Story Up My Sleeve, May 2013: Wrapping Up

I thought this the perfect image to accompany this postI had no specific objectives at the outset: just wanted to post an excerpt from a different story — any story — on each day in May. My only real guideline was: don’t feature any author’s work more than once. Over time, though, some observations emerged:

Gender

I can’t remember the exact timing, but back around the beginning of the month I first heard about the online kerfuffle — the male Wikipedia editor, who was systematically working his way through the alphabetic list of “American authors” and moving any who happened to be women out of that general category and into the more specific “American female authors” category. (Not simply ensuring they were in both, mind you.)* I’m not generally quota-driven in such matters, but this whole thing appalled me. While brainstorming the Story Up My Sleeve selections, within a couple of days I decided I would alternate male-female authors throughout the month. I more or less stuck to this. (Final tally, not counting the Midweek Music Breaks: fourteen stories by men, thirteen by women.) But then I ran up against…

Medium

Most of the stories this month, obviously, were in prose form. But it occurred to me early on that I might easily interweave the Midweek Music Break series with the short-story one. So on May 8 through May 29, the Wednesday posts featured story songs. But this tripped me up gender-wise; my story list at that point had just featured Carson McCullers and was about to do Damon Knight, and my first song selection was Gordon Lightfoot… Totally confused at trying to work out the permutations, I decided to more or less relax when it came to the music. (For the record, it featured two songs by men; an “anthology” of songs sung by a musical-film cast of women; and a duet sung by a woman and a man.)

Genre

Something that surprised me: I probably could have done nothing but science-fiction stories all month. I kept thinking of other favorite SF (and fantasy) tales I wanted to include; what’s funny about this is that I haven’t read SF/F stories regularly for years. Finally, I just had to force myself to be disciplined. (For what it’s worth, stories from the American South presented me with the same dilemma — and solution. Hence, no Faulkner.) I also decided to mix things up some on this score, too, although literary/classic stories generally predominated.

Bottom line

In a tweet she posted after Friday’s entry, Jessica Francis Kane hinted that this Story Up My Sleeve project might become an annual one, undertaken by more than one individual (albeit on just one day in May, not throughout the entire month). I can’t offer an opinion about that. But I will say that doing it this way once certainly felt right to me. Coming up with roughly 30 stories felt difficult at first; obviously, or so I told myself, I’d bitten off too ambitious a chunk to chew, let alone swallow. By mid-month, though, I cringed every time I realized I’d run out of May before I ran out of stories.

Poetry and novels get all the glamour and red-carpet walks; if we’re not paying attention, short stories can feel almost like afterthoughts — like conjunctions, prepositions, and other function words to the rest of literature’s complete sentences. A claim like “I’m about halfway through my next novel” fairly roars in people’s imaginations; saying you’re far through your next short story just squeaks.

But y’know, short stories are a wonderful form. (Even the conventional novel implicitly acknowledges as much: what’s a chapter, really, if not a short story?) If you seek breadth of reading — diversity of voice, style, and theme — you could do far worse than starting with an anthology… whether lifted from a bookshelf, or pulled from your sleeve.

__________________________

*I did read this guy’s account of his reasoning, and even sympathized and agreed with it on some levels; when doing research, it generally does help me to start with a more specific category (“beetles,” say, vs. “insects”), and drill down from there. But I can’t imagine requiring others to do so. Just for starters, non-native speakers of a given language may not know whether a given name says to start in the women’s list, or the men’s. (I myself can never remember without hesitation that Chinua Achebe was a man, or that Michiko Kakutani is a woman.) You might as well categorize authors by hair color or shoe size. And why not drill down even further? If you know that Faulkner was left-handed (no, I have no idea) and had brown hair, why label him simply as a male author? Why not move him into the list of southpaw brown-haired male authors from Mississippi, and leave the generalists to stumble around in the dark?

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Story Up My Sleeve #31: “First Sale,” by Jessica Francis Kane

Stoop sale[Don’t know what this is? See the Story Up My Sleeve background page. Also see the note at the foot of this page. A regular whiskey river Fridays post will appear later today.]

