Fiction · 12/12/2012

Why No One Writes Lyric Realism Anymore

Because it isn’t real, for A.

For B, large parts of it take place in chain Mexican restaurants in the Sun Belt. To certain families they don’t feel like chains, of course, because such families have always lived in the Sun Belt, and have been going to Friday Night Mexican at the same place since the beginning of time, which, for our purposes, let’s call the mid-eighties. Highchairs, crayons, paper placemats. A time when the quesadilla was still the cheese-crisp. They’ve been going since there was a Pac-Man console in the lobby, cigarette machines outside the bathroom. And even when the menu, servers, owner, name changed, still: there they were, Friday at 6:30, a booth reserved for four.

Which brings us to C: Lyric realism isn’t sexy. People do not pick up a book to read about a booth in a generic Mexican restaurant on a Friday night. That is their life. And even if it’s the fluorescent little part of the American dream left intact for many of us — the fact that if you ask nicely, you can almost always get a booth — it’s not what you want to be messing with when a friend asks, So how is the Great American Novel coming?

No one writes lyric realism anymore because it’s too easy. I mean, how much imagination do you really need to come up with a family of four? Humans, I mean. You can draw up the cast of characters in your sleep, practically. Here, I’ll do it now: Two daughters, or two sisters, depending on the point of view strategy. But same people. These sisters/daughters, they say cordial things to each other. Such as: Hi, how are you? and, What are you getting? Two parents, ipso facto. I mean, not hard.

No one writes lyric realism anymore because it’s redundant. World Creation? Great, except the one you just created already exists, so it’s more like Wheel Reinvention. There are two kinds of salsa brought to the table: medium and hot. But in the great tradition of making the reader believe these salsas (very much like salsas he has known) you tell him which is which. Also that way you don’t have to tell which daughter is which right away — you’re showing-not-telling with the salsas.

Both girls have been called beautiful at points, though one more often than her sister. Not exactly a Cinderella situation, but a margin of some significance, so that the beautiful one — let’s go with Cassie — is used to it, has lines prepared for men who comment on her breasts at the bar+restaurant where she works. (Which we should make clear here, is not this restaurant.) She calls them “ta-tas” in front of her family in hopes of being both old-fashioned and shocking, in hopes of making it feel more like a joke.

The other sister dreams of blanket forts coming back. In fact, she wants to go home after dinner to find that Dragnet is on again, like it was all those years after quesadillas, and solve the case along with Jack Webb. Then she wants to shimmy into the blue sheet-cave she used to string up between her bed and desk and anchor with Britannicas her father lent her with a Nancy Drew and a flashlight, and solve that too. This ability to be comforted easily makes Nell everyone’s favorite travel buddy. People actually call her this on a semi-frequent basis: Buddy.

No one writes lyric realism anymore because the whole thing’s old news, having to explain how the mother and father got together. Predictable work, and it’s work we’ve seen before. Maybe you have a scene in there about that place they went when they were first going out, a converted duplex down on Miller Avenue where they knew the piano player, Sam. driving home that first night, they couldn’t stop talking about it: Sam, how that was really his name! And everyone sat on cushioned library ladders and fell in love with the singer because she was sad in the right spots in the music, and laughed when she messed up the words until Sam would give up, and start her a few bars back. If you smoked outside between sets she was always there, leaning back off the porch railing in a way that made you nervous, honestly, the bougainvillea catching in her frizzy hair like little wads of gum. She’d talk to you. About why it was the sky got purple in the desert at night, never black, about what a cute couple you two made.

Whatever you choose, it’s got to hint at a love that withstands the pressure of the through-action. So that when the father recommends the daughters get out of town, drive up north, they could stop at the motel where the parents used to go when they were first married, a reader hears days getting remembered, the base layer of longing being laid down. So that when the parents treat the waiter like their other child, lending him DVDs, asking after his own mother and sisters, the reader sees how the space where something drained out of this long love has been filled with another affection — how the volume is the same — and how that is good.

No one writes lyric realism these days because the dialogue’s harder to get right — to sound right — now that people are talking less. Basically you should ask yourself: Will a texter believe this happened? How many likes would this get on Facebook? Best to start with the old standby, gesture. One daughter rolls her eyes, we’re not even told over what, and the other one snaps.

“Why are you rolling your eyes at me, Nell? Just say it.” The voice she uses at work to 86 the drunks.

“I didn’t roll my eyes.”

