Short Story Month, Day 26: Antonya Nelson

During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from writer Rebecca Meacham.

It started because I wanted to shoot a dog. In a short story, that is. The stories for my first collection— then my doctoral dissertation— were character-driven epiphanies hinging on a character’s decision to act, or not to act. A story with a gun on page 1 and fired by the ending—this sounded like big, explosive fun. So I shoehorned a dog-shooting into a story that really didn’t need it.

My dissertation advisor looked over my draft and said,  “If you want to shoot an animal in a story, read ‘Fair Hunt,’ by Antonya Nelson.”

He was right, of course. Nelson’s story is both explosive and character-driven, introducing me to her ability to capture the internal voice, and painfully limited awareness, of her characters. Her stories are also fearless: Nelson writes from the vantage points of husbands stealing strangers’ children, masturbating boys, men having sex, women having affairs, parents fumbling drunkenly, and children exploiting their own tragedies. Like her character Daisy in “Female Trouble,” as a writer Nelson seems “up for whatever.”

Nelson balances extremity with understated, graceful language— the kind of control that goes unnoticed until you try to copy it. Here’s more about Daisy: “When she’d fallen in love with [McBride], she’d gone to his apartment and climbed in his bed and waited for him to come home. She was a free spirit with a crush, a mission, a taste for disaster. His roommate had greeted him in the kitchen that late night…whispering as he stepped daintily on tiptoes, ‘There’s a girl in your bed,’ with such admiration and awe that McBride seemed stripped of very many options. A naked girl in your bed was not a thing to take lightly…Like a gift, a girl between the sheets, an gift, this girl, like an animal in a gunnysack, and on fire, in heat.”

Most of us would be happy to stay in this moment, but Nelson opens “Female Trouble” years afterward, in an institution, where Daisy’s heat has turned to self-immolation. McBride visits but he’s put off— not because he’s matured, but because she’s frail. He now lives with Martha, a staid older woman who notes, “We love each other’s damage.” This line foretells the story’s events: repulsed by Daisy and Martha, McBride sleeps with another institutionalized woman; Martha and Daisy form an alliance; a baby is born; a woman dies; and McBride speeds away at the end, “staying between the broken yellow lines, and don’t look back. No no no.”

McBride is a lout, and overall, The Lout is Nelson’s most versatile vantage point. To outsiders, the Lout’s actions are unfathomable, immoral. But inside the character’s head, where Nelson takes us, decisions are not only logical, but also convincing: there really is no other way to act.

Remember those animals in “Fair Hunt”? Shooting animals is total Lout behavior, right? Except this Lout’s wife is returning home with virtually no immune system, likely to die, after ravaging chemotherapy. Their house is grimy from all the strays his wife’s kind heart has welcomed. Before her cancer, the Lout— James— had never fired a gun. He can do nothing to make his wife better. As he shoots animal after animal, his impotent rage is heartbreaking and, as he later realizes, mistaken. His epiphany makes “Fair Hunt” a great story: James meets his wife’s eyes over her sterile mask and realizes, to his horror, he had plenty of other options all along. But up until that moment, “he had only done what he knew he had to.”

Nelson renders her Louts with a lightness that never dissolves into mockery. Take the two point-of-view characters in “OBO,” (an acronym for “Or Best Offer” in classified ads). Our first Lout, Abby, is a liar who has conned our second Lout, her professor, Dr. Michael Shapiro, into joining him at his wife’s Christmas family reunion. Both Abby and Shapiro are pathetic romantics, but not for one another. When Shapiro leaves to meet his secret lover at the MLA Convention (she doesn’t show), Abby schemes to get close to Shapiro’s wife, Lucia, a flutter-gowned Madonna figure with one child at her breast, the other at her skirts. Bold with yearning, Abby steals keepsakes from family suitcases, wears the dead matriarch’s clothing, and spies on Lucia and her sister from the kitchen pantry. She even sentimentalizes a sandwich: “Lucia’s teeth bit beautifully into the white bread with its white filling, turkey, mayonnaise, Muenster. A tiny morsel was offered the baby, who sat now on Lucia’s lap at the table, mother and child cross-eyed evaluating the exchange. Abby wished for a photograph of this, the pink skin and the fine white fabric…Abby felt rapturous, as with a painting, or some other piece of great art.”

Of course, Abby will be rebuked. For readers, the failure of the Lout’s “unrequited, completely unrequitable love” is never in much doubt. That’s because in Nelson’s stories, hope cleaves two different paths. The Louts seek what they want —pleasure, elevation, redemption, admiration, justice—usually from other characters; the reader clenches and simply hopes everyone survives with a shred of dignity.

One path leads to a beautiful romantic portrait. The other path leads to piece of great art.

Rebecca Meacham’s debut story collection, Let’s Do, was published in 2004 as the winner of UNT Press’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” program selection. Her stories have been published in Michigan Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, West Branch, Paper Darts, SunDog Lit, and elsewhere, and her nonfiction appears on the blog for Ploughshares. Rebecca lives with her family in the woods of Wisconsin, where she’s an Associate Professor at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.