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Passing by Thaïs Miller


“Passing,” by Thaïs Miller, is the winner for Setting in the 2018 CRAFT Elements Contest. The story is also a finalist for Dialogue.


Thaïs Miller’s “Passing,” both a family drama and a speculative commentary on current affairs, takes place in a contemporary, alternate Stark County, Ohio during the Second Civil War, a time and place that feels uncomfortably real. Miller employs a range of elements effectively to deliver this page-turner.

From the vivid opening scene to the earned point of view shift in the last third, this story maintains a clear narrative arc and great tension throughout, with a balanced mastery of craft. We know what the main character, Jason, wants. Driving the action is the macro-world that is crumbling and the micro-world of emotions that are consuming him. Jason’s fears and insecurities, and the immediacy of the threat the characters face, are scalable and relatable.

The setting in “Passing,” a dystopic contemporary Appalachia-adjacent rural America, is the very thing that heightens tension and allows the story to resist the trope of a typical coming out narrative. In the Author’s Note, Miller reveals her belief that setting must be “connected to the action and characterization,” and that it “should amplify the tension and reveal something new about the characters.” We wholeheartedly agree, and welcome you to immerse in Miller’s Stark County.  —CRAFT


 

I. Jason

On the brink of Armageddon, I find myself in Stark County, drinking. We’re underground in a bunker, a former stockroom in the basement of a grocery store that’s been converted into a wartime bar. Patrons, in their twenties and thirties, all of them as white as the snow falling outside, sit at tables surrounded by shelves of unopened beer, tabasco sauce, and cans of baked beans. There’s a Christmas tree in the corner. Servers wearing camo or flannel and knit hats circle the room. A flight of mead is served to me in shot glasses in a muffin tray, numbered one through twelve.

Bill won’t look at me. At least not the way his dark eyes used to look at me, like he was dying of hunger and thirst, and I was the only thing that could fill his need. I’m a burden to him now, a liability.

We’re playing Risk, the Lord of the Rings version, to bide time until the shooting outside slows. Plastic elves and orcs line the board. I scratch my beard and sip a drink that reminds me of sherry. I close my eyes and pretend we’ve made our flight out of Cleveland, we’ve sailed across the Atlantic, we’re sitting in the Eagle & Child in Oxford, chatting about the Inklings on our honeymoon.

Talk about the presidential election at an adjacent table wakes me from my drunken reverie. At some point, I’m asked to count out territories on the board. How many does each team have? Twelve? One? It’s the only test that I’m still awake. I’ve never felt so drunk. I wish I could just black out.

Across the table is Arnold, my brother-in-law, though he doesn’t know it yet. He smirks. “So how many, Jason?” he asks me. “Who’s winning?”

His back brace, or as he calls it, his “souvenir” from the explosion he survived during his last tour in Kabul, makes it look as though he’s puffing out his chest to the rest of us. “What the hell you staring at?”

“Nothing,” I say.

He’s drinking. We’re all drinking. He has a gun concealed in his backpack, and the three of us all know. Most of the people in this bar have guns strapped underneath their shirts, bulging around their belts. After every mass shooting, they’d stocked up, sales soared. They think they’re safer, in control. They think they need an army to fight an army. I’ve never felt so unsafe. And if I say anything, Arnold calls me a pussy. I told my friends and family back at home in WeHo, though they never believed me, there’s an army out here. And they don’t like our kind.

I’ve been passing as straight for two weeks, longer than I’d agreed to. Bill has been passing his entire life. His family thinks I’m his roommate, his producing partner, his best friend for over a decade. And while all of that is true, we got married at the Beverly Hills courthouse a month ago. Only a few pictures, no social media broadcast. This trip, this supposedly quick trip, a weekend to say goodbye to Bill’s dad, who started dialysis six months ago, was going to be the end of Bill’s charade. He would say his last words to his dad, tell his family the truth, and run away to our honeymoon. But now we’re stuck. No flights out of Cleveland, Akron-Canton, or Pittsburgh. Not since the airport closures, not since the bombings, not since they started calling it the Second Civil War.

