August 25: “Plum Tree” by Natalie Serber

Hello there, Story366! Today is my oldest’s birthday, so I had some cake tonight. That seems like enough to make a day great, doesn’t it? Since it was my birthday Monday, that means we had cake twice this week, but actually, we’ve had cake every day so far, with the leftovers and all. That won’t change, either, as a good portion of my son’s cake—a Pokeball—is still left. Can’t let that go to waste, can we?

You all like cake, right? One time, I was at a wedding, and literally every person at the table but me didn’t eat their cake. We were at those round tables, eight people per, and seven people got a slice of cake put in front of them and they all uniformly said No, thank you! to the catering servers. I remember being pretty shocked by that, but even more weird was the conversation that followed, when seven people realized that they were at a wedding, seating at an eight-person table, and six other people shared in their dislike for cake.

“You don’t like cake, either?” one person said.

“No. It’ just not very good,” said another.

“I’ve always thought that,” said a third. And then they high-fived (and I’m not kidding about that—two people found common ground in their hatred for cake and celebrated like a backcourt after a free throw.

This was at a wedding I went to in college, for a delivery guy at the pizza place I’d worked at in high school and a little bit after. I was probably nineteen or twenty and thrilled to death that I was at this wedding and drinking as much as I wanted to, and openly, and that seven pieces of wedding cake suddenly fell under my command. I mean, don’t most people like cake? I get it if it’s vichyssois or artichoke leaves or steak tartare, something that is legitimately disgusting. But cake? Isn’t that, like, really good? Especially wedding cake, that’s made by a professional cake maker, the cake costing more than my car at that time. But there I was, half in the bag, about ready to sugarcoat my heart, and people were dissing their fucking cake. What was next? Air? I always think of that night, this anecdote, when I eat cake. Now I’ve shared it with you.

Today’s story, “Plum Tree” comes to us from Natalie Serber’s collection Shout Her Lovely Name, out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I bought this book a few years ago and read about half of it, immediately struck by the daring that Serber employs in the title story, a piece about a girl with anorexia, told, partly, by photographs, diagrams, and other graphical element. It was my first semester teaching in Missouri and my classes were looking at nontraditional stories, so I shared that piece with them and we discussed. I ran across Serber’s book on my office shelf the other day and realized it wasn’t on the Story366 to-read pile. I’ve been thinking about it every since, so I was happy to pick it up again today. I read a few more stories and today I am writing about “Plum Tree.”

I have to admit, I started reading “Plum Tree” because I have a story called “The Plum Tree” and I wanted to see if Serber plagiarized it. No, just kidding (because Serber’s book was out before I wrote that story)! I did think of my story, though, so I started reading Serber’s and found that I really liked her piece, better than the title story that I’d shared with my class (and yes, better than I liked my own story). “Plum Tree” is about Nora, a high schooler who is hanging out with her friend Zellie, ditching, actually, summer less than a week away, her whole life still in front of her. We start with Nora and Zellie sitting in Nora’s back yard, under her plum tree, smoking a joint they made from Nora’s mom’s pot and a tampon wrapper, eating plums off the tree. The girls seem carefree, aside from the regular school tension, what they’re going to do all summer, and what’s going to happen at a party they’re attending later that night. The story’s told in a close third person, but it’s so close and that prose is so engaging, it feels like first person, a credit to Serber’s writing and characterization.

The girls mill about, killing time until the party—such a life they lead, smoking free pot until it’s time to go get free beer—and this milling about is really my favorite part of the story. I like Nora’s voice, but also like the details of her life, the picture that Serber paints. Nora lives with her mom, Ruby, a woman who might be the most developed character in the story despite only appearing, physically, in the last few paragraphs. Ruby is a free spirit, fickle and impulsive, moving herself and Nora about the country, sunbathing in the nude in the yard, sharing her joints with Nora, simply because, it seems, she doesn’t want to have to wait until Nora’s gone to get high. Ruby gives Nora a long leash, fixing her up with not only pot and an endless curfew, but a diaphragm. Nora more or less appreciates this, but knows her mom is half super-cool and half neglectful. She’s smart and old enough to recognize the difference, but she’s still Ruby’s daughter: Off to the party she goes.

Things happen at the party, things that happen at high school drinking parties, and I won’t go any further into plot, leaving something for you to discover on your own. I’ll repeat that I really love the characterization in this story, especially the relationships. Nora and Zellie have a solid relationship, Zellie a bit prettier, but with more traditionally conservative parents, and makes for a good foil. This story is about Nora and Ruby, though, how these free spirits interact with each other, how they influence each other, but clearly, how they coexist. It’s a sweet relationship, if not a bit irresponsible, but the characters felt real to me. Serber has an ear for the teenage voice, the teenage dilemma, in “Plum Tree” and in the title story, for sure.

Glad I went snooping around my office books while cleaning up on Monday, as otherwise, I might have missed Natalie Serber and Shout Her Lovely Name this year. Solid writer, solid stories. I recommend.