Jewelry Box. Aurelie Sheehan. BOA Editions, Ltd., October 2013. $14 paper, $9.99 e-book.
There are 58 delightful, tiny stories in this collection’s 108 pages, though the book is subtitled “A Collection of Histories” and the publisher says it “straddl[es] memoir and fiction.” Micro-fictions, flash-memoirs, prose poems, incidents, anecdotes, extended metaphors—there’s no differentiation on the book’s part, nor is there much need, as most of the pieces are glittering little truths whether factual or not. (For the record, Sheehan has published two novels and a collection of short stories and appears to teach mostly fiction as faculty at the University of Arizona’s MFA.)
The title story sets up the metaphor: “[S]o when the moment came to open the jewelry box for her daughter, she hesitated. The box was stitched red silk, puffy and soft, padded and embroidered with flowers and leaves and birds. It was her heart: that was obvious. And when she opened the lid to all the hard, broken things, the pins and the clasps, her eyes darted back to her daughter. [H]er concern for safety was so immense she could only whisper it.”
The child “grabs a dragonfly pin, cheap metal trinket” and asks what it is. The close narration says of the mother,
She’d always said to herself, when she wore this cheap bit, that it would be seen as it was meant to be seen, half a joke, not real jewelry, and all that was beyond the little pin, all that was promised, all the tang of the catchy wing, the blackness of the true unseeing eye, the squirt and agony of the real body, exotic, obscene, grotesque—all the plumpness and sass and the rainbow of herself would be remarkable, obvious, in contrast.
"To the girl it is just an object. She studies the gunmetal hollow belly and then puts it back.” Then the girl grabs “a red bag of teeth,” the mother’s wisdom teeth, which the mother has purposely tried to ignore, but “now here they are, in her daughter’s peach palm. Four teeth. She remembers the dead white cat she’d seen on the road when she was the age her daughter is now. Protect? Invite? The girl has not yet cut herself: not on a pin, not on anything.”
Of course as readers we hoard our own “hard, broken things,” more often in rotting cardboard boxes carried town-to-town than in the plush heart of an embroidered box. This collection, then, does not represent the same danger to us as the costume jewelry does to the child. We’ve already been cut, poked, and pinned. But it is a reminder of the difference between what we hold in our lyrical hearts and its outward representation. Revealed to others, our personal histories risk becoming cheap baubles or, worse, “just objects.” This is one of many sharp observations in this book, and a motif of insecurity floats through the collection as a result, with lines such as, “It was possible this would make a good story.” That sounds like contemporary insistence on subjectivity, but it’s maybe just an eyelash this side of real doubt, as is the danger of “half a joke, not real jewelry.”
Sensibility, and the memory, guilt, and bothersome quality of it, is the hidden hatpin of the book. After all, if we were cheetahs, there wouldn’t be the same difficulties of consciousness. By the second story in the collection a rhythm begins to assert itself: A character’s life pauses for the flooding-in of the world, then the moment breaks, “and then she screams” at the awareness that results. I had hopes the pattern wouldn’t continue in every piece and wasn’t disappointed. The variety of forms, topics, and tones in this slim book is astonishing, making it very much like individual discernments collected over a long period. (What other metaphor than the jewelry box could contain this particular complexity? A home decorated with objects collected over a lifetime of travels, perhaps; a personal library; a wonder cabinet.)
In a collection so compressed, the danger of monotony is always at hand—yet another precious pin or knickknacky broach?—so variety spells relief. In “Mascara,” Sheehan details a woman getting ready for a date, which starts with the declarative sentence, “She showered.” But the series of “And then she…” actions that follow (49, I count, including the odd “and when” construction) are different from anything else in the book and highlight the general nuttiness of the ritual that we (especially men) take for granted.
"And then she shaved her legs, all the way up the leg, back and front, and her armpits.” “And then she clipped her fingernails and filed them.” “And then she rubbed a cream of some kind into her hair…. And then sprayed something else into her hair.” And at the end: “And then she shrugged. And then she picked up her car keys and her purse. And then she went to him.” An emotion, hard to define, is generated, resulting from the maintenance of this thing, the body—labor deemed necessary for communion with other bodies. There’s comedy in the ritual but sadness at its perceived need and the possibility that the relationship will remain merely two bodies, two things, in unstable orbit.
