Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Five Short Stories Highlighting a Socioeconomic Divide

Title: Enough to Lose
Author: RS Deeren
Where I Read It: Tales of Two Americas

Three months in with Secured Properties, mowing lawns for bank repossessions at ten bucks a pop, and I had inhaled more grass clippings, caked my eyes in more dust, and ridden more backroads than I had known were in Tip County.
The narrator is a man on a financial treadmill that will be going only faster in a post-recession US. At any time he can be flung off. His wife, who has found some dubious work through a multi-level marketing scheme, wants to have a baby. They already gave up a baby to adoption years ago for lack of means to care for him. Now they aren't teenagers anymore, but their financial situation is still precarious. Having a kid is a hopeful step; the narrator is worried that it's unrealistically hopeful.

The narrator's work partner is a gruff man who had "probably been some kind of stupid at some point in his life" and now just wants to get each job done cleanly and quickly with not a minute wasted. During their work, they encounter a man who is still trying to live on his repossessed property; he's desperate not to let it go, to admit that his hope for a home is lost for a good long while (probably permanently). The narrator sees what could happen to him and his wife – the loss of everything they're barely holding onto, the meager chance of having enough money to raise a kid, the lack of well-paying job opportunities, the need to turn into an emotionally closed off machine to make barely enough money. The story wraps the reader in layers of tension.

Title: The Gully
Author: Russell Banks
Where I Read It: Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar

From what I remember, "The Gully" starts out in a very poor neighborhood on an island nation. Three men commit acts of vigilantism. Soon they pool their resources and offer their services in justice (like killing robbers) for a fee. Over time, they make enough money to leave their violent, impoverished neighborhood. They outsource their work to others and extract money from people as they see fit. The story ends with them regarding their old home with contempt, as if they have forgotten where they came from and what they did to leave. How many times has this type of story played out in real life?

Title: The House Behind
Author: Lydia Davis
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story

The two homes in this story could exist anywhere. The one in front is wealthier and more elegant. The one in back is shabbier. A courtyard divides them, where the residents of both homes throw out their trash. It's the one place where they interact. The narrator, who lives in the house in back, says:
“Curiously enough, many pairs of houses in the city suffer from bad relations like ours: there is usually an uneasy truce between the two houses until some incident explodes the situation and it begins deteriorating. The people in the front houses become locked in their cold dignity and the people in the back houses lose confidence, their faces gray with shame.”
Here, the exploding incident is murder.

Some people are illuminated in beautiful prose in this story, but they're never really developed as individuals. They're representatives of different places and classes. Those in the front home react largely as a group, and so do those in the house behind, which strengthens the impression that these relationships and actions will be replicated many times between different sets of strangers. The details will run together and fade, and will anyone care to learn anything or change anything? Each house, front and back, seems to exert a relentless influence on the behavior of its occupants.

Title: The Lesson
Author: Toni Cade Bambara
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

At the start of the story, a group of kids in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood in New York City have their own contained world – a certain friend group, places they're familiar with, things they're used to doing. They don't know much about the world beyond, not in a concrete way, until the well-educated Miss Moore takes them on a trip to F.A.O. Schwarz, where the toys are well beyond their means, and where they feel completely out of place.

The main character, Sylvia, doesn't take to this lesson in social and racial divide without disgruntlement or questioning. The field trip to the super-expensive toy store rattles the way she sees herself and her place in the world. What she makes of the trip – how she interprets it and how it will affect her life – isn't clear. She may see herself as neither a warrior nor a victim of circumstance. Her choice at the end, to give more thought to what she has seen, may not be all that Miss Moore intends for her to do, but thinking things over is better than either pretending ignorance or swallowing what you're told without question.

I don't think the lesson Miss Moore delivers is even one lesson. It's a starting point, perhaps an initial spur to get the kids to... do what? Perhaps work hard, think more, gain an education, help enrich their own neighborhoods. Possibly take political collective action at some point. Her approach may also backfire and become a discouraging shock that makes the kids want to ignore what they saw and stick to their familiar turf; they're not exactly receptive to Miss Moore to begin with. One thing I like about the story is that the kids aren't tractable. Their reactions are realistic and individual, including Sylvia's need to consider what she'll make of this new awareness that her world is not just the world of her neighborhood, and that she can cross the boundaries of her neighborhood, though at the price of greater struggle and discomfort.

Title: Morocco Junction 90210
Author: Patt Morrison
Where I Read It: Los Angeles Noir

There are some interesting tidbits about Beverly Hills history in this story, which highlights class divides in a wealthy community. Minerva, the narrator, isn't rich, but her dad worked in security for some of the big movie and TV studios and was well-respected. Through his connections, she has found work helping actors prepare for roles and interviews. She lives on the edge of a glamorous world, a sad world in a number of ways, as many people are desperate to protect damaging secrets and shore up shaky reputations.

Minerva likes to gather information about people – not necessarily for any purpose, nefarious or otherwise, but out of curiosity. After a woman is found dead, Minerva figures out something about the woman's past and the reason she had been selling off her jewelry. The motive of wanting to spare a family from disgrace, and the way residents experience social divisions between old and new Beverly Hills, give the story some echoes of Edith Wharton. The society has its largely unspoken codes – what you can get away with, and what you can't bring yourself to even admit.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Week in Seven Words #494

The branches are flapping in a strong wind, as if the trees are fanning themselves.

