The Golden Years
Line of light from the window, framed by the curtains and the rod. One foot of water-damaged ceiling, then vent. Another foot, then fan. Blade one. Blade two. Blade three. Blade four, out of whack. Out of alignment, all wobbly. Five more feet, doorway. Door, painted badly. Smurf stickers near the knob. Nat loved The Smurfs, went through a whole phase. Smurf this. Smurf that. Hey, Ma. Go Smurf yourself.
Line of light from the window. Vent, closed. Ceiling fan, dusty, needed cleaned. Doorway, splintery threshold. Door, damaged, a small hole at toddler height that Melvin had tried to patch. “Don’t want Nat looking at us while we’re doing it.”
They did it as often as they could back then but that was long ago. Melvin was gone. The hole was back. Orla left it alone.
Line of light, shaped like a cigar, tapered at both ends. Vent, “Iowa” written in rust at the edge. Ceiling fan where Nat once hung her underwear as a joke. Airing them out, Ma. Doorway where Nat often stood, angry and defiant. Going anyway, Ma. Door, slammed so often that seemed its purpose. To be slammed.
Light line. Vent, smell of mold. Ceiling fan doing double duty as an overhead light, two bulbs out. Doorway, popped nail to catch your sock. Door, cat hair caught in a frayed corner. What had Nat named that cat? Doctor When? No. Doctor Who. Orange tabby, sweet as sheet cake. Hit by a mail truck.
Every morning, flat on her back in bed, Orla catalogued the view. She could usually get through the list a few times before the shots started down the road. She catalogued herself, too. My name is Orla Hanefelt, she told herself. I am 62 years old. Favorite color, green. Favorite ice cream, butter pecan. I live in Muncie, Indiana. I was born here. So was my husband. We married in 1973. Honeymooned at Niagara Falls. Children, one. Born just when I’d begun to give up. Natalie Jane. Wanted to be called Nat, though, because she was tough, tom-boyish. This used to bother me, but it doesn’t anymore. I don’t even remember why it bothered me in the first place. Who cares if a girl wants to play baseball? And get her hair cut short and pierce only one ear? It’s all dumb and arbitrary, Ma.
The gun range opened at 7:30 a.m. The clock radio read 7:29. Orla’s heart started to beat fast. Next to the clock radio, a water glass, her partial, a bunch of pill bottles, a book, some sewing needles, and a jar of mismatched buttons. Orla’s bedside table was a cluttered mess. Her sister-in-law was sure to comment on it when she came over at eight. She usually did.
Orla snaked her arm out, turned off the alarm before it could ring out. The same alarm Melvin set every day for 20 years, starting when he bought the clock radio for himself as a Christmas present. Orla never needed it, that alarm. She always woke up before it, but she set it anyway. Out of habit. The clock radio was a fancy number back when Melvin brought it home. Even had its own a CD player. The CD popped out the top like toast. Speakers convex, antennae bent, the tip of which just brushed the lamp next to it, a garage sale find, big-bellied, palm tree in relief on the side. “Belongs,” said Sister-in-Law the last time she was here, “in someone’s tacky Daytona Beach timeshare.” Next to the lamp, water glass, yellowed plastic, thicker on the bottom than on the sides. Resting on the bottom in a puddle of cloudy water, Orla’s partial, smooth peach palate, one tooth way back. Lost the real tooth to a piece of peanut brittle. Beyond the glass, a smattering of pill bottles, meds inside Melvin’s, expired, and under those, a book, a not-good-not-bad romance about a corporate lawyer and her hot single dad handyman. Then sewing needles, once Orla’s mother’s, now hers, snug in a silver foil case, smiling blond housewife on the front cover. Buttons, assorted.
Orla cleared her throat. “My name is Orla Hanefelt. I am 62 years old. I am a receptionist at a general practicioner’s office. My boss, Dr. Malhotra, tells everyone to call her ‘Dr. M’ because a lot of people around here can’t be bothered to pronounce her last name. People like Sister-in-Law. But I can pronounce it. Mal. Hot. Ra.”
7:31 a.m. The shots began. Check, check, one-two, one-two. Every day, on the dot. Orla supposed the range opened early to cater to people who liked to get their target practice in before work. It must satisfy something inside of them. Like her cataloguing. A way of making sense of the world.
