Mariah Young tells how moments turn into story

I'm delighted to welcome author Mariah K. Young to my blog this morning with a guest post and excerpt from her award-winning tribute to America's cultural and ethnic diversity: Masha'allah and Other Stories (HeyDay Books/November 2012).

Mariah K. Young received the James D. Houston Award in 2012 for Masha'allah and Other Stories, honoring books by writers whose voices reflect humane values and a thoughtful literary exploration of California, Hawai'i, and the West. Young is also the recipient of the RV Williams prize for fiction. Born in San Leandro, California, she spent her childhood living in the Bay Area and in Lahaina, Hawai`i. She is a graduate of California State University, East Bay, and UC Riverside. Her book Masha’allah and Other Stories is available in stores and online. 

So, over to you Mariah. Please would you tell us something about this award-winning collection.

Like most writers, I am a thief of moments: many of the stories in my collection are built around moments or swatches of dialog which then become the seed of a story. One evening after work, I stopped at the taco trucks parked in a vacant lot off of International Boulevard. Few linger once they’ve gotten their plates—the ambiance of the parking lot and traffic from the thoroughfare don’t encourage people to stay long. It was sunset but still warm, so I took my torta and sat at the outdoor benches, where others were eating and talking, coming and going. There was an older man at the end of the table; he had an empty paper plate in front of him and he asked me for the time. We started talking about the food or the weather or something just as inconsequential. After a while we were the only ones on the bench with clean plates. He asked me again for the time, and I told him it was time to go home, that he should too—“why’re you hanging around here,” I asked. It was fall and the air was crisp with no sun to warm it. He pointed with his chin toward the payphones on the corner. “I’m waiting for 8 o’clock. That’s when I call my wife,” he said. She was back home (he didn’t say where) and they set up these calls to each other, sometimes weeks in advance. He smiled as he said it, pausing as he searched for the phrase in English—“It’s our special time.” We threw away our plates and said our goodbyes; he had another hour of waiting. As I drove home, I thought about that man—I never caught his name—and imagined him waiting, killing time to meet the hour when he could call his beloved back home, wherever home was, and how that moment of hearing someone’s voice could be so treasured because of the waiting, the anticipation. But then I wondered: what if no one picked up? That scenario sprouted into this story, where that phone call was made and went unanswered.

One Space (excerpt)

You walk to the market on Thirty-fifth Avenue because it has pay phones in their back lot, away from the sounds of traffic and people moving about the city. The last clock you saw said it was 5:52, and long enough has passed so that time must be crowding into six, if not already there. You imagine Eldie sitting in one of the plastic chairs outside the shop. You see her in jeans and a red shirt, her black hair down—this is always how you imagine her, out in the world anyway. That’s what she wore when you first took her out; you watched an American movie about aliens with no subtitles, and the two of you made up the dialog at the more exciting parts and spent the slower screen time kissing.

You fish out your phone card and dial the numbers, key in your pin, and enter the market number. It rings and rings and rings.

“Hello?” The voice is coarse, low. “Speak!”

“Eldie?” You hesitate. The phone clicks dead. You hang up and try again. The same voice sounds through the receiver.

“Who is this?”

“Who is this? I’m calling for Edelmira Sena.” Your voice gets loud.

“Clear the line.” The voice on the other end is gravelly, grumbling. “I’m waiting for a call.”

“No, I’m on now. My wife—” This should be much simpler.

“Get off the line. My sister is about to call.” She hangs up on you again. You imagine a fat woman, old and sour. Moles on her chin with hairs springing out of them. An old wench with a mean cane. Probably likes to hit children with it.

You redial. This time, no one answers. You try again and again until you practically memorize the pattern of numbers across the grid of one to zero, your fingers crossing each followed by a jab on the pound sign. You try different strategies. At first you wait a few minutes and call back. Then you double-check the number and dial it successively. Each time, the hollow sound of the ringing tone buzzes in the phone. Finally, the phone clicks back to life. Another voice comes on. It’s a man’s voice, and you don’t recognize his dialect—something Indian. “Get off the line!” you shout, but the voice keeps jabbering, and you finally slam the phone back in its cradle.

At first, you try not to be angry. This is the number a lot of jornaleros use to call home. Sometimes a row of people waits to use the phone, waiting for their husband or brother or sister or son or daughter to call. Scenarios, explanations arrange themselves in your mind. Eldie stuck in the middle of the phone line, deciding whether to be polite and wait, or tell the old wench hogging the phone to get off the line, her husband is about to call. You think of the stretch from your house to the market, a half hour’s walk through the valley to the paved roads of the square. The winter rains could be falling, and maybe the road is blocked or too deep with mud to pass. There, in her red blouse and hair all caught in the breeze, Eldie on the dirt road that turns to pavement once the beaches are in view. You try the number one more time, and your heart sinks at that ring, tinny like a coin clinking against the walls of an empty well. You drop the receiver and hurry to the street. A block down, the clock over the liquor mart reads 6:43. You spit—old lady or no, mud or none, she should have been there to answer.

Now I'm longing to know why she's not there. You certainly pull me into this story, and I love how you describe writers as "thieves of moments." The moment you took at the taco stand is given back here, transformed into story, polished and beautiful. I hope I might be able to convey the moments of people's lives as well in my own writing, and I'm grateful to you for visiting my blog.


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