Tag: coming of age

Ann Glaviano, “Come On, Silver” (2017)

Come On, Silver Gay, Roxane. The Best American Short Stories 2018 (The Best American Series ®) (p. 127). HMH Books. Kindle Edition. ann glaviano

Camp. (Flickr)

This is where the future handmaids of The Handmaid’s Tale go when they’re 12 to 14 years old, where they’re required to learn how to be a woman, to write letters to their future husband and learn all the ways of being with him (no gender traitors allowed), or when they’re caught playing X-rated versions of Barbie and Ken, as Josephine, or Fin, the narrator, was. A camp where girls are sent home for faking their periods. There are even “ceremonies,” as in handmaid, but not quite involving penetrative inseminations. Close enough though: “We had to put on our camp whites for the ceremony, and before we went into the lodge the female counselors told us stories about menstruating girls who were inhabited by demons. The demons could make the polish on our nails turn rotten. The smell of blood could bring snakes slithering into our cabins.”

“Everything here is a competition. Tampons versus sanitary napkins. Bras versus undershirts. On the first night, the Beav divided everyone into two teams: the Cubs versus the Colts. (I am, fortunately, a Colt.) Also, older girls versus younger girls, even though everyone at this camp achieved menarche in the past year. No one talks about the menstruation requirement. I only know because I found the brochure on Mother’s desk. The older girls are called Evening Primroses. The younger girls are called Morning Glories. (The camp is called Camp Moonflower. I am a Morning Glory.) The camp motto is Dignae et provisae iucundae, which we are made to chant three times at the beginning of each meal.” The latin translated: “Worthy and provided enjoyable.” There’s a great deal of competition between the girls. There’s meanness. There’s Fin’s crush on counselor Andrew, who takes her on a nighttime horseride intended to get her to orgasm, as it does him, though Fin seems oblivious both to the intention and to Andrew’s orgasm behind her. “My butt hurts,” is all she tells the disappointed, glassy-eyed Andrew. In the end Fin is made to swim a large distance in the lake in some form of representative ceremony, she representing Woman. She swims in the wrong direction.

Tim House, 2017

Munro, “Walker Brothers Cowboy” (1958)

alice munro 1978 walker brothers cowboy

Alice Munro, 1978.

“… and I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.” The penultimate lines in Munro’s “Walker Brother Cowboy,” the first story in her first collection of stories, the lines that sealed my conversion to her, though I was well on the way after the briefest of pages in this story of a young daughter’s realization that fathers have pasts, that sometimes those pasts took the form of intimacies that, seen again up close, even as distant shimmers of what once was, can still have the shock of something adulterous. The girl and her little brother have joined their traveling-salesman father in the poor drab backwoods of the Ontario prairie (“We play I Spy, but it is hard to find many colours.” It’s details like this that say drab without saying it.) It’s the 1930s. Their mother stays home, and after a failed sale and a bit of humiliation–the father got pee sprinkled on him–he takes a detour down, well, yes, memory lane. Nora had been his former girlfriend, his lover, something intimate enough that they’d danced and don’t a lot more. She discovers that her father does drink whisky after all, at least with a certain person, from a certain time. The girl witnesses the visit, and learns that certain things must be kept between her and her father, who earlier had described to her the formation of the Great Lakes. The immensity of time, prompting this from the girl: “The tiny share we have of time appalls me, though my father seems to regard it with tranquillity. Even my father, who sometimes seems to me to have been at home in the world as long as it has lasted, has really lived on this earth only a little longer than I have, in terms of all the time there has been to live in. He has not known a time, any more than I, when automobiles and electric lights did not at least exist. He was not alive when this century started. I will be barely alive—old, old—when it ends. I do not like to think of it. I wish the Lake to be always just a lake, with the safe-swimming floats marking it, and the breakwater and the lights of Tuppertown.”

Dance of the Happy Shades, 1968

Hawthorne, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” (1831)

Robin is an ambitious 18-year-old country boy called to Boston by his uncle, Major Molineux, a British colonial official,z to make his way in the world. But from the moment he arrives in the city in search of his uncle, he’s the subject of ridicule, threats and false seductions until an older man hears his story and assures him that Major Molineux is about to appear in the street. He does, surrounded by a mob that’s tarring and feathering him, the latest in a string of British governors so dishonored. Robin and the major’s eyes lock in a moment of shrill recognition, but the moment is Robin’s chance to break free. He does, laughing off the major and becoming an independent man. Much of the story is swathed in a dreamy state. We never know whether any of this is happening or is being dreamed. Then again, it’s a story: we never know a great deal more. He tells the old man to show him the way back to the ferry. The old man suggests he wait a few days before leaving town so he has time to realize he can make his way in the world on his own. The story ends, leaving it unclear what choice Robin makes: there are different Robins, different choices.

