Sunday, May 3, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 18: "Invisible Life" by Kent Nelson

This week I returned to The Best American Short Stories 1986, bidden by the Queen of clubs to a quite intriguing story first published in the Virginia Quarterly Review.


"Invisible Life" is the story of a no-longer-young couple, Tom and Allison, and their three children Hillary, Tricia, and baby Livingston. They have a normal-appearing life until one day, shortly after the baby is born, Allison decides she's going back to school for graduate studies in history. Tom is perplexed about Allison's motivation to suddenly go back to school clear across the country and leave her family temporarily in the process. For her part, Allison is Sphinx-like in her reasons and never really comes out and talks about it to anyone except Tom's mother, who seems to understand her reasons. This infuriates Tom because he didn't think Allison even liked his mother. Furthermore, he thinks all this may stem from some kind of postpartum depression, even though Allison seems more focused and happier than before the baby was born.

The undercurrent (pun intended) of the whole story seems to be Allison's unseen and untalked-about motivations, and eventually Tom begins to see her decision in a negative light:

"We just can't get along without you," I said more softly.

"Certainly you can," she whispered. "What would you do if I died?"

Hypothetical questions have always irritated the hell out of me. I didn't know what I would do if she were to die, but she was not about to. I would not know what to do if my law practice suddenly evaporated, or if Allison were miraculously beautiful, or if Hillary were taking cocaine. I only know what I do at the moment, in response to a real event or a real threat. And I began to consider Allison's scheme a threat.

Tom becomes ultra-suspicious, and not without good reason. He wants Allison to rent a nice apartment in a good part of town near Harvard, which is where she is accepted, and she refuses, choosing instead a run-down, dirty apartment in a seedy neighborhood. One day she suddenly cancels her telephone service without telling Tom. She cuts her hair very short and becomes much thinner. There's every indication that she has, as the title of the story indicates, an entire "invisible life" that is completely inaccessible to Tom.

The title of the story is also illustrated in another episode where Tom and Tricia are gazing into a stream and he begins to tell her about the tiny, invisible creatures that live there, such as protozoa which his dad had demonstrated to him with a microscope, very scientifically and factually. Tom asks Tricia how she might figure out if these tiny creatures were really there or not, expecting her to provide some similar solution as a microscope. However, she responds that she can tell they are there by the fish -- that the fish wouldn't be able to live in the stream unless there were also many smaller creatures that they could eat to stay alive. It's a telling moment (which somehow is still lost on Tom) where he is being asked to trust in things that he can't see or understand.

"Stream in the Woods" -- photo by Jim Pokorny

The story ends on a more hopeful note, however, with Tom back at the stream in wintertime, and at this point the reader gets the impression that light is beginning to break through and Tom is at least more able to accept Allison's actions in spite of still not being able to understand them fully.

I really enjoyed this story. The atmosphere of not knowing what was going on underneath the surface, while normally irritating to me as a reader, instead worked very well in this story.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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