Life’s so strange, Ma. Have you noticed that? I mean, why are we even here?
7:32 a.m. Little baby shots, almost harmonic, like the soft ticks of a music box. Three/four time. Time. People tried to measure it, didn’t they, to parse it out, harness it, but it was like Nat. Wild. Untamed. Refusing to stay still or be held for long.
7:33. A slow parade of loud booms. Rhythmic at first, they might be mistaken for a drum line, but the high school was miles away and the sound was too tight for that. And too hollow. Next up would be a sporadic, hiccupping spray of cracks and bangs. Like fireworks. And then a quick, sad petering out, followed by an almost embarrassed silence.
Regardless of the day, the season, the weather, the gunfire patterns were the same each morning. Orla tapped her belly along with the bursts, her fingers moving automatically, imagined a different human behind each series of shots. Check, check, one-two, one-two was a long-hair hippie type, an ex-roadie, tie dye on him somewhere. The music box shots came from a child, a baby-faced boy who begged his dad to bring him along to the range, and the slow booms were his father’s, the synchronized blasts a thinly veiled lesson on personal responsibility, a lecture disguised as a little fun before school. The hiccupping spray, that was from a woman. Orla was almost sure of it. The shots were a meandering, awkward apology. Sorry for invading your territory. Sorry for not being so great at this gun thing. Sorry for not being prettier/younger/a better cook. Sorry for being sorry. Maybe I should just turn this gun on myself right now. Hahaha. Ha. LOL.
7:35. No shots for a bit. A reprieve. Clock radio, with its bubble gum pink power switch, CD player permanently on the fritz, Johnny Mathis Christmas album frozen there. Lamp, needing a new shade, this one dented and missing fringe. Water glass, half empty. Partial, Orla hated the thing, it made her gums ache, only wore it on special occasions. Pill bottles, name of old pharmacy printed crooked on the label. Book, she had to keep starting over from the beginning, could never remember what page she was on. Sewing needles, the eyes getting smaller by the year. Jar of buttons, rattle them, they sounded like maracas. That’s what Nat used to say anyway. When she was a little girl.
Those years. Those harried, lost years. Orla had gotten fat. Melvin, too. He grew love handles and a neck waddle. Orla lost her curves, became a solid column of a woman in high- waisted jeans and bulky sweaters. There was never any time to exercise and neither Orla nor Melvin was much of a cook, so they ate their dinners in front of the TV, Melvin with his Hungry Man, Orla next to him on the couch with her Marie Callender’s, and Nat in her spot on the floor between them, munching on graham crackers and carrot sticks. Later working her way through a frozen pizza or bowl of popcorn. Even when Nat was driving Orla up a wall in that way of hers –vetoing every back-to-school outfit Orla brought home, poking fun at her mother’s taste, not just in clothes but in knickknacks (How many Precious Moments can one woman own?) and music (Billy Joel? Barf) and books (There’s more to life than purple throbbing manhoods, Ma) – there would inevitably come a moment when Melvin and Orla would exchange secret helpless smiles over their daughter’s dark head. We made it, those smiles said. Look at us. Content. Full. Sleepy. What else was there?
7:39. Nine shots. Morse code. SOS. Shooter: like Melvin maybe. That was how Orla imagined him. A former military man. Cautious, methodical, mostly kind, but wrong about things, too. Like when Nat asked if she could go camping with the Mexican family from next door and Melvin said, “maybe next time,” but next time meant never.
But why, Ma? Why can’t I go?
Orla’d never answered her. Couldn’t think of what to say so she’d said nothing at all.
The Morse code series was Orla’s cue to get up, wash her face, and make coffee before Sister-in-Law could get here and ask her why the coffee wasn’t made.
Slippers, rug, bathroom. Tile curling up around the tub. Sink dripping. Hard water stain near the stopper like a cold sore. Soap with a pubic hair stuck to it. Pubic hair, hers. Had to be. Then slippers, hallway, kitchen, coffeemaker with a small clock under the pot, a pack of filters, 300-count. Would the filters outlast her? She was 62. Orla’s mother died two months shy of her 59th birthday. So maybe this was all just borrowed time.
