on the back cover:
Unlike traditional western American stories about men taming the wilderness, The Way We Live offers strong narratives by twelve contemporary women who plot the psychological landscape. In well-crafted sketches of the shifting, heartbreaking nature of love and the complicated, treacherous territory dividing lovers and neighbors, we discover, as editor Ellen Fagg notes, a woman’s “suffering in the promised land, and why a woman might stay. Or leave.”
“The words of these Utah women writers can cut, like paper cuts, a clean line, and bloody. It’s not just the desert air or the religion or the bodies of men, women, and children that mark these fictions—it’s all of that, all together.” —JANET KAUFFMAN, author, Body in Four Parts
“This is one of the strongest books I’ve seen come out of Utah, amazing in its grit, sensual sense, and honesty, twelve stories that show real life at the edge of grace. The strength here-beyond the sure talent—is the strength and courage to identify trouble, look it in the eye, and file the report.” —RON CARLSON, author, Plan B for the Middle Class
“The literary niche this book fits into is vast and various, only partially explored, only sporadically mapped. These Utah women bring to the territory compelling and fresh visions of a landscape we are only beginning to know.” —ANTONYA NELSON, author, Family Terrorists
about the editor: Ellen Fagg is former editor of Salt Lake City Magazine and one of the founding members of Women in News, a caucus of Utah journalists. She grew up in a small Oregon town before moving to Utah in 1979. Currently she is pursuing an M.F.A. degree in creative writing at the University of Iowa.
The Way We Live:
Stories by Utah Women
Edited by Ellen Fagg
Salt Lake City
[p.iv]“In the Shadows of Upshot-Knothole” first appeared in A Brief History of Male Nudes in America, by Dianne Nelson, published by University of Georgia Press, 1993; reprinted by permission of the author and University of Georgia Press.
Cover design by Ron Stucki
Cover photo by Rosalind Newmark
The Way We Live was printed on acid-free paper and meets the permanence of paper requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences. This book was composed, printed, and bound in the United States.
© 1994 by Signature Books, Inc. All rights reserved.
Signature Books is a registered trademark of Signature Books, Inc.
97 96 95 94 5 4 3 2 1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The way we live : stories by Utah women / edited by Ellen Fagg.
1. Short stories, American—Utah. 2. Short stories, American Women authors.
3. Utah—Social life and customs–Fiction.
4. Women—Utah—Fiction. I. Fagg, Ellen.
An Introduction. Amazing Place by Ellen Fagg [see below]
01 – Why I Left Paradise by Katharine Coles
02 – In the Shadows of Upshot-Knothole by Dianne Nelson
03 – Nevada Border Towns by Marcelyn Ritchie
04 – Some Body Parts Remember a War by Nicole Stansbury
05 – Mouth to Mouth by Shen Christenson
06 – Calla Lilies by Jan Stucki
07 – Blue, Blue, My Love Is Blue by Pauline Mortensen
08 – Finding a Wife for My Brother by Helen Walker Jones
09 – The Way I Live by Patricia McConnel
10 – Where Detail in the Background Is Permissible by Shelley Hunt
11 – Sisterwives: The Order Things Took by Lynne Butler Oaks
12 – Waltzing the Cat by Pam Houston
Contributors [see below]
My mother lives in Oregon, but her name is already carved into a headstone, my father’s, in Salt Lake City. For six years I’ve made an annual pilgrimage to his grave at Wasatch Lawn. These are my rituals: I plant American flags in the grass in front of the granite marker. I balance pots of purple and yellow mums upright. I carefully arrange cut flowers to cover my mother’s name and date of her birth, in case I decide to send her a picture.
This year on Memorial Day, the afternoon sun is so hot that I worry it will bleach the blue sky out of the photo. As I wedge the flower pots into the grass, I hear warbling, reedy notes. I see a bagpiper to the north. I whistle the piper’s tune over and over again before I recognize what it is: Amazing Grace.
I shouldn’t be, but somehow I feel connected to this place. I was raised on a filbert orchard two states west of Utah, but I’ve worked in my father’s hometown, Salt Lake City, for most of my adult life. When I think about what [viii]writers refer to as place, I remember my pioneer ancestors who saw the Great Salt Lake Basin as the promised land, and I remember where my father’s body finally settled.
In Utah, family ties pull with the force of gravity. My father certainly felt that tug. He was raised here, then left to fly a P-38 in the Philippines. After he returned home from World War II, he married my mother. Together they raised our family on an Oregon farm, near where my mother still lives, my brothers and sisters close by. My father left Utah, told getaway stories, but when it came time to be buried, he came home, a Utah body.
