Lori Ostlund’s first collection of stories, The Bigness of the World, which includes “The Day You Were Born,” received the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the California Book Award for First Fiction, and the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award. Stories from the collection have appeared in Best American Short Stories, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, The Kenyon Review, The Georgia Review, and New England Review, among other publications. She was the recipient of a 2009 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. She lives in San Francisco with her partner of twenty years, the novelist Anne Raeff, but is currently the Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she is at work on her first novel and more stories.
The Day You Were Born
When Annabel comes home from school on Tuesday, her father is back, standing at the corner of Indian School and University, across the street from where the bus drops her and the other children from her apartment complex. When the light finally changes, the two of them cross hurriedly toward each other, and so their reunion takes place in the middle of the street, her father twirling her around several times and then releasing her abruptly in order to present his middle finger to an old woman in a Volvo station wagon who has beeped tentatively to let them know that the light has gone red.
“So, are you surprised?” her father asks as they pass through the front doors of the complex, and because his tone is light and he is holding her hand and yanking her arm about in a happy, frenetic way that does not match their steps, she responds honestly, “Yes,” without pausing to think through the possible implications of his question or her answer.
“Why are you surprised?” he asks, stopping suddenly and squeezing her hand hard to underscore the question. “Did you think I wasn’t coming back?” The pressure on her hand increases. “Did your mother say something?” She looks down then.
“Look at me, Annabel,” he says, and she does.
“She said you were in the hospital and the doctors didn’t know when you would come home,” she tells him, which is more or less the truth, the less part of it being that her mother actually told her, just two days earlier in fact, that the doctors were not sure that he would ever be able to come home. “I’m so happy you’re home,” she adds because she is and because she does not want to talk to him about her mother.
They stand outside their apartment door for several minutes as her father searches through his pockets for his key until Annabel suggests that they use her key, which she takes from around her neck and hands to him. His hand trembles slightly as he fumbles to insert it in the lock, and Annabel looks away, breathes in deeply, and concentrates on thinking absolutely nothing. This works, for when she turns back, her father has the door open and is gesturing, with a gentleman’s low bow and flourish, for her to enter.
“So, are you ready for a snack?” he asks, his tone light again, and when she nods, he says, “What are you in the mood for?”
“Anything,” she tells him, and she goes into her room to change, knowing that when she comes out, her father will have made something awful, something like sardines and melted marshmallows on saltine crackers.
“How much do you love your dad?” he’ll ask, motioning with his head for her to be seated, and though she always tries to think of new ways to answer this question, she never comes up with anything but the same old responses—a whole lot, very much, tons.
“Enough to eat sardines with marshmallows?” he’ll say, setting the plate in front of her. And she does—does love him that much, does eat it, polishes off the entire plate, in fact, of whatever he puts before her while he sits watching her chew and swallow and demonstrate her love in a way that she does not know how to do with words.
“That’s my girl,” he’ll say when she’s finished, words that prove to her that it was worth everything—the awful taste and the feel of the food sitting in her stomach like a stone or tumbling about like clothes in a washer. Sometimes, the nausea overwhelms her and she excuses herself, slips into the bathroom, where she leans way down into the toilet bowl, her face nearly touching the water, and vomits as quietly as possible.
Today, when she comes out in her after-school clothes and they go through the usual routine, what her father sets before her is a plate of celery sticks, three of them, arranged like canoes, overflowing with mayonnaise and topped generously with chocolate sprinkles. Her father, of course, knows that she hates mayonnaise more than anything, that she finds even the smell of it unbearable. It occurs to her then that her father is still angry, and so she eats with extra diligence, her father watching as usual, and when she is finished, she looks up at him hopefully. “That’s a girl,” he says, but Annabel understands that there is a difference, a very big one, between “a girl” and “my girl.”
“Did your mother tell you about these?” he asks matter-of-factly, pulling back the cuffs of his shirt and laying his thin, white arms out on the table between them, elbows turned down, wrists facing up. Her mother had not told her, of course, had said only that her father was tired and needed a rest, and Annabel sits looking at them, feeling the mayonnaise inside of her like something living, something that wants out, but she will not allow it, not today.
