Reminiscent of Aimee Bender and Karen Russell—an enthralling collection that uses the world of the imagination to explore the heart of the human condition.
Major literary talent Ramona Ausubel, author of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, coming Summer 2016, combines the otherworldly wisdom of her much-loved debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, with the precision of the short-story form. A Guide toBeing Born is organized around the stages of life—love, conception, gestation, birth—and the transformations that happen as people experience deeply altering life events, falling in love, becoming parents, looking toward the end of life. In each of these eleven stories Ausubel’s stunning imagination and humor are moving, entertaining, and provocative, leading readers to see the familiar world in a new way.
In “Atria” a pregnant teenager believes she will give birth to any number of strange animals rather than a human baby; in “Catch and Release” a girl discovers the ghost of a Civil War hero living in the woods behind her house; and in “Tributaries” people grow a new arm each time they fall in love. Funny, surprising, and delightfully strange—all the stories have a strong emotional core; Ausubel’s primary concern is always love, in all its manifestations.
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Ramona Ausubel is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of No One Is Here Except All of Us. Her work has been published in The New Yorker, One Story, The Paris Review Daily, Best American Fantasy, and elsewhere, and has received special mentions in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. She has been longlisted for The Frank O'Connor Short Story Prize, and a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions award and the Pushcart Prize.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
THE GRANDMOTHERS—dozens of them—find themselves at sea. They do not know how they got there. It seems to be afternoon, the glare from the sun keeps them squinting. They wander carefully, canes and orthotics, across the slippery metal deck of the ship, not built for human passage but for cargo. Huge shipping crates are stacked at bow and stern. The grandmothers do not know what it means. Are we dead? they ask one another. Are we dying? Every part of the ship is metal, great sheets and hand-sized rivets. Cranes and transverses and bulkheads and longitudinals—all metal. All painted white and now splayed with the gray stars of gull droppings.
Among the many hunched backs and stockinged legs, there is a woman named Alice, who finds the nicest bench and sits down on it. The bench looks out at the horizon, that line drawn by the eye to make an ending where there is not one. Alice is a lover of views, of great expanses, and she is happy now as she has always been, to look out. She thinks of her children on faraway spits of land. They have their studios and paints, their meditation cushions, their cars in need of oil changes and their grocery lists. She thinks about her one new great-granddaughter whom she has never met but who she hopes is wrapped in the gray blanket she knit.
Around Alice there are varying levels of commotion and flurry. Does anyone have a compass? Do you know how to drive a ship? Where is my nurse? I’m from the DC area!
There are some grandmothers who try to escape immediately. They get in a rescue craft tied to the side of the ship and sit holding their pocketbooks, waiting patiently to be lowered down to the tattered blue. Their faces become wet with wind-water, but they are not lowered. Their hairdos begin to wilt, but still, they do not get lowered.
There is the group of ladies whose eye makeup travels in dark tracks down cheeks; the group of proactive grandmothers who have taken scraps of paper and pens from their pocketbooks and are brainstorming a list of suggestions, diagramming these suggestions in order of popularity and feasibility. In front of Alice is the group of rememberers, recounting as if centuries had passed, their lives. It used to be so easy, they remember at high volume due to a common loss of hearing. There were lovely smooth roads, and it was possible to get in the car and drive to different places where the pancakes were especially good, where the coffee was flown in from Italy.
But even in this situation, extraordinary and new, even with the churning ocean surrounding them completely, many of the grandmothers make small talk. They compliment each other’s earrings. Are those pearls freshwater? The color reminds me of the curtains my mother bought on a trip to Bangkok, where she met the princess, if you can believe that.
Alice is joined by someone whose name she does not even listen to. The woman says, “You are from Chicago, you say. How is Chicago this time of year?”
“Well, it’s very cold on one day and then it’s very warm the next day.”
“And your children, what do they do?”
“I have two painters, a woodworker and a writer.”
“How interesting,” the woman says. “Mine are all lawyers. I have six.”
“My father was a lawyer.” Alice smiles. “It was a terrible way to grow up. I’m glad none of mine went that way.” The woman’s facial muscles seem to harden but are subverted by the skin hanging soft, always, no matter how tight her smile or her frown.
“It’s possible I’m dead,” Alice says, looking at the differing blues of sky and water.
“I’m sorry.” Though the woman is looking at Alice, she seems to be most sorry for herself.
Alice nods. “Yes, I guess I might have died. Or be dying.” She remembers a hospital room and behind the bed a wall of machines, each emitting a very distinct beep that would draw a different nurse with a different tool. One brought Linda with a suction pump that gathered, painfully, the mucus from Alice’s lungs. One brought Kera with a new bag of liquid food to be attached to the feeding tube. The room was always half dark, permanent evening. At all times at least one of her relatives was in the room.