Sweat pools behind my knees as I crouch here by his grave, located four rows north of his younger sister, five plots west of his older brother. There’s ground here reserved for my mother. I rub the space on the stone that will be engraved with the date of her death. I think of all the decisions my mother didn’t get to make, all the stories she didn’t pass down. This was my father’s place, not hers; my mother never claimed Utah as her home but my father died first.
Our western myths are based on the stories of men, men like my father’s, who scouted and hunted and farmed in the shadow of the everlasting hills. They were rugged settlers who transformed a cheatgrass desert on the shores of a salty sea into Zion; men who built one version, at least, of paradise.
[p.viii]The short fictions in this collection add something else: the narrative voices of fast-talking contemporary women who aren’t content to settle on a man’s frontier, who are staking out claims to the emotional landscape. Stories like these twelve-from women writers, most of whom live in the New West-are helping to reinvent the history of men and women whose lives collide under a big sky. These writers write about suffering in the promised land, and why a woman might stay. Or leave.
As a reader, I started looking for a collection like this several years ago. I was hungry to read stories that unveiled more narratives of the West, stories tracing connections of the heart.
Some of the writers whose stories are included in this book have published nationally; many have earned graduate degrees in writing programs, notably at the University of Utah; others are just starting to win awards and publish in literary journals. All of these writers are somehow rooted in Utah. All deserve to be discovered.
What is revealed here isn’t religion, although the culture of Utah’s saints cuts through these stories like irrigation canals in the desert. These are stories from Mormon country, where horses are named Adversity and Zion and polygamists live on raspberry fields by the shores of Bear Lake.
These are getaway stories, gambling tales. Audrey, a woman stranded in “Nevada Border Towns,” bets on her grandmother’s advice: “Love is only a decision to stop [p.ix]moving.” In “Sisterwives: The Order Things Took,” a child bride wears an eggshell cream dress decorated with a fringe of colored ribbons. “Pure white,” Evie says, “makes we women look too dangerous for words.”
A younger, even more precocious child talks. She talks about the time she and her mother deserted their movie-star wannabe father. She talks about the bombs exploding above their southern Utah ranch. “I was a year old,” says the child narrator of “In the Shadows of Upshot-Knothole,” “just a small flowing river of sounds, words that spun unrecognizable, but my mother and I had complete conversations anyway. She says that she had been waiting her whole life for me. When I arrived, there was a lot for us to talk about.”
If “literature is mostly about having sex and not having children,” as critic David Lodge writes, “and life is the other way around,” then these stories are from a land where people are in labor—literally. A childless woman follows pregnant strangers to offer her services as a birth coach in “Where Detail in the Background Is Permissible.” There’s the mother in “Mouth to Mouth” who labors under fear, the fear of high places and the fear of loving her children.
This is rugged emotional country, filled with characters like Del, who stands out from the minute he races into town, according to Dawna, owner of the local bar who explains “Why I Left Paradise.” “It was true the car looked silly in this kind of place, against the dust and the [p.xi]wide sky, and so did his new boots and his white felt hat still clean from the box,” she says. “‘What’ll you have?’ I said. And he smiled, and I said, ‘Don’t be too sure.’”
Dawna’s story unfolds the heat of combustible sex, while the bragging-rights kind of intercourse unravels a hard secret in “Blue, Blue, My Love is Blue.” These are stories from love’s combat zone, tales of shifting, heartbreaking emotion, inspiration provided by a singer with rolling kneecaps and “crazy hoppin’ rollin’ legs” in “Some Body Parts Remember a War.” There are other body parts, too, pressed skin-to-skin in “Finding a Wife for My Brother.” In addition to all the connections, there’s the long distance separating two emotionally isolated women in “Calla Lilies.”
Here also are sketches of the complicated, treacherous territory dividing mothers and daughters. “My mother was six-foot-one and a natural platinum blonde and I was dark and short and stocky,” says Mim Jr. in “The Way I Live,” “so obviously I must have taken after my father, whoever he may have been, which is what I say when I want to make Mim really mad Julie, the narrator of “Waltzing the Cat,” recalls seeing photos of a time when her parents looked like two people who could actually have sex with each other. “Everything was perfect with your father and me before you were born,” her mother tells her, confusion in her voice, but not blame. “I guess he was jealous, or something, and then all the best parts of him just went away. [p.xii]But,” she adds, as she makes the cat a plate of sour cream herring, chopped up fine, “it has all been worth it because of you.”
Because of you. Stories about the view beyond the next canyon, about gambling on a heartbeat, about the strong gravital pull of love and family and landscape. These are weighty stories as powerful as the myths of paradise, stories about the wildness that remains in this amazing place.
