by Becky Mandelbaum
Issue #258 • October 17, 2019•Buy Now!
Her name is Hollie and her nails are round and pink, like bubblegum. She wears shorts so tight the tag sticks out, licking the tanned skin on her lower back. The tag says five. What kind of size is five? Five is the age of a baby, the maximum number of dollars I will spend on a beer. Five is the number of years since my wife, Torrance, put a gun in her mouth and sent us barreling into an alternate universe.
The main difference between Torrance and Hollie, aside from their age and everything else, is that Torrance viewed the world as a dried-up leaf—a beautiful thing turned ugly—while Hollie views the world as a garden, something fertile and packed with delight. She plans to become a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and own property on Mars. When I ask if I can visit her zero-gravity space-condo, she says, with complete sincerity, “I would totally want you to, but I don’t think you’ll be alive by then?” She’s my dreamer, Hollie, and I’d rather be a silly girl’s dream than a hole in a dead person’s head.
Becky Mandelbaum is the author of The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in summer of 2020, and Bad Kansas, which received the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the 2018 High Plains Book Award for First Book. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Sun, The Missouri Review, The Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Carve, Electric Literature, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Originally from Kansas, she currently lives in Bellingham, Washington.
Will Allison on Say Uncle
The first time I read “Say Uncle,” I was touched by the sweetness of the love story Becky Mandelbaum tells. Normally, as a reader, that’s exactly what I hope for: to be moved. In this case, though, I also felt a little dirty, because the so-called love story in question involves Dan, an unemployed thirty-something, and Hollie, a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl. Clearly, the relationship is all wrong. So how could I feel sympathy for a pedophile? How could I sort of even like the guy?
Of course, this is what good fiction does. It challenges us by allowing us to inhabit viewpoints that are radically different from our own. It’s easy to be repelled by the idea of Dan and Hollie together; it’s harder to dismiss Dan’s humanity once you’ve spent time in his shoes. And so “Say Uncle” engages in a daring high-wire act, creating sympathy for Dan while also not letting him off the hook.
I wasn’t surprised to encounter this rich complexity in a story by Becky Mandelbaum. Her collection, Bad Kansas, which received the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, is full of stories that are as lively and hilarious as they are challenging and unsettling. Here at One Story, we are thrilled to be sharing her work with you.
This story contains scenes of child sexual abuse. We encourage you to read our Q&A with the author, in which Mandelbaum addresses her reasons for investigating the topic and how she approached this taboo subject matter.
Q&A by Will Allison
To come at the question from a different angle: When I was a few years older than Hollie, I “dated” a man who was much older than I was, and in a position of power. However slimy it sounds, it didn’t feel slimy at the time. I was in awe of him, and attracted to him, and was thrilled when he started to flirt with me. Although I was terrified at times, I genuinely wanted to be with him—or at least I felt like I did. I didn’t understand until years later that there is a firm wall between a young girl getting what she wants and a grown man pursuing what he knows he shouldn’t. I knew what it felt like to be on my side of this wall, so I wanted to explore the other side, Dan’s side. That’s where this story eventually led me.
When I finished this story, I did question whether I’d given Dan too much sympathy, a concern that begs the larger question of whether we can ever, in good conscience, sympathize with predators without absolving them of their crimes or jeopardizing the victim’s side of the story. I hope the answer is yes, that we’re capable of juggling this kind of emotional dissonance. Fiction, at least for me, serves as a safe arena in which to practice this dissonance—to lean into what repulses me and ask: What are you made of? Why are you like this? How do I deal with you?
I didn’t realize it until this Q&A, but I also struggled with this question in the novel I just finished. The book involves a hate crime perpetrated by an alt-right neo-Nazi. It took me so many revisions, but I ultimately realized I needed to come closer to this character, to understand how he became the person he is. I was surprised by what I found there, which is perhaps the best feeling fiction can produce. I think every time we write or read about a character who surprises or challenges us, we become more open to these surprises in the people around us.
I guess I set this particular story in Wichita because, in many ways, I was once Hollie. I didn’t have this exact relationship when I was her age, but I had a few like it between the ages of fourteen and nineteen, and while I know this kind of thing can happen anywhere, Wichita seems like a place that could depress a man like Dan and bore the hell out of a girl like Hollie.
In truth, writing the novel wasn’t all that difficult, but revising it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The problem is that a short story fits so kindly into the brain—you can see it all at once, the way you can see a room when you’re standing inside it. But a novel is like standing in the middle of a house, trying to explain all the rooms at once. You just can’t. You have to move around, go up the stairs, into the yard. Just when you get to the basement, someone asks, “What was the color of the wallpaper in the attic?” so then you have to go trudging up three flights of stairs, just to check, only to return to the basement to do whatever it is you were trying to do, which is probably turning out shitty anyways. All that said, I can’t wait to do it again.