7:40. Taps. The owner of the range played Taps on his trumpet every day at the same time, notes long and lilting. Melvin used to stop whatever he was doing – shining his shoes, telling Orla a dumb blond joke – and salute their north-facing bedroom window, heels clicked together. He played the whole thing for laughs, but deep down he liked the pageantry. And he was a range regular, heading there with his brother, Beau, nearly every Saturday. Orla made him a pack lunch and read or sewed in his absence. Sometimes, she went for walks in the field around the house, wondering if the shots she heard were Melvin’s or Beau’s. She liked guessing. It didn’t matter if she was right or wrong. She liked that, too.
7:50. Six shots. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Like an adult talking in a Charlie Brown cartoon. Orla imagined a tiresome person in expensive eye protection, schooling everyone on the proper way to clean a barrel.
She poured herself a cup of coffee. Milk, no sugar. 7:51. A knock on the door. Nine minutes early.
Slippers. Wood laminate, Melvin’s idea. “It’ll keep, even if I won’t.” Like he knew somehow. Dust bunnies. Shoe tree. Floor mat. Knob, tricky. Turn it to the right, then push. A creak, some scraping, then Sister-in-Law. The outside on her. Mowed grass. Sun. Hustle and bustle.
“There’s coffee,” Orla offered.
“I’m off coffee.”
“It’s bad for you. Tea, please.”
Orla did a quick swipe of her jawline, feeling for chin hairs. Sister-in-Law did not like it when Orla had chin hairs. Nothing spiky. Small triumphs. “Fresh out of tea, I’m afraid.”
“Actually, I never had any. Don’t like it.”
“With lemon. You do have lemon, don’t you?”
“Let me check.”
Kitchen again. Refrigerator with its array of magnets and family photos and calendars, calendars all the wrong year. The lemons were moldy and shriveled, like tiny green brains. Orla held them up for Sister-in-Law to see. “Sorry.”
Sister-in-Law installed herself at the table. “It happens.” Dead spider plant. Cracker crumbs. A library card with a corner broke off. Clear by how Sister-in-Law removed her reading glasses and folded her hands that she meant to stay a while. “How are you?”
“Oh, you know,” Orla said. “Same.”
Water glass for Sister-in-Law had to be special. No leaching plastic for her, no Miller Lite mug with the “Lite” missing from too many washings. Orla found a cut-glass tumbler in the back of the cabinet. Wedding gift from Melvin’s mother. Orla filled it, set it in front of Sister-in-Law, who motioned toward Orla’s white-gold wedding band.
“If you’re going to keep wearing that, you should really get it resized.”
Orla put her right hand over her left. Her fingers had swollen in the night. She could feel her pulse in her palms. “I don’t want it to fall off.”
“The ring or your finger?” Sister-in-Law made a small puffing sound with her thin lips. Something between a laugh and a sniff. “Just so you know, there’s talk of giving Elena your job.”
“Elena? The new girl?”
“She’s no good.”
“She’s better than nothing.”
“And I’m nothing?”
“Right now you are.”
7:55. The shots were now a Fourth of July finale – another woman, Orla thought, trying to get her shots in before someone came in and claimed her spot – and Sister-in-Law was rubbing lotion on her forearms. Sister-in-Law worried constantly about crepey skin. Crepey skin and cancer and being robbed at gun point in her own home. She had a “Stand up to Breast Cancer” AR 15 in her closet. A Valentine’s Day gift from Beau. Sister-in-Law had never had breast cancer, nor did she know anyone who did. She just liked the color. She was wearing it today. Hot pink FitBit. Also ankle socks.
Finished with the lotion, Sister-in-Law put it away, snapped her bag shut. “Let’s face it, Orla. When it comes to work, you’re a no-show. You’ve been a no-show for months. You have to get out of the house. And this clutter. I read the other day that there’s a clear connection between excess clutter and mental decay. Study after study says so.”
“The clutter is just my life.”
“It could be the death of you. That’s what I’m saying.”
“And why do I have to get out of the house? What’s the point?”
“I don’t know how to answer that.” Dabbing at water in her lap. Sister-in-Law often missed her mouth. In too much of a hurry, she said. Too busy. No laying about for Sister-in-Law. Sister-in-Law did not like lay-abouts. “I don’t know where to begin. I would think, at this point, you’d be so tired…”
Orla sipped her coffee. She couldn’t taste it. Like drinking black water. “I am tired, so tired. I sleep, but it doesn’t seem to help. I—”
“That’s not what I mean.”
