The Whole World at Once: Stories

The Whole World at Once: Stories

by Erin Pringle

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The Whole World at Once is a collection of intense stories about the experience of loss. A soldier returns home from multiple tours only to begin planting landmines in the field behind his house; kids chase a ghost story up country roads only to become one themselves; one girl copes with the anniversary of her sister’s disappearance during the agricultural fair, while another girl searches for understanding after seeing the picture of a small boy washed onto a beach.
Dark, strange beauties, all of the stories in The Whole World at Once follow the lives of people grappling with what it means to live in a world with death.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781943665570
Publisher: West Virginia University Press
Publication date: 05/01/2017
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Erin Pringle-Toungate is the author of The Floating Order. Her work has been selected as a Best American Notable Non-Required Reading, shortlisted for the Charles Pick Fellowship, and a finalist for contests such as the Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest and the Kore Press Short Fiction Award. She was awarded a Washington State Artist Trust Fellowship, which she used to write and revise many of these stories. Learn more at

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The Whole World at Once


By Erin Pringle

West Virginia University Press

Copyright © 2017 Erin Pringle
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-943665-57-0


How the Sun Burns among Hills of Rock and Pebble

But aside from the black crepe ribbons that flap on the white poles of the fair-entrance archway, anyone who didn't live in the town last summer or close enough to hear the nightly news or who didn't ask about the luminaries running up the fair's dirt midway last night wouldn't know that a young woman named Helen Greene disappeared from last summer's Agricultural Fair.

Under the fair-entrance archway linger the men who served pancakes at the church last month and sell fabric poppies at the one lighted intersection on Memorial Day weekend. They wear neon yellow vests over their T-shirts and bellies. Just before dark, the traffic into the fairgrounds will become steady, and when dark falls, they'll swing their flashlights and raise their hands in greeting to the people they recognize, and they recognize most everyone.

Tonight, the carnies will speak in tongues and the town will drop screams from the rides, buy tickets, carry whorls of cotton candy back to their trailers and leaning homes — until somewhere in the middle night the sound of the fair will become one constant chord, like the interstate in the distance or the light rushing through glass bulbs.

This afternoon, most of the game booths are as empty as the stores in town or the houses out in the country or the eyes of the divorcées whose children, after the fair each night, will drag themselves back to a garage and sit in lawn chairs and pick seeds from dry leaves before filling the pipe and passing it on. They want to talk about the fair but say nothing because it's the same goddamned thing as last year, which they do say.

In one stall, a carnie sets a box down. He takes off the lid and plucks out tiny, mechanical birds and lines them up on the narrow counter. He turns each knob, and when the line reaches the wooden maze, he lifts the small sliding door, and the birds waddle in. Tonight, he and all the game carnies on down the row will prop a boot on the counter, throw open their arms to the dawdling fairgoers, and tell whoever hears that it's yer lucky night, just a dollah, ownee a dollah and win yerself a purdy animal. They wink. Their eyes crinkle in the lights. The birds wobble and wheeze up the wooden avenues, like the clusters of teenage girls who drag their flip-flops up the fair's dirt avenue.

The girls' new hips pull at the seams of their cutoffs. They walk in the most middle of summer, which, after the fair packs up and disappears down the interstate, will tip toward autumn and school doors and Friday night football fields. The girls carry bottles of water and soda cans like boredom. They roll the bits of string from their cutoff shorts against their thighs, balls of lint under their fingernails. Now and then one of their prepaid cell phones rings, but if it's not that boy, they don't answer since their mothers won't buy another refill card from the dollar store until next month.

Past the lemon and orange shake-up stands, the band shell where tonight the revival band will sing in glittering sequined jackets. Past the old wooden stadium where pigeons question the rafters and a few kids roam the splintering bleachers, pinging popcorn kernels at each other. The horses will race here every afternoon, the cars on Friday, and the fair queen will crawl out from under the bleachers on Sunday morning, mascara smeared, underwear in her fist.

