The Best Literary Writing About Mothers and Motherhood

Swap / Meet by Susan Rukeyser

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Review by Anna Schoenbach

 

Swap/Meet is a series of nine short flash fictions in the style of a classified ad or online notice of sale that reveal the intricate stories behind mundane, everyday items. Susan Rukeyser, author of Not On Fire, Only Dying  (Twisted Road Publications; finalist for the 2016 Lascaux Fiction Prize) has brought those stories to life.

The objects for sale are given meaning because a memory is attached to them. A pair of baby shoes, a horse-themed sculpture, a book collection, and a resized pink prom dress – each one becomes a rich and vibrant portrait of the person selling it.

For example, the table (in the first story, “1 Table, 2 Chairs, Ugly) can be seen a metaphor for a marriage failing. As the ad seller in that story says: “They were made without love, and no love was made on them, at least while they stood between me and Rosie.” (5)

Most of the stories are about the connections between people. Through the sales pitch for each item, the raw emotions, painfully human, of these connections are expressed. In “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Very Worn,” a mother shows her deep understanding of her child as she sells their old baby shoes.

“The baby girl who wore these sneakers is now a teenaged boy. I guess he was never a girl. His dad and I misunderstood from the start. We announced we had a daughter, as if it was up to us to say who she was. Who he is.” (7)

She is faring far better than her husband in this, however. “Mateo will talk about the weather, what he had for lunch. Sometimes his job: boring conference calls, too much paperwork. Never his son, Hector, who used to be a daughter, whom he’s not supposed to miss.” (8)

Through the sale of his baby shoes, Hector’s mother shows acceptance and understanding, and reinforces her bond with her son. “But by now, you know: parenthood means adjusting your expectations.” (7)

But in other stories, the connections between people can crash and burn, either because someone expects too little or expects too much. The protagonist’s mother in “Prom Dress: Teen Girl/Woman. Peach/Pink/Coral (???), Sparkly,” a former model, cannot comprehend her daughter’s body. “In the big dressing room, in the 3-way mirror, my mother watched me struggle to put on that stupid dress. She said, “I just don’t understand. I was always thin,” (24) She ignores her daughter’s real needs, instead feeding the young lady’s crushing shame.

In each story, you see why the shoes need to be passed on, why the prom dress – twice tailored – needs to leave.

Although each story stands on its own, several of the stories are meant to connect to each other. “Brass Wall Art: Galloping Horses >>>Mint<<<,” and “Five (5) Hand-Painted Decorative Wall Plaques: ‘Inspiring’,” play up this interconnected world. Both emanate from a single event.

“No, this is not the brass wall art that injured Tiffany Castiglioni, who was in my trailer without permission. That was a totally different piece of brass wall art,” the seller of the horse art, Wayne, proclaims. (10)

We switch over to Tiffany’s story in the hospital as she recovers from her injuries, and the inspirational wall plaques that she wants to give away.

“My mom started buying this crap last year, when I almost died. I was at my boyfriend’s trailer, waiting to tell him we were through. Before he got home, a piece of brass wall art fell and knocked me out. I punctured a lung. Yes, I had a knife. Obviously, I wasn’t going to hurt him.” (29)

The truth of the matter is words – the perfect ones that neither Wayne nor Tiffany can say to each other. And about not speaking them, like the silence that falls between Tiffany’s mother and her father, a silence that her mother tries to make up for with inspirational plaques. “Who needs these? Maybe you. Not forever –” Tiffany explains, “just till you find your own words. Or you get okay with the silence.” (31)

However, for most of the stories, the connections between the sellers are less apparent. This is unfortunate, because the interaction between the stories was something this reader was looking for.

The individual stories glow with the light of their emotions. They also convey a sense of continuity – the item that is surrounded by these memories is looking for a new home, where it will accumulate more memories. Or, possibly, be thrown in the trash, because the memories that they already engender are too much for the seller.

Swap / Meet by Susan Rukeyser
Fiction chapbook (32 pages) $5.00
(no ISBN)


Anna Schoenbach is a freelance writer with a Masters Degree in Science Writing from Johns Hopkins University and a Bachelors of Arts in Biology and English from Mount Holyoke College. She writes articles on science, white papers, first-aid guides, and other content for work, and some fiction and poetry to add to the mix.

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