November 3: “The Juggler” by Ursula Hegi

Well hello there, Story366! Last night, I posted my write-up on Roy Kesey’s “Bloodwood” as the Cubs were about to win the World Series, as in seconds before the last out was recorded and the celebration began. If you’ve followed this blog this past month, or even the whole year, you know that I’m pretty superstitious. Knowing that, let me relay to you an anecdote: During the entire game, more or less, I blogged about Kesey’s story. When I was just about finished, heading into the concluding paragraph, the Cubs were up 6-3, a couple of outs in the eighth, nobody on base; at that point, I stopped blogging—it was around 11, so I had an hour to go back and finish—and wouldn’t you know it? The Cubs coughed up the lead, Cleveland tying the game at 6 before the Cubs could get that twenty-fourth out. Things looked grim, and considering the Cubs were on the road, a solo home run in the bottom of the ninth could have ended the Series, the Cubs on the short end. What changed? I stopped blogging. Once I realized what I had done, I picked up my laptop, went back to the Kesey post—you can go to it and see three lines of ellipses, which I used to indicate 1) suffering and 2) pain and 3) fear—and started working on it again. What happened? The Cubs scored two in the top on the tenth and then held on in the bottom to win the World Series. When did I post? The second it was in the bag. So, to say I’m superstitious is an understatement, a misnomer: I firmly believe, in my heart of hearts, that my blogging on Story366 is what did it (that, and I didn’t eat the McDonald’s cheeseburger I forgot about, as that was a lucky cheeseburger [which I ate after the game]).

So, you’re welcome, Cubs fans. And thanks, Roy. We did it, man. Together.

Today, I referred to Ursula Hegi‘s collection Hotel of the Saints, out from Simon & Schuster. I read the title/lead story first, liking and relating to the super-Catholic themes and characters, but then eyed the second story, “The End of Sadness.” and Before reading it, thought Yeah, that’ll be the story! What better piece to write about after the Cubs ended their 108-year drought than a story called “The End of Sadness?” After the first page and a half (of four), I was convinced that I was right. Then something happened: The term “the end of sadness” became kind of ironic, from the perspective of an unreliable narrator, involving a pretty heavy theme (spousal abuse), so it seemed like writing about “The End of Sadness,” in celebration of a baseball game, would be a bad idea. I scanned the book and spotted “The Juggler,” and who doesn’t like jugglers? So I read that story and am going to write about it today.

I’m actually surprised that I hadn’t read “The Juggler” before, it having appeared in Story, that nineties incarnation edited by Lois Rosenthal, Laurie Henry, and Will Allison. I was a huge fan of that journal, and once I read an issue, I read every story in every issue after. So, “The Juggler” must have come before that. In any case, “The Juggler” is about a woman, named only “Mom,” whose daughter, Zoe, begins dating a man, Michael, who is losing his eyesight. Michael can still make out colors and shapes, but within a year, shapes will be gone and he’ll at best retain light sensitivity. Mom watches, narrates, as Zoe and Michael visit her up in Eastern Washington, the three spending quality time together, seeing movies and going on car rides; in fact, an early scene takes place in a movie theater, Zoe whispering descriptions in Michael’s ear, other people in the audience shushing them, Mom pleased with her daughter’s happiness, her clear bliss: Zoe has found her mate.

As the visit progresses, Zoe and Michael and Mom keep having a better and better time together, Michael proving to be a ridiculously nice man, almost perfect. Mom can’t be happier for her daughter to find such an incredible match. That is, until … well, I don’t think I should reveal the “But, …” here, as revealing that would be revealing way too much of the ending of the story, spoiling it. What I’ll say is that Mom is the ultimate mom, in so many ways, and if you have a mom mom—the kind who not only loves their children, but thinks meddling in their affairs is a way to prove that love—you can maybe guess what Mom does, how she provides, right at the climax, the real conflict to this story.

So  what does any of this have to do with juggling, a juggler? Twice in the story, Mom runs into a street-performing juggler, once right before the movie, with Zoe and Michael, and once again at the end, when she’s alone. The juggler is an interesting character here, an interesting choice for the writer, as it’s rather apparent that this is supposed to be a metaphor. The juggler isn’t just there with balls, either: He’s juggling junk, plates and picture frames and bowling pins and iron skillets. Mom sees him at the start of the story and then again at the end. He’s also not a very good juggler, a beginning, maybe, always dropping stuff, but getting back on the horse, picking stuff up and starting again. What does all of this mean? I mean, juggling in and of itself is kind of obvious, but in this story? And what does it mean that he’s kind of bad at it? I wonder about this as I write this post, and sadly, don’t have an answer for you. I’m still thinking, though, and I like that about this story—a definitive, easy answer a good story would not make.

Hotel of the Saints sports many themes I could identify with, including a lot of Catholic stuff that defined my childhood. Interestingly, Ursula Hegi also writes about the products of broken homes in all the stories I read, an intriguing contrast to the faith asked for by the collar-types in Rome. All in all, I liked reading her stories, her characters’ subtle (or not) predicaments, the quiet way in which her characters face their demons.