Salt Lake City
SHEN CHRISTENSON lives in two Utah towns—Salt Lake City and Boulder—with her four children and partner, A. J. Martine. She is pursuing an M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of Utah. Her story, “Facts,” won Story magazine’s short story competition in 1993. Her fiction has also been published in The Quarterly, Alaska Quarterly Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Denver Quarterly. “Mouth to Mouth” appeared in Other Voices.
Writer and mentor François Camoin is fond of saying: “Beware the fiction that makes you pound your breast and exclaim ‘How True! How True! And How Well Said!’“ He warns that the best fiction never panders to the notion that we can see the world clearly and that language can explain it.
So I thought “Mouth to Mouth” would be easy to write. I’d begin with a real event that even the newspapers were quick to describe as “unimaginable,” “unspeakable,” and [p.204]“inhuman.” And I gave my narrator the nagging memory of this event’s central image, children’s bodies on the sidewalk. How better to dramatize how unexplainable the world really is? It didn’t work. “Mouth to Mouth,” instead, opened up a new problem for me—the world of those things we seem eager to pretend we don’t understand, can’t understand, when in fact we do. This was a story that seemed to twist itself at every turn and to insist on showing the underbelly of mother love. The story let me start with a mother throwing children off a balcony to their deaths, and then, for the rest of the ride, it refused to let me pretend I couldn’t see a human reason behind that.
KATHARINE COLES’s second collection of poems, The Walk-Through Heart, will be published in 1995. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry, The New Republic and North American Review, among other magazines. She has received an Individual Writer’s Fellowship and a New Forms Project Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the 1994 Mayor’s Award for the Arts. Coles is a professor of English at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, where she teaches creative writing and directs the Westminster Poetry Series.
“Why I Left Paradise” began, on a Saturday morning in March 1989. The night before, I had given a reading at A [p.205]Book Store in Logan, Utah, with Utah poet G. Barnes, and afterward a group of writers stayed up late, playing the guitar and singing in a room at the Baugh Motel, which has a trout stream in the backyard and pictures of sheep printed on the towels. One woman in our group, Linda Rawlins, sang “Old Paint” and broke our hearts. The next morning, we had breakfast at the old Black Jack Cafe, which was in what I remember (inaccurately) as a dirt-floored lean-to hanging off the back of a country store located in the north section of the Logan Valley. The Black Jack is gone now, but in 1989 it served eggs and potatoes with just the right amount of grease to make you want to go back to bed. We were driving back south toward Logan on a country road through sheep ranches when poet Chip Rawlins told a great yam about pyromania and why they almost got gun control in a small town where he’d lived. While he was talking, I started to hear a voice—Dawna’s—giving her version, a sort of sub-text, the true inside story. She said, “It all started the first time Dimmer burned down Harris’s trailer,” and she kept going from there.
To say I stole the story isn’t quite right. First of all, Chip Rawlins willingly lent it to me, knowing full well he wouldn’t recognize it when it came back. Second, Dawna is an entirely invented character, as are the others. Last, his story was about small-town politics, and Dawna’s story is definitely about sex. The incendiary kind.
PAM HOUSTON is a river and hunting guide, but not a hunter. She has taught creative writing at her alma mater, [p.206]Denison University, and is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Utah. She has published nonfiction and fiction in magazines ranging from Mirabella to Mademoiselle, as well as in literary magazines such as Cimarron Review, Crazyhorse, and The Gettysburg Review. Her collection of stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness, was published by W. W. Norton, and released in paperback by Washington Square Press. She is writing a novel and editing an anthology on women and hunting.
I’ve always suspected good things about my father because he and I share similar sensibilities. “Waltzing the Cat” came from the scene where my father lifted our cat on the day of my mother’s funeral. In that moment I saw him clearly. Some of the story is invented, of course. There was no music, for instance, and while it’s true that I never heard my father say “I love you,” I never thought for a minute that when he said that he was talking to me. One thing that makes this story unique is that it’s the only story I’ve written in third-person. The other thing that was unusual was to be at the funeral of my mother, whom I loved deeply. I was there and I was mourning, but I was also aware of myself as a writer, taking notes in my head. I was thinking: “Why is this fiction happening in front of me?”
SHELLEY HUNT was born in El Paso, Texas. In 1979, she [p.207]migrated to Salt Lake City to experience winter. She has worked as a silversmith, waitress, vocalist, housekeeper, and file clerk. She is currently mothering a half-dozen or so boys and is an M.F.A. student in creative writing at the University of Utah. She has published in Utah Holiday and in the second edition of What If? Exercises for Fiction Writers.
