Excerpt: Leslie What, "Sob Story"


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"Sob Story," by Leslie What

Thirteen finalists sit onstage in folding chairs arranged in a V formation, white tissues scattered like crushed roses beside their shoes. Janelle’s chair faces the audience and marks the point of the V upstage. From her vantage point she has watched the field dwindle from about a hundred on Friday evening to the dozen who have survived Sunday morning cuts. The formation has evolved from ten rows of ten to this V as contestants have been “tapped out” by a circulating judge. The eliminated contestant folds up his or her chair and carries it off the stage and out of view. Janelle’s chair has been center stage since the beginning. Luck of the draw got her into this coveted position; skill has kept her here. She’s the number-two-ranked wailer in a world of sorrow. Only Numero Uno, downstage and center right, sits between her and the prize. His name is Ernesto and he was once her Numero Uno, before an ugly divorce. 

While most contestants dress business formal or casual Friday to stress their professionalism, there is always a token masochist or two painted into skintight vinyl and strappy stilettos. The tattooed lady to Janelle’s immediate left is this contest’s token masochist. 

“My blisters have blisters,” says the tattooed lady to Janelle, which makes Janelle sad (a good thing, for the purposes of competition) because blistered feet prove you’ve been somewhere. Janelle is going nowhere. She’s spent yet another weekend sitting in a chair, rehashing what’s already happened, beating herself up for every stupid mistake she’s ever made, feeling sorry for each indignity remembered from her twenty-nine years on the planet.

The competition—Blubberfest Northwest (BFNW)—is a feeder event in the U.S. crying marathon network. The rules are simple: the one who cries the longest, cries the hardest, wins. The top three finishers will represent the region at Nationals in Baltimore. 

Contestants weep, whimper, blow their noses, wipe their eyes. The rules allow them to go five seconds (about the time it takes for a drawn-out sigh) without visible sorrow. Cheating is ignored, unless you’re caught, in which case the judges have unlimited discretion to ignore the infraction, issue a penalty, or—if they’re feeling petty—disqualify you. Some contestants cut themselves or twist off skin tags or avoid dental care—anything to maintain a constant edgy state of discomfort. Janelle is old-school, preferring a strategy that depends on a firm grasp of a technique known as psycho-traumatic regurgitation. It’s more satisfying to troll the inner depths of despair than to use cheap parlor tricks like adding vinegar to Visine.

In this round she has sat for nearly an hour, knee-to-knee, back straight, chin up. Her eyes brim without spilling; she can tell a teardrop is forming from the pressure of the lids against her lashes. If she can hold that teardrop in the lacrimal lake for another thirty seconds, give or take, she’s sure to earn bonus points for style. Tear suppression is one of the more difficult feats and one of her signature skills; she’s hoping for a hefty point award. 

Statistically, more women than men compete in these marathons. Statistically, more men than women win. Janelle knows this to be true because she was formerly married to a statistician. Contestant #7. Numero Uno. Janelle is Contestant #49. Ernesto is her square root. Her ex is the only competitor to best her consistently. He’s ranked first in the world and has won more contests than she has entered. Acknowledging this statistic adds a few easy seconds of distress. Ernesto leads the field by ten points, not an insurmountable number, but a slight advantage is still an advantage. Ernesto is the handsomest, most charismatic man she has ever met, excluding her father. 

More than anyone else here, she deserves this win. Ernesto is a heartless prick who wants to see her lose much more than he cares about winning. Unlike her, he doesn’t need the money. A cousin he didn’t even know just died and left him a fortune. He must sense that she is thinking about him; he cocks his head enough that she can see the curl of his grimace, which, from where she’s sitting, looks exactly like a grin.

There are three kinds of tears: basal, reflex and psychic. Each type of tear has its own chemical composition. Basal tears are the normal salty lubricant that coats the eye and protects it from disease. Reflex tears, with their salad dressing of sugars and proteins and urea, fight injuries and allergens. Psychic tears are those tears earned by suffering, and they are richly nourished with hormones and potassium and manganese and protein. Ernesto relies on reflex crying. Psychic tears are Janelle’s forte. As luck would have it, she’s PMS this week and everything seems that much worse.

The tattooed lady, AKA Contestant #52, rakes her forearm with high-polished red fingernails. The blood drops that appear increase her agitation. She’s looking good, meaning she’s wailing like a madwoman. So many terrible things are associated with blood that it tugs a few tears from Janelle, what professionals call an “associative push.” You hate to give anyone an associative push if you can avoid it, but no one can keep track of all the triggers. Except, perhaps, Ernesto, whose diary reads like a spreadsheet.

