Exploring the art of prose


“Parenthood” by J. M. Tyree

Figuring out the pace of a short story is often the key to its success. Stories usually need to vary their tempo—speeding up and slowing down and speeding up again—in order for a story to hit its mark. This is even more important, perhaps, when the story is aiming to frighten the reader. Horror relies on shifts in the narrative to create the maximum impact.

In “Parenthood,” J.M. Tyree spends the first third of the story presenting us with background information on the first-person narrator, his financial troubles, and his family situation. We learn that he’s a stay-at-home dad. We hear that he and his wife have argued. We’re told about his two children. We get lulled into a comfortable place. And, then, suddenly, we are in a moment where time has slowed way down, and it’s terrifying. If Tyree hadn’t opened the story the way that he did, the story wouldn’t be as effective as it is. To be a parent is to be frightened. “Parenthood” takes advantage of narrative time to make us feel that fright.

I got laid off from the realty company, and then the foreclosure followed hard. Reya absorbed the shocks better than me. She was still working, managing the liquor store. She was the one who found us a new place to live in her spare time, a rental house that someone else couldn’t sell, deep in the new subdivisions on the outskirts of the prairie. She helped me get on Unemployment and told me I could work for her if I bought myself a Kiss the Cook apron. She said it was really lucky I lost my job because day care cost more than I was bringing in to the family unit. Now I could watch the kids. It was summer and school was out. Helen, Reya’s ten-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, mostly took care of herself, while our two-year-old, little Joi, needed round the clock supervision.

There was something wrong with the new house, or not just the house, but the whole neighborhood. The area had an ex-cornfield look about it. The buildings on the edges of the development remained in a perpetual state of incomplete construction, wrapped in Tyvek. Apart from a few roving bands of kids, no one ever seemed to be home, not during the day, anyway. The house made noises that Reya explained as either the building settling or the wind whipping up off prairies three states deep, moving soil from Eastern Montana across North Dakota, and into Grand Forks.

One night, we had an argument about bills that I had started out of pure desperation and panic. Shouldn’t we monitor Helen’s consumption of orange juice? Couldn’t we make our own pizza? Wasn’t chocolate soymilk a luxury item? Wasn’t Reya being frivolous when she bought the same boxes of blonde hair dye around the same time each month, only to stack them, unused, below the bathroom sink? During this conversation, I had left Reya in tears at the kitchen table, storming off with a flourish: “Maybe Helen could go live with her Daddy in Fargo for a while.” It was the lowest thing I had ever said in the marriage, and I’d said it for no good reason. I loved Helen. But Helen overheard and stopped speaking to me for several days.

One bright hot afternoon about a month later, I was tinkering with a salad in the kitchen when I realized that Joi had gone very quiet on the baby monitor. Probably she was taking a nap but I wanted to be certain, so I went down to check on her. I guessed Helen was still out in the driveway riding her old red dirt-bike in circles, a new and unsettling habit, especially since she preferred this activity to Quality Time with her step-father.

When I got downstairs and went into Joi’s room, I saw a woman standing over her crib. I had never seen her before. She was dressed in business-casual attire, like one of our realtors on a more informal call. Her hair was graying in a shabby, brittle way, and she had an oddly narrow, angular face that came to a point at her chin. Joi was completely silent.

Excuse me, I wanted to say. Excuse me and who are you and what are you doing in my house? You can’t be here! But I didn’t say anything.

And the woman didn’t look up. Instead, she looked down at Joi and smiled, in a way that suggested she and I were sharing a private joke here.

“You shouldn’t leave your doors open,” she said, still looking down at the baby. She then smiled broadly, but this time it was the helpless and completely unselfconscious way people do when they see a child smiling back at them.

I still could not speak. I wanted to say something. I had many questions. But the words would not form. Somehow I had lost the initiative by failing to speak first, by not taking control of the situation from the beginning. Why wasn’t I running at her with my fists?

