"Flowers on Their Bridles, Hooves in the Air" by Glen Hirshberg: An Appreciation by John Langan
So when I saw that there was a new story by Glen Hirshberg up at SCIFICTION (which, for the record, had published "Struwwelpeter" (which has received fine commentary here from Nathan Ballingrud)), I turned on the computer and printed it out. It was different from the earlier story; while the perspective still was male, this time the narrator was in his early thirties, married, the father of a year-old daughter. "Flowers on Their Bridles, Hooves in the Air" was about a reunion between the narrator, Eliot, and his wife, Rebecca, with Ash, their friend from college and, in Eliot's case, before. At Rebecca's suggestion, the three of them ventured to Long Beach, to a pier at the end of which was a rundown, somehow sinister arcade. The story was suffused with an air of menace, which was fulfilled by its climax, when one member of the trio was left behind at the sinister arcade, betrayed by their friends and their own worst impulses. Once again, the story ended powerfully, this time with a moving, lyric paean to the loss of hope and the death of desire.
I've re-read "Flowers on Their Bridles" over and over again since that first encounter, trying to figure out how it does what it does so well. I can't say that I've solved the riddle, but that's not a bad thing. In fact, I like the idea of stories whose full successes remain, finally, inexplicable to us. That said, I can offer a few observations about its strengths.
For one thing, there's Eliot. Hirshberg's handling of his voice is impressive. It's always clear, always advancing the narrative in some way, yet it's also a study in the subtleties of individual perception. Eliot fills in personal history for himself, his wife, and their friend; offers motivations for the three of them; and documents the various hues of his thoughts. Despite his observations and suppositions, he's not all-knowing; in fact, he readily admits the limits of his knowledge, the tentative nature of his narration. He is honest, though, to a fault. In his attention to the particularities of perception, Hirshberg reminds me--favorably--of Henry James.
If this were his only virtue, it still would be a considerable one. Yet Hirshberg's portrayal of character, of the relationships among Eliot, Rebecca, and Ash, is equally strong. The three of them are on the cusp of something, a kind of tectonic shift in attitude that I think marks your transition from early adulthood to another state, one whose name I'm leery about naming because I may be there myself. Maybe its name isn't important; what matters is that each of the characters is on the cusp. It's a time of death and disappointment. Rebecca's mother, to whom she was close, has died; the PAC for which she was working has folded; her c-section to deliver her daughter has left a scar that remains unfeeling. She and Eliot have realized, not that they don't love one another--it's more that their love has run up against the hard, recalcitrant parts of one another. Their friend's name assumes tremendous significance; he's a reminder of the way things used to be, all the thrill and excitement that has burnt out of their lives. Reconnecting with him is a chance for the three of them to touch, if not recover, their old fire.
To do so, the three of them make the drive to Long Beach. I can't remember who it was complained contemporary writers don't take enough advantage of landscape, but the complaint doesn't apply to Hirshberg. His evocation of Los Angeles, the 710, Long Beach and the pier waiting there, is deft and vivid. Like his other fiction, this story is placed, its sense of the Genius loci sure.
Once at Long Beach, Rebecca directs Eliot to drive to a pier whose far end once held a carousel. The carousel, we'll learn, was a kind of memorial, built by its creator as a tribute to his dead business partner, friend, and probably lover. Long since removed from the pier, the carousel and its horses live brightly in Rebecca’s memory; she describes it in detail. Although absent from the story's present action, the carousel haunts it, a powerful symbol for the return of the past, for our inability to leave what was--especially what has damaged us--behind. It's the culmination of a series of circle-images that lie scattered throughout the rest of the story. The carousel, the story, are deeply nostalgic--not in a high-school-reunion, "Glory Days" sense, but in the word's root meaning of the pain of returning home, the pain of memory, the pain of coming back to our origins.
