The Casper Humanities Festival kicked off Tuesday evening with a book club discussion of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The story has been a favorite of mine since I first read it in college. I have long admired Gilman’s ability to enact social change with such a creative and captivating story. Who knew descriptions of wallpaper could be so enticingly sinister?
Many of the women at the book discussion shared personal experiences relating to the story. I can’t help but be eager in these types of conversations, trying to relate each of my comments directly to the text with loose paraphrasing. I sometimes joke that I take up a “man-sized” portion of any conversation I am in, but the truth is that I can feel that discomfort of taking up too much space. There seemed to be a slight disconnect between the moderators and the audience– the moderators asked how can we make this 1892 story relatable in 2020, while the audience remarked that those 1892 attitudes still impacted their lives. Just as the good doctor John dismissed his wife and her bodily autonomy, women today still experience disbelief and minimization of pain by doctors– just look to the women who spend years going to “eight to ten doctors before” finding one who listens and trusts them enough to diagnose endometriosis. Gilman’s story, though it recounts the experience of a middle-class white woman, manages to transcend that to speak to all women who have had their own experiences of being talked over, infantilized, and dismissed. It is something we feel together and in isolation, together alone behind the wallpaper. “Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.”
I am excited to attend the dance performance on Friday but also couldn’t help but be a little critical when the director explained their interpretation removed the postpartum depression, the marriage, and home. I wondered out loud how they were able to retain the powerfully feminine aspect of the story without the ‘domesticity as cage’ symbolism. In short, they didn’t– they are telling a different story, one of universal mental health experiences with a sympathetic caregiver. I am sure that the piece will be powerful and moving in its own way–perhaps with a message that is needed more than ever in a society where about one in five adults live with a mental illness. But it isn’t The Yellow Wallpaper. The Yellow Wallpaper is a story about women.
In the spirit of this year’s festival theme, “Mystery, Mayhem, and Madness” today I am sharing one of the most brutal short stories that I wrote while in college. Inspired by the “Yellow Wallpaper” and another short story, “My Sister’s Marriage” by Cynthia Marshall Rich, my story also deals with madness, abuse, and an unreliable narrator. Unlike those two stories, the main character is a man. Many of my early short stories feature male protagonists, which today strikes me as odd. While my teenage and young adult personal notebooks have a few ponderings on that line between girlhood and womanhood, several of my short stories ask: what makes a man? This story speaks to the violence that can accompany that question and idea of manhood. It is an uncomfortable story and I am thankful that most of the men in my life have much healthier outlooks on their own conception of manhood. It would be a different story if the main character was a woman and asked the same question of herself: what makes a woman? This is a story about men as much as it is about abuse, madness, and that primal human craving for attention and love, albeit with a severe misunderstanding of love.
by Kylie Louise McCormick
Her name was Maybell and believe me when I tell you that this was a situation out of my hands. You know what I mean like when the rain is pouring hard outside, the thunder is shaking the sky, and the lightning is coming—there isn’t any way you are going to save that old maple tree. And this, this was one of those situations that was out of my hands.
You see, my family and I live under a storm. At least, that’s the way it used to be. I can still remember dad pouring down on Greg on his 12th birthday, I was 10 and he had decided it was time for Greg to be a man. Mom had planned the party for weeks, back when she still used to make an effort. She bought balloons, presents, invited other boys and their moms, and even baked a cake. It was an odd day; the storm had never really addressed Greg or me. Usually, he just hung around hovering with disappointment and raining on anything good. On really dark days lightning would strike, but Greg and I were always safe like house plants watching a raging storm outside. His face would go red, he’d yell for mom and we’d hide in our room, just imagining what must be happening out there. I used to be so curious. I didn’t have to be as curious after Greg’s birthday. That day was different.
“Greg!” the storm’s thunder woke me up with a start. I noticed immediately that Greg wasn’t in the room. Feeling disoriented I got out of bed, I wasn’t used to hearing Greg’s name in the rolling thunder tone. Without Greg there to stop me, I climbed carefully down the stairs, searching for the source of the commotion. About halfway down I saw my dad dragging Greg by his shirt collar past the staircase. Greg’s eyes had screamed out to me with an untamed passion and I remember thinking—so this is what turning twelve would be. The idea of actually feeling the storm pour down on me was fascinating. This day my curiosity got the best of me, I had to see lightning strike. So I snuck down the rest of the stairs and peered into the decorated room. Amongst the colored balloons, Greg was sitting on his knees looking up at the storm, looking into his eyes and feeling his blows. It was beautiful.
Later when the guests arrived Greg pushed one of the other boys down in the mud and the party ended just as fast. I just took it for static electricity, leftover from the lightning but when I went to ask him he just said, “What do you want, stupid?” The words were spat upon me as bits of water are spat down by the sky.
“I—” I stopped, switched the subject, “Did you like the present I got you?” I couldn’t handle him being disrespectful to the real gift he had gotten that day. I couldn’t remember if the storm had even ever said my name in my entire life.
“It was stupid.” After that day, everything was stupid and Greg no longer flew under the radar with me. Twelve was the age of manhood. His house plant was repotted outside into the storm. With this change in position, there was a change in Greg. He had always wanted a dog you see, but that was something he just used to tell me. Now he would scream it into the storm every time lightning hit. He’d yell at mom with his residual electricity, always with the dog and these promises of taking care of her. He wanted one of those stomp dogs, you know the kind that get mixed up in your feet and are never quite trained? I never understood it personally, if he wanted love he didn’t need to go looking in some pound for it.