“Touch them,” her father says, his voice gentle but urgent. “It’s okay. I want you to. You won’t hurt me.”
Already the cuts have risen up in angry welts around the stitches, which she studies carefully, thinking about the fact that they were put there by someone she does not even know, a stranger who held her father’s wrists and created these precise, black marks. There are nine of them, she notes, four on the right wrist, five on the left, and as she places a small finger against each of them, one by one, she closes her eyes and tries to imagine that they are something else, the stitching on a baseball, for example. She loves baseball, not the sport in its entirety but playing catch, which she and her father do together regularly in the park, where her father throws the ball so hard that her hand stings each time she catches it, which she usually does. Sometimes her palm aches for days afterwards, though she would never tell her father this. Still, even with her eyes closed, she cannot really pretend that she is touching a baseball because her father’s skin is warm and soft and she can feel his pulse, a slight, rhythmic quivering that means that he is still hers.
Later, when her mother comes home, Annabel hears the two of them arguing, her mother saying, “What is wrong with you? She’s a child, Max. A child.” Annabel is only nine, but she already understands about her mother, knows, for example, that her mother would be angry to learn that Annabel and her father spent the afternoon inspecting his wrists, and so Annabel would never think to tell her this. She cannot help but wonder how it is that her father, who is an adult after all, does not understand such things.
The next day when she arrives home from school, her father is sitting barebacked on the sofa. She knows what this means, of course, that the maggots have returned and are writhing just beneath his skin, making him twitchy and unable to sit still, just as she knows that even the merest brush of cloth against his skin riles the maggots even more. He has explained all of this to her many times, but she cannot actually imagine how such a thing feels, though she knows that it must be awful. His neck is bothered most by the maggots, and when he is forced to put on a shirt—in order to greet her mother or go outdoors—he shrugs his shoulders repeatedly and tugs incessantly at the neckline until it dips, like a very relaxed cowl, to his belly button.
“The maggots?” she asks quietly, standing next to the sofa with her book bag still strapped to her back.
“Yes,” he answers wearily.
“Are they bad?”
“It’s all I can think about,” he tells her. “Your mother doesn’t understand, of course. Do you know what she tells me? She tells me to just not think about it.” He laughs when he says this, in a way that invites her to join in, to find humor in her mother’s insensitivity. He has told her this before, many times, explaining that it is because her mother grew up in Minnesota, where they prized something called stoicism.
“What is stoicism?” she had asked him once.
“Well,” he had said, thinking for a moment. “It’s like this. Let’s say that your mother and I are out taking a walk and I get a pebble in my shoe. What would I do?”
“Take it out,” she had suggested, her voice rising faintly at the end so that her words occupied the space between statement and question, but her father had ignored her uncertainty.
“That’s right,” he said. “Of course. I would take it out. Any normal person would. Now, what would your mother do?”
To be honest, she did not know what her mother would do, but she felt that it would disappoint her father were she to admit this, and so, because she understood the direction in which he was nudging her, she said, after an awkward pause, “Leave it.”
“Right again. Because your mother likes to suffer, Annabel. She likes to feel that pebble in her shoe. And then, at the end of the walk, do you know what your mother would do?” He had become more excited, warming to his explanation, not really expecting her to answer. “She would tell me about the pebble. She would say, ‘Max, I’ve had this pebble in my shoe the whole time we’ve been walking, and it’s really starting to hurt.’” When he said this, his voice changed, becoming higher like her mother’s voice and drawing out the o’s as he did when he teased her mother about being from Minnesota. “She would expect me to feel sorry for her, but I wouldn’t, of course. I’d tell her, ‘Well, sit down and take the damn thing out.’ And you know what she’d say then? She’d say, ‘Oh, never mind, Max. It’s okay. We’re almost home anyway.’”
He had paused then, his eyes closed, hands clasped in front of him as her grandparents did when they prayed before eating, but Annabel knew that her father was not praying. He did not believe in it. After a moment, his breathing slowed, and he opened his eyes and said, “You see, Annabel, your mother needs that pebble. She wouldn’t know what to do without it. You can see that, can’t you, Annabel?” His tone was fierce, beseeching her, his face glowing red, the way it used to when he came in from gardening, back when they had a garden, back when they had a house.
