Winner of FC2’s Catherine L. Doctorow Innovative Fiction PrizeStories that explore the potent and captivating boundaries between the real and the imaginary Aurelie Sheehan’s Once into the Night is a collection of 57 brief stories—a fictional autobiography made of assumed identities and what-ifs. What is the difference between fiction and a lie? These stories dwell in a netherworld between memory and the imagination, exploring the nature of truthtelling. Here the inner life is granted pride of place with authenticity found in misremembered childhood notebooks, invisible tattoos, and the love life of icemen. Radical in its conception of story, this collection blurs the line between fiction, poetry, and essay, reconceiving contemporary autofiction in its own witty, poignant vernacular. The stories intersect with and deviate from a “provable” life—a twin distinction that becomes the source of their power.
|Publisher:||University of Alabama Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
Aurelie Sheehan is professor of creative writing at the University of Arizona. She is the author of Jewelry Box: A Collection of Histories and the novel History Lesson for Girls. Her work has appeared in Conjunctions, Mississippi Review, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and other journals.
Read an Excerpt
I was born on a bench in a park in a small country. Everyone knew each other back then, in that place. I was born in the swift of night, however, and to be honest they weren't completely sure I'd been born on the bench — but it was on the bench I was found by them, the warm people of that small country.CHAPTER 2
WOLF IN THE BASEMENT
When I was young, we kept a wolf in the basement. It was a compromise, where one of my parents wanted no wolf and the other wanted the wolf in the living room, and so together they came up with this solution. The wolf lived six steps down from the rest of us, and when we let him out it was from the very back door, the one that faced the forest.
At first I did not like the wolf. I was a cat person. And we already had a cat — a longhaired, skinny thing, at times willing to let you touch her. When I did pet Minerva, she gave me a look like, this is niceish, probably more so for you than me. I twirled my fingers under her creamy chin, ran them down her gray back. So would the wolf eat my cat? If the door unlatched and what was upstairs went downstairs or vice versa?
We found the wolf one afternoon on the grounds of an old mansion where we'd gone for a book sale, proceeds of which would go to my mother's alma mater. We went to this event every year, filling boxes with volumes that cost dimes or quarters. Neither of my parents was profligate, and so the outing always had a feeling of splendor. In the capacious blank rooms, winding lines of books — whole paragraphs of them.
Our boxes were already in the back of the car, and my mother stood off to the side, having a smoke — her arms in an L, like a military hand signal, cigarette wavering in the vicinity of her mouth. She paused, sightline going from middle distance to zoned-in. "Larry?" Dad was still arranging the boxes for transport, I guess, because he was at this point half tumbled into the back of the car. He got up, hit his head on the car roof, pushed the hatch door down with a solid thwack. "What?" No answer, but my mother's aura of concentration compelled him to walk over to where she stood. I followed, as did my brother (walking like a clown, as per usual). The four of us stared past a small precipice at the wolf, sitting forlornly near a pine tree where he might have been viewing the book fair but was now, most definitely, gazing at us. He got up, limped two steps, and sat down again, all the while keeping up his plaintive look.
"Wow, a wolf!" I said.
"A wolf, Mommy!" said my brother.
"It looks injured," muttered my father.
"Let's go see if we can help," said my mother, a maniacal gleam in her eye. She tossed the cigarette.
We lived in a town well known for its crafty, can-do spirit. It was a survivalist town, filled with melancholy people, and the sky above was mostly white. In that town and in those years, I saw the sky as a sequence of key shapes. This key, that key, skeleton keys, Medeco keys. Sometimes jumbles, sometimes singular. It was all very intricate, I felt, in my prolonged, or even endless, it can seem now, study.
However, none of us really did have the key, so to speak, or the keys were always soft and amorphous and not ready for one little hole or secret. We labored along in our crafty survivalist lives, performing the act of a family. It wasn't just an act — of course not. We were a family. And yet as with every family, while there was a tension or magnetic force keeping us close, there was an equal yearning or leaning, like a Shetland pony on a rope, away from the centripetal field.
