As the title of Marian Crotty’s award-winning short story collection, What Counts as Love, suggests, what counts is not always the same as what’s hoped for, but may be exactly what’s expected, for in love’s pursuit, her characters go about seeking the one thing they have never really known. If they are lucky enough to have had love cross their paths, it was unrecognizable, because coming from troubled families, in which, if some grand Bronte-like devotion was modeled, it was also, more or less, likely required, and used up, in caring for a parent’s, or parent’s partner’s, monumental inadequacies. “Reader, I married him,” for many of her characters, is not an ending, and not a matter of choice, but rather how they began their lives, forced to devote their attention and love to caretaking, ensuring that they end up, in the prime of their lives, needing caretakers themselves.
To the holder of the title “The Fourth Fattest Girl at the Cutting Horse Ranch,” —who says, “When I first got here, Bianca and Amy made a list of everyone from fattest to thinnest, and I was number four,” and, when waiting for the new arrival, “[t]hey are hoping for a skinny new girl to hate”—what counts as love is the same as who is “worthy” of it. The consistent burden of Crotty’s narrators, how to distinguish between love and its opposite, and at the same time how to forget about that distinction, and the misplaced moral streak it imposes, is portrayed in this story in “the only treatment facility in the United States whereupon goal weight you can run three miles a day.”
The narrator “can run a mile in nine minutes,” and is informally taking care of the new arrival. Soon she is running beside her. Running, the narrator says, as an aside, “can burn nine hundred calories an hour.” She wants to keep running but stops when Jessa, the new arrival, “running with her arms too straight,” can no longer sustain it:
I am barely sweating, but Jessa’s bra has little dots of moisture between the boobs.
“You don’t seem cuckoo,” she says.
“You don’t seem like a bitch.”
“You are surprised?” she says. “Because I am an actress?”
“I am surprised,” I say, “because you are at Cutting Horse Ranch. Everybody here is a bitch. It would be easier if we were allowed to drink.”
“Oh no,” Jessa says. “I have signed up for a prison.”
The narrator, who “had to sell the stocks my grandma left me to transfer out of the hospital in Michigan and pay for this place,” sees herself in the eyes of others. At the ranch, she is “the warning of what they could turn into if they aren’t vigilant.” The facility, of course, is filled with people who are mixed up about what counts as worthy. Jessa’s first roommate, for example, is anorexic, but the anorexics “admire her discipline:”
For the anorexics, it’s different. When a new girl shivers under her paper gown at weigh-in, her spine jutting out like a rocky garden hose, they are quiet out of respect. The new girl is a memory of what’s been lost—a mirage of what it means to be skinny and empty and good.
Where mixed up notions of what counts as praiseworthy exist, twisted up notions of what constitutes “the good” inevitably follow. At Cutting Horse Ranch, where concepts of the good are tied exclusively to bodily form, a moral code is enforced that has very little to do with morality, allowing the self-help industry to step in and, taking a series of unrelated factors and roping them together, “fix” a problem that it has largely created. In “A New Life,” Crotty’s one story set outside the country, Rebecca, who has lost her infant child, keeps her self-help books hidden from her judgmental husband. “She liked the certainty of right answers,” Crotty writes, “and the feeling of building a better life for some future self who might feel like living.”
After the first night, Jessa—an actress and former Versace and Prada model—and the narrator become roommates. When the narrator hears Jessa crying, she climbs down to the bottom bunk:
She crawls over me to stand up and produces a British tabloid with a picture of her on a bike with her legs circled in red. The caption says, “Terrorist Paunch?
The narrator will fall in love with Jessa, have a sexual relationship with Jessa, and be dumped by Jessa within the span of a few weeks. But she will take care of Jessa the entire time. The caretaking begins on the first night:
“It gets better,” I say. “The orientation is the hard part.”
“Does it?” This is Teri, Jessa’s roommate, who has long iron-gray hair and a prematurely curved spine from two decades of starvation.
“Yeah,” I say. “I think so.” What I mean is that there is something nice about routine and food that comes in plastic, measured cups. When I feel bad about myself and want to block it out with food or booze, there’s a medical staff to stop me.
Teri takes a bite of an apple. “I’m not an optimist,” she says. “But that’s what happens when you grow up with Dad’s dick in your mouth.”
