More fiction from The Atlantic Monthly.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Interviews: An Emissary of the Between-World (January 17, 2001)
An interview with Louise Erdrich, a writer who practices fiction in the "margin where cultures mix and collide."
The Atlantic Monthly | January 1985
'm not going anywhere they put the damn radishes in Jell-O," says my friend and employee, Celestine Duval, when I mention visiting her son, Norris.
A Short Story
by Louise Erdrich
Yet that very night my shop catches fire, and she is out of a job until the insurance comes through. It is December. The nearest hydrant was frozen when they put a wrench to it, but I am lucky. Because I have a thick sliding door between the shop and the back room where I live, the only damage to my living quarters was stains from a few gray plumes of smoke blown up the walls.
"They lend an atmosphere," Celestine tells me.
She talks like a restaurant because Norris has opened a steakhouse in Argus, North Dakota, where he lives among the Swedes. This has led to Celestine's objections to the radishes. She has got a bug up her nose about the Swedes and their customs involving food. She went down to help Norris at the grand opening not so long ago, but she could not stand their habit of slicing odd things into the Jell-O.
Now, since the fire payment won't arrive for a week or so and the workmen won't start on the interior, we decide to close the shop and take a trip. We must get our minds off this disaster. We decide to go to Argus and visit Norris, his wife, Adele, and their daughter with the terrible name.
Wallacette is named after Adele's father, who died in the ninth month of Adele's pregnancy and left his daughter's mind unhinged with grief. Nothing that Norris said could persuade Adele to name their daughter something halfway normal. Wallacette she became.
Like her mother, Wallacette is big and imposing, with a large-jawed grin full of teeth. At eleven years old she towers above the rest of the children in her class, and she is mainly interested in fiercely pursuing love. To get boyfriends, she knocks boys down and grinds their faces in the snowy grit. To get girls, she ties the string waistbands of their dresses to her own dress strings, and drags them around the playground until they promise to write her a note.
The nuns don't know what to do with Wallacette, nor do her parents, for she is strong-willed and determined to get her way. These same traits, however, make her a favorite with Celestine and myself, for we think that she has got spunk, and we always look forward to what surprises each visit with her brings. But to visit Wallacette we must also contend with Norris and, worse, grim Adele, who insists that we help her out in their steakhouse. The Poopdeck is the name of the place. I can't tell you why, except that this name was Adele's idea too.
The name does have to be an oceangoing kind of name, we admit. To save money on the renovations, Norris put in portholes rather than windows. Then he painted the outside white and blue, like a ship, and built a little captain's steering deck up top. He can't disguise the square shape of the building, though. It certainly doesn't look like it could sail anywhere.
After two hours of driving, we arrive in Argus. The Poopdeck's parking lot is jammed. Furry green plastic branches frame the portholes, decorations for the holidays. Within each porthole glows one red electric candle.
"Celestine," I say, "let's go somewhere else for lunch."
She is wearing a white turban on her head, and earrings that look like tiny red plungers. Christmas plungers. Her slanting eyes are sharp yellow, and the little purple spider veins in her cheeks have darkened like stitches.
"If we help out, they'll feed us afterward. All we can eat," she says.
But it's the helping I can do without.
It is Saturday, however, and we are pleased to see that Wallacette is behind the counter. Her job is to hand out paper boat flags and red and green Lifesavers to the children who eat at the Poopdeck. This she does with earnest enjoyment. Sometimes she forces the candy so eagerly on little children that they cry out in fear of her stony jaw and gleaming teeth.
She sees us. She ducks under the counter and hurls herself forward. I can hear the sharp oof! as the air is knocked out of Celestine's lungs. It is hard to think of Celestine as anyone's grandmother. But she seems right as Wallacette's. The girl's pale legs are brawny as a wrestler's. She wears dirty white anklets. A strange light shines in her face. Hunched in her black coat, under the turban with its blazing clip, Celestine looks strange too, and the same light glows within her eyes.
We join the cooks at the steam tables in the back. I am stationed at the deep-fryer, with wire baskets and bags of frozen products—fries, shrimp, onion rings, breaded fillets. The fish is always popular because of the boat theme, which is carried on in the menu.
"Old Tar Special," the waitress yells. "Clams Casanova! Fish Waikiki!"
Someone orders a Spinnaker Salad and a Lighthouse malt—a regular malt with a cherry "light."
I lower a basket of fantail shrimp into the popping grease. This is Wallacette's favorite item on the menu. I hear her voice through the cook's window, deep and loud.
"Sure you like candy. You do too. Take these."
A child's thin wail grows and is hushed. I peek out. The boy is hoisted into his mother's arms and carried out, staring over her shoulder, lip hanging. He doesn't know it, but his character has been strengthened by this encounter. Wallacette stands before another child. This time she is poking a striped paper flag through the child's buttonhole. The child stands stiffly, paralyzed, as if the slightest movement would cause the big girl to drive the tiny wooden pole into her heart.
