Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Things in Small Packages

This week's New Yorker fiction ("The Last Days of Muhammad Atta") isn't online, so I'm turning to another terrorism-related story, "If a Stranger Approaches You about Carrying a Foreign Object with You onto the Plane...", by Laura Kasischke. This story appears in the Fall 2005 issue of Ploughshares, guest-edited by Antonya Nelson (see "Extra Credit for Marmots").

"Stranger" is deviously crafted, and well worth reading. It begins:
Once there was a woman who was asked by a stranger to carry a foreign object with her onto a plane...
Just in case you didn't pick it up from the title, Kasischke makes doubly sure that we know what the story is about. No hemming and hawing, no coyness. This sentence does a lot. Phrased as it is, like the opening of a fable, or a parable, it implies a hypothetical question: What would you do, gentle reader, if someone asked you to carry a package on a plane? Like all of us, the woman, whose name turns out to be Kathy Bliss, has scoffed at such a question, not believing that anyone would ever be so stupid.

The first sentence also establishes an omniscient pov and a psychic distance ("there was a woman") that gives us a moment to consider the question objectively, from outside. The omniscience also prepares us, subtly, for the possibility that the woman may die during the narrative. (If the story's pov is close third, we won't think her death is possible, and the story will never reach maximum tension.) After this distant opening, Kasischke swiftly draws nearer and nearer the woman until we are inside her head:
When the stranger approached her, the woman was sitting at the edge of her chair a few feet from the gate out of which her plane was scheduled to leave. Her legs were crossed. She was wearing a black turtleneck and slim black pants. Black boots. Pearl studs in her ears. She was swinging the loose leg, the one that was tossed over the knee of the other—swinging it slowly and rhythmically, like a pendulum, as she tried to drink her latte in burning sips.

By the time the stranger approached her and asked her to carry the foreign object with her onto the plane, the woman had already owned that latte for at least twenty minutes, but it hadn’t cooled a single degree. It was as if there were a thermonuclear process at work inside her cup—the steamed milk and espresso somehow generating together their own heat—and the tip of her tongue had been stung numb from trying to drink it, and the plastic nipple of the cup’s white lid was smeared with her lipstick.
First we see how she is dressed, then we feel her bodily sensations in the swinging leg ("like a pendulum", a nice touch) and the burning coffee. Then the second paragraph moves neatly into her thoughts about the coffee.

The second paragraph (remember the thermonuclear process) also cleverly establishes the story's theme. The coffee cup is the first of three small objects in the story that carry a threat. The second object, as you might assume, is the foreign object. What's the third? Note the coffee cup's "plastic nipple." Does a coffee cup have a nipple? No. Why does she use that word? It's all about the power of association, a way to gently underscore the relationship of the three objects. Consider that nipple after you reach the end of the post.

Eventually, a man approaches Kathy and asks her to carry a package on board. The man looks like an Arab (he later gives her an Armenian name) but he sounds American. The package is small and gift-wrapped; the stranger tells her it contains a necklace for his mother's 70th birthday. He's supposed to be flying to Portland for the party, but his girlfriend just called and told him that she's pregnant; he has to go to her, as soon as possible. If Kathy will just carry the gift, his brother will pick it up at the other end. He offers to unwrap it so she can see the necklace. She declines, unwilling to destroy the beautiful wrapping.

Of course, we fear that the package contains its own thermonuclear process. But Kasischke handles the scene so deftly that we understand when Kathy agrees to take the package with her. She doesn't want to be paranoid; she wants to help this earnest young man, who needs to leave so he can buy his pregnant girlfriend an engagement ring, for God's sake.

After she agrees to take the package, and in fact boards the plane with it tucked into her carry-on, where can the story go? It's a crucial point; she has us on the edge of our seats. Will the plane blow up? Will Kathy deliver the package? It's the old yes/no/maybe/4th best thing problem. Both "yes" and "no" promise to be unsatisfying. What does Kasischke do? First, of course, having us where she wants us, she plays the tease by inserting some backstory about Kathy's childhood. She lived next to a prison, and her father died young. Other than heaping on more dark imagery, this information does little, if anything, except to heighten the drama by making us wait--a worthy purpose! But then Kasischke hits us with her second stick, the real stick: Kathy has a sick two-year-old (briefly mentioned earlier in the story). No sooner has she boarded the plane than she is handed a message: "Baby in hospital. Call home now. Husband."

The baby is the third iteration of the story's image system, another small, dangerous package. The narrative jumps to a week later, after the baby has survived its brushes with death and is back home with Kathy. We realize that the bomb did not bring down the plane; we also realize, apparently sooner than distracted Kathy, that she did not deliver the package to anyone in Portland.

After Kathy has pulled the package from her carry-on, the story ends:
She didn’t open it, but imagined herself opening it. Imagined herself as a passenger on that plane, unable to resist it. Holding it to her ear. Shaking it, maybe. Lifting the edge of the gold paper, tearing it away from the box. And then, the certain, brilliant cataclysm that would follow. The lurching of unsteady weight in the sky, and then the inertia, followed by tumbling. The numbing sensation of great speed and realization in your face. She’d been a fool to take it with her onto the plane. It could have killed them all.

Or, the simple gold braid of it.

Tasteful. Elegant. A thoughtful gift chosen by a devoted son for his beloved mother. And she imagined taking the necklace out of the box, holding it up to her own neck at the mirror, admiring the glint of it around her neck—this bit of love and brevity snatched from the throat of a stranger—wearing it with an evening gown, passing it down as an heirloom to her children:

Who was to say, she thought to herself as she began to peel the gold paper away, that something stolen, without malice or intent, is any less yours than something you’ve been given?
We thought we had dodged the thermonuclear device; instead, we are left to wonder forever: will it explode?