Every year I read The Pushcart Prize, one of three annual anthologies that contains a selection of writing published in magazines and journals. The Pushcart Prize combines stories, poems, and essays in one volume and unlike the others, its focus is on small presses. Not only is it a good way to discover new work, it's also an efficient means of getting a sense of the many different journals in the literary landscape. Every year I find a knock-out story and in the 2023 Pushcart it was "Half Spent," by Alice McDermott, originally published in the Sewanee Review, a story that beautifully manipulates the reader as it sets up a classic reversal. The first time I read it, not only was I unprepared for the surprise, but I didn't expect to be dropped into a space that offered the renewal of tears.
"Half Spent" is about a memorial party the third person narrator and his two siblings arrange for their deceased mother in the house where she lived until her death. During their childhood, the New Jersey neighborhood was strictly white, middle class, and conventional, but now it is home to gay couples and foreign-born families, all of whom their mother had enthusiastically welcomed to the street. These neighbors are the friends who come to pay their last respects.
The gathering also includes an Ethiopian woman, named Aida, who lived in the house and cared for their mother in her last years. Though their mother loved Aida, even making her children promise that she could stay rent-free until she found another position, the three siblings are troubled by the additional presence of Aida's niece and brother who seem to have moved in, and the siblings wonder if they are being taken advantage of. This suspicion forms an undercurrent of distrust that runs, sotto voce, through the preparations and the reader understands that it, and not their mother's passing, has become the focus that consumes them as they prepare for the party:
"Back in the hallway, he felt an objection rising wordlessly to his throat. He glanced into his old bedroom, his and his brother's, the room where Aida now stayed. There was a large suitcase opened on the floor. Men's clothes, jeans and shirts, and a tossed belt. Thomas's of course. Impulsively, he crossed the hall to the room that had been his sister's. The door was mostly closed but not shut, and he put his fingertips to it, slowly pushing it open. A young woman, perhaps twenty, was sitting at the foot of what had been his sister's bed. She wore a short skirt, her legs stretched out before her. She was barefoot, although there was a tumbled pair of red high heels on the faded shag carpet. She was looking at her phone. She was dark-skinned, thin and wiry. She wore a bright blue head wrap. There was a colorful leather satchel at her feet, clothes erupting from it" (277).
The story trains us to read this description through the judging eyes of their long-deceased father, who raised his three children to follow his rational, logical approach to life and avoid the chaos of emotions, and with that bias, we find lots to cause concern. For instance, we know the furnishings in the house are as conventional as the neighborhood used to be, and the loud colors brought into this room are out of keeping with the general tone. Not only has this young woman introduced color, but there is, as well, evidence of what the father might characterize as slovenliness and excess. Just look at the verbs: clothes erupting from the satchel, tumbled high heels. It's a minor disorder, of course, but it hints at something dangerous, when taken together with her barefeet, short skirt, her "thin and wiry" frame. McDermott has skillfully deployed tropes of racism, and the reader wonders, is she a drug addict? It's a brilliant manipulation: at this point in the story even the reader distrusts Aida's intentions.
How has that happened, given our glimpses of Aida's tender care and loving nature? It happens through casual, seemingly neutral descriptions like this one: "He saw Bettina emerge from the hallway at the other end of the room, wobbling and long-legged in her high heels. He saw her greet another Black couple—who were they?—the woman in a bright green dress, the man in a brown suit, a pale blue shirt, and plaid tie" (278).
Our attention is directed to colors once again, and there's no need to tell us how improper they are for a memorial because we see them out of the narrator's eyes. What lingers here, is Bettina, Aida's niece, "wobbling" as she enters the room. This small detail firms up our impression of her—drugs or drink is the unspoken, mostly unconscious thought we grab from it.
The narrative voice has such authority we are dutiful in this way, bending easily to the racist clichés McDermott has prepared for us. But this is the trap. We fall in willingly because we think we recognize what's going on.
I'm going to stop here because the reversal that upends everything must be a surprise. Read this story. And if you want to learn more about the terms recognition and reversal, go to "Poetics," a slim volume by Aristotle that lays it all out.
McDermott, Alice. "Half Spent." 2023 Pushcart Prize XLVII. Ed. Bill Henderson. New York: W.W. Norton, 2023. 267-82.