Arnold hands me a pen, and I count the territories of orcs and elves on the board, calculating the total on a napkin. Middle-earth divided in two, discarded plastic pieces littering the box. “You’re winning,” I tell Arnold, and he laughs and turns to his brother.

“I guess being a nerd never paid off, huh, Bill? Wasn’t this your favorite series growing up?”

Bill looks more upset than he should after losing to his younger brother. I want to touch his hand. My husband, who in childhood would sit alone in his bedroom, reading for hours, escaping to imaginary lands infinitely more interesting than the one we currently find ourselves in. I want to whisper to him that his time developing his imagination paid off, that his brother never worked for A24 or Imagine Entertainment. Bill and I are the only showbiz people in town, we’re the only people remotely affiliated with the Hollywood-industrial complex. According to the local cable access news station, we’re part of the problem. Everyone else is a pharmacist or a body builder. His brother doesn’t own a condo. His brother moved back in with their parents at age twenty-nine. I’ve been holding it all in, and I can’t hold it anymore.

We’re the enemy, as the local news says: the coastal elites, the cosmopolitans, the queers. “I love my husband, and I loved our life.” I write this sentence verbatim on a napkin for some bartender to toss at the end of days.


After midnight, when most of the nightly shooting in the distance has died down, Arnold hits my shoulder, enough to leave a bruise. “Time to fly, J.”

I rub my arm. His old camo jacket is tight on me, my own clothes deemed too conspicuous for this journey. I’ve gained ten pounds since we got stuck here. All the fried chicken, pizza, and potatoes.

Arnold struggles to stand. His canes, the kind with handles that lock around his triceps, knock against the table. He moves swiftly across the room. Bill holds the cellar door open for him, and he struggles up the stairs, half drunk and half in pain, knocking his canes against the stairs and railings.

Outside, the cool air stings my face. My eyes adjust to the darkness, and I turn to take in the panoramic view. I see the grocery store, the adjacent strip mall, the parking lot, and beyond a mound of ice, I barely make out the farms in the distance. Half a dozen white people in camo carrying rifles emerge from the darkened stores in the mall. They hover around the few bodies lying scattered around the lot, taking what they can, burying and burning what they can’t. I see the contorted faces of the dead—none of them white—and I feel sick.

The three of us climb into the truck with me in the middle, and Bill starts the engine. We take backroads, winding between farms, approaching Bill’s parents’ house in the middle of the woods. We park next to a minivan in the four-car garage behind the house. Our breath hangs in the air as we walk toward the house. With Arnold’s back to us, I reach for Bill’s hand and he pulls away.

Bill and I have been sleeping on adjacent leather couches in the basement, which had been renovated into a movie theater when the boys were teenagers. Thousands of Blu-ray DVDs line the walls: musicals, westerns, superhero flicks, mysteries. Sometimes watching a movie is the only thing that makes me feel better. We watch for hours during the day, while Bill’s dad, Ed, is sleeping. When he isn’t sleeping, we stand around the bed they’d placed in the living room. Lydia, Bill’s mother, acts as Ed’s home nurse. She wears scrubs from her job at the hospital. She uses the landline to call Ed’s doctor, who hasn’t answered since the war started. Bill reviews paperwork for Lydia to sign.

The house has its own generator, its own well: the benefits of rural living and self-reliance. Lydia told me they always wanted to live off the grid, in the quiet of the country. She didn’t understand how Bill and I could put up with the noise of the city, the grime of that “cosmopolitan” center. Ed, Lydia, and Arnold have never called themselves survivalists, never thought of themselves as doomsdayers, because they’re not outliers. Everyone out here lives like this. Their house always seemed an inconvenience, hours away from the nearest airport, until now. Before the cell towers went down, my friends in LA said I was lucky.

As I lie down on the couch, I turn to Bill and tug his soft, smooth hand, pull on his unbuttoned white collar, dark chest hairs peeking out. I say, “I love—”

His eyebrows furrow. His nose, like the beak of a scavenger, draws downward and he pulls his chin in. His voice is clipped: “Don’t.”