She had nodded, though she had never seen pebbles in her mother’s shoes, had not even heard her mother mention pebbles. “You need to be on your guard, Honey. Okay?” he said. “Because if your mother has her way, you’ll be walking around with a pebble in your shoe too.” He breathed in deeply through his nostrils, as though the air were very fresh and only now could he enjoy it.
On Saturdays, Annabel and her mother visit her grandparents. Her father does not go along, even though they are his parents, because he says that they stare at him. During these visits, her grandfather and grandmother both sit in their recliners, which have been placed up on cinder blocks so that when they stand, they do not have to hoist themselves upward in a way that would strain their hips. She and her mother sit on a floral sofa across from them, and Annabel feels self-conscious because there is a picture of Jesus hanging right above her, which means that when her grandparents look at her, they are seeing Jesus as well. They generally talk about uninteresting topics such as what songs were performed on Lawrence Welk during the week’s reruns and how many times they saw the retired barber who lives across the street mowing his lawn. Once, he mowed his lawn three times during a single week, and they reported this to Annabel and her mother with a great deal of indignation.
“Doesn’t the man have anything better to do with his time?” her grandfather had asked again and again, shaking his head.
“Maybe he misses cutting,” her mother said, which was a joke, but Annabel’s grandparents do not acknowledge jokes.
Her grandparents are very pale because they do not go outside and have not for many years. In their garage sits her grandfather’s car, which has not been driven in six years. Every other week, she and her mother go out and start the car to keep the battery in good condition, just in case. A couple of times, she and her mother went to the gas station and filled a large red can with gasoline, which they poured into her grandfather’s car.
“Why don’t we just take the car to the gas station?” she asked her mother. “Wouldn’t it be easier?”
“Your grandfather does not want the car moved,” her mother explained.
“Because something might happen to it. We might get into an accident, and then he wouldn’t have the car if he needed it.”
First, her mother rolls open the garage door, though Annabel knows that they will not be going anywhere. They climb in, and her mother pulls the seat forward so that she can reach the pedals. She is always careful to push it back again when they are finished, in deference to Annabel’s grandfather, who is very tall. Then, the two of them sit in the idling vehicle, staring straight ahead at the rakes that hang from the walls of the garage in neat, orderly rows.
“Why do they need so many rakes?” she asked her mother once, after she had counted and discovered that there were twelve of them. Then, she repeated the question, but this time she said, “Why do they need a dozen rakes?” She was six and had just learned in school that twelve was also called a dozen, and she thought about this often, wondering why there were two words for the number twelve. It seemed unnecessary, unnecessary and odd, for if a number were going to be given two names, the number ten seemed more deserving.
Her mother laughed at her question.
“What’s funny?” Annabel asked.
“Oh, it’s just that you don’t usually use the word dozen for things like rakes,” her mother said, but when she asked why, her mother replied, “Well, you usually just say a dozen for things like eggs, or donuts, or things like that.” When Annabel later asked her father why you couldn’t say a dozen rakes, she expected one of his usual explanations, which were generally long and left nothing out, but instead he replied angrily, “Of course you can. Who told you that? Your mother? Listen to me, Annabel. You can say a dozen rakes to me anytime you want. Okay?”
As she and her mother sit in her grandfather’s car on the Saturday after her father’s return from the hospital, her mother says, “Don’t mention your father’s wrists to your grandparents.” She and her mother have not discussed her father’s wrists either, but Annabel does not see any reason to point this out to her mother. “Okay,” she says, though she never mentions anything to her grandparents and her mother knows this.
Her mother looks at her watch and says, “Fifteen minutes. That should do it. Let’s go back in and make your grandparents a little something.”
They always make the same thing, a hot drink mix that her grandparents call Russian tea. The mix consists primarily of Tang, which Annabel dislikes, and cloves. It is her job to carry the china cups filled with the brownish-orange liquid out to her grandparents, both of whom bring the hot tea immediately up to their mouths and hold it there, as though the cups were receptacles, or conductors, for their words. It is only then—as they sit with their mouths hidden and their eyes partially concealed by the steam fogging their glasses—that they turn their attention to more interesting topics, namely her father.
