On 1st Avenue and 28th Street in Minneapolis, a house catches fire. Fire trucks arrive in a blur of lights and a wail of sirens. Flames cut the early morning sky. Sweat gathers on the lip of the neighborhood. Smoke fills its nostrils. Neighbors in their housecoats and slippers watch from living room windows and front yards. Children, woken from their dreams, point at the flames, vibrate with terrible excitement. Firefighters battle the flames from outside and walk into the fire to save those who can be saved. They rescue one person from inside the house and then another. They pull two people from the second story window.
But by the time they rescue Jenny, it's too late.
My stories have been called bleak, brutal, depressing. And I have been asked why I write such sad stories.
I have a one-word answer: Jenny.
I write sad stories because of ghosts, ghosts of the living and of the dead. I write sad stories to give a voice to ghosts and to give a voice to those who live with the ghosts of their dead and of their former lovers, estranged children, chances not taken, aborted dreams. I write sad stories because they are the adhesive that binds people and ghosts. I write sad stories because the stories themselves are my ghosts that, as Edna O'Brien writes, "are like dogs that bark intermittently in the night."
Moreover, sad stories prepare us for futures we are too brittle to imagine or too ignorant to recognize as possible. They allow us to experience death and loss and desperation with only a modicum of real pain. They are precursors to seasons we have not yet lived.
I write sad stories because I want to live in the past, present, and future simultaneously.
On a perfect July morning, I am walking down 1st Avenue in Minneapolis. In front of a burned out 2 and 1/2 story house near 28th street, an empty mailbox gapes like an open mouth, it's red flag 90 degrees in the air. Mylar balloons tied to the fence bob in the breeze. Affixed to the gate is a red sign that reads, Hi Jenny, All students at Magic Beauty School miss you! On the front stairs at the foot of the gate, a plate of spring rolls sits untouched among bouquets of red roses and white chrysanthemums. An open bottle of water and a can of juice wait among burning candles and incense. And in the middle of these funereal offerings is a picture of Jenny, of beautiful olive-skinned, black-haired Jenny.
The air still smells of fire.
I close my eyes, I breathe in deeply, I breathe in until past the smell of charred wood, I think I can ascertain the scent that was uniquely hers, one which will slowly fade out of existence as the last of her things absorb the other scents around them.
I leave a dandelion between two candles that will burn for her until their wicks are spent. Then, I walk home on my strong, good legs, the breeze whipping my hair all around me, a new ghost whispering in my ear.
At home, I will work on writing another sad story--a story where there aren't neat explanations, a story where calculations and probabilities all prove incorrect.
And Jenny, my beautiful olive-skinned, black-haired Jenny, this new story, a story where in the space of one night the whole world trembles into darkness, this is the story I am writing for you.