Orla plunged on. “Sometimes I think, this is why Melvin had to die when he did. So he wouldn’t feel this. So he wouldn’t know what this feels like.”
“Oh, Orla. You’re so impractical.” Sister-in-Law blew on her nails. American flags on each. But it wasn’t Fourth of July. It was April. Probably just being patriotic. Sister-in-Law was very patriotic. She tapped the table. Crumbs jumped like fleas. She looked down with distaste. “I talked to Doctor M. about waiting just a little longer before she made any decisions re: Elena. She’s under the gun, I guess. Dr. M. Growing the business, but she said she’d think about it.”
Under the gun. Sister-in-Law didn’t even flinch. Re: Elena. Growing the business. Doctor M. didn’t talk that way.
“Thank you,” Orla said.
“I was in town anyway. You know, getting ready for the party.”
Sister-in-Law would be 60 in a week. She was planning a big party, or her children were. One of the nieces, Orla forgot which one, had been by the other day with an invitation. Embossed, piped border, it sat on the counter atop a pile of unpaid bills.
“Jody is pregnant again and is completely useless, so Vicky is having to pick up the slack and she knows next to nothing about what goes into a successful function.” Sister-in-Law finished her water and handed Orla the glass, gesturing for a refill. “Upshot: I’m having to do almost everything myself and it’s my goddamned birthday.”
Upshot. “I’m sorry.” Orla put more water in front of Sister-in-Law. “And congratulations.” (Re: the new grandchild.)
“Yeah, thanks. Become a grandmother three times over and it loses its luster.”
Orla was not a grandmother. She would never be a grandmother. Her chances had been pretty slim to begin with, but now… she drifted over to her kitchen window and stared out of it, coffee mug at chin height, wondering if she looked like a woman in a drug commercial, staring out her kitchen window and holding her coffee mug at chin height. What was she wearing? She looked down. Flannel pajamas, the set Nat got her two Christmases ago. Country cabin pattern, moose and pine trees, snowflakes and ski poles. Too hot for the weather but thick enough to cover everything Orla wanted them to.
“Enough about my problems.” Sister-in-Law pulled a pamphlet from her purse, plunked it on the table, shoved it toward Orla. “Brought you something.”
Heavy cover, card stock, giving off whiffs of ink and Sister-in-Law’s perfume. Opium.
“It’s the new Meadowview Condo complex going up on the river.”
“Shouldn’t it be Riverview?” Orla asked.
“A change of scenery can be so helpful.” Sister-in-Law tapped the pamphlet cover with a perfect nail. “Read it.”
Orla read. Townhouses varied in size from 950 square feet to 2,000. Stainless steel appliances, faux marble countertops, clean-burning fireplaces. Prices starting in the low $200s.
“As in two hundred thousand?” Orla asked.
Sister-in-Law raised an eyebrow. She did not like to answer obvious questions.
“But I might lose my job,” Orla said. “You said so yourself. I can’t afford anything close to that. I can’t afford to leave here.”
8:15. It was the time of slow, regular shooting. William Shatner line delivery. Or the lumbering footfalls of a monster walking in circles. Orla imagined everyone – hippie, boy, dad, military man, pretentious know-it-all, the nervous women – firing one after another, trying with all their might to fall in line. No slip-ups now. And no apologies.
“Beau and I talked it over,” said Sister-in-Law. “Business is good. We’d be happy to help.”
Orla flipped through the pamphlet. The pages rustled like the ruffles of Nat’s old prom dress, the one Orla found by sheer luck on the floor of L.S. Ayres under a clearance rack. Purple satin with black lace accents and puffed sleeves, it wasn’t Orla’s taste, but Nat loved it. It suited her somehow, softened her sharp edges, and Nat had hugged Orla so hard when she brought it home that Orla’s ribs hurt. Good work, Ma. You got something right for once. After the dance, smelling of sweat and beer, Nat told Orla she wanted to be buried in that dress.
Sister-in-Law was saying that the apartments promised “modern living in an old-world setting.”
“What does that mean?” Orla asked.
