Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Short-a-Day: Ramona Ausubel's "Atria"

Originally published in The New Yorker, April 4., 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 38.

What's the line -- if there is one -- between humans and beasts? High-school sophomore Hazel Whiting doesn't see much of one; life is a "soggy thing" to her, her peers look "like helpless, hairless baby rats," and she decides that she will "survive each of these endeavors by not becoming invested." And yet (a phrase that echoes through her mind), she winds up convinced that her mother -- who has already raised the daughter's three older sisters -- wants her to grow up faster, and so she sleeps with a beer-drinking and jerky-chewing clerk at the local 7-Eleven. Animals come into play again:

"Mmmmmm," he said. "Mmmmmm," she returned. Hazel thought they were like whales in the sea, searching for something over long dark distances.

Her final observation's a bit of a cliche -- "She had done this grownup thing, yet she suspected that her mother would find her even more childish for it" -- but the distance in her voice keeps the story fresh, a tone that's needed since she is raped by a stranger in the next section, and checking her urine two paragraphs later: "Hazel sat on a closed toilet next to a little plastic spear with a bright-blue plus sign on one end."  But it's here that the tone starts to peter out: Hazel imagines the child within her as a menagerie of animals, from a "glowing fur baby" to a "large bird of prey," and various others. There's a little history given about her mother and sisters, who believe that their dead husband/father will return through the child, which might explain Hazel's disassociative fantasies, and yet . . . .

In the story's climax, she has given birth and is left alone with the baby. As it begins to cry in its bassinet, she goes to comfort it -- not as baby, though, but as what she recognizes it to be: a seal. She collects the blowing dew from the four-AM wind and sprinkles it on the child; when this is not enough, she begins to wring out a dirty mop atop the child; finally, she lifts up the entire bucket and soaks the baby through and through. The story ends there, with the two of them naked in the dark room, the "seal" suckling at her breast -- and it comes as a disappointment, an "Is that all?" moment. The language is fine -- "The bundle coughed one beautiful polished river rock of a cough" -- but with Johnny the 7-Eleven clerk popping in, the sisters and mother responsibly caring for her, the town shipping her endless sympathy casseroles, it's hard to resolve the story's ultimate destination and abandonment of its prior threads. 

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