"Ae fond kiss, and then we sever": When is a story done?

It’s cold here in Casper. I have hot cider. It seemed correct to start with a Robert Burns line, then. But the Burns line is purposeful in that I have reached what I consider to be a rare thing: the place of being finished with a story.

I have many times had stories be finished with me before I was finished with them (the ones that never quite went anywhere, the fragments in computer folders and notebooks where the relationship ended on a note of mutual ambivalence), and there are many stories that aren’t quite there yet, something shoe still waiting to drop (as soon as I find the damn shoe–maybe waiting for the shoe to be thrown). There are the stories, too, that are only pretending to be stories, that are really just novels waiting to leap. To them, I crack my whip and brandish my chair: back! back! (Or at least admonish them to queue up in an orderly fashion.)

But sometimes, the piece and I have said all we have to say to each other, and the story goes out into the wide world and finds its right home, and once it’s there, there’s no reason for me to meddle with it. I’m speaking mostly of publication, which has traditionally been the marker of done (not always, of course, but oftener than not). I’ve had the good fortune of placing a short story that I wrote a eight years ago (it doesn’t feel like that long ago) in Stymie Magazine, and so now I can talk about writing with actual concrete referents, rather than vague hand-waving at the book-in-progress.

So this is putting “Middle Infield” to rest. Walking away. Saying a fond farewell.

There is a particular pleasure in finding a journal for a story that feels right for it, and because of the specificity of this story’s major pieces–baseball, queerness, teenaged characters–it was not an easy fit. Any one of those things seems to have a number of markets, but the Venn diagrams seldom overlap. And so I am especially pleased to have it homed in Stymie, where so many facets of sport (and a lot of various and interesting hybridities) are showcased.

I wrote this story in one of my MA program workshops, and I owe, of course, a great deal to a small group of excellent workshop colleagues that I had there. I remember, though, that even in its shitty first draft, it was the first short story that I’d written as a short story, all self-contained, with no lingering desires to become a novel, that I was even remotely happy with. Because I hadn’t written it as the obligatory workshop submission (because workshopping novel chapters in a short story workshop is seldom productive)–I’d written the story on its own terms, and it went quickly because so much of it was so dear to me. False and fictional and all of the things I stole from the world of the real had been dragged through algae and sunflower seed shells by the end, but dear to me still.

I was in Ohio at the time. Most people don’t think of Ohio as markedly different from central Pennsylvania (or any of the other mid-Atlantic states), but it was the furthest I’d been from home in the long term, in a way that was truly on my own. Campus housing, during my BA, even if I seldom went home, certainly didn’t count. As a TA in graduate school, I had a job, a regular paycheck, the first semblance of a functional adult life. Gone were the thousand activities and club meetings of yesterdegree–now onto serious academic study. Now into an actual college town, which is all that town was: bars (a perilous lot of bars), great music, independent restaurants, and twenty thousand twenty-somethings. Nothing at all like my no-horse childhood home or my unfriendly, working-class city and its idyllic campus island that we seldom left.

I think now that some of this story was born of homesickness. Maybe a way to pay homage to where I’d come from because everyone else I knew seemed to be from a much more recognizable version of somewhere. Maybe a way to hold up small things I loved about a place where I no longer fit myself. No matter the reason, and I didn’t know it then, but Cal and Brendan and the smaller details of their lives were ways of reaching out to the place that I’d left. That’s completely contradictory in that it is all firmly fiction–it’s set in upstate New York, even, years before I lived there or ever knew that I would–but the characters play out on the landscapes of memory.

A list:

