In this month’s From the Archives piece, Kathryn Ordiway examines “Babyland” by Steve Edwards, first published in New Voices in January 2017. Let’s take a trip into the archives!
A good short story tells us something about our reality, no matter how otherworldly it is. Steve Edwards’ “Babyland,” published by The Masters Review in January 2017, is a beautiful commentary on the complexity of parenting, on marriage while parenting, and on the humans we are, even when we’re parents.
The story follows Jesse, the father of an unusual child, who is grappling with conflicting feelings regarding his daughter. I don’t want to spoil anything—and what follows will spoil the story—so read it first, maybe grab a coffee, then join me.
Ready? Let’s dive into what’s really working here.
Let the strange do the talking
Good short stories have their world, and they stick to it. I’m not saying the details are heavy, but the mechanics are true to themselves. The dash of weird in this otherwise domestic parent drama? Baby Emma is fifteen years old. She’s six months developmentally, six months in weight, length, skill, and appearance, but Jesse and Grace have been caring for her for fifteen years. Why? We don’t know, Jesse and Grace don’t know, and if Edwards is in on it, he’s not sharing.
Within the world of the story, Jesse and Grace tried to find out, and those desperate attempts to understand are important to them. That particular year of their life is called “the lost year.” Edwards tells us about it, and briefly explains the tests doctors ran to figure out the mystery of Baby Emma. But within our world, where Jesse and Grace and Baby Emma exist as a story, there’s no clue about why this is. It simply is. Baby Emma plateaued at six months, and ever since, Jesse and Grace have been eternally locked in the routine of diapers and tummy time, bottles and yogurt melts.
The weirdness here, and not fixating on what sort of science led to this life for the characters, gives Edwards a unique lens through which to view parenthood, and struggling with parenthood that doesn’t follow the healthy child mold:
In his best moments, he feels as though this has all been a gift, that it’s purified his love and deepened his gratitude. And he wouldn’t change a thing.
In his worst moments, when his grading has piled up, or when Grace is irritable with him, or Baby Emma is colicky and impossible to please, loss spears him between the ribs.
Having Baby’s Emma permanent babyhood be what it is without tedious explanation, while also acknowledging its strangeness within the bounds of the story, frees the story to examine what’s important: Jesse, Grace, and their life with Baby Emma now.
The power of a list
From the beginning of this story, Edwards uses sentence length to his advantage. The story opens with a long, breathless sentence:
At the end of every day, when Jesse has finished teaching his classes, and the babysitter’s been paid, and Grace has returned from work at the museum and changed into jeans and a sweater, and dinner’s been eaten and dishes piled in the sink, they load Baby Emma into her stroller and walk around the Witherbee neighborhood.
The sentence feels like a checklist, a race against the clock, a rush toward a gulp of air. The sentence itself mirrors the end of Jesse’s day, everything stumbling toward the moment when Baby Emma enters the stroller and the walk around Witherbee begins. When we get to the next sentence, beginning with “They are fixtures in Lincoln,” that comma feels like another chance at breath, and we relax into the steadfastness of Jesse and Grace’s presence in the neighborhood.
Edwards returns to listing multiple times in the story, in various styles.
Jesse remembers the day they found out Grace was pregnant. They went for a walk out in the country. It was March. A snowsquall kicked up. A dozen steam-breathed horses stood perfectly still in a far pasture, blinking snowflakes out of their long eyelashes. He remembers feeling young, full of hope, and thinking that the baby might be a painter, paint scenes like this.
Here, the list is choppier, short sentences of detail, followed by the long moment lingering with the horses. And then another list of Jesse’s feelings, his dreams.
He makes her toast. Packs her a salad for lunch. Compliments her dress, an artsy black and color print. Pecks her on the cheek in passing. Cheerfulness is his apology.
In a story so intimately involved in the domestic, making sure to be so specific rather than glossing over the details of a routine or a memory, highlights the repetition and monotony, the work that everything takes. Parenting is monotonous, caring for a baby especially so. There are routines so boring you think you might cry, and when the routines get disturbed, you think you might cry about that, too.
Dialogue you barely even notice
There is not a great deal of dialogue in this story, and this story is not about dialogue. There are stories that need to be wholly dialogue, or mostly, and those that do not. In the moments that Edwards chooses to let his characters speak to each other directly, and for us to read it from their mouths, it counts.
Dialogue is hard. Bad dialogue can ruin a story. Great dialogue can easily go unnoticed simply because it is great. It flows, it feels real in the right ways, like in the following excerpt:
“I used to think Emma would paint,” he says. “I just thought that for some reason. Do you remember me thinking that?”
“About Emma. Painting.”
“We thought a lot of things,” Grace says, unimpressed by the poem she is reading, setting it aside. It is late-September, cool now at night. Attracted by the lamplight through their blinds, a moth taps at the window.
“We were cheated.”
The reader feels the repetition of this line of thought, though such a conversation only happens once in the story. It is clear in how quickly Jesse gets to the heart of his feelings, in how quickly Grace cuts him off. This is well worn ground in their journey together; this is a battleground they’ve visited again and again.
After this, the last bit of dialogue we get from Grace in the present comes as she’s about to head out the door. She turns to Jesse and asks, “You okay?” A kindness after what has happened, a band-aid on a wound they’ve opened again and again and will certainly continue to.
A glimpse of reality
All of this comes together to tell a story and to stand as a mirror. Many (I’d venture to say most, if not all) parents have these feelings. They find themselves hating, for a moment or two, what their lives have become. Find themselves standing somewhere, listening to their child cry, not quite moving to the rescue. These statements are even more true for parents to children with disabilities, chronic illness, mental health disorders, or any other situation that leaves the family under-supported, often in the dark, searching for answers.
Early in the story, Jesse and Emma sit in bed together, reading, taking in some quiet time. Conversation turns to Emma, and to what could have been and is not:
“All I really want,” he says, “is for Emma to be Emma. You know?”
“She is, Jesse.”
“Jesse,” Grace says. “She is.”
I’ll let that bit do the talking.
Later, when we follow Jesse into a cemetery and on a hunt for Charles Starkweather’s grave, we get to be with Jesse alone for a moment. He walks away from his car, he wanders through the sun-dappled grass, searching for a headstone he’s sure he’s seen. He’s thinking about Starkweather, he’s thinking about himself. And of course, he’s thinking of Baby Emma.
Back before Baby Emma came along, Jesse’s graduate study had given him any number of explanations for someone like Starkweather. He was a sociopath. A psychopath. But now none of that seemed to matter. Explanations never really explain. If someone can shoot you over a stuffed animal, or if your beautiful six-month-old just one day plateaus, your pain stretches out farther than understanding ever will.
There is grief in death and there is grief in living. There are weird spaces in between. Edwards captures it all.
by Kathryn Ordiway