Katherine had only intended to spend a few minutes outdoors wiping the birdhouse with vegetable oil, but now, over an hour after she’d started, she stood in the front yard, an oil-drenched wad of paper towels in one hand, the slick plastic bottle of oil in the other. Now the lamp pole had been oiled, the drainpipes had been oiled, all the siding she could reach on the front of the house and garage had been oiled, and even the shutters had been oiled. For good measure, she’d also oiled the bark on the tree from which the birdhouse hung, although it was clear that oiling a tree would not make it too slick for a squirrel to climb. But this did not stop Katherine from imagining squirrels sliding down all these surfaces, slipping dramatically, and plunging to the grass. She pictured the squirrels rubbing their sore rears and telling themselves to stay away from Katherine’s property. She imagined them telling their squirrel friends, “It’s dangerous there!” and scampering off to other houses in the neighborhood.
All this oiling was aimed at keeping one particular squirrel away from her property, especially from the birdhouse she filled daily. This squirrel was plump with crooked whiskers, and was unafraid of her, and no matter how many times she opened the living room window and screamed at him, he returned to gorge himself on food she’d left for the birds. When she screamed, he’d look at her, head tilted, and blink slowly, as if she were the one who was committing the uncouth criminal act. She’d even taken to opening the window and screen and sticking a broom out, batting at the squirrel with the head of the broom, and he’d retreat for a few moments and then return as soon as she withdrew the broom. She’d named her squirrel enemy Gus Gus, after the fat cartoon mouse in Disney’s Cinderella. But the original Gus Gus was a goofy cheese thief who allowed Cinderella to dress him in a too-tight yellow shirt and pointy green hat, and her Gus Gus was a pound of pure evil that stole from her and from the birds.
After Fern exited the mall, she saw Tyler Michaels standing outside of Macy’s swinging a plastic bag from Video Emporium in an arc over his head. Fern had just bought a SpongeBob T-shirt, a birthday present for her friend Carly, and planned to wait outside the mall for her mother to pick her up. Fern and Tyler were both in seventh grade at the same school, but he was popular and she was not, and even though they’d been in several classes together, they’d never spoken directly to each other. If she went back inside the mall, she wouldn’t have to awkwardly stand near Tyler, who might or might not recognize her. But before Fern could go back inside, he called out to her.
“Hey! You go to my school. You have a plant name. Lily? Daisy? Dandelion?”
“That’s right,” said Tyler. “Are you getting a ride?”
“My mom’s picking me up.”
“My brother was supposed to get me, but he texted and said he entered a pizza eating contest and ate four large pepperoni and sausage pizzas. He needs time to digest before he can drive. Can I have a ride?
Jackson Huang’s mother has arranged for the school bus to drop him off outside the mall every weekday afternoon because she works at the salon until nine most evenings. After he’s finished with his homework, which he does sitting in one of the empty stylist’s chairs with a book balanced on his lap, he helps his mother. His job at the salon is to sweep the hair that falls around her chair. He also sweeps the entire salon, from one end to the other, because hairs swirl in the air conditioning and the heat, and even when someone walks quickly they stir up the hairs on the floor, and then the hairs land all over the place, not just under the chairs.
A year ago the salon was more fun because there were other stylists still working there, and Jackson could talk to them when they weren’t busy cutting or dying or styling hair. There was Irma, with her bright orange hair piled up high on her head, her dangly earrings, her loud laugh that filled the entire salon. There was Missy, who was young and had a small diamond stud in her nose and saw every single movie that came out in the theater in the mall. There was Jack, with his snakeskin boots, who would tease Jackson, saying he was named after him, even though Jackson knows he was named after Michael Jackson, who was his mother’s favorite singer when she was growing up and because he was born on the day Michael Jackson died. But now they are all gone, off to other salons where business is better, and there is a row of empty chairs in the salon, and Jackson’s mother is the only stylist who still works here.
We gather on the last day possible—three days before graduation—for this final requirement, this last hoop to jump through, the one remaining box to check before we receive our degrees. We are lined up in the women’s locker room wearing one-piece swimsuits and flip-flops that have been worn mostly in the dorm showers. Why did we wait so long? What if we fail? There are no more chances after this.
Although this piece is about students studying art, it sprang from my contemplation about whether writing can be taught. As someone who makes my living teaching writing (mostly creative writing), I firmly believe students can gain a lot by taking writing classes, studying published work, and learning about craft. I tell my students that they need to learn the rules before they try to break them, but I do stress that rules for writing aren’t necessarily written in stone and there are certainly ways to effectively break rules. Nearly every semester I’ll have a student or two write something in their course evaluations about how they wish they could “just be creative” and write whatever or however they wanted in my class. They don’t see the value in studying, say, how to effectively use dialogue or how to work with conflict in a story, and I was trying to capture this attitude and the desire to “just be creative” in the students in “Perspective For Artists.”