“How is he?” one of them generally asks her mother at this point, as though they believe that a simple pronoun in place of his name will keep Annabel from knowing that it is her father to whom they are referring.
“He’s fine,” her mother always replies sharply, inclining her head toward Annabel, who pretends not to be listening, hoping, futilely, that they might be persuaded to say more. Instead, they all sip their Russian tea and gaze at the photograph of her father that hangs on the wall near the television, a picture in which her father, wearing a green bolo tie, looks cheerful and handsome and not a bit like the twitchy, shirtless man they have come to know.
Today, however, there is no mention of her father, and Annabel wonders whether they have forgotten to ask or whether this omission is something intentional, something that they planned beforehand. She actually hopes that it is the latter because the idea that her father has simply been forgotten, particularly in the midst of such tedium, is too much for her to bear. She turns toward her father’s photograph, but it is gone, which means that the entire time that she and her mother have been sitting here, listening to her grandparents talk about the barber and his mowing, it was already gone—gone, and she had not even noticed.
Most Saturday nights after Annabel and her mother return from her grandparents’ house, she and her father follow the same routine: her father helps her get ready for bed, and once she is settled beneath her Raggedy Ann quilt, he asks her to describe the visit to his parents. He listens quietly to her report, and when she finishes, he says, “Just remember, Annabel, that these are the people who made your father sleep on the cot.”
“Yes,” she always replies. “I remember.”
“Good girl,” he says as though they are finished with the matter, but then he tells her the story of the cot again anyway because he likes to remind himself of it, particularly as she is snuggled against him in her very own comfortable bed in her very own room.
“Your grandparents,” he always begins, “had produced seven children by the time I made my appearance. Imagine, Annabel, four boys, three girls and the two of them living in a tiny, three-bedroom house.” During the introduction, his tone is always noncommittal, as though the story might just unfold in a way that allows for sympathy toward these nine people, his family, crammed together like peas even before his arrival.
“Well,” he continues, “I was put in your grandparents’ room to sleep, in a crib wobbly from overuse.” And there it is, the hardening in his voice at the words “wobbly from overuse.”
At the age of two, her father had gone from sleeping in this crib to sleeping in the hallway outside his parents’ bedroom, on a cot that was folded up and rolled behind the door of his sisters’ bedroom each morning. The hallway, he told her so that she could picture it because her grandparents had long ago left that house, was like the backbone of a capital E, and the three bedrooms, which jutted out to the left, were its arms.
“It’s not even that I minded the cot,” he always told Annabel at this point, after he had impressed upon her the image of this small boy, him, isolated from every other member of his family. “It was comfortable enough.” No, what he had minded, he said, was the fact that when his parents unfolded the cot and set it up for him each night, they always placed it as far to the right as possible so that it stood just at the edge of the staircase that connected the upstairs sleeping area with the main floor—despite the fact that there was no railing separating the upstairs, and thus him, from the empty space of the stairwell.
Sometimes, he told her, his arm hung down off the cot in his sleep so that his hand brushed his father’s head as his father climbed the stairs for bed. “I would wake to that feeling, the brush of my father’s hair against my fingertips, and for a moment, I had no idea where I was. You see, already I thought of sleep as a period of isolation, and that was so ingrained in me, Annabel, that even half-awake, I found the feel of another person disorienting.” Then, he would reach out to stroke her head or caress her earlobe before he went on.
“It was like sleeping on the edge of a cliff. On any given night, I could have rolled right instead of left, and that would have been it. I would have gone right over the edge.” This is where her father’s story always ended, with the understanding that had he been a different sort of boy—less vigilant, less aware—he would have simply rolled over the edge and been gone.
This Saturday, when she and her mother return from her grandparents’ house, her father is not there. She and her mother eat dinner together quietly, and when her mother puts her to bed because her father is not there to do it, her mother perches awkwardly on the edge of the bed and says, “I told him to leave, Annabel. It was just getting to be too much. I hope that someday you will understand this, maybe when you’re older.” Her mother goes out of the room quickly, forgetting to leave the hallway light on as her father always does because he understands about the dark.
