Tom Drury: “Joan Comes Home”
02/14/2012 § Leave a comment
Originally published in A Public Space, No. 12, 2011.
There is a glut of details in Drury’s short, and yet he somehow manages to make them all feel relevant, in part, perhaps, because he keeps the scope so wide — as much about the home to which Joan has returned as about Joan, or her ex- (but not legally divorced) husband Tiny, or the son whom she, having abandoned seven years ago, has now come — at their mutual desire — to collect. They say you can never make a second first impression, but for a story with so much time and distance echoing between each line, even these smallest descriptions feel relevant and new; they are the embodiment of second chances and the ramifications of those decisions. After all, in someone else’s story, we’re all just objects.
In any case, let’s begin at the beginning, with an example of Drury’s precise prose:
One spring, after being gone seven years, the actress Joan Gower returned to Grouse County to get her son and take him back to California to live with her. There Joan played the character Sister Mia on the television show “Forensic Mystic.” Perhaps you’ve seen it…. Joan’s son was Micah Darling. He lived with his father and Joan’s ex-husband, Tiny Darling, in a low, meandering house outside of Boris.
Despite the abruptness of the opening, Drury is careful to make each phrase feel utterly familiar, lived-in, returned to, and matter-of-fact. We are given a ridiculous fact about the television show Joan’s on, and yet invited in to this world with the suggest that “perhaps” we’ve seen it. We’re told specifically who these people are, but not at the expense of showing us: instead, it’s with the sense of being reminded of who these people are. And once we’re set, Drury simply lets the scene speak for itself: on this back porch, Micah and Tiny sit on “rickety metal chairs with tubular arms and clamshell backs,” and the father attempts to impart some last-minute wisdom to his fourteen-year-old son, a boy who is “tall like Tiny, fine-boned like Joan.” These range from the practical to the impractical and from the physical to the mental: how to carry valuables (in front, not at your side); how to fight (a headbutt to the solar plexus); how to manage money (don’t get a credit card); how to “Keep your own mind.” Once Drury’s wrung everything he can from the scene — the boy’s firm decision to leave, the father’s resigned acceptance — he cuts to the next one, once again presenting the plain facts of the setting (“Joan Gower pulled up in a rented green car at the house of Dan Norman, the former sheriff of Grouse County”) before leaving the rest to the human nature of those living within it.
Joan is fluttery, all nerves, and is half-seriously looking for a police escort, just in case there’s trouble. Really, she just needs to talk to someone familiar — to reacquaint herself with the territory — before she returns home. But we’re not given this through her dialogue; instead, we watch these scene at a distance, through the eyes of Dan’s wife, Louise, and when Joan — who has at least a mentally flirtatious past with Dan — touches her husband’s cheek, the wife doesn’t lash out with the stereotypical jealousy one expects of a story like this. No, in a story filled with surprises — with changes — she notes that “It made her feel happy for some reason. Maybe that it was beautiful. Two people, standing in the yard light, one lifts her hand to touch the other’s face. Whatever else you felt about it, that was an unusually graceful sight to see out in the country.” Of course, the lack of violence doesn’t necessarily imply kindness: we learn, through Louise’s memories, that Joan also twice-abandoned her daughter, Lyris, first to adoption and then again, returned by some “family fixers” after a “series of foster homes,” and that’s a wound that goes unhealed. And yet, we do meet Lyris: twenty-three, married to a decently well-off and slightly older man, Albert, so again, there’s the sense that things can be healed, can carry on, despite early injuries. Not in this story, perhaps, but Drury is offering us a fair vision of strained families that opts against the easily dramatic choices that so many short story writers, looking almost to titillate with their forced voyeurism, run into. Living itself can be tragedy enough.
In any case, the light “climax” of this story involves Joan’s return; Tiny, who has forgiven by largely forgetting her, escorts her in, reunites her with her son, and the two prepare to leave. There’s some emotion in the yard, once again handled in a surprising fashion, with Micah putting all of his unspoken emotions onto his pet goat, momentarily sobbing at the thought that he’ll never see him again. The final sequence, however, follows Tiny — the former plumber who now makes his living by disposing of other people’s potentially toxic trash — as he returns to Micah’s now empty room and sits, silently, on the red-and-black plaid bedcovers, meditating or praying. He’s not alone — Drury is careful to have Tiny’s mother show up to bid Micah farewell — but he is diminished, and quietly devastated by his son’s admittance that he’s always seen Tiny more as a brother than as a father, though “I don’t mean that bad.”
Joan’s biggest surprise upon re-entering the house she left is that “it was not so different from what she remembered, or maybe the opposite: that it was very different from what she remembered.” This is the reader’s biggest surprise, too, for “Joan Comes Home” is never what you’d initially expect and yet, upon closer reading — especially given Drury’s clear foundations — always ultimately exactly what you’d expect. Life goes on; it changes, or it doesn’t, but it goes on.