It’s been a great week for my fiction career! I’m honored to report that the prestigious literary journal New Letters, a publication of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, awarded me their 2016 Fiction Prize for my short story “Taking Down the Pear Tree”. See the winners’ list here. Thank you to final judge Hilma Wolitzer and the editors for making a home for this story and providing my novel marketing budget for the rest of the year!
In this story, a suburban executive’s efforts to adopt a child bring her up against her ambivalence about female social roles and the limited scripts for intimacy with other women. At a moment of crisis, she finds unexpected consolation in the breakdown of all the narratives she’s used to avoid grief and fear.
At least, that’s what I think it’s about. Buy the Winter 2017 issue and let me know what you think! Here’s the beginning of the story.
Taking Down the Pear Tree
You agree to her naming the baby Maurice. It’s after a character in a novel you’ve never read, a book that (Wikipedia tells you) has a tragic but miraculous ending. You found such stories embarrassing in high school, twenty years ago, probably the last time you tried to read a novel by someone dead. The guilty rash on the minister’s chest, the Christmas ghosts. Your imitations got the B-minuses they deserved. But you can’t bite your lips through another winter of songs about angels bringing babies to pure girls. Your arms ache. This is a real thing. You try to work your mouth around the name — soft, loud, in your childhood’s Brooklyn accent, in your Connecticut suburb’s lack of one — till it sounds like something a boy would be willing to answer to, when you called him home.
Your husband goes through nicknames to reassure himself. Not Maury, an old uncle who tells bad jokes. Not Moe, cartoon bartender, stooge. But Reese is a fine name for a first-round draft pick or patent attorney. He could co-sign a mortgage, tie his own shoes.
Your husband’s name is Thomas. Everyone calls him Thomas.
It is January. The specialist’s rubber finger widens your crack, probes the hollow she sees between stirrups. She has short pale hair and rimless glasses and a Polish name that your husband jokes sounds like “paycheck”. He is not in the room. The numbers on her screen look good to her. On the walls are the usual red cross-sections of female muscle and Impressionist sailboats. The paper sheet crackles like a fire under you, heat sweeping over your skin, crushing you breathless. She doesn’t understand why you’re not pregnant. Your heart rate is high. Does anything hurt? You feel the walls of your womb contracting, shrinking from the speculum, gathering the wishful strength to expel it so they can join forever like scar tissue, a marriage that excludes a third. Nothing hurts, you say.
After you’re dressed, the specialist brings Thomas back and shows the two of you her hopeful charts. Your age plus number of embryos implanted equals probability. And what of the others? You use the A-word to show how tough-minded you are. No euphemistic reductions for you. Thomas half-closes his eyes wisely, the face that looks like listening but only you know means patient disagreement. Eye contact would throw off his game, so you devote your attention to his lion-fur eyebrows, the wide furrows of his forehead, which you truly cherish, though there are limits on what you will do to make a next-generation copy. The fresh panties you brought for after the procedure feel damp and used. You’re afraid you smell. Thomas stands so you stand. He shakes her hand and tucks the handout under his arm. Your husband was raised Catholic. You hope he remembers that.
You drive too fast to the Cracker Barrel. Both of you order chicken pot pie and syrupy iced tea. Thomas sits with his back to the fireplace because you’re still sweaty, despite the whip of snow in the air outdoors. He says this might be the year he runs for City Council. Someone has to take a strong stand on stormwater management. He’s a financial planner, but the market is slow. You relax into the familiar topics. The year stretches ahead like the interstate, straight and bare under white winter sun.
All the next week you dream thick, dark dreams, itching under a knit blanket you almost recognize — an aunt’s house, a friend’s? Washing breakfast dishes, you say aloud the name of a discontinued lipstick: Berry Chic, a Kool-Aid color in a mashed tube you shared with your ninth-grade best friend Mira, swapping tastes of wax and spit. You say her name, relieved to be certain of something. You’re glad the house is empty.
There is a room that is blue and green.
There is a room whose door is always closed.
You and your friend Pauline and the new guy, Glenn, run an executive staffing firm downtown. You match resumes to positions at insurance agencies, law offices, nursing homes, and the occasional quirky client like the holistic spa or the boarding school for deaf kids. It’s the same pleasure as filling in a crossword puzzle. Pauline’s mother never worked and yours, of course, had to stop early. You’re satisfied by the sight of yourself in the washroom mirror, pearl studs or gold knots in your ears, champagne-beige dress or black pants suit, some blouse that doesn’t show sweat. Though it’s been awhile since you talked about it, you know Pauline, adjusting her headband beside you, feels the same.
It is March. The social worker asks why you want to have a baby. Thomas is sitting in the chair next to yours, but she is only looking at you. You think, not for the first time, that no one asks men this question. The mere willingness to become a father on purpose, and to expend some effort to do so, automatically puts Thomas on the good-conduct list. He is responsible, respectable, unselfish. Unfortunately, this is all true, so you can’t take out your frustrations on him. Besides, from now on, you’ll have to present a united front.
You could tell her that Thomas talked you into reactivating your adoption application when he caught you crying in front of the Easter egg dye kits at the supermarket. The problem with our life, he’d said, is that we have no liturgical calendar. You don’t talk this way, and you can’t take the chance that this new social worker will think you’re being pretentious or flippant. But you’d instantly understood what he meant: the feeling that none of it applies to you, as your neighbors and the people on TV cycle through back-to-school sales, letters to Santa, Mother’s Day bouquets.
You could tell her you want someone to love. You could tell her you want immortality. Someone who needs you. Not only do these sound like the terrible song lyrics you and Mira wrote when you were both crushing on that sophomore with the electric guitar, they are unbelievably self-centered, as is anything you might say about someone who doesn’t exist yet.
You tell her the truth you have both rehearsed: that your marriage produces a creative energy that you want to share. That it’s not in the cards for you to create with your bodies, but a family is really made by love. The social worker gives you a binder of printouts from other couples’ websites. She instructs you to start collecting photos of your life. Pictures for a story that a birthmother would want her child to be part of, other than her own.