Short Stories All the Time

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... a few of my thoughts about 900, mostly contemporary, short stories.
Showing posts with label Wheaton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wheaton. Show all posts

22 June, 2016

Kathleen Wheaton, "Glass Onion"

The story is told some years after the events. The setting is 1970, Pasadena. The POV is that of an anonymous narrator, but it's so close that it feels like a first-person narration. The story looks back on history, some time after 1981 as the Natalie Wood death is mentioned. Helen's younger sister, a fourth grader at the time of the story, will later become a Rose Queen for the Rose Parade that travels down Orange Grove Boulevard. Helen and Amy, seventh graders, try to make sense of their world as they debate how to fight off midnight murderers.

Several events in the story show how bigotry works with oh, so, cloaked comments and claims and fake assumptions. "This was what Amy had told her--that black people and Jewish people couldn't even enter. Helen's parents had said that it wasn't true--had she ever seen guards at at the door, keeping people out? It was more a question, her father had said, of whether certain people would feel comfortable there."

The Manson murders are woven into the story to explain fears, give excuses, for the rich Wyatt family, Helen's family. They live on Orange Grove Boulevard, aka Millionaire's Row. Her best friend is Amy, a Jewish classmate. Helen and Amy are infatuated with Edward Barr, the new and only black student in their school. "He was the school's first black student; a neat, quiet boy, with careful penmanship and a slow-blooming, radiant smile." The school forced him to retake seventh grade even though he was an eighth grader; he was later accepted into a more prestigious school that allowed him into the ninth grade. Of course, the first school took credit claiming that they had prepared him well and that's why he was accepted. Helen feels sadness because she hadn't wanted Edward to see where their house key was hidden; she'd also not wanted the lifeguard to overhear her tell her mother where it was so she'd whispered in her ear. At that point, Helen was trying to be a good girl and had taken on the fears of her parents about the Manson murders, "...the Wyatt's lived not twenty miles from where Sharon Tate and her dinner guests had been murdered." She'd told Edward to close his eyes while she dug the key out from underneath the Meyer lemon tree at the front door. He did, then said that she could find another hiding place after he left. "She never saw him again." And, "Meanwhile, Helen's love for him was turning into an ache of embarrassment over the key--that he'd thought she hadn't wanted him to see where it was hidden because he was a black person."


In another incident, while Edward's mother is working at the church, he is told that he can ride the preacher's son's expensive Peugeot bicycle and, of course, some white lady goes berserk and makes "a big mess" so that Edward has to wear church clothes to ride the church bike.

The title, "Glass Onion," means a coffin with a glass lid and also refers to something over analyzed or making fun of someone who is trying to make something out of nothing. Helen realizes, some years later, that this is what occurred as adults made excuses, created absurd fears, intimated "certain" people might not be comfortable at the country club. Actually, she had picked up on it when she was young. "And the idea that she'd hurt Edward Barr's feelings bloomed until it tinged everything she associated with him..." so now she's consumed with white guilt.

"Glass Onion" is also one of the Beatles' songs from 1968. Wheaton weaves cultural timeline events nicely into the story to give not just a sense of place and time but also attitudes. It makes sense that she does that so well because she's also a journalist.

"Glass Onion" by Kathleen Wheaton is in the current, volume 37, number 1, 2016 issue of New England Review and is available online. I have the hard copy that, I believe, I bought in St. Paul, MN. I much prefer reading actual books to online. The story is a glimpse into the world of young, rich, white children in their "nice" schools and how racism is passed along, generation to generation, as well as how institutional racism operates. But it's also a story of friendship and learning and admiring a cute boy from afar.