I have heard some variation of this story at least once a day, but Jessa reddens and cuts her steak into tiny squares. The dining room has a wall of windows and wooden round tables that seat four to five people. We are supposed to focus on the light and on the conversation. Food is supposed to be nothing more than a routine that keeps us healthy, like brushing our teeth or washing our hair. No one ever mentions taste.
“Teri,” I say, “we’re eating.” Teri should get this, but she raises an eyebrow, and I feel myself getting defensive. “That’s supposed to mean what?” I say. “I like food?”
“You’re awfully sensitive.”
Jessa wipes her mouth with a napkin. “I like food,” she says. “I’ll admit it.”
“I didn’t think models ate,” Teri said. “I heard we got a model, and I figured you’d be a skeleton.”
“A lot of girls are young,” Jessa says. “Everybody is skinny when they are young, yeah?” She looks at me to confirm.
This is not my experience, but I nod.
A few weeks later, on a 48-hour pass outside the ranch with two other girls, the relationship ends when Jessa decides to sleep with a boy she has just met at the pool, insisting that she is not a lesbian and therefore not the narrator’s girlfriend:
“You’re really going to sleep with him?” I say.
She shrugs, flips her hair over and sprays it with an expensive-looking hair product in a blue glass bottle. “Why not?” she says. “I haven’t had sex in a year.”
Crotty’s collection of stories, published by the University of Iowa Press, won the prestigious John Simmons Short Fiction Award, and one of its judges, Andres Dubus III, the noted short story author, called her a “compelling and important new voice among us.” Two of the book’s nine stories appeared in Potomac Review, including the title story, itself receiving a Special Mention in the 2019 Pushcart Prize anthology.
“Common Application with Supplement” offers a narrator whose troubled mother “exercised twice a day and replaced her meals with the protein bars and muscle milk she got from Gold’s Gym.” The narrator, filling out her college application, seems to be trying to answer the questions honestly, her answers suggesting, moreover, that she is also trying to come up with answers about how to escape the shadow of her mother.
The kinds of problems presented by the narrators in both stories are ones passed down through the generations, and can constitute, in this country, in a literary sense, one’s cultural inheritance. American writers do not have a long history on which to draw, but they do have their givens, and since Robert Lowell’s, For the Union Dead, those givens, as well as the compulsions meant to address them, have become the subject of our literature because, impossible to go back in time, the generational redress they are seeking is impossible. Impotent, therefore, before their inheritance, characters like Crotty’s can be prolific only with respect to those compulsions, whether before a therapist or before the page. Crotty is a fine writer because she is able to convey both the doomed endeavor and, for her characters engaging in that endeavor, its seeming quality of sense-making coherence.
To a question about her response to personal disappointment, the narrator writes:
After my mom shot herself, my boyfriend stopped talking to me. I said, “I get it. You want a happy girl.” He said, “Actually I meant to do this a long time ago.” My response was to fuck his brother.
Asked about her last two summers, she writes:
When I was feeling generous, I would agree that she had done a good job planning her suicide, that the doctors all said a bullet at that angle should have killed her. She also liked to hear about Andy’s brother because he had abandoned me the way my father had abandoned her, and because she thought it was her fault that my life had gotten too sad for him to handle. What she didn’t like was to think about hurting me and how she couldn’t keep herself from doing it….
In August, I moved to Florida and got to know my grandmother, a careful and fastidious woman who works part-time as a teller at Bank of America. In those first weeks, we watched a lot of reality television and talked indirectly about my mother. Once, she left a dog-eared copy of Codependent No More on my bed in the guest room, filled with angry insights about my grandfather written in the margins.
Asked to describe “a problem you’ve solved or problem you’d like to solve,” the narrator shares her tortured relationship with her boyfriend, Andy: “It didn’t seem fair that Andy got to use his love as proof that he was a good person when all it really meant was that he was a guy who knew what he wanted.”
All roads lead to the same place:
I figured it had something to do with my mother—the way I lived my whole life toggling between the fear that she would abandon me and the fear of being crushed by how much she needed me.
Asked to pick a community to which she belongs, she describes, inevitably, her community of two, the origin story of her life’s Liebestod, in which she “understood from a very young age” that it was her “responsibility” to keep her mother safe: “When I was little, I would beg to sleep in her bed so that I could watch her in the night and make sure that she kept breathing.”
