31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 20: “Coconut” by Jessica Westhead

May 20, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

From And Also Sharks

The key moment in Jessica Westhead’s story “Coconut” occurs when the protagonist, Shelley, kidnaps a baby from a sidewalk in downtown Toronto:

Shelley has always thought, “How easy,” when she’s seen little kids waddling ahead of their distracted parents, and it is. It’s super easy. She just picks him up and walks left, and when she is halfway down the street she hears the mother screaming, and then she is in her apartment with somebody else’s child, who doesn’t seem to mind very much.

Shelley’s action is an extension of her acquisitiveness, which has always made it difficult for her to see past the material world or to forge authentic human connections. “The thing about Shelley is,” Westhead writes, “she really likes shopping a lot.” When she sees a sign outside a church advertising a fashion bazaar, she rushes in, oblivious to the fact that the bazaar does not occur until the following day. Inside the church, she finds nothing but “empty pews, stained-glass windows, Jesus on a cross, and disappointment.” When her ex-boyfriend TJ takes her to a scenic lookout for their first date, Shelley is unable to focus on the splendour of the view, so caught up is she in wondering whether there is a gift shop.

As “Coconut” opens, Shelley has just returned from an all-inclusive trip to Cuba, where she sought refuge following her breakup with TJ. After touching down at Pearson, she has the airport limo drop her off at a Zellers store, where she steals a bag of coconut macaroons. The coconut reminds her of her week in Cuba, where “she could just take whatever she wanted.” Snatching the baby from off the sidewalk is simply a logical progression for Shelley: she sees something she desires, she takes it.

But the baby, whom Shelley names Davis, also fulfills another need: the need for unequivocal, undivided attention. Shelley’s relationship with TJ, we are given to understand, was doomed from the start, not, as Shelley assumes, because of what she overhears TJ’s friend Wade tell him at a party (that Shelley wears padded bras, which, as it happens, she does), but because TJ is an independent individual who refuses to subordinate himself to her version of what couplehood should entail. Shelley’s first fight with TJ occurs after he wishes a mutual friend happy birthday on Facebook without consulting her. “I look like an asshole because I’m wishing him happy birthday after you,” she tells him. “Like I didn’t think of it on my own. We’re supposed to be a united front. These types of things should be joint decisions, between both of us.” TJ’s response – “You’re fucked” – is both perfectly accurate and indicative of the futility of their relationship.

Davis, of course, requires Shelley for everything and is in no position to strike out on his own. When Shelley leaves him in a bathtub full of water in which he almost drowns, he nevertheless forgives her and continues to accept her ministrations. The fact that Shelley has no conception of how to care for a child – she makes him a virgin piña colada that he ends up pouring all over her sofa, and a cake that he does a face-plant into – is fodder for much comedy, but also accentuates her essential immaturity. When Shelley and Davis encounter Monique, “a hugger and a fake-smiler,” and her baby in a food court, Shelley pretends she’s babysitting. “Aren’t you a little old to be a sitter?” Monique asks. “Don’t you think you’re maybe at the age where you should be looking after your own baby?”

The irony here is that Shelley is far too solipsistic to succeed as anyone’s mother; she needs Davis for what he provides her, but is blithely oblivious to his own well-being. When she decides to flee the city, she packs a bag and carts the baby off to the airport, where she rudely rebuffs anyone who tries to engage or attend to the child. Shelley’s entire outlook is that of an emotionally stunted woman, something attested to in her language, especially her repeated use of the childish phrase “you’re a lucky duck.”

The final scene in the story features Shelley and Davis sitting in the arrivals section at the airport, watching various loved ones reunite. “This is the best part,” Shelley says to Davis, an implicit acknowledgment of her need for human connection, and a pathetic reflection of her inability to do what is necessary to achieve it. The story’s final moments testify to Westhead’s ability to modulate tone, extracting a moment of aching poignancy from what is essentially a comic tale:

The doors slide open, and people start to file down the ramp. All of them look tired and some of them are tanned, and most of them are waving to their loved ones, and a few of them shout, “Where’s the bathroom? Did you see a bathroom?” And the loved ones shout back, “Didn’t you go on the plane?”

“I tried,” Shelley whispers to Davis, “but they were all full.”

Shelley desperately wants to engage in the kind of conversations she overhears in the arrivals department, but her sclerotic emotional disposition has brought her to the point where the only person she can relate to is someone else’s baby. The sadness that pervades the story’s closing moments is born of the knowledge that there is an emptiness in Shelley’s life that stretches before her like a great, gaping gulf, and nothing she can possibly steal will be sufficient to fill it.

Spring cleaning: UPDATED

April 4, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

Anyone who has had occasion to pass by TSR of late has probably noticed that it looks somewhat abandoned: vines are drooping over the verandas, the lawn is overgrown, and the roof of the garage has caved in. This state of disrepair is the fault of the author, who has succumbed of late to a kind of lethargy that makes matters of daily upkeep seem close to impossible. However, with temperatures creeping ever upward, the robins returning, and the tulips doing their best to poke up out of the ground, it might be a good time to clear out the cobwebs, slap on a new coat of paint, and get the old homestead looking respectable again.

To that end, we’ve lined up a busy couple of months at TSR. April is jam-packed with goodies for the literary minded:

  • The Toronto Public Library is hosting the Keep Toronto Reading Festival 2011. The program includes a series of events throughout the month, including appearances by 2010 Man Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson, Alissa York, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, and Judy Fong Bates, whose novel Midnight at the Dragon Café is TPL’s One Book for the year.
  • In conjunction with TPL’s initiative, Jen Knoch’s Keepin’ It Real Book Club is spotlighting videos of public figures recommending a book that has changed their lives. You can hear, among others, Richard Crouse on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Terry Fallis on Three Cheers for Me, Jessica Westhead on Bats or Swallows, and Iain Reid on The Beggar’s Garden. There are more to come, including, just maybe, one from yr. humble correspondent.
  • April is also National Poetry Month, which is a chance to celebrate a genre that TSR has historically neglected. We’ll try to talk poetry around these parts in the coming days and weeks, and we’ll also try to inveigle a few guests to come aboard to do likewise.
  • There are a couple of blog tours stopping by here in the next few weeks. Stop by on Friday for Antanas Sileika, author of the newly published novel Underground, and on April 30 for Sarah Selecky, author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted collection This Cake Is for the Party.

Selecky’s appearance on TSR leads nicely into May, which is Short Story Month. This year, Selecky, along with Canadian authors Jessica Westhead (And Also Sharks) and Matthew J. Trafford (The Divinity Gene) have inaugurated a project they’re calling YOSS: The Year of the Short Story. Their manifesto states that YOSS “aims to unite fellow writers and readers everywhere in one cause – to bring short fiction the larger audience it deserves.” An admirable endeavour, and one that TSR, which has always been an advocate of the genre, can wholeheartedly endorse. This site’s contribution will be more modest: for the third time, we’ll launch our 31 Days of Stories, featuring one story per day, plus as many goodies and Easter eggs as time and the generosity of fellow contributors permit.

So, an ambitious plan for the next couple of months. I’m planning to throw open the windows and let some air into the joint. Hope you’ll join me.

UPDATED April 8: An earlier version of this post neglected to include Sarah Selecky as one of the founders of YOSS. TSR regrets this oversight.