The floorboards above our heads creak. Lydia is pacing around the kitchen again.

“She can hear you,” Bill says and stands up, climbing the stairs to join her, to calm her down.


In the morning, I walk upstairs for breakfast. Lydia and Bill are already there, sitting next to each other at the kitchen table. They silently swirl their spoons around the Cheerios floating like life preservers in plastic bowls. They barely touch their food. Bill is wearing the same clothes from last night. He puts down his spoon and rubs his mother’s shoulders but stops when he sees me. She stands up and re-tucks her cotton bathrobe. “Can I get you anything, Jason?”

“No, no, that’s all right, Mrs. Aimes.”

Ed is awake, which is rare. He’s watching the local cable access news channel in the adjoining living room. The newscaster’s voice echoes toward us. “The governor of California is calling for a cease-fire on all sides, but the resistance has rejected his proposal until terms are met…” I fill in the blanks. Here are the resistance’s terms: the eradication of people of color, gay marriage, abortion, Medicare, and immigration. “Leaders are calling for public cleansings,” the newscaster says, but by “cleansings” he means executions, “of illegal immigrants similar to the ones held in Reno and Topeka last week.”

I hear Arnold’s footsteps coming down the stairs. His canes creak under his weight and knock against the walls. He moans and rubs his shaved scalp. Perhaps he drank more than I thought. I make a fresh pot of coffee.

Lydia walks into the living room, and after the machine starts pouring the coffee, I follow her. Ed does not look at me. His attention is absorbed by the TV. He is nude under a sheet, a white oxygen cord curves around his ears and into his nostrils. The show looks like it’s being broadcast from a high school AV closet. The newscaster is a pimply teenager. Behind him are an American flag, a Confederate flag, and the new flag of the resistance: a millennial-pink background with a bright white cross front and center, like the cross dangling on Lydia’s flushed chest.

Entering the room, Arnold laughs at the TV headline. “A cease-fire? They think that’ll work? It’s too late. Mow ’em down!” He laughs so hard he starts coughing. Arnold sits next to his father on the bed. “Right, Dad?”

Ed doesn’t say anything, but I don’t think anything of it. He hasn’t spoken in the two weeks since I’ve been here, like his spirit is halfway out the door.

Bill gets up from the kitchen table. “I’m going to try calling Dr. Lebowitz again.”

“What’s the point?” Lydia looks at Bill, dark circles rest under her eyes. “That kike.”

We haven’t told them that I’m Jewish either. My grandfather was the type of illegal immigrant that Arnold’s family hates. They had quotas for Jews back then. Entire ships were sent back to Europe, refugee passengers sent to their deaths. At some point, women and children could still get in, men couldn’t. Men were too dangerous. My grandmother came to New York legally, clutching my mother, an infant, in her arms. A couple years later, my grandfather came from Canada and never went back, becoming a trespasser, a tourist turned illegal resident in the eyes of our government. He took a train from Montreal to upstate New York. And my grandmother met him in Albany, my mother old enough to sit up in the seat beside her. My mother didn’t even recognize him. My grandparents had to spend a whole train ride from Albany to Manhattan sitting across from each other in the same car, in the same row, a table apart, not saying a word. They were scared the government was watching them. A whole train ride in silence. It’s times like these, when I need strength, that I think about them, about those inherited genes, about inherited grit.

Bill sighs. “Well maybe another doctor on call will answer.”

“Psht. You think I haven’t tried?” Lydia looks away from him toward the living room. “Do whatever you want, honey.”

And I think, if only. If only that were what we could do.


When Ed goes down for his nap, Lydia and Bill decide to go for a walk in the nine acres of woods behind their house. I watch them put on layer after layer before heading outside. Arnold gives Lydia a small handgun, which she clutches in her gloved fingers as she opens the back door. Arnold retreats upstairs to play video games. I sneak back into the basement to watch Rock Hudson woo Doris Day in Lover Come Back.

