“I Could Feel the Poverty”

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I’m the ninth reader in a line-up of 10. Famous Writer will be last, naturally. This is the final evening of an intimate week of instruction, workshopping, and study. During the past six days, I’ve schlepped salads and sandwiches and coffee for the aspiring novelists who’ve come to this rural mountain ranch. Famous Writer has a good following—these folks venture from all over the country.

We read in a dark cabin. Candles shimmer along the rough-hewn walls. Cobwebs hang in ashy bunches from the low ceiling. Hay and the musky scent of pioneer lives tangle with modern perfume and toothpaste. Outside, a shawl of brilliant stars covers the night.

A hundred or more years before, other people journeyed without roads or streetlights or a known destination and landed here, deciding this is the spot to hunker and hope.

I came six months before to housesit while the Writer trekked in Asia. I didn’t really know her other than her first book. It’s a strange arrangement—me staying on, her leaving often for writerly, out-in-the-world duties, to see her phenomenal therapist five hours away, or her budding relationship with a man she met at a conference, me staying in her house and with her many dogs.

One night, when she was home, she swept, and a few coins shone in the pile—two pennies, a dime. She dumped them into the trash, and I bit my lip. In my own writing, I was trying to revise a scene about the time when my father had gone into a store to ask if he could buy bread and milk and eggs with the coins in the Folger’s can he palmed. “Get out of here,” the counter man said. “I throw pennies outside for kids.”

A year before, in a workshop, my fellow writers had said the moment wasn’t believable because “we didn’t have that kind of poverty in the United States.”

I wanted to tell them to get out more.

I understood the scene wasn’t working but I felt robbed—I thought my peers were saying my experience—and that of my family—wasn’t real. My writing stalled out, and I spent too much time in the city with a friend, drinking.

Coming here wasn’t a bad thing, but it’s not a clear thing, either. I wanted to return to my novel. Famous Writer and I first met at another conference where I was her classroom assistant, and I made a comment about mashed potatoes that she liked, so she asked me what I was doing next, and so I am here, ninth in a lineup of 10, and I’m going to read the opening of my book.

My chest thunders with nerves, and I try to focus on the other readers, their wispy stories of heartache and affluent troubles, but I bounce between my own work and the way we are laying our narratives onto the people who’d lived here before. The Ute and Navaho and then the miners.

And it’s my turn. I fumble forward, and the candles waver, and it feels like the lives of the pioneer family who lived on this land somehow merge with my own, and I feel the burden of two narratives, tripping my tongue on the first sentences.

But, I slow myself and then, I’m leaning into the story, how the father character leaves the house in a snowstorm, the lights having been turned off, the family oh-so-hungry, and will he find a deer to get them through the night?

Through the roughest of rough patches in their rough lives.

And I feel good when I’m done, and it seems the applause is real. Famous Writer reads from her novel-in-progress, but I’m not in my body. Instead, I watch a candle flit and flicker and wonder how my parents are.

Afterward, one of the skirted, J. Peterman outfitted women enfolds me. She whispers, “It was so good.” She releases me—partially—and while still holding onto my forearms, says, “I could just feel the poverty.”

I nod numbly, fury sweeping through me, and it takes everything not to punch her in the stomach, where the hunger I bet she’s never felt can curdle and scratch, mewl and moan.

I step back, and the clatter of her Santa Fe silver bracelets follows as I move away, to the dark Western night. The tangle of stories and class and the legacy of wealth as stealthy as anything else I may find out here.

Image Credit: Max Pixel.