Children Are Magic
by Natalie Serber
Issue #251 • March 14, 2019•Buy Now!
Barrett could find neither her green belt, the one that matched her dress, nor her youngest daughter, River. The two older girls were already in the minivan, Sheila texting, Vanessa rereading Harry Potter. Only sweet Zoë, dwarfed by the pink turtle-shell of her backpack, helped Barrett search, opening closet doors, calling River’s name.
“She’s nowhere.” Zoë’s lower lip quivered as if this disappearance were real.
Barrett gripped the curving banister and shouted up the stairs, “River, come out, or I swear you will not bring Pony to school.” She peeled Zoë’s fingers from her wrist. “Sugar, go ask your sister what she did with my belt.”
In the crime scene that was Sheila’s room, Barrett rifled through clothes on the floor and ransacked dresser drawers, turning up two Dove ice cream wrappers, her good tweezers, and a piece of binder paper with the scrawled words FucK you AnYway.
“What she said.” Barrett actually said this to her reflection in Sheila’s mirror, then leaned forward to touch her hair. The return of gray roots at her part and temples was a little death she endured every six weeks.
Zoë slid her hot hand into Barrett’s. “Sheila said how’s she supposed to know where your belt is?”
“Oh hell damn-it.”
Natalie Serber is the author of a memoir, Community Chest, and a story collection, Shout Her Lovely Name, a New York Times Notable Book. Her fiction has appeared in Zyzzyva, The Greensboro Review, The Bellingham Review, Gulf Coast, and others. Essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Rumpus, and others. Visit her online at natalieserber.com.
Will Allison on Children Are Magic
The story in our latest issue, Natalie Serber’s “Children Are Magic,” chronicles a day in the life of Barrett Lee-Cooperman, a stay-at-home mom in a well-to-do California beach town. It’s a busy day. First, Barrett must get her four daughters off to school, including her youngest, River, who ends up going to preschool naked. Barrett must feed her chickens and her pig, Esmerelda, a Mother’s Day gift from her short, slight, pale, balding, OB-GYN husband, Martin. She must ascertain the owner of a racy bra she finds dangling from the pole beans in her garden. She must stop by the dry cleaners, feed store, liquor store, and a board meeting at the Homeless Garden Project. She must mediate Martin’s flirtation with Rowena, their young, blond nanny with toe cleavage. She must have sex with Martin in a position she’s not wild about. She must attend to her own needs. She must pick up River, who insists, in front of her preschool teacher, that Barrett isn’t her “real mommy.” She must welcome another pig—a guinea pig—into the family. She must host a dinner party for her cooking-group friends, some of whom she finds intimidating. At dinner, she must relive the teenage memory of being sexually assaulted by a musician in a nightclub bathroom. Then she must endure the late-night wrath of her oldest daughter, Sheila, while drunk. And those are just some of the highlights. Suffice it to say, “Children Are Magic” is brimming with enough life and love and humor to fill a novel, but it never feels too full, thanks to Serber’s confident storytelling and delectable prose. I was hooked from the opening line to the last. In fact, the first time I finished this story, I immediately turned back to the beginning and dove in again, hungry to spend more time with these characters. I hope you’ll feel the same.
Q&A by Will Allison
Barrett’s case is a little extreme, but I think many women find that family life erases their identity. A stay-at-home mom can disappear into the role of mother, wife, and then, when the roles shift, she must reinvent or rediscover herself. It is a time of disaccord, and that is a perfect time for a story.
Later, I realized the words worked really well for the scene with the musician. I wanted the echo between the two scenes because I believe the assault haunts Barrett more than she knows. I wanted those words, “swish and spit,” to be a moment of collusion between the story and the reader. A moment in which reader and story know more than the character does.
Hands sliding on backs is not an intentional echo. This family is full of love; of course they want to connect physically. Sometimes it is easy, and other times something gets in the way.
As a reader, I love when a story has these echoes, or rhyming actions (a term from Charles Baxter) where a leitmotif repeats and emphasizes themes, or yearnings, or tone. Baxter calls it “stepping into the same river twice.” As a reader, it makes me feel smart, like I’m in on the experience when I recognize the recurrences.
I think buried in your question is a suggestion that topical material will someday date my story. Gosh, I hope that is true. Because that would mean that Me Too moments and Donald Trump are so far behind us that we can look back and say, “Oh, yeah, remember how women used to be subjugated and taken advantage of in the workplace? Remember when politicians bragged about sexual assault? Remember when women often didn’t feel safe at parties, in our dorms, walking home alone?”
I also love to throw a dinner party. Including scenes of people eating together seems essential and real and part of life. The collection I am currently writing is about all the women in Barrett’s cooking club. Each of them has a story, and each of the stories will include a recipe. For “Children Are Magic,” I plan to include a recipe for the mango rice pudding that Barrett scarfs down, drunk and alone, in the kitchen after her friends have all gone home. I want the recipes to be a funny aside/addendum to the stories, nothing precious. And I love the idea of my reader taking the book into the kitchen.