In his room he presents his orderly box. [His mother] makes him try on the snowsuit and when the sleeves don’t reach his wrists she sighs and tells him he can take it off. Then she looks at his box again and agrees there may be nothing else, but she wants to make sure. She kneels in his closet, and he plops down on the bed.

“This?” she says, stretching an arm behind her. Between two fingers she holds a little corked bottle filled with water from the place in Maryland where they spent a weekend the summer before.

“I want that!” he shouts.

She stands and turns around, the bottle still in her hand. “Oh, Mike,” she says and she is looking at him, but then she isn’t. He knows this trick of her gaze. Her eyes redden and she focuses on a place above his head.

“Would someone buy it?” he asks.

She blinks and looks at him. “Maybe. It’s a pretty bottle. You never know what people will want.”

“Okay,” he says.

She smiles sadly. “No. You should keep it. They’re your memories.”

…Now he shakes the bottle. A bit of sand swirls up from the bottom, but the water looks dull. “No,” he says. “It’s okay, but I don’t see why anyone would want it.” He slides off the bed and puts the bottle gently in the box for the sale.

[source]

__________________________

Note: This post concludes the Story Up My Sleeve series here at RAMH. It seemed right to end the series with a story by Jessica Francis Kane, whose off-the-cuff remark on Twitter indirectly inspired the series in the first place. Finding a fine excerpt from one of Kane’s stories wasn’t a stretch at all: This Close, the new collection in which this story appears, has been longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Get that? International — not too shabby!

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Story Up My Sleeve #30: “The Catbird Seat,” by James Thurber

What the catbird seat looks like[Don’t know what this is? See the Story Up My Sleeve background page.]

Sitting in his apartment, drinking a glass of milk, Mr. Martin reviewed his case against Mrs. Ulgine Barrows, as he had every night for seven nights. He began at the beginning. Her quacking voice and braying laugh had first profaned the halls of F & S on March 7, 1941 (Mr. Martin had a head for dates). Old Roberts, the personnel chief, had introduced her as the newly appointed special adviser to the president of the firm, Mr. Fitweiler. The woman had appalled Mr. Martin instantly, but he hadn’t shown it. He had given her his dry hand, a look of studious concentration, and a faint smile. “Well,” she had said, looking at the papers on his desk, “are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch?” As Mr. Martin recalled that moment, over his milk, he squirmed slightly. He must keep his mind on her crimes as a special adviser, not on her peccadillos as a personality. This he found difficult to do, in spite of entering an objection and sustaining it. The faults of the woman as a woman kept chattering on in his mind like an unruly witness. She had, for almost two years now, baited him. In the halls, in the elevator, even in his own office, into which she romped now and then like a circus horse, she was constantly shouting these silly questions at him. “Are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch? Are you tearing up the pea patch? Are you hollering down the rain barrel? Are you scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel? Are you sitting in the catbird seat?”

It was Joey Hart, one of Mr. Martin’s two assistants, who had explained what the gibberish meant. “She must be a Dodger fan,” he had said. “Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions — picked ’em up down South.” Joey had gone on to explain one or two. “Tearing up the pea patch” meant going on a rampage; “sitting in the catbird seat” means sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him. Mr. Martin dismissed all this with an effort. It had been annoying, it had driven him near to distraction, but he was too solid a man to be moved to murder by anything so childish. It was fortunate, he reflected as he passed on to the important charges against Mrs. Barrows, that he had stood up under it so well. He had maintained always an outward appearance of polite tolerance. “Why, I even believe you like the woman,” Miss Paird, his other assistant, had once said to him. He had simply smiled.

[source]

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Story Up My Sleeve #29 / Midweek Music Break: “Golden Ring,” by Tammy Wynette and George Jones

Yeah: our hands and our cake. And our golden rings.[Don’t know what this is? See the Story Up My Sleeve background page. Today’s selection also serves as the final weekly Midweek Music Break featuring a “story song,” in keeping with the “May is National Short Story Month” theme.]

I don’t listen to a lot of country music. But even I know this: story songs lie as thick on the ground in Nashville as in any other musical landscape, and more thickly there than anywhere except over the ancient wooded hills and valleys of folk music. (The latter probably wins only because of a thousand-year head start.) You have no doubt seen those mind-boggling lists of country-music song titles, real and imagined; if you scan through any of them you’ll find entire story lines suggested in just the titles of, who knows, 90% of them.