The girls are too young for driver's licenses and jobs, outside of washing their mothers' boyfriends' trucks while the men across the street watch between baseball caps and beers. In a couple-three years, the teenagers will abandon the sidewalks to drive back and forth across the town, from the fairgrounds to the gas station up by the interstate. At town curfew, they'll leave the town for the country roads that go everywhere but return to nowhere — every night, they will drive, until they forget about ever wanting to leave the town for fortunes as bright as the running lights on the semitrucks that breeze by in the dark.

The fair's dirt avenue runs past the rides and game booths and twirling taffy and into the animal stalls filled with farmer kids and their hogs and cows and lambs raised for ribbons, then slaughter. But most the fairgoers don't venture that far, and those who do go late, drunk, stumbling, heads down.

In the afternoons, most the carnies sit at the picnic tables, strange men with growing beards and tight red shirts and jeans stained down their thighs from wiping the grease after taking a wrench to this or that ride. They're shuffling cards and watching the next murder of girls walk by, until the one who can't bear it any longer bangs his fists against the rotting table and cries, Everybody's a winnah!

The girls giggle, and their women's masks fall into their hands, but they can't see how young they are, poised between childhood and womanhood, blush-ripe on the plucking branch. As with every week before the fair arrives, the girls have been warned not to talk to the carnies, to stay away from the dark shadows behind rides, under old oak trees. And at the end of every fair night, each girl comes home and lies in her bed, staring out the window where her imagined self hurries up the dark street to where a handsome carnie waits, the one whose knuckles brushed her midriff as he buckled her into the Tilt-A-Whirl, The Octopus. The one who winked at her from the balloon dart game. The one who gave her an extra turn at the milk-bottle toss. Then she's in his car, her feet on the dash, and he's driving to the stone quarry where the town boys take the town girls, who pretend not to know what happens among the hills of rock and pebble, or he's merging onto the interstate, headed to the next motel with a vacancy or to a courthouse that opens early.

As the toads sing about the night from their dark ditches, the girls fall into sleep like a deep pond and so they don't see the handsome carnie driving back in an empty car, or with a marriage certificate in the glove box and the rest of his and his bride's lives glittering like the fish that people win at night and find dead in the morning.

When the toads stop singing, they pull themselves onto the country roads to cool their bellies as they wait for the night to sing back to them. By morning, most will have returned to their moist homes, but a few will not feel, until too late, how hot the sun is, how hot the asphalt is beneath the sun, under their bodies, beginning to boil their insides. By noon, they'll be dead, by the next night, as flat as the beer cans thrown from cars.

* * *

A girl is out walking the country roads with her wagon. Last night, after the fair, she pulled the wagon up the dirt avenue, filling it with the paper-bag luminaries that had been set out in memoriam to her sister. By the end of the night, many of the paper bags were missing, smashed, or knocked over. She saw several people reach into the bags for a candle to light their cigarettes and then seem irritated to find not a candle but a small glowing puck with a plastic flame. A guy in a black leather coat asked what it was all about. A woman in tight jeans shrugged, saying, Some dead girl went missing at last year's fair. The man chuckled, Probably she wasn't dead when she went missing. The woman slapped him playfully, You a teacher or something?

The girl bends past her dust-covered legs to pick up another beer can. She tosses it into the wagon behind her, then moves back to the middle of the road, the wagon rattling behind her. She has worn the same, faded plaid dress every day all summer. It no longer has, as her mother would say, room to grow in, which is what her mother said about all her sister's hand-me-downs. Now it's so tight that, even without a bra, the fabric between the buttons gapes like the mouths of small fish.

The oil-and-asphalt road vibrates through the wagon handle and up her arm. The wagon's rusty corners flake down when a wheel hits a large stone or puddle hole. Before her sister got too old for kid stuff, she used to pull her in the wagon, up and down all the country roads, out to Riggin's Pond, Troll Bridge, the Slave Cabins, down to the creek where she dug up a mussel and took it home in an ice-cream tub, watching until its shell opened and its body slid out like a liquid eye.

