December 2, 2016
There was a lot of weird shit in bottom drawers.
— Smith Henderson, b. 1954
American fiction writer
from “Treasure State,” in Best American Short Stories 2016
Before yesterday, I had never heard of Smith Henderson, though we have 13 Facebook friends in common, all of them writers. Before yesterday morning, I had not opened Best American Short Stories 2016 since October 6. That day I read Lauren Groff’s “For the God of Love, for the Love of God.” According to my notes, it made me want French bread and cheese. I read nothing else in that volume.
Reading much and widely is a necessity for a writer, and I don’t do enough of it, in the same way that I don’t drink enough water or exercise regularly. In May I reported on the first portion of my Narcissus Project. I was determined to read with more focus and more intention, to keep track, to evaluate what I read and what I learned from it. When I returned from Bread Loaf in August, I taught myself how to make a simple database in Excel, and began charting my reading by author, title, date published, date read, genre, and source if it’s in an anthology.
In this second three-month period, I have read 10 short stories, 7 novels, 1 book of nonfiction, and 2 essays. What is not listed is the many books I started but didn’t finish, mostly between June and the start of Bread Loaf, for any of a number of reasons: it came due at the library, it didn’t interest me, I had to address other matters, it got lost in a pile and the only evidence I have of even being engaged with it is a random note in my journal.
As with any project that is important but that languishes from inattention, the only thing to do is draw a line and begin again. “Treasure State” was a good choice: compact, limited number of characters, narrow time frame.
The story is about two brothers who seek their fortune through driving around Montana and checking newspaper obituaries in the towns they pass through. Thus they determine what houses will be empty for several hours the day of the funeral, and they burgle the residences in search of items that they can sell to pawn shops or other places that don’t ask a lot of questions.
The line I pulled out for the quotation sparked my interest. When I was a Girl Scout I acquired a pen pal, a “Girl Guide” in England. We corresponded for more than five years. By then I had started college and she had become engaged. One of the last things I sent her was a set of pillowcases I had embellished with a ruffle, some ribbon, and a bit of embroidery. It was for her “bottom drawer,” the place where she was collecting the items she would need to set up her household as she moved into her new life.
I thought of various bottom drawers in my own house, in particular the one in my bedroom dresser that contains some Christmas-themed socks, turtlenecks, and t-shirts. That one is certainly ripe for investigation, since I don’t think I opened it last year.
Any story that gives me a writing exercise is a good one. What would my character Stacey, the young woman who lives in a cemetery with an autistic son and a husband who has just revealed himself to me as a Trump voter, have in her bottom drawer?
Besides Christmas socks.