The birth process has always been, for me, cathartic; the supreme marathon. When I discovered in 1989 that I was pregnant, I was both terrified and ecstatic. Finally it was my turn. I had coached births in the past, so I knew what I was in for and this both helped and hindered.
A friend told me that all women become acquainted with death in childbirth. I think it was that dichotomy that compelled me to crave something so violent as to want to split myself in half. (During labor, my friend, Jacqueline, kept announcing to the son in her belly: “You are really pissing me off.”) “Where Detail in the Background is Permissible” comes out of those years when I craved birth but did not think I would ever experience it, and from the terror I felt when I knew I would. I found the title in an old photographic manual, captioning a photo of a young boy, a dog, and a painting.
HELEN WALKER JONES has published fiction in Harper’s, Indiana Review, Chariton Review, Apalachee Quar-[p.208]terly, Florida Review, and Gargoyle, among others. As a technical writer, she recently finished a script for an infomercial. She lives in Salt Lake City with her husband, Walter, and their two children.
The image that triggered the writing of this story was a beat-up sedan loaded with six broad-shouldered, ponytailed men in cowboy hats. When I saw this vehicle cruising Fifth East in Salt Lake, it reminded me of my childhood, growing up in Southern Alberta forty miles from the Blood Indian Reserve. During harvest, many Indians came to work in the sugarbeet fields, and they were a constant presence in my hometown during the summer. Also, in college I had a roommate who was a member of Alaska’s Tlingit tribe, and I was fascinated by her stories of Indian life and culture. I had her caustic sense of humor in mind when I created the character of Veronica Waxwing.
PATRlCIA McCONNEL is the author of two books, including Sing Soft, Sing Loud, a book of fiction published by Atheneum in 1989. She is the winner of two creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, wrote one of the Ten Best PEN Short Stories of 1984, and read at the Library of Congress in 1985. She has published short stories and articles, and is working on a novel about a woman traveling alone, on foot, in the desert of southeastern Utah in the mid-1930s. She lives [p.209]in Blanding, Utah, when she is not in the canyon outback in her truck, Serafina. McConnel has equipped Serafina with a teapot, a CD player, and a laptop computer, and calls herself a “high-tech hunter-gatherer.”
“The Way I Live” was the result of several disparate elements in my life coming together randomly, their only relationship being concurrence in time. I had returned to Utah after spending two years in Las Vegas, where I was depressed at what I saw going on and even more depressed because no one but me seemed to be bothered by it. Once back in Utah, I lived in a trailer in a campground, both of which I have accurately recreated in the story in every detail, including busted pipes and no sewage. I remember lying on my bunk one day when the pump that supplied our well water had quit again, thinking that if my mother were still alive she’d have a hard time understanding the way I choose to live my life. That thought eventually became the first line of the story, but I didn’t recognize it as such at the time.
Not long after that I read “The Suburbs of Eden” by Katharine Coles, a story in which the main character is worrying about the risks her mother takes in her career as an archaeologist. It was Katie’s story that finally triggered “The Way I Live,” perhaps because I knew Katie’s real-life mother, although not an archaeologist, used to be a geologist and is a mountain climber, and it amused me that Katie and I both get a lot of literary mileage out of our mothers. I say “perhaps” because these things happen in hidden [p.210]recesses of the creative mind and I am never sure about them.
The best part, though, is that after Katie read the story, she called me to say, “Do you know that my mother’s name is Miriam?”
I said, “I thought her name is Joan.”
“It is, but it used to be Miriam. And you don’t know, either, that my grandmother’s name is Miriam too?”
“You have never referred to her as anything but Grandmamá.”
So there you have it. Coincidence might explain why I chose a name for my character that is also the name of Katie’s mother. It becomes less likely that just by coincidence my friend’s mother, like the Miriam in the story, changed her given name, but the odds are astronomical against coincidence explaining that Katie’s mother and grandmother are both Miriams and that Miriam “Jr.” changed her name.
Clearly there was an intense psychic connection between me and Katie during this period. Skeptics will say that Katie must have told me these things at one time and I forgot I knew them, but Katie and I know better. Anyway, for the reasons above I dedicate the story to Katie Coles, and call it her story. It is great fun to have it finally appear in a collection with a story of hers.
PAULINE MORTENSEN is the author of a collection of short stories, Back Before the World Turned Nasty, published [p.211]by the University of Arkansas Press in 1989. Although she has published in various literary magazines across the country, she is currently in exile from academia and writes for money and pleasure in Orem, Utah.
