I’m home amongst the legions of others who are home now and I find Close Range on the shelf–the shelf that gapes wide and open like a gap-toothed old man, now, what with the predations of either my sister stealing books or my mother pressing books on me because you should take it, just take it, when you get to this stage in life things don’t matter to you so much and I want you to take it–and I pick it up and read the first story.
And I remember not liking Annie Proulx when young; I read The Shipping News when twelve or thirteen and hated it–hated all adults living shitty lives I viewed them as too infantile to rise up to and change–but I know I read some of her short stories too despite my disdain. At least one or two were required of me–on a standardized test and in a classroom. I can remember having to fill out a multiple-choice question asking “based on the context, which of the following best describes how the word ‘moony’ is being used here?”
But I also know I read the stories, some of them anyway, because here, this first one, “The Half-Skinned Steer”–I riffed off it for a short story that got me the attention I always craved as a teenager; got people yammering about me being good at this or that and that’s always what I wanted to hear. I used brothers and the West and and abusive alcoholic father, but I kept the boys alive and the mother alive enough for memory and made it be a rumination on the destruction wrought in all their lives by this man now dead, whom they were being called back to honor now. I named it after a colloquialism for parhelia, which again I’d never seen on the soft eastern coast. But I did all this despite, again, not liking Annie Proulx and not enjoying the stories I read of hers, whether short or long.
I tried to explain this recently to a poet friend. When young, I understood real ugliness, the acknowledgment that it exists and that it touches a lot of people even if it spared me, as a stamp in the passport to adulthood. The women writers I read who were taken seriously had all been, or had known and then written about, other women who’d been raped or beaten or had psychological warfare waged against them for years by people too close to them; people who the school counselors with their syrupy abuse presentations and the doe-eyed actors playing concerned hollywood teachers assured us should never be so close to us. But I understood that most people had real ugliness coiling in their life like a snake, and sometimes they trod on it and it struck out and sank its fangs into them and the poison creeped there for years, festering. Even the happy-seeming adults I admired seemed to know this. So I put it in stories hoping to be treated as an adult, and not to be bothered with the idiotic concerns assigned to people my age: the humdrum list of characteristics all-important to silly movies about high school. And it worked. I was treated like I knew something, if not maybe the most important thing which was that those happy-seeming adults I admired didn’t know about that dark thing coiled waiting in everyone’s life from just adequately paraphrased stories. They’d trod on it too.
How do you know when there’s enough of anything? What trips the lever that snaps up the STOP sign? What electrical currents fizz and crackle in the brain to shape the decision to quit a place?
This time of year–especially even tonight, with the apparent tradition of going out with old friends in the old haunts and getting wasted–a lot of people probably drift through familiar places they quit, simmering just beneath their surfaces with either bitterness or nostalgia. This corner reminds them of being chased home by hooting bullies; the old school reminds them of some pimply-faced boy they let fumble with their breasts because no one had taught them to say no and mean it. Or nostalgia: this was the field where I performed that impossible feat of athletic prowess and saved the day and everyone loved me; this was the place we stood when we kissed for the first time. These themes are widely explored in books, movies, music. These are accepted and well-rehearsed reasons to leave.
But another, more quiet, less-interesting reason to have quit a place is simply to have done what you came to do. Read the books and brushed off the bullies and shied away from the methheads and garnered the praise and affection necessary to survive and move on–and to have moved on. To have realized that just because you haven’t frantically cobbled together all the experiences you think add up to an adult in this one place isn’t failure–it’s fluidity. A necessary fluidity you will have to call on the rest of your life because the adults you know who don’t bend when called on for it, snap like branches in winter. And then they fester, and set about seeding that ugliness you read about into other people’s lives.
Before I even recognized the shape of the story, I knew I had read it by the first line. “In the long unfurling of his life, from tight-wound kid hustler in a wool suit riding the train out of Cheyenne to geriatric limper in this spooled-out year…” Unfurling. This was the story that began my love of this word, and this phrase specifically, with its treatment of life as a broad vast thing with curled edges that flaps in the wind, that you can’t see the end of at first because it’s buried in the middle. I’m sure I’ve used unfurled on this blog, and in four or five stories through the years. It’s a phrase that invokes the magic she usually reserves for her landscape descriptions. When she describes people–when she sits there with a pencil and the yellow, lined notepads she writes on before transcribing all her stories to typeface and limits herself to the realm of what people think and do and touch–it is often ugly. Short, brief descriptions like tidy bullet wounds. But with the land she lets herself unfurl. Sometimes she lets the two mix and it’s beautiful. I knew how to do that math, when young and writing, but only because I’d seen the functions carried out before. Not because I knew what the equations meant.
Now, I do. More than I used to, anyway. For that I am thankful.