I’ve never seen this phenomenon explained anywhere. (I’d like to believe it signifies something artsy and profound like “the powerful universal, cross-genre appeal of story-telling,” but who knows?) Whatever the reason, selecting a country song to feature during this month of story songs felt at first as though it might be almost too easy — so easy that I almost stayed away from country altogether. But today’s selection, “Golden Ring,” just — no pun intended — fit.

It fits, obviously, with the whole “month of stories” theme. George Jones, the male half of the original duet, died just a week or two ago. Its history suggests current events here in the US: as first conceived by the songwriter, Bobby Braddock, it was about the effects of a gun — not a wedding band — on the lives of a series of owners. Heck, the song even came out during the month of May, in 1976. (Wikipedia helpfully notes in a gossipy aside that this was 14 months after Wynette and Jones’s own real-life divorce.)

But it carries a hidden subtext, as well — at least for today, and at least for me. None of the lyrics are relevant for this purpose except the chorus’s last line, the one that suggests the twining of love around that simple bit of jewelry. About that line, I’ll just say: happy anniversary, Baby.

[Lyrics]

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Story Up My Sleeve #28: “The Enormous Radio,” by John Cheever

The radio's not that enormous in the image, but her facial expression's perfect[Don’t know what this is? See the Story Up My Sleeve background page.]

When Jim came home that night, he was tired, and he took a bath and changed his clothes. Then he joined Irene in the living room. He had just turned on the radio when the maid announced dinner, so he left it on, and he and Irene went to the table.

Jim was too tired to make even a pretense of sociability, and there was nothing about the dinner to hold Irene’s interest, so her attention wandered from the food to the deposits of silver polish on the candlesticks and from there to the music in the other room. She listened for a few minutes to a Chopin prelude and then was surprised to hear a man’s voice break in. “For Christ’s sake, Kathy,” he said, “do you always have to play the piano when I get home?” The music stopped abruptly. “It’s the only chance I have,” the woman said. “I’m at the office all day.” “So am I,” the man said. He added something obscene about an upright piano, and slammed a door. The passionate and melancholy music began again.

“Did you hear that?” Irene asked.

“What?” Jim was eating his dessert.

“The radio. A man said something while the music was still going on — something dirty.”

“It’s probably a play.”

“I don’t think it is a play,” Irene said.

They left the table and took their coffee into the living room. Irene asked Jim to try another station. He turned the knob. “Have you seen my garters?” A man asked. “Button me up,” a woman said. “Have you seen my garters?” the man said again. “Just button me up and I’ll find your garters,” the woman said. Jim shifted to another station. “I wish you wouldn’t leave apple cores in the ashtrays,” a man said. “I hate the smell.”

“This is strange,” Jim said.

“Isn’t it?” Irene said.

Jim turned the knob again. “‘On the coast of Coromandel where the early pumpkins blow,'” a woman with a pronounced English accent said, “‘in the middle of the woods lived the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò. Two old chairs, and half a candle, one old jug without a handle…'”

“My God!” Irene cried. “That’s the Sweeneys’ nurse.”

[source]

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Story Up My Sleeve #27: “Faithless,” by Joyce Carol Oates

Ghost mother[Don’t know what this is? See the Story Up My Sleeve background page.]

The last time my mother Cornelia Nissenbaum and her sister Constance saw their mother was the day before she vanished from their lives forever, April 11, 1923.

It was a rainy-misty morning. They’d been searching for their mother because something was wrong in the household; she hadn’t come downstairs to prepare breakfast so there wasn’t anything for them except what their father gave them, glutinous oatmeal from the previous morning hastily reheated on the stove, sticking to the bottom of the pan and tasting of scorch. Their father had seemed strange to them, smiling but not-seeing in that way of his like Reverend Dieckman too fierce in his pulpit Sunday mornings, intoning the Word of God. His eyes were threaded with blood and his face was still pale from the winter but flushed, mottled. In those days he was a handsome man but stern-looking and severe. Gray-grizzled side-whiskers and a spade-shaped beard, coarse and grizzled too with gray, but thick springy-sleek black hair brushed back from his forehead in a crest. The sisters were fearful of their father without their mother to mediate among them; it was as if none of them knew who they were without her.

