Sentimentality is missing in Marlin Barton’s Pasture Art (Hub City Press, 2015), a collection of eight stories set in the Alabama Black Belt, yet pathos is in great supply. Barton assembles unlikely characters who play out the hidden logic in their connections: why an old man protects the young girl who is stealing from him, or why an itinerant photographer apprentices a deaf woman to guide him around the town he is documenting. Domestic relationships – such as mother to daughter or wife to husband – are marked by a disruption of care, while unconventional alliances provide the people in them some kindness and relief. While the rendering of place is a notable strength of Barton’s stories, the dramas centered on home and family are mesmerizing and tied to secrecy and damage more than to love.
In “Watching Kaylie,” Aaron yearns for Kaylie, his brother Charles’s sometime girlfriend who lost her job as a nurse, chain smokes, and shoots heroin. Aaron worries about her too, and his desire mixes with protectiveness. He regularly parks his car among the trees outside her house, and one night he carries her in after she passes out in her front yard. After he tucks her carefully into bed, aware of “the obscenity of what stirred within him,” and covers her with a blanket to push down his own feelings, he doesn’t leave.
“He looked through her refrigerator and kitchen cabinets and drawers, found syringes in a zippered compartment of her purse. Over the next couple of hours he checked on her a number of times, and finally couldn’t resist turning and looking at the canvases that faced the living room wall. Several were still lifes of wet grapes piled next to bottles of red wine so dark it looked like blood drawn from a deep vein, […] and finally he saw one that he hoped he hadn’t been looking for without realizing it, a self-portrait of her shadowed face and bare breasts. The nipples were pierced through with thin silver needles and made the painting look unreal somehow, but erotic and disturbing at the same time.”
Aaron is a bait-shop owner, 38 years old, and knows himself to be unattractive to women. There have been a few, ones who are a little drunk and bored, and when he meets Kaylie he can tell she’s not so much special as unusual. But there’s the problem of his brother, who comes across as menacing though not a threat to Aaron, and Kaylie’s dependence on Charles for drugs. Aaron may be in love with Kaylie, but the brother understands her better. In the climactic scene, Aaron has a chance to help Kaylie, and she offers him the only thing she has, her body, as compensation. He realizes that he has a critical choice to make: between always watching/wanting and accepting that the “pure moments” he has been longing for are rare. Aaron may have to take what is “tainted.”
The couple at the center of “Playing War,” Carrie and Foster Fuller, are long married, with a college-aged daughter, and civil on the surface, yet Carrie suspects that a series of affairs has prompted her husband to “check out of their marriage.” In discussing this with her widowed father, he shares a secret with her involving Foster so that, as he tells her, “it would give you something, an advantage maybe,” if the marriage was ever threatened. Years earlier, Foster and his circle of hunting buddies played a game that ended in the shooting death of one of them, and the group closed ranks to hide the details. Convinced that Foster pulled the trigger and killed Bruce, with whom Carrie had a brief liaison before her wedding, Carrie sets out to pressure her husband’s friends to reveal the truth and impugn Foster.
Only at the beginning of the story does Carrie seem sympathetic. As she gently stalks Dale, the most vulnerable member of the hunting group, her need to fashion a story of her husband as murderer hardens her and reveals to the reader, and to Carrie herself, the depth of her own motivations. Barton’s handling of Carrie as a character is played out slowly in this, the most novel-like story in the collection. She is occasionally prudent, as when she asks her boss for extra hours in their dental office, anticipating a future when she may need to be financially independent. She is also wily, even manipulative, as when she knowingly exploits Dale’s attraction to her to find out more about the shooting. In his kitchen, she makes and serves him a sandwich, getting up once to refill his glass from a pitcher of sweet tea. “She walks up behind him and slowly leans over his shoulder with the pitcher, the scent of her perfume strong enough still so that she sees him take a deep breath and hold it. She imagines his eyes are closed.” Barton makes Carrie culpable in her use of sexual power for uncertain aims. She might get the truth, but she will damage Dale – and perhaps her daughter – in the process.
Several of the stories are acutely concerned with problems of the body – addiction, paternity, physical punishment, and violent death – and the title story, “Pasture Art,” features a mother and daughter who are bound by the mother’s poor health from diabetes and drinking. In addition to caring for her mother, teenager Leah does domestic work for Mr. Hutchins, a widower and her mother’s landlord who makes “creations” from raked hay, “cut-up pieces of tin, fifty-five gallon drums, driftwood from out of the Tennahpush River, a mirror he took from an old house that had fallen in.” He scavenges to make the pasture art, including a life-sized helicopter, a locomotive, and several creatures, which all sit in the middle of his field.
Leah keeps busy with caretaking: measuring and injecting her mother’s insulin, dusting the furniture in Mr. Hutchins house, prodding her mother to apply for food stamps. She steals, too, taking a necklace, photograph, and dresses that belonged to Mr. Hutchins’s deceased wife, in an attempt to fashion a grownup life of her own from the leavings of someone else. After a fire destroys much of his pasture art, Leah encourages Mr. Hutchins to remake them. He replies, “It’s hard to make something out of nothing.” The two have become allies of sorts, and it’s implied that he’s at the end of the line and Leah, who may have to leave her sickly mother behind, at the beginning.
Although Barton’s stories are plot and character driven, his settings seem inextricable from the narratives. In “Into Silence,” about an adult deaf woman who lives with her needy mother and longs for independence, the old family house shelters them and signifies how steeped in and worn their lives are by history:
“The roof needed replacing. The steps were warped. Her grandfather, Jason Teclaw, had built the house with slave labor, and made a large, comfortable home, the one oddity in its design the columns across the front and side of the house. […] There were knotholes, too, visible in the sides of each column. […] Bricks around the cellar walls had come loose, leaving holes into the darkness that had once been, for a brief period, the saloon that had gotten her grandfather kicked out of the Methodist congregation.”
Janey’s impairment and the mother’s weak heart are consistent with the place; their stories can only happen here, Barton shows. Nevertheless, the strongest, most memorable characters here – Janey in “Into Silence,” Leah in “Pasture Art,” and Carrie in “Playing War” – both resist and long for the road that leads away from home.
*An excerpt of Barton’s short story, “Pasture Art,” was published in ASweetLife.
Marlin Barton wrote about his diagnosis with Type 1 diabetes at age 37 in ASweetLife.