“It’s just marketing.” Sister-in-Law finished her second glass of water and sat back. Her face was pink. She pulled her hair off her neck. The underside was dark brown with sweat. “Why don’t you ever turn the air on? If it’s on the fritz, I can ask Beau to come over and give it a look.”
“I’m good. I have fans.”
“AC’s too cold. And too quiet.”
“See?” Sister-in-Law said. “That’s what I mean. Impractical.”
Orla pushed the pamphlet back toward Sister-in-Law, who was frowning at her FitBit. “It doesn’t matter,” Orla mumbled.
Sister-in-Law hated it when people mumbled. “Speak up, Orla.”
“I said it doesn’t matter.”
“What doesn’t matter? What are we talking about now?”
Orla shook her head. Impossible to put it into words. It was your heart, she thought. It was your life, which you couldn’t really remember before she came along. A little blob with thick dark hair and colic. She gave your life meaning, gave it shape. Shape of a diaper pail under an open window, shape of a sunhat and sippy cup, a Rainbow Brite lunchbox, a pink bike with a dimpled face smiling over the handlebars, training wheels rattling over rough terrain. The shapes changed with the years. Like everything. Sunhats gave way to sunglasses, sippy cups to water bottles, bikes to beat-up starter cars speeding away (always away), but what stayed the same was your purpose, your main goal since the day she was born: to keep her safe. To keep her alive. You woke up full of ideas how to do just that and you went to bed still planning. You worked so hard. Too hard, Nat would say – Ma, no one else is wearing a helmet, don’t make me; Ma, calm down, it’s just a bruise; Ma, it’s fine, Diane’s a good driver and I’ll call you when we get there – but in the end, it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Shoot up a crowd, boil down the life shapes, melt all the mother love, and all you were left with was this, a dark, fuzzy forcefield between you and the rest of the world and Sister-in-Law in your kitchen, insisting again that you get out of the house.
8:18. Little bursts of gun fire now, small explosions that made Orla think of being a girl and blowing a dandelion apart. She’d tried to show three-year-old Nat how to do it but then the wind picked up and blew the seeds back in the girl’s face, made her spit and choke.
Orla stood. The forcefield shimmered. “Okay.”
“Okay what?” Sister-in-Law asked, half-moon of lipstick on the rim of her water glass.
“Okay, I’ll get out of the house.”
“Really.” The shooting range was a quarter mile away, maybe less. It wouldn’t take long to get there.
“Don’t you want to get dressed first? Put on some pants?”
“You aren’t even wearing any shoes.”
“Got slippers,” Orla said, striding to the front door.
“Where are you going?”
“Out. Like you said I should.”
Wood laminate, uneven, blond. Dust bunnies, cloud-like, mostly Orla’s own hair. Shoe tree, Nat’s Doc Marten’s, Melvin’s work boots. Floor mat, dirty flowers. Knob, piece of shit. Turn it to the right, then push. Sometimes the door stuck, and you had to kick the goddamned thing or it wouldn’t open. This was one of those times. Front stoop, rusty planter, dead geranium. Two steps. Blue steps. Melvin had painted them with something to make them slip proof. Didn’t work. Orla slid some, then righted herself, back jarred out of alignment. Who cared. She walked on, holding her hip, a hitch there now. A hurting. Driveway, gravel, long. Mailbox at the end, “Hanefelt” in black letters. Melvin’s writing.
“Orla!” Sister-in-Law yelled, puffing behind her. “You’re acting nuts.”
Am I? Well then.
Road, slurry seal, soft edges like something drawn by a kindergartner who couldn’t stay inside the lines. Ma, do I really have to stay inside the lines? Why didn’t Orla say, “You can do whatever you want to”? The mistakes, so many of them. The regrets. They piled up. They crushed you.
Woods to the right. To the left, an old farm for sale. Crappy fence, falling down. Stocking cap underfoot, stiff with dried mud. A running shoe in the same condition. Tigerlilies in the ditch. Oily puddle in a pothole. Then the range. Sign saying, “Cold Dead Hands Shooting Range and Gun Club.” Smiley face next to it. Bullet holes through the face. Why a face instead of hands? Good question, Nat. Orla had a picture of Melvin and Beau in front of that sign. The picture was somewhere, unframed. The floor under her bed maybe.
