Going West
stories by Normandi Ellis

Going West       Short stories by Normandi Ellis

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From the magical opening story of Dr. Livingston, who falls into a cave beneath his lawn, to the closing story about Monopoly and cemetery plots, Going West is alive with humor and the desperate devotion and absurdity which run through family relationships. At its core are the Papa stories, a tender and unsparing chronicle of the narrator’s effort to love, understand, care for, and separate from her parents—an alcoholic father who is stricken with Alzheimer’s and a mother whose anger has been fueled by all his years of disappearing. A single mother herself, the narrator navigates these demands while flashing back to moments that haunt her from her childhood, her marriage, and its aftermath. Stylistically varied, rich in detail, Going West sheds light and compassion on some very tough territory. We need this book! 
          — George Ella Lyon, author of Back: Poems and Don’t You Remember? A Memoir

Normandi's stories have a lyric fantastical quality.  If they were fairy tales, there'd be no Prince Charming or knights in shining armor; she'd be writing empathetically about the dysfunctional family of the troll beneath the bridge. 

"Going West," an expression from the trenches during WWI signifying death, is not what this rich collection of stories is about. A modern-day Dr. Livingston explores the subterranean world of a sinkhole into which he slipped beneath his garden, a mother on her 70th birthday rehearses a bit part in "Sweet Bird of Youth," an aging stroke victim with Alzheimer's becomes obsessed with traveling to the vastnesses of the Southwest—this impressive collection of stories—part elegy, part comedy—centers mainly on a family in transition, full of wonderfully observed details, the idiosyncrasies submerged beneath the ordinary, and a mix of love and celebration that render them fully and undeniably human. What unites these stories is deft writing, the teller's wise grasp of her world, and something so much short fiction seems to lack—personality.
          — Richard Taylor, author of Girty and Sue Mundy

Excerpt from the Book

    ... Papa hunches over the table and blows his coffee. He reaches into his pocket and starts rummaging his hand around, making feeble scratching noises. It looks as if he’s playing with himself. In the back of my mind I hear Mama’s warning: “He doesn’t know how to behave. You can’t take him anywhere.” The flailing and scratching grows louder. Now it’s as if he’s wrestling a ground squirrel trapped in his pocket that he can’t figure out how to get out. I pretend absorption in something inside my purse. Finally, Papa works his hand free and suddenly bangs his tight fist onto the table. 
     “Looka here,” he says, but the fist is still closed. He stares at his hand, observing each finger one at a time, trying to make them unfurl. It’s like watching a time-lapsed film of a crocus blooming. Inside his palm lies a molten lump of metal. “That came out of my mouth!” He laughs childlike, his tongue wagging, spittle collecting at the corners of his lips. 
     “It’s gold!” he shouts gleefully, as if I didn’t know. 
     “Well, I declare.” 
     “What do you think it’s worth?” 
     “A hundred dollars,” I guess. 
     “No. Maybe four hundred or more ... and it came right out of my mouth.” His voice slides from gleeful shout to throaty whisper. He laughs, then cries. A tear plunks into his coffee. He can’t help it; it’s what he does these days when he feels emotion, when he’s feeling anything at all. 
     “So you think it’ll cover lunch?” I ask. 
     “Yeah,” he says, still weepy, working his hand back toward his pocket. He fishes in the other pants pocket and comes up with a wadded handkerchief and a quarter. “I used to have another quarter to go with that,” he says, “but I lost it. Your mother always said money had a way of slipping through my fingers.” 
     I smile. Since his strokes he’s lost feeling in his left hand and in his feet. I reach across the table to hold Papa’s hand, which can not hold mine in return. I spy the gold from his teeth lying half-hidden under his palm beside the wadded up handkerchief. I point to it as the food comes. 
     "You’d better put that back in your pocket,” I say. 
     “Yeah,” he agrees, cupping his hand around it. “I don’t want to forget to stop at the jeweler’s and ask Mr. Roberts how much this is worth.” 
     “So what’re you going to do with your four hundred dollars?” I ask. 
     “I’m going to get my Ph.D.,” he says. 
     “Shit,” I say, reaching for napkins as the coffee Papa just spilled slides over the table onto my leg. Sometimes Papa’s hands are wild birds that fly away from him before he can catch them. I dab and dab, grab more napkins. The spilled coffee’s a blessing. I don’t have to say a thing. 
     “I’m sorry,” he says. 
     “Don’t worry. It’s just coffee.” The waitress hustles over with a rag and helps out, refills his cup. I stuff moist napkins into the table corner. 
     “Do you want me to cut up your fish?” 
     I cut up his fish, careful to remove the bones. Papa bows his head to say grace, his eyes squinting hard, trying to remember, rambling on. He mixes up the words for the blessing of the meal with the burial for the dead. Same difference I think. I say “Amen,” when it sounds like he’s finished. 
     We eat as if we are hungry. All of a sudden I feel on display, sitting in a brightly lit window seat with an old man who can’t keep his left hand out of his mashed potatoes. It’s not that I’m ashamed. I simply couldn’t bear to have someone who used to know him the way he was walk down the street and see him. I don’t want them laughing at or feeling sorry for my father. 
     I eat with my head tilted, so the hot food avoids my tooth. My tongue is sore and ragged, bleeding from trying to pronounce words around this jagged filling. This tooth reminds me to keep my mouth shut. I’m learning to make accommodations: a lisped word, a tilted head, a less explosive fricative, a gesture to replace a sentence, a kindness to replace frustration. 
     When I went to the house this morning Mama was taking one of her vinegar baths, and Papa was nowhere to be found. The screen door was open, the television blaring. I got back into the car and started driving. 
     I don’t really blame Papa for trying to escape. Ours was never a comfortable house. Mama kept the drapes closed all day, saying she was allergic to sunlight, but I knew it was because there were dead things inside our house that she didn’t want the neighbors to see. For the better part of middle school I played ghost, hiding in closets, under the sofa, climbing into empty cabinets downstairs, lying curled up in a fetal position breathing in the piney dark. I’d hear Papa come in and lift the top of the broken cabinet-style phonograph, take out the vodka and pour himself a drink, then shut the lid quietly before he disappeared into the furnace room. Everybody at our house was well practiced at being dead. 
     To me Papa’s jailbreak seems understandable. I did it myself once, twenty years ago when there was nothing left in town to miss, except Papa. I’d driven west in search of The Rest of My Life. What began in youthful expectation ended in mid-life divorce. I’d always been afraid Papa would die while I was gone, but I came home, and Papa’s still here. And so am I for now. I’m waiting for Papa to die. 
     This afternoon I found Papa out on the six-lane highway trying to cross the street, headed for the Interstate. Cars changing lanes around him honked and swerved. I pulled up beside him, leaned over, and opened the passenger side door. 
     “Where’re you off to?” I asked. 
     I knew he didn’t recognize me. He watched me with his mouth open, his body intent on breathing, his fingers fluttering. He coughed, closing his pale glazed-over eyes, listening to trucks whining down the highway. He squinted, rolling his eyes backward and tilting his face a bit, as if in the back of his head there was a blackboard with his destination written there. 
     “Papa, get in. I’ll take you where you need to go.” ....