But even someone as controlling as Ernesto can’t control her memories, her feelings. Janelle cannot forget discovering her father after his suicide, the stain of blood on his shirt, the sticky cold clot that attached to her fingers. He knew she’d be the one to find him after school while her mother was still at work. He knew it was the best way to get back at her for talking to the social worker. He knew he’d be the one people felt sorry for. Intellectually she knows her father was a damaged man, but here’s the beauty of it: emotion rules intellect. The memory of her father can’t be washed away by tears, by therapy, by logic, not even by love.

Thank God.  

Even if the rest of her life had been perfect she could have gone all day competing on the single memory of finding him dead. 

Spectators have paid a hundred bucks to be crammed into Portland’s Rose Quarter on the hottest weekend of the year. Quite a bargain for this much live entertainment. Unfortunately, the air conditioner has been on the fritz since Saturday evening. Competitors complained that the portable fans were drying cheeks and eyes, but everyone has toughed it out. Kind of gratifying, actually, to see the audience suffer. The heat has bonded competitor and spectator, given the layman a sense of what it’s like to sit uncomfortably on stage for days on end, and made the competitors empathetic to the plight of those who can only stand by and watch.
Janelle’s eyes sting from the way she’s held them open to girdle her tears. The judging panel confers, but before it reaches a decision and announces her bonus, there’s a scream and a cry of “Oh my God! She’s had a heart attack. Help!” Even the judges lose their focus in the rush of activity: uniformed medics appear from the wings, disappear into the crowd, and reappear pushing a large woman on a little gurney. A siren approaches from the north. The medics perform chest compressions and hook up their patient to oxygen and an IV. A man cries, “Mama! Mama!” There are wannabe wailers in every audience but this may be the first time that a spectator will make The Oregonian’s front page. 

Her bonus is forgotten in the pandemonium. A tear spills, another follows. Her distress at losing the points is real.

Ernesto turns his head, ever so slightly, just enough to let her see his calculated, neutral expression. He could kiss you so deeply you forgot you’d lose your job if you were late one more time. They trained together when they were an item, watched disasters on YouTube and volunteered to bring coffee for families of patients enrolled in hospice. He played her perfectly. He is her soulmate. She is not his. That’s the problem. 

The final thirteen are exhausted, but getting this close to the end provides a temporary boost. They’ve been at this all weekend, taking their thrice-a-day allotted breaks for nutrition, elimination, and power naps. They’ve cried through morning coffee, through nightcaps, and through medical emergencies. They’ve cried through phone calls with invalid mothers, through memos from stressed-out bosses, through hunger pangs and tingling hands and feet. They are allowed to take medication for headaches and sciatica, though any good marathoner defers treatment for fear of being disqualified for falling asleep. Not to mention the belief that a little pain never hurt anyone.

The tattooed lady yawns, which might be real or might be a sneaky attempt to knock out the competition, because yawning makes you forget about crying. Contestant #14 catches the yawn and before he can stop himself, he’s rubbing his eyes and yawning again. He’s lost in the yawn. The circulating judge clocks the time and signals the referee and taps #14 on the shoulder.

#14 hits his forehead with his palm and says, “Darn it!” He’s a new competitor, a good sport, who should feel proud to have gotten this far. He has a bright future ahead of him. #14 picks up his chair, folds it, and does a hangdog exit to the traps.  He bows and waves to the cheering crowd as both he and the chair are lowered beneath the stage. 

It kills you to get this close and be tapped out, and all because you lost your focus for a moment. You learn to take comfort knowing you can use the humiliation for the next contest. Janelle suppresses a yawn, suppresses thinking about suppressing the yawn. She stares at the stork bites on Ernesto’s neck, his only visible flaw, to keep her juices flowing. She sees him reach into a pocket and bend an elbow to blow his nose. He’s not the technical player she is and is probably snorting cayenne. He must know she’s watching him and she can almost see him doing the calculations in his head. What is she thinking about? How’s she holding up? How can he make her remember the pleasure and not the pain? 

It’s clear that he’s severed the string that once attached them, while she’s clutching a cord that’s gone slack. Why can’t she let go? Here, at least, in the throes of competition, this inequity is a good thing.  It fuels her sadness. Ernesto underestimates her. Always has. Tears spill over her eyelids and splash her cheek. She’s crying an unnavigable river. She’s sick of coming in second, a sentiment that is good for another bout of tears.

#14 is up on the JumboTron. “I’ve always been bullied,” he says. “The other kids called me a crybaby, but who’s laughing now?” Everyone gets an exit interview after being tapped out. The fallen confess in detail about the horrors and humiliations that led them to compete. It’s a vicarious thrill to hear about other people’s sorrow. If you’re good, you find an associative push. If you’re an amateur, you just feel superior. Though nobody wants to give away his strategy, the loser who is voted (by applauseometer) to have the worst life can still earn a consolation prize of five thousand dollars, so there’s an incentive to tell all (or lie) and become an audience darling. Some contestants never go all the way, yet still earn a living with consolation prizes. Milkers, Ernesto calls them.  Go big or go home.

