by Ethan Rutherford
Issue #145 • February 1, 2011•Buy Now!
Edited by Marie-Helene Bertino
Friends, two boys, stare at each other and themselves in the slightly warped mirror in the second floor bathroom of a small house in Laurelhurst, shorts on, shirts off. They’re in fifth grade, almost exactly the same age—their birthdays are four days apart, missing by inches what to them would’ve been nothing short of an ordained miracle: brothers, twins, the way things were supposed to be. One of them has a younger sister; the other has only parents, and, standing next to his friend, in his friend’s house, he feels a deformity calmed. Their chests are concave; their feet are growing. Their arms are marbled with the musculature of tiny woodland creatures. One has an innie, the other an outie. No one is home.
One of them, the taller one, holds a hair buzzer that belongs to his father, a buzzer that has been rescued from the dank recesses of an upstairs closet in the Laurelhurst house, a closet that smells like soap and shoes and motor oil and is as dark as dark gets, and he is saying to the other that now is the time to do this; now, while his father’s at work in the motorcycle garage where he’s employed on Saturdays; now, while his mother is at the grocery store getting whatever it is mothers get at the grocery store but will include, per the boys’ special request, Fruity Pebbles, Gushers, Dr. Pepper, and frozen pizza (which is the reason they are always at this house; the other house is nothing but wheat germ and raisins, wood blocks and make-your-own-fun, early bed time and no TV, ever); now is the time, he says, now is the time.
Ethan Rutherford’s fiction has most recently appeared in Ploughshares, American Short Fiction, Esopus, New York Tyrant, Faultline and the Best American Short Stories 2009. His stories have received Special Mention in the 2009 and 2010 Pushcart Prize anthologies, and he is the recent recipient of a SASE/Jerome Foundation Grant for Emerging Writers, as well as a Minnesota State Arts Board Grant. He’s finished a collection of short stories, and is at work on a novel.
Q&A by Marie-Helene Bertino
MB: Where did the idea for this story come from?
ER: Oh my. At this point, it’s hard to say. I suppose it began where the story begins: two boys, standing in front of the mirror, poised with a hair-clipper, excited about giving each other the same haircut. My dad has an old hair-cutting kit. He put himself through college cutting hair (that’s the story, at least). He used to give me haircuts when I was a kid, and I remember being terrified of the old electric clipper he had, which was from, like, 1945 or something. It sounded like a lawnmower when he turned it on, and it had to warm up for a minute or so before it would actually cut the hair rather than pull it out. Just a monster. He’d sit you down in the kitchen and say: Hold still. And you’d think: People paid you for this?
So: two boys, best friends, unsupervised, holding a hair-clipper. I thought: here’s a scene that could go somewhere, now we’re in danger. But then, of course, it always happens: the story, if it’s going to lift, does so in its own direction. Brian Bosworth shows up. You start to work the idea of friendship over in your head harder than you might’ve otherwise done. Then memory. Then imagination. Godzilla, nostalgia. Then you realize that something has to intrude on the story in order to make its heart a little more visible, and the real work begins.
MB: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
ER: Everything. I’m a slow writer. It’s all work. Formally, I suppose, the most challenging part was making sure the camera tracked in the right way. I had the beginning, I had the end. But the middle, not so much. So the challenge becomes: how do you get, gracefully and believably, from point A to point B? Middles, where the action, as they say, is supposed to rise, always seem to get the best of me. There was also the challenge of making sure that the Elias character, who comes into the story half-way through, didn’t overwhelm the story.
MB: Did you base the friendship on a specific one either you or someone you know had?
ER: Oh, yes, of course. But to some degree, the story moved itself away from the friendship I originally had in mind. None of this happened; all of it did.
MB: The piece is peppered with references to what would have been current trends and events of the time; The Land of Boz, Back to the Future, Garbage Pail kids, Miss Pac Man arcade games, etc... How did you decide which cultural references to include?
