The Moves Lit Journals Are Looking For Part 3: One Story

One Story, founded by writers Hannah Tinti and Maribeth Batcha in 2002, is a unique journal in that each issue presents exactly what it sounds like: one story. As such, one might think its acceptance rate is automatically lower than at many other magazines, but the fact that they publish eighteen issues a year mitigates this discrepancy. Their rule is that they never publish the same writer twice. On their website you can find excerpts of current and past stories, editors’ commentary, and Q&As with the authors about their work. You can also find the description of the type of work they’re looking for:

One Story is seeking literary fiction. Because of our format, we can only accept stories between 3,000 and 8,000 words. They can be any style and on any subject as long as they are good. We are looking for stories that leave readers feeling satisfied and are strong enough to stand alone.

Laura Spence-Ash’s “The Remains” appeared in Issue 188, published January 16, 2014. The story explores the discovery of a corpse through a series of different characters’ points of view, characters who share some connection to the deceased, whether peripheral or direct.

The story begins with Sergeant Bill Marshall and his partner responding to a call and discovering a fully decomposed but still clothed skeleton in the foyer of a row house in Queens. The skeleton is wearing a coat that Marshall observes indicates the deceased is a “refined woman.” Examining her books and photos, one picture reminds him of his own wife, and he remembers how he recently went to a lot of trouble to get her a ring that she later wanted to trade for one she liked better. We then jump to Annie Moffatt’s point of view, the next door neighbor of whom we now learn is Mrs. Constantine. She’d thought Mrs. Constantine was gone on a trip, but then eventually started to get suspicious and finally called the cops. Once the corpse is discovered, Annie can’t believe she’s been so close to it this whole time. Watching the cops work, she remembers how she invited Mrs. Constantine to her daughter’s third birthday party, and Mrs. Constantine declined. Annie thinks that she’ll tell her husband she’s pregnant again tonight. Then, we jump to Leila Turani, who works at a tailor. When someone comes in and tells her a body was found that was “the lady who always wore that red beret,” Leila recognizes that it’s Mrs. C, one of their regular customers, who used to be one of her deceased mother’s favorites and whom she noticed hadn’t been in in awhile even though she had clothes to pick up. Mrs. C had brought food and a card when Leila’s mother died; Leila recalls her mother’s death and how she told her she’d take care of her father, which she wishes now she hadn’t. She folds up the clothes Mrs. C left behind. We then jump to Bob MacMillan, Sophia Constantine’s boss at a law office library, who cleaned out her desk a few weeks afters she stopped showing up for work. They often talked about books at lunch, which he immensely enjoyed. When she stopped coming to work, he filed a missing persons report and realized how little he actually knew about her. He hopes she created a new life for herself, remembering how she always took her vacations at the beach and one time when they calculated how far she was able to see on a ferry. When Bob gets the call from the detective that she’s dead, he has a drink and recalls how he never told his wife about her. Finally, we go to Mel Constantine, who divorced Sophie twelve years ago and hadn’t seen her in a long time. He’s returning to the house where he used to live with her to get it ready to sell, and Sergeant Marshall lets him in, warning him the cleaners were unable to get the stain out of hallway floor where she died. He finds her collection of airplane mini bottles, including the one from their honeymoon, which he thinks about before thinking about how they met in high school and reconnected after college. He then goes into the room of the baby they had, Zoë, who would be 22 if she hadn’t died. He’s relieved Sophie’s changed the room, since she left all the baby stuff in it for the eight years after the death before he left. He goes through a box of Zoë’s clothes and finds a tube in it of the baby’s ashes he takes with him. At home that night, he mixes the baby’s ashes with Sophie’s.                 

The story’s chronic tension is that Sophia Constantine has died, as this occurs before the story starts. The acute tension is the fallout/aftermath of her death. The story’s structure is one of its most unique “moves.” We do have a main character, and we are following that character’s trajectory, but in an unusual way, looking at her exclusively through the eyes of others, which means a common narrative model of the acute tension being the main character’s has been upended here; the acute tension is instead spread across several characters. (Sophie does technically have her own chronic and acute tensions once we learn her full story: chronic would be the death of her baby; acute would be how she lived her life after that tragedy.)

The pattern of the order in which we meet these characters is part of the story’s power. Each character we’re introduced to knows the main character, the deceased Sophia Constantine, better than the last. We start with the guy who finds her, a total stranger who doesn’t even know her name; then the next-door neighbor, who knows her as “Mrs. Constantine” and seems to have had exactly one direct interaction with her; then the girl at the tailor’s, who, being more fond of her than the neighbor and having had multiple interactions with her, knows her as “Mrs. C”; then to her boss, who knows her as “Sophia” (and whom he remembers specifically made him call her that when he tried to call her “Sophie”); then to her ex-husband, who knows her as “Sophie.” The use of the names shows us definitively that each of these characters knew her better than the last: no name, Mrs. Constantine, Mrs. C, Sophia, Sophie. Hence, by meeting them in this order, we learn more about her with each point of view shift.  

