HauteLit from HotLanta: “With These People”
In 2013, OriginalTitle will be presenting her interpretations of contemporary short stories in whatever way such interpretations happen to emerge as a result of the inspiration.
This week’s featured short story is “Girltown,” by Kate Wheeler and can be read here at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading Archive.
We meet at Graylee Park because at this hour, in this corner of suburbia no one cares what happens. A collection of motley cars: borrowed, used and slick with the shine of newness, is assembled in the parking lot, my white Camero with T-tops included. Someone’s already started a fire in the pit so embers glitter a small portion of the black blanket creeping into the sky. Kyra grabs some of those cakey sugar cookies with the icing on them we just bought and the beer we stole from her parents out of the backseat.
“We won’t stay for long, OK? Two hours tops and then we’re off to Matt’s,” she says and I’m learning like I’m always learning from her now.
“You told your parents you were staying at my house, right?”
“Yes,” I tell her but honestly I don’t remember whether I did and I don’t think they’ll notice I’m not there anyway. I used to care that I would get caught. Then I realized that as long as the police aren’t the ones who catch me, I’ll live. We’ve been caught by other people’s parents plenty of times and nothing has happened. But they don’t know us and don’t really care who we are as long as they don’t see us again. In all honesty, I could probably use a grounding.
She lights a cigarette and walks towards the patio. I didn’t even know she smoked. Maybe she doesn’t actually smoke, but you’d never know one way or the other. She always seems like she knows what she’s doing. I’m not cool enough to be her friend, but somehow I am if only for a short time. Within seconds she melts into the other sepia-toned silhouettes of dusk. It’s easier for her to melt in. I walk to the edge and talk to the one person I know besides her.
The picnic tables shimmer with other plastic-covered, nutrition-free snacks and smashed or pierced cans. We make believe this is dinner, that we’re sort-of adults meeting somewhere, drinking beer, throwing a football and having a cook-out without actually cooking anything. When I’m here with these people, I always get this feeling like something important is supposed to happen. Maybe something is, but nothing ever does.
Kyra’s already gotten into art school and I’m still waiting to hear back from State. Everyone here pretty much has a purpose except those of us who are still “Wait-ers,” so I huddle together with my equals as if for warmth in the southern spring heat. As usual, nothing happens because I spend most of the time avoiding talking with anyone so I don’t have to explain my future or lack of one since that’s all anyone talks about summer of senior year.
We drive an hour to some rich kid’s mansion whose parents are out of town and are greeted by jello shots. It’s amazing how much we get away with. Within minutes we’re in a hot tub and I’ve forgotten that we even started out at the park. Kyra is the belle of the ball, blond, funny, and artsy-like but not so much it would annoy you. She quotes Kerouac from Mexico City Blues, takes of her top and jumps into the pool. Jim looks at me and asks, “Is she always like this?” and I say yes but I know she’s not.
In five minutes, Kyra’s parents show up against all odds. They drag her out of the pool and wrap her up like a baby doll with a towel they ripped off some lacrosse player laughing quietly from behind his beer. They scold her all the way to the car, but everyone can tell it’s because they love her. She lights a cigarette on the way out. Her parents rip it out of her mouth. When she gets inside the car we can see she’s apologizing. We all watch. Invisible to them. And wish we were her.
One doesn’t quite no what to expect at the onset of Wheeler’s short, “Girltown.” It’s unpretentious. It doesn’t shout at you, “I AM A SHORT STORY! READ HOW SPECIAL I AM!” like most contemporary shorts coming out with fantastical plot twists and characters. This story is subtle, but not in a way one could easily forget. The editor’s note references the fact that Wheeler’s “fiction is surprising for the things it doesn’t do,” which is at first glance easy to agree with, however, it could be argued that she simply does what every writer of fiction does, but better. In a few pages, the reader lives a lifetime with three girls in one night at one party through one hailstorm and midnight meal.
Sure, there’s no dramatic climax, no ending that ties it all together, no exotic characters to make us ponder our insignificance, instead there’s a realism that can’t be faked. There’s still buildup, a turning point a conclusion, but it’s not the sort of thing one imagines all buttoned up and wrapped with ribbon, it’s the sort of thing that actually happens in real life. A struggling relationship, traumas from the past, friendships based on proximity or broken beginnings, binge drinking for no excuse other than the weather, strange faculty appearances at parties we don’t really belong to are all tangible experiences. We have grasped these moments with our own hands at one point or have seen them grasped around us. One could imagine knowing these people, living in this house with them forever. That is the trick of fiction, after all, making something up that seems as if it wasn’t made up at all. Wheeler has done this expertly with “Girltown.”
The story is carried by it’s microcosmic description and skillful character development. It’s as if Wheeler is giving us an account from the scene because the description is so ordinary, but so real. For example, as the girls head to ‘some party,’ “It is warm, the street is damp and shining, green leaves rip across the pavement in the wind.” It’s difficult to develop characters with weight in just a few pages, but this is what a short story is called to do. What Wheeler does is not only create weighty characters, but also befriends the reader with them. There isn’t any backstory of how the characters came to live together, to become friends, but one could imagine scenarios of how it may have happened because after all these characters are real people and they probably came together the way any friends came together. For example, Alison works at Kerr Drug and Ana has just come back from Hungary and that’s that because, well, the reader KNOWS these girls so no further explanation is needed.
In the end, it’s the main character’s development that causes pause, that lingers with the reader for hours. We see a girl who, with her friends is vulnerable yet also strong. Eve paints a picture of her friend’s characters and of the people around her so vividly yet only shares with the reader her true feelings. She doesn’t seem to open up her heart to her friends, although she’s totally there for them when they need her and they seem to back her as well. We wonder how much of herself she lets her friends know but in the final line it’s clear, “There is a way in which I will always live here, in this house, with these people.” It is then that the reader knows that regardless of how much they’ve been told, how close they feel to Eve, they will never be as close to her as these people, her friends.
I highly recommend “Girltown,” by Kate Wheeler. This is Wheeler’s second publication and she is currently working on her collection in-progress. I can’t wait to follow her and to read more of her work.
About OriginalTitle: In addition writing her blog and contributing to Writer’s Club, OriginalTitle is also writing a novel and her work has been featured in Fanzine and most recently in Comb Magazine.