>

Exploring the art of prose

Menu

Contingencies by Susan Perabo


“This is what you do…”

This evocative refrain pulsates throughout Susan Perabo’s microfiction piece, “Contingencies,” as the narrator struggles to balance her concern for her partner’s well-being with the constant fear that his volatile mood swings will escalate to the point of causing inexplicable harm both to himself and their young family.

At one moment the narrator’s partner opens the car door while the narrator drives, calling her a liar; the next, “he suddenly seems fine.” Each sentence, each “this is what you do,” builds upon the next, amplifying the tension incrementally until the culmination becomes almost too much to endure. The intimacy of the second-person “you” also immerses the reader into the raw depths of this woman’s experience and leaves one to wonder—what, if anything, can be done?

In her accompanying author’s note, Perabo, says the “refrain wouldn’t quit” no matter how hard she tried to manipulate the story’s structure. Eventually, Perabo stepped back and allowed the narrator to speak for herself and the story unleashed itself onto the page. The urgency, the desperation, in the woman’s voice clings to the reader and won’t soon be forgotten.  –CRAFT


 

This is what you do if he wakes up sad. This is what you do if he comes home angry. This is what you do if he stops taking his medication. This is what you do if he stays awake until sunrise. This is what you do if he won’t text you back. This is what you do if he yells at you in the driveway. This is what you do if the neighbors look over from their porch. This is what you do if he’s grieving his father. This is what you do if he recoils when you touch his shoulder. This is what you do if he suddenly seems fine. This is what you do if he opens the car door while you’re driving. This is what you do if he says you’re a liar. This is what you do if he breaks the vase your sister made for you. This is what you do if he suddenly seems fine. This is what you do if he says his heart is racing. This is what you do if he rages while you’re holding the baby. This is what you do if he rages while he’s holding the baby. This is what you do if the car is gone. This is what you do if he’s had three beers. This is what you do if he’s had eight beers. This is what you do if he says he’s a monster. This is what you do if he says you made him into a monster. This is what you do if he asks you to lie for him. This is what you do if your sister says she wants to come for a visit. This is what you do if he suddenly seems fine. This is what you do if you can’t find the car keys. This is what you do if he tells you he should kill himself. This is what you do if he tells you he might kill himself. This is what you do if he locks you out of the house. This is what you do if he locks you out of the house with the baby inside. This is what you do if he says he’s sorry. This is what you do. This is what you do. This is what you do.

 


SUSAN PERABO’s most recent books are The Fall of Lisa Bellow (2017) and Why They Run the Way They Do (2016), both from Simon & Schuster. Her fiction has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize Stories, and New Stories from the South; and her work has appeared in numerous publications, including One Story, Glimmer Train, The New York Times, and The Sun. Her five favorite things are her family, the sun, the St. Louis Cardinals, black coffee, and socks, in that order.  She is a professor of creative writing at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.

Author’s Note

At first, I didn’t understand that this was a piece of flash fiction because I don’t write flash fiction. When I got this refrain stuck in my head, the voice of a woman living in an exhausting, frightening, and unsustainable situation, I did the thing I normally do with any story shard: I sat with it for several days, trying to figure out what or where the story was, following threads, conceiving and dismissing ideas, shaping the characters’ lives, trying to figure out how the hell they (particularly she) got to be where they are. At this point, I thought the refrain was my way into the real story.

But, even as I developed that story in my head, the refrain wouldn’t quit. I’m trying to be better about listening to my gut, letting the story control me rather than the other way around, so I thought, okay, maybe this refrain is not just a way in, but is actually the structure of the story. (I still didn’t understand it was flash fiction…because I don’t write flash fiction.) I began to think of the story unfolding in brief sections, separated by white space—each line of the refrain corresponding to a small scene that would gradually reveal the bigger picture.

Again, I did this work in my head, imagining how each individual “this is what you do” might be best illustrated, trying to decide whether the story should work chronologically, or if it would be more interesting if it were just a chaotic gathering of dangerous moments that had no obvious order, no arc other than her increasing desperation, just a stew of panic with an undercurrent of steely resolve that she would be able to handle anything that happened if only she had enough contingency plans.

I didn’t have to actually write even one of the little scenes to know, before too long, that this idea wasn’t going to work. Every time I began one in my head, it paled in intensity to the line it sought to illustrate. Plus, the more time I spent with it, the more the whole idea seemed contrived, heavy-handed; my intrusive fingerprints were all over it. The story was no longer about the character; it was about my presentation of her. So maybe, I thought, this was a fail. The refrain remained a compelling seed—I still couldn’t shake it—but it wasn’t going to open up into anything more.

Before I gave up, I decided to write it down, just as I’d first heard it, because who knew?… maybe I’d figure it out someday when I was smarter. So I let her talk, just unleashed her onto the page, and it wasn’t until I saw it for the first time outside of my brain that I thought, hey, wait a second…maybe I do write flash fiction.

 


SUSAN PERABO’s most recent books are The Fall of Lisa Bellow (2017) and Why They Run the Way They Do (2016), both from Simon & Schuster. Her fiction has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize Stories, and New Stories from the South; and her work has appeared in numerous publications, including One Story, Glimmer Train, The New York Times, and The Sun. Her five favorite things are her family, the sun, the St. Louis Cardinals, black coffee, and socks, in that order. She is a professor of creative writing at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.