Short-a-Day: Melanie Rae Thon's "Heavenly Creatures: For Wandering Children and Their Delinquent Mother"
[Every Thursday, I'll be looking at an older short story.]
Originally published in The Paris Review, No. 169, Spring 2004. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 90.
Thon's story goes on so long that it gets a little heavy-handed, what with the abandoned children turning into the animals that haunt the woods, and the narrator--who has learned to empathize, now that she is a mother, an orphan, and a widow herself--turning inward, with an italicized prayer to Love. But the majority of the story is a loving piece of work, open-ended and misleading in terms of plot, but totally grounded in its sense of character and in the shifting tone. That's the growth that justifies this story: "A story like that could turn the hard of heart into believers, or the most trusting souls into cynics. Didi's children chose to believe." It's this coming-around choice, that perception and emotion are really, ultimately, what we choose to make of them, that lends the tale such power.
It begins simply enough, full of numbers and facts: "Didi Kinkaid and her three children by three fathers lived in a narrow pink and green trailer at the end of a rutted road in Paradise Hollow. One wintry November night, fifteen days after my father died, eleven days after he was buried..." The clash of good and bad is already here ("Paradise/Hollow; "pink and green trailer/end of a rutted road"), but we don't realize at the start that we have a choice as to which way to read these signs. In fact, the first part of the story is almost entirely a litany of not-good-enoughs and other failures: "Evan Kinkaid who would never go to high school," "a girl who might grow up to be useful," "on any given night there might have been six or ten or twenty-nine tossed-out, worthless, wild kids crashing at Didi's...." We laugh at the faint hint of an alternative when Didi's voice takes over:
To Didi Kinkaid, any roadside motel seemed luxurious. What she liked best was the bath after, when the man, whoever he might be that night, was drowned in sleep on the bed and she was alone, almost floating, warm in the warm water, one with the water--not like the trailer where there was only a cramped closet with a spitting shower....The voice makes it easy to discern the difference between Didi's different "lovers," from sweet, young Jesus-looking Billy, who, along with the baby necessities, steals a blue rubber duck and seven white rubber ducklings (and calls it shopping), "toys to float in the tub Didi didn't have, so they put Meribeth in the kitchen sink with her eight ducks, and Billy, Sweet Billy Boy, hummed lullabies while he washed her." There's an immediate shift, then, to Evan's dad, "a mean sonuvabitch if ever there was one--Rick McQueen, Mister Critter Control...." In this way, Thon tells us volumes without going into entire histories, which is, I suspect, why the story starts to drag as she piles on more and more unnecessarily spoken facts.
In any case, the story is a compelling read, especially as the narrator starts to side with how unfairly Didi is treated and ostracized by her neighbors--her neighbors who burn down her trailer in order to brighten up the neighborhood, and who would never think of caring for these wild children, which shows who really has the heart in this story. And there are pieces of the conclusion--as we see Didi and her children, all grown up--that really work, particularly this bit of wishful, inescapable thinking: "Meribeth's worst fear is that one day her mother and brother and sister will knock at the door of her secret cottage in the canyon. Meribeth's deepest desire is that Evan and Holly and Didi will one day sit at her table to share a meal of bread and fish and wine and olives, that they will all sleep that night and every night thereafter in one bed in the living room . . . miraculously healed."
Thon's ability to find the beauty--or the horror--in these simple, shared experiences (or the ones ignored) not only makes this an original story, but a touching one, too.