An Unstoppable Weed

(This post is one in a series of pieces about what I am reading during National Short Story Month 2011. To see a list of the stories, visit What I’m Reading During National Short Story Month 2011.)

May 2, 2011

Our medicine cabinets, like everything else in our house, seemed to be trapped in a permanent blizzard of disorganization . . . We knew disorganization was wrong, and we would occasionally try to whip our house into shape, but like an unstoppable weed, the messiness would soon reign once again.
        — Janice Shapiro, b. 1950s, American fiction writer
             from “In Its Place,” in the collection Bummer: And Other Stories

I “met” Janice Shapiro the same way I met Robin Black, sitting in the audience of the panel on debut writers that she participated in at Conversations and Connections last month in Washington. Her collection, Bummer, had come out at the end of last year. Versatile and talented, she is also the author of screenplays, an essay collection, and a soon-to-be-published graphic memoir. She described herself that day as “no spring chicken.” Although I know from poking around on Facebook that she and I share a birthday (March 9), I suspect I have at least a decade on her.

I liked the cover of her book — a woman in motion, photographed from the side as she is turning away, her hair streaming out ahead of her, covering her face. I have it in a library copy, and I had to wait for it, but I let it ride beside me in the front seat of my car for several days. Maybe I liked glancing at the picture at stoplights, liked the way it reminded me to stay in motion, keep moving forward.

I brought it in this morning, eager to keep working on this project to read and comment on one short story every day in May. The back jacket copy offered teasers about the “eleven unstoppable women” to be met in the pages. I was drawn instantly to “the housewife so entranced by the pristine order of her neighbors’ belongings that she can’t stop herself from breaking into their home.”

That’s me, I thought.

In fourth grade I was something of a voyeur, a characteristic I have given to one of my characters. Catherine is frequently late for school, particularly for the afternoon session, and her mother has demanded to know what she has been doing, since she leaves her house in plenty of time.

“Sometimes she went up Forest Street and peered in at the place she thought of as the Fancy House. It was in the middle of a row of houses all alike, but it had an enclosed porch with an aquarium. She liked to look at its aqua glow and at the wicker furniture with the red and turquoise and gold cushions. . . . [she] tried to imagine what the people were like who lived there. They had a garden in the back as colorful as their aquarium, pansies and petunias around a little stone that had a dog’s paw print and ‘Digger’ carved on it.”

So I had to read a story about someone who actually went into the houses she was drawn to.

“In Its Place” follows a character who, in her first person narration, shows herself to be a little odd. We see her first doing that most normal of suburban tasks — walking her dog. She stumbles and falls, injuring herself. She begins to worry about how the small wound has opened her up to the potentially deadly ravages of swift-moving bacteria. She then rationalizes using the key she knows is hidden under a doormat to let herself into the house of some neighbors she knows slightly and avail herself of their first aid supplies. That is when she beholds the sublime order of their belongings, the clean lines of their furnishings, the air and the light that such order allows. She returns again and again, “once or twice a week over a period of two or three months,” she says, always finding another spot in the house where the cleanliness and the orderliness draw her irresistibly.

I have been in such a house, although I had been invited. It belonged to the daughter of a former colleague, and I was there for the reception after my friend’s funeral. It was an imposing brick structure, its ornate front door arrived at after climbing two courses of brick steps separated by a wide terrace. Inside, the rooms seemed to melt one into another, a wide entrance hall leading to a room that held a widescreen television mounted on a wall above a baby grand piano. The lid of the piano was open and a copy of a Schirmer edition of the Chopin Nocturnes was propped above the keyboard. Fringed throws were draped elegantly across chair backs, and a stack of coffee table books were placed carefully on one side of, yes, a glass-topped coffee table.

As I walked through the rooms, I couldn’t keep myself from comparing them to my own “permanent blizzard of disorganization” that grew like an “unstoppable weed” despite my frequent efforts at pruning. I knew that a decorator had very likely chosen every single piece, probably the Schirmer Chopin for the way its yellow cover and green lettering picked up the yellow and green in the flowered throw pillows, certainly not because someone in the house played Chopin after dinner. I found only a single personal object in any of the rooms I visited, a picture of the homeowner and her two siblings taken when she was about ten. I drew it down from the bookshelf where it rested to look at it more closely, and when I put it back, I noticed that the handsome leather volumes it stood in front of were all placed upside down.

Yesterday, I said that one of the reasons we read stories is to learn what it means to be human. Shapiro’s narrator has many of the characteristics that make me who I am — she is cluttery, anxious, uncertain, not very good at social interaction. That she is much farther along the road to becoming completely unhinged endeared her to me. I look forward to meeting the ten other “unstoppable women” of Janice Shapiro’s creation.

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