After the movie ends, I find a set of hand-labeled DVDs that Ed must have made, and I pop one into the machine. I’m sitting with a blanket draped over my legs. Pastel colors emanate from the TV, filling the room. And I suddenly see myself on the screen. This must have been right out of college, the first time I met Bill’s family, during a wedding anniversary party he threw for Ed and Lydia at a banquet hall a few miles away. There’s Arnold, eighteen, before he went overseas, wearing a gray suit, straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. He’s tipsy and teaching everyone to tango, though where he learned I’ll never know. He dances with his mother. He grabs his brother. They sway back and forth. He catches my hand and twirls me. And then Bill and I are dancing, holding each other so close. Before Arnold pulls Bill away, our lips hover. I wonder what Ed thought when he saw this.

The basement door squeaks open, and I call out, “Hey, Billy, you gotta see—”

I turn and see Arnold at the top of the stairs, holding a napkin. The paper crinkles in his fist. He isn’t smiling. “Did you leave something, at the bar last night?”

I should have figured he would have reached for it, kept it: a souvenir of his winning. I pause the movie, and it buys me a minute to think. “You know.” I clear my throat. “Bill and I are, uh, working on this new script…”

“Oh yeah?” His face turns red.

“Yeah, can’t get my mind off it, actually. I’ve been taking notes everywhere we go. Maybe we could get you a part or something. You used to do community theater in high school, right?”

“I always knew something—”

We hear the backdoor slam shut. Arnold pauses. Floorboards creak above us. Lydia’s voice travels down the stairs. She and Bill are back. She sounds happy for once, maybe from the fresh air. “Arnold?”

He looks at me and shoves the napkin in his pocket. He mutters, “Fag.”

I stand up, not knowing what to say. Bill told me that when he was a kid, boys used to call each other “fag” and “queer” all the time. He did it, too, he said, “as a joke.” At the time, I had winced, uncomfortable, disgusted by the past. Arnold isn’t joking, and he isn’t just using this word as some type of general insult. This is an accusation. I know that among the many places in the house where Arnold stores his guns, he keeps one under the couch I’ve been sleeping on. He looks in that direction. He might as well have aimed for me. According to his favorite online blogs, I am a thing to be hunted, mowed down. I stand up and walk toward him. I want to scream and shove him. Most of all, I do not want Bill to find out. But there isn’t time.

“Coming, Mom!” he calls. His knuckles are white on the handrails as he makes his way upstairs.


By the time I get upstairs, it’s too late. Arnold is pushing Bill, slamming his fist against Bill’s chest, the napkin still crumpled in his hand. “What the hell is wrong with you? Do you know what you’ve done?”

I feel incredibly guilty, as though I’m sinking, as though the linoleum floor is going to open like a whirlpool and swallow me.

“Dad’s dying and you–you fucking bring a fag into this house!” Arnold is yelling. “Why?”

Bill looks at me, and this is the moment I have been waiting for. Claim me, I want to scream. Tell them the truth. Be the hero in those nineteenth century PBS dramas we watch at home. Rip open your shirt, puff out your chest, stand up for your love. Please, finally, come out of the closet to your family.

“Bill?” I ask.

But he says nothing. He just looks down at the floor.

“You didn’t even know, did ya?” Arnold is laughing. I don’t think Arnold wants to believe that Bill could be complicit in this, in marrying me.

My husband will not look at me. Instead, he speaks to the floor. “Jason—”

Arnold interprets Bill’s look as disgust, disapproval, which it is in a way. Bill will not forgive me for this. As always, I am at fault.

I will not let him say it. “I think I should go,” I say, as though this is a normal argument, as though there is an easy way out.

Lydia’s arms are crossed over her chest, over her bathrobe. “Where are you going to go?” she asks. “You can’t go out there. The highways are closed.”

I open the front door and a breeze brushes past me. In the distance, I hear gunshots. I don’t know how far I’ll make it on foot.

Bill shuts the door, stopping me from leaving the house. “Pack up. I’ll drive,” he mutters.

