Monday again, Story366!
Today we took a step toward something else, toward trust, toward a risk: We sent our youngest son off to summer school. Even a week ago, I didn’t realize that this is what summer school was—live, in person—as the first half was all online. As soon as I found it out, I thought there was a mistake. But no, that’s what they’d planned, as they decided to give it a go. I wasn’t so sure I—we—were ready for that.
The Karen, who knows things, confirmed that this is what it’s always been. We looked through the packet the district mailed to us and found a surprisingly large amount of protections for the kiddos in place. Only twelve students are in each class, coupled with social distancing, masks, and limited mobility; the kids will not be moving from class to class at all, will eat a pre-packaged lunch, and no communal playing or gathering will be allowed. They seem pretty serious about making it happen, so we’ve decided to give it a go. Admittedly, we’re doing this because of the precautions they’re taking, and also because of the relatively low count of COVID-19 in the area.
There’s no way to know if this is the right decision until much later in time, of course. Everyone we know is predicting a comeback for the virus, for classes to perhaps start in the fall here, but then for us to face another shutdown. A friend of mine at UMKC told me they have planned for online classes this fall for months: They’re not even going to try it. Things could change for us here—for my kids’ schools and for MSU—at any moment, but for now, we decided to give it a try. Fingers crossed.
Today I read from Bryan Washington‘s 2019 collection, Lot, out from Riverhead Books. Lot was one of the more celebrated collections of 2019, and as soon as it appeared in paperback, I snatched up a copy. I’d not read anything by Washington before I started today, so for a fresh week, here’s a fresh take.
I’ll start by saying that I think all the good press this book has gotten is well deserved. Four stories in, I can tell this is going to end up being one of my favorite books of the year. Lots of days left in the year, and I don’t actually hand out a trophy, but I have a good feeling this one would make a top ten list, especially if I ended today.
The book, unbenownst to me before today, is a collection of interrelated stories. Most of the stories—all of the ones I read—focus on Nicolás, the youngest of three children. There’s also the oldest, sister Jan, and the middle child, brother Javi. They live with their parents in the Houston neighborhood of Alief. It’s the type of place where people of every ethnicity live, where someone could grow up and never speak a work of English. Their mom is black and their dad is Latino. Their parents own a restaurant on a choice lot—the Lot—and their mom does most of the work; their father is a philanderer, and eventually, a heroin addict, and eventually, he leaves them. On top of the economics and biracial issues at play here, Nicolás is also coming to terms with his sexuality, with coming out as gay to his family. So, a lot going on, a lot that makes Lot so rich and interesting.
The first story, “Lockwood,” is a shortie and kind of establishes what the neighborhood’s like, what kind of thing goes down there. Nicolás’ family helps out an extremely poor family who lives in their building, poor as in the kids don’t have food and their apartment has no furniture. Nicolás hangs out with the boy from the family who’s his age, Roberto, with whom he experiments sexually. Just as everyone is starting to adapt to this family, and the family is beginning to accept everyone’s help, they disappear, in the dark of night, never to be seen again. It’s a emblematic of how fleeting the faces are in Alief, how someone can have such an impact but be around so briefly.
The next story, “Alief,” further outlines the neighborhood. This time, Washington uses a communal narrator, the kids in the apartment building, to tell the story. The we here, being so many kids, has eyes everywhere, so they see everything, and tell everything, too. Too bad for Aja and her white lover, James, who try to sneak around, only to have the kids tell Aja’s husband, Paul, only to have Paul full-out murder James up in James’ apartment. So, yeah, that happens in the second story, is a weight the kids carry around—not that it seems to bother them all that much.
“610 North, 610 West” reminds me of Díaz’s “Fiesta, 1980,” which can’t be an accident. Here, Nicolás goes with his dad to his dad’s lover’s apartment and has to wait there—for quite a while—while dad and this woman do the deed, and quite loudly, in the next room. It’s more future background info for who Nicolás will become, a memory, along with everything that comes before and after, that will help form him, dictate the relationship he has with his father, his mother, with women, and with sex.
I’ll focus on the title story, “Lot,” because it’s a great story and I like doing the title story. “Lot” is further into the book, two-thirds, and sees Nicolás at 19. Since I last checked in, Dad took up drugs, then left. Jan married a white guy and has a baby. Javi joined the Army and is gone. And in some ways, worst of all, Alief is slowly becoming gentrified, white yuppies moving in, property selling, the old feel of the neighborhood slipping away.
This all puts Nicolás at a crossroads. With Jan and Javi doing their thing, he’s the only one who can help their aging mom in the restaurant, do all that cooking, all the cleaning, all amidst dwindling crowds. At the same time, his mom, and especially Jan, are pressuring him to have a different plan, to go to school, to find a job, maybe figure out where he’s going to live, long-term. He even tries community college for a few weeks, then drops out, only to find out nobody cares, nobody asks why he’s stopped going. On one hand, he seems chained to the kitchen of the family restaurant for life. On the other hand, that might not be so bad, because he has nothing else in terms of a plan. He honestly doesn’t want to let his mother down, though, a genuine notion that makes his wavering honorable, at the very least.
I don’t want to go all that much further into this, but Washington goes a little existential here, I’ll say, expediting Nicolás’ decision faster than anyone thought it would move. I haven’t read everything up to this point, and nothing after, but “Lot” seems like a key turning point in the book, in Nicolás’ life—does he stay in Alief forever, running the family shop, or does he explore outward, see what’s to see, define himself instead of inheriting his identity?
This is one of those collections that I’ll certainly read all the way through, as Lot is the kind of book you don’t leave hanging as it’s hanging right now. Bryan Washington has forced me to care about Nicolás (btw, I don’t remember him being named in the stories I read—I found “Nicolás” on Wikipedia), to want to see what’s got him this far, where he’s going next. Part of me thinks that this is at least semi-autobiographical, that Nicolás will start writing in a journal, take a creative writing class at the community college, start scribing the tales of his neighborhood. But I won’t assume that. I will assume that these stories will remain as easy and important and funny and touching as they have been so far, that this will indeed end up on my top list when all is said and done.