- Used Books
- Staff Picks
- Gifts & Gift Cards
- Sell Books
- Stores & Events
- Let's Talk Books
Special Offers see all
More at Powell's
Ask a Book Buyer | December 6, 2013 4 comments
At Powell's, our book buyers select all the new books in our vast inventory. If we need a book recommendation, we turn to our team of resident... Continue »
When Writing Is an Emergencyby Mary Otis
Do you like me?
It is the first time I write something necessary and high stakes an emotional emergency. But Billy Stavory is worth it. He is the best reader in class, and although he occasionally gargles his milk, Billy Stavory is reported to have once swallowed a moth. A moth that lived and flew back out his mouth. Billy Stavory has character.
We practice our cursive letters via "the Reinhart Method," and our teacher, Mr. Vasculare, draws a capital Z on the blackboard. This Z is haughty, pretentious. This Z is beautiful to behold, impossible to execute. Our own Zs under-dip or over-crash the relentless, unforgiving, blue-lined "practice" paper paper that rips or crinkles if you so much as breathe on it. Mr. Vasculare holds his elbow to the side while he writes, as if he were doing a tango with the blackboard, and it might get away.
But all this hardly matters as I wait for Billy Stavory's reply. Billy, whose neck, that beautiful slip of skin between his white shirt and hairline, turns a strange inhuman pink. It is the pink of a terrible bedroom slipper. It is the pink of a bawdy nail polish called Pink Cake Lady. I've never seen anyone turn this color before or since. Billy is fused to his chair, and I can only imagine his eyes, which are light brown, staring straight ahead, the single freckle in his left eye, frozen.
Mr. Vasculare tells us to write in our best Reinhart penmanship the sentence, "Nothing is good or bad, thinking makes it so." His arm drops to his side. "William Shakespeare," he says with no flourish, as if Shakespeare is his brother, and we all should have known that.
I do not write the sentence. I do not touch my Z, which remains unfinished on the page, its single top loop like a chopped-off curl on the floor. I reason that maybe the problem isn't the words I wrote or the meaning of the words I wrote to Billy Stavory. Maybe it is the note itself notes are a girl thing. My friend, Kim Draga, and I are always writing them. Our notes are primarily about what people will say should we suddenly die a sort of exercise in pre-memorialization.
But then I hear a catch in Billy Stavory's throat. His shoulders suddenly hunch, as if he's been whapped by a small amount of electroshock. A "why me?" kind of move. Slowly, very slowly, and without turning around, his index finger and thumb return my note. Re-folded. Unchecked.
And then it comes to me. The REASON my note is being returned is because Billy Stavory is somehow psychic, and he somehow knows that I accidentally sat on a pencil the night before, a pencil left on the sofa where my grandmother had been doing her crosswords, and he somehow knows that I was rushed to the local hospital where the doctor couldn't do a damn thing about it, and he somehow knows that the doctor said the pencil mark wouldn't kill me, but it would never go away, and he knows that everyone thought it was a big fat joke, and he knows that the doctor said to my mother, "Do you see my point, Mrs. Otis? No pun intended, Mrs. Otis."
And so, I raise my hand. "Lav," I say to Mr. Vasculare. "Emergency," I say. Emergency will get you out the door, no questions asked. Emergency is a powerful word, and it is everywhere in the fire drills we do, in the fake notes our mothers write to get us out of school, even in the pants we sometimes wear, "emergency pants," the horrible pants that should you have the misfortune to rip your own while taking a jump over "the horse" in gym class, you will be forced to utilize stinky old colorless corduroys that are always too big, too small, no matter who you are. Emergency.
And then I am in the school hallway. The hallway that smells of mint floor cleaner, the incinerator, and ravioli. The hallway is tilting. The red "Exit" sign taunts; its first two letters only lit. Ex...Ex...Ex. I am having a nervous breakdown, a thing I have been expecting for years. Then I'm in the school parking lot in the aching, hot sunshine, and I begin to run the perimeter. And while I run, I think about how a person can only take so much, and I won't foresee that years later when I recall this day, the particulars will have rotated, flipped backwards, lost weight or fattened, and I will think that Shakespeare knew what he was talking about.
Then I run back to class, because no one, no one, is to ever have an emergency that lasts longer than the time it takes to run the parking lot.
÷ ÷ ÷My questions "do you like me, do you love me, or what?" made their way into a story called "Unstruck," in my short story collection Yes, Yes, Cherries. The story is completely fictionalized and has little else to do with the story above, but if I were to try to locate the emotional engine of the piece, I think it has to do with the strange passions of childhood. The worrying, the secrets. It also pays respect to my recollections of being a kid, and how there was always some cockamamie plan afoot to go live in a cave or get a job at the dry cleaners. Then you set out in your little pack, and you think you're heading out into big bright life. Then someone starts crying, or hides in a bush, and the whole thing is off.
I'm not sure things change so much when you get older. A number of the adult characters in my stories are trying to shake free of something, set out in some way. Sometimes they make some poor decisions. Sometimes they head in exactly the wrong direction. I'm always interested in what a person might do when they find themselves crammed into a certain situation either accidentally, or even more complicated, of their own choosing.
I came to write this collection after Tin House published my story "Pilgrim Girl." At the time, I had six or seven stories published and Lee Montgomery (my editor at Tin House Books) urged me to complete a collection. During the next year I wrote a few new stories, and linked others at her suggestion. "Five-Minute-Hearts" was inspired by a story a girlfriend told me about going to a party at the home of her boyfriend's ex-wife. The seed of "Welcome to Yosemite" was hearing about a grade school teacher who was fired for teaching time incorrectly. During the period I wrote these stories I moved a few times, and that, too, seemed to fuel the writing of this book the apartment buildings, the driving, the neighbors stories people told me, lives that were glimpsed, lives that I imagined after being captivated by some small occurrence.
÷ ÷ ÷A few years ago, a friend gave me a piece of a note he'd found in the street. He knew I was a collector of such things. The scrap was tied with string to a tiny piece of what was left of an orange balloon. The note, which was written in a child's hand, the lettering dark and crooked, free of all Reinhart constraint, said:
I could not tell you then, but I'm telling you now. I love you. I hope you have a good time up there in heaven.
It was signed "Jazzy." It took me back way back, to the sad beautiful days of emergency love, emergency pants, and for better or worse, how I'd been marked as a writer.