“Yes you fucking did.” Again, she’s been trying out shock.

And since it’s realism, all this happens while the mother is in the bathroom.

The father attempts to make peace like he did with his first kids.

“What if you pretended your sister didn’t exist, Cassie?” He says this gently, which is like slowly, which is just how lyric realism has been dying for years — with adverbs. “Just say to yourself, What sister? Just try that, okay?” He’d driven down to ABCO to buy fresh doughnuts for both families, he’d tucked everyone in. He doesn’t remember it being this hard the first time. “Maybe you’ll feel better.”

Cassie, the younger, picks at a nail, doesn’t look at him. Coward, Nell thinks. Look at your father. Even though he’s her father too.

“Just try that for me, okay?” Suddenly, he needs to hear someone say okay.

Instead they say, Dad. But in unison, at least.

When the mother returns from the bathroom, no one’s talking and the waiter is dangerously not there again.

“What,” she says, sliding back into the booth. “What does everyone look like that for?”

No one says anything, so she turns to her husband. “What did you say?”

“I told Cassie to pretend her sister doesn’t exist.”

“You said what?” It’s as close to yelling as this mother gets. She was an actress in college; she knows how to project. Also she knows how get very very quiet, which she does for her next line: “I feel like someone stabbed me.”

The daughters sit there, eating their respective salsas with what remains of the chips.

“I stabbed you. Right. That’s it.” The father is quiet now, too.

“I feel stabbed, okay?”

“Jesus, Char. I was just trying to see if we could find a way to co-exist on a Friday night.” He puts his head in one hand and holds it there.

“How dare you say that to my girls,” the mother says.

“Just everyone stop,” Cassie yells, looking at something on the ceiling, her hands over her ears like she’s 10 again, not 24. “We’re girls of both of you, okay? We’re both of your fucking girls.”

But Nell, she’s not so sure. Maybe her father was onto something — what if she didn’t exist? The key, she thinks, is to stare at the zig-zags of the little swatch of booth between her mother and her father’s head, patiently, like one of those stereograms where you unfocus your eyes until something steps out of the forest of dots, except the hidden thing is her! She’s reversed the process, detective that she is. Yes, it’s working now, she can feel it — the zigs and zags closing around her thick and steady, like the buzzing snow that covered every channel that old TV didn’t get. Feels herself becoming the very thing that made her want those channels, whatever the snow was hiding.

No one writes lyric realism anymore because you’re supposed to use Scene (that old saw) and Conflict, when the truth lies somewhere else. See the sisters, they actually love each other, but it happens at strange moments: when Cassie’s driving home from closing the restaurant (rustic-Italian-fusion), that spot where she crosses the lake before turning into her apartment. Or when Nell, on one of her runs, sees a fancy shoe discarded and shining on the side of the highway, jettisoned from a car window, a thing someone didn’t need right then — wheeeeee! — and later missed. The love gets used up quick like that, a badly-made fire, and when they see each other again they are still strangers, tied only by crumbly grievances and the small jealousies that come with still being young enough to have what someone else wants.

What Cassie wants, though she doesn’t know who to tell, is one year. She’s been studying her whole life, so she knows it was exactly one year — one! — that her older sister Nell was magic. People came by the house and stayed late on the back porch, just talking to her. Sometimes Cassie watched from her bedroom window upstairs, her sister standing barefoot on the still-warm pavement, leaning into some car window and laughing. And then after whoever had driven away — whole hours she spent in that window some nights — her sister would touch the cactus between its spines like a horse’s neck, before she came in.

Nell wants to be hit. Or more precisely, she wants her younger sister to punch her using those strong biceps she flexes reaching for her water glass. It’s been seven years, but Nell’s still got it coming. She was the one to get their horse killed. And by their horse, she means mostly Cassie’s. Because Cassie hadn’t been away at college that year like Nell was. Because Cassie had been working at the farm when that pretty horse came, needing a new home. But they are sisters, so they share things. So it was Nell who spent her Olive Garden wages on entry fees, on trailering to the show in New Mexico: fuel plus labor, roundtrip, cash up front. Neither of them were there when the trailer went off the road and through someone’s desert; they didn’t even know the driver. These things happen, people said to Nell. Afterward, someone put a construction paper sign on his stall, his name and dates in purple Sharpie, and their horse trainer wrote a sympathy card, had the whole barn sign it. To Cassie, the envelope said.

These things happen. Realism won’t stop saying it.

