Monday, January 24, 2011

"How Many Hands," etc.

At long last, NPR announced Round 6 of its Three Minute Fiction contest, and at long last I... put off writing for three weeks before finally pulling something together in time for the deadline last night. The challenge, set by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, was to write a story in which a character tells a joke and a character cries. I'm not thrilled with my submission -- it's a pared-down version of a much-longer piece I'm working on -- but at least it's something.

Hopefully the four people who read this will like it better than my poetry project, which incidentally was the work taking over the space in my brain that should (should?) have been focusing on fiction. I was thinking about the dumb poster thing while chugging away at the elliptical this evening, realizing anew how idiotically incomprehensible it must be to anyone who's not me. But that sonnet! How can anyone read Hopkins and not want to explore what those rough sounds do to your mouth and mind? It's such a bleak, bleak poem yet... it incites only ecstasy in me. Why? Hopkins expresses his misery so precisely, so piercingly, that I can't help but feel I understand him perfectly. Centuries, nationalities, religions, genders, vanish; two humans and one feeling remain. My heart beats to his rhythm. Try speaking it, you'll know what I mean. I read it again in my head (this is still on the elliptical) and felt all the same force: emotion amber-bound, always at hand when the need strikes. Of course this is all old; everyone knows why people read poetry. But the fact that I spent my workout explaining it to myself -- and a month trying to explain it to Brooklyn -- convinced me of two things:

1) Grad school's probably a good place for me.

2) A non-literary hobby might be healthy.

In the meantime, "How Many Hands:"

Who is it ringing the lunch bell? Not Jo. She gives it three swift strikes and lets the last one mellow into a round silence. Today’s sound is an arrhythmic clang, buoyant in the gray air. The two temporary farmhands, squatting in the lettuce field, look up at each other. They stand, stretch, brush off dirt where they can. No company is expected.

Here. They are here, thinks Jo. Her cousin Mary from the half-forgotten hick side of her past. Now middle-aged, extra-wide hips, two kids hanging off her. Fifteen years, it’s been. Mary introduces her husband Will, who stands by silently, leather face creased into a scornful smile that seems hitched to his ears. The kids are a small boy and even smaller girl in Walmart clothes. The boy spots the lunch bell as they trek up the long dirt driveway.

“Can I ring it?” he begs.

“Sure,” says Jo. “I was about to call lunch when you guys rolled up.” She lifts the skinny boy so he can grab the bell rope. He reaches with his left hand and leans the other arm against Jo’s shoulder, which is when Jo’s heart stops because she sees he’s got — Oh Lord he’s got — the bell clangs.

“Good job!” she says. Her smile hurts; the boy squirms and she sets him down. They continue past the pigpens to the house.

The farmhands, young college graduates on a rural summer jaunt, shimmy out of their raingear. In the kitchen they find Jo fussing over a pot of curried stew. She looks up at them with an inscrutable gleam in her eyes.

“My long-lost cousin stopped by for a visit,” she says, and introduces them to Mary, who is perched warily at the table, and Will, who is slouched next to her, cap jammed down almost over his eyes. The children are playing happily with the skittish sheepdogs. When the farmhands register the boy, their eyes take on the same gleam as Jo’s.

“Hungry?” Jo says. She ladles out stew. Will stares at his steaming bowl while everyone else digs in and the kids, too excited to sit, scamper around the house exploring.

“You actually make money off this — organic business?” Will says.

“We’re more concerned about feeding ourselves,” Jo says.

The children burst back into the kitchen, the boy crying “Vroooom!” Jo’s breath catches. He has found a vacuum attachment and shoved it onto the stump of his right arm, where the hand would have been.

“I’m Vacuum Boy!” he says. “I got superhero cleaning powers!” Jo and the farmhands erupt into laughter, the kind strong enough to conceal what’s behind it. The boy zooms around the room, vacuuming.

“You missed a spot by the sofa,” Jo says. There is laughter until there is silence.

“It was a year ago,” Mary says. “Machinery accident.”

“Lord,” Jo says.

“Sometimes they can reattach them. But his didn’t get sliced off so much as — sucked.”

Jo sees Will looking at the farmhands. The young man is brown and soft; the woman white with dreadlocked hair. Jo knows just what Will thinks of them.

“He gets along,” Will says.

The young hands, who have been looking at their stew, accidentally catch each others’ eyes. The exchange is quick, but something about it makes Jo feel so suddenly lonely that she stands, chair squealing against the floor.

“Pickles!” she says and goes over to the pantry where they store the jarred remains of last year’s crops. She closes the door behind her, just in time for the tears to spill hot and thick down her cheeks.

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