July 31: “Everything You Can Remember in Thirty Seconds Is Yours to Keep” by Peter Ho Davies

It’s the last day of July, Story366! Karen is on her retreat, though we made a play date of sorts, when I would bring the boys to the hotel, use their swimming pool for a couple of hours, then leave so she could resume her genius. All three of us had some trouble getting going this morning, but by noon, I was getting them in their suits, packing clothes for after, looking forward to seeing Karen.

As I slipped on my suit, I heard the pitter patter. I looked outside, at noon, and saw black skies, accompanied by a torrential downpour.

Wait, I thought. Did Karen say to bring sunscreen because it was an outdoor pool?

She did.

So me and the boys are hanging at the homestead, decked out in our finest swimming attire, waiting for the rain to pass. Kind of absurd, really, as if we were at some seaside resort where the only thing to do was go to the beach, a rainstorm ruining our vacation. We’re at home, however: We can do whatever we want. While are we sulking and staring out the window like sad sacks?

The older boy jumped right into video games while the younger boy checks for sun every 3.87 seconds. I’m using this time to write about Peter Ho Davies’ story “Everything You Can Remember in Thirty Seconds Is Yours to Keep,” from his second collection, Equal Love, out from Mariner Books. I read a few stories from this collection—I’d read several years ago, as well, when I first got the book—and am really glad to revisit Davies’ work. Davies had a story in Mid-American Review when I was the fiction editor, a story called “The Widow” that I was so thrilled to have. I’d loved his debut collection/book, The Ugliest House in the World, so it was a great honor to get a story from this up-and-coming talent. We brought him in a couple of years later for our Winter Wheat festival, had him read at the theatre at The Toledo Museum of Art, right when they’d scored a traveling exhibit of original Start Wars costumes that shared the bill with some sort of Joseph Campbell hero’s journey theme. Davies was very enthusiastic about walking through the exhibit—apparently, kids in Wales liked Star Wars, too—so we delayed something or another so we could do the exhibit. I’m pretty sure Denise Duhamel was there, too, as she was the featured poet that weekend. It’s a weird evening I’ll never forget, walking around a museum with these two writers—and Karen—checking out just how skinny Harrison Ford had to be to fit into those pants, that vest, and just how crazy-sexy Princess Leia’s slave bikini was, even more so up close.

Anyway, that was like fifteen years ago, but today I’ve focused on “Everything You Can Remember in Thirty Seconds Is Yours to Keep,” the title of which I’ve just copied so I don’t have to retype it five more times . Oh, and it’s also now one of my favorite Peter Ho Davies stories of all-time, and I’m kicking myself for letting it go this long.

“Everything You Can Remember in Thirty Seconds Is Yours to Keep” is about this twenty-something unnamed woman who’s lost her baby to social services. How’s she do that? Davies explains it, and it’s awful: She and her husband Billy were feckless drug addicts and she got pregnant, but she (but not he) went cold turkey off drugs while the baby, Luke, was in her womb. Luke was born, and as soon as the couple got home from the hospital, Billy suggested they get something to celebrate. Since she’d been so pumped with drugs in the hospital, anyway, our hero agreed and they—now with a week-old (or less) baby in tow—got messed up. The next morning, when the baby started crying, Billy took charge, soothed little Luke, which included blowing some pot smoke in his face. The pot worked—to make him stop crying—and these two druggies thought they had come across the best parenting tip since Dr. Spock.

Then Luke didn’t wake up. They took him to the ER, he turned out to be fine, but social services came and took the baby away.

That’s the backstory (which I put in past tense—is that what I’ve been doing for backstory all year?). The frontstory sees the two trying to get Luke back. Sadly, when they return from the hearing, Billy’s first instinct is to go out and score. Things don’t look good. Then our protagonist remembers she has a mom, a mom she hasn’t seen in years and years, not even when her dad died, which she found out via a letter sent to a P.O. Box. Despite all her drugging and her splitting town, Moms (as our hero calls her) sends a check once in a while to help out. This makes our couple drive down to Texas (from Eugene, Oregon) to pick her up, bring her back, help them get into shape so they can get Luke back.

Billy goes out and runs an errand while our hero confronts her mom. Moms is surprisingly open to the idea of moving to Oregon for while, surprisingly not mad at a daughter who started hardcore drugs in high school then disappeared for nearly a decade. Moms lives in a retirement community—she was forty when she gave birth—but is ready to leave at a moment’s notice. While Moms is packing her things, Billy calls, says he’s been busted for selling dope—he’s been gone for like a half an hour—and our hero makes a decision: She tells Billy she’ll be right there, but just gets in the car with Moms and heads to Oregon. She knows what this conviction, trafficking across state lines, will do to their chances with Luke, and convinces her mom that Billy never existed.

Things back in Eugene go well. Moms cleans the hell out of the apartment, gets it so shiny, the case worker, Carrie, is impressed. Soon, weekly inspections turn into weekly visitations with Luke, and eventually, there’s talk of Luke returning home. Billy stops by once in the meantime, but Moms refuses to let him in and starts yelling, “Rape!” at the top of her lungs to get him to leave. Billy runs off, taking the car with him, but never returns.

I won’t reveal much more, as there’s one more major twist that seriously affects the outcome of the story. I love the situations that Davies puts these unscrupulous characters into, but I also love the characterization, the voice, the unreliability. Sure, our protagonist is pretty awful, not only choosing a life of drugs, but choosing them for her four-day-old child. And yes, she’s the last person who should have a baby. There’s something more, though, something that makes her three-dimensional, makes her make the right decisions when she has to. She kicked drugs when she got pregnant. She cut and run on Billy when his arrest would mean never seeing her kid again. She took advantage of her mother’s graces when she didn’t deserve the time of day. Davies has created this wonderfully complex human, so easy to hate, but so admirable in her own way, a quick decision-maker and clever problem-solver. I love this character, one of the most outstanding and standing-out protagonists I’ve read all year.

Still raining out. Oh well. Story366 is done for the day and if it does clear, I can swim, too, instead of hiding up in the room while Karen carries the load for me. I think I’ll bring her Equal Love, make her read today’s story. It’s a great story of motherhood, that story I was looking for on Mother’s Day, the one I would never have found without reading all my books on my pile (though Aurelie Shaheen’s story, “Jack Kerouac Is Pregnant,” was also awesome—gotta love that title!). Great story today, by a great author. Story366 out.