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Comments Posted 08.29.11 | PERMALINK | PRINT

August Fiction: Danielle Dutton

An Excerpt from S P R A W L

In the spirit of August and the tradition of summer reading, Places is featuring a series of short stories in which landscapes are central to mood and meaning.

Laura Letinsky, Untitled #115 (Pomegranate)
Laura Letinsky, Untitled #115, from the series Hardly More Than Ever, 2003. [© Laura Letinsky, Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery]

It’s bewildering, the way faces pass in and out of my line of vision as I sit in the car and wait for the light to turn green. This place tends to take on a benevolent glow when birds peck at the grass in front of the gas station on the corner. I turn left, then right, then left again, right, left, and then I go straight for quite some time, and then I take a right, another left, a right, and then I’m home: driveway, garage, linoleum, a flight of stairs, a river leading west, south, south-east, east. It’s so old-fashioned, a memory, unimportant events. Lisle and I once heard a branch fall to the ground. It was a heavy branch, waterlogged and distended. Meanwhile, the oak tree across the street has been there for over a century, since the earliest nostalgic links and sentimental assertions of this place. The roads outside are wet (or the clip-clop of horses hooves, the bull escaped from the arena up the street and ran downtown during lunch). Haywood takes me to a restaurant for dinner. He encounters new cravings via advertising. The restaurant presents itself as a country kitchen with gingham curtains and blue fires in wood-burning stoves. There is a particular etiquette we observe, which involves particular moments of silence, particular expressions, waving, etc. Back home I shift colorful fruit candies to the dining room table and line them up (yellow, green, orange or orange, green, yellow, red) on the brilliant white tablecloth, which hangs low over the edge to form a sharp contrast with the shadowed wall behind. The arrangement and rearrangement of these everyday objects is comforting and has to do with human nature in the petroleum age. It’s a metaphorical tradition involving absentmindedness and materials that do not appear in their natural surroundings, such as strawberries or walnuts, or birds living in nests, as well as creative efforts, sequence, and other important leitmotifs. I sort through linen and silver and cookbooks. I find useful instructions for organizing a large banquet, which requires eight courses, a butler, all manner of fruit, cream and cakes, fish served whole, quails and larks, fried venison, pies, cold meat, good soup, bowls with lids, serviettes, saltcellars, and a company of at least thirty illustrious guests. I lift the faucet and get down on my knees and get back up to fill a four-quart pot. Later, I refasten my bra in front of the French doors overlooking the swimming pool and a square of grass. The sun is setting and the sky is arranged in horizontal strips from yellow to blue. In the distance the city flickers. The cat makes crunching noises in some other part of the house. I don’t see or hear any birds outside at all. It’s a respectable night; I like it well enough. Soon Haywood will have returned from work. His gleaming sedan makes its own cooling noises in the dark garage. The cat goes out the cat-door and then he steps in a hole in the grass and then he turns around and then he repeats this several times. For dinner I make four vegetables and some pork. In the morning I am thick and stiff. I go for a walk and pass cars and SUVs, some with pretty loud music, and then I pass the spot where the meeting-house burned down. A Chinese restaurant opened there on Easter day. It opened between a men’s apparel store and a stationery store that also sold chairs. It does a rapid lunchtime business and has been here longer than I have with its red wallpaper and jade fish. I continue walking and see the mayor and some hysterical people and some other people who advance on this street between the hours of seven and ten applying tremendous pressure to the asphalt. They may eventually break through and uncover a prior road, a dry road, and you could follow it to the woods in a rapid pace, in a panic, or you could go there slowly, hopefully, with an idea about how you can’t stop progress. So I open the door even wider and show them my shoulders or hair. When Haywood gets home I show him my neck, how it rises out of my dress, and how even my new necklace bumps against it. He has to stop and think about that. He says, “Dear,” and fingers the beads without looking at them. I serve him from the left-hand side. I serve steak with mashed potatoes and salad, and then I serve several prepackaged puddings. When I remove the plates I do it from the right; I shake myself when this is done. I shake from head to foot like a duck. I shake in lavender ruffles that frame my face. It’s important to realize that I shake like a piper-grass in the woods. I shake near the kitchen and then I shake by the bathroom door. When I shake I am dainty and tranquil. I shake without sentiment or doubt. I shake and am somewhat disconcerting when I shake because I shake for ten or fifteen years. Then I scent myself with leftover lemon slices. I stand in the kitchen and look out at the yard. Giant blackbirds take over the