Carolyn Ferrell, “A History of China” (2017)

carolyn ferrellA train wreck of a story, all over the place and no place, written from the second-person perspective of Sasha Jean, daughter of a mixed couple: North Carolinian black man, German woman, the man, a clever swindler with money, having molested her for weeks when she was 10. She cut off all contact with him after she turned 18. The story is framed around the reunion she is attending in Carolina on the acreage she has now inherited: “What your father has left you is a deed to these dusty thirty-seven acres, populated by fallen-down prefabs and trailers, at least seven in total, and at the end of the road, a rusted old church.”

At the reunion she keeps referring to “the uncles” not yet aware of her father’s death of a heart attack. “In reality, it should be easy to tell everyone that your father died (in his armchair, surrounded only by his home healthcare aide and General Hospital playing on the tablet in her hands). Perhaps they will expect you to cry, and then for you to expect them to cry back.” She never tells. The uncles are set up as a focal point only to drop out of sight by story’s end, one of the many false threads the reader is made to care about.

The story trundles back and forth between various pasts, her mother’s (the “china” of the title is the china she stole from her mother when she made her getaway to the United States to marry), her father’s, her own, there’s also Monique the happy lesbian and her girlfriends, one of them disapproving of the lesbianism but still friends. The writing trundles back and forth between fantasy and reality too, too sure of its creative flights: “During the fourth gin and tonic, El gazed again out the window and imagined she saw the chocolate-wafer edge of America.” It’s not a bad image, but it’s disconnected, like so much else.

Like this: “She hurries off in a cloud of roadside dust and pollen. You imagine Monique finding her white lover and kissing her under a pile of stale pillows, in a wrought-iron bed, under dozens of family photographs—the ancestors. Forgetting about you for whole hours. When you attend their commitment ceremony three years later—only one uncle will come to the church where two females are saying “I do”—you notice the same crystals of love in her eyes, the same spike of deliverance as you see on this day, the last reunion you’ll ever attend.”

The crime is the central point: It was nothing more than a few weeks’ worth of touching. The moon came out from your Mother Goose window and stared in shock. His finger didn’t even make it in all the way. Do you like this, your father asked. No, you answered. It took another five and a half weeks for him to get that through his head.” But somehow the relationship between age 10 and 18 is not explored, nor, really, the years afterward, though this passage is the strongest of the story:

Would it be wrong to tell them that the last time you saw your father, you said nothing specific? That the words forgive and forget never made it past your lips? That you engaged the reams of selves who came before you—the little baby in the carriage, the kindergartner, the science project acolyte—and told them it was time to close up shop, as though your father had never ever existed? He once was alive, and was all things to those former selves. You, on the other hand, despise that idea. Was it wrong to turn your head away from the phone the last time he called? Was it wrong to crunch up the letter in which he explained he’d suffered a major heart attack and needed just a touch of kindness? You hate him for keeping your mother, and you hate your mother for having been kept.

 

Her mother died the day after she told her. “Grudges are about as real as cotton candy,” the father paraphrasedly told her, but she doesn’t go for it. Toward the end there’s a whole flight about Sasha and her friends turning into mermaids, but it drifts, like so much of the story.

 

 

Ploughshares: Solos Omnibus, vol. 5, 2017, Best American Short Stories 2018, Roxane Gay, ed.