“Orla! This is a bad idea.” Sister-in-Law was struggling to keep up. She was sweating even more than in Orla’s kitchen. Sister-in-Law didn’t like to sweat.
Don’t think so, Orla said to herself. To herself. Not to anyone else. No point in trying to get anyone else to hear you or see your point of view or understand what you were going through. No one would do anything anyway.
The range was over a small hill of clover and through a tall green fence. A swinging gate warned of active shooters and impact areas and extreme danger. The signs said, “NO TRESPASSING” and “Enter at Your Own Risk” and “Trigger Warning: Snowflakes Shot on Sight.” Orla pushed the gate open and swept in, her pajama pants picking up dirt and weeds and bottle caps. There were five men shooting. Five men and a boy about ten. No women. They could have been related. They all had the same short brown hair, the same small, dark eyes, the same skin – sallow cheeks, inflamed at the neck. Even their headphones were identical. Their guns were different, though. A double-barreled shotgun, two assault rifles – one black, one red, white, and blue – a small pistol, an antique revolver, a sawed-off something. The shooters were lined up six feet apart at a series of wooden desks, aiming at targets hanging from a long, clumsy clothesline. The targets showed blob-like black outlines of men from the waist up, the head and torso striated with concentric white circles. Ripples in a poisoned pond.
Orla marched toward the clothesline, turned to face the boy and the men, spread her arms wide, invited them all to shoot.
It was the boy. Some mouth on him. He’d taken off his headphones. Shouldn’t he be in school? Orla no longer knew what time it was. Eight thirty? Nine? She’d lived for seven years without Melvin. For six months without Natalie. Numbers. Just numbers.
The father of the boy raised the barrel of his gun so it was pointing at the sky, a bright popsicle blue dotted with feathery white clouds.
“Shoot!” Orla shouted at him. “What are you waiting for? Huh? What’s wrong with you? Shoot!”
Sister-in-Law came waving into view. “No! Don’t!” she screamed. “She’s not in her right mind. Hold your fire!”
The shooters stared back at Orla like she was insane, which she supposed she probably was. Sister-in-Law thought so anyway, and Sister-in-Law was never wrong.
Orla spread her arms wider. The faces of the men and the boy melded together, converged like pieces of a puzzle into the wide, pale visage Orla could not stop seeing every time she closed her eyes. No matter how many times she catalogued her room, herself, he was there, haunting her, hovering at the edges of her consciousness, building the invisible cage she lived inside. White male. Twenty-two years old. Five feet, nine inches tall. Average build. Tattoo of a dragon on his right calf. Birthmark like an exclamation point on his left. Opened fire at a county fair and killed 32 people – numbers, numbers – because, depending on where you got your news, he was a) mentally ill, b) dispossessed, c) a copycat, d) the product of a sick society that valued guns more than people. Whatever. Orla never watched the news, and the result was the same anyway.
To the floating composite face which was the face of every gunman dead and alive and yet to be born, she said, “Shoot. Shoot me. Isn’t that what really you want to do? To kill? To watch something you killed bleed out in front of you? Here’s your chance. Show some courage. Be brave for once. Finish what you started.”
The men didn’t move. Sister-in-Law mopped her forehead with the front of her shirt. Flash of soft belly, then a scowl. Very inconvenienced. Sister-in-Law hated to be inconvenienced. A red-winged bird launched itself into the sky from a stand of long grass. Twittering. Otherwise, all was still and silent. Then the boy brought his gun up to his shoulder. Finger on the trigger, eye in the scope, he squinted. Aimed.
Nat was at that county fair. She was dancing with her girlfriend to a bluegrass band when it happened. Both women were found lying face-down next to a trashcan, arms and legs entangled. The girlfriend’s parents reached out to Orla afterward, said they had some things of Natalie’s – a ball cap, a sweatshirt, the keys to her apartment. Did Orla want them back? Nat hadn’t told Orla about the girlfriend. “No, thank you,” Orla said. Then, panicking, “Yes, please. Yes.” She wanted it all back.
