Tag: parenting

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.

Chekhov, “The Classical Student,” “Où mènent les humanités” (1883)

chekhov

From Chekhov’s early gems. Vanya, a pious high school student, prepares for an exam in Greek, giving alms on the way in hops of getting a good mark. He doesn’t. He gets a 2. He remembers his mistakes. He’d put in white night after white night. Didn’t matter. When it came time to answer, he flubbed. His mother is incensed, mostly with herself for not having beaten him enough and not having the strength now to beat him some more. She implores a boarder to beat up her son for her. The boarder does. The child is then enrolled in a trade school for commerce. The story is a litany of invective as the reader is reduced to watching the demolition of promise, brutality’s misdirection of intellect by a mother too blinded by self-preservation to know patience or love. The boarder’s brutality is familiar to Chekhov, whose father was a brute.

Les éclats, 7 Mai 1883, Fell, 1915

Jamel Brinkley, “A Family” (2018)

UnderEl@Night-Brooklyn-1988 copy

UnderEl@Night-Brooklyn-1988, from Black & White NYC Street Photography by Matt Weber.

Brooklyn. Curtis, recently out of prison, is following Lena and her son Andre, toward whom he has designs of being a father figure. It’s his friend Marvin’s son. We don’t immediately know what’s happened to Marvin. That’ll be one of the story’s tensions. We do know Curtis is on the edge of stalking. Curtis is devising other designs on Lena, as if spying on her habits. He’d been drunk when he hit and killed a woman, driving. But he’s drinking again at a club, getting drunk, “compounding the little tragedies of the night.” He and Lena, both drunk, dance. She knows who he is. She invites him to a motel room “nearly as small as his cell had been.” Afterward he wants to talk about Andre, “but,” as in the story, “nothing he said was profound.” They don’t click. She was just seizing him up since he’d been “sniffing” around. He resents her. They split. The narration had circled around Andre and Lena. Now it circles around the memory of Marvin, youth, sex’s mysteries. The sexual act is compared to “the peeling back of language to a hard core, like the spiked stones of peaches the boys used to throw at stray dogs,” an odd analogy that beguiles down to “spiked stones of peaches.” What the hell are spiked stones of peaches? There’s a too-loose liberty like that with language, as if Brinkley is more interested in effect than meaning, when he’s not giving in to clichés (“the capacious dome of sky,” “lit up on the stage of his mind.“)

Curtis remembers how Marvin fell for Lena and “let a bitch get between us,” another cliché of adolescence. We learn there wasn’t just a death, but a fire. Oh, no: a dream sequence, smudged visions of the girl he killed, then an allusion to Marvin’s death. Curtis lives with his 60-year-old mother (he’s 35), fills in that backstory. A touching line: “The visits she’d made upstate to the prison each month revealed the rhythms of her decline, and in the intervals he guessed accurately where and when age would touch her next.” The line is marred, in the same paragraph, by the inelegance of “She was nothing to write home about anymore.” Meanwhile prison’s consequences: Curtis can’t get a job, “can’t get my own place, can’t open a goddamn bank account.“ he and Lena become a couple, but when he brings her home, “Even the scent of their sex couldn’t distract him from the pervasive smell of his mother.” He asks Lena to tell him of the night Marvin died, the way a child asks a parent to read him a story he knows by heart. She tells. Marvin was smoking in bed. Fire. He’d had a falling out with Marvin again over “that bitch” he’s now in bed with. They acknowledge not being able to love each other, then move in together, Andre calling Curtis unc, for uncle, derisively. But they grow close. “He and Lena wouldn’t love each other, but there was love they openly shared, and that would be enough, for now, to make a kind of family.”

Gulf Coast, vol. 28, issue 2. From Brinkley’s A Lucky Man: Stories, and Best American Short Stories 2018, ed. Maxine Gay.

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

Cheever, “The Sutton Place Story” (1946)

Deborah is the not-quite 3-year-old daughter of Katheryn and Robert Tennyson. Her parents party and get drunk so much that “She made Martinis in the sand pile and thought all the illustrations of cups, goblets, and glasses in her nursery books were filled with Old-Fashioneds.” She is mostly cared for by a nanny, Mrs. Hartley, with whom she quarrels as if the two were an old couple. At one of her parents’ parties, they entertain a woman called Renee Hall, an actress, about 35, “dissipated and gentle,” who saw her life disappearing and her wish for a child unfulfilled. She takes to Deborah, but has a falling out with the Tennysons when she becomes too attached to the little girl, lavishes her with too many gifts and even ventures to question her parents’ style:

But eventually Mrs. Hartley hands off Deborah to Renee to look after for a few hours a week, especially when Mrs. Hartley goes to church. One of those days, right after Deborah tells renee that she has a friend called Martha and is dismissed “of course you do”) Deborah disappears. Her parents are in a panic. The search is on. Police finally find her in front of an antique store on Third Avenue. She tells her father she had to find her friend Martha.

The story recall Flannery O’Connor’s “The River,” where of course the boy, also surrounded by drunkard and somewhat more indifferent parents, isn’t found but drowns, looking for his own version of Martha.

[Missing children, panic, loss, unfulfilled life, projection, parenting, drinking]
The New Yorker, June 29, 1946

Willa Cather, “The Sentimentality of William Tavener”

The circus is in town, and Hester wants her harsh husband to let their boys go there. William and Hester Taverner are prosperous farmers in McPherson County (a rarity). Silence “was William’s refuge and his strength,” but he was a hard man, “grasping, determined and ambitious.” Hester remembers going to the circus when she was young. She tries to convince William of letting the boys go. “Nobody was ever hurt by goin’ to a circus,” she says. Turns out he’d sneaked out and been to the same circus when he was a boy. That startles Hester. They reminisce. “Their relationship had become purely a business one, like that between landlord and tenant. In her desire to indulge her boys she had unconsciously assumed a defensive and almost hostile attitude towards her husband. No debtor ever haggled with his usurer more doggedly than did Hester with her husband in behalf of her sons. The strategic contest had gone on so long that it had almost crowded out the memory of a closer relationship. This exchange of confidences tonight, when common recollections took them unawares and opened their hearts, had all the miracle of romance.” They talk so much “they had as much to say to each other as people who meet after a long separation.” He then gets up for bed and sets aside $10 for their boys to go. Hester “had a painful sense of having missed something, or lost something; she felt that somehow the years had cheated her.” She gives the boys the money. All these years, she had been their advocate. And now, this twist, as she spoke for their father. “The boys looked at each other in astonishment and felt that they had lost a powerful ally.”