Nell is a grown up now, well, the outline of one, she has a 401K and she has vacation days, and the horse trainer isn’t even training anymore, she’s doing real estate in some flyover state when Nell last heard, but other than the card — the absence of her name — no one has ever blamed her. And you can’t move on by having your name left off something. She doesn’t know how it works, exactly, but she knows it doesn’t work like that.

No one writes lyric realism because of bullshit transitions like this.

No one has talked for the last 10 minutes except to the server, so Nell excuses herself, meets him at the bar with her credit card. She’s signs and doesn’t listen when her father says why did you do that, because exactly: why did she do that? Then home again to collect laptops and books from the counter, the couch arm. The mother flips through unopened mail, let down again. (And now maybe we are given her name on the envelopes — Charmaine.) The younger sister drives back to her apartment to feed the requisite cat. A rescue, of course.

The mother and father don’t even cross paths; they have become experts in asymptotic movement.

Charmaine pours herself a nightcap of wine, turns on the television. On it, strangers are walking through empty houses and talking to the camera about closet space and southern exposure with half-hearted cheer, like each house is an entrée they are required to split, and the realtors waiters whose job is to check in and convince them that they have both made excellent choices. These shows are stupid, she knows, hour after hour of boring interchangeable people waving around their boring interchangeable needs. Backsplash, formica, hardwood, half-bath.

But the houses! They’re so clean, so empty! Even the furnished ones: You could go in and sit in any chair. When Charmaine was growing up, her mother slept on the couch because her bed was always covered with laundry, papers to grade. Unopened mail. Insert object here. The kitchen table too, no daylight at all. Charmaine scared Dan the first time she went over to his condo, her eyes fogged up when he opened his front door nervously to reveal all those clean surfaces. How could she explain her gratitude, right then? Her exponentialing love? So she just sat in the very middle of the couch with her hands out as far as they’d go, touching each spacious cushion, saying Thank you and It’s beautiful until he finally believed her — I’m okay, she laughed — and sat down next to her. Kneeled a year later before that same couch, a little awkwardly because of the coffee table, and asked if she’d thought about things, like ever, and after?

Dan, father/husband, Ruiner of Things, goes upstairs and brushes and puts on his pajamas, which he keeps folded on the counter in front of his electric toothbrush, a sink down from where he sets Char’s cup of coffee each morning, and where he goes to retrieve it later, always untouched. As I said, no one changes. He puts on the mask that pushes air into his nose, because sometimes in the night he stops taking air in on his own. Char finally convinced him to do a sleep study and sure enough, the machine found jaggy green seconds when he stopped breathing. The mask slips loose in the night; it gives him horrible dreams. But he wears it anyway. Ruiner, maybe, but an obedient one. (That singer down on Miller, what was her name?) He turns out the light and is glad to be off his feet. Ever since the sleep study, his wife’s been telling their friends at dinner parties about the mask, like it is a victory in her column. (He reaches through the dark and turns on the breathing machine.) And after all, it probably is.

The sisters agree on this, though they will not discuss it for years: love without columns.

No one writes lyric realism anymore because the endings get away from you, they fragment, fall apart like crackers in water. The unhit sister, alone again in the white noise of her parents’ separate insomnias, puts on a CD of German songs she checked it out of the library. She doesn’t know German; she’s just hoping they are loud and full of consonants. In bed, clothes still on, she finds her place in the book. The dogs curl up on the rug beside her bed. One of them can’t jump up on the bed anymore, the joints are gone, and again, this is not why anyone gets a Kindle, to read about the gradually failing joints of an old terrier. The younger dog stays on the floor, too, in solidarity.

After awhile, Nell puts the book down. Can’t do anything else while listening to this music. She likes it so much, especially the first three songs, she considers stealing the liner notes, mostly because her sister Cassie would approve, would find it the right combination of meaningless and brave. And if that’s not exactly a pardon, then maybe it’s time for Nell to admit she doesn’t know what one would look like.

Downstairs, a thud, like something big hitting the front door. She freezes, the book splayed dumb in her lap. The dogs go before anyone knows anything, not quite barking; Nell hopes they’re right. The bells of their collars shake, sing down the hall toward whatever’s happened, tripping, fading down the stairs, as if bringing the news in reverse.

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Kate Petersen’s work has appeared in New England Review, The Collagist, Revolver, The Rumpus, The Iowa Review and elsewhere. She lives and writes in Minneapolis, and on twitter at @KateLPetersen.