Crotty’s literary leitmotif is the depiction of the continual return to the very thing her characters need to escape, paths taken that lead, inevitably, back to the danger which they fled. For the narrator’s mother, the pattern presented this way:
Men loved her, and she needed their attention too much to ever tell them no. Every time a man wanted her, it felt like a surprise and a cure—the thing that would finally sustain her.
But just as Crotty is able to convince us that a character truly believes that self-defeating behavior is the only path to fulfillment, she is also just as able to convince us that these same characters may escape the ancestral cycle, and find a way out of its compulsive repetition. Real understanding is continually deferred until it isn’t, and while the mystery of that conferral is preserved, so is the mysterious truth of the epiphany by which some of her characters begin to find essential knowledge.
At the very end of the last question, the narrator finally begins to find freedom—if only the size of “the black holes I’d read about that were too small for anybody to ever know they were there”—by imagining its possibility. In doing so, she is also suggesting that she may be ready to think about something besides her mother, and thus be ready to profit from what college can offer:
In some small bright corner of my mother’s brain, this was the thing she wanted. I wasn’t ready to imagine myself shaking loose of her, but it was the first time I realized I could. There was another life out there for me, a tiny pinprick of light in the distance, waiting.
In “Crazy for You,” the first story in the collection, the narrator and her friend, Emily, who comes from a caring family, and therefore one the narrator’s mother resents, spy on a neighbor’s sexual life with “Emily’s Nikon bird-watching binoculars:”
I pretended to hate the Freedmans as much as much as my mom did, but the truth was I liked being in a house where the soap came wrapped in flowered paper and where people disagreed without yelling at each other. Hanging out with Emily was better than being alone in the apartment with Rick, who was always farting out loud and making me wash soggy cornflakes out of his cereal bowls.
By the end of the story, the two friends will witness the neighbor’s rape, but only the narrator will know it for what it is.
The title story also touches on sexual abuse, but is told in the third person, as if to strip away all possibility of unreliable reporting and give criminal behavior its objective rendering:
He was twenty-four and the youth group leader at the church where she’d grown up. The other kids liked him because he could imitate the way Pastor Anderson’s face shook when he preached and because he brought in posters and tickets from TriStar Motorsports, where he did marketing, but Karleen was drawn to his vulnerability. She saw the flicker of sadness that always flashed across his face after a joke, and this is how she knew he needed her.
Whenever Karleen’s husband’s problem with jealousy surfaces, it is always unfounded, but since, to him, his internal fury offers proof, it justifies his verdict of violence. Eventually he creates a situation so intolerable that Karleen, in “private rebellion,” sleeps with a stranger and thinks, “his old complaint had never been true until now.”
The story opens as Karleen has been crashing on her sister Mandy’s couch:
When the swelling went down, and she could almost see straight again, Karleen got a job as a carpenter’s assistant at Mint Hill Construction, sweeping up debris and helping the skilled laborers with whatever they needed.
Crotty describes, in retrospect, Karleen’s courtship with the man who would beat her, break her orbital bone, and eventually try to kill her.
The story will end unexpectedly for all concerned—Karleen, JT, and the reader. The ending is so unexpected, and yet at the same time so convincing, that it comes as both a surprise and as cosmically appropriate, exactly what is called for. Even Paul says, in one of his letters, “Vengeance is Mine.” Love is hard to write about—Rilke’s admonition to the young poet comes to mind—but what counts as love is perhaps even harder, because it asks not only personal, but theological questions:
Because she’d met JT in church, Karleen knew Mandy worried she’d given up God and religion, but Mandy had it wrong. Karleen needed forgiveness now more than ever. The fact that her eyesight was probably damaged forever or that she had a jagged half-moon scar on her ribs was not just proof of JT’s cruelty, but also a testament to Karleen’s guilt—a memory of what the two of them had counted as love.
Going back one hundred years, the self-help industry may have looked a little different, but the formula was the same. The promise found in the infomercial and the TED Talk—just do these one or two things, which can be explained, by the way, in the next fifteen or so minutes, and you will have the secret—is predicated on the same sort of expert packaging of unrelated phenomena that could have been found in the travelling medicine shows depicted in Stephanie Allen’s, Tonic and Balm, whose purveyors offered the expertise that could cure, in the same container, everything from dyspepsia to piles to the blues.
