On Conjunctions on-line today, I was intrigued by Pete Segall’s The Pale Rider Pauses So His Pale Horse May Graze. I tend to over-explain and feel pressure to over-describe–always imagining that reader over my shoulder, shaking her head and saying she just can’t quite picture it. I’m interested in how short pieces like this work, and this one definitely does. Here’s the story. I’ll say more about it below.
In the Middle of the Stream, Youth
A woman was pushing a teenager in a stroller while a toddler walked a few paces behind them, knotted up in her own sullenness. There was a dog too but I forget how it fit into the equation. The woman looked like a teacher I had been in love with in elementary school. I dreamt of embracing her on the stained leather examining table in the nurse’s office where pukers and fakers and kids with lice were sent. “The fuck are you looking at,” the toddler said. “Astrid!” the mother snapped. “She’s like a feral vole,” she said to me. “There’s no need to apologize,” I said. “There is,” she said, her face going as rotten as the toddler’s. “There absolutely is.” And the teenager in the stroller let slip a wail like an ambulance still very far from the wreckage.
On my first read, it was that second sentence about the dog that struck me–the way in which the author throws it down while acknowledging that it doesn’t have a place–it’s just the vague awareness of dog presence, another way to say “there was a dog there” that pulls a lot more weight than that phrasing with the use of the word “equation.” Since I don’t know how the dog fits in, there’s this missing variable, imparting the sense of an equation that will likely not add up. This is builds on the first sentence, in which I’ve been told that a teenager and a toddler have swapped their expected places. Because of this, I read the story more poetically, interpreting each bit based more in emotion than reality. So when the toddler addresses the narrator, it’s a rebuke of his childhood infatuation. And the mother’s face going rotten becomes a projection of the narrator’s nostalgia turning in the way it does when we can look at the past in a more realistic light. The lack of details allow for this interpretation.
However, by the end I realize that the teenager is likely in the stroller because he has special needs, which the wail at the end would support. Everything else then falls into line behind this. I understand the child’s sullenness and get a clear sense of how things probably are around the home with the angry tone she takes with a stranger and use of “fuck.” The final sentence with the ambulance and wreckage also get at this, as well as the narrator’s perceived likeness of this woman to a teacher he fantasized about while with the school nurse, who was also a caretaker (more aligned with the woman pushing the stroller, it would seem, than the teacher) for “pukers and fakers and kids with lice.” In this reading, the narrator seems to be observing a troubled family with a strange nostalgia and fondness–a moment that passes as they continue on to the wreckage somewhere off in the future distance. Is this a commentary on the narrator’s life as well–especially once we stop to consider where the narrator fit in among those in the nurse’s office of his youth? It’s the spaces between such connections that allow for possibility, yet the spaces aren’t so distanced that the story won’t hold together. They’re just close enough that I’m compelled to keep taking another stab at putting together meaning, even when I know–the author has essentially told me–that the equation won’t add up; there are likely other variables like the dog that will remain unknown.
And I love the line about the feral vole. I hadn’t realized that voles could be anything but feral, yet according to the Internet they make “reliable pets,” even better than hamsters–which isn’t saying much since hamsters tend toward biting. Not sure if this is what the author intended with the inclusion of this less popular rodent, but if so it would work to suggest that Astrid might be a better domesticated (not yelling crap at strangers) if her home life were more traditionally domestic. And that apology! It works on a narrative level, of course, but on a deeper level it speaks to the woman’s own life, and the narrator’s as well.