“We Are Taking Only What We Need” by Stephanie Powell Watts

Hey there, Story366! While it’s not officially summer yet, not for another week, it sure feels like summer. Baseball is suddenly and gloriously the only sport; my kids are going to weird, across-town schools for consolidated summer school; and I just spent a week in Marshfield, Missouri, for Boy Scout camp with my oldest. It’s also hot as balls out, too. Just to think, this is spring!

The real story of Summer 2018 is how every major appliance in our house has broken down. Pretty much since we’ve lived here, we haven’t gotten our dryer to function properly, as often, it takes two to three hour-long cycles to dry a small load—a week ago, we were up to five. We’ve had repairmen out twice to clean the line, figure it out, but soon after they left, things reverted back to their nineteenth-century ways. Our Internet stopped working somewhere around the last week of classes, and not once, not twice, but three times, we had a Mediacom rep out to fix it, each time swearing they’ve discovered the problem, some worn wire, something disconnected, whatever. Right now, it works like 95 percent of the time, but considering we’ve had three visits from tech guys (meaning three days of us as prisoners in our house, waiting around), we should have the best internet on the planet, right? No, 95 percent. The big-pricetag item that terrified us was the air conditioner, which was running but not kicking out cold air (i.e,. an expensive, warm-air fan). We got a guy to come out, it worked for a few hours, then didn’t work again. We called the same guy back—his work was guaranteed—and he took nine freaking days to return and not fix it. Two days after he left, it’s suddenly, and for some reason, working again, and working well. This leads me up to yesterday, when I woke to Karen telling me our fridge was dead, the motor frozen, and since she had to go to work (to, you know, support us), I had to throw away all the bad food, salvage what I could, and clean up a ridiculous mess. The repair person is coming tomorrow: I assume it will be the first of many visits before we can have cold food again, sometime around the Fourth of July.

This morning, my oldest said to me, “We should take bets one what will break next,” completely unprompted, talk of our bad luck, shoddy repair work, and our general frustration not coming up at all since the previous morning, both of us elbows-deep in gray sour cream and mayonnaise. He’s certainly one of us, I can see, aware of the tragic irony it often is to be a Czyzniago. My money’s on the oven. His is on the toaster.

But again, the air works, and after I fiddled with the dryer yesterday, cleaned out the tube and reattached it, the damn thing is working like a dryer is supposed to, about an hour for a load of clothes, even a load of towels. To celebrate, I did eight loads of laundry yesterday, that shit stacking up, so today I had time to get back to the blog, back to books.

Today I read from Stephanie Powell Watts‘ collection We Are Taking Only What We Need, out earlier this year from Ecco as part of their Art of the Story series. I ran across this book while perusing the lit section at Barnes & Noble a bit ago, and quickly picked up a copy (in fact, I grabbed two, giving one to a GA as a year-end gift). It’s been hovering near the top of my pile for about a month now, and for a beautiful, sunny day like today (i.e., hot as balls), I could no longer resist that bright yellow cover, to find out what the woman on the cover is thinking.

I read the first three stories in We Are Taking Only What We Need this morning and enjoyed all of them: “Family Museum of Ancient Postcards,” “If You Hit Randolph County, You’ve Gone Too Far,” and the title story, “We Are Taking Only What We Need,” which I’ll write about today. All three stories share strikingly similar themes, settings, and styles, and all are told from the point of view of a young African American girl living in the South, only from the perspective of that young girl when she’s older, looking back. I thought for a bit that maybe these characters were all the same, that this is a novel in stories, as the girl’s father in the first and third stories are both named Roger; further inspection leads me to believe that no, these are different stories and different young girls, as other family member names and minor details prove inconsistent. Still, these stories give off a similar vibe and use overlapping plot points, such as infidelity and deadbeat moms, enough to make this book wholly coherent. At least in the first three entries.

“We Are Taking Only What We Need” is about Portia, a young girl whose mother has just left the family, which includes her, her brother, Cal, and her father, Roger. We don’t know exactly why the mom is leaving, only it’s to move in with a girlfriend (and the girlfriend’s boyfriend), to not be the mom anymore. With Roger having to work and Portia and Cal too young to stay home all day, they’re forced into a babysitter. Roger chooses a young white girl named Tammy, who seems as foreign to Portia as an alien; an aunt suggests the children no get too close, as “White people tend to smell like wet dog.” Portia is intrigued at this wholly different human, but it wears off soon when she realizes that Tammy is doing the bare minimum to get by until Roger gets home and pays her, that there’s no real bond, no care or affection.

That changes one Saturday, however, when Tammy shows up with Roger home, Roger announcing to Portia that the two ladies will spend the day together at the flea market. Portia finds it weird, as she doesn’t need a babysitter, not when her father is home from work, yet off they go, to this vast shopping land, not a penny in Portia’s pocket. They don’t need money, though, as Tammy seems like the belle of the market, everyone coming up to her, hugging her, offering her free stuff. By the end of the trip, Tammy and Portia leave with a box of newborn puppies, sworn by their former owner to be of pure breed, even though their father is a German shepherd and the mother is something else.

Portia and Tammy arrive with the dogs, to the delight of Cal and the anger and bewilderment of Roger. Tammy proclaims that they have a dog for everyone (like Game of Thrones!), one for Portia and one for Cal and one for her and Roger. For Portia, it’s suddenly clear what’s going on between Tammy and her father, that they’re closeness and occasional touching is no accident. Roger, who vehemently dislikes the idea of dogs, especially those around the house, acquiesces, and Portia understands it’s because Tammy has a spell on her father, this white girl in short-shorts, half his age.

Okay, good setup for a story. Still, I’m not sure how deeply to go into the plot of “We Are Taking Only What We Need,” as we’re not yet halfway in at this point and there’s quite a few twists and turns. I won’t go into too much more detail, but will remind you that I mentioned infidelity before, so there’s more of that on the way, along a trigger warning: If you’re not into stories where dogs die, especially cute little puppies, then maybe this ain’t the story for you.

On top of what happens, though, this story, like its two predecessors in the collection, strikes an intriguing balance between what the young teenage protagonist thinks about the story as it’s happening, against what she thinks about the same events years later, when she’s old, wiser, and telling her tale. So, there’s an innocence to the stories in Powell Watts’ book, an unreliability, but that’s sort of canceled out, often, by that same person translating each particular lesson into the broader scope. It’s an interesting way to tell a story and an even more interesting way to read one. Powell Watts didn’t invent this technique, but she’s as good at it as anyone I’ve read.

There’s also a great feeling of place in these stories, like they surely could only take place in the South, in Powell Watts’ native North Carolina, from the food, to the landscapes, to the heat. Most of all, I enjoyed the window these stories gave me to another region, another culture, to people who may not look like me or didn’t grow up in the same place as me, but are so delicately rendered, I feel like I know them, that I was immersed—Powell Watts has that power as a writer.

“We Are Taking Only What We Need Here” is a beautiful and tragic story, one that stuck with me even though I read it first, read two other stories, but still wanted to write about it. I feel for older, perspective-laden Portia, even now, even more than I felt for young Portia as all the events of the story befell her. I think it’s because I’m getting old and am starting to understand how the residual effect of something terrible, over time, can really add up, can wear on you. That’s the way this fine collection speaks to me. But there’s so much more about it admire.

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