Allen’s stories take place in 1919, the year the self-help industry was beginning to fill, in America, the same spiritual vacuum that Mussolini, Hitler, and Lenin were filling in Europe and Russia after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and the death of over forty million people. Allen has her own shell-shocked veteran, the strange, “tin-blue”–eyed Riley Jack, who will manage a brief affair with Lily Meade, one of the show’s stagehands, but the affair, partly because of his strange anonymity, will not last long and Lily, finding him dead, will have to “dig a hole” and “bury Riley Jack herself.”
In the travelling medicine shows, the entertainment was the spoonful of sugar that helped the “medicine” go down. Like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio stories, Allen’s stories are linked, and like Anderson’s, close in on unique characteristics of the nation’s psyche. As Henry Steele Commager said, Americans expect of their entertainment what they expect of their education and their religion, that it be practical and pay dividends.
If Marian Crotty is concerned with what counts as love, Stephanie Allen is concerned with what counts as home. Louise “Ma” Fleet, who narrates the second chapter, says:
Ain’t never been back, and got no wish to go now, so I tell myself there’s worse things than putting up with Felix Conger prancing around in front of the stage in his suit and spats barking orders that don’t do nobody no good.
Conger is the fixer of Doc Bell’s Miracles and Mirth Medicine Show; the one who takes in people on society’s margins and offers them a home—or at least the chance to find a home within the confines of the show’s rules. An outsider himself, he knows his outsiders don’t have the luxury of choice.
Allen, an NEA fellow, was a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist for her story collection, A Place between Stations. Tonic and Balm is her second book, and in it, her characters serve as composites of the two conditions exhibited on the cover of Pulitzer–Prize–winning poet Rita Dove’s Museum—a portrait of two sideshow freaks, one medically marginalized, and the other, because black, socially. Dove’s cover reproduces a painting set in Germany after World War I, where another outsider, Peter, the inspiration for Kafka’s ape of the same name, was becoming famous. “Darwin Was Thinking of Me,” ran the captions under the posters and newspaper advertisements of apes in sailor’s suits, holding wine glasses. In “A Report to an Academy,” Kafka’s ape recalls, “I said to myself: use all your energy to get into the Music Hall. That is the way out. The Zoological Garden is only a new barred cage. If you go there, you’re lost.”
If Kafka was the amanuensis for Red Peter, an ape who was breaking, just this once—as Elizabeth Costello, in J.M. Coetzee’s novel of the same name claims—all animals’ heroic code of silence, Allen, too, acts as a kind of recording secretary for her “freaks,” and like Kafka, allows many of them to narrate their own reports. Antoinette Riddick, for example, christened Sheeba, Queen of the Nile, is heard thinking:
She had misunderstood her position when she found herself dressed in red satin, shod in patent leather, housed in a bannered chamber and visited by strangers who stared open–mouthed at her. Well, hadn’t she always been stared at? Hadn’t she always drawn attention? At Dunham Hospital, hadn’t doctors taken her every measurement, written pages and pages of notes, stood within her hearing and spoken in amazed voices?
Whether or not Antoinette is just exchanging one cage for another, she does achieve, in becoming part of the show, a measure of independence she would not have otherwise obtained, though, like Red Peter’s, it comes at great personal cost. A way out is not the same as freedom:
Once she understood that she was to remain a part of the medicine show—a name that made no sense to her, that had no relation to all the singing and dancing and clowning that Doc Bell’s people did at night—her days became slow and clear and sharp as a knife.
Early on Conger admonishes her:
“Listen, gal,” he’d said, “if it wasn’t for Doc Bell, know where you’d be right now? The Wooten Asylum for the Colored Insane, that’s where. They’re the only ones would’ve taken you. So don’t act like you’re the Queen of England with me.
Antoinette will be respected as a complete person perhaps only by Tildy, the sword-swallower, who is also black, but with a white lover, Marie. It is not a coincidence that Allen’s publisher, Shade Mountain Press, describes itself as devoted to publishing “women, especially women of color, disabled women, women from working-class backgrounds, and LGBTQ women.”
In 1919, B.W. Huebsch, which also published Joyce’s Dubliners, brought out Anderson’s, Winesburg, Ohio. Allen’s stories take place in small towns, and in a part of Pennsylvania that is not too far away from Anderson’s. While Allen’s troupe is itinerant, schooled in elements of carnival, circus, and vaudeville so that it can hawk Doc Bell’s so-called “patent medicines,” her characters, like Anderson’s, and like Joyce’s, have their beautifully rendered moments of epiphany. Sherwood Anderson himself, oddly enough, before he became known as a writer, upped and walked away from his “respectable job” one day during lunch hour.
