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

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, Esmeralda, 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

WA: Where did the idea for this story come from?
NS: A friend of mine once had a pig. She didn’t have a farm, just a pig in her yard. She told me her pig used to grind its teeth when it wanted food, and the teeth grinding drove my friend crazy. She kept overfeeding the pig, trying to quiet the grinding, and the pig got so large it could barely stand up. I don’t remember how her pig died, but I do remember she had to call the large animal vet to cart the carcass away. That pig stayed with me for years. The grinding!
WA: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
NS: I really struggled with the ending. Slipping into these characters and the situation was fun and easy (I can’t believe I’m saying that about writing, which is usually so hard for me). Where the story should land kept evading me. I wanted Barrett to experience some new agency, but I didn’t know how much to push. Actually, I think I tossed about four or five scenes that came after the current ending.
WA: The story’s main character, Barrett, is a stay-at-home mom with four daughters, an OB-GYN husband, a nanny, a pig named Esmeralda, several chickens, and a circle of close friends—and yet she is lonely, haunted by the feeling that she no longer matters. What drew you to this theme?
NS: No matter what we’ve got going on in our lives, loneliness shows up. It’s particularly painful to be lonely within your marriage. I fear Barrett feels she no longer matters because things aren’t as she imagined they would be. She’s tried so hard to create the family life of her dreams, and everyone has his or her own agenda. She wants her girls to adore her, and while they do love her, they are also on their own paths. She wants intimacy with her husband, and yet she cannot ask for what she needs. She didn’t want a pig, she feels the chickens dis her, her husband gets along better with the nanny, and when she measures herself against her friends, she comes up short. 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.
WA: One of the pleasures of reading this story is noticing the quiet echoing of images. In one scene, Barrett’s husband, Martin, slides his hand across her back; in another scene, Barrett yearns to place her hand on her daughter River’s back, but an assistant teacher does so first. In one scene, Barrett instructs River to swish and spit toothpaste; in another scene, a musician swishes and spits water from a faucet after sexually assaulting Barrett. Other paired images are seeded throughout the story. Could you discuss the role of such imagery in your writing?
NS: Oh yes, I do that intentionally! No, not really. Those moments are mostly happy accidents. The swish and spit moment fell into my lap. I used the words with Barrett and River when Barrett felt particularly frustrated, trying to get four daughters out the door to school. It’s a harsh moment between Barrett and River, when Barrett is not at her most elegant. 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.
WA: A memorable scene occurs when Barrett hosts a dinner for her cooking group, and the women end up sharing their Me Too moments, including a remark about Donald Trump. Did you have any reservations about including such topical material in the story?
NS: I feel pretty strongly that it is essential to include topical material in my fiction. Not including it would be a denial of the current zeitgeist. Since the 2016 election, I have been to multiple dinner parties and listened to women share their Me Too experiences. Giving women permission to speak openly around the table about what has happened to them is an amazing outcome of Me Too. 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?”
WA: During the dinner party, a chef teaches the members of the cooking group about Indian cuisine. The meal sounds really good. What role does food play in your work?
NS: I love to cook and I love to eat. One of my favorite books is Home Cooking, by Laurie Colwin. It’s an essay collection, and each charming essay is about a meal, or a dish, or setting up your first apartment kitchen, or making a salad, and each includes a recipe. The work is smart and funny. When I read it the first time, I was thrilled—it felt like permission to write stories that had food as a central feature. 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.
WA: How long did it take you to complete this story?
NS: I started the story in July of 2017. That isn’t to say that I worked constantly on the story. I would write a draft, recognize that it wasn’t yet right. Okay, I didn’t always recognize it wasn’t right. Sometimes I sent it out prematurely and received rejections. I’m good at sending things out prematurely.
WA: What are you working on now?
NS: In addition to the collection I mentioned above, I have a little side squeeze I love writing. read.write.eat. is my twice-monthly newsletter about, well, what I’m reading; thoughts on writing—everything from prompts to failure to unplugging from social media; and what I’m currently eating/cooking, with an occasional cocktail thrown in. You can sign up at my website: natalieserber.com.
WA: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
NS: Oh my, that is a hard question. I will tell you the most recent best bit of writing advice I came across. I was reading a profile of Grace Paley in The Guardian, and she had this to say about the stories of Raymond Carver: “I sometimes think he doesn’t give his characters a chance. The stories cut off too soon, and you feel that if he had given them one more day, things might have turned out alright.” One more day mimics advice I’ve gotten to stay in scene longer, to see what happens. I love this so much. One more day. Sure for our characters, for our stories, but also for ourselves, right?