After Helen disappeared, she began going on long walks. At first she did it thinking that she might run into Helen out here, on her way home from wherever she'd been all these days, then months. Where you been? she would ask her. Oh, you know — just around, Helen would say. You worried Mom and Dad real bad, she'd say. Well, everything's okay now, Helen would say and maybe wrap her arm around her neck and tug on her earlobes like she did when she wanted to rile her up.

But the days kept coming and Helen didn't, and so the girl kept walking. When her mother asked her if she thought it was healthy to be alone for so long, she started taking the wagon with her, and eventually started picking up the beer and cola cans littering the roads and weedy ditches and bringing them home.

Though her sister has been found, she still startles at every bird that flashes out of a windbreak or out of the fields, thinking, Helen's home. When she'd brought home enough cans to fill about ten trash bags, her father told her to haul them down to the salvage yard, that they'd pay her. So she did, and ever since then, she's been walking farther and farther from home to find the cans she pulls back to town, week after week, now for nearly a year.

She used some of the money for the orange bracelet on her right wrist. She bought it yesterday, the first day of the fair, and so for the rest of the week she can ride as many rides as many times as she wants — her body jerked this way and that, her mind taken away from itself, her thoughts like a million fish nipping at a pond instead of her sister who was pulled out of one, a million droplets of water rolling down her limp arms and the yellow all-you-can-ride bracelet on her dead wrist.

She had thought she might not want to go to the fair, that it would be too much for her. After all, that's why her mom took this week off of work, and kept trying to convince her to go with her to visit her grandparents. She even went as far as to promise to take her to the museum one of the days. Your grandmother would love to see you, and you don't have a bad time when you go, do you? No, she didn't. So why do you want to hang around here, how can you even think about going to that fair?

She didn't really think about it. She just has a feeling that she ought to stay. Also, she just needs to walk around the fair, to see it as Helen saw it, even though she herself has seen the fair so many times she can walk through it in her mind, and she has in her dreams many nights since the disappearance. Often in the dreams the game booths are empty but still lit up, scattering shadows across the dirt avenue, and she's walking past them, and all the rides are shut down but blinking except for the octopus ride in the distance, its mechanical tentacles whirling around and around, and then she sees a flash of Helen's hair, and at first she thinks it's a bird scared up, but no, it's Helen's hair, Helen in one of the spinning seats, and so she starts hurrying to it, thinking Helen was here all along, they just hadn't looked hard enough when she disappeared, why hadn't anyone thought to look here — that somehow the fair had packed up the ride with Helen in it and taken Helen from town to town, and she was always in this ride but no one knew to look for her, no one would have asked why the same girl never left the ride because, after all, she was wearing the ride-all-you-can bracelet, which was yellow that year.

When she finally gets to the ride, Helen's screaming and screaming because she wants off, she's scared, and each time the twirling seat swirls down from the sky before returning to it, her sister's face is more pale, her lips trembling, her eyes large and black, and then she suddenly stops screaming and sits still in the spinning booth, pale and upright.

Every time she tries to rescue Helen, there's no lever to pull beside the carnie's empty lawn chair. No lever, no box of electrical wires, no red shutdown button — no buttons at all, just a chair with a miniature fan clipped to it and spinning, and on the ground a bucket of torn tickets.

Every time she finds the ride and still can't stop it, panic fills her stomach and then an ache because she has to tell Helen she'll have to save herself. Somehow. As she calls up to Helen, the ride's metal arms go faster, rising and lowering, and large splashes of water start falling, and when Helen's seat comes close, she sees pond water inside it, lapping up her sister's plaid dress, spilling over the side.