Rebecca's reasons for visiting the pier are the soul of nostalgia; it was where her father, an alcoholic who abandoned her, her sister, and their mother, used to take her and her sister to ride the carousel while he played in the adjacent arcade. She directs Eliot and Ash along the pier, through enormous sheets of canvas hung from a roof shaped like a magician's hat, to that same arcade. Suddenly, we're beyond the problems of being on the cusp; suddenly the characters and the story are dealing with much more, with damage that threads its way through a life, that warps and snarls its weave. The trio are accosted by homeless men; Eliot sees a man fishing off the pier hook a small ray that makes him think of his daughter; the pier groans and creaks beneath them. Everything feels fraught with meaning. Then the trio are through to the "Lite-Your-Line" parlor, a collection of pinball machines dominated by a pair of signs, one of which invites players to "Lite Your Line Lite Yours," the other of which displays a set of six numbers. The pinball machines are linked to one another; the goal is to sink your ball in numbered slots at the top of each machine in the order dictated by the numeric sign. When a player succeeds at this, the numeric sign congratulates them on becoming "liter" and they are awarded a red chip. What the chips buy, we never learn.
It's a sinister space, one dominated by repetition. The four players Eliot, Rebecca, and Ash find stationed throughout the parlor seem by their dress to represent the last half-century or so; when Ash moves to join them, the group is brought up to date. The change girl, who glides around the floor on roller skates, knows only one word, a question: "Change?" and with each utterance, the question grows more weighty. Do you want to change, or do you want to remain here, playing games, getting lit, recovering the old fire, leaving your cares, your responsibilities, behind, shuffling them off with each win, getting liter? It's a liminal space, to be sure, a place on the margins, but I think it’s also an antechamber of hell. (We are, after all, downtown . . .)
Once the story is done, it's clear that such a description may be more than a metaphor. Eliot and Rebecca have abandoned Ash to the parlor, left him to find his way to their home, if he can. He does not, and while Eliot speaks to him briefly on the phone thereafter, it will be the last time. Eliot and Rebecca's betrayal is too much, the last bucket of ice water on what used to burn among them. In the end, Eliot is unsure that Ash actually escaped the place. The story exists, in a sense, between the carousel and the arcade, between the never-ending return of the past and its pain, and the loss of the self in mindless repetition. Its ending is beautiful, devastating:
I stepped out of the car, felt the stagnant L.A. air settle around me. The rising sun caught in my neighbor's windows, releasing tiny prisms of colored light, and somewhere down the street, wind-chimes clinked, though there was little wind. And the feeling that whispered through me then was indeed magical, terrible, and also almost sweet. Because I realized I might be underestimating the power of Rooff's last carousel, even now. We could be on it, still; Rebecca, me, the whole crazy, homogenizing coast; bobbing up and down in our prescribed places as our parents die and our friends whirl past and away again and the places we love evaporate out of the world, the way everyone's favorite people and places inevitably do. Until, finally, we are just our faces, smiles frozen bright as we can make them, hands stretching for our children because we can't help but hope they'll join us, hope they'll understand before we did that there really may be no place else to go or at least forgive us for not finding it. Then they'll smile back at us. Climb aboard. And ride.
It wasn't until I read "Dancing Men," Hirshberg's story in Ellen Datlow's ghost-story anthology, The Dark, that I was sure of it, but this closing--and that of "Struwwelpeter" before it--strongly suggested to me that Hirshberg was one of the best writers of endings currently at work. Even without that last paragraph, "Flowers on Their Bridles, Hooves in the Air," would be a memorable story; with its closing lines, it moves from the memorable to the haunting.
Glen Hirshberg was only one of the writers Ellen Datlow brought us at SCIFICTION, "Flowers on Their Bridles" only one of the stories. But I take him and his story as an index of the level of talent Ellen featured on a weekly basis. I'm grateful to Hirshberg for having written such a story; I'm grateful to Ellen for having published it. I'm grateful for it all.
Link to story.