Back when, I remember coming across this story all the time (most likely the same year I found The Smiths and quit the entire state of Mississippi [and all I knew there] and moved to Denver to work as a hospital orderly like my hero, Denis Johnson) in fiction anthologies, short story textbooks, etcetera, books bought for fifty cents or one dollar (at most) in cramped and musty bookstores (this was before the Internet, when even the smallest quests for information were interesting and gave a certain charge and luminosity to everyday life). But then Paley’s story appeared less and less, a splotch, a trickle, then didn’t appear at all, which makes perfect sense: most anthology editors loosely peruse previous anthologies and the entire enterprise is literary regurgitation or even worse, eating regurgitation and then regurgitating it once again, a snake swallowing its own tail, then the snake sunning on the roadway and run over by a Ford Escort hauling a U‑Haul trailer westward: thump-thump. Along the way, one editor probably dropped Paley, so they all did.
The father demands a simple fiction from the speaker (or the author?), “the kind Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write. Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next.” Why? Probably the reality of his deathbed. His heart a clunky motor leaking blood. Perhaps he wishes the center would hold: that life had coherence, a tangible essence. A theme. A plot. Some narrative arch (basically, a feeling of sanity). That he’s a protagonist? A victor, a villain, a pivotal character, something more than strings and bellows, a torn scarecrow, field-grit and dry cornstalks in the brief and gusty winds of existence…But here I am only guessing.
Either way, the speaker/author will have none of this dusty nonsense. These cardboard cutouts, circular doll heads and Freytag triangles. Why? Because it’s 1972. Can you imagine the state of American short fiction in 1972? Let’s take a slice of my typical day as metaphor: I’m standing with a wet mop in the Rocky Mountain Regional Trauma Center (where I was employed in 1998, as I mentioned earlier). The Med-Vac brings in a dead Kennedy (he skied backwards into a tree while trying to catch a football). Next, a church group of rowdy teenagers from Louisiana: they pried the seats from the ski lift and used them as homemade sleds and careened downhill and over a cliff into a deep crevasse. Then a man walks into the waiting area with a camping hatchet buried into his upper back and says, “I don’t want to get my wife into any trouble…” Later I wring out the mop, wash my hands twice, have lunch (a burrito with green chili) in the cafeteria while reading the local paper and see how a new restaurant has arrived in Denver, the Cracker Barrel. It claims to serve “southern food.” I was born in a south so deep it hacked up its own humid shadow daily. A greasy, gothic cough, with tendrils of dying Spanish moss. Yellowish like rancid butter. On grits. And also cathead biscuits. Anyway, that evening I ate at the Cracker Barrel. And that particular meal was like the condition of American fiction in 1972.
So, in this way Paley (and her speaker’s refusal) predicts the Undertow of the upcoming decade, the corrective surge, the New Wave of 1980s fiction (and beyond). Technical fluency (and even verve), but yet still a neoclassical interest in actual daily life. Bells, whistles, and bloody kneecaps. For instance, Paley places herself as a character in the story. She weaves multiple flash fictions into the larger narrative. She inserts grids and columns and a pencil drawing of her father’s cat. One paragraph is written in iambic pentameter. Another in inverted acrostic. She even includes a poem:
the fingers of my flesh transcend
my transcendental soul
the tightness in my shoulders end
my teeth have made me whole
Question: What does this poem mean? Why does it need to exist? What’s at stake? What is the emotional background the poem is rooted in? Why did she write it?
Answer: Paley is a prophet. Help is on the way. Camouflage clothing will enter the mainstream. Sushi will appear at malls, along with break dancing. As will the fiction of Lydia Davis, Andre Brink, Octavio Paz, Natalia Mijailovna, Jim Harrison, Minfong Ho, Alfonsia Storni, Martina Rokha, Edward Albee, Pablo Spring, Augusto de Campos, Michelle Spark, Ken Sparling, Gerty Stein, Antoine Volodine, Terese Svoboda, Cole Swensen, Alexander Theroux, Jean-Phillipe Toussaint, Enrique Vila-Matas, Keith Waldrop, Joy Williams, Hisashi Inoue, Roland Booker, Jenny Huidobro, Luis Antonio Sensini, Nikky Finney, Z Nervo, Hank Shaw, Juanita Carlos Onetti, Rogelio Estrada, Suzanne Drummond, Alvarenga Peixoto, Melissa Auf der Maur, Sergei Yesenin, Joan Blos, Fumiko Enchi and a few others I can’t recall (I’m a little hungover, bear with me). Paley is clearing the stale air! We should be thankful, especially from our perch so far into the future. New words, this story (and poem) declare! Even new songs will soon drift upon the scrim of sunlight through clouds and swell the boom-boxes of men, women, and children of all ages. For example, Herbie Hancock. For example, Morrissey, the greatest crooner to ever walk the planet Earth.
Sean Lovelace lives in Indiana, where he directs the creative writing program at Ball State University. He’s won awards and published in literary magazines and wrote Fog Gorgeous Stag (Publishing Genius) and How Some People Like Their Eggs (Rose Metal) and other flash fiction collections. He likes to run far.