Thursday, November 3, 2011

Mag Watch: Pete Fromm's "Ballet" in Narrative

Pete Fromm's "Ballet" in Narrative magazine might just be the best thing you read about marriage this year.  It's sure to be one of the most heart-breaking.

It's an efficient, cleanly-told story about a teenage boy trying to save his parents' faltering relationship one Christmas Eve.  It opens with the young narrator (unnamed except for the jaunty appellation "Flash" by his father) stringing lights outside his Montana home, nickel-sized flakes of snow coming down all around.  When he sees his father's truck idling along the curb halfway down the block, he walks to it and climbs in.
      The radio was on low, the Stones, no satisfaction, blah, blah, blah. “How long have you been sitting here?” I asked. It wasn’t like I couldn’t have used a hand.
      Dad stared straight ahead, picking apart his reflection in the black glass. Down the block our house was completely dark, unshoveled, like no one had lived there in a long time. “I got watching you,” he said. “The lights are my job.”
      I nodded, but Christmas Eve was kind of leaving it for the last minute.
      Dad said, “Do you think I’ve gotten distant?”

We learn the father and mother have recently separated over the fact that, as the father puts it, "I let my heart run loose."

Fromm immediately draws the reader into this small domestic drama--all of it set against the already-charged background of Christmas Eve, a night full of expectations, grace given/grace received, and the sentimentality of The Nutcracker Suite which the parents traditionally played as the boy came downstairs to open his presents in the morning.  Now, however, they're all older, wiser and feeling betrayed by the father's philandering.  This Christmas morning will no doubt be an unhappy one.

The teenager's comic, bitter voice is central to the success of "Ballet."  He's caught in the center axis of that ongoing male teenage teeter-totter: to be desirous of sex and yet want nothing to do with its realities.  Intimate love remains a tightly-budded flower to him, the petals haven't yet fully opened, but he wavers between hormonal rage (catching a glimpse of his school's popular girl inside a steamed-up car on lover's lane) and the ick factor (he bolts out of the truck the instant his father starts to confess his affair).  This doesn't stop Fromm from getting in a delightful moment of masturbation that practically out-Roths Roth, making full use of the proximity of a Minuteman missile solo to the kid's town and his fantasies about a local beauty named Kimberly and Darryl Hannah in Splash:
But the idea of Kimberly Kosteleki sweat slicked pretty much blew the lid off my silo, knocking even Daryl Hannah aside, and I walked down the hall to the bathroom, my ICBM straining for a launch code. It wasn’t near long enough before I mushroom-clouded, Moscow nothing but an ashy smudge, Siberia a vast plain of melted glass.

"Ballet" could have slipped easily between the covers of Richard Ford's Rock Springs with its stories of dysfunctional families abandoned by deadbeat dads.  Fromm has his own distinct voice, of course, and he can fill even the most agonizing moment with linguistic beauty.  Look, for instance, at this sentence when the narrator's father leaves the house by the front door after coming back briefly to pack his duffel bag: And with a little curl of snow blowing in behind him, he was gone.

At the risk of giving away too much of "Ballet," I can't resist showing you just one more moment from near the end of the story.  In an attempt to reunite his parents, the boy has hidden his father in the house while the mother is away drinking wine at her girlfriend's house.  Believing she's too drunk to drive, the boy goes to pick her up and bring her back home to where the father waits:
      I thought that maybe tomorrow morning I’d get up before anybody, which would be a first, and I’d turn on our Christmas music, stand waiting for them at the bottom of the stairs, and maybe they’d come to their senses on the way down, some Christmas miracle, stop at the bottom of the steps holding hands, smiling that way, like they’d won the prize again.
      But even before I picked up Mom, saw her not all tipsy or stumbling or anything TV but just hugging the other women at the door while I stood out in the drive, looking too big and too male, too bundled against the world, I doubted a miracle was going to happen. When she broke away from them and came out toward me in the snow, I opened the truck door for her and heard her say, “My, what a gentleman.” I got in myself then and backed us out into the street, pointing down the miles toward our house, and when she put her hand over mine on the stick shift and said, “Thank you for coming. I was afraid you’d decided to leave me too,” I knew for certain that there was going to be no happy reunion at the banister in the morning, that believing in that was like believing in Santa Claus, believing we were the only house in the world where the Nutcracker Suite played on Christmas morning.

I'll leave it to you to find out what happens, but believe me when I say this is one of the most perfect short stories I've read all year, right down to the last, heartbreaking word.

You can find "Ballet" at Narrative by clicking here.  Don’t let the sign-in requirement stop you; just give them your email and whatever password you want, then go on to read this wonderful story.

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