ER: Ah, you know: the old Dartboard of Memory. This quickly became a story about two boys who were trying to figure out where, and how, they fit into their own experience of the world. They’re being bombarded by stimuli (by movies, fads, sports, things), and they’re trying to sort it all out, to figure out what they like, what they don’t like. What they should like, what they should want. Some references in this story ended up doing a lot of thematic lifting; other references are in there simply to disguise and make the inclusion of those doing the story work appear more natural, less forced. I threw some darts, and those references that fulfilled either, or both, of those functions stayed in. The worry, it seems, about referencing trends in a story is that it threatens to give that story an expiration date. Do these references date the story? I hope so. If nothing else, this is a story about a particular, and fleeting, period of time in these characters lives. It can’t be rescued. It can’t be re-lived. It should be pinned. That it’s pinned to passing, ephemeral—though, at the time, deeply loved—things...well, the hope is that it also resonates and rhymes, thematically, with the more important and lasting questions the story is working to bring to the surface.
MB: The point of view of this piece is an amorphous, shared, intimate and shape-shifting thing. I realized on the third read that you take us into the heads of both boys, the “cool” Dad, the “camping” Dad, and the “kind” Mom. How aware were you of the point of view while writing?
ER: I was aware of hovering, and then swooping in when necessary, but none of it was mapped out except the final swoop or two, when the boys get their privacy, and the camera goes to the father, who is, in all likelihood, going to misunderstand what he’s about to see.
MB: What or who were your influences when writing this story?
ER: Well, the primary, and enduring, motivation for writing the story came from a friend, who said: write something about Brian Bosworth, I dare you. I said, I’ll take that bet? And look what happened! I can’t do anything right. But once the story got chugging along, once the point of view had calibrated itself in revision, I realized that to some degree the narrative strategy was in conversation with, and perhaps owed a great deal to, the work of two writers I admire deeply. First, Jim Heynen, whose book “The Boys House: New and Selected Stories” is wonderful, and told, mostly, from the third person collective (is there such a workshop-y term?). Second, of course, is the story “Boys” by Rick Moody, which is terrific, the story of a lifetime. As far as the title goes, I suppose I should tip my hat to Don Henley. Just kidding. Don Henley had nothing to do with this story.
MB: Like most smart people, I don’t like the word fag or faggot. However, the word appears in the periphery of this piece in what I feel is a necessary and true way. Was your use of this word deliberate and placed specifically? If so, why?
ER: Yes, absolutely. It’s an upsetting word. But it enters the story with Elias, who introduces the word, and then it lodges, at least for one of the boys. It’s a word that intrudes, like Elias himself, on the friendship. Another word that does the same thing in this story, though less immediately, is “rich,” which Elias also foists on one of them. One of the boys has money; the other doesn’t. It doesn’t matter until someone points it out, and then, suddenly, it does matter. And it begins to move their friendship into a realm where for the first time these boys aren’t making the rules, someone else, someone they look up to, is. And what do you do with that? They’re looking for definition. Now they’ve been defined, and, in one way or another, they need to make sense of it.
MB: Elias, “circling,” and “rumbling around the neighborhood on his skateboard” is a cousin to one of the boys and the vehicle for the boys’ eventual separation. Though the specifics of his influence are sexual in nature, I felt he more represented inevitable intrusion of the external world onto this friendship. What was your intent?
ER: That, exactly.
MB: The piece culminates in a charged scene of sexual experimentation. What was your intent in leaving us as readers on such a complex moment?
ER: My hope is simply that readers will respond, in some way, to that complexity. I’d like for it to be read as tender, but that, at this point, is out of my hands.
MB: What do you think will happen to the boys in 6th grade? In college?
ER: The characters in my stories stop existing, for me, at the end of that final paragraph. So it’s impossible for me to say what I think will happen to them in the future, because, in fact, I don’t—can’t—think about it. They are there for the duration of the story, and that’s where they stay for me, fixed to that final moment.
MB: What are you working on now?
ER: I’m finishing up a collection of stories and am in the early stages of putting the fragments of a novel together.
MB: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
ER: Ah, finally, a question I can answer adequately. Best advice: Read.