Uneasily, the woman comforts, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Alice nods again and stretches her legs out, covered in the skin of stockings, and wiggles her feet at the ends.
“Am I dead too, then?”
“I don’t know. Did you die?” Alice asks.
“I don’t remember dying.”
“Well, maybe you didn’t.”
UNDER THE SETTING SUN, the ship is stained red. The deck looks like a high school cafeteria with small clusters of ladies huddled close together, constellated out over the surface. They remember to worry about things they had forgotten to worry about at first. The slippery surface is of great concern to many who fear the breaking of hips. They fret over husbands, who have been left at home with nothing in the refrigerator. Cats are likely pawing the heavy legs of couches. The couches will never survive the absence of the grandmothers. This will be the end of the couches. They talk about this. They huddle against the wind.
Some grandmothers who are quiet in the huddles do not have these things to go back to. Some have not turned off their televisions in years, not in the morning or at night. They have freezers full of food ready-packed for quick eating, and the dents in the cushions where they sit all day, their faces dimming and brightening in the light, are severe. The dents do not re-puff, because they do not have a chance to do so. They are always under-butt. These grandmothers nervously check their watches still set to home-time, knowing that right now, right at this moment when the sun is falling, Pat Sajak is about to welcome them, with the help of his generous audience, to Wheel!
Of! Fortune! Even though they will miss this television evening, those grandmothers, the ones with no one, are not so sorry to be here at sea with so many warm bodies.
While they trade stories of survival, the proactive grandmothers who have no time for idle worrying are on a mission to find out what is inside the crates on deck. A set of bolt cutters has been discovered in the engine room. The engines were discovered there as well but were much too complicated to operate, so the ship continues to float, unrumbling.
These women have been in strange situations before. “In Bermuda,” someone says, fingering the gold buttons on her cardigan, “right in the middle of our perfect vacation, a hurricane hit and we had to take the little girl who sold shell jewelry into our hotel room for two straight days. Poor thing had never had a Pepsi cola before,” she recalls. “Can you imagine?” the fellow proactive grandmothers marvel.
Alice, meanwhile, walks the edge of the boat, passing a lady whose hands are busy clenching. “Hullo,” she says, nodding to the woman, the rail holder. The look she gets is a short, hopeful one, one that wants to see a man, any man, but a man in uniform especially. Any man in uniform with some kind of list. When she looks up to see another sagging female, she deflates.
Alice has been on a lot of boats. While she runs her hand along the railing, she remembers the first time and the last— love early, love late. When she was seventeen years old, after an expensive wedding at her parents’ country house with none of her friends in attendance, she spent the first week as a wife on a sloop off the coast of Rhode Island. The first night, after navigating out of a very tricky harbor in a storm, her victorious husband came into the cabin where Alice was curled up. The small boat tossed in the heavy wind.
“I would rather we went back,” she managed. “We’re very far away from anything.”
“The tide is against us. The dangerous thing would be to go back,” he began, drying his glasses on a towel.
She insisted—she told him she couldn’t stand it out there. “Please,” she said.
He put the sail up and started the journey back. Alice, inside, did not see the work he did to take her in. She did not see the boat list and scoop water onto his bare feet.
With the sound of the dock squeaking against the hull, they lay side by side, he reading by candlelight, she pretending to sleep, with only two ropes holding them steady.
In the morning she tried to be a wife. She got an egg from the small icebox and cracked it into the pan, but the yolk broke and bled. The yellow heart ran rivers over the white. She turned the heat off and left it there, dying. Alice jumped in the water in her nightgown and swam to the small dinghy attached to the hull of their boat, where she bobbed, her clothes sucked to her body.
“What are you doing?” her husband yelled when he found her. She did not answer. He reeled her craft in until it knocked against his. “Did you swim out?” he asked, putting his hands on her wet head. “You could have put on a bathing suit.”
“I am not a good wife.”
“You can learn.” They sat in silence, the sound of water dripping off her and landing in the belly of the vessel. “You stay here in your own little ship. You don’t have to be anybody’s wife here. I’ll go make myself something to eat.” He patted her and returned to his own boat, letting her rope go until she drifted back out to the maximum ten feet. The sea was a flat sheet going on until it couldn’t anymore, until the sky pinned it down.