“People double lock their doors these days, don’t they, dear, yes they do!” the woman continued, now using a baby talk voice, talking to me through Joi, the way mothers sometimes do.

“My other daughter likes to play outside,” I said. “I can’t lock her out.”

“It’s a quandary,” she said, sighing. “Parenthood.”

“What happens now?” I said.

“Nothing,” she said.

“You’ll leave?”

“Yes, ‘I’ ‘will’ ‘leave,’” the woman said, using scare quotes for no discernible reason.

“Will you come back here?”

“No,” she said. “I promise. You’ve seen me now. Those are the rules.”

“I don’t believe you,” I said.

“I’m real, Mr. Welleck,” she said.

The fact that she knew my name did not sit well.

The woman backed up toward the other door in the room, the one that led down some steps out to the back entrance of the house. She would not turn away from me. She backed up farther, step by step, without taking her eyes off of me. If there was a footrace, she might not win, but she had a head start, and she could slam the door in my face as she exited the room. Besides, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go after her.

“Wait,” I said. “Wait.”

“You want me to stay here?” she said.

“Just tell me one thing,” I said. “Do you live around here?”

“Not hardly close,” she said, smiling again.

“So I won’t see you again?”

Here she said nothing, as though a reply would be superfluous. She only raised her eyebrows and continued stepping back toward the door. I didn’t move.

“What were you going to do?” I said. “What would you have done?”

“Oh, I hadn’t decided,” she said. “Usually I don’t do anything. That way I can come back again for more.”

Before I could say what I was thinking—“Come back for more what?”—she made her move. The door flashed open, and I heard her footsteps receding down to the back door, which opened and flapped shut again.

I didn’t chase her and I didn’t call the cops. In a snap, I decided I would never tell Reya what had happened. I went straight to the crib, where Joi was burbling quietly and contentedly with her eyes closed, becalmed in a nap.

The woman, if that’s what she was, kept her word, and I never saw her again, outside of sleep.

The worst thing was that I didn’t race upstairs immediately to see if Helen was all right, to see if Helen was still there in the driveway on her bike. She was, of course, but I didn’t check right away. Instead I sat down on the carpet next to Joi’s crib and felt for her pulse. She lay open to the world asleep, and her small heart soldiered on.

J. M. TYREE is the coauthor, with Michael McGriff of the story collection Our Secret Life in the Movies (A Strange Object), an NPR Best Book of 2014. He teaches at VCUarts and is Nonfiction Editor at New England Review. His most recent book is a collection of essays, Vanishing Streets – Journeys in London (Stanford University Press).

Author’s Note

I’m currently working on a book of horror stories called Vampire Radio. Horror was where I started out in childhood, listening to Alfred Hitchcock anthologies on the turntable with giant headphones at my local library in Wisconsin, devouring Poe and Kafka in the high school library, and watching Twin Peaks with my mom. Horror suits reactionary eras, like the 1980s, when I grew up, and I think the genre fits in with our current predicament rather well. The state of being afraid weirdly connects Americans across the spectrum right now – people who otherwise think they don’t share anything in common. Everyone is anxious, and this universal state of fear puts people into situations where they can be manipulated more easily. The horror genre is a double-edged sword in this regard, since it contributes to the climate of fear but also can offer the chance to confront and challenge our worst fears in a fictional space that makes it safer, perhaps, or more distanced, at least. All this sounds more like theme than craft, but I guess theme is always a hidden or unconscious aspect of craft. I would add that writers don’t set out to create concepts or messages, of course, and yet the work-space inevitably feels invaded by the barometric pressure of the wider atmosphere in which we work. I don’t think that’s anything to fear. Regarding “Parenthood,” I’d like to thank Liz Bradfield for an anecdote that inspired this story.

J. M. TYREE is the coauthor, with Michael McGriff of the story collection Our Secret Life in the Movies (A Strange Object), an NPR Best Book of 2014. He teaches at VCUarts and is Nonfiction Editor at New England Review. His most recent book is a collection of essays, Vanishing Streets – Journeys in London (Stanford University Press).