Brian met Jack Bianchi during the summer of 1989, when he was 16 and working at Paradise Lanes in Yonkers by the Raceway. It was the summer before his senior year, and he had a stack of college applications on his desk at home for engineering programs in the Midwest. The few friends he had were away for the summer at different beaches on the eastern seaboard while he was stuck in a bowling alley that smelled like hot dogs and feet.

Jack came in at nine o’clock on a weeknight in late July. The alley was empty except for some older guys by the far wall watching two teenaged girls bowl. Brian was behind the snack bar arranging a candy display: Blow-Pops and Bit-O-Honeys and all that. Jack walked by looking like some kind of cowboy; he wore a checkered shirt, tight black jeans, and boots that were all scuffed up—nothing like all the preps Brian went to school with. His hands were stuffed in his pockets and his shoulders stuck up as if he were walking against a cold wind. He had dark hair and olive skin like Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid, but he was older. He threw a nod Brian’s way as he headed for the shoe counter.

Alexandra Salerno

Alexandra Salerno’s fiction has appeared in Harpur Palate, The Gettysburg Review, Sou’wester, Narrative, and elsewhere, and she has written reviews and criticism for the Slate Brow Beat Blog and Fourth Genre. She is originally from Tuckahoe, New York, and lives in Ohio.

Q&A by Patrick Ryan

PR: Let’s start with the question every reader wants to ask and few writers want to answer: How did this story come to you? Is “Purgatory” based on anything you’d experienced or heard about?
AS: “Purgatory” takes place in my hometown. Actually, because it’s suburbia, it’s more of a collection of towns strung together in a mishmash just north of the Bronx. But the situation itself is entirely fictional. Much of what I tend to write is historical, but this is one of the few pieces I’ve written recently that’s set in a time and place that’s completely familiar. I left suburban New York when I went to college, and though my whole family lives there, I haven’t returned for longer than the length of a summer. I wrote the first draft of this story about four years ago after moving from Florida to Ohio. At the time, I was feeling a little nostalgic in a way that I think many people who leave their hometowns for the long term often feel. That combination of longing and isolation seemed comparable to high school, and once I was in that mindset, Brian’s character emerged pretty quickly and clearly.
PR: Without giving too much away, how different is the final draft of “Purgatory” from the story you originally conceived? Were things ever going to work out differently for Brian and Jack?
AS: The bones of the story—these characters’ relationships, the breakdown of scenes, and my understanding of the ending—were more or less there in the first draft (which is rare, but was nice in this case). One exception is that the story was quite a bit longer because of two additional scenes: in the original draft, Jack and Brian meet in a Woolworth’s store instead of in the bowling alley scene (which, in that draft, came later), and the final scene flashed forward a bit in Brian’s life. I ended up cutting both scenes. I was a little sad to lose Woolworth’s, though. Their store in Eastchester was one of the last few still around until it closed in the early 1990’s. It had a soda fountain and everything. I have great memories of that Woolworth’s.
PR: Regarding the point of view, you’ve written this story in the third-person, tethering the voice to Brian’s consciousness. Did you ever experiment with telling the story from Jack’s point of view, as well? Or even adding Gloria’s in?
AS: Jack and Gloria’s perspectives didn’t interest me as much as Brian’s because he’s the outsider. But one other way this story evolved is that it was originally told in first-person from Brian’s perspective. That changed very early, maybe the second or third draft, and it was a choice I made in tandem with cutting that original final scene in which Brian’s sexuality as an adult is unambiguous and he explicitly ties it to the memory of befriending Jack. Ultimately I began to realize (with a little help from good readers) that this wasn’t an “origin story” about a person’s sexuality; thinking of it that way makes the characters feel very managed and impersonal. People aren’t usually who they are because of one person or incident (though individuals and events can obviously have an unknowably huge impact on a life). To me, this is a story about being young and those moments when your heart is growing up more quickly than your mind’s ability to understand. Once I switched to third-person narration and Brian inhabited those moments with less editorializing, the story clicked more clearly into place.
PR: What draws you to Jack, as a character? He is, arguably, not a very likeable guy, though he’s charismatic. Would you describe him as a “loose cannon”?
AS: The description of Jack as a loose cannon is funny; I guess you could look at him that way. When I was in junior high and high school, I remember being very intrigued by the kids who already seemed to have big, dramatic personalities. These were loud, posturing kids who got in trouble for fighting or being epic goof-offs, or they were embroiled in mythic love triangles. They fascinated me. I had a writing teacher once who said that most writers tend to be observers by nature, rather than actors, and though I’m not sure if that’s totally true you do need to be a good observer to render human behavior on the page. Jack is an amalgam of characteristics I associate with certain kids in my hometown, though he quickly developed his own unique personality. My grandparents on my father’s side were Italian immigrants, and many of the people I went to school with were Italian. My father was also a small business owner in the area, and I remember my identity was partly tied up in that business. Jack is someone I can imagine going to school with, an Italian-American kid whose dad owns a successful blue-collar-type business. He’s probably full of it, but he does have swagger.
PR: And what draws you to Brian? I’m curious about how you would assess him as a person. I thought you did such a wonderful job of creating this guy who has a crush on a stranger – and yet Brian isn’t a victim and he certainly isn’t spineless.
AS: At first, Brian is that observer I’ve just described. But I like him because he’s confused and longing and vindictive in a way that is almost...sweet? I root for him, because I think his situation is fundamentally a common one for most people, regardless of their sexual orientation. What I’m about to say probably reveals much more about me than it does about Brian, but I remember a specific time in adolescence where the most important thing was getting picked. And it’s not just the classic who’s-chosen-first/last-in-gym-class trope; in almost every area of your teenaged life, you are singled out in different ways—to be a friend, part of a couple, a target for ridicule or even ostracism. You pick people for things, but then there’s the possibility of rejection, confusion, disappointment. Then you grow up and it doesn’t matter at all anymore. It’s even funny. But for Brian, at this time in his life, someone has come along and picked him out in a way that becomes very significant to him, and he’s navigating the unexpected aftermath.
PR: In terms of what you might go on to write, is there more in store for Brian? Will your readers get to spend more time with him?
AS: I am probably done with Brian, though I will revisit the setting, which isn’t done with me.
PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
AS: Probably the best advice I’ve ever gotten is something every writing teacher has communicated to me in different ways: that if you turn on the critical part of your mind while you’re in the initial drafting stages, you’ll never finish anything. Turn off that critical impulse and give yourself the freedom to be as awful as you can imagine, only don’t actually imagine it. I have a note at the top of my computer that says “It’s always hard in the beginning. Just keep going.” Write and write and fix it later. Now that I’m writing this, I might actually change the note to “Fix it later.” But the necessary corollary to that advice is that you do actually have to fix it later.
PR: What are you working on now?
AS: I just finished revising a draft of a novel about Italian-American characters in Depression-era New York. It’s loosely inspired by stories my father has told me about my grandfather, a World War I veteran who left Italy just before Mussolini came to power. Part of the story takes place in Tuckahoe, the same town where Jack lives in “Purgatory.”