To write a story like “Blue, Blue, My Love Is Blue,” it helps if you have a few dozen crazy relatives, relatives who have a lot of creative ways of messing up their own lives and everybody else’s. It also helps if none of them can read. I am very lucky in this way, poised between the heart of darkness and the light at the end of the tunnel.
I came to write this story because out of all the crazy voices talking in my head, this one was screaming the loudest. Out of all the chaos that was this woman’s life, there was so little that could be done, just too much to puzzle over and not enough to understand. I found I could write this story for her. And for me, strike that delicate balance between the chaos and articulation.
DIANNE NELSON’s collection of short stories, A Brief History of Male Nudes in America, won the 1993 Flannery O’Connor Award for short fiction and was published by the University of Georgia Press. She has won two Utah Arts Council writing awards and an Associated Writing Program Intro Award. Her short fiction has been published in The Quarterly, The New England Review, The Iowa Review, and Ploughshares, among others. She [p.212]earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Arizona State University.
“In the Shadows of Upshot-Knothole” was the last story I wrote for my collection, A Brief History of Male Nudes in America, and I purposely wanted it to be different from the earlier pieces I had written. I decided to go back into territory I had never written about—my own infancy on the southwestern Utah ranch where I was born. The backdrop of the 1950s atomic testing seemed to be just the right strange and quietly malevolent edge I wanted to give this story. My real handle into the narrative came when I decided to have myself as an almost omniscient baby tell parts of this story. The dressed-up pigs, the soldiers in trenches, my wannabe movie star father—all pieces of the truth that finally found a home together.
LYNNE BUTIER OAKS lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and three children. “Sisterwives: The Order Things Took” was first published by Hometown Press. It received the Ruth Hindman Foundation’s H. E. Francis Fiction Prize and was nominated for a 1993 Pushcart Prize. She has published stories in Fiction International, StoryQuarterly, The Quarterly, The Missouri Review, and Utah Holiday.
I spent my teen years chemically clean, so to speak. It [p.213]was really no great feat in Utah, even in the 1960s. Not so with religion, though. I inhaled. Any good Marxist could have spotted me. So, if we’re locating things, this story flashes back to then and there. To 1969, I made my first attempts at the writing of it in 1989, shortly after the too-young death of a woman who somehow manages to appear alongside every memory I have of being young. That she was too is probably all she would want me to say about her.
About the story: I confess I have no idea if there are polygamists living anywhere near Bear Lake, the lake on the northern borders of Utah and Idaho. There are raspberry fields there, though. And there were raspberry fields for us when we were young. They were real enough, and like everything else around us then, figured heavily into the truth.
MARCELYN RITCHIE, an avid NBA basketball fan, is an M.F.A. candidate in creative writing at the University of Utah. She drives west from Salt Lake City every chance she gets.
“Nevada Border Towns” started as a story about my grandmother’s filing system. The summer after my freshman year in college I lived with my grandparents in Oakland, California. Each night over dinner we would debate various topics. One evening my grandmother asked me to help her locate an article to support her argument. I pulled open her filing drawer. She had files from “Adversity to [p.214]Zion,” she said proudly. They sounded like the names of horses to me.
NICOLE STANSBURY teaches creative writing at Salt Lake Community College. Her novel, The Lucy Stories, won the Utah Arts Council’s publication prize in 1989. She has published stories in ThreePenny Review, Yellow Silk, and Prism International. She earned an M.F.A. degree in creative writing at the University of Utah.
This story, “Some Body Parts Remember a War,” happened out of love and sorrow. And also out of a few gorgeous lines of poetry, penned by a friend and fellow writer, Richelle Hawks: “Just seeing myself in her, I stop bleeding! and there was no one there to speak highly of me.” The story, of course, is for k. d. lang.
JAN STUCKI is pursuing a Ph.D. in creative writing at the University of Utah. She has published fiction in StoryQuarterly and Sun Dog. Her work won Willow Springs’s 1993 fiction prize, and first place in the 1994 Utah Arts Festival Short-Short Story Competition.
A couple of years ago, on an island in the South Pacific, somebody found the sole of a shoe that they figured be-[p.215]longed to Amelia Earhart because it was her size—9N. Magazines published articles speculating on what fabulous international schemes she could have been tangled up in, but what got my attention—and it really did distract me—was that Amelia Earhart wore the same size shoe I wear.
A lot of women wear size 9N. Most of them, though, could forget this like an adult. But I had to parade around my Amelia Earhart feet like a five-year-old. I started to write about overgrown tropical islands with bits of metal and shoe on them. As I wrote, I realized that what really interested me was not the shoe, but the need for connection, the will to have something in common with someone who could not be more different from me, and the moments of isolation when that will is the strongest.