Sunday, May 4, 2008

A New Kind of Gravity

The doorbell chimes at seven in the morning and I don't even need to check the monitors to know what's out there: a husband on the front stoop, fidgeting with his clothes, trying not to eyeball the camera. ... Some of them look like the bottom of the barrel, some look like accountants. But when they walk past you, you get the same feeling, like a smell they give off, like something hot and rotten has been packed inside them, crammed down into a space too small to hold it in.

Charlie, the narrator in the short story A New Kind of Gravity by Andrew Foster Altschul, is one of the armed security officers at Skyer House, a safe house for women and children. He takes his job of security very seriously and wishes he could do more for the residents. He also feels a special need to execute his job because of an old fiancee who was abused by her ex-boyfriend. Charlie's heart breaks every time a husband comes to pick up his wife and kids from the shelter. He knows they will return, often with marks showing that things had never really changed.

But cheap ironies abound at Skyer House and Mattie won't permit you to underestimate the women. "It's mutually assured destruction --- just like the bombs," she once told me. ... You can't stop people from f***ing up their own lives, Mattie said. You can't even really stop them from f***ing up someone else's, if that's what they want to do. All you can do is give them choices, offer them some scaled-down version of freedom, then stand back and cover your ears when they still decide to push the button.

Charlie shares a special friendship with one little girl named Camila. He is allowed to pat her on the head when she passes by to get on her school bus and he helps her with her math homework when she visits his office. On two separate occasions Charlie has a confrontation of sorts with Camila's mother Mariana. Both meetings leave him feeling very uncomfortable about the choices that are being made by Mariana for herself and her daughter. Then one morning Camila's father arrives at Skyer House to pick up his wife and daughter.

A heart-breaking story, A New Kind of Gravity evokes many different feelings while reading it. It is a brief glimpse into Charlie's life and job, but it left me wanting to know a few more details to fill in some gaps about what he does and why. I believe there is more to his character than I grasped. I appreciated reading a male voice as the narrator rather than the story being told by a resident or a counselor. I felt it gave the story a different perspective.

Overall, it was a good short story.

"A New Kind of Gravity" by Andrew Foster Altschul from The O. Henry Prize Stories 2007 edited by Laura Furman

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