Connie chewed her lip and worked up her nerve to ask where was Momma? and their father said, hitching up his suspenders, on his way outside, “Your mother’s where you’ll find her.”

[source]

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Story Up My Sleeve #26: “Game,” by Donald Barthelme

Death Wears Bunny Slippers: nuclear missile launch crew sleeve patch[Don’t know what this is? See the Story Up My Sleeve background page.]

Shotwell keeps the jacks and the rubber ball in his attaché case and will not allow me to play with them. He plays with them, alone, sitting on the floor near the console hour after hour, chanting “onesies, twosies, threesies, foursies” in a precise, well-modulated voice, not so loud as to be annoying, not so soft as to allow me to forget. I point out to Shotwell that two can derive more enjoyment from playing jacks than one, but he is not interested. I have asked repeatedly to be allowed to play by myself, but he simply shakes his head. “Why?” I ask. “They’re mine,” he says. And when he has finished, when he has sated himself, back they go into the attaché case.

It is unfair but there is nothing I can do about it. I am aching to get my hands on them.

Shotwell and I watch the console. Shotwell and I live under the ground and watch the console. If certain events take place upon the console, we are to insert our keys in the appropriate locks and turn our keys. Shotwell has a key and I have a key. If we turn our keys simultaneously the bird flies, certain switches are activated and the bird flies. But the bird never flies. In one hundred thirty-three days the bird has not flown. Meanwhile Shotwell and I watch each other. We each wear a .45 and if Shotwell behaves strangely I am supposed to shoot him. If I behave strangely Shotwell is supposed to shoot me. We watch the console and think about shooting each other and think about the bird. Shotwell’s behavior with the jacks is strange. Is it strange? I do not know. Perhaps he is merely a selfish bastard, perhaps his character is flawed, perhaps his childhood was twisted. I do not know.

Each of us wears a .45 and each of us is supposed to shoot the other if the other is behaving strangely. How strangely is strangely? I do not know. In addition to the .45 I have a .38 which Shotwell does not know about concealed in my attaché case, and Shotwell has a .25 caliber Beretta which I do not know about strapped to his right calf. Sometimes instead of watching the console I pointedly watch Shotwell’s .45, but this is simply a ruse, simply a maneuver, in reality I am watching his hand when it dangles in the vicinity of his right calf. If he decides I am behaving strangely he will shoot me not with the .45 but with the Beretta. Similarly Shotwell pretends to watch my .45 but he is really watching my hand resting idly atop my attaché case, my hand resting atop my attaché case, my hand. My hand resting idly atop my attaché case.

[source (and some interesting background)]

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Story Up My Sleeve #25: “The Duchess and the Jeweller,” by Virginia Woolf

Man's open hand holding pearl[Don’t know what this is? See the Story Up My Sleeve background page.]

“Good morning, Mr. Bacon,” said the Duchess. And she held out her hand which came through the slit of her white glove. And Oliver bent low as he shook it. And as their hands touched the link was forged between them once more. They were friends, yet enemies; he was master, she was mistress; each cheated the other, each needed the other, each feared the other, each felt this and knew this every time they touched hands thus in the little back room with the white light outside, and the tree with its six leaves, and the sound of the street in the distance and behind them the safes.

“And to-day, Duchess — what can I do for you to-day?” said Oliver, very softly.

The Duchess opened her heart, her private heart, gaped wide. And with a sigh but no words she took from her bag a long washleather pouch — it looked like a lean yellow ferret. And from a slit in the ferret’s belly she dropped pearls — ten pearls. They rolled from the slit in the ferret’s belly — one, two, three, four — like the eggs of some heavenly bird.

“All’s that’s left me, dear Mr. Bacon,” she moaned. Five, six, seven — down they rolled, down the slopes of the vast mountain sides that fell between her knees into one narrow valley — the eighth, the ninth, and the tenth. There they lay in the glow of the peach-blossom taffeta. Ten pearls.

“From the Appleby cincture,” she mourned. “The last… the last of them all.”

