Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Magic Realism: 'Loser' by Aimee Bender

There are many facets to all of our themes, and Magic is no exception. Yesterday, we spent some time learning about the literary genre magic realism, in which magical or unreal elements accent stories that are otherwise grounded in reality (as opposed to books like the Harry Potter series, which are straight fantasy.) 

We read a short story by Aimee Bender, in which a young boy develops the peculiar power to sense the location of misplaced objects; car keys, hairbrushes, and... other things. 

The full text of Bender's story is below, along with a link to an episode of the radio program This American Life, where it was once read aloud in an episode. 

It's a short story that yielded some very insightful conversations: 
- Why is it called Loser?
- Who is the young man talking to at the end? 
- What would it be like to have this power? 
- What do people think of him? 
- What does he think of himself? 
- Is he a happy character? 

'Loser' by Aimee Bender on This American Life

by Aimee Bender
(This story is collected in her book The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, an excellent collection of short stories, most of which I would not recommend the kids read until they're a little older.)

Once there was an orphan who had a knack for finding lost things. Both his parents had been killed when he was eight years old. They were swimming in the ocean when it turned wild with waves, and each had tried to save the other from drowning. The boy woke up from a nap on the sand, alone.
After the tragedy, the community adopted and raised him, and a few years after the death of his parents, he began to have a sense of objects even when they weren't visible. This ability continued growing in power through these teens. And by his 20s, he was able to actually sniff out lost sunglasses, keys, contact lenses, and sweaters. The neighbors discovered his talent accidentally.
He was over at Jenny Sugar's house one evening, picking her up for a date, when Jenny's mother misplaced her hairbrush and was walking around complaining about this. The young man's nose twitched. And he turned slightly towards the kitchen and pointed to the drawer where the spoons and knives were kept. His date burst into laughter. "Now, that would be quite a silly place to put the brush," she said, "among all that silverware." And she opened the drawer to make her point, to wave with a knife or brush her hair with a spoon. But when she did-- boom-- there was the hairbrush, matted with gray curls, sitting on top of the fork pile.
Jenny's mother kissed the young man on the cheek, but Jenny herself looked at him suspiciously all night long. "You planned all that, didn't you?" she said over dinner. "You were trying to impress my mother. Well, you didn't impress me," she said. He tried to explain himself, but she would hear none of it. And when he drove his car up to her house, she fled before he could even finish saying he'd had a nice time, which was a lie, anyway. He went home to his tiny room and thought about the word lonely, and how it sounded and looked so lonely, with those two L's in it, each standing tall by itself.
As news spread around the neighborhood about the young man's skills, people reacted in two ways. There were the deeply appreciative and the skeptics. The appreciative ones called up the young man regularly. He'd stop by on his way to school, find their keys, and they'd give him a homemade muffin. The skeptics called him over, too, and watched him like a hawk. He'd still find their lost items, but they'd insist it was an elaborate scam and he was doing it all to get attention.
"Maybe," declared one woman, waving her index finger in the air, "maybe," she said, "he steals the thing so we think it's lost, moves the item, and then, comes over to save it. How do we know it was really lost in the first place? What is going on?"
The young man didn't know, himself. All he knew was the feeling of a tug, light but insistent, like a child at his sleeve. And that tug would turn him in the right direction and show him where to look. Each object had its own way of inhabiting space, and therefore, messaging its location. The young man could sense, could smell an object's presence. He did not need to see it to feel where it put its gravity down. As would be expected, items that turned out to be miles away took much harder concentration that the ones that were two feet to the left.
When Mrs. Allen's little boy didn't come home one afternoon, that was the most difficult of all. Leonard Allen was eight years old and usually arrived home from school at 3:05. He had allergies and needed a pill before he went back out to play. That day by 3:45, alone, Mrs. Allen was a wreck. Her boy rarely got lost. Only once had that happened in the supermarket. But he'd been found quite easily under the produce tables, crying. The walk home from school was a straight line. And Leonard was not the wandering kind.
Mrs. Allen was just a regular neighbor, except for one extraordinary fact. Through an inheritance, she was the owner of a gargantuan emerald she called the Green Star. It sat, glass-cased in her kitchen where everyone could see it because she insisted that it be seen. Sometimes, as a party trick, she'd even cut steak with its beveled edge.