This was the beginning of a marriage that would continue into her fifties, when he left for good to start another family. She is sorry that she was not the one who pressed herself up against him to keep him warm when he was dying. Instead they corresponded by mail, and twice she sat on the porch swing outside his house with him and they talked about their children and their grandchildren, those lives they had made together, while his wife kept herself busy in the house.
Her second marriage was also more than thirty years long. He had said, “Please, there is no reason not to marry me. I am smart and kind and I will do the dishes.” This wedding, just like the first, took place at her parents’ house, only this time she was driven off in a golf cart instead of put on a sailboat.
They were retired for almost the entire duration, and for years before he died, they traveled often by freighter, where they were the only two paying passengers, sitting together on deck and doing the Jumble while the crew called commands to one another. Her husband couldn’t see well as he got old, so she’d narrate the journey for him. “On the left there is an old fishing shack. It has fallen down on one side and the porch now hangs into the water. There are vines pulling it under. Two big birds are standing on the roof.”
“Are they egrets?” he wanted to know.
“No, they are great blue herons.”
“Oh, I was picturing egrets.”
“Well, they aren’t. But they are very nice-looking.”
“I’m sure they are. I was just picturing egrets.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter now because that shack has passed. Now we are coming to a town. There are three little girls standing in the mud in their bathing suits, waving. Do you hear them calling to us?”
“Sort of.” They both listened hard, the young voices making their way over the surface of the water.
“Do they have bicycles?” he asked.
“Why would they have bicycles?”
“Or fishing poles? How did they get there?”
“They just have hands. They are only trying to say hello.”
“Well, hello then!” he called back. “Hello!” The two of them called together, their arms working back and forth like a pair of windshield wipers, trying to clear the view ahead.
WHEN ALICE’S CIRCUMNAVIGATION takes her around to the bow of the ship, she finds the proactive grandmothers surrounding the crates like flies. They are furious with curiosity about what is inside, what they are carrying with them on some unknown body of water. “Perhaps there are beautiful Chinese green beans or Italian leather coats,” says one. “Maybe they are full of the most luxurious furs,” tries another. “I think it will be jewels!” shrieks another, though this seems optimistic to everyone else.
What they find are none of those things. When the lock springs open on the first crate and the doors too, what they see inside are rows of white. Someone pulls, and to her feet fall five toilet seats. They are the padded kind, sighing under the weight of the sitter. There must be hundreds of them in there. This crate is quickly abandoned in disappointment, though Alice has put a toilet seat over her head and wears it, to everyone’s enjoyment, like a necklace.
In the next crate they find child-size wooden baseball bats with the words “Sluggy Bat” written in wide cursive. This find interests no one, except one short lady who inches a bat out of the middle and swings it, remembering playing with her sisters in the street and pleased to find that it is a nice weight for her.
Crate number three is full—full!—of yellow roses. The grandmothers hug them in bundles to their chests, their arms pricked by the thorns. They distribute the flowers around— handing the wilting bouquets out to their fellow passengers until they all look like prom queens ready to dance their victory dance, the thorns freckling their arms with blood.
EVEN HERE, evening comes and then night. The grandmothers go inside to the galley, where they make their way through the first of many cases of canned peaches, sharing a single can opener found in a drawer. They discover that the toilet seats improve the comfort of the sitter on hard benches. They begin and end card games and word games. They quiz one another on presidential trivia. They begin to slump, exhausted.
Around them are the roses on the floor, the countertop, the cheap wood tables with names carved into them—Danny and Phoung, Rocko, the shape of a penis now covered by some blooms. Roses are worn behind ears and tucked into buttonholes. They smell as they are supposed to.
The grandmothers feel farther and farther away.
As they huddle, even under the wrap of polyester blankets taken from bunks, the work of their bodies is almost visible— the sinews of muscle responding again and again to the heart’s insistence. Dozens of kerosene lanterns flicker, and the grandmothers, whose eyes are falling shut but who do not want to go alone to their cabins, who fear that this might be it for them, begin to ask one another questions.
“Tell me the story of my life,” someone asks. “Tell me what I was like when I was a baby.” And they can do it. They get the details wrong—locations of birth, names of parents and siblings—but this does not matter to anyone. They chime in, answering together, bit by bit. “Your mother was so happy to meet you,” someone says. “Your father brought the congratulatory tiger lilies right up to your new nose,” another adds. They all close their eyes. “And you were such a good baby. You hardly ever cried.” The many lips pull up into smiles. The grandmothers remember even if they don’t.
“And then when I was a child?” they ask together.
“Oh, when you were a child you had hair like an angel.”
“You had a sweater your mother made with a picture of a rabbit knitted in.”
“You were very good in arithmetic and you would have been good at the flute too.” They cannot get enough of th...
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