 


 

II. Bill

We used to love the woods, Arnold and me. We’d play back here for hours in our Christmas sweaters, crackling leaves, throwing twigs, catching rabbits, squirrels, and possums with cheap slingshots and BB guns. Sure, we fought all the time, but I never agreed with anybody in my family. Arnold was the one who made the family proud, and me? What an oddball. Jason pities me for growing up here, for being alone, but I don’t know why. I always felt special.

Things changed after Arnold went to Afghanistan, after the shrapnel lodged in his spine. He couldn’t walk or sleep, wouldn’t meet with the psychiatrists, couldn’t work. He holed up in his room alone for months, watching angry white men rant on YouTube, posting on alt-right blogs, and stocking up on semi-automatics and ammo. He bragged about not switching on the safeties on his guns. Maybe it made him feel in control when he had no control. Nothing is easy anymore.

Now it’s just Mom and me, walking around back here, sharing a cigarette, hiding from the guys.

“Billy,” she whispers.

We both look back at the house, instinctually, afraid someone might hear us. If they saw us smoking, we’d never hear the end of it, especially with all of Mom’s lectures about the oxygen machine. I look at her, and she takes another puff.

“I don’t think I can take this anymore,” she says. “I feel like I’m going crazy.” The cigarette shakes in her fingers, and I take it from her.

“I know.” I inhale and let out a white cloud. “Me, too.”

“And your father—” Her voice cracks. She breathes deeply. “He’s not gonna make it much longer.”

I put my arm around her and hold her as she sobs. Her arms are flecked with age spots. She feels so thin, short, slight. She was once the toughest woman I knew. Slapped me for knocking over the trash cans during a game of tag. Hit me for grazing the cat’s tail with a BB shot, which Arnold had done, but I took it for him.

“It ain’t safe anymore,” she says, wiping her nose with the back of her hand. “I think you should go.”

“It isn’t safe anywhere.” I pull away from her. “I’m not leaving you to take care of Dad alone. You’re already working around the clock. How are you supposed to get by?”

She stares at the dirt. “Dad is leaving us…either way. See, I can’t take care of him out here, and no doctors are answering my calls, and he’s in a lot of pain.” She sighs. “He’s being brave, but this is no way to live. He can’t talk anymore. He’s less and less responsive, and I–I got to…” She looks at me with bloodshot eyes and clears her throat. “Now, I know you and Jason hadn’t planned to be here this long, and I think that was a good plan. ’Cause I can’t protect you, you and Jason.”

“We’d protect you—”

She laughs. “You remember who taught you and your brother how to shoot?”

“Yeah.” I blush. She did.

My stomach in knots, I feel like she’s freeing me and deserting me at the same time. We start to make plans: which car, roads, sanctuary cities Jason and I will go to when we leave. Pittsburgh is the closest and our best bet. According to the local station, the city is sheltering refugees from all over Ohio and West Virginia. That’s if we can make it over the hills of the West Virginia panhandle alive. My hands are shaking.

She smiles. “Give me that cigarette.”

I hand it over and she takes it, breathing in for a long time.

She looks back toward the house. “You know, Jason seems like a nice guy. Ed and I always liked him.”

I don’t know how to do this. I’ve heard so many stories from so many other guys about how this moment went down. I’ve been avoiding it for as long as I can stand. And I can’t stand it anymore. I was attached to so many ideas and expectations I couldn’t let go of or live up to. I put up so many walls so that I wouldn’t have to feel any pain, so my family wouldn’t feel any pain, but everything still hurts. I knew this would end: this world, my act. The difference between Jason and me is that he doesn’t think about love or question love or try to love someone. He just does it. “Look,” I say, “about me and Jason—”

She holds up her hand and touches my cheek. She’s crying. “I already know, honey.”


As we turn out of the driveway onto a gravel road, our suitcases slide around in the back of Dad’s truck. On Jason’s lap sit faded maps from the late nineties, before half the developments in the area had been constructed. His stomach pokes out below the bottom of his black sweater.

His left knee bobs up and down, nervously. I feel the same way. Sweat drips down the sleeves of my polyester shirt, the fabric clings to my skin. I don’t know how far we’ll make it. This could be our last hour together. But I can’t show that. If I’m calm, maybe he’ll feel safer. I take a deep breath.

