‘Literally’ by Antonya Nelson

Nelson, Antonya 2014

Literally by Antonya Nelson, 2012

The magic trick:

Using a pre-story tragedy to create a vibe of anticipated danger through the narrative

Some stories have twist endings. This story has a twist beginning. That’s not really fair. To call it a twist makes it sound like a gimmick. It’s not. It’s just an extreme situation. A mother of two died young in a car accident, leaving her husband to raise the kids himself, with the help of their housekeeper. The tragedy looms over the story, though the action is taking place a couple years after the fact. It looms so much that you read on expecting something awful to happen with every turn of the page. It’s not only in the reader’s imagination either. The characters seem to expect something awful to happen. It’s a sad but affecting portrait of how personal tragedy can linger forever. And that’s quite a trick on Nelson’s part.

The selection:

“We’ll get you another,” Richard called out to her. “Really, sweetheart, it’s probably time for an upgrade, anyway.”

“Mom’s messages are on it,” Danny said quietly, when they met up outside Suzanne’s bedroom door to watch her heave her mattress and its bedding to the floor.

“Oh, shit,” Richard said. Just the week before, he’d opened a cookbook and found not only his wife’s handwritten notes in the recipe but a few of her fingernails between the pages. She had been a lifelong biter. In a flash, he’d seen her leaning over the book, chin in palm, pinkie between her teeth, humming while waiting for something to boil or reduce on the stovetop.

“We can get them back,” Richard said, of the messages. “Probably,” he added, because he wasn’t positive.

“This has been a terrible day,” Danny said. “Even though nothing exactly bad happened.”

“Agreed,” Richard said. Naturally, they were now both thinking about the worst day, the one on which Danny and Suzanne’s mother had been killed after driving into the path of an eighteen-wheeler. For an instant, a wave of rage filled Richard, a plosive pure fury at his wife for not being here where she was needed.

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