I was in charge of bringing the wolf his vittles. I used a plastic measuring cup to get his portion out of the garbage can where we ended up keeping the "dog" food, a receptacle until recently used for near-the-laundry trash, fluffs of dryer lint mostly, carrying it downstairs into the dark, wolf-bearing basement. (We'd tried storing the food in the basement, but he'd handily knocked over the can and gorged himself.) I turned on the light at the top of the stairs. We kept the wolf in the dark, although during the day some light did come in the back door. And of course when my father took him jogging he saw the light, or when my mother, alone in the house, let him out at twelve and three, into the backyard. We'd called our vet soon after we first lured him into our hatchback — a wolf among the books — but our vet, a sanctimonious Catholic, had cautioned us that wolves were illegal, and so if he were really a wolf, we'd need to turn him in. (Turn him into what, or whom?) In any case he himself, God-fearing, etc., refused to treat the wolf. My mother and father did agree, at that moment, on the assholeness of that veterinarian.
We ended up using a sketchy vet from Norwalk — he needed the work.
I flipped the light switch, and this is what I saw: the washer and dryer, a linen chest, an old dresser filled with art and random objects, the pool filter and pump, stored patio furniture, an ancient gray-green carpet. In the middle of the carpet lay Wolfie, his head angled tragically on his now-healed front paw. He jumped up and stood whenever I appeared, half embarrassed, it seemed, to be caught unaware, or in sorrow. Oh, Wolfie — but ours was a stoic town, and we envisioned ourselves as stoic people.
I put the bowl down and watched expressionlessly as he padded toward the food. He was small for a wolf, and even weeks after his capture he still had a bit of a limp. He was a black wolf, which is unusual I've been told. Perhaps he was a Russian wolf. He would have looked good in the snow, in a snowy field. I went back upstairs, to the crunch of vittles.
One day about four months later — after school ended anyway, because I was waking up late (the sky a brighter white than on school mornings) — I looked out the window and saw Wolfie and Minerva both free in the yard.
The wolf and the cat were staring at each other. Wolfie lunged, his body blurring into an italic, and Minerva lunged too, becoming more of a dash. Within two seconds Wolfie was barking at the chain-link fence and Minerva stood on the other side, tail bristled out, looking at him with scandal and dull horror.
Some mornings I watched as my father and Wolfie walked down the driveway on their way out for a run, my father's bright blue running shorts like an Olympic sprinter's, and Wolfie with his patient padding paws, and the white sky overhead, and the crunch of gravel.
My father would soon be gone, but for what seemed like forever he was right there, in the driveway or in the kitchen or in his office (also in the basement, a small room off the central area). Both parents gave up smoking, and I started smoking. At Thanksgiving, we set aside some dark meat for the wolf. Plans were hatched, grades were dispensed, fights were had up and downstairs. My brother became excellent at sports. We lost some, but not all of our relatives.
On the last day my father ran with the wolf — it was an early summer evening — I turned away from the window and sat on my bed. My room was a box lined with Laura Ashley wallpaper and decorated with one peacock feather. Minerva declined my invitation to be petted. My mother was downstairs doing something inscrutable. My brother was at baseball practice.
We all escaped that town eventually, even Wolfie.
Still his shape remains with me, his shape like a shadow or an outline or someone's scribble. I remember his grieving face when we first saw him, sitting at the edge of the field by the old mansion, with all the people buying books very near, getting back into their Datsuns and Peugeot wagons, and the tranquil way he let us take him — meaning, said the sketchy Norwalk vet, that he was very under the weather indeed. He got better and better in our basement, and as he got better he must have realized where he was, didn't he? I remember bringing him his portion of food, and I remember his moments of freedom — his mysterious runs with my father, the foreshortened hunt involving Minerva or the occasional squirrel. Some days I'd see him padding around the edge of the yard along the chain-link fence. Then he'd lie down, staring with his black eyes in his black face under the white sky.
I was growing up, I guess. So was my brother.