The Token and Atlantic Souvenir, 1832

Paul Bowles, “Señor Ong and Señor Ha” (1950)

paul bowles

A story of drug-dealing powdered by racism, Bowles’s included, in a small Mexican village at the foot of a mountain irrigated by trade with the mountain’s Indians. Nicho lives with his poor aunt and has to quit school to work at Don Anastasio’s store to bring in money, until the aunt takes in a boarder-lover. The dour and mysterious Señor Ong is a “chinaman” who brings plenty of money with him. Nicho doesn’t have to work anymore, though he prefers being at Don Anastasio’s shop than around Señor Ong. Quickly “there were the singular visits of strange, rich townspeople, persons whom his aunt never had known, but who appeared to find it quite natural to come to the house,” which has become a drug house. Innocent Nicho doesn’t yet know it. Nicho meets a girl with hair “a silky white helmet in the top of her head, her whole face was white, as if she had covered it with paint, her brows and lashes, and even her eyes, were light to the point of not existing.” Nicho sees “this apparition,” which Bowles describes as if to suggest that she were a figment of Nicho’s imagination. The two children become friends, inventing a world of assumptions much like Henry Roth’s David in Call It Sleep. They have a hidden treasure of silver and sand. Before long Nicho discovers that Señor Ong has a hidden treasure of white powders in small envelopes. At first he thinks it’s just “worthless dust,” an ironic note about what, in fact, it ought to be. The discovery dims his interest in his own treasure. He realizes it’s the stuff townspeople are after and falls into supplying Dion Anastasio and, briefly, another woman, by skimming off Señor Ong’s stash. Señor Ong is furious that those two customers have stopped coming. He decides to go on a trip, blaming Señor Ha for having come into the valley and taken over some of his customers on his turf. Nicho and the girl Luz, using Nicho’s earnings, take the bus to warn Señor Ha that someone is going to kill him. Señor Ha dismisses them contemptuously, but actually detects something may be up with Señor Ong, whom he gives away to the police. Señor Ong is arrested in front of the children back at the aunt’s house, the aunt who had caressed Luz’s hair for good luck. Señor Ha then comes to the house and violently forces Nicho to show him where Señor Ong’s stash was. Nicho complies. Señor Ha moves in, picks up with the dealing where Señor Ong had left off, using Nicho as his runner. Nicho continues skimming off, enough to buy Luz lipstick and a pair of dark glasses.

There is an unsettling dance, a two-step in and out from innocence to crime and back, the more unsettling for involving two children who continue to think they’re on a different kind of treasure hunt, while both Nicho and Luz seem implicitly abused: Nicho by his aunt and her revolving door drug-dealing lovers, Luz by a brusque arm that pulls her into the house at the end of the story and slams the door in Nicho’s face, a gesture that radiates with the same violence Señor Had had just grabbed Nicho’s arm to force him to reveal the secret. It’s a world of brutal adults and children being roped, inexorably, into that world, even as the final image of lipstick and sun shades suggests a desperate clinging.

Mademoiselle, July 1950

Jamaica Kincaid, “Girl” (1978)

jamaica kinkaid girl

The photograph, by Nina Lean of Time Life Pictures, appears in the online edition of the New Yorker’s version of the story. It did not appear when the story was originally published.

Some of the reasons this story, if it is a story (Kincaid’s early writings were autobiographical visas out of her former like in Jamaica), is so captivating: the mixture of humor and cruelty; the revelations, one after the other, about the girl and whoever happens to be giving her alleged life lessons, presumably her mother; the revelations about the family life the girl leads, comfortable enough to serve tea and have three meals a day at table but not so luxurious as to not have to plant okra a distance from the house; the recurring hammering about her becoming a slut: “try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming,” “and so prevent yourself from looking like the slut you know you are bent on becoming,” behave this way and that “this way [men] won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming”; the contrast, as in a piece of music when brass and winds clash, or when the percussion section suddenly blasts its awareness, between the mundane and the catastrophic (“this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child even before it becomes a child”); the use of allusive language in an environment where allusions appear to be always better than directness, except when preaching advice or directives, where it is important to learn how to smile to people you like only so much, or not at all, where it is important to learn how to lie, but also how to have the kind of fun that would have you spit in the air and move just enough to avoid it hitting you in the face; the way we have the entire biography of a girl coming of age, of her parent’s abrasive rearing, of a family where the girl’s role has been turned over to a form of servitude; the way semi-colons are the only dividers between a life of impositions, expectations, derision and occasional fun for appearance’s sake; the way Kinaid has invented an entirely new way to tell a story, long enough for two pages, long enough to die and never be done again: a one hit wonder of its kind; even the way it ends, with a hilarious and sad kicker that makes you want to squeeze every loaf of bread you see from now on.

The New Yorker, June 19, 1978