Part of the pattern of each character we meet is that their reflections on Sophie (or however they know her) provide a springboard into their own lives, giving us a glimpse of their personal vulnerabilities. We learn about the distance between Marshall and his wife, about Annie’s nervousness to tell her husband of her pregnancy, about Leila’s mother’s death, about Bob’s intense feelings for his employee, and about Mel’s new life with his second wife. Getting these glimpses into each of these characters’ lives makes us want to see even more into our main character’s, which, by the time we get to Bob, we’re getting to see more of, until Mel’s section finally reveals the full picture, the key to Sophie’s reserved secrecy that we witnessed in the other sections. But also, the snippets of these characters’ lives that we get which don’t involve Sophia Constantine directly do involve her indirectly–which is to say, thematically. What these snippets reveal are actually things these characters have in common with Sophie–more specifically, with her defining trauma: distance in a marriage (Bill), nervousness about pregnancy (Annie), the death of a party in a mother-daughter relationship (Leila). By our last two sections with Bob and Mel, we’ve progressed from indirect connections to direct, which is how the rising action operates in this nontraditional narrative.

Another nice “move” is the way Spence-Ash integrates the characters’ reflections, how thinking about dead body/Mrs. Constantine/Mrs. C/Sophia/Sophie leads them to think about other things in their lives. Trains of thought are prompted by objects in the external environment, whether the current environment or a remembered one. For Marshall, it’s a photo in Sophie’s house that prompts him to think about his wife. For Annie, recalling the air freshener she used to cover up the smell of decomposition and how her husband always unplugged it gives us a hint to potentially more significant strife in their marriage. For Leila, it’s the physical artifact of Mrs. C’s clothes. For Bob, it’s a photo of sky blending into sea that he found in Sophia’s desk. For Mel, it’s the collection of airplane bottles that leads him to think about their honeymoon.

Spence-Ash slyly lets us know that her nontraditional narrative model is not unprecedented when she refers to a text that Bob and Sophia were reading together: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, in which a family struggles to bury its dead matriarch in the location she desired. Sophia’s comment about this text is actually commentary on the structure of this story:

“Don’t you see?” Sophia had said, her brown eyes meeting his. “Addie is the center. Addie is what makes it all hold together.”

Notably, however, Addie is not already dead when Faulkner’s novel starts, so it’s a bold “move” of Spence-Ash’s to have the main character be dead from the outset. This text also seems a thematically appropriate one for this story in that more than one character wonders how long Sophie might have been lying on the floor of her house by herself before she actually died.

The stain that Sophie’s body left behind is another nice “move” in the story:

“I don’t think they got the stain out in the front hall. Just so you know.”

This stain is a physical manifestation (which is to say, a symbol) of what Sophie’s left behind–of what remains of her. The fact that she’s left a stain shows that the impact of her life has not been entirely erased by her death, which we’re shown throughout the story through the different characters’ memories of her. Hence, the title gains layers of meaning–there are Sophie’s physical remains, emphasized by the stain and the powerful final gesture of Mel’s mixing her remains with their baby’s, then there’s the range of impacts she’s left on others’ lives. Mel’s mixing gesture nicely encapsulates how the story blends Sophie’s physical and ephemeral remains. It’s also a nice move to end with a physical gesture in the story’s present, rather than lingering in memory. This physical gesture, coming at the end, must necessarily provide some form of closure; this gesture is ideal closure for Sophie in particular because there’s been so much emphasis on how alone she was. The story’s most fundamental scenario reinforces her loneliness, since if she hadn’t been so alone she wouldn’t have been a skeleton by the time her body was discovered. By the end we’ve discovered the source of her loneliness–her dead baby. Some writers might have ended the story with this revelation, but Spence-Ash makes another “move” with the physical gesture. At the end of the story, Sophie isn’t alone anymore; she’s literally joined to the one whose departure caused her loneliness in the first place.

But if you’re going to catch an editor’s eye when he/she is reading hundreds of manuscripts, it’s ideal to have a nice “move” in the very beginning, so let’s revisit that opening line: 

Sergeant Bill Marshall was the one who found her white bones in a fetal position, nestled inside a tweed coat and a red woolen hat.

The nice move here is the use of the word “nestled.” This is a word with positive connotations, which places it in stark contrast to the negative connotations of the larger situation: discovering a dead body, one that’s been decomposing for so long, no less. This contrast automatically injects the narrative with tension. It also encapsulates the story’s structure: nestled within this seemingly horrible occurrence is the potential for human connection. Nestled inside Sophie are all the lives she’s touched.

-SCR

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