The opening story, “Windfalls” by Lesley Nneka Arimah falls into this category. The story, written in second person, follows Graceline and her mother as they travel across the country. They sustain themselves by faking falls inside grocery stores and collecting money from lawsuits. Even before the main character can consent to her mother’s schemes, she’s playing a part in them:
You like to believe that the first fall, the one that left you with a permanent brace on your ankle, was real. That she was reaching over to grab the biggest, freshest eggplant off the display, but slipped, and oh shit, dropped the baby.The money never lasts long, the mother blowing it on the unreliable men who fade in and out of their lives. Despite the constant moves and living in cockroach-infested motels, Graceline remains faithful to her mother, going so far as to perform sexual favors for the lawyers her mother tries to hire. Things finally seem like they might change for the pair when, at fifteen years old, Graceline discovers she’s pregnant from one of her negotiations, but the relationship with her mother is far from being fixed. Amirah masters the POV she chose for this piece, the second person narrative written in ease, and her characters left me wishing to keep following them through their travels.
Another story with a rocky relationship between mother and daughter is Cynthia Mitchell’s “Mr. Shaw.” The narrator, Sylvie, discovers her mother is having an affair and spends the short piece bouncing between the need to love her mother, to feelings of contempt, to what she begins to feel as a romantic rival when 50 year old Mr. Shaw comes into the picture. Although “feeling grown up and shiny,” Mitchell continues to show us Sylvie’s immaturity through her thoughts and actions as she navigates summer vacation beside her mother.
A different sort of “mother” is found in “Free Ride” by Elise Glassman, further highlighting the types of variety within this issue—even stories with similar elements have their own enjoyable twists. In “Free Ride,” main character Vitti has a rocky relationship with her sister Sophia, a non-existent relationship with her parents who left the two sisters in the care of their step-uncle whom they affectionately call “Mom,” and a bristling at best relationship with everyone else she runs into. The only good relationship she has is with Mom, but even that is tainted and further begins to crumble as her greed and selfishness get in the way. She has brief moments of clarity but even those are fogged by her need for “what everybody else has” until a literal free ride brings her to the fate she’s been shaping. Vitti’s personality is larger than life and Glassman has managed to create a character that can simultaneously fill a reader with sympathy and disgust. At times, I was so fed up with her, I almost wanted to stop reading, but curiosity over whether she learns her lesson kept me around.
In the poetry section, a piece featuring mothers caught my eye once more. In her poem “Breath,” Lena Gluck takes a look at circumstances of birth, first her own, “with my own umbilical cord / as my noose” and a life she never even asked her mother for, and later focuses on her grandmother’s work at Planned Parenthood. Broken into seven sections, each examines a different scenario. The imagery in each one draws readers into the moment until we can clearly picture her grandmother (maybe some of us with our own grandmothers coming to mind) when she found out she was pregnant with her fifth child and:
She sat alone in the basementAlso making good use of imagery is Alice Teeter in her poem “Your Mother’s Porch.” She paints a picture of the fog rolling in and frosting the windows, the voice of the speaker’s mother becoming almost tangible as it echoes against the fog. Together with “Fish,” her other piece in this issue, Teeter gives us vivid snapshots of small moments on the mountain.
every shirt and pair of pants another layer
of heaviness over her chest, her breath,
until she crumpled into the pile,
dug her fingers into it,
There’s plenty of other poetry to check out in this issue with a lot of variety in form and subject matter. Rhyming poems are settled in among free verse, love poems are mixed in with “hymns”—there’s a little bit of something for everyone.
Nonfiction can also be found in this issue: Donald Kuspit writes about the art of Marlene Yu and Judith Stone takes a look at actress Sarah Bernhardt in “The Divine Sarah: Seeking Immortality through Film.” Reviews by Paul D. Green, Garnett Kilberg Cohen, and Emily Yoon close the issue.
Whether readers are in the mood for a compelling story, poetry bursting with imagery, or essays highlighting the arts, this issue of Per Contra will leave them satisfied.