The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Marian Palaia’s “The Given World”

PalaiaMarian_Credit_ Kelly Rae

Slim

A young woman. Okay, maybe not so young. Maybe
forty-two and already a grandmother. Believe me: no
one finds this harder to believe than she does. Her
name is Rose and she is a little ashamed, on this particular
errand, to admit (to herself? to her small passenger?) that
she has only ever skirted this reservation. It lies adjacent
to a road she has driven many times—the shortest cut be-
tween Great Falls and home—but there has never been any
reason to actually go in, to stop, until now. That, or she has
always sensed she would be unwelcome, or guilty of tres-
passing, or simply did not belong.
     In any event, it is late spring now, and wildflowers—
mostly purple lupine, but some red Paintbrush, some
dirty-white Queen Anne’s lace—flourish in yards and in
the many vacant lots, making the otherwise dust-colored
neighborhood a little brighter, almost radiant. She takes
that as a good sign. From whom? God does not have a
place in all this. That would be the kind of wishful thinking
she cannot afford.
      She carries a red and black wool blanket, wrapped
around some small, obviously alive, thing. It is not a puppy
or a newborn calf. It is a baby. Her grandson. She has come
to offer him to someone she has never met. Not the boy’s
father. His father is in Vietnam, if he has not had the good
sense to go AWOL and head for another country; one si-
multaneously very close and very far away.
      She can’t speak for anyone else but imagines they all
thought about that passage when the lottery numbers were
picked, matched to birthdays, fired like flaming fucking
arrows into the hearts of mothers everywhere. But she is
not thinking about that now. This is someone else’s child
(her daughter’s, but still), and she doesn’t even know if the
father—this child’s father, who is possibly already a dust
cloud floating on the breeze over the South China Sea—
even had a mother. Anything, at this point, seems pos-
sible. Maybe because there is this baby, who, created a few
months later, might now have been . . . nothing. A memory.
Carried regret. When the decision came down from the
court, they didn’t talk about it. It was too late. And this
boy’s mother was mostly beyond talking by then anyway.
Rose knows a family name and approximate location
because of letters sent to her daughter when she still lived
with them, and a handful after she left. Early postmarks
said Oklahoma, later ones Texas, but the last one came
from Montana.
      A man answers the door. He is tall and dark and re-
minds her of the young man she has met only the one time.
She says hello, and folds the blanket away from the baby’s
face. “I believe,” she says, holding the boy out awkwardly so
the man can see him better, “this is your grandson.”
      “My grandson,” the man says, as if trying to decide if the
word could have more than one meaning. “And he came to
you by way of—”
      “My daughter.”
      He raises one eyebrow. “I see.”
      Rose nods. The words are not a challenge but an ac-
knowledgment.
      That, at least, is how she hears them. “Yes.”
      “And your daughter?”
      “Is in Missoula, I think. She left him with us. To find a
family for him.”
      “Leonard can not be this baby’s father.”
      “Leonard? I don’t know who that is. The boy I know is
called Darrell.”
      The man nods. He does not look surprised or wary, as
she had thought he might. “Darrell is my nephew.”
      “Oh,” Rose says, knowing she still has to say what she
came for, even if she doesn’t know how to say it, especially
now. The man waits, not impatiently, and she steels herself,
slowly blowing out a bellyful of air before she speaks again.
“Do you think— Can you take him? I mean, would you?
My husband and I, we can’t keep him. I’m afraid—” She
wants to explain, about her missing son, her already lost
daughter, her inability to function some days, to keep track
of days at all, let alone keep track of this tiny person. But
she can’t explain. It would be too much.
      The man laughs softly. To Rose, the laugh sounds sad,
or resigned, or both, but she doesn’t trust herself to judge
what anyone else is feeling. Since she doesn’t even know
what she is feeling, it would hardly be fair.
      “Yes,” the man says. “I can take him. I can take care
of him.”
      Is it the answer she wants? God—him again—knows.
Simple enough, she thinks. Simple as that. Done.
      She looks at the baby, and back at the man. The resem-
blance is more than dark skin and eyes and hair. “I know
this is a terrible thing to ask,” she says. “But do you want
him? Or do you—”
      “Not so terrible,” he says. “I understand why you would
ask.” He looks past her, across the road, up into the seemingly
empty hills. “I would like to have him here with me.
      My boy died two years ago. He was seventeen. And now my
nephew is gone too. This house is pretty damn empty.” He
looks down at the baby in Rose’s arms. “Seems right,” he
says. “I think I know myself well enough by now to trust
that.”
      Rose finds she is jealous but doesn’t say.
      “Don’t worry.” He touches her shoulder. “He’ll be okay.
 Tell your daughter. He’ll be fine here.”
      “I’ll tell her.” It does make sense. As much as anything
else does. She hands him the blanket, the baby. The boy
looks at him, out of pale eyes that don’t really go with the
rest of him. He looks quite serious, like a little old man;
aside from the eyes, almost like a miniature of the man
holding him.
      “His name?”
      Rose says they call him Slim.

This selection comes from Marian Palaia’s novella The Given World, available from Simon & Schuster. Purchase your copy here!

Marian Palaia was born in Riverside, California, and grew up there and in Washington, DC. She lives in San Francisco and has also lived in Montana, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, and Nepal, where she was a Peace Corps volunteer. Marian has also been a truck driver, a bartender, and a logger. The Given World is her first novel.

Leslie LaChance edits Mixitini Matrix: A Journal of Creative Collaboration, has curated The Wardrobe for Sundress Publications and written poetry reviews for Stirring: A Literary Collection. Her poems have appeared in literary journals, and her chapbook, How She Got That Way, was published in the quartet volume Mend & Hone by Toadlily Press in 2013. She teaches literature and writing at Volunteer State Community College in Tennessee, and if she is not teaching, writing, or editing, she has probably just gone to make some more espresso.

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