Jesmyn Ward: “Barefoot”
12/21/2011 § Leave a comment
Originally published in A Public Space, No. 14, 2011.
The first story of Ward’s that I ever read was her debut, which dealt with truckers. Her latest offers the inverse of that: the sedentary life of gas station attendant, Alsace, who works with a flirtatious gay man named James (who, at high school, was known as FuckBoy, “to try and smoke him out of the closet”), and who lives with his sister Monet and, occasionally, her abusive boyfriend, Harrison. Al’s mother left as soon as they were old enough to take care of themselves (eighteen for him, sixteen for her), and remains only a scolding presence via letters, so he’s suffering from an absence of love in his life. This leads to the main thrust of Ward’s story, in which one night, he flirts and has sex with a customer named Candice, and then succumbs to James’s advances, too. (“Why not? I thought, even though a small voice said: Why?”) This latter choice, a new one for him, is prompted by a memory of teaching Monet to ride a bike at age eleven, in which he cared for and calmed her after a slight accident: “All still except for the remainder of the tears running down her face. Calm. I did that, I thought.” It’s this same quiet, this calm, that he’s looking to give to James, whereas love, to him, is something that he feels unable to provide to any of his partners. (“It’s not like that for me. With anyone.”)
But there’s something missing in the story. We know that Al is a passive guy who wants to be tender, so what flips the switch at the end that makes him finally beat the shit out of Harrison? (“One for every black eye,” he says of his punches.) It’s especially odd, given the final two lines, which seem to express that he still doesn’t want to use violence. (“My hands. They felt wrong.”) Likewise, the title of the story comes from the moment just before this, in which Al tries to smooth things over with a wounded James, who happens to be cleaning the bathroom barefoot. Down on all fours, James is every inch as pathetic as his sister, in that he represents a person who will continue to return to a person who has proven that they cannot love them in return (at least with Al, there’s less violence), but if there’s a sudden thought in Al’s mind of there being any similarity between he and Harrison — and the need to therefore destroy any connection — Ward is perhaps playing her cards too tightly. I can’t entirely fault her for that: less can often be more, and Ward’s language has a tight fragility to it that speaks to its wounded, angry characters. But any story that’s capable of finding a common ground between the learned movements of cooking and those of domestic abuse should also be capable of refining that last, necessary connection.
Then again, perhaps I’m being too easy on Ward: Monet’s a straw character, the tragic victim, and like her, we only see James through Al’s eyes, and perhaps the first-person choice for this type of story (especially given the well-trod territory of abuse) was a poor one for the author. We need to know what’s going on here, but the narrator’s circumstances leave him unable to explain it. Instead, Harrison is simply the drunk with whom Monet is in love, and James is simply the FuckBoy who works with him.