Emily Carter: Forbidden Banalities

So much of this place is easy on the eyes. In the sense, of course, that your eyes have no work to do. Not much to look at. That, fellow citizens, is what makes our homeland convenient. From access roads, to parking lots, from tarped-up construction fences running through a stand of young, recently planted trees to the empty grass acres and smoked glass windows of a million business headquarters – there’s a lot of things you’re just not supposed to look at. No one notices or even mentions these spaces that aren’t anywhere really, filled with things we are intended to ignore. You’ve never seen them represented, talked or sung about or discussed. Not meant to be looked at, they are meant to be overlooked. It’s not polite to stare at the tool-sheds outside the moon-white gas and go, they can’t sell you the tools after all, and besides, you’re on your way to see Mount Rushmore, or Glacier Park, some spectacular view. Take a photograph of one of these places, however, and you’ve delved deep into the forbidden banalities. Tema Stauffer stands in the parking lot instead of traversing it – in itself an act of defiance.

These spaces and places, of course, are where our memories happen. Not at the spectacular view of the lake, but at the seventies’ style, maple-wood paneled truck stop. The large windows cut in geodesic shapes, the plant hanging in front of the domed glass walls – it’s a hothouse. Slight rain misting things up outside. Tema managed to take a photograph of humidity, no small feat, but also she managed to create the restaurant you and your parents always used to stop in on the way back. She photographed the long ride home, the Sunday sleepy boredom. You want the trip to be over and for your little brother to be kidnapped so you can rescue him and be a hero, you want to get home and into clean pajamas and watch the Sunday night shows, right up to and including, the Over Part, before you finally get into your bed. You have no idea of the wincing sting of nostalgia that will settle into the image of this place where you and your family have stopped for a pee-break and directions. The vacation’s over, the parents old, the little brother big, and fat, and voting for people you think are the bullies.

And it’s not just nostalgia going by at the side of your vision, it’s something even harder to trap into existence. Like the sky over the gas station, blazing and gentle, apricot and orange; like happiness, if you care to stop long enough to give it a name. Like the snowy branches on that tree foaming over the fence into the winter night. Perhaps you got out on the way home to look at it, but more likely you just stayed in the car. It wasn’t put there for you to look at, but neither, in fact, was the Grand Canyon.

Tema stands there, and just by that defiant act, of standing when she should be crossing, she defies any body else’s notion of what’s worth looking at. Then she infuses it with the strange light of her particular way of seeing things. That bird feeder is no less suspenseful than the sword of Damocles. It is almost painfully bright red and white against a stormy, slightly chemical, blue sky. It is hanging, tenuously, dramatically, by a slender, fragile looking meat-hook. That’s us, all right. I want to put my hand over my heart and pledge my allegiance to the bird feeder, so crazy-bright and aggressive, so tiny, and screaming for birds.

Emily Carter’s 2000 collection of short stories “Glory Goes and Gets Some” was chosen by Barnes & Noble to be part of the Discover Great New Writers series and was nominated for The Minnesota Book Award. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker-winning a National Magazine Award-Story Magazine and POZ, for whom she was a regular columnist. She is also the recipient of a Whiting Foundation Award, a Bush Fellowship and a Loft/McKnight award for fiction. She currently does a monthly column for Speakeasy Magazine entitled “Carter’s Little Liver Pills” and is at work on her second book, a novel. In addition, she is a contributing editor at The Rake and does biweekly book reviews for the Star Tribune.