Ephraim Travers, who has run away from home, and the kinds of propriety his older sister, Sophie espouses, and imposes, will experience his moment of epiphany when he sees Antoinette Riddick and that same sister, unbidden, and now far away, rises up in him:
Poor woman, poor soul, to suffer such a terrible affliction! Weeping, wailing, Sophie is inside him, thrashing, writhing in agony of mercy that starts to knot up every organ inside his body from his throat down to his bowels.
Ephraim’s first home, in the end, will be is his only one:
He started to tell Sophie about Miss Antoinette once. His sister’s eyes brimmed with tears. When Ephraim saw this, he stopped, never even getting to the part about how Miss Antoinette left him behind. Left to itself, his hurt and confusion withdrew to a place deep inside him and settled among his stomach and liver like a new organ that throbbed quietly throughout the day. He has not set a word about the rest, the roustabouts, the performers, the playacting, the phony medicine. And as if she doesn’t really want to know, Sophie hasn’t asked. Ephraim has been waiting patiently for Sophie and the tasks she sets for him and the instructions she gives him for being good, for helping the unfortunate, for giving himself to the Lord’s service, to blot all of it from his memory.
Louise “Ma” Fleet, narrates the novel’s second chapter, and lets on that products are beginning to move slowly and there is concern that “we ain’t gonna be selling much of Doc Bell’s cures at all.” Some attribute it to “some kinda ill spirit” but Louise pins the blame, to the consternation of her husband, on Antoinette Riddick, and after Antoinette, the young black guitarist, Haines:
We had a black cloud hanging over us since we took on the sick gal Doc Bell got parked in a tent for a freak show. I ain’t one to question the man all these golden years we had under his wing, but a thing like that in a med show bound to draw trouble.
Fleet turn hisself around. “You ought to be ashamed, Lou. Speaking ill of a poor, sick gal. And a colored gal at that.” He pause like struck dumb by the very idea. “What’s got into you lately?”
Louise is 45 to her husband’s “well nigh 60 years old.” She has fled home too—if many years ago: “Soon as I was fifteen, old enough to go hear Lindy’s Black and Tan Minstrels when they come to town, I was gone.”
In her research, Allen found travelling shows in which people were not only gay, but openly so, as well as up front about other race, class, and gender realities that might surprise contemporary readers. She poured through newspapers, and while visiting historical sites, read everything in them, including the gossip columns. The Southern Pennsylvania she writes of was real, and though the towns, like Anderson’s, are made up, the terrain is true. Like Anderson’s, the stories, for the most part, could exist as wholes, but linked in setting, plot, and character they share a central theme and underlying meaning.
If any one of Allen’s characters embody that meaning, it is probably Louise’s husband, Ed Fleet, who is always trying to bring everyone together. If the members of the troupe are not the so-called “quality folk” of their day, they do demonstrate a capacity for hospitality and tolerance that those same quality folk were often unable or unwilling to achieve.
In this Allen is writing of another time, but also speaking to our own. Any definition of home, for her, would have to partake of just this kind of welcoming. Perhaps there is little peace and little plenty among the characters of Doc Bell’s Miracles and Mirth Medicine Show, but in the building of its nation, charity and caritas are necessary ingredients.
Character is best revealed in action, and Ed Fleet, with respect to Haines, will pursue justice, even to the point of sacrificing his relationship with his wife. Louise is jealous of her husband’s relationship with Haines—it is only a musical one—because she remembers what it was like when they jammed just for the fun of it:
How I remember them days. Fleet and me, we didn’t have no money, didn’t have no sense half the time, played for next to nothing. Just played for the people, that was all.
But now the banjo player has found a real musician:
Then they fly into a break and Haines take over completely. Running up and down the strings, left and right, till I got no idea what he doing at all. Fleet tapping his foot, though, tensed up and looking for where he supposed to come in again, and I wonder what’s he hearing that I don’t.
One morning Fleet approaches Louise, “his eyes…wild”:
“Lou, you seen Haines or any of them was with him? They show up here?”
“I start up like I expect Haines and the rest to be lazing around here somewhere. But the look Fleet give me go right through me and make that smart remark die on my tongue.
“Speak up, gal!” You seen any of them? Haines? Antoinette? Or Lil, Svetlana, the German?”
