It’s been a slow week for me as far as Short Story Month updates go. Came into the office today because I’m getting picked up from here, which meant two fewer hours of sleep than I usually get on Thursday nights. To better ease myself into the day, I decided to take a quick fiction break this morning and read “Fact of Life” by Alison Barker at fwriction : review.
The story starts off innocently enough: A woman stands on the T (the Boston nickname for the train) thinking about why she and her girlfriend don’t live together. This moment of reflection quickly expands and engulfs the reader in the main character Marla’s thought processes, from her acute sense of the noises her partner makes to her strange obsession with a vintage egg timer. There are some beautiful passages, and several times I found myself pausing to make a mental note of Barker’s unique descriptions. Here are just a few:
From that day on, the egg ticked its certain, metallic click from the center of Marla’s kitchen table, delicately chipping away time, as long as Marla or Taryn thought to wind it while they waited for delivery men to bring them pad thai from New Asia or late-night pizza from Bertucci’s. Sometimes Marla liked to bring it into the bathroom and listen to its pulse as she sat in a warm bath.
Taryn wore hiking boots that thudded across Marla’s hardwood floors, in an uncalculated way that inspired trust in Marla. Her ex, Anne, had made small, calculated sounds right before she left Marla for a man named Greg. Her once uncontrollable giggle turned brittle and shrill. She threw her head back and looked down her nose at Marla when she made her new laugh-sound, like a crack in a glass vase blown too thin.
So many of the significant moments in Marla’s life as contained in this story are defined by the sounds they make: The changes in Anne’s laugh and steps before she left Marla; the tick of the timer; the “crack-and-a-pop” that comes when the couple visits the Georgia islands to experience sea turtles hatching. When the couple arrives in Georgia – a retreat suggested to them at couple’s therapy – Marla describes their travel in sounds: “Then poof—a plane engine, a rental car door slam and a sputtering motorboat later, there they were, in the dank ruins of an abandoned mansion on an island off the coast of Georgia, paying the Sierra Club to witness endangered babies taking their first tottering steps.”
There are so many themes and images that are weaved throughout the narrative. They are given meaning by Marla’s desire to have a family (and be the natural mother): The egg-shaped timer, the baby turtles and her ill-advised plan to get them to the ocean, and her reaction to the sound of her accidentally stepping on one of the babies.
The story is rife with these images, and Marla’s thwarted goal is put sharply into focus with each reminder. The end of the story comes with a bitter aftertaste; Taryn, Marla’s girlfriend, and Marla switch places. Marla is no longer “inconsolable,” and it is stated that now it is Taryn’s turn. Finally, in Marla, we see “the difference between a turtle killed in the wild, and one who had been pummeled underfoot by a woman, resolute, even in the dark.”
Guh, what a great way to start the day. Head over, and do yourself a favor.