This weekend we revisit Sharon Erby’s story, “Wren,” which was originally published here at The Good Men Project and is now collected in her book, Parallel. Parallel is a collection of tales that “reveal the resilience of the human spirit even as they evince the paradoxical nature of change.” Below I talk with Sharon about her story and her collection. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Editor
GMP: Is there a particular way you approach writing from a male perspective?
Sharon Erby: Not really. But what I try to do is ‘know’ my characters, whether they’re male or female. I figure them out both before writing about them and while writing about them. For starters, each gets a biography of sorts—you know, general stuff, like physical characteristics, age, gender and such. Then the fun starts. What characters do, why they do it, and what happens afterwards fascinates me—it’s a dynamic equation. As such, “real” character gets revealed while I write. Also, while writing, I sometimes work against readers’ expectations; after all, in real life, people (even those we know well) don’t always do what we anticipate.
Another thing I can say is that since I have lived awhile, I’ve had the good fortune of living with, working with, and otherwise associating with a range of both males and females. It’s rather fun to blend characters by drawing from such a tremendous “gene pool.”
Did you do a lot of research for “Wren” and for the other stories?
Yes; I did a fair amount of research. “Wren” required me to have an understanding of the Vietnam War and the post-conflict problems soldiers experienced. The collection encompassed quite a time span, and another conflict—Operation Desert Storm—impacted another character’s life, so I had to educate myself on that as well, to draw parallels and contrasts between the two.
The main character of the collection is actually the daughter of Martin, the protagonist of “Wren,” and she becomes a garbage collector. To prepare to create a realistic portrayal of her job was a challenge. I actually attended an open house held by a local waste management company, where I spoke with collectors about their jobs and collection routes, and I even traveled a few of the routes (on my own). I ended up being absolutely in awe of the tremendous physical endurance these folks have—and sad about the stigma they put up with because of their work.
In trying to find a possible way some of the characters might reconcile their tough lives, I looked to mysticism. I broke out the Evelyn Underhill books I’d read years before (along with Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses) and combined information from these with research on ‘thin’ atmospheres believed by some to facilitate mystical experience. One such point existed in nearby Berks County. Why couldn’t such a place exist at the top of the Timmons, the mountain that oversees the region where all the main characters live?
The collection also includes a clinical psychologist who fancies himself to be like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. I needed to get a grasp of that profession as well as refresh my knowledge of the character named Flitcraft in The Maltese Falcon to develop that fellow.
Several Amish characters round out the cast, and since I live around many of these folks, I used my ears to make sure I correctly handled their dialect; understanding their views and attitudes toward the “English” (specifically, as they relate to medical treatment) was challenging.
What was this book’s road to publication?
Parallel is a short story collection, so I first found homes for several of the stories in magazines and journals. After that, things got tougher. I’m not one to enter contests and I don’t have an agent. Neither do I have any contacts in the publishing business. So I researched to find independent publishers who accepted unsponsored and unsolicited manuscripts. I had a few strikes before hitting with Harvard Square Editions. The whole process took a few years—really, since the time I completed my MFA at Wilkes University in 2009.
Tell our readers in one sentence why they should buy your collection?
It has heart and soul and a kick-ass female garbage collector.
Martin soon discovered a man could live with nothing and have everything. The place had no running water, but the creek was just down over the hill, so he could wash the few clothes he had there, let the air worry about drying them on the rope he’d rigged from the ash tree to the shack. He liked to sit and look out the window while his shirt sleeves waved at him. A mama wren and her babies lived there with him then, and provided chamber music. The wind and the birds’ songs became a mantra; when Martin heard it, his breath fell into a rhythm that seemed to absolve him, allowed him to escape to where no one needed saving.
Martin marveled at the mama wren’s posture when she was in the throes of song, her small straight form, her pure voice. But one day sometime at the end of spring, she flew off and didn’t come back, her babies gone with her, leaving him alone with the black snake that sometimes stayed under the burner—the snake he’d once rescued the wren’s babies from.
Martin had lived in the shack for almost a year. Ernie, the dad of one of Martin’s friends, had told him the place was his for as long as he wanted it. After the blow up with his own dad, Martin couldn’t think of anything except getting away.
He’d experienced at least a part of all four seasons there, and he liked fall best. On blue mornings, he imagined running over the light-caught leaves clear up to the top of the mountain, his leg working again, listening to the crackling under his feet—a dry fire, making him run even faster—until he’d get to the top and look around. No valleys here—just red, orange, yellow, copper-topped mountains circling him—sheltering, buffering.
On gray days, Martin indulged his melancholy, holed up in the shack, sat at the table. He projected his moods on Harpo, Ernie’s hound dog, after the wrens were gone, and Harpo, in return, howled right back at him from outside the door. The old blue tick would cock his head to one side, eyeball Martin, the fear of unknowing in his eyes, then head back to his master’s house. Sometimes Martin would even belt out a song that one of the brothers taught him in Vietnam, like John Lee Hooker’s “I Need Some Money”—to no one. If he was lucky, he’d have whiskey to drink while he did these things. And if he did, he’d drink it until it was gone. Then he’d hop over to the cot if he had the energy, crawl over if he didn’t have as much, or drop right down under the table and sleep if he had none.
More times than he admitted to himself, it was the latter category. He should have been stronger than he was by then. Two and a half years of his life were gone. And he’d only had one tour. Some of the sorry soldiers in his company had re-enlisted. Funny, how what Martin had regarded with excitement before he got to the war had changed quicker than his teenage sister changed her clothes. Now, the only way he figured he’d ever be able to run again was when his imagination ran him up the mountain.