Oliver stretched out and took one of the pearls between finger and thumb. It was round, it was lustrous. But real was it, or false? Was she lying again? Did she dare?

She laid her plump padded finger across her lips. “If the Duke knew…” she whispered. “Dear Mr. Bacon, a bit of bad luck…”

[source]

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Story Up My Sleeve #24: “The Secret Miracle,” by Jorge Luis Borges

Firing squad[Don’t know what this is? See the Story Up My Sleeve background page. A regular whiskey river Fridays post will appear here at RAMH later today.]

The night of March 14, 1943, in an apartment in the Zeltnergasse of Prague, Jaromir Hladik, the author of the unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, of Vindication of Eternity, and of a study of the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Böhme, had a dream of a long game of chess. The players were not two persons, but two illustrious families; the game had been going on for centuries. Nobody could remember what the stakes were, but it was rumored that they were enormous, perhaps infinite; the chessmen and the board were in a secret tower. Jaromir (in his dream) was the first-born of one of the contending families. The clock struck the hour for the game, which could not be postponed. The dreamer raced over the sands of a rainy desert, and was unable to recall either the pieces or the rules of chess. At that moment he awoke. The clangor of the rain and of the terrible clocks ceased. A rhythmic, unanimous noise, punctuated by shouts of command, arose from the Zeltnergasse. It was dawn, and the armored vanguard of the Third Reich was entering Prague.

On the nineteenth the authorities received a denunciation; that same nineteenth, toward evening, Jaromir Hladik was arrested. He was taken to an aseptic, white barracks on the opposite bank of the Moldau. He was unable to refute a single one of the Gestapo’s charges; his mother’s family name was Jaroslavski, he was of Jewish blood, his study on Böhme had a marked Jewish emphasis, his signature had been one more on the protest against the Anschluss. In 1928 he had translated the Sepher Yezirah for the publishing house of Hermann Barsdorf. The fulsome catalogue of the firm had exaggerated, for publicity purposes, the translator’s reputation, and the catalogue had been examined by Julius Rothe, one of the officials who held Hladik’s fate in his hands. There is not a person who, except in the field of his own specialization, is not credulous; two or three adjectives in Gothic type were enough to persuade Julius Rothe of Hladik’s importance, and he ordered him sentenced to death pour encourager les autres. The execution was set for March 29th, at 9:00 A.M. This delay (whose importance the reader will grasp later) was owing to the desire on the authorities’ part to proceed impersonally and slowly, after the manner of vegetables and plants.

[source]

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Story Up My Sleeve #23: “The Heirs,” by Bobbie Ann Mason

shoebox of letters[Don’t know what this is? See the Story Up My Sleeve background post.]

In a motel room on the bypass around the small town, Nancy filled the ice bucket with water and set the stick of dynamite in it. The stick, about eight inches long, was rust red, crumbling slightly on the rim. Perhaps it was only a Roman candle, she thought. She remembered fireworks at Christmas when she was a child — never on the Fourth of July, when the family always stayed home because of holiday death tolls.

Nancy placed the shoe box on the bed, with her laptop and book satchel. She felt comfortable in the anonymity of motels, where she could be alone, uninvolved with her surroundings. She unlaced her hiking boots and slid them off. Settling herself on the bed, with the pillows behind her, she began to examine the contents of the box. She forced herself to contain her eagerness; she wanted to savor the details. She was hoping for family secrets, for clues that would illuminate her own life. Along with the letters was a newspaper clipping, an ad for Detroit Special overalls: “They wear like a pig’s nose.” In the bottom of the box were a pink self-covered button, several large hairpins, and a small booklet about a corn drill. She flipped through the booklet, recalling how as a teenager she rode on such a drill behind her father’s tractor, helping him plant corn one spring. She could almost feel the metal seat — hard, punctuated with holes arranged in a daisy design. Holes to aerate one’s bottom. She remembered sitting there for hours, operating the seed hoppers. A day of labor seemed like a year, and her sunburn got infected.

The letters were tied with a selvedge, which was frayed and yellowing. Tucked beneath the string was a note handwritten on lined tablet paper: “Take care of these as we are saving every scratch of the pen.”

[source]

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