Today's only the second day of the fair, and after last night, she sort of wishes she had gone with her mother to visit her grandparents. But she also wants to go to the fair again, to ride, to shove her heels firmly into the aluminum footboard, to clutch the safety bar that reminds her of her mother's arm thrown out against her chest in the car, trying to keep her from jumping out of the funeral procession, her feet stuttering against the pavement as the men outside the barbershop watch.

The dress strap slips off her shoulder. She pushes it back up. Her face is covered in freckles like her bare shoulders. She tosses her head back and forth. She wishes she felt as light as her newly cut hair rather than like she's looking through a smeary storm door.

Last night after the fair, after she came home in the light rain that made the paper luminaries sag, she cut her hair to her ears then walked around the backyard, snapping the kitchen scissors and imagining she was beheading the flowers in her mother's garden like she and her sister did years ago, upon her sister's insistence that a fairy queen had come to her in a dream and demanded a sacrifice or she'd unleash armies of fairies on the house and terrible things would happen.

When she went back inside, she poured herself a glass of milk while the town's AM radio station gave away tickets to Friday's demolition derby. She sat at the kitchen table and smoked the pile of cigarette butts she'd collected that day. Outside, the streetlights buzzed and she shook her head and pieces of hair fell around her like rusty bits from her wagon.

Her mother doesn't understand about the cigarette butts. Why you want to go and do that for? What will people think if they knew? Take one of mine if you have to, which you shouldn't, but it's filthy smoking the ends of strangers' cigarettes.

She thinks it's sort of funny to smoke strangers' leftover cigarettes, and that's what she tells her mother. What's funny about it? her mother wants to know. It just is, she says. Just like she thinks it's sort of funny to wear pants too big for her or try to hypnotize her mother's parakeet with the cross she got at church camp last summer.

You're a weird kid, her mother will say, and that pleases her. Or her mother will say, I don't get you girl. But she thinks her mother does get her. Gets her more than anybody has, because she gets her mother.

She gets exactly why her mother stays waitressing at the town diner instead of looking for the better job she's always swearing she'll find one day and then she'll show them — whoever them is: at one time the town, but since Helen's disappearance then funeral, the whole world, which has grown larger in order to hold Helen's murderer.

She pauses a moment to run her bare foot up the inside of her leg, and a piece of gravel spins out onto the road. Then she's walking again, and the wagon bangs against her calves and ankles, and the few cans she has bothered to pick up slide back and forth. She doesn't need any more cans, but her hair's cut, she's out of cigarette butts, the library's closed, the pool doesn't open until one, and at the fair, only the kiddie rides run in the afternoon.

A man stumbles out of the windbreak, and trips into the ditch.

She wonders if it's a trick. Even a year since Helen, she still sometimes expects her sister to walk out of the field, into the house, into their bedroom. Helen throws up her arms and laughs, shoulders shaking like they would. Surprise! Did you believe I was the girl in the closed casket? You did! I can tell by your face. I really got you good, kid. Then Helen's ruffling her hair, pinching her nose.

The man's on his knees and hands. His hair is sweaty or oily.

She imagines a television crew inside the woods, a group of comedians hiding behind tree trunks and covering their mouths to muffle their hilarity. Cameramen crouch on an abandoned deer stand, aiming lenses out at her while people on couches at home yell at the microwave popcorn to hurry up because this is going to be really, really funny and shocking because when the girl goes to help this man, he'll tell her he's the one who killed her sister.


Excerpted from The Whole World at Once by Erin Pringle. Copyright © 2017 Erin Pringle. Excerpted by permission of West Virginia University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

How the Sun Burns among Hills of Rock and Pebble 1

The Boy Who Walks 30

The Boy in the Red Shirt 48

When the Frost Comes 54

This Bomb My Heart 80

The Fish 116

The Lightning Tree 145

The Missing Time 163

The Wandering House 204

Acknowledgments and Thanks 237

Reading and Discussion Questions 239

About the Author 243

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