Read the rest of this story in Unstuck #3.

Interview: Leslie What


A wrecking yard of thoughts pile up during times of sorrow. One second Marvin is remembering his pop. One second he’s noticing a stray hair on his pants. He’s looking forward to reading a novel ordered from Amazon. He’s noticing a hard plastic smell as the morning sun heats the Plexiglas windows and overhead bins, anxious because of a baby fretting several rows behind, stressed about work left undone. Too bad he can’t conjure a magic spell that would let him go through the motions of settling the estate in Seattle while keeping his Chicago customers happy, a spell that would let him be two places at once. Talk about wishful thinking. Magic isn’t about belief—it’s about suspending disbelief. Houdini said the mind believed what the eyes saw and the ears heard. A good magician is logical, like a good mathematician or computer programmer. Marvin is a good computer programmer, therefore he is logical.

He’s been documented as the fourth tallest man in North America, almost eight feet tall. Travel is a bitch. He’s hunched in the first row aisle seat, legs and arms disturbingly bent into triangles, so coiled over he can smell his socks. He owns two pairs of shoes. He is wearing the uncomfortable ones. They look new because he seldom wears them. These are shoes he bought before it was easy to find big dress shoes online, precious because of what they cost, not because of what they are. What they are is uncomfortable and ugly, styled like something from the 1960s. He could buy better shoes for a tenth of what he paid, but there’s no point in buying shoes you don’t expect to wear again until you’re dead. He settled for these shoes, for these tight, leather coffins, because there were no other choices. His crushed toes are swollen and deformed. There are more choices now. A few things get easier with time. These days you order groceries for delivery. There’s hardly anything you have to leave the house to do. Except funerals. Even the body has to leave the house for that. Ha ha.

     —from “Big Feet” (Unstuck #1)

Leslie What lives in Portland, Oregon. Her writing has won a Nebula Award and been a finalist for an Oregon Book Award. She is Fiction Editor at the literary annual Phantom Drift and Co-Editor (with R.A. Rycraft) of Winter Tales II: Women on the Art of Aging. Her story “Big Feet” appears in Unstuck #1.

Interview by Molly Laich

UNSTUCK: "Big Feet” takes place in an airplane. Did you by chance conceive of the idea on an airplane? I know that I find that I do very good thinking on public transport, whether that be on a plane, train, boat or bus. 

LESLIE WHAT: The story did start one particularly painful cross-country trip when I was just trying to get home after a conference so I could see a doctor about the searing pain in my back, leg, and hip—which turned out to be a herniated disk. The person in the seat behind me kicked my seat every five or ten minutes, which turned out to be each time she crossed and uncrossed her legs. It's possible I wept from the sharp pain these unexpected jolts incited, but even if I managed to be stoic, I was truly uncomfortable and miserable.  Though I tend to shy away from confrontation, I did turn around (not an easy thing to do when you are seated in a middle seat and have a slipped disk) to ask the woman not to poke me anymore. She was very large and squeezed into a very small seat. She looked as uncomfortable as I felt.  I asked her if she could move her feet and she said, "There isn't anywhere else to put them," and that comment really got to me.  I didn't say much and tried to suck it up the next time she kicked me.

The rest of the trip was pretty grim as you'd expect, but I'm a storyteller and an uncomfortable situation becomes a story op as soon as I can figure out how to make an uncomfortable scenario even more uncomfortable and emotionally complex (and less about me and my pain than about our common human experiences, our pain, our joy, our successes and failures). That led to me trying to squeeze a giant into a small space beside a woman with the biggest feet in the world. Each was uncomfortable in his or her own body to begin with.  Their discomfort was magnified by events in their lives that had occurred or were occurring or might occur once off the plane.  Add this to the discomfort of being forced to sit in too small a space and a cross-country flight becomes the proverbial pressure cooker that's boiling out of control without a graceful way to let off steam.  

I know they say you shouldn't write about travel, that the destination is the story, not the trip.  In general I think that's good advice, but I wanted to write about transition, about how alone I have felt in spaces crowded with people.  And I thought about all the very sad trips I have taken and how alone I've felt on those trips and how hard I tried to keep it together until the plane landed.

UNSTUCK: Tangential to the last question: Where do you do your best writing? Are you superstitious or ritualistic about place? Pens? Typewriters? 

LESLIE WHAT: I don't have a place where I do my best writing. It's a state of mind that I do best when I try to write on a regular schedule and when I don't give in to the ever-present self-doubt that plagues many writers.