"Don't be a sissy," she booms. "You like candy!"
When the noon rush is over, the three of us sit down in the end booth. The candles blaze in the little round portholes. Nets are draped across the walls. Wallacette has fried twenty-four fantail shrimp to place on a bed of coleslaw for herself. I am having the ham and pineapple rings. Celestine is having a steak and browned onions. She would normally accompany this with a salad, but not here. She won't go near the salad bar, because of Adele. In the cooler, Adele's creative Jell-O salads rest in brilliantly colored sheets. They are filled with walnuts, chopped celery, macaroni, onions, miniature pastel marshmallows, and, worst of all, sliced radishes.
"I'm sure glad you came back," Wallacette says to her grandmother. "Dad was worried that we'd have to come visit you."
The last time Celestine visited Norris and Adele, the nasty confrontation over the Jell-O took place. That is why, so far, Adele has avoided us.
"You're the one I came to see," Celestine tells her granddaughter. "Your mother and father can get along perfectly good without me."
"I guess they can," says Wallacette, who inherited Celestine's honesty. "But not me."
An expression that I've never seen forms on Celestine's face. She is watching Wallacette. It is as though her face is liable to break into pieces, as though the stitching spider veins barely manage to hold her face together. I am confused by this look, and then I realize what it is. Tenderness. The heart of Celestine is cold as clay, something even she'll admit. But she feels a true tenderness for Wallacette.
"You're in time!" Wallacette shouts suddenly. Light breaks over her broad pancake face. Her stony brow lifts. "You'll get to see our Christmas play!"
This is pleasing to both of us.
We enjoy Wallacette's successes and have already seen her in a piano recital, playing "Song of the Volga Boatmen" with tremendous expression. Celestine is chewing her steak eagerly, with pride and enthusiasm, for Wallacette has revealed to us that she will play a leading role.
"I am Joseph, father of the Christ child," she states. Then she grins, long and huge.
At first I think it's awful that they picked a little girl to play the father of Christ. Then I imagine Wallacette wearing a long grizzled beard and a coarse robe. I see the carpenter's maul wielded in her fist. She will be convincing.
"The Donkey of Destiny is the name of this play," she tells us. Her face changes suddenly. "I hate the donkey."
The light goes out in the window. I distinctly hear Wallacette's teeth clench together and gnash. I've never heard the sound of gnashing teeth before, only read of it in books. Now I realize why this gnashing of teeth is mentioned so often. It is ominous and frightening to hear.
dele and Norris have made their basement over into what they call a recreation center. A Hamm's beer lamp that shows a canoe on an endlessly revolving lake hangs off the side wall. This lamp makes Celestine raise her eyebrows and bend toward me.
"No comment," she whispers. We both dislike the lamp, with its foolish repetition, on sight. But we do not hurt any feelings. We smile and nod at Norris.
At one end of the room is a large cabinet television and a plush couch. In the middle of the room is a pool table that, as Norris now informs us, opens into a bed for guests. Norris seems anxious to demonstrate its double use, and so Celestine and I take our places against the wood-grain paneled walls while he struggles with the pool table. Norris is a small, washed-out, balding man. He is like a version of his mother, left too long in the water. But he is kinder than Celestine, and he wants very much to please us. Hinges creak and springs vibrate as he fiddles with the table. A loose ball rolls through the works. Norris slams his fist to dislodge a hidden latch, and the top springs up like the lid of a box. Then Norris bats a panel loose, and the bed folds into being. Sheets and pillows are secured, and we are ready for the night.
"I'll set the thermostat up for you," Norris says, wiping his brow, looking very much relieved. "Do you think you'll be all right down here?"
"As long as the table doesn't fold up on us," Celestine says. She is eyeing the bed suspiciously. I know that the ball is still loose inside of the pool-table bed, and that makes me a little hesitant. I've never heard this, but I can guess it is unlucky to sleep in a bed with what might be an eight ball folded up in its works. Still, we have no choice. Norris waves from the basement stairs. When he is gone, Celestine removes her shoes and turban and sits down carefully on her side of the bed.
"You want to hear the truth of the matter?" she says. "Wallacette loves the donkey."
I don't understand this at first. I have forgotten about the donkey in the play. But Celestine goes on to explain.
"Wallacette tried to catch the boy who plays the donkey—the head, not the rear end, that is. So far he has outsmarted her. This makes her violent."
"We must tell her to go easy on the boy," I counsel.
Celestine seems to agree.
"Say it with flowers," she says abruptly, with a fierce nod.
I wonder, when she says this, if either of us knows enough to say what love is all about. Our husbands are long deceased. At one time we must have loved them. But for me love was not said with flowers, at least not until he died. Every spring now I change the artificial roses on his grave.
Copyright © 1985 by Louise Erdrich. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1985; Destiny - 85.01; Volume 255, No. 1; page 64-68.