The next day, Sunday, the telephone rings again and again, and when the answering machine picks up because her mother has told her that she is not to answer it, there is her father, singing a song or telling them about something unimportant—a snapped shoelace, the way his orange juice tasted that morning because he forgot and brushed his teeth before he drank it—as though he is right there in the room with them. By evening, however, he has begun pleading with her mother. “Think about Annabel,” he says. “Have you asked her what she wants?” Before they go to bed, her mother erases the entire tape, and then she unplugs the answering machine.
When Annabel opens the door to the apartment on Monday, letting herself in with the key that she carries around her neck, the telephone is ringing, and she cannot help but feel for a moment that the apartment does not belong to her because the ringing was there before her. She knows that she should not answer it because her mother has instructed her not to, but after several rings, she picks it up, justifying this course of action by telling herself that it could be her mother calling to make sure that she has arrived home safely. However, once she has already committed herself by lifting the receiver, she realizes that if it is her mother calling, she is only doing so to test Annabel.
“How’s my girl?” says her father, whispering as he used to do when she was young and having bad dreams in the middle of the night.
“Hi,” she says in response, surveying the apartment nervously because she cannot fully shake the feeling that her mother is there somewhere, sitting off to the side, listening.
“Did you get my messages yesterday?” he asks.
“I miss you.”
“I miss you,” she answers, whispering now also.
“Listen,” he says then. “I need your help. I need you to write down some things. You know, things that your mother says about me, things that we could use if we had to.” She doesn’t answer, and then he says, “Annabel, she doesn’t want me to see you or even talk to you. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not as though this is the first time. She acts like this is the first time, but it’s not, so why now, Annabel? Do you understand? Because I don’t. I surely don’t.” There is a very long silence.
“The day you were born,” he declares suddenly, no longer whispering. “That was the first time. I bet you didn’t know that, did you? It was the day you were born. Your mother made me promise that I would never tell you that, but what’s the purpose of these secrets? I mean really, Annabel, what is the purpose?” He is speaking slowly now, forming these last four words with great care.
“I don’t know,” she says.
“It was because I loved you so much, even before you were born, and I could feel how much you loved me. That’s why I did it. Do you know that, Annabel?” He pauses, as though waiting for her to reply. “At night, when your mother was asleep with you between us, I would put my hand on her stomach, on you, and I could feel you telling me that, Annabel. I could feel you saying that you loved me. That already you loved me more than anyone had ever loved me or ever would.”
She thinks that her father might be crying, but she isn’t sure, and for a while, neither of them says anything. “So you see,” he says finally, his words tapering off as though he is falling asleep. “It doesn’t make sense.” Annabel waits, but her father doesn’t speak again, and after several minutes, she hangs the telephone up, gently, not wanting to wake him.
When her mother gets home, she seems distracted, but she goes through the usual set of questions: Did you have a snack? Did you do your homework? What sounds good for dinner? Annabel answers these no, sort of, and I don’t know, and when her mother adds a new one, “Did your father call?” Annabel pauses for just a moment, and then, very calmly, says, “No.” Her mother looks so relieved that Annabel understands, with sudden clarity, that lying is not always a bad thing, not when it so obviously means that she can help them both; later, she even hears her mother humming as she makes fried ham, which is Annabel’s favorite.
The next day when Annabel arrives home from school, the phone is ringing again, but she knows what she needs to do, and she sits on the sofa listening to it, her hands tucked beneath her thighs. Eventually, she gets up and sets the table, two places instead of three, so that everything will seem right when her mother gets home. When the ringing finally stops nearly two hours later, she feels its absence like a sharp, sudden pain, but she understands now how it is: that this pain, this pain is how much she loves him.
Interview With Lori Ostlund
Can you tell me why this amazing story (the one we are publishing) was not in a lit. mag before? Can you tell me about your life before “The Bigness of the World”?