“I don’t know where them fools—“
“Listen to me,” Fleet say, squashing my arms his grip so tight. “Car they was in never got here. We found it broke down ten miles back, but ain’t no sign of nobody that was in it.”
“Maybe they off somewhere listening to the Flat Street Jas—“
He turn his face away like he in pain, and that stop me. Then he look hard at me and say slow, like he talking to a child. “Lou, you know things been worse lately. You know they been killing colored men still in uniform, and it don’t even matter to them. It ain’t no time for fooling when a bunch of colored and white show people together go missing in the middle of the night. Now what you know about that car, Lou? I know you know something. Tell it now.”
….“Why you picking on me?” I say.
Fleet let me go. He look me up to the top, down to the bottom, and back again. His eyes get narrow.
“You got a hand in this, ain’t you?” he ask me.
I don’t say nothing.
“What you done, Lou? What you done?”
We will learn Haines’ fate later, but before that, in Ed Fleet’s chapter, we are introduced to the facts on the ground for people like Haines:
Fleet knew the kinds of goings-on that were happening, nothing new but bloodier this summer of 1919 than they had been for a long time. Just when it was simmering down in one place, it boiled up again somewhere else. In Washington, D.C., they dragged people off trolley cars and set fire to houses with children in them. Jails torn open, colored men chased down like dogs, mobs tearing people to bits.
The manner of the gifted guitarist’s death is never fully explained, but his disappearance opens a rift, not just between Fleet and his wife, but within the entire troupe, and begins to set in motion the show’s dissolution, as well as a kind of literary musical chairs in which characters we have gotten to know begin, one by one, to leave, and in the manner of their leave–taking reveal themselves, like Russian dolls, one last time. We see Haines’ body disposed of in Conger’s chapter, “A Night in Vienna.” In his way, Conger loved Haines too, and says of his guitar playing:
Reminds you of the first girl you kissed, or your best night with your buddies, or your mama laying you down in your cradle after she’d sung you to sleep. And how the hell would you remember that? He made you, that’s how.
After finding Haines’ body, Conger abandons it in a pond:
Then I remember the guitar, still in the trunk. I ought to get it and weigh it down with some stones, throw it in, too. Finish the job. Half a burial’s got to be worse than none at all.
The man dedicated to taking care of the troupe, Oscar Sauer, the “licensed physician” who dispenses “Doc” Bell’s useless products, once worked as a serious doctor, but is now an alcoholic. When we meet him, he is making his living as one of the experts such an industry simultaneously needs and is capable of keeping afloat, and it is with his eyes that we get to know more of the circumstances of Antoinette Riddick’s life, how Conger asked him, before she joined the show, to “look over a woman and determine whether she was healthy enough to be an ‘exhibit.’” Now in places “where Doc Bell lodged his Negro performers,” places that “were a step above stables, sometimes not even that,” he examines her regularly:
He need not ask Antoinette How is it, because he knows all about it. The slight spinal deformity that skews her hips, giving her a halting gait. The heavy breathing from pulmonary abnormalities. The neuropathologies. The hydrocephaly itself—water on the brain, laymen call it—the source of all the rest, usually fatal in infancy, rare in one, like her, over the age of twenty. Somehow she has lingered like this, holding on for years.
Sauer, like most everyone else in the book, is running away from something. In “The Calling,” a masterful sketch, Allen will foreshadow the moment Sauer will find his calling again, and learn once more how to “do what he can.” But before that, we learn of his life before joining the troupe:
Enough whiskey, and his memories of last fall’s Spanish influenza epidemic began to blend into the green swells and valleys of the Pennsylvania countryside. The makeshift Philadelphia armory sick wards, the faces of the stricken, their skin blue black from cyanosis, their lips specked with sputum gurgling up from their lungs, all of it slipped and flickered among the sheets of mist that shrouded the fields of corn and wheat and barley in the vacant hours of early morning. And the voices of his dying patients, calling to him for help he could not give, begging, pleading, the voices became the dawn chatter of birds. For such relief, he’ll run the risk that a stray batch of home brew will turn out to be poison.
The same chatter of birds reaches Tildy when, before joining the troupe, she decides to leave everything she has ever known:
Many a day at the Kensalls’ place, I looked up from cooking and there was a blue jay sitting in the tree outside the kitchen window. Nothing special, just some bones and blue feathers and beady eyes, but I like him just the same. After a while I started thinking he stopped by just to see me, and it made the work a little easier. But then the missus would come in and say, Matilda, the baby needs changing. Or the mister would show up and say, Matilda, come on upstairs and shine my shoes for me. And the blue jay flew off, like he didn’t like it any more than I did.
