The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Matchmaker” by Karen Palmer

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Picture of many different literary magazines sprawled and overlapping on the floor.

In “The Matchmaker” (James Franco Review), Karen Palmer stays tight to her characters’ moment-by-moment experiences, which helps the potentially polarizing events of the story elude simple definitions. What’s revealed is the tragedy of a mental institution unable to adequately serve the population it’s responsible for.

In the opening few paragraphs, we discover that the first of two narrators, Angela, is blind. She’s also getting on in years, and has been in an institutional care center for a long time—long enough to be able to tell by sound when a newcomer shows up.

“…I could tell someone new had come into the lounge because alongside my favorite attendant’s soft stride sounded a different sort of footfall…

Also, and perhaps most telling, my favorite attendant always takes you by the elbow. It’s a kindness of his; he understands that we all need to be touched.

I sat by the window, the sun warm on my face, my ears leaned out into the open hole of the lounge. I tried to know where the new one stood, because both sets of footsteps had stopped.”

Instead of using an omniscient authorial voice to fill out visual details of the larger world the character couldn’t have supplied—say, further descriptions of the unnamed attendant and anonymous institution—Palmer stays focused on the moment-by-moment sensual experiences of Angela. What’s created is a sparse world that feels a bit disorienting—which makes sense, considering most readers enter into the story accustomed both the ability to see and reading stories of with narrators who can as well. Instead, we get descriptions of the warm sun on her face and a touch on the elbow.

The latter is the first bit of evidence that the institution might not be equipped to fulfill some basic human needs except by personnel acting on its own accord. Institutional values are often expressed through how human experiences and conditions are defined. Palmer presses into this reality further, first through the narrator’s revelation that she disagrees with her diagnosis of being depressed, and then with a mysterious encounter with this new patient.

“…He came on, panting. He was not scared, and not stupid, either. That was what I believed.

O! My face fell to the sun. My ears spun behind my head, and wrapped behind his neck, and his hands came around me and my forgotten breasts breathed as they used to so long ago and my nipples spoke hard.

Angela, said my favorite attendant, very soft.

The other said nothing.

The attendant pressed his hands onto me, then lifted them away. Then smooth rubber soles squished on the floor as he led the other one off. A high step, no shuffle at all.

My favorite attendant fixed it later, but good.”

It’s telling that Palmer decides not to have Angela define the experience as, say, sexual assault, or a kind, gentle hug, or really anything other than the lyrical sense of her body being found (“my forgotten breast breathed as they used to so long ago”). Perhaps there isn’t a name for what happened, and Angela has the restraint not to provide one that doesn’t fit.

The institution is more than happy to oblige. Palmer switches the perspective for the second half of the story, and we enter into the mind of Frederic, the new young patent, who is deaf. We find that after the encounter with Angela, he’s been given a shot of medication as well as a new, defined condition—Perversion—to add to the ones for which he was admitted: Suicidal Depression. But notice how the young man presents what occurred between he and Angela:

“When they brought me into the recreation room, I had no thought of girls. But there she was. Sitting at the window, shining in a pool of white light…

The girl’s hair was silver. It fell rushing and weeping down her long back and clung in sections to her white shift; it twined like a hangman’s rope around her shoulders. The white sun sliced through the pane and sparked her hair into fire. And before I knew what I was doing, I crossed the length of the room. To touch her, only to touch her.

Ah, you see, I do know why I did it.

I had to verify that she was real.”

Naturally, what we as readers want are the facts that would help us know with more precision what exactly happened so we might better define it. We’re invited to read this as perhaps a reporter, or a lawyer, or a cop, or a psychologist—essentially, a member of an institution that has a more systematic way of defining experiences and conditions. But Palmer refuses to entertain questions like, where did he touch her and in what manner? Instead, she stays only in the sensual experience of those involved, ending the story from the perspective of Frederic, alone by the window, the question of the doctor echoing in his mind.

Frederic, what do you need? he said, and I thought of the girl’s hair.”

The girl’s hair, remember, was “twined like a hangman’s rope across her shoulders”—illuminating further his suicidal ambitions. This further reveals Palmer’ interest in how easily personal narrative can be lost amidst those public narratives with greater consensus and power behind them. As the narratives battle, basic human desires and needs—like that of touch—can turn into a afterthought and go unfulfilled, trumped by the fearful perspectives of the very institution meant to fulfill them. Left behind are two people who, for a brief moment, connected, and now must pay the consequences.