The barrel of the boy’s gun gleamed. A portal. Orla stared into it until the face in front of her morphed, became the one she loved most in the world. Nat at the kitchen table, back home for her father’s funeral, flipping through Orla’s checkbook. Worried about finances, about the future, writing out checks to the cable company, the phone company, the local utility collective. Insisting they pay the hospital, too. Orla had ignored those bills for weeks, refused to send them any money out of protest. They let Melvin die. They might have even done something to hasten the end. Either way, paying them felt wrong. Like thanking someone for breaking your heart. Or bulldozing your house.
Voice tinged with exasperation because that was how it was. How it had always been between them. But that face. Heavy brows over amber eyes, a full mouth, gap between the two front teeth because braces had been too expensive and it was cute on her anyway. Wavy hair from Melvin’s side. A snub nose from Orla’s. Beauty like a sudden storm, took everyone by surprise.
What are we going do with you?
Interview with Deborah E. Kennedy
Shuddhashar: When did you know you wanted to be a writer/translator? How did you come to this realization?
After that, I started thinking about writing stories of my own, wondering if I might someday have the privilege of making another gawky girl feel a little less alone in the world, just as my favorite writers had done for me.
Shuddhashar: What impact do you think contemporary political reality has or should have on short fiction?
Deborah E. Kennedy: On one hand, some of my favorite books seem – at least on the surface – to be oblivious to politics. I’m thinking of the novels of Jane Austen, L.M. Montgomery, and Barbara Pym, and the short stories of Alice Munro, Katherine Mansfield, and Mavis Gallant. On the other hand, I agree with Toni Morrison, that all the best art is political because the act of creating is in essence an act of resistance – a resistance against the very human tendency to hang back, to accept the status quo. Even writers who appear apolitical are often quietly pushing for progress. You just have to scratch the surface a little bit. And whether we want to acknowledge it or not, politics shape our lives in ways that are both obvious and insidious, determining everything from what we eat and how much we earn to our access – or lack thereof – to opportunity, to chances to better our position in society. Most of my stories are either directly inspired by or somehow related to current events and current events are more often than not fueled by politics.
Shuddhashar: If you were to recommend one writer or collection of short stories to a reader, who/which one would it be? Why? OR Tell us about a single short story that moved you to tears!
Deborah E. Kennedy: A short story that moved me to tears is “Home” by George Saunders. In it, Saunders – a master of mingling humor with tragedy – chronicles one young man’s experience back home from an unnamed, American-instigated forever war. The young man, Mikey, almost certainly suffering from PTSD, struggles to find his footing in a world he no longer recognizes. What makes the story so moving is watching, through Mikey’s eyes everything and everyone he counts on fail him, time and time again. Without saying so directly, Saunders implicates in Mikey’s very specific, individualized suffering the upper echelons of government and military power. He also points the finger at America’s fetishization of violence and the empty promises we offer veterans in exchange for sacrificing their mental well-being and often their own lives for quite literally nothing. And while the story is steeped in political commentary, it’s by no means propaganda. It’s a story so full of heart you can almost hear it beating as you read.
Shuddhashar: What, to you, are the key elements of a great short story?
Deborah E. Kennedy: Nuanced, complex characters who are neither all good nor all bad. A well-developed, transporting sense of time and place. If the story calls for them, high stakes. If not, excellent world-building is enough for me. I like to be haunted by short stories, to be compelled by some often difficult-to-describe quality that makes them impossible to shake.
Shuddhashar: What is one thing that the art and practice of writing/translation has taught you?
Deborah E. Kennedy: The main thing I’ve learned from decades of reading and writing is empathy. Growing up white and lower middle class in northern Indiana, I often had to turn to books to find viewpoints and lifestyles different from my own. Stories opened my eyes to the fact that there are countless ways to be a human in the world. That is what I strive for in my own work – to provide readers with a chance to empathize with characters whose life circumstances or world view or ethos could not be more different from their own.
Shuddhashar: What are you working on right now? Tell us a little bit about your current project!
Deborah E. Kennedy: I’m currently working on a young adult novel about a teen girl on a road trip with her loving but mercurial father, who, unbeknownst to her, is on a mission to avenge his wife’s untimely death in an armed robbery. I’m also working on a television pilot about a chartered flight in the late 1960s that took women from the American Midwest to New York City for abortions when the procedure was illegal in most US states. I like to juggle multiple projects at one time so that when I’m stuck on one, I can turn to the other, but that also means I have to keep good notes or I’ll start losing the thread of both!