This week The Sun Magazine arrived in the mail. As usual, I turned to the table of contents to see how many fiction entries were included (in this case, 2) and who wrote them. Then, I read the bios. When I saw that the first story was penned by a woman born in 1992, I considered setting the pages on fire. I didn't even stop to do the math. In 1992, I worked the cash register at Wendy's. (Not the drive-thru window because adding change in my head was a skill I simply could not master.)
For two years, I stood at the front counter rolling my eyes at mothers who allowed their toddlers to choose from a menu they couldn't even read while a line snaked out the door behind them. "Full-serve," I'd yell to warn the boy flipping the meat. Managers emerged from their hive, agitated as smoked-out bees. Salt flew like sand and buns shot from the toaster. Meanwhile, the kid with purple contacts who'd recommended me for the job, stayed cool. Cleaning off tables in the dining room, watching as customers helped themselves to the plastic ware. Spoons I knew he'd licked before placing them in the canister the night before.
Technically, I was old enough to give birth in 1992. Old enough to be a teen mom to this precocious young author in The Sun - which today, might have landed me a lucrative role on a reality TV show. But alas, I missed my opportunity, and most writers, if they are being honest, believe that publishing should be based at least partially on seniority. Certainly not on youth or who you know or whether you live in New Jersey beneath the umbrella of a giant bouffant hair-do. So, it was with great humility that I finally decided not to toss the magazine into the flame beneath the tea pot.
"Be Near Me" by Josie Charlotte Jackson, a writer living in Christchurch, New Zealand, is a remarkable story. Told with a straight-forward, stylistic voice, I immediately connected with her characters. With the imagistic descriptions, the witty dialogue. With the recitation of a stanza from Tennyson's "In Memoriam", the poem from which the story gets its title: Be near me when my light is low...when my faith is dry...when I fade away. It is a tale of regret, cemented by death - not unlike Amy Hempel's "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried", minus the jarring shifts in verb tense.
In 1807, the poet William Wordsworth wrote the famous line: "The world is too much with us." Imagine what he would write today. Of Casey Anthony posing for pictures in the courtroom. Of J-Lo and Marc Anthony's divorce - reporters postulating on what will become of their joint clothing line. Of 24 hour news channels and cell phones with internet access, desensitizing us to the ever-increasing incidence of gun violence, among other atrocities. It is nearly impossible to escape this world or to feel something real when reacting to news we are told is "true."
"Be Near Me", on the other hand, made me care about perfect strangers. Coaxed me to mourn the death of a man who never drew breath except on the page and to grieve with a narrator who didn't get to say good-bye, which is more feeling that I can claim for J-Lo or even Amy Winehouse. Why? Because that's what fiction can do.
Like memory, fiction is more abstract than absolute. Hazy hues of pain or bliss - the point of focus a faceless body until we read it and recognize with clear vision, scenes from our own lives. Wasted love. Words left unspoken. A purple-eyed boy who I didn't stay in touch with. My lab partner and friend. A man who took his own life years after we left high school, just when I thought I'd forgotten the spoons.
Kudos to Josie Charlotte Jackson, a writer who proves that when it comes to illuminating the human condition, age is irrelevant.