Now the sword-swallower in Doc Bell’s show, “Matilda the Great,” as she’s known, is great friends, and more, with Marie, “one of them milk-white gals,” who mends and makes costumes for the troupe:
And when she ain’t sewing for the show, she sew the most beautiful frocks for the two of us. She favor cream colors for herself, pie yellow and blue like the sky, and for me it’s all the bows you could want, little bows at the hem or the waist or one sitting between my bosoms like as to say, Look at me. Most often I make her take off the bows. I tell her, homely woman like me can’t bring off nothing like that. With all these knees and elbows, hair like some dustball and a face as long as a goat’s? You want to make a fool of me? She just laugh and say I got to have something to wear to town. For when I step away from Matilda the Great and into Tildy.
“The Schenectady Girls” makes for the fourth chapter or, one could say, act, in Allen’s “Program,” each chapter coming with its own subtitle. For “The Schenectady Girls,” it is “Sword-swallowing, love-making, and other feats of daring.” Well before critical theory coalesced around the notion that the reader determines the meaning of the text, Doc Bell and his kind knew how to load their performances with multiple and different forms of attraction in order to reach as many people as possible. The point, in the end, was and is the commodification of every minute. Today we no longer have time to read, but self-help books remain bestsellers, and TED Talks, available online, are applauded everywhere, including in college classrooms, where the real message is the burning logo in which, like Dante’s souls in purgatory, speakers “contented are within the fire.”
The Producer, now as then, is in charge—writers, artists, and composers, merely hired hands in service of his or her “vision,” and swimming pool. Postmodernists call it the age of the curator. In Tonic and Balm, Doc Bell, fittingly, is not given his own chapter because he is:
…the one whose unseen hand moved the show from this town to that and set his people dancing and singing or made them stop. The one who gave them their dirty boardinghouse rooms.
Tildy will also narrate “Thread,” the last chapter of the book, in which we will learn more about Antoinette Riddick, or as Tildy calls her, Miss Antoinette. Tildy has lost her lover, Marie, and left the show, but set up her own shop where Antoinette, in the back, has learned to sew:
Was Marie that said to me Miss Antoinette had sides to her didn’t nobody know about, and though I come to see Marie was wrong about a lot of things, she was right sometimes. Miss Antoinette got the hang of sewing pretty quick and she even took to doing some of the embroidery work, which never was my favorite thing to do. Then, when we was between orders, she started to sew the strangest things out of scraps, shapes you never did see or even think of before, and who knew what to do with them? I put them in a basket on a stool next to the front window, and white ladies coming in started to pick them out and say, What is this? Is it a face? Is it a flower? And I said back, I don’t know, and they looked at me funny and sniffed and put it back exactly where they got it. After a time, I set the basket right up front on the counter with the coinbox.
The pieces that appear, to some, as physically deformed, perhaps serve as the author’s commentary on an indifferent and self-absorbed public. Conditioned to see only commodities, they can “buy” nothing else, missing the only tonic and balm that really exists, and which Allen, as a writer, models, in her creation of continuity and community among the fragments of her separate stories, a continuity born, moreover, in imaginative and spiritual connection. For Antoinette, the once–thwarted power of her own artistic potential is now released, creating a higher order, while at the same time allowing her, with aesthetic experience, to reconcile and transcend her physical “deformities.” Antoinette, like the author, is able, out of the fragments available, to construct an individual voice which—and this the great paradox and mystery of individual voice—somehow connects to everyone else:
Children never did ask such questions when they come in with their mamas. Little girls just picked one up and put it up against their cheek or their stomach or their knee and said, Mama, can I have one? And before their mamas could say anything back, I said, Just take it. It belong to you, now.
The troupe long since disbanded, the novel ends with Antoinette, no longer able to work, asking Tildy “to fetch” Sauer. Dr. Sauer, living in Pittsburgh, married, with a daughter, is indeed a real doctor again:
Through the door, I could hear him walk down the hall and knock and go in. I could hear the chair squeak when he sat down, and his voice saying something, and hers saying something back, but I couldn’t tell what they said.
A little while later, not long after the rain stopped, he come back out front to tell me she is gone.