The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Our Country” by Jill Schepmann

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You know you’re reading something lovely when you come across a line in a story that makes you stop reading, get out a pen, and draw a dark line across the page. (And you know it’s exceptional if you even have to get up out of your seat to search for that pen.)

0202-Cover-200x300“There are so many ways to be introduced to the world,” Jill Schepmann writes in her story “Our Country,” in the fall issue of Parcel. (Rise from seat, grab pencil.) Simple yet stunning, the sentence captures a parent’s awareness of what it means to raise a child: the hesitancy, the awe, the weight of decisions ahead. And for Schepmann’s main character, Leigh, parenthood is especially difficult to navigate, since the boy in question isn’t biologically or legally her own—and to top it all off, she’s still in love with his mother.

“Our Country” is a direct address from our narrator Leigh to her ex-girlfriend’s son, Sam. The story opens on the night in 1978 when California Proposition 6—which aimed to bar gays and lesbians from teaching at public schools—was voted down. Leigh and Mara (the woman referred to as “your mother” throughout the story) are shown in a moment of light and hope, but their relationship is later complicated when Mara becomes pregnant by her ex-boyfriend John. Mara marries John, ostensibly to make a better life for Sam, but Leigh sticks around and becomes “Aunt Leigh” instead of who she wanted to be: Mara’s partner and Sam’s other mom.

What struck me about the story is the mood Schepmann is able to create using small details that might otherwise go unnoticed on first read: Leigh plays a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors with Mara and loses; she describes growing up on an island, beautiful but isolated, and it’s hard not to see these same qualities in Leigh and her present situation; after a tense night with Mara, she walks past a crowd where someone is carrying a sign that reads “Where’s your anger?” and we want to know: Leigh, where is your anger? The tone of the letter is hesitant and patient, full of love and affection, but the mood is somber, quiet, and even.

From the beginning there is an atmosphere of inevitability, which Schepmann subtly generates. Even in the first scene when Leigh and Mara are happy, celebrating in the streets when the proposition is voted down, Schepmann drops doubt into the story. Leigh worries “that down the line [they] might have to pay for all that progress in a single day.” This one line introduces an uneasiness that persists in every following scene.

The background characters heighten Leigh’s feeling of rejection and distance in the story. At Sam’s birth, Leigh is restricted to the hall, unable to be in the room when he comes into the world. John comes out to see her, and instead of inviting Leigh back to meet Sam, he tells her he just wanted to give her an update. He walks back to his family as Leigh, feeling dejected, listens to another visitor, a grandmother reading to her granddaughter from The Velveteen Rabbit: “The rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like.”

Schepmann is heaping it on her character in this scene—not only is Leigh surrounded by families, but the few sentences of The Velveteen Rabbit act as a kind of soundtrack for this painful moment, which Leigh can’t ignore. She’s the rabbit here. She’s the one who isn’t real, who feels thrown away. That she’s able to align herself with a talking stuffed animal from a children’s book makes the situation all the more insulting.

In the scene where we meet Sam, he and Leigh climb a nearby hill, and as they’re looking down on the city, they come up with a name for “their country”: penumbra. Sam is only six, too young to know this word, but Leigh supplies it readily when he asks for a name. It’s an unusual name, and it betrays Leigh’s anxieties about her relationship with Sam and Mara. To be in the penumbra of an eclipse is to only be able to see part of it. When I think of a penumbra, I think of almost but not quite. Leigh is almost but not quite where she wants to be in her relationship with these people, and her awareness of the distance she has colors even her joy.

And then there’s the story’s form—a direct address—that sets the mood. The story is a letter coming from the outskirts of Sam’s life. It’s unclear how much time has passed, when the letter is being written, whether or not it’s recent enough that Leigh could send an email instead. Either way, to audiences now, a handwritten letter suggests distance of time and space, something deliberate and weighty. How long has it been since she’s spoken to Sam? Has it been any time at all? What does he think of her, the woman who was almost a mother?

Check out the story! It’ll rip your heart out a little bit, the way the best fiction does. You can find it in the Fall/Winter 2012 issue of Parcel.

The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week” is a new series focused on—you guessed it—great pieces of fiction in recent issues of literary journals. Have a journal you think I should check out? Tell me about it in the comments or shoot me an email at lymreese at gmail dot com.