude pour Femmes au Perroquet)

What maniacs we are – sick with love, all of us.

In his review of the Ron Howard film Parenthood quite some time ago, Roger Ebert felt it succeeded because the main characters, who were simultaneously parents and children themselves, struggled to reconcile their criticism of their parents’ parenting skills with their own parenthood. This story does much the same: the main character is both a parent raising a son, and a child dealing with the loss of her mother.

I read this in One Story last year, and for some reason didn’t write about it then. Maybe it was before I’d started blogging notes about stories I was reading. Or maybe the tiny booklet got buried in the mess on my desk or bookshelves. In any event, I didn’t recognize the title or the author until I read the Contributor’s Note before starting the stories, and remembered the parrot.

The story is structured around an interesting premise:

I lost my mother last spring and am driving nine hours south on I-95 with a seven-year-old so that I might hear her voice again….We’re driving to a small roadside zoo outside of Myrtle Beach so that I can hear my mother’s voice ring though the beak of a thirty-six-year-old African gray parrot, a bird I hated, a bird that could beep like a microwave, ring like a phone, and sneeze just like me.

The rest needs to be read, not summarized. The language is beautiful, the feelings true. It’s told in zig-zag fashion, going from present to various places in the past over and over again, and while it isn’t confusing, it’s a little unsettling. It’s not terribly subtle, since everything that happens in the present brings up a memory or association to the past. But there’s such depth of feeling and wonderful imagery, I think it earns the right to be what it is. It’s very honest, and what else can you hope for in a story. In her One Story blog entry, Karen Friedman comments:

As the story unfolds we learn their relationship had been full of the little fault lines that develop between mother and daughter over a lifetime.
Precisely because of their size, those little fault lines are what grabbed my attention. There’s no physical abuse, no drunken betrayals – nothing that screams, “pay attention, for now we’re in the realm of dramatic truth”. It’s a deceptively simple story about people trying their best, and sometimes falling short.

I read somewhere that children are our punishment for what we did to our parents when we ourselves were young. The narrator is just beginning to realize this, as she remembers her mom and watches her son grow up: “Will you love me forever? I think to myself. Will you love me when I’m old? If I go crazy? Will you be embarrassed of me? Avoid my calls? Wash dishes when you talk to me on the phone, roll your eyes, lay the receiver down next to the cat?”

But it’s not all grim; there’s a great deal of humor here. The narrator is trying to sell her house to move to Connecticut for a promotion, but that’s not going so well thanks to a humpback cricket infestation in the basement (in her One Story Q&A, Bergman admits this was based on her own experience). Ike, the son, is “a forty-three pound drama queen, a mercurial shrimp of a boy who knows many of the words to Andrew Lloyd Webbers’ oeuvre.”

And the parrot, Carnie, is a riot. He bites, he fusses, he repeats all the wrong phrases, and Mom’s house becomes smellier and smellier. But he serves as a prism, bringing Mom into focus, and he provides a telling moment, in one of the last scenes between mother and daughter:

The man of the house is not here, Carnie said. He’s dead.
You really take it easy on those telemarketers, I said, looking at Mom.

The two houses – the narrator’s cricket-infested house, and Mom’s house – provide additional foci for the emotion of the story, as well as structure for the plot to wrap around. The title adds another element.

I’m not sure I understand why it’s a great story, technically; the alternating now-and-then, the straddling the edge of sentimentality, are elements that make me a little nervous, and I’m not 100% sure it’s a strong enough story for so many theme elements – the parrot and the houses and the housewifely arts and Ike and Mom and single motherhood. But I am sure it’s a beautiful read, and I’m glad it’s in this volume and I got another shot at it.