University of Tampa creative writing Instructor Donald Morrill won the 2017 Lee Smith Novel prize for BEAUT, his story of Jill Lundgrove, the unforgettable protagonist of Beaut.
Secluded in a cheap apartment on a ring road of Des Moines after a fire has destroyed her house -- a blaze “the Monster,” her drug-addicted, adult son might have caused -- she confronts her precarious circumstances.
“I’m in great need of reckoning” she writes, partly to herself and to another initially unnamed. What of that fire, the Monster’s criminal companions, and the surprising prospect of a love affair after years of widowhood? And what of her three other children, who have variously sought to protect her, flee her, dominate her?
The haunting story that follows, says a news release, vividly illuminates the discordant accords of marriage and madness, the ambivalence in motherhood, and the mysteries of inheritance -- and bestows a strange, unexpected gift on those closest to her.
Here is an excerpt republished with permission from the author, and being released today (May 1, 2018):
The Monster called my cell phone this morning, demanding money.
That’s how he asks when he’s in trouble. He doesn’t know where I’m living right now. I felt the impulse to pick up and tell him, but I’ve let Petey think I’ve promised not to.
Petey wants to bring charges against him, for burning my house down. I was in the hospital at the time, just after New Year’s. You could say I was lucky my granddaughter, Kate, found me lying in the hallway. She’d stopped by on her way to classes at the community college. The Monster was home, too. Petey rants at me over and over that the Monster wouldn’t even go in the ambulance with me, that he just stood there stoned - staring, licking an ice cream cone while the emergency team shocked me back. And then he went into his room.
It’s true that if Kate hadn’t happened by the house when she did, I’d be dead. (I almost wrote that I’d be with you. Not true. Not ever. I’d just be in your realm, if the dead share a realm.) I can see the Monster standing in the doorway, blank as a bull’s-eye. I know at that moment neither of us has a chance. Kate used to have a knee-hugging love for him, until he and her mother separated for the last time and she hit puberty, and the pain came between them all. He used to take her fishing when she was a child.
I don’t remember a thing about my collapse. I’d felt shaky beforehand, a little queasy, flu-ish, maybe. Then I was out. There was surgery, of course, right away, and the recovery room -- so cold that room, and then the phone call. I was swimming in and out of the situation, you could say, given the painkillers and whatnot. The Monster was shouting at me through the receiver, crying and high. He needed money and he needed it now, and if I didn’t give it to him, he’d torch everything.
It’s not as though he hadn’t threatened this before. Or stolen pieces of my furniture to pawn. Or written bad checks from my account and even from Ray’s a year after he’d died. I wonder if one of his so-called friends heard his threat and decided to make it happen. More than one of those cretins have used him for their fun. He’s sentimental, the Monster is. He doesn’t learn.
But it’s not clear any fire was deliberately set. The whole thing could have been sparked by a cigarette fallen from an ashtray. He was lucky to be away and not passed out there.
This morning’s rant finally wound down to a pause, as though a revelation were in store, and then, “I’m trying my best, Mom, I really am. You know that. . . . I’m sorry . . . Ma, I can’t keep sleeping in Fred’s car! C’mon, pick up!”
He must be quite lonely, wherever he is.
I know, Petey has a point. The Monster is 38-years-old and has no business being so afraid, or being so skillful at it.
The traffickers separate the baby camel from its mother and truck it to a rendezvous point across the frontier. Then they load the mother with their contraband and send her off. No matter how implacable the terrain, even if she’s leading a train of other camels, she makes her way toward her offspring. But if you were to come across her in the middle of her trek, you wouldn’t find any guilty parties to arrest. Only the cargo, slung on her hump, and her pathetic determination.
That’s supposed to be the beauty of the situation, I guess . . . and it is, if you’re a smuggler.
Petey slipped this newspaper story under one of my fridge magnets a couple of years ago. He thought it made his usual point about me and the Monster. I mention it because I have to start somewhere, since it seems I’m starting again . . . because of everything that’s happened with the Monster, and because Ollie Picks may actually ask me to marry him.
Probably I mention it because I’ve thought of you often these days. What a hump across the years I’ve become! So who’s hurt if I talk to you, or toward you . . . or whatever this is . . . just now, for a start? Since it appears I have no motivation to talk much to myself alone, even while I’m in great need of reckoning. There’s not a love in my life today I can trust for it.
I’m sure you don’t already know these things, though sometimes I’ve pretended you do. Even if there is some Other Side, where you could be, why would you be informed of anything that occurs here? Why would you care?
Unless you’re being punished.
Or I am.
You don’t know anything.
You never will.
Okay. Let’s try this again.
The Monster, Monte, is mine. I mean I gave birth to him and to Carla.
Petey and April were my brother Phil’s, until they were eight and six.
Petey has always been devoted to me, which is still a problem. He doesn’t approve. He thinks he hates the Monster. And now he resents the idea of Ollie. He’ll do anything for me as long as he approves. I don’t know how many more times I can afford to hurt him.
Petey can be handy around the house. He’s always been eager that way, and this still gives us something in common. He can do for me. I do for him by letting him.
But I know, too, I can peel his last good nerve. I can see it when he puffs a little as he reaches into the toilet tank to hook up the chain on the stopper. He wonders why I couldn’t bother just enough to put it on. This question probably goes back a long way. Most everything does, more and more now. Petey’s adoptive father, Ray, couldn’t put that chain on, though he could put it on his list of things to do. And the Monster . . . if he wasn’t high, the Monster could replace the whole fixture and rewire the lights and repaint the walls and make it a showcase.
But Petey delivers. I think he’d be pleased to hear me say that. He visits, before or after work, though not every day since I’m placed, for the moment, in this new, clean, awful little apartment facing -- what else? -- a cornfield.
I think his wife Jane resents his stopping by. She’s always been jealous, and with some justification. But she benefits. He puts in those long hours at the dairy (he manages the accounting there) and she parades the kids in that special school. She likes to be seen pushing a designer baby stroller among other moms pushing identical strollers. I admire her appetite, if nothing else. It’s helped to make Petey as successful as he is. It might also give him most of whatever happiness he has, though I don’t think that’s much.
I should be out walking myself, now, maybe not with the decrepits at the mall, but somewhere. The doctor wants it, since I’ve gotten this pacemaker. (I call it my peacemaker. Always with the wishful thinking, me.) I should be out instead of trying to write down things I’ve said, if at all, under my breath, halfway, alone in the car, in the shower.
Maybe you understood (but only a little, I think) that, eventually, talking about your life is talking about mistakes. If you live long enough, you have to attend your own charm school, or no one will give a damn about you, except to pay their respects. My mouth hurts when I think of becoming an old woman in a flowered housecoat, smelling as fragile as yellowed newspaper and about as worthy of attention.
I’m a liar, I know. Carla has declared that enough in nearly everything she’s done. And you told me that, too.
On some of my worst days afterward, I could still hear it.
Donald Morrill is the author of four books of nonfiction, as well as three volumes of poetry. He has taught at Jilin University, Peoples’ Republic of China, and has been a Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Lodz, Poland, as well as the Bedell Visiting Writer in the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa and Writer-in-residence at the Poetry Center at Smith. Currently he teaches in the Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at the University of Tampa.
BEAUT by Donald Morrill was published by Blair, an imprint of Carolina Wren Press
ISBN-10: 0932112749 ISBN-13: 978-0932112743
184 pages. Price: $16.95
Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.