It wasn’t too much longer after that birthday party that mom lost herself in the bottle she had been screamed into. She used to hide the alcohol, but somewhere between then and today something broke inside her and she doesn’t make an effort to hide anymore. She is more like a forgotten painting on the wall than a mom, hanging off-center and dusty in her stupor but she has been that way for so long that no one notices to fix her upright.
And me? I am the stunted house plant. Manhood must not be an age. Twelve passed without my name in rolling thunder. I spent years under the indifferent dark cloud. Greg the young, unbroken sapling, growing bent and stubborn in the front yard occupied the storm’s fury. After each outburst, Greg seemed to carry more dark sky in his branches. My small plant thrived on the small residual rainstorms from his leaves.
We were fine. We used to be just fine. And then one day things changed, and she came along. They finally got Greg that fucking dog. I don’t know what snapped in Greg, maybe it was finally getting what he wanted after such a long time or maybe it was a streak of madness, but that night when he crawled over to my bed and whispered to me that he was leaving and I should come too, I saw something I didn’t recognize in his eyes. I shook my head and told him his plan sounded “stupid.” You can hardly blame me for deciding to stay instead of leave. After all, what would the storm do without its favorite victim? And I didn’t think mom could stand to lose two sons, hell she could barely stand. So I stayed if nothing else but for the fact that someone had to take care of that damn dog Greg always wanted and now was abandoning. You can call me whatever you want, but I call this honesty when I tell you that dog ruined my family.
See, I always imagined that I would be able to forgive my dad someday, maybe after years of a bad marriage all my own or when he’d finally get old enough to need me. That was before I knew what he was capable of. He named the dog Maybell and tied a bell around her neck so he would know when she was coming and the gray clouds could clear from his face while he smiled sunshine down at her. It made my stomach turn. After so many years this dog was changing everything. It was finally my turn but the dog jumped the line. She should have been the forgotten one, not me. It was my turn. I sat there and watched him dote on that dog. Every time I’d walk into the room she’d mock me with her wagging tail. Sometimes she would even seek me out and I would wake up with her on my lap or I would hear her whining outside my door. She was taunting me, gloating about the gentle love the storm had somehow managed to find for a fucking dog.
He even tried to train the dog. I would watch from the window while he ran around the front yard with her, teaching to her fetch, lie down, sit, and stay. A brain the size of my fist and she was more worthy of being taught a lesson than me. Sometimes she would spy me in the window watching them and she would bark, wagging her tail, while running to the glass. The storm would follow her gaze, clouds hovering when he saw my face, but he would never quite meet my eyes.
After three weeks I knew I had to do something. If nothing else but to get the storm back. An endless storm is better than one that shows you what you are really missing. That’s when it hit me. At night I crept into the back yard, my feet cold against the moist grass. I scooped up some of her feces in my hands and chuckled to myself. It was perfect. The storm would roll back in, even if it never belongs to me. I put the pile at the foot of his bed. I could hardly sleep that night with excitement. As the morning came I waited and listened. There was nothing. No shouts, no profanities, nothing. I didn’t understand. Maybe he didn’t find it. I walked downstairs slowly, late to breakfast. I could hear the storm chattering away breezily, a gentle blow that softly tussles flowers and sends their fragrance into the air. He had been this way for a while now and the only thing he talked about was Maybell.
I stumbled into the room listening hard to what he was telling my already drunk mom. He didn’t even look up to see I had entered the room as he continued his cheerful chatter, “No, I don’t know why she would do that. I’m sure she just needed to go out last night and didn’t want to wake us. She is such a goo—” I couldn’t listen to it anymore. I slammed the fridge shut and left the room without eating. I spent the day trying to avoid Maybell; she knew what I had done and she found me no matter where I went. Her big brown eyes accused me each time she stared up at me, her thin tail wagging menacingly. Then she’d start barking as if to give it away to the storm what I had done. And each time he would call after her in almost a sing-song tone of voice “Maybell”. It made me sick; I didn’t even eat all day because I didn’t think I could hold anything down.
At night, after everyone went to sleep, I sat outside by our big maple tree in the front yard. I begged the sky to rain, to pour down on me. But the night was clear and I could see almost every star. I sat for a long time in denial and shame—I would never be the son I wanted to be. Then fate intervened and I heard muffled barking behind me. Maybell was in my window looking out and barking at me, it was like a sign and suddenly I knew that it had to be me or her. And it was my turn. You can hardly blame me with mom hanging on the wall and Greg gone, it wasn’t right for the little bitch to step into my place.
I snuck back into the house, Maybell running to meet me, ready for our face-off. I finally realized that the best thing about Greg wanting a stomp dog: they are easy to pin down. She felt so soft in my hands and it occurred to me that this was the first time I had ever touched her. As she squirmed under the growing pressure of my hands, that is when I realized that this, oh yes this, was one of those things that was out of my hands, out of my control. I held her in place against the floor with my knees and my hands went to her throat. I struggled at first with my grip, but once she let out a whimper I let it pour. The tighter I squeezed the more she squirmed between my legs and the tighter I pushed the better I felt. When she stopped moving I held her throat closed for a few minutes. I was worried that like the sun hiding briefly behind some clouds she would reappear and ruin everything. But soon she grew cold. I carried her into his room, leaving her limp body at the foot of the bed. And then I walked back upstairs to my room. I laid there in bed staring up at the ceiling satisfied: it was my turn. It was my turn.