UNSTUCK: Do you find that you are able to move freely between the different worlds of “genre” and "literary" fiction? Do you consider genre when starting a story? Do you lean more toward one or the other these days?

LESLIE WHAT: While I have found a supportive and intelligent audience in science fiction journals, I have written very little fiction that depends upon science or thinking about science. There's a reason they call SF the literature of ideas: science fiction (and its subset of fantasy) is a genre that is not limited by our common reality.  The kind of social commentary and satire I write has always found an audience in the genre.

I have been criticized, at times, for working more on the level of metaphor than story event, but I feel my task is to write the story as it needs to be told without regard to how it will be marketed.  Not that it matters, but for the most part I believe the fantastic events I concoct are really happening within the story.  It's not that I believe in ghosts as physical manifestations so much as I believe the past is always following and in front of us.  So I can write a ghost story that feels realistic to me, whether or not that ghost would register on the kinds of paranormal ghostometers you might find for sale on eBay.

I don't really worry about what kind of story I am writing until I have a solid draft and see what's there and get a sense of what needs to be there.  Sometimes the story demands a realistic telling and sometimes a fabulist telling is the ticket.  I'd say most of my stories fall into that interstitial/fabulist ghetto versus straight realism, but I think that like many contemporary fabulist writers, I use fantastic tropes to illuminate real world problems and I honestly don't find it difficult at all to move between mimetic and non-mimetic fiction.  The story itself dictates the telling of it.  While I don't write escapist literature, my stories are more likely to travel the side roads where anything can happen than the interstate that may be faster but less likely to surprise.  

UNSTUCK: Kurt Vonnegut said every story should have a moral. Do you agree? Is it something you consciously think about when writing?

LESLIE WHAT: When my kids were little a friend of my mother's gave them The Berenstain Bears series and I was forced to read the books aloud.  I detested these books, which valued Moral above Story, but oh, how my kids loved that freaking bear family, and we read those books until the pages were in tatters.  I think children feel comforted by easy answers and feel secure believing in absolutes like right and wrong.  As an adult, I'm more interested in the inexact perimeters of shadow.  I find complexity challenging and interesting.  Perhaps I find eBay more exciting than Sears because at Sears you always know the price, but on eBay, you neither know what you'll end up paying nor what you'll actually end up buying.  I am fascinated by insecurities and uncertainties about relationships, morality, death and life.  I feel compelled to explore ways each of us is complicit in our own stories—how our mistakes contribute to our shared experiences, and how we can understand the reasons for our fallibility, whether or not we can forgive it. 

UNSTUCK: Your Nebula-Award-winning story from 1999, "The Cost of Doing Business," is about grief, and the fantastical element is the idea that you could somehow take on the grief of someone else and make it a business.

LESLIE WHAT: Some SF writers find it useful to imagine an Other from another Planet and use that Other as a mirror to reflect one's own insecurities, fears, strengths, weaknesses, but humans are about as alien a creature as I care to explore.  A lot of science fiction (some call it speculative fiction so as not to confuse people who think the genre is only robots and rocket ships) looks at pressing social issues through a fantastical lens.  As I said above, the things I'm most interested exploring in my fiction are issues around reconciliation and grief.  The big questions for me: how do we go on after trauma and tragedy?  How do we cope with our lives every day after reading the headlines and seeing what it's like for the rest of the world? Perhaps the past informs every thought and action, but I want to believe we have some agency we can exercise, and that our intent and our will can have an effect upon our lives.

UNSTUCK: What was it like for you after winning the award?

LESLIE WHAT: Winning the award was cool and it is a very cool award—shiny and big and with sparkles and a cool rock—but my insecurity kicked in immediately after the results were announced, and for a long time I worried that I only won because people liked me and not because the story was any good.  It took several years before I decided that it didn't matter.  I still won, whether or not I deserved to.

UNSTUCK: What are you working on currently? 

LESLIE WHAT: Here's where that superstition you asked about comes into play:  I don't like talking about the stuff I'm working on because it's too easy to think a story is a dumb idea until I've had a chance to work out most of the kinks.  I don't write a story from start to finish, and instead compile bits of scenes and snatches of dialogue until the story finds itself.  This can take a couple of years, as in the case of "Big Feet."

I recently finished a story that's a modern retelling of Hansel and Gretel (so modern my critique group missed that aspect entirely) that I started writing in 2008, when I was taking care of my terminally ill mother.  It ended up not being about my mother at all, but more about the nature preserve I visited to find refuge from a very stressful situation.  I am almost done with a comic story about grief that I'd rather not talk about, but ask me in a couple of years and perhaps by then I'll be ready.

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Molly Laich is an Assistant Editor at Unstuck. She reads and writes in Missoula, Montana. Tweet her (@MollyL) or visit her blog at mollylaich.com.