Sheehan is very aware of and concerned by our inexplicable actions. In “Suntan Lotion,” a woman “notices how small his feet are…his frightening eyes…[his] way of touching that didn’t mean anything,” his cigarette and car-freshener reek, his stupid come-on lines. But in the end, when he makes his cliché move: “Speechless, she widens [her thighs] just a little.”
In “Sexual Fantasy,” “sometimes she thinks of elephants…they are much bigger than she is and they will have their way, being elephants.” “When she dreams of the cheetahs, she sometimes gets confused in the dream and realizes she doesn’t know if she is doing, or being done to. She finds the flank of the cheetah extraordinary.” “It all spins in her head, and she is not sure what it means, what it says about her, but it brings her to the place she wants to go. / And yet, these are only things that represent other things. They are unreal. They are as real as this page.” This statement on representation nicely sums up the collection’s first philosophy.
Often the prose itself provides the variation. Listen to this pretty thing:
And then there was the fancy restaurant, at the far end of the lobby, a long room set up with a row of sitting areas, brocade furniture and gleaming tables and chandeliers—and silver bowls of wafer mints in pastel pink, green, yellow, and white. It was here we ate dinner, and afterwards we’d all order Grandpa’s favorite dessert, a "snowball," one scoop of vanilla ice cream rolled in coconut flakes and drizzled with chocolate sauce. It was here, somewhere between stolen mints and snowballs, that I learned manners.
The grandfather’s letters, in this piece, are the occasion for memory—“legendary” Grandpa, still alive in the foolscap of his letters, wherever they are, “[h]is face and hands…marked with brown spots…thin white hair and a gently bobbing head, as he drank his blackberry brandy, as he smoked his single, after-dinner cigarette,” his presence “a promise, evidence of goodwill and immortality.”
Some of the pieces are indeed titled for things (letters, duck, t-shirt, mascara, house, bra, mushroom paté), but others are based on the idea that emotions are things as well. “Rage” (“Even the sound of it knocks me over, red velvet wind sonorous and spontaneous and—”) has a narrator born with only one limb, an “arm of sadness.” She or he wonders, “Could I put [rage] in my change purse, snap it shut and save it to spend later?” “Could I coax it out from under the bed with some dried fish treats?”
Elsewhere the “things” of the collection are talk or pain or ambition; motherhood, telephone calls, loss itself.
In “House,” Sheehan uses the pathetic fallacy to inhabit an old, presumably lovely, and somewhat crotchety old place:
Owners were so self-righteous, their snobbism so ingrained—you could call it, above all, an assumption. The woman might twirl around in the cool living room, all gleaming wood floor and white wall, and say, "All this is mine," or "This is so us!" And soon enough she’d place, in the crook of your arm, a cranky old television and your peace was over.
The voice points not only to how even in our most enjoyable moments we’re revealed as presumptuous, but also to how we are all cranky collections, all boxes full of things, wanting not to be disturbed or unappreciated according to our own lights. Fragile, in any case: “Yes, the house said, she was an accumulation of all that had happened here (and the sweet holly and the cardinal, and the pansy and the crow).” But: “Would remembering and unremembering get harder as she grew older? Would she by mistake let the odor of one evening escape into another, twenty years newer?”
In “Photograph” a character experiences a confusion of emotions from encountering a photo from a previous life, when she was the unmarried one riding hungover on the back of a motorcycle to a friend’s wedding, her friend a woman who “smoked Camel straights and drank bourbon…didn’t know how to cook a thing [and] drove a truck with New Mexico plates and owned a dog with a bandanna tied around his neck.” A time when the unmarried one thought of the motorcycle’s driver, “I don’t want to get married. Not now, not him.” But by the end, someone—the reader?—is forced to reconsider everything: “Marriage, death, birth, geography. It’s all harmless, really. Everything can be folded into a drawer; everything is quiet as a caterpillar under a leaf in the garden.”
Harmless, maybe, but disturbingly fluid: “It used to be that stories remained still,” one of the pieces notes. “Your mother or father might say them, and they were small presents, like coffee mugs or key chains.” And fragile again, in “Unremembered Thing”:
In the night, right before sleep, or even in the middle of the night, a dream, a revelation, the thought comes to you. It’s complete. It’s beautiful. It’s perfect. …the nexus of all things…the key to your project…a mandala or an icon…the fucking door to the fucking house.” But while you “repeat the key word..."_____," "_____," "_____,"…you don’t think the pen is any longer in the drawer, and even if it is, you have no paper here…so you go back to sleep.
