Carol Emschwiller, author of Carmen Dog and The Mount, has published an incredible new short story over at Lightspeed. It's about the history-altering friendship between a young woman and an awkward, mysterious newcomer who moves into town.
Set in a temporally-ambiguous small town after "the depression," the story is told in Emschwiller's characteristic style: spare, poetic, and deceptively childlike. Just when she seems as if she's at her most wide-eyed and serious, Emschwiller will surprise you with a sharp joke. Like most of the author's work, this story is about the experiences of people who have immigrated from somewhere unimaginably far away. And who must assimilate - or not.
Here's an excerpt from the opening section of "No Time Like The Present":
A lot of new rich people have moved into the best houses in town-those big ones up on the hill that overlook the lake. What with the depression, some of those houses have been on the market for a long time. They'd gotten pretty run down, but the new people all seem to have plenty of money and fixed them up right away. Added docks and decks and tall fences. It was our fathers, mine included, who did all the work for them. I asked my dad what their houses were like and he said, "Just like ours only richer."
As far as we know, none of those people have jobs. It's as if all the families are independently wealthy.
Those people look like us only not exactly. They're taller and skinnier and they're all blonds. They don't talk like us either. English does seem to be their native language, but it's an odd English. Their kids keep saying, "Shoe dad," and, "Bite the boot." They shout to each other to, "Evolve!"
At first their clothes were funny, too-the men had weird jackets with tight waists and their pants were too short. The girls and women actually wore longish wide skirts. They don't have those anymore. They must have seen right away how funny they looked compared to us, and gone to Penny's and got some normal clothes like ours.
They kept their odd shoes, though, like they couldn't bear not to have them. (They look really soft, they're kind of square and the big toe is separate.) And they had to wait for their hair to grow out some before they could get haircuts like ours. This year our boys have longer hair than the girls, so their boys were all wrong.
Every single one of those new people, first thing, put two flamingos out on their front lawns, but then, a few days later, they wised up and took them away. It wasn't long before every single one of them had either a dog or a cat.
When Sunday came, they all went to the Unitarian church and the women wore the most ridiculous hats, but took them off as soon as they saw none of us wore any. They wore their best clothes, too, but only a few of us do.
Even though they come to church, Mom says I shouldn't make friends with their kids until we know more about them and I especially shouldn't visit any of their houses. She says the whole town doesn't trust them even though everybody has made money on them one way or another.
Their kids have a funny way of walking. Not that funny, actually, but as if they don't want anybody to talk to them, and as if they're better than we are-maybe just because they're taller. But we don't look that different. It seems as if they're pretending we're not here. Or maybe that they're not here. In school they eat lunch together at the very farthest table and bring their own food, like our cafeteria food isn't good enough. They obviously-all of them-don't want to be here.
I've got one of the new people in my class. I feel sorry for her. Marietta…Smith? (I'll bet. All those new people are Smiths and Joneses and Browns and Blacks.) She's tall and skinny like they all are. She's by herself in my class; usually there's two or three of them in each class. She's really scared. I tried to help her the first days-I thought she needed a girl friend really badly-but she didn't even smile back when I smiled straight at her.
The boys are all wondering if those new boys would be on the basketball team, but so far they don't even answer when they're asked. Jerry asked Huxley Jones, and Huxley said, under his breath, "Evolve, why don't you?"
Trouble is, my name is Smith, too, but it's really Smith. I've always wanted to change it to something more complicated. I'd rather be Karpinsky or Jesperson or Minnifee like some of the kids in my class.
I kind of understand those new kids. I have to eat a special diet, and I'm too tall, too. I tower over most of the town boys. And I'm an only child and I'm not at all popular. I don't care what Mom says, I don't see what harm there can be in helping Marietta and I'm curious. I like her odd accent. I try saying things as she does and I say, "Shoe Dad," to my dad even though I don't know what those kids mean by it. Maybe it's really Shoo Dad.
One of these days I'm going to sneak into her house and see what I can find out.
Read the rest of "No Time Like The Present" for free at Lightspeed Magazine
Image via Shorpy.