"Literally" by Antonya Nelson Originally published in the December 3, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
I am hit-and-miss with Antonya Nelson. On the one hand, from her various successes, I recognize that she is an exceptional short story writer, skilled in structure and tone, and I respect her and am always interested in her next short story; on the other hand, a good portion of her stories — this one included — leave me scratching my head, a bit disappointed but, knowing she’s good, unsure whether it’s just me. Often, after thinking about them for a while, rereading them, and finally writing about them, something comes out of it all and I’m impressed. That also happened with this story, though I’m not quite all the way there yet.
This story revolves around one day in the life of a family of three, their housekeeper, and the housekeeper’s son. Richard is the father, and throughout the day he’ll compare his failures to his deceased wife’s knack for following through with everything, for getting everything right in a world that can go so wrong. His daughter, Suzanne, is a high-strung perfectionist like her mother; she gets the opening line in the story: “‘She’s always late!’ the sixteen-year-old sobbed.” His son, Danny, is eleven and is best friends with the housekeeper’s son, Isaac. Bonita is the housekeeper who, despite three decades in Houston, does not communicate well in English. No one knows if she arrived legally, but all of her children were born in the United States.
The day is a terrible day, “[e]ven though nothing exactly bad happened,” as Danny says at the end. It starts out with Suzanne stressed about getting to her private school, which she helps pay for, on time. Bonita finally arrives, and it’s obvious it’s been a stressful morning for her as well. Isaac will not be going to school that day because he’s having what may be an anxiety attack. Isaac’s father was abusive, and Richard’s wife had helped Bonita change the locks, get a divorce, and secure a restraining order, but all of this doesn’t stop the terror. Furthermore, that may only be a fraction of any reason Isaac suffers some days. Richard allows Danny to stay home with Isaac, and then he himself goes off to work.
He’s not there for long before there’s a “credible” bomb threat, though it turns out there is no bomb. Soon after this is over, he receives a frantic call from Bonita saying that Danny and Isaac have gone. He quickly leaves work and they go to search for the boys.
As was stated above, nothing particularly terrible happens on this day, but the potential is constantly present, like the ghost of Richard’s wife who, after her car wreck, seems to have left them all deficient and searching. It’s almost a wasted day, in some sense: Richard goes to work but gets nothing done due to the bomb threat and the fact his child has left home. It’s doubtful in any of that time that Bonita got anything done, and when they finally find the boys she doesn’t come back to work. Suzanne herself leaves her after-school job after “an anxious hour at the Dairy Queen counter” when she cannot find her cell phone.
It’s a terrible day, but nothing terrible happens. We get the sense that most days are terrible days now that the wife, mother, and compassionate employer has left the family — and in the end we’re left wondering if she left them on a silly whim. It’s an excellent ending because we also get the sense that all of the terrible things we’re expected to happen are still right on the horizon.
On my first read through, I didn’t particularly care for the story. I didn’t mind that nothing particularly happened, but I also was not confident it would add up to anything. After reflection and another skim, it’s growing on me. I’m interested to see how others feel and whether in time this story will continue to grow on me or move into the background.