On this day, she took the Green Star out of its case and stuck her palms on it. "Where is my boy?" she cried. The Green Star was cold and flat. She ran, weeping, to her neighbor, who calmly walked her back home. Together they gave the house a thorough search. And then, the neighbor, a believer, recommended calling the young man.
Although Mrs. Allen was a skeptic, she thought anything was a worthwhile idea. And when the phone answered, she said in a trembling voice, "You must find my boy." The young man had been just about to go play basketball with his friends. He'd located the basketball in the bathtub. "You lost him?" said the young man. Mrs. Allen began to explain, and then her phone clicked. "One moment, please," she said. And the young man held on.
When her voice returned, it was shaking with rage. "He's been kidnapped," she said. "They want the Green Star." The young man realized, then, that it was Mrs. Allen he was talking to, and nodded. "Oh," he said, "I see." Everyone in town was familiar with Mrs. Allen's Green Star. "I'll be right over," he said. The woman's voice was too run with tears to respond.
In his basketball shorts and shirt, the young man jogged over to Mrs. Allen's house. He was amazed at how the Green Star was all exactly the same shade of green. He had a desire to lick it. By then, Mrs. Allen was in hysterics. "They didn't tell me what to do," she sobbed. "Where do I bring my emerald? How do I get my boy back?"
The young man tried to feel the scent of the boy. He asked for a photograph and stared at it. A brown haired kid at his kindergarten graduation. But the young man had only found objects before, and lost objects at that. He'd never found anything or anybody stolen. He wasn't a policeman.
Mrs. Allen called the police, and one officer showed up at the door. "Oh, it's the finding guy," the officer said. The young man dipped his head modestly. He turned to his right, to his left, north, south. He got a glimmer of a feeling towards the north and walked out the back door, through the backyard. Night approached, and the sky seemed to grow and deepen in the darkness.
"What's his name again?" he called back to Mrs. Allen. "Leonard," she said. He heard the policeman pull out a pad and begin to ask basic questions. He couldn't quite feel him. He felt the air, and he felt the tug inside the Green Star, an object displaced from its original home in Asia. He felt the tug of a tree in the front yard, which had been uprooted from Virginia to be replanted here. And he felt the tug of his own watch, which was from his uncle. In an attempt to be fatherly, his uncle had insisted he take it. But they both knew the gesture was false. Maybe the boy was too far away by now.
He heard the policemen ask, "What is he wearing?" Mrs. Allen described a blue shirt, and the young man focused in on the blue shirt. He turned off his distractions, and the blue shirt came calling from the northwest, like a distant radio station. The young man went walking, and walking. And about 14 houses down, he felt the blue shirt shrieking at him.
And he walked right into the backyard, right through the back door. And sure enough, there were four people watching TV, including the tear-stained boy with a runny nose, eating a candy bar. The young man scooped up the boy while the others watched, so surprised, they did nothing. And one even muttered, "Sorry, man."
For 14 houses back, the young men held Leonard in his arms like a bride. Leonard stopped sneezing and looked up the stars. And the young man smelled Leonard's hair, rich with the memory of peanut butter. He hoped Leonard would ask him a question, any question. But Leonard was quiet. The young man answered in his head. "Son," he said to himself. And the word rolled around, a marble on a marble floor. "Son," he wanted to say.
When he reached Mrs. Allen's door, which was wide open, he walked in with quiet Leonard, and Mrs. Allen promptly burst into tears. And the policeman slunked out the door. She thanked the young man a thousand times, even offered him the Green Star, but he refused it.
Leonard turned on the TV and curled up on the sofa. The young man walked over and asked him about the program he was watching, but Leonard stuck his thumb in his mouth and didn't respond. "Feel better," he said softly.
Tucking the basketball beneath his arm, the young man walked home, shoulders low. In his tiny room, he undressed and lay in bed. Had it been a naked child with nothing on-- no shoes, no necklace, no hair bow, no watch-- he could not have found it.
He lay in bed that night with the trees from other places rustling, and he could feel their confusion. No snow here. Not a lot of rain. Where am I? What is wrong with this dirt? Crossing his hands in front of him, he held onto his shoulders. Concentrate hard, he thought. Where are you? Everything felt blank and quiet. He couldn't feel a tug.
He squeezed his eyes shut and let the question bubble up. Where did you go? Come find me. I'm over here. Come find me. If he listened hard enough, he thought he could hear the waves hitting. 

No comments:

Post a Comment