I first read a Pinckney Benedict story before I realized who Pinckney was, and before I realized I would be studying in a program where he is a member of the instructional staff.
About a year before I decided to apply to the Queens University MFA program, I purchased a copy of the anthology, New Stories from the South, 2008, edited by ZZ Packer. Somehow, I think of my self as a Southern writer, even though I’ve spent most of my life in Ohio and Indiana. There is something that draws my stories to places like Texas and Kentucky and South Carolina and Florida. I feel a deeper resonance with O’Connor or Welty or Percy than I do with Zane Grey, James Joyce, or Kurt Vonnegut. There’s something about that Southern Gothic work that tells me I’m home.
So, the point is, I enjoyed the selections in New Stories from the South, but the one that stuck with me was called, Bridge of Sighs, by Pinckney Benedict, originally published in Zoetrope. It starts like this:
From the darkness of the barn, my father lumbered out into the yard, blinking like a baby in the sunlight. He shaded his eyes with a flat hand until he saw the farmer, a fellow by the name of Woodrow Scurry, standing in the stiff mud, still as a scarecrow. That was what he looked like, Scurry, a scarecrow, with his too-big overalls and beat-to-shit steel-toe boots, his hair sticking out like straw from under his ball cap.
Bridge of Sighs starts with this imaginative and deceptively simple description, and it goes on to leave a series of these images imprinted on the reader, images that are remembered long after the story has been put away. The narrator of this piece is a young boy who accompanies his father as his father exterminates all of the cattle as a result of some sort of pandemic, apocalyptic, cataclysmic, yet unnamed event. It is the father’s job to destroy the cattle, and to help keep the human population safe from whatever disease is spread in the cattle population. He wears a complex hazard suit as he kills the cattle, to keep himself safe.
Through the narrator’s interaction with ranch-man Scurry, and in his recollections of some of the circumstances surrounding his father’s occupation, we are transported into a world that is simultaneously totally familiar and completely alien.
My father jumped out at my little brother and me from behind the front door of our house. We’d just come home from school. He was wearing the Exterminator, the first time he’d put it on, and he thought it would make a good costume to surprise and scare us. My little brother disappeared for a couple of hours, didn’t even make a sound, just vanished back through the door. I stood like I was rooted as this thing, this bug, lurched toward me, its arms outstretched.
When it reached me, it swept me up in a great big embrace. It lifted me up high, and my head brushed the ceiling, exactly the way it did when my father picked me up. Even through my clothes, the touch of the Exterminator was clammy and dank, like something freshly dead. It smelled like a public swimming pool as it nuzzled its face against my cheek. I was stiff. It was trying to kiss me, or eat me, one or the other. It bashed me in the eye with its short, swaying trunk of a nose.
The narrator has to help by finding the cattle the rancher has hidden. He claims that these cattle aren’t sick, but of course to maintain a proper extermination program, even the ones who don’t appear to be sick must be killed. The narrator’s role is to understand the rancher’s point of view, while pointing out the hiding place to his father, the Exterminator. This sort of surreal atmosphere is created which is both harsh and gentle, both unbelievable and logical.
It was this playing of contrasts and these images of this boy’s world that stuck with me, more than I realized.
This May, when I purchased Pinckney Benedict’s short story collection, Miracle Boy and Other Stories, I did so because I wanted to support on of the Queens University MFA writers, and because there’s always the possibility that I’ll have Pinckney as an adviser in one of my upcoming semesters, so why not get to know more of his writing? Bridge of Sighs is featured about half-way through the book, and when I started with that brilliant opening I was immediately reminded that I had read this story, and loved it, several years ago. It was a pleasant surprise to make this connection between an “unknown” author who wrote a story I liked and this funny, personable teacher who I last saw doing his best Mussolini impersonation from the balcony in Sykes Hall.
Miracle Boy and Other Stories is a fine collection of works originally published in Zoetrope, Appalachian Heritage, and Tin House, among others, and featured in the Pushcart Prize, O. Henry Awards, and other honors. The stories are varied and always interesting. They feature unique characters, and Benedict’s keen eye for creating a vibrant world in which his characters live.