He rubs his scruffy beard. “You probably want to get back to them as soon as possible.”

I keep my eyes locked on the road. “Jason—”

“No, no, you’ve made your choice.” Tears dot the maps. “Where are you taking me?” He looks frantically out the passenger window and wipes his face. “Are you just planning to leave me by the side of the road? Didn’t you hear the news? The airports and highways are closed—”

“Jason!” I reach my hand and place it on his knee, and he finally stops shaking. He blows out all the air in his lungs.

I turn to him, taking my eyes off the road ahead. “We’re not going back.”

 


THAÏS MILLER is the author of the novel, Our Machinery (2008), and the collection, The Subconscious Mutiny and Other Stories (2009). She has taught literature and creative writing at the Gotham Writers Workshop, the Bryant Park Reading Room, UC Berkeley Extension, and UC Santa Cruz. In San Francisco, she volunteers as an editorial reader for Francis Ford Coppola’s literary magazine, Zoetrope: All-Story. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Literature with a Creative/Critical Writing Concentration at UC Santa Cruz. Learn more at thaismiller.wordpress.com

Author’s Note

The Pleasures and Pet Peeves of Setting

If you walked into my Introduction to Creative Writing classroom on the day that I teach setting description, you would most likely hear a student reading the passage from Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre (1847) that depicts the red bedroom in Gateshead Hall. You might also hear excerpts from Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing (2016), portraying the women’s dungeon in Cape Coast Castle or the coal mines near Pratt City. I use these passages as examples because these settings are memorable and haunting. In her essay collection Stigmata (1998), Hélène Cixous describes writing as an act of conjuring, and these authors are conjuring places. I feel transported to these locations along with these characters. Perhaps my favorite example is the following paragraph from Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible (1998):

The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

I tell my students, “Look at those specific sensory details, those similes, those verbs. Everything is moving. Nothing is still.” While it might sound counterintuitive, I have learned to improve my writing by teaching creative writing. I care a great deal about my students, and I only want them to succeed. So I started listening to the advice that I give my students.

Here’s my main advice for my students (and myself) when it comes to bringing a setting to life:

  1. Use active verbs. Nothing should be stagnant. Everything should be in motion. You’re not painting a backdrop, you’re creating a movie.
  2. Integration. When it comes to setting, I have a lot of pet peeves. I hate it when setting descriptions are separate from the other elements of craft as if they are a digression or tangent. All elements of craft should be totally intertwined. Setting has to be connected to the action and characterization. Setting should amplify the tension and reveal something new about the characters. There should be no blocks of separate, stagnant, setting descriptions that a reader (like me) could just skip.
  3. Tone. The tone of the setting should indicate and reveal the emotions of the characters. In the case of my short story, “Passing,” I wanted to illustrate the protagonist’s terror, anxiety, desire, distress, and mourning.
  4. click to enlarge

    Defamiliarization. In his 1917 essay, “Art as Technique,” Russian formalist theorist Viktor Shklovsky argues that art involves the practice of “defamiliarization.” Fiction makes a mundane world feel new, exotic, and alienating; it makes us step out of the monotony of our lives and see the world around us in a different way. Joy Williams has mastered this. Take a familiar place and make it feel unfamiliar.

  5. Take notes. When I travel, I love reading books set in the places I visit. I also never know when inspiration will strike. For my short story, “Passing,” I jotted down notes for the opening scene on a bar napkin. This napkin often reminded me of the original setting that inspired the story and made the whole fantastical premise feel real and material.

 


THAÏS MILLER is the author of the novel, Our Machinery (2008), and the collection, The Subconscious Mutiny and Other Stories (2009). She has taught literature and creative writing at the Gotham Writers Workshop, the Bryant Park Reading Room, UC Berkeley Extension, and UC Santa Cruz. In San Francisco, she volunteers as an editorial reader for Francis Ford Coppola’s literary magazine, Zoetrope: All-Story. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Literature with a Creative/Critical Writing Concentration at UC Santa Cruz. Learn more at thaismiller.wordpress.com