“Your stump needs more time to heal before we can fit you with an artificial leg,” the VA doctor had said on Martin’s first visit back to the hospital, following the final surgery on his leg—two months before he moved to the shack. “Give it another three months.” And after a scribble on Martin’s chart, he’d left to attend to the next and the next veterans. Martin had sat there on the bed, alone, wondering just how many “next” soldiers there were in the hospital with him—how many had gotten the same news. Before he and Ernie went back to the mountains, they stopped in at a dive close to the hospital for drinks.
They overheard a big black man who was sipping a draught. “They told me it’ll be another three months at least,” he said. “That’s what they told me six months ago. What the fuck? If I can’t have me a leg, I’m gonna let the VA buy me a brand new shiny wheelchair to cruise me outta town. Fuck these crutches.”
Martin nodded in agreement, decided right then to sit on his ass and do nothing, drink himself into a daze when he got back to the shack. It lasted almost until his next appointment at the hospital.
Martin never expected to kill anyone when he was in the war. He had decided ahead of time to leave the killing up to the Marines. But once he got there, he had to adjust the way he looked at things. It was then he decided that he never wanted to be close enough to see the eyes of anybody he killed. All he had wanted out of it was an adventure, a chance to see what was going on somewhere else. People got branded in small towns. And Martin, a book boy who didn’t play team sports—who preferred instead to run alongside or across cornfields or through barren fields—with his ex-Marine turned businessman for a dad, stuck out in a town of farmers and farmers’ sons who spent their free time shooting hoops, slugging baseballs, watching the action from the stands, or taking to the mountains to hunt.
Not that his dad hadn’t tried to fit in when they’d traded the suburbs for country life—he even took up hunting while Martin was in high school. But his dad’s penchant for perfect guns, no matter their cost (by that time, he could afford the best) annoyed the locals, and his only hunting companions had to be bussed in from his old neighborhood. Martin was not invited. His dad dismissed him with, “You better just go run. You’d end up shooting yourself. Or me.”
Martin managed not to shoot himself when he was in the Army; in fact, he became enough of an expert during basic training that he was First Infantry Division in Vietnam. By the time he was deployed in 1969, the mission of the Big Red 1 had changed several times. When he heard the division would be taking part in the Dong Tien (Progress Together) operation, Martin even figured he’d be doing something good—helping the South Vietnamese learn to fight their own war.
But it never happened, not while Martin was there, at least. Instead, his division got caught up in reconnaissance-in-force and ambush operations, and right before his tour of duty ended, Vietnam was deep into the monsoon season. The VC knew how to move in it, and kept advancing, while Martin’s company got slower, the men taking hours to hack through grassy swamps and bamboo forests with machetes.
They could never rest—you never knew for sure who was the enemy. It was always wet. And there were always leeches. You’d settle down finally for a second, and something would startle you but you couldn’t cry out, and then you’d reach down and it would be a leech. Often Martin pulled one of the slimy bastards off his flesh—dug it off with his fingernails—and threw it far as he could into the night. When the light broke, he would notice the dried blood under his fingernails. At home, his mom would have made him get the clippers and clean his dirty nails out, but he didn’t have any clippers. He didn’t even have any clean socks. And his only pair of boots was wet—deep wet from walking, from standing in water that might sometimes be higher, sometimes lower, but never went away.
Martin got to feeling as if his feet didn’t really belong to him; they were alive in a way the rest of him wasn’t—they tingled and twitched. When things were quiet, he watched the faces of the men around him, watched what they did. They were cold like he was; they shuffled their legs. He wondered if their feet were twitching, too. And they rubbed their hands together. Their faces were taut, ravaged from the rain. They were all miserable. But you didn’t talk about misery. You just put up with it. Hoped you’d laugh about it when you realized the war had never really happened—just a messed up dream—nothing a hot shower couldn’t wash away.
But it did happen—mortar fire, men flying through the air, soldiers who looked like gutted deer. And then after, they’d walk up on you out of nowhere, surreal—old men, women, little kids —VC? Like the woman who’d tried to convince Martin to follow her toward what, in the near darkness, looked like huts with smoke curling out of them. He’d just stood there staring at her, shaking his head. When they passed through the dregs of the village next morning, he’d seen her there, crying—a dead baby in her arms.
A few weeks before he was discharged, Martin noticed three of his toes were screwed up.
“Look at this, doc,” he said, pulling off his sock to reveal swollen toes. One had a small blister on the spot where it touched the toe beside it.
The doctor looked at Martin’s foot. The man in the hospital bed next to Martin wasn’t coughing but needed to. There was something in him, Martin could tell. His chest was heaving, a gurgling stuck in his throat.
“Were you in the field long?” The doctor was distracted, his tone curt.
“And in this rain?”
“Right.” After the last advance, he’d taken each foot into his hands like it was a wounded bird, rubbed it to try to resurrect it.
“So, will it get better?” Martin looked the doctor right in the eye. “What do I got to do to make sure it gets better?”
The doctor kept glancing at the man next to Martin, who looked like he was
breathing blood out of his mouth.
“Nurse!” he called out. “Move this man to IC. Now!”
“So what’s the verdict, Doc? What have I got to do?”
“Keep your feet clean from now on. And dry.”
“What about that spot?” Martin turned his foot to one side so the doctor could see the blister.
The doctor watched while the nurse whisked the gurgling man away. “Do what I told you and it should clear right up. No problems. When are you getting out of here?”
“Couple of weeks.”
“Then you’ve really got no problems. Just do what I told you to do. And, safe trip home. You’re a lucky man. I’ve got another six months in this hole.” The doctor patted Martin’s shoulder, walked away.
And Martin put on his clean, dry sock, put his foot in the clean, dry boot, limped past men whose chests were blown open.