Issue #223: In the Neighborhood by Jess Rafalko

223_coverTwenty years ago, I loaded everything I owned into a truck and moved from a quiet place in the woods to the middle of New York City. It took nearly a year before I understood how to navigate the different subway lines, got used to Indian, Ethiopian, and Egyptian food (the three staples in my neighborhood), and learned how to sleep through the sirens outside my window at night. There is a feeling of disorientation that comes with moving to a completely new landscape, especially when it coincides with a great emotional change, as it does for the characters in Jess Rafalko’s marvelous short story, “In the Neighborhood.” Angela and Hank are a married couple who’ve moved from the flat-lands of Nebraska to the mountains of Vermont. They’ve unpacked and settled into new jobs, but the path of their journey is still strewn with wreckage. Hank is avoiding his grief and soldiering forward, while Angela has fallen into a well of guilt, anger, and sadness. Then, one day, a bear appears. The animal opens their mailbox, looking for food, and the scratches it leaves begin to tear down the walls that have built up between this husband and wife, who discover that moving to a new state may change the view from your window, but it will never change what’s in your heart. I hope you’ll all enjoy this story as much as our staff here at One Story did. And be sure to read Jess Rafalko’s Q&A with us, where she talks about work, love, loss, and the tornado that inspired this wonderfully moving story.

10 thoughts on “Issue #223: In the Neighborhood by Jess Rafalko

  1. If I recall correctly, this is not the first piece in OS this year involving the repercussions of a child’s death on the parental couple… in the other one also, I believe the woman was also slightly better educated than the husband, who also worked with his hands (ah, that female fantasy guy, he does great carpentry right, he can make the perfect table, or he’s a contractor?!!!) …No problem, except the child dying must be in the zeitgeist since it’s a dramatic device in a spate of recent films: Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, and Collateral Beauty. Can’t fiction/screen writers come up with something else to motivate the conflicts and tensions that arise in couples? Like, for example, tempermental differences? In this case, it was hard to get behind Agnes’s heavy guilt, as she did nothing wrong or careless to cause the death of her son. It was fate, clearly. But she has chosen, and maybe this makes her interesting and maybe not, to punish herself and others by taking a lowly job and acting as unpleasant as possible to everyone around her, including the fantasy contractor husband. My guess is she wasn’t such a wonder to be around before the tragedy… in any event,her wit and humor redeem her somewhat, evidenced in her snarky comments. Still I found her tough to like, and her inappropriate guilt a weird form of self-pity. And then the bear… I assume the NRA neighbor shot the bear… I think that’s what we’re supposed to determine. Didn’t get the connection. Maybe I missed something, and if so, please forgive met own snarky tone. Writing was still excellent, in that flat MFA take–no-chances way…..over and out.

  2. I appreciated this story very much and I thank the author for writing it as I have also faced family tragedies and it was hard to come to terms with but this “In the Neighborhood” captured those feelings very well and I was very moved while reading and even choked up at the end. Well done Jess Rafalko and I look forward to whatever she writes next.

  3. I loved the writing all the way through to the very near end and then you lost me. What exactly happened? I just didn’t get the ending.

  4. This is one of my favorite stories in a while for One Story. I kept thinking it was going to get heavy-handed or “pull at the heart strings” because some of the subject matter is very heavy (won’t give away what it is). But Rafalko is a cool customer and the story does what it needs to do without getting overly dramatic. It made the people in the story feel more real to me. I also liked the ending because it ended on a little bit of a question and that gives me something to do as a reader, not just receive but process and also, in a way, take part in the story.

  5. I enjoyed the small, quiet moments in this story: the fresh descriptions of Hank’s face (a “windshield in bad weather,”) the oddly shaped pieces of bagel, each reference to the bear… but most of the dialogue felt contrived, as did the scene with the two couples at dinner and the scene with the teenager in the supermarket. The final few lines are beautiful, and Rafalko is clearly a gifted writer, but overall this story didn’t move me as much as I wish it had.

  6. Wonderful read. My one-story first.

    I appreciate how the story lulls me into thinking it is about the standard devolve of a married couple. It would have sufficed. But the move to PA from Nebraska–its motives are subtly rendered and heart-breaking. I realized why the choice was made for the first person during the rummy game when the truth of the couples’ son is revealed. It was done so gracefully–only a first-person narrative, that close to the pain, could pull it off.

    I also enjoyed the bear thread. How maybe our narrator particularly appreciates the bears because they eat leftovers, just like her and her husband. It makes the bigger point–without making the bigger point–that her life is now a feast of leftovers–of whatever remains.

    I’ll be a one-story subscriber after reading this.

  7. I have fallen behind on reading and this morning, on Mother’s Day, my 16-year old son offered to read me a story. He reached into the basket where my One Stories live and pulled out this gem. Thank you Jess Rafalko for the gift of this story. Angie and Jeff’s pain rang true to me. There is something beautiful, even regal, about the way the human spirit struggles to survive through darkest times. This morning, in particular, this story reminded me to cherish each moment we have with those we love. Thanks One Story.

  8. In response to the first comment, it surprises me that someone could read this story and be so critical. Grief isn’t logical and the choices Ange makes in the months that follow her loss seem reasonable to me. I do agree that the writing is excellent. The style the reader considers “flat, MFA take-no-chances” comes across as restrained and disciplined to me. Finally, the bear, “built to find things, to sniff them out, to rouse them from their hiding place,” serves as a powerful metaphor for the emotions that are being unearthed in the couple’s home.

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