In the afternoons I sat on the stairs between the first floor, where Minerva lay unmolested, and the basement, where Wolfie slept close to the door. His fur did not shine. Some hours, he slept with his eyes open. The light from the door came in brief streaks and squares, easily dissuaded. Darkness was a dust storm to make our way through, a forest road to run down.CHAPTER 3
I spent my early adulthood at sea. I even had a boat — or my boyfriend did, but we lived together, and he was generous in sharing his things. The term "early adulthood" is a patch of gray laid over whatever those years were, however long they lasted. Now I'm in "adulthood," another magazine column category.
Here is what I thought of love. Love, def.: doing things with, having a similar sense of humor as, extracting a future in addition to.
The sea was a vivid black, folds of black relentlessly and unpredictably overlapping. Its opaqueness came from how the sun hit the water, or from the swallowing of the moon. You simply couldn't see. I couldn't see, anyway.
Life was long; it was a bit cheap and certainly plentiful — maybe even too long, a great amount of this one capacious thing, like a basket of yarn crushed and laced together, mixed-up and knotted and not yielding.
We brought sandwiches on the boat with us, or sometimes a thermos of soup. If we were traveling some distance I was obliged to pee in a bucket. Afterward, he would lie on the deck and drop the bucket down on its rope and the seawater cleaned out the interior. We liked pecan sandies for dessert.
When we were in the long process of breaking up, yet still grocery shopping together on Sundays, we were confused about what to buy — unsure if we would be together for the whole week. Should we buy our typical meals, our favorite items? Should we buy misery food, or just very, very plain food, rations, no salt or sauce? It was a package of pecan sandies that made us feel the saddest on one of those grocery runs, back in early adulthood.
Sometimes on the boat I stared at the horizon — this was even before the weeks and months of tearing apart. Something already felt sad in the world. Perhaps it was the sea itself, the difference between the opaque surface and the steely gravity underneath. Perhaps it was my inability to distinguish between having a vast basket of yarn and having just a little yarn left.
I wish I could tell you of our travels. Some of the places we went were fancy, and we dressed in vintage clothing and acted like Gatsby, drinking more than the average adult. There was no end to the places that smelled deeply, richly of pine. Pine by the sea, pine in the heart of ancient forests, pine a perfume passed through on our hurried way to the shore or back up from the shore, it was there for you.CHAPTER 4
I am hitting Sara Applewood. I hit her on the shoulders and back after she has fallen on the ski slope. Get up, get up, get up, Sara. The world is vast and ornamental and also small, winnowed down to the point of contact where my pole hits her back, not doing enough damage through the parka, hence moving up to the head and shoulders. She holds her arm up so she won't be hurt. People are looking, as at a grocery store if there's been a spill. I don't want my mother to look. I don't want anyone to say: Stop it, little girl. I keep hitting for a while, getting a last good one in, and then I adjust my mitten and the pole strap, bend my knees, and push off. It's a small rise on a large mountain, and I slide down and around, skiing to the middle of the whiteness where there are hardly any people, the wide white middle, where I spy an invisible trail.
Sara Applewood is hitting me. She's wearing her sleek red parka with lift passes on the zipper from places professional skiers go, Swiss slopes visited with her parents and governess. My God, a governess! But that's life for Sara Applewood, sadist and betrayer. Ski slopes are like heaven, except for when you're down on the ground being beaten. She really does enjoy hurting others — but who could possibly enjoy that? I'm a pacifist, an animal lover, and a non-litterer, except there have been those times when I've held my brother down to the point where I thought a bone might break, or once when I threatened him with a knife (a butter knife). Was that pleasure? Sara Applewood has always been a better athlete than me. Her calves are hard and her toes grip the floor like an ape's. She has a sway to her back, her butt sticks out, and she pushes out her chest too. See? she's always saying. See me now? The world is cold as a sheet of metal, and I'm a slumped, Goodwill-bedecked lump — except for in my stomach, right in the center of my body, is a bit of warmth, a dull unfolding. Another hit off my shoulder, another on my sleeve. Then she's skiing away, her bitchy braids flying out behind her as she disappears, slaloming down the slope alone. The sun has slipped behind the mountain. The big gleaming mirror of cold — it's nothing, it's containable, blink and it's gone. I put my pole in the snow and push. Swash, goes my pole, again and again. Defeat almost has me. "Sara!" I shout, "Sara Applewood!" Hate is a bunny in my belly.CHAPTER 5
I am a sex worker, and it's a good gig, because the bawdy room is everywhere.