In the summer of 2008, I moved to a small town in Ohio to begin a three-year teaching position at a college. Two of us were hired to start at the same time in the English Department; I was in a visiting position, and my colleague was in a tenure-track position. We sat together at lunch during orientation and began to get to know each other. A tenure-track new hire from the math department slid into the empty seat at our table and spoke only to my colleague, engaging her in conversation about her move to Ohio, her summer, the classes she’d be teaching. He even said—right in front of me—“We’ve got to stick together since we’re both on the tenure track.” I know this sounds like a line of awkward dialogue from a poorly written story, but those words came out of his mouth. As he continued to speak only to my colleague, I realized that he (henceforth to be known as Dr. Math) didn’t allow himself to see me there, that I was—in my visiting position—someone who was essentially invisible to him. I wouldn’t be around for the long haul, and because of this, he didn’t want to invest any time or energy or kindness toward me. Fortunately, most people at the school did not share Dr. Math’s attitude, and I quickly felt that I was part of the community at the college. However, I wondered what it would be like for someone to move to a similar small town and be an outsider not tied to any institution, and that’s where the character of Miller Duskman came from. I had felt uncomfortable for a few minutes while Dr. Math snubbed me; what if I created a character who feels uncomfortable every moment of every day in a similar type of small town? What if the townsfolk are tacitly saying, “We’ve got to stick together” to each other while excluding Miller? And then what if this outsider somehow forces the people in the town to look at him? So I came up with the idea of Miller opening a restaurant right in the middle of downtown whose walls are made of glass. Even if the people of Morningstar don’t want to see Miller, they can’t help but see him through the glass walls as he goes about the daily business of running his restaurant.
We were the art girls. We had charcoal under our fingernails, flecks of dried clay on our jeans, acrylic paint in our hair. The artsy seniors always lived on the second floor of McAllister Hall; it was tradition. Although our boarding school, Florence Summer Academy for Girls, was beautiful—the dorms looked like magnificent stone castles—McAllister Hall was so run-down inside that they let whoever lived on the second floor paint the walls of their rooms. Each fall, Facilities delivered cans of primer so last year’s walls could be painted over and new masterpieces created.
When the inflatable bouncy castle I’m jumping in with a handful of five-year-olds is lifted off the ground by a gust of wind, I think of my cousin Garnet and her story of being snatched by a hawk. Six years ago, when we were twelve, we were both sent to Camp Spruce in New Hampshire, and it was there that she began to tell lies, starting with the one about the hawk. Our parents requested that we bunk in the same cabin, and I assumed I would be the cool one, the one who knew about pop music and movies and had a stack of Seventeen magazines in my duffel bag, and Garnet would be my loser cousin—a homeschooled girl from Kansas in long skirts and Birkenstocks whose family didn’t even own a television—that I would grudgingly be nice to.
You’re a bus driver now. And tonight is Halloween, which means drunk college students riding the bus to and from parties. Eventually someone will make a mess—vomit, vampire makeup smeared on a window, a can of soda sloshed onto the floor—and it’s your job to clean it up, even though you’ve written numerous lengthy letters to the Transit Authority regarding the fact that you’re a bus driver, not a maid, and someone should be hired to clean the buses.
Much of my childhood seemed to be about waiting. I owned a book called Free Stuff for Kids, and on each page there was information about something—a bumper sticker, a button, a poster—that kids could send away for and get for free in the mail. Corporations usually sponsored these free things, and thee items advertised their products. I didn’t mind the advertisements. I just thought it was fun to write a letter requesting a free button and then, six to eight weeks later, find a button declaring I loved a certain brand of cereal in a padded envelope in my mailbox.
After college, I moved into my parents’ basement in New Jersey and spent hours each day searching for a job. I went on many interviews in Manhattan, mostly for jobs in publishing. I’d been an English major with a creative writing concentration, and I hoped to find a job that would utilize my reading and writing skills. I don’t remember much about these interviews except a) I didn’t get offered any jobs in publishing, and b) when asked how I liked the women’s college I’d graduated from I used the word “empowering” a lot.
Miller Duskman’s first mistake was shipping the fancy pizza oven from Italy to Morningstar, Ohio. His second was taking out a full-page ad in The Star Record to inform us that his pizza was made from a gourmet Neapolitan recipe. No one wanted his pizza with that burnt thin crust and the cheese made from buffalo milk. Why would anyone want anything to do with Italian buffalos when you could drive five miles from town and find farm after farm with cows producing good, clean American milk? If Miller had done his research, he would have known that in Morningstar we liked our pizza from Joe’s, and we liked the crust doughy and thick, the cheese a gooey mix of provolone and mozzarella. We didn’t need to see dough tossed in the air. We loved watching Joe push out dough with his stubby fingers in the dented metal pans he’d used for years. And, besides, we had no money for twenty-dollar pizzas that wouldn’t fill our stomachs. The glass factory had closed down two years before and the broom factory had closed right after that; many people were still out of work when Miller showed up.
In the orchard, Jonas walks cautiously, trying not to step on any fallen apples. His wife walks a few steps in front of him and lists reason after reason for leaving Manhattan and moving upstate. She tells him they can afford to buy the orchard. She stops and points at the country store at the end of a row of Granny Smiths and says, “I could run the store, sell pies and apple cider. I could write my cookbook here. And you could set up a practice in town.”
Jonas shakes his head, but he does it so gently he is unsure if Molly can even detect the movement. He does not like to deny Molly anything, but he needs to tell her no, she cannot have this place. This is not the right place to settle, to raise a family. She is pregnant with their first child, and he knows she is imagining their child racing around this wide expanse of land. She has some fairytale notion of the place, and when she’d seen that this orchard—right here in the town where Jonas had grown up—was for sale, she’d insisted they take a weekend trip up.
“There’s nothing here for us,” Jonas says.
On Friday afternoon, Carter lovingly buckled his golf clubs in the back seat of his Jetta and drove from Philadelphia to his parents’ house in Boston. He had little time to enjoy golf now that he was a medical resident, and he looked forward to his round the next morning. As he drove, he fantasized about his club coming in satisfying contact with the ball. He turned down the volume on the radio and talked out loud, pretending he was a professional announcer. In hushed tones, he spoke of the fluidity and rhythm of his own hypothetical backswing, the almost impossible stillness of his head as the club moved through the ball and into the follow-through.