  1. The snapping turtle was real. My brother and a friend of his fished them out of a farm pond, though never so big. I remember them showing me the hook they used for it, three inches long and the wire of it too stiff to bend. They did bait it with a raw chicken wing. Stevie’s mother did not make soup from the turtles they caught. The turtles did eat ducklings. But I don’t know how they killed them after catching them. 
  2. I harbor no ill will toward turtles, snapping or otherwise. In a visiting writer’s talk while I was in Ohio, though, Clint McCown read from his novel, War Memorials, in which a lizard meets a dire end via a window sash, if I remember correctly. I remember feeling more guilty about killing off that snapping turtle in the story than I did for any number of other injustices I’d committed against characters. I do not remember if McCown felt similar remorse. I know the question came up.
  3. The pond Cal and Brendan stand beside is not in upstate New York. It is in my parents’ neighbor’s pasture, and the pond is roughly the size of a regulation ice hockey rink. It was fed by a small stream, though, and it never froze hard enough to skate on it. Or we never knew how deep it really was and my parents said no to our desire to skate on it. Both are true. It did house a number of fish, though, and we caught bluegills and sunnies there, on small, flimsy rods. There were turtles, snappers in that pond (as in so many ponds where I grew up), and they would have cut our four-pound test with no effort if we’d fished with any bait that tempted them.
  4. Cal’s grandparents’ basement belongs to my friend Bill, who was also my middle school boyfriend. Its ceilings were too low for Bill, who was already nearly six feet tall in those gangly years. In high school, a whole knot of us hung out there, stooped over the small pool and air hockey tables, and we didn’t drink, even though we knew we could have. We played terrible nineties music and there was often a strobe light on because why not. There was a fat plastic barrel of pretzel sticks. One of my grandfathers still keeps them beside his chair. The basement had its own bathroom, too, one where the concrete block hadn’t even been painted. It was always cold. The cold was a good excuse, and it often lead to some pair of people making out on the couch. 
  5. Ted Williams hitting walnuts with a broomstick may be apocryphal. I feel like I remember my dad telling me about it. It feels true. That’s what matters.
  6. Regarding a tiny reference buried in a paragraph–a guy who went to my high school, Dominic Rich, who played baseball with my brother–did rip it up playing for Auburn. The Blue Jays drafted him in the second round in 2000. The whole valley was kind of gutted, I think, when he didn’t make it past AA ball. (My hometown was blessed with excellent baseball players while my three-years-older brother was in high school. I wouldn’t love the sport the way I do if I hadn’t been raised on such a beautiful version of it.)
  7. The high school I imagine here is my own. Rural. Conservative. Full of people who would not let neighbors go hungry or leave anyone to change a flat tire on one’s own. Full of the kind of silence, though, too, that lets Brendan say, of the possibility of queer athletes (and really, for his context, queer anyone, queer him, queer them), “No one talks about it.” The silence that makes Cal continue with the affirmation that what cannot be said cannot be done. Queerness is not an option. 
This is the place where I want to say goodbye to this story. It ends with some hope because I believe in hope and I am an optimist. But this story was written years before the You Can Play Project, most of a decade before, and it was written in the fullest sense of Brendan’s wishful thinking. (I am reminded of Oscar Wilde and Miss Prism’s famous line: “The good end happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” Because Oscar Wilde didn’t have the luxury of that wishful thinking.) I say goodbye to this story on Spirit Day, in hopes that Brendan and Cal, wherever they are, whatever they are doing, together or alone (because characters, in my mind, keep moving forward in their worlds, aren’t stuck where the last sentence leaves them–they have trajectories and there is no friction great enough to bring story to a complete halt), are well and happy and no longer in a place where they feel that hard weight of silence.

I have more hope still for the real LGBT youth because of the many organizations and individuals who are speaking out, who are acting, who are changing this landscape of silence. 

4 thoughts on “"Ae fond kiss, and then we sever": When is a story done?

  1. This is simply wonderful, mate. (And I love, love, that story.)

    The paragraph about homesickness and the one before it about Ohio made me tear up a bit.


  2. First off, there's a few things you wrote here that hit me in the same way as A River Runs Through It. I'm tempted to indulge in those feelings today. Guess I should keep a copy of it on me at all times.

    What I really intended to say, though, is how much these lines move me: “…a way to pay homage to where I'd come from because everyone else I knew seemed to be from a much more recognizable version of somewhere. Maybe a way to hold up small things I loved about a place where I no longer fit myself.”

    What you wrote there about your own experience gives voice to something left wordless that I carry in myself, and …yeah, thank you for that.

    Very glad “Middle Infield” found a home so I could read it.


  3. Anything I can do that reminds anyone of A River Runs Through It is something I'd like to do again (even if I'm not sure how). Because that book–glorious. I'd endorse keeping a copy with you always.

    Thank you so very much for reading & the kind words about the story.


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