November 22, 2020: “A Gram of Mars” by Becky Hagenston

Happy Sunday, Story366!

Today, my older boy and I went to help another Scout with his Eagle Scout project, a high-end service project the Scout puts together and executes for the betterment of some non-profit organization and our community. This particular project was building a pergola in a community garden, one we started last week and finished today. I’m not the most construction-savvy parent in the troop, as we have a lot of parents who actually do construction-type things for a living. But I know enough about tools and geometry and not sitting down while others are working to be useful.

The last step of the project was placing fourteen slats across the top of the whole structure, spread evenly from one side to the other. Since the instructions the Scout was using weren’t specific—”place slats evenly across top of pergola”—we had to do some math. And this is where we hit a snag, measuring out the marks for the slats three times before we got it right. It was me and two other adults, one of which is one of those fix-it guys, the other like me, someone who sits at his desk and reads for a living. Anyway, we nailed it on the third try—a little carpenter humor for you there—and I thought I’d pose the problem, just to give you SAT nightmares. Here goes:

The distance the slats would encompass is 127.5″ long. There are fourteen slats. Each slat is 1.5″ wide. Now, spread the slats evenly across that length.

Easy, right? Divide 127.5 by 14 and you have your marks.

Wrong. The snag here is that a slat will go flush up against each edge of the 127.5 inches. Dividing the length by 14 puts a slat in the middle of 14 equally divided areas, not with one on each edge.

So, we had to figure the area between those two ends slats. We eventually got it when we subtracted those two slats from the 127.5, giving us 124.5. Then we subtracted the width of the remaining 12 slats—18 inches—to get he total area of the gaps between the slats. We made a quick error, thinking there was 14 gaps, but then we remembered there aren’t 14 gaps—there are 13 gaps, as we’re counting in-between. So, that means the gap between each slat is 124.5-18, or 106.5, divided by 13, which is 8.19, or 8.2″ between slats.

Not only did we have three adults there—one construction guy and me with my math minor—but four high school kids who study math every day, including my son in geometry this year. In some ways I’m ashamed I didn’t get it on the first try, but in other ways, I’m not ashamed at all, because nobody else figured it correctly, either.

In any case, that’s how I spent my early afternoon, cutting, sanding, and measuring out pergola slats.

Today I’m starting another Two-Timers Week at Story366, likely the last of the year. A Two-Timers Week is when I spend a whole week covering a second book by authors I’ve covered here before. I think this is the fourth or fifth one of these, as there’s just so many authors who have more than one collection I want to read. Today’s Two-Timer is Becky Hagenston, an author I covered here in 2016 when I read from her newest collection, Scavengers. Today I’m going back to her debut collection, A Gram of Mars, out in 1997 from Sarabande as a winner of their Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. I’ve read lots of Hagenston’s work before, and in fact, published a story of hers in Mid-American Review and another in Moon City Review. She ranks among my favorite story writers, so it was a pleasure to track down this book and feature her here again today.

The title story, “A Gram of Mars,” is up first and the one I’m focusing on. This one is about Cathy, a woman who’s visiting her parents back east after moving to Tucson two years earlier. Her parents divorced right before she left, the nail in the coffin of her leaving, though she was determined to get away, anyway, well before her mother, Rita, decided that her father, Ernie, wasn’t paying enough attention to her and left.

Cathy is staying with her father in his tiny sub-level apartment. Ernie is sad as all get-out, and still has been calling Cathy, begging her to talk to her mother, to tell her that he’s changed and to take him back. Rita already has a new fiancé, however, and wants no part of Ernie anymore. Ernie is only able to guilt Cathy into the visit—which cleans out her bank account—after threatening suicide.

Ernie’s an odd guy, we find out, concerning himself with all kinds of distractions to pass his time. One such pursuit is astronomy, and Cathy finds out that he has purchased a small fragment of Mars, one of only twelve confirmed pieces on Earth, for three thousand dollars. He, and Cathy, are so in debt, Cathy wants to throw up over her father’s foolishness. She regrets coming home and doesn’t foresee herself making that mistake again.

Rita, meanwhile, wants Cathy to go to dinner with her and Joe, her fiancé, and Cathy bargains for just Rita. Ernie gets wind of this arrangement and horns in, insisting he take both of them to dinner. Rita begrudgingly agrees, so Ernie and Cathy meet her at the house, the house they all used to live in together. Ernie is more happy to see his old dog than anything, again coming off as kooky and distracted.

As you might guess, Rita and Ernie get into, eventually, the evening marred by their inability to get along, let alone keep Cathy interested in ever returning to Maryland. I won’t go into specifics as to what happens at the end of this story, but it’s a mess of modern family dynamics (modern at least in 1997), Hagenston gracefully carrying her character through some detailed craziness, all in good fun, for everyone except Cathy.

“Close Enough” is about Janice, a woman who constantly has to deal with her son’s current and ex-girlfriends. Davey, the son, is kind of a heartthrob, but he’s fickle and non-committed, always moving out of Janice’s house, in with some woman, only to return months later when it doesn’t work out. The story starts with a familiar scene to Janice, Davey’s current girl calling her in the middle of the night, sobbing, wondering where Davey is. Janice knows this is a sign of the end, that Davey will soon show up at her door, asking to move back in, but for now, she has to deal with Davey’s mess. What makes this story so interesting, aside from the aforementioned situation, is that Janice likes to hang out with Davey’s exes, after they’ve become exes, particularly Sheila. Sheila has become her drinking buddy, which has led Janice down some bad paths, including blackouts and some drinking and driving. She is more than happy, in a lot of ways, to deal with Davey’s women when he’s done with them, as she’s lonely, too, willing to fill her time with whomever is willing and able.

“Fugue” is a really cool story about a quirky family headed up by a bizarre man of a dad. The story opens with sound moving through their house like a solid object, then Hagenston takes us backward to see how we’ve arrived there. The dad, years earlier, saw an ad in a paper for a do-it-yourself pipe organ, one that would come in pieces, a box of parts every other week, and take two years to assemble. Dad disappears into the study, where he’s building this monstrous organ, all but abandoning his family. The kids—the story focuses on his daughter, Rachel—are looked after by nannies and ladies from their church, most everyone thinking the dad has either died or moved to Portugal. By the time he emerges from the study, the family may not survive, not even with the wondrous gift of this strange and powerful organ.

I’m alway up for reading a Becky Hagenston story, so I had a good day reading from A Gram of Mars today. The families depicted in this collection are nonconventional, but everyone adjusts, figures out a way to at least get by, even if the family falls part in the process. These are vivid, intense, and rewarding stories, nothing less than what I expected going in.