I slice pickles for sandwiches and the tense guests await this enactment and then I enact something else, tilting my body so they can see the full, one hundred percent posterboard of who I am. "These sliced pickles might be excellent on your sandwich," I say, moving forward with the platter. It's a descent from the sky, my parachute emanating from behind. My face is large and wide, and then you're taking a camera ride into my mouth, sliding along my tongue, clutched by my throat, and on and on and deeper. I can do one person at a time, but it's especially nerve-racking and advantageous if there's a group around the table, ideally relatives.
Sex is multidimensional. I don't want to be patronizing, but people don't understand how multidimensional we're talking.
At the stoplight. At Target. During the flossing ritual. With insects.
I'm very tired of late.
But let me start at the beginning of my career. I was naked in my room with the blue shag carpet, standing before the full-length mirror. I saw it — an invitation, an opportunity. This body, as it turned out, was built for something, as a rocket is built to propel into space. It was a job, and the tools were handy.
I launched myself, stealthily draped, into the world. The town center was small, buildings made of brick with white doors. Tentative at first, I took big slow steps. At the grocery store I bought a plum and a pack of cigarettes. I stood in the dimension and geometry of sun and shade by the liquor store. Men who were like my father but were not my father spoke in boisterous and ritualized tones. Other men sat in passenger seats, in idling trucks, staring forward.
Must we be paid? I don't know about that, but some of my greatest working moments have been at least social in nature. There was the time the man flung himself upon my car. His look through the windshield at me, a lady with her hands on the wheel, a pink blazer. My look through the windshield at him, one cheek smashed up against glass, a comrade or a customer, pretty willing to go to another bar.
It's Saturday. I take off my clothes and lay on a pile of sheets, a big heap of what I could find in the linen closet. I stretch my arms up and over in a dolphin curve; I scissor my legs in slow motion. I don't put on music. I'm already attending to the music of the day: a dove cooing, a police siren, a glimmer of wind, even a neighbor getting into a car. There's a connection between my naked self and these sounds. At times I sense I'm too low ... I might be better off on a bier or perch. I'm a little landlocked, swiveling here on the floor. Nonetheless I wrap myself in the variously hued sheets, and wait for sounds to pass through the cloth to my ears.
Sometimes there is a grid element to sex work. Laying myself on the day, I'm an elemental formation, a cloud, and all the particulars of my body become the vastness of time and geography.
Sometimes in a social moment, I have sat with another person in a tent and marked the lines on our bodies, matching the lines together in private triangles and squares. Our blood pumped and coursed, as if we ourselves were planets with obedient rivers.
When I was young and the men hung around the liquor store, and some had already gone in, and some were going in later, I passed through their bodies, too, as if they were made of netting, as if all the people were their own grids, and I was just wind, or the noon siren from the fire station, or the smell of lavender.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Once into the Night"
Copyright © 2019 Aurelie Sheehan.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword: Laird Hunt,
Wolf in the Basement,
My Invisible Tattoos,
From the Air,
My Mother's Ideas,
Romance of the Old,
A Case of Motherhood,
The Transit of Venus,
I Imagine Timelessness,
Lake Charles, Louisiana,
The Mauve Notebook,
There Are Solutions, I Had Told Myself, to Christmas,
I Envision a Future,
The Power of Sex,
The Middle Part,
A Sense of Sickness,
The Restaurant of Authentic Family Argument,
The Women's Group,
Big Slut/Little God,
The Optimistic Walk,
The Dark Underlord,
Oscar Wilde and My Brother,
Tragedy Is Coming!,
My Golfing Vacation,
The Nursing Home,