Fifty yards isn’t far on the water. Sounds traveled—boat engines, the hard slap of crossed wakes. Maybe I was a hundred yards away, two hundred feet. I was close enough. And I stopped behind a pine tree, watching Richard’s family downhill on the beach. They sat facing the lake, but their voices floated up, so clearly, so near-sounding. One of Richard’s aunts didn’t like mayo on her sandwich, but could scrape it off. His younger cousin asked to trade her roast beef for sprouts. Not that she minded, really: Sorry everybody. Promise, I’ll eat.

My daughter’s son was missing. My Marianne’s only child. I waited for someone to mention his name, willing it into their mouths: Lucas likes root beer. Lucas eats sprouts. Any ordinary comment about the boy would do.

Richard’s uncle coughed: Anybody got a napkin?

I almost whispered: I have tissue in my purse.

They would have heard. And turned. And seen me hiding behind that pine tree. I was itching already, trembling. The smell of needles sickened in my throat. Where was Marianne? All I needed was to hear her voice, if not saying Lucas’s name, then asking for a can of juice or calling out for Richard. I was still her mother. I could hold her. I could stroke her hair.

Leigh Newman

Leigh Newman’s stories have appeared in the Northwest Review, the Madison Review, and National Public Radio’s The Sound of Writing. She currently lives in New York, where she’s working on a novel.

Q&A by Hannah Tinti

HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
LN: The story came from my life—just all twisted around and changed. About ten years ago, my cousin drowned and I had to go serve as next of kin on the search boat. I guess what upset me the most was that I didn’t know my cousin very well. And over the years, I kept thinking about that situation—when you feel sad over a person’s death but don’t really know that person and feel as if you’re latching onto the “real” grievers, as if you’re don’t deserve to feel any grief yourself. That was where I started. But I ended up in different place, which always happens to me. I can never follow the plan. I wish I could, because it’d been easier.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
LN: For me, it was making everything clear. What I want is for the reader to gradually understand that Barbara doesn’t know this boy, and to have to figure this out as the story progresses. But there were actually quite a few mysteries to manage—her drinking, her estrangement from her daughter, her imaginary world where she does everything right. Balancing her past, her imagination, and the collective present was tricky. If you tell too much, the reader plays zero part in figuring out the story. And if you tell too little, the reader gets confused and frustrated—neither of which I want.
HT: What made you decide to tell this story from Barbara’s point of view?
LN: It was what I call a backdoor approach. A story about a dead child is scary to me, because it can turn into a cheap, heart wringer. I wanted to stick with somebody outside the immediate grief, and in fact, focus the emotion on a situation outside the death, i.e. Barbara’s relationship with her daughter.
HT: Was it difficult to portray the inside world of an alcoholic, without tipping your hand?
LN: Yes. Barbara is in such a wacked-out state of denial, that I really couldn’t say anything out right. So everything had to come in via senses (chilled sweat), objects (bottle), or memory (the wedding flashback).
HT: Marianne’s missing son keeps the tension going throughout the story. What made you choose this situation to explore the relationship between this mother and daughter?
LN: I think what made me pick the situation was an overall interest in victims and victimizers. I really don’t believe that people decide to hurt each other. In fact, I think most people are trying not to hurt each other, but fumble around and end up causing the very kind of distress they were aiming to alleviate.
HT: Your writing style really works to create the mood of this piece, particularly the way that Barbara’s dreaminess keeps slamming up against the reality around her. Was this a conscious choice of language?
LN: Actually, I think this story is its own beast. Usually, I’m obsessed with a tight, unified sound to each line. But in this case, I wanted a fair degree of looseness. Technically, I wanted a kind of drifty, echoing quality to the sentences that reflected Barbara’s pocked mindset, as well as the water setting. The idea was to skip, skip, skip, but never really land. Which was hard for me—how to keep control while letting the lines float off.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
LN: I started it in fall of 2003. The heart of the story was finished then, in about one month. Then came a year of adjustments—clarifying issues of vagueness, speeding up the beginning, extending the end. Having an editor really helped, because I knew the story too well to understand what was clear and what wasn’t. In general, I have a problem of understating and oversmudging—all which comes from a fear of being too obvious or easy. And decisions based on any fear are never good.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
LN: To the write the story you don’t want to write. In other words, engage in work that makes you afraid both to go on and to stop. Noy Holland, my teacher at Umass Amherst, really drives that point home.
HT: What are you working on now?
LN: I’m working on a novel about Alaska, where I grew up. Listening to Marianne is part of short story collection called Older Than You And Prettier. After I finished it, I wanted to try something completely different. Novels give you a lot more room to fool around.