Mrs. Wilty approached while Nancy was tying string to mussel shells for a group of children intent on crabbing off the jetty. She came out onto the rocks and the wind almost took her cardigan from her shoulders. “You’re so good with these children, Nan,” she said.

Nancy sensed a favor. She liked Mrs. Wilty too much to refuse, and the feeling was a mixture of resentment and pleasure.

Of all the mothers at the Point, Nancy liked Mrs. Wilty best. She wore ironed sleeveless blouses. She was a brunette, her hair held back with a headband like a child’s. Her voice had a smoker’s rasp, and whenever she caught sight of Nancy she would call out and pat the driftwood next to her for Nancy to come and sit. Nancy suspected that Mrs. Wilty pitied her for her long appendages, her awkward height, but she didn’t care. She would fold into the spot beside Mrs. Wilty and press the side of her face against Mrs. Wilty’s cardigan.

Karen Brown

Karen Brown is the author of two novels: The Clairvoyants and The Longings of Wayward Girls, and two short story collections: Little Sinners and Other Stories, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and the John Gardner Book Award, and Pins and Needles: Stories, recipient of the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and many literary journals. She teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida.

Karen Friedman on “Spill the Wine”

One Story’s next issue, “Spill the Wine” by Karen Brown, is set in a small summer community on the beaches of the Sound during the early 1970s. When sitting down to introduce this story to our readers, my first instinct was to talk about the nature of such places—how the simple act of returning each year to an unchanging spot highlights the passage of time and magnifies our own experiences, throwing into sharp relief the people we have become since we last visited.

But then I watched the recent Kavanaugh hearings and I, like many others, felt a deep sense of familiarity and rage—not simply at the events themselves, but more so at the responses from those who would ignore the power dynamics that continue to permeate our culture, the way acceptable consequences still seem defined by gender and race, rather than truth or fairness.

At fourteen the main character in “Spill the Wine,” Nancy, knows a lot already. With a mentally unstable mother and a narcissistic father, Nancy craves the security of functional parents and fantasizes about her father marrying one of their summer neighbors. During the course of a day, however, Nancy confronts the very real possibility that no one is coming to save her and that there will be no safe landing.

“Spill the Wine” is about a specific time and place, but it is also a damning portrait of how young women learn to survive in a society where there is no punishment for those who misuse others. Nancy’s coming of age feels like a prescient commentary on our current news cycle. In the end, her steadfast refusal to capitulate produces a final moment of grace that resonates far beyond the confines of her story. I hope you love this one as much as I do. For more on how Karen Brown developed this story, please check out our Q&A with her.

Q&A by Karen Friedman

KF: Where did the idea for this story come from?
KB: For the last several summers I’ve rented a large rambling cottage on the Connecticut shore with my brother’s family. You take an unmarked gravel road through woods to get there, and inside the cottage, down one hallway, are photographs that capture the summer people throughout the decades. Growing up, we vacationed in a different beach community, and my memories include the mysterious antics of the adults. There was always a party around a bonfire, always drinking, and sometimes excursions to Dock & Dine in a boat. We don’t ever try to recreate the heyday of our parents now—once I mixed up whiskey sours and they were terrible—but I thought I would attempt it with a story and see what happened. It didn’t take much to imagine a close-knit group, to invent characters around a bonfire and a girl watching from a distance, but as stories do, this one veered off in a direction I could not have predicted.
KF: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
KB: Reining in the characters and scenes proved to be the biggest struggle. I wanted to tell the whole story as I imagined it, and the short story form has its limitations. An early draft brought Nancy into the present as an adult, returning to the Wilty’s cottage to find it open and awaiting weekly renters. She walks through the place, sets out games and books, then slips out just as the renters enter the house. The reader finds out what happened to everyone after the summer of the boat ride with Lyle, and we finally learn the truth of that day. I gave up my adult Nancy and the details of her life—but I’m happy I kept the reader with the child, in the moment.
KF: Time feels fluid here. Not only is the story set in a Where did the idea for this story come fromCan you tell us a little about the titleWhat was the seed of this story? What was the first thing you wrote0s that in many ways could be today, but you closely weave in flashbacks. How much of that is the nature of summer places and how much was an intentional exploration of time and memory?
KB: My childhood beach community still has the scavenger hunt we participated in decades ago. They still enlist children to sell doughnuts on Sunday mornings, pulling a wagon with their wares. They successfully draw back summer residents each year because they know that keeping everything the same is what everyone wants to counter the changes—subtle and dramatic—that affect their lives. I did want to emphasize the unreliability of memory—the way that the sameness of the summer place, along with the time that exists between summers, blurs events so that none stand out as unique. But I also wanted to highlight particular events that should not be allowed to succumb to this effect—things that needed to be remembered the way they happened.
KF: I love the moment when Nancy refuses to look her mother in the eye because she doesn’t want to hate her. As complex as their relationship is, though, it remains secondary to the heart of the story. I’m wondering if you were ever tempted to explore their relationship more fully.
KB: Nancy’s choice of Mrs. Wilty over her own mother felt at first like a child’s pipe dream, but as I continued to work on the story it became clear that Nancy is often placed in the role of caretaker with her mother—a reversal that child Nancy must in many ways recognize and resent. There’s the writing exercise that says: Give your characters what they wish for. In that old draft of the story, the one that leaps forward in time, Mrs. Wilty and Nancy’s father do end up together. Adult Nancy is an unmarried schoolteacher and her elderly mother’s caretaker full time. She’s left her mother in front of the television at home on a Saturday afternoon to travel to the beach to meet with a real estate agent about the sale of their cottage. The intervening years aren’t summarized, but in them I can see Nancy and her mother’s relationship complicated by divorce and by the events of that summer that have become a secret Nancy has never confessed. Even though I didn’t use the scene, I may have satisfied my curiosity about Nancy and her mother in writing it.
KF: Your story has one of my all-time favorite uses of a pop song. Talk to me about “Spill the Wine” and its significance to the story. Did you stumble upon it after you started writing or did you have it mind from the start?
KB: A few things must have happened simultaneously—which is often how it goes. I took a road trip from Connecticut to Florida with my father and we listened to oldies on the radio. Every so often a song would trigger a memory of his—like the time he and his college friend went to a bar in Atlantic City and everyone thought his friend was the 1950s pop star Donnie Lonegan. His friend played along, jumped up on the bar and sang “Rock Island Line.” Of course, then I heard how the friend died soon after in a tragic car accident. We might have heard “Spill the Wine,” and while my father didn’t have a story for that one it struck me as the type of song that seemed both catchy and dark—like my father’s stories. There are a lot of opinions about the meaning of the lyrics—but a drug-induced dream, a naked man, and a phrase that is a sexual reference seemed to be the most popular, and both worked with my story so well that I adjusted the year to fit the song, which came out in 1970.
KF: Without revealing too much, there’s a bit of a twist in the last few pages. When did you know that was how the story would end?
KB: I knew the ending as I began the story, but I didn’t know what would happen on the boat ride with Lyle, and that changed quite a bit as I revised. Lyle was the unknown element—and I think he might still retain that mystery.
KF: What are you working on now?
KB: I’m writing a short story for a noir anthology set in Tampa and revising a novel—always revising a novel. It’s a book about family secrets set against a backdrop of unsolved murders of local girls in rural Connecticut.
KF: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
KB: “This isn’t working.” It’s the hardest to hear, and my first reaction is skepticism, which soon gives way to action. On the one hand, the advice might push me to rework something over and over until it does work. On the other, time is precious, and sometimes putting a draft aside is the best thing a writer can do.