First, let me say how happy I am to see it published here in BLIP. A couple of weeks ago, I was speaking to a fiction class that was reading my book, and they had noticed that most of the stories appeared in journals in 2009, which was the year the book came out. They surmised—very incorrectly—that I wrote most of the stories within a short period of time and got them published very quickly, and then the book came out. Here’s what really happened:
The eleven stories in The Bigness of the World were written over the course of maybe ten years. I spent several years in my mid-thirties not sending stuff out because I wanted to focus on finding my voice and style, but then I started sending work out again, and that was when it got hard—I felt that the work was ready, yet nobody wanted it. I got some good rejections, but those only keep one afloat so long. I did not have an MFA, so I had no contacts, no writer friends except my partner, and very little sense of how things worked. I was doing my time in the slush piles, which I will be the first to agree are daunting for writers and editors. Eventually, New England Review and Blue Mesa Review published stories, and that kept me going for several more years. I was teaching part-time at an ESL school, trying to finish these stories, and in the spring I quit that job after a botched strike. It was right around then that I submitted the collection to the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award.
For several months, I felt sorry for myself—no job, more rejections. I can still picture the moment that summer—we were walking up Taraval in San Francisco, waiting to cross the light at 19th—when I said to my partner that I was going to stop writing and get a proper job (a proper job being one that paid properly). Though I did not actually stop writing, I did enroll in paralegal courses and started teaching remedial English part-time at the Art Institute of California. In fact, it was my first day at the Art Institute that I came home to the message from University of Georgia Press that I had won the Flannery O’Connor. Actually, they did not say that I had won, just that they would like me to return their call, which I tried doing for hours; they were having trouble with their phone system, I later learned, which explained why my calls kept going directly to the voice mail of Bob, a very cheerful-sounding man, but not the person who had left me the message. Eventually, I gave up for the day, and when my partner came home, I said, “I think I might have won the Flannery O’Connor.” She said, “Let’s drink a toast!” but I’m Midwestern, so that—celebrating something that didn’t yet exist—was out of the question. I spent the rest of the night thinking up plausible reasons that the Press might be calling (that did not have to do with my winning the FOC), and then the next morning my call went through.
Nancy Zafris, the series editor, guided me in getting most of the stories placed in journals before the book came out. I probably would have been too shy to do that, to write to journals and say, “Will you consider a story because I just won the FOC,” but she was great at offering advice and encouragement. Within a couple of months, I had seven more stories placed, and then just when the book was going to press, 5 Chapters requested one of the two remaining stories, “And Down We Went,” and that left “The Day You Were Born.”
Tell me about your cats?
Last summer, our cat Palenque, whom we had had for sixteen years, died just as we were leaving to spend a year in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I am the visiting writer at UNC. Her kidneys failed when she was eight, so for half of her life, we gave her daily subcutaneous injections, and she led a long, happy, and active life. We had started to think of her as immortal, in fact, and then last May, we woke up and found that overnight she had ballooned, becoming this huge, puffy, cartoon-like cat. The fluids were all trapped under her skin, and the vet told me what we knew already: that the fluids had stopped working, and she would die soon. We were happy that she did not have to make the move, and we decided that we would spend the year in Chapel Hill without a cat. After eight years of having to plan all our trips around whether we could find someone to live in our house and put a needle in our cat, we looked upon this as a year of freedom (sad freedom but freedom). By October, we were unbearably lonely, so when we heard about a cat refuge in the forest near Chapel Hill, we went to have a look. The refuge harbors around 200 cats, who are allowed to roam around in a very large, fenced-in area of the forest, and we spent three days there before coming home with Oscar and Prakash, whom we refer to collectively as The Boys. We changed Oscar’s name to Oscar Romero, after, well, after Oscar Romero, and Prakash was originally named Rocko by his former owners, who had given him up to one of the shelters. On the paperwork that they filled out, in response to the question “What does the cat like to do?” they wrote “Nothing.” We now refer to them as the Philistines.
What is it like to leave the warm freezing nest of San Francisco? What do you miss most?
Among many other things, I miss the view from our house, even though there usually isn’t a view because of the fog; walking up the very steep hill from the K train every day; being able to walk out the door and get chicken feet from the Chinese place down on Ocean; spending the weekends walking all over the city; the anonymity of a city; our subscriptions to the symphony and to various theaters. I do not miss thinking that there is going to be an earthquake every time I get in an elevator (that scenario combines two of my biggest fears—earthquakes and elevators) or trying to find parking.