In Case We’re Separated

May 1, 2012

The sisters [Sylvia and Bobbie] walked to Fulton Street, urging along the children, who stamped on piles of brown sycamore leaves. Climbing the stairs to the elevated train, Bobbie was already tired…. They had to change trains, and as the second one approached, Sylvia said, “Does Bradley know what to do in case we’re separated?”

“Why should we get separated?” said Bobbie.

“It can always happen,” Sylvia said.

— Alice Mattison, b. 1930s, American fiction writer
“In Case We’re Separated,” in In Case We’re Separated: Connected Stories

Short Story Month 2012It’s National Short Story Month again. This is my second year of awareness and participation. According to Dan Wickett of the Emerging Writers Network, who appears to have originated it, this is the sixth year for it.

I was an enthusiastic participant last year. I read a short story every day, posted a quotation from it (most days) on my Facebook and Twitter streams, and wrote eight pieces for this space about the works or the authors I encountered. I am committing to the process again — 31 stories, 31 authors, 6 of the selections (about 20%) stories I have read before.

I think of myself as a novelist, more suited to the long form than the short. But it is in short fiction that I hone my craft. The conferences and other opportunities I apply to usually allow no more than 6000 words for a work sample. I have found that novel excerpts, especially if they are not the opening 20 pages or so, do not do well in workshop. So every year I work up another piece of short fiction, often using the characters who populate the novel I have been writing since 2002. The result is that I appear to be on my way to that recently popular hybrid genre, the collection of linked stories.

The story I read today, “In Case We’re Separated,” comes from such a collection. In “A Note to the Reader,” which comes after the last of the thirteen stories, Mattison explains

The book’s thirteen stories imitate in prose the thirteen stanza of a double sestina, using repreated topics or tropes  . . . .Inthe changing order prescribed by the sestina pattern, each story includes a glass of water, a sharp point, a cord, a mouth, an exchange, and a map that may be wrong.

That description sparked my interest, and I acquired the book when I was at the Vermont Studio Center in November of 2010. I’ve moved it from pile to pile since then, always drawn to the cover illustration, two pre-teen girls who have a 1950s look. They are wearing double breasted dress coats over cotton dresses, and are admiring their low-heeled patent leather Mary Janes worn with white anklets. They remind me of me and my sister.

And the passage that contains the title phrase reminds me of Lynn. When she was very little, I taught her that if we got separated in a store or in a crowd, she should go to a police officer (someone in a uniform with a badge on his hat) or a cashier (Lynn called them “payer girls”) or a woman with children and say that she was lost. When she was 14, I took her and her friend Kim to New York City for a week. They didn’t have their own phones yet. I made sure they knew the name of the hotel where we were staying, and I gave them the advice that Bobbie and Sylvia give their children for what to do if they get separated on the subway: “If you’re on the train, get off at the next stop and wait. If you’re on the platform, just wait where you are and we’ll come back for you.”

I did not repeat those instructions when she was 23 and we went to New York City together again, in November of 2008. And that is the one time we got separated. She got off the train, but a woman with a bulky stroller was in front of me, and the doors closed nearly on her as she exited, leaving me on the train. watching Lynn’s worried face recede as it pulled out. She had her phone with her, but I was carrying her wallet, and I was not at all sure she knew the name of the hotel where we were staying. She forgot her training, went up to the surface, and called home. “I lost Mommy,” she told her father.

I actually read two stories today. “In Case We’re Separated” is short, so I read the next one, “Not Yet, Not Yet,” as well. It was fun to look for the elements — the glass of water, the sharp point, the cord, the mouth, the exchange, and the map that may be wrong — and to see how they are rearranged. This, too, is about two sisters, grand-neices of Sylvia fom the first story. Of these characters, one has brought her baby to visit her sister, the one “with all her troubles.” Like the girls on the cover, I see my sister in the new mother and myself in the other, at least the way we were for a while.

(Logo for National Short Story Month 2012 is by Stephen Seighman.)

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