front yard. They take over the backyard and exist like obvious symbols on the picnic table. They situate themselves for purposes of leisure, or for purposes of establishing positions and seats of power. Haywood says “Wake up” as a glass plate of pickles tumbles from the table to the floor. Then a letter arrives, which indicates that Mrs. Nelson will host a party where members of her family will perform their talents, but on the way there Haywood and I get sidetracked from street to street. We are eager to. We stop the car and move to a bench in the park. We carry on. After this I acquire a faint blush, like a cunning sportsman. I pile flowers on my head. Haywood touches me to indicate he admires and is entertained by my pleasing form. It’s true he is entertained by it. So I travel around in the fragrance of a very hazy day. I walk the sidewalk passing garbage cans and dogs and fresh plots of dirt. Then I return home to toasted oats on the kitchen counter, a crystal vase with dirty water and fading flower stems, fallen petals, fallen pistils, a blue and white plate, a blue and white creamer, two yellow cherry tomatoes, and a glass pitcher of juice. I stand up. I say, “Pluck!” I yell at the cat through an open window as he tears across the yard chasing squirrels. My affection for the squirrels was born years ago in a grove of elms on the edge of town. The smallest squirrel in the world followed me down a short section of path then stood on my shoe. Today Haywood carries several dried cereals in prepackaged individual servings — an indicator of the vast machinery of breakfast. Each box is lined with waterproof waxed paper so he can eat breakfast right out of the box on the way to work. Meanwhile, through elaborate codes and verbal specifications, I articulate as precisely as possible that the fruit I have bought is eternally ripe and high in other benefits for the eater (purple grapes, green apples, red apples). One kid says, “Add more water.” Another kid says, “Bombs away.” The next day, I carry a sleeping child and a piece of fruit to a woman on a bench beside a dog. We eat macaroni salad and remember all the things we’ve ever said. We talk about what other people have said, and then we talk about particular people, and other people, and people we remember and what they do. Haywood is laughing. He never rises so high as when neighborhood ladies worship his passionless form of beauty (cocktail onions, three glasses, ice cubes, etc.). In the late afternoon, men present or absent themselves. The circumstances vary to fit different customs or hours. One man might be in a house, while one might not be there for fifty years. One man might look at two women in one house, and another man might walk into a room and explode. We apologize to each other and affirm it with something that resembles dancing. Then the smells in the neighborhood reach a peak of perfection: meat and sauces, fresh cut grasses, hotdogs and stacks of pancakes. The book says, “They did not look like conquerors.” Simultaneously, there are other enhancements for domestic weekends, for male and female adults, for predominately male experiences, for homey environments and moments involving mirrors and track lighting and glances that “flirt,” or glances that “convey anger” or a “spatial sense of time.” Seen from above, there’s an attractive pattern to our expansion. The streets form a kind of social meditation, with cul-de-sacs for emphasis, for music and drama. We have a distinctive ecology involving cows, furniture, farms, real estate, azaleas, fires, corn, curtains, dust, passion, malefactors, milk, meat, cherries, wasps, mayors, pipefitters, fences. Still, the city resists and defines us. It’s like one of the last legends, a ritual casting off, a sloughing. A highway connects us to the northwestern edge-towns — forcefully and swiftly it turns out. So we sit on the couch and drink cocktails with umbrellas and are strongly on this one side of taxation, with an emphasis on judges, unpleasant violent crime, serenity, the good life, biographies of famous leaders, science fiction, and marijuana. I say, “Thanks for coming.” Then I say, “Sakes alive!” then “Mendicant!” Meanwhile, the cat tolerates my presence in his tiny sphere of physicality and the microwave disturbs all convention. I live dangerously; I stand in front of the microwave and stare at food revolving. It’s harder to stand still than to tell a story. But by effacing all other operations I may come to something important, standing here. Haywood passes me on his way to the garage. I hear the door close and watch his car move down the street. A lot of these dilemmas aren’t ever solved.

Editors’ Note

This passage is excerpted from S P R A W L, a novel published by Siglio Press in 2010. It appears here with the permission of the author and publisher.

This is the final installment in our special feature on place in fiction, which featured an essay by Richard Powers, “What Does Fiction Know?”, and stories by Urban Waite, Emily Mitchell, Anthony Doerr, Ashleigh PedersenBarry Lopez and Ryan Harty.
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Danielle Dutton is the author of Attempts at a Life (Tarpaulin Sky) and S P R A W L (Siglio), which was shortlisted for the Believer Book Award. She is an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

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