The kids are inexperienced executives; the parents are zealous secretaries and social directors.

The male and female hikers break up to urinate in the woods. They're yards apart, forming protective circles around each pee-er.

Because the elevators aren't working, the stairwell echoes with dreadful gasps.

Unresolved trauma will ruin your life, she says.

Their home is Colonial style with a broad, pale face. An American flag is draped over the porch railing. The front door opens to small rooms stuffed with comfortable furniture. Rectangles of light cast by the windows fall short of the photos on the shelves and walls.

Aside from a radio blatting from behind a door, the hallway is silent. Shadows are ganging up on the feeble emergency lights.

Week in Seven Words #493

For their meeting, they settle in a circle on the grass. When the sprinklers go off, they spring up laughing and scamper away with their notebooks and jackets.

The geese hiss at passing dogs and at two teenaged boys who are trying to see how close they can get to the fuzzy juveniles.

The town is asleep in the noon sunshine. I'm not used to places where almost nothing is open on a national holiday, and where a business owner can stick a piece of cardboard on a window to announce a nine-day vacation. One kind restaurant owner, who hasn't yet opened for lunch, lets us use his bathroom. Our own lunch we eat on a bench opposite a sleepy library. (Libraries are never open enough hours.)

The gardens slope down to the cliff's edge, the land patterned with trees, lawns, and flowers that look like brushstrokes. Some of the trees are almost neon green in the sunlight. Others remain dark and subdued. A motorboat cuts a bold white line on the river.

On a path by the river, I spot a TV celebrity and his son. The celebrity is wearing a cap and glasses, but his features are still distinctive enough for recognition. What's different is his voice. He speaks to his child in calm tones, completely different from his frenetic screen persona.

They're seated on the terrace with club sandwiches and country club smiles. Silver and dentures.

The heavy rain shower hits us in a spasm. It's soon over, leaving us with cooler air that feels creamy. The air is scented with everything green.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Two Very Different Short Stories Featuring the Wind

Title: Mistral
Author: Raoul Whitfield
Where I Read It: Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories

The mistral is a violent wind best known for its effects on Provence in the south of France. The wind may rage for hours at a time. In Raoul Whitfield's story, it mirrors some of the moral chaos in the plot and represents a powerful force that a person can't escape.

The main character is a private detective whose agency has tasked him with finding a criminal on the run. The detective comes to realize that the man he's looking for is marked for death; the people who hired the agency are also criminals, and their purpose is murder. Caught in these dangerous, morally muddy circumstances, the detective realizes he has an opportunity to give his target a warning. Why would he want to help him get away? Maybe there's something honorable about it – giving one criminal a fighting chance against other criminals.

Title: A Windy Day
Author: Janet Frame
Where I Read It: Prizes

The sun is fresh, never left standing or sour, poured out clean on the stones for the dusty-throated wind to lick.
"A Windy Day" is a delightful, fresh, poetic, and unsettling picture of seasonal change. In this case, the arrival of spring. The author doesn't settle for observations of flowers blooming or ice thawing. She makes the changes disconcerting. She takes the familiar and renders it fantastical and topsy-turvy.
The motorcyclist, his knees tight against his mount, surges through the tidal streets, riding a seahorse to the lonely shore.
Reading this piece, you see the world wide-eyed and appreciate how strange it can be. Day-to-day life doesn't have to be ordinary.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Week in Seven Words #492

He makes his wrestler figurines tussle in the grass. When called indoors, he leaves them propped against a lamppost to rest until the next match.

We walk along the river right after sunset. The buildings blush slightly before going pale in the dark.

Outside in the dusk I watch fireflies and listen to crickets while thinking, "Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst."

A weed that has overrun the garden beds is very nutritional. It's amazing how something dismissed as a pest can contain more nutrients than the vegetables it's supplanting.

The women all look similar: long, wavy-haired wigs, super high heels, thin figures, babies hanging around them and on them.

For the entire subway ride, she speaks to her kids in threats. ("I'll slap the sh*t out of you," she snarls at one point.)

He squirms in the photos, grins while dancing with his friends, and delivers a speech in a dogged way, as a commitment made and seen through.

Week in Seven Words #491

When she speaks in English, her tone changes. It makes me think of confidential chats over coffee. It's a voice that invites you to share secrets.

The artistic touches really do lift the mood in the room. Even if they're just some colorful panels on the napkin dispensers, or a few star-shaped sculptures made of paper dangling from the rafters.

The doctor seems impatient. He orders some tests, and it feels more like a stalling tactic because he's not sure what else to do, but who knows.

She just taps into me, and comfortable conversation flows out.

The river is dimpled. The silver bridge glistens in the pale, pink light.

Being in pain feels lonely.

Sometimes people ask you, "Are you well, are you well, are you feeling better?" in a way that stresses you out, because you want to just reassure them. They need to be taken care of, their agitation soothed, regardless of how you're feeling.