By Tracy Daugherty
Featured Art: Wild Femininity Series: Giraffe by Mackenzie Siler
It is always fascinating when a novelist tries her hand at short fiction. If the endeavor succeeds, it is because the novelist’s expansiveness finds expression in its opposite: intense compression. On April 10, 2000, Alice McDermott, best known for such novels as The Bigamist’s Daughter, That Night, At Weddings and Wakes, and Charming Billy, published a short story called “Enough” in the New Yorker. In nineteen carefully-orchestrated paragraphs, the story traces the life of a middle-class American woman, from childhood to old age, using such rich domestic imagery, the reader feels as if an entire era has been fitted into a neat container, like a child’s shoebox full of keepsakes.
Every Sunday after dinner, a Catholic girl, the youngest child in a family of six, is tasked by her mother with cleaning the ice cream bowls, a “good set” of bowls, “cabbage roses with gold trim.” Her mother has taught her that a lady, when eating ice cream, always “takes a small spoonful, swallows it, and then takes another.” Her own habit, to “load the spoon up,” run it in and out of her mouth, and study the shape “her lips have made” with the stuff that remains on the spoon, is strongly discouraged. “A lady doesn’t want to show her tongue at the dinner table,” her mother tells her.
Traditionally, story is the breaking of ritual—ritual defining the characters, the world they are in and its limits, and the breaking of ritual defining the moments of change in the characters’ lives, the setting in motion of all elements (plot, time and information management) upon which narrative hangs. In “Enough,” McDermott’s achievement is to work a variation on this traditional unfolding of story; rather than establishing a ritual and then breaking it, she presents us with a character who spends her ensuing years improvising upon her cherished childhood rituals, negotiating change with a flexibility that nevertheless remains true to her core pleasures. In this way, the arc of a life— the passage of time, coming of age, marriage, birth, death—is compressed into vivid, repeated imagery that combines the intensity of short fiction with the fullness of a novel.
On those Sunday evenings, the girl’s father’s “cigarette smoke . . . drift[s] into the air . . . still rich from the smell of the roast, and the roasted potatoes, the turnips and carrots and green beans, the biscuits and the Sunday-only perfume of her mother and sisters.” Sunday is the only day the family eats together, because the father has to work two jobs “to keep them all fed.” From earliest childhood, then, the girl associates food with her father’s caretaking, his smell—the cigarettes—linked with the odors of the dishes set before her and with the special, lady-like (“Sunday-only”) smells of the other females in the house. In learning to be a lady, she is taught by her mother to swallow her dessert daintily, but in the after-dinner ritual of cleaning the ice cream bowls, she succumbs to the pleasures around her—the warmth of family, the male and female smells—and develops a furtive ritual of her own, licking, when no one is looking, the “creamy dregs” of ice cream from the bowls and spoons of her mother and father, her brothers and sisters, until her nose and cheeks are spotted with vanilla, chocolate, peach, or strawberry. Her mother would prefer that she soak the bowls immediately in the kitchen sink, soaking being her solution to all unruliness, whether in “children or dishes or clothes, or souls”: let it soak, she says. But in “stroking,” with her tongue, the bowls’ rose designs and the “pale space in between [them],” the girl is filling herself with the goodness of what her father provides and with the pleasure that was passed to her, earlier, by her sisters and brothers, as one by one the ice cream bowls left her father’s hand and made their way down the table.
“Extrapolate, then,” to adolescence, the narrator says, and the young woman’s first erotic fumbling with boys on the living room couch. In her grasping after sexual fulfillment, her mouth becomes a “bleary, full-blown rose,” an image previously affixed to the dessert bowls. One afternoon, her mother catches her with a boy, and afterwards gives her a “good soaking in recriminations.” The girl’s physical desires increase when her father dies: she requires the pleasure of a man’s smell. The “empty apartment”—like the “pale spaces” in the curve of the bowls—needs to be filled with the goodness that she believes only a man’s hand can provide.
The domestic imagery (the couch with its “floral” design, the rose of pleasure) carries the reader through the woman’s thirteen pregnancies, the birth of seven children, and the death of her husband. Always, year after year, she craves the ritual of gatherings, the warmth of bodies around her, and the “scent of [a] party . . . [with] cigarette smoke and perfume,” the old Sunday dinner odors from when she was young and just learning to be a lady with other ladies, and with men.
Late in life, as her husband lies dying on a couch (the site of her first “trouble” with boys), she opens her lips and “brush[es] . . . the surgical tape that secured the respirator in his mouth.” She is still using her lips in what some may consider an unladylike manner—only now, she doesn’t care who is looking.
Alone, in her widowhood, she is victimized by a burglar one night. He steals her purse, her portable TV, and the “boxed silver in the dining room that had been her mother’s,” including, presumably, the spoons she once licked before soaking. What does a lady do, in her empty, vulnerable apartment? She stands in her kitchen and “lick[s] chocolate pudding from the back of a spoon, sherbet, gelato, sorbet, ice cream of course. She scrape[s] the sides of a [a] carton, [runs] a finger around the rim.” She has spent a lifetime turning the forbidden into the familiar—the familial—and finding it all the sweeter for becoming so. “Pleasure is pleasure,” the narrator says. This direct address to the reader pulls us forward into the story, makes us part of the woman’s rituals, fitted into her neatly-compressed, yet expansive, life. “If you have an appetite for [pleasure], you’ll find there’s plenty,” the narrator concludes. “Plenty to satisfy you—lick the back of the spoon. Take another, and another. Plenty. Never enough.”
Tracy Daugherty is the author of four novels, a book of personal essays, and four short story collections, including One Day the Wind Changed (SMU Press). His biography of Donald Barthelme, Hiding Man (St. Martin’s Press), was released in paperback in 2009 by Picador. He is Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at Oregon State University.
Originally published in NOR 6