The middle section of the collection has a couple of pieces, such as “Car Ride,” an interweaving of three conversations, that are more work for less profit. Some of the more obvious manipulations occur in this section too: The pan-to-artist shot of first-person narration that comes after mostly third-person (and a single sentence of “you”). The Grandpa from Princess Bride trick: “They have not had sex, nor will they. In case that’s what you were thinking.” The I’m telling you a story about that time I was telling a story story, meant to validate the act of storytelling, in case anyone was in doubt.
In the end it’s the images within the pieces—stories, memoirs, whatever you want to call them—that remain under your skin. The “long, cream-colored Oldsmobiles—cars designed as living rooms—and glass-bellied lamps with womanly curves. The rose water and the Chanel No. 5 mingled with the faint smell of yesterday’s gin martinis, and the wet smell of this evening’s in particular.”
A truck, driven by a lover, that’s “as big as a building, but more outrageous, capable and outrageous as the ocean, imagine the ocean, and then imagine the transmutation of glass and steel and imagine the energy underneath like a force beyond all comprehension…[i]t just moves like a continent.”
That beau from somewhere in the South, “his long hair…some kind of ‘long hair’ and his affinity for Elvis…some kind of ‘affinity for Elvis’ and his Dracula coat…a ‘Dracula coat’ and then also…the gun was a ‘gun’ but perhaps that’s where the irony leaves off, with the iron so to speak: all you’ve got left is why. Why did he show me the gun?” And: “[W]as he wooing me? Was this love?”
A ten-year old mermaid in a pool, hampering the ability to finish laps in good time: “She is tampering with the linearity of my morning!” “But at the same time I’ve newly noticed the sunlight coming in from the vast picture windows, all the blue, all the bleached white.” “’Hi,’ I say, in her general direction. Through my goggles, I see her face break into a wide smile. ‘Hi,’ she says back, her voice friendly, young, ready to play. She is curious about the other side.”
At times Sheehan is influenced heavily by, say, Hemingway’s brief fictions. There’s the start in the middle of things, the conversational tone (“Well, I wanted to tell you a little more about Donna’s family….”), the somewhat grotesque humor—here, turned playfully to sex: “Before the prom, we were all meeting at Mia and Ryan’s house for dinner. We were going to grill steaks. The boys brought the beef for their girls. Josh unwrapped his white-papered package and showed us what he’d brought. It was a minute steak. My date had brought a minute steak.” And the ending, sudden and tragicomic in the Hemingway vein: “We drank our forbidden beers and hobbled around for a while in taffeta and polyester.”
But Sheehan brings her own sensibility, infusing these pieces with her own recurring images (a second mention of teeth in a bag, e.g.) and often adding a little meta twist: “[S]he let out such a fascinating compendium of lies that she must have known that I knew, didn’t she?” We might ask the same question.
In the end, what you want from a jewelry box is interest—of form, color, texture, history, personal meaning, delight, the sense of life itself cut multifaceted from rock, or at least made plastic. What you want is the feeling that handling this suspect friable mistakable flawed thing, art, was time was well spent.
In the book, husband and wife watch a PBS special on Matisse, “stills of the old man in his beret feeding a cat some croissant or some brie, and in the background are the canvases, an embodiment.” So much isn’t known, other than by the things we surround ourselves with. With those things, the book assures itself, “We know and we hope and when we aren’t hoping we’re sure and when we’re not sure we hope.”
In “Story,” the narrator-writer renames herself something both familiar and a revolt. The naming becomes a thing, which is how we currently say “significant event”:
Cocteau says you aren’t free until your parents are dead, but I think the main problem is with my name. I’ve got to start going by Sheehan. Sheehan says you are free even if your parents aren’t dead. Sheehan says that green eyeliner and stretchy pants are the thing. And also that you don’t need to have eighteen cats, or write naked, or wear all white, to be somebody.” [Italics are author’s.]
“I think Rushdie is good, too,” Sheehan-the-narrator says at the end of this piece, “and Hemingway. I think writing about sex in general would be fine, also writing like a fucking maniac in a café. Sheehan writes like a fucking maniac, in a café, sources will murmur confidentially.”
Just because we set things in irony doesn’t mean we don’t mean the things we’ve said. Whatever this confidence really is—joke, self-deprecation, plea, pridefulness—persona or author—fiction or nonfiction—who cares? It’s true, is all: Sheehan writes like a fucking maniac, by any lapidary measure.