November 5, 2013

Issue 07 Redux: All Very Surprising by Anthony Varallo

From Issue 07 came a poignant piece of absurd fiction with skillfully blended humor amongst a deeply emotional experience. Humor is often mentioned as a difficult form of writing because a distinct, compelling voice is a vital prerequisite, one that must be discovered through diligence and trained with practice.  In Anthony Varallo's "All Very Surprising" the voice itself is one of the surprising aspects of the the story, and the fact it is done in such a natural way helps the reader jump gleefully right into the action. We loved it before in Issue 07, and find that years later the story has aged like fine literature.
Frank Jackson
Web Editor, Weave Magazine
 All Very Surprising by Anthony Varallo
      What were the chances her baby would be born talking?
      “Slim,” the baby said. He had just unburdened himself of his hospital blanket, which fell from his pink shoulders and exposed the umbilical stump still clinging to his belly button. “They don’t give you a big enough blanket, do they?” he said. He offered her a toothless smile. “Oh, already I seem to feel the chill of death!” he intoned.
      His mother began to cry. They’d been home from the hospital one week, and already she’d given up trying to understand.
      “Please don’t cry, mother dear,” the baby said. “For I am prone to melodrama.”
      The mother lived alone, her husband gone, her house fitted out with the rocking chair, bassinet, crib, changing table, Pack ‘n Play, and books and toys her mother had purchased secondhand for her. “Don’t show up at my doorstep one day,” her mother warned. “Understand? I given you what you needed and I’ll continue to give you what you need, but don’t show up at my doorstep one day.”
      “I won’t show up at your doorstep one day,” she said, but her mother only laughed.
      “Always the last to know,” she said.
      At night the mother bathed the baby in the plastic bathtub she was able to fit inside the kitchen sink. She rinsed the baby with the detachable sink nozzle, the baby neglecting to close his eyes as she maneuvered the spray above his head. In the bathwater, the baby looked suddenly tender and helpless, and the mother found herself whispering, “I love you,” as she shielded his eyes from lather. The baby gave her a curious look and said, “What is you definition of love, mother dear?”
     The mother stopped rinsing him and cleared her throat. “Well,” she said, and then offered several explanations cribbed from popular songs and movies and the few Bible verses she could vaguely recall from her childhood. The baby nodded without comment. But later, when she was slipping him into his pajamas, the baby said, “You know, I wasn’t very impressed with your definition.” The mother rocked him in the rocking chair and read him the books her mother had chosen: Goodnight, Moon; If You Give a Mouse a Cookie; Guess How Much I Love You; Go Dog, Go. She thought the baby might be nodding off, but he only shook his baby head and said, “These books are full of lies, aren’t they?” He gave her a look. “And me so wee and glee.”
    Mornings, the mother took her baby to Starbucks, where people gave her looks for placing a sippy cup of iced macchiato in the stroller’s beverage holder. She sped the stroller through the door. “If there’s one thing I simply cannot abide in a barista,” the baby said, sucking noisily on the macchiato, “it’s chuffiness.”
    Afternoons, they went to Target, where the mother picked up some diapers and wipes, and checked items in the clearance isle. “Savings,” the baby said, inspecting the garden tools at stroller height. “More like the idea of savings, right-o, mother dear?” A woman approached them and knelt down to see the baby. “Ooh, what a cutie patootie we have here!” she said. “With a wittle face that’s so squeezy-weezy! Ooh, yes it is, yes it is!” She held his face as if it were a rare and delicate fruit. When she was out of earshot, the baby said, “What is the sorrow that drives her?”
    One evening the mother put the baby in his car seat and carried him to the car, which had already been packed with boxes of baby clothes, toys, the plastic bathtub, the stroller, and the Pac ‘n Play hastily folded into its carrying sack. “Oh, but I am an unwanted puppy en route to a strange farm!” the baby said. The mother began to cry. “I’m sorry,” she said, “it’s just that this is all—“ and she gave way to sobbing.
    “It’s just that this is all very surprising,” the baby offered.
    The mother nodded, and began to wail.
    “Don’t cry, mumsy,” the baby said, “for there is no end to the all very surprising things, is there?”
    The mother was about to answer when the sky opened up and rain began to fall.
    “Ah, who knows the caprices of the weather?” the baby said.
    When the mother arrived at her mother’s house, she placed the baby in the stroller and pushed him to the doorstep, where she would leave him with the boxes, bathtub, Pac ‘n Play, the crib, and all the other items her mother had purchased for her. The rain had picked up; the mother fastened a canopy over the stroller and pulled it low. “How the winds do blow, mommy-o!” the baby said. “So suiting our current mood!” The mother leaned beneath the canopy and kissed the baby on his head. His skin tasted faintly of old milk. The baby’s eyes met hers. “Believe you can do it, me mutter; believe it as best you can.”
    And she’d nearly made it out of the neighborhood when the storm worsened; rain slapped her windshield like a rebuke. Would the canopy hold? She circled back to her mother’s house, saw the stroller on the doorstep with its canopy bucking in the wind, and saw, as clearly as she saw the years lengthening before her, where she would raise this baby into childhood, adolescence, and adulthood; that, as much as she’d like to imagine she could deposit her baby into her mother’s care, she could never really leave such matters to chance.

Anthony Varallo is the author of This Day in History, winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award, and Out Loud, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. His third story collection, Think of Me and I’ll Know, is just out from Northwestern University Press/TriQuarterly Books. Currently he is an associate professor of English at the College of Charleston, where he is the fiction editor of Crazyhorse.

This story originally appeared in Weave Magazine Issue 07, October 2011

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