• The Barest Horizon: Jamel Brinkley's “Bartow Station”

    Garth Greenwell

    Winter 2024

    One of my questions about “Bartow Station,” from Jamel Brinkley’s second collection, Witness, is what makes the story seem so bottomlessly deep, since really it’s quite simple, quite contained in its materials. Narrated by an unnamed, youngish man, it takes place over a few months, a single summer, with a couple of important excursions into the past. It’s comprised of three interwoven strands: the narrator’s new job as a delivery man for UPS; his strained, would-be relationship with a youngish woman, Zoelle; and the defining relationship of his life, his bond with his cousin, Troy, who died some years before the summer the story recounts. One of Brinkley’s great subjects, in both of his books, is the way men—brothers, friends, fathers, and sons—relate to one another, the way certain models of masculinity give form to and so, maybe necessarily, deform expressions of love, both love between men, and love between men and women. One way of thinking about “Bartow Station”—and this is true of other of Brinkley’s stories, like “A Family” and “Clifton’s Place” from A Lucky Man, “The Let-Out” and “Comfort” in Witness—is as a narrative of a present relationship cut across, impeded, in “Bartow Station” finally made impossible, by a relationship from the past.

    We don’t learn all that much about the story’s unnamed narrator, though after twenty pages we’ll feel we know him deeply; one of the marvels of Brinkley’s work is how economical he can be with backstory, how our knowledge of his characters—who are often folded in on themselves, curled around some hidden grief—comes from inhabiting the experience of their lives, not from the delivery of facts. The story opens on the narrator’s first day as a delivery man for UPS; he’s sitting on a bench in the locker room getting razzed by Jimmy, a more experienced driver who will train him. The narrator’s shoes are all wrong—Oxfords that will destroy his feet—and so are his socks (white, not regulation black or brown); he’s sure to get reamed out by the bosses. More important, his attitude is all wrong; a “unicorn,” Jimmy says, “hired off the street,” he takes for granted a job that others covet. “This is just a gig, man,” the narrator says. “I’m not here to collect a pension.” We’ll learn that he has dropped out of college, twice; there’s the slightest hint, late in the story, that maybe he thinks of himself as an artist, or would like to. (“I had no ambitions then of being an artist,” he will say of his younger self; my sense of his current ambitions hangs on that then.) In any event, something has knocked him off course, into a job he feels is beneath him.

    It’s a great job for a protagonist, though, since it keeps him in motion, bringing him into contact with an endless stream of others, any of whom might spark a story. The narrator finds himself frequently making deliveries to a flower shop, something he comes to enjoy; in the early mornings, the mirrored interior makes him feel like he’s stepping into a meadow. He flirts with one of the women who works there, at first casually, courteously—and then “my courtesy starts getting away from me, growing bit by bit into something else, something I don’t know how to control.” It’s largely this woman—her name (she will prod him into asking it) is Zoelle—who pushes things along, coaxing the narrator into playfulness, giving him a flower and telling him it’s a ticket. “All that flirting . . . and you actually have no idea what to do,” she teases. The narrator’s response is to feel, literally, bewildered, “swept up, engulfed,” utterly estranged from himself. “So deeply lost in the meadow,” he thinks, recalling his earlier impression of the shop, “you surrender all sense of not only where you are but also, briefly, who.” Brinkley’s work is sprinkled with homages—to James Baldwin, Jean Stafford, William Trevor, F. Scott Fitzgerald; this sentence, broken into lines, might have been written by the poet Carl Phillips, who provided the epigraph for A Lucky Man.

    The dynamic established in these early scenes continues: Zoelle coaxes, the narrator resists, despite his attraction to her. Their first date—they go to see street art in Bushwick—is deliciously written. She comes at his defenses from every angle; I’ve seldom seen anyone work a romantic possibility so hard. She asks him about himself, she touches him, she suggests erotic scenarios concerning the figures in the murals, she asks him, cringingly, for his “porn name.” Where the narrator is withholding, Zoelle gushes: we learn that she went to Brown, where she majored in economics to please her parents but then, after moving to New York, bailed on her corporate job. She likes working in the flower shop because customers open up to her, buying arrangements to mark love or celebration or grief. She worries that her parents don’t love each other anymore. She wants to start a community garden. In response, from the narrator: crumbs of disclosure, then less than crumbs. He retreats behind “the plated armor of my silence.” You get the sense that this isn’t really what he wants to do, that he would drop his defenses if he could. He seems to have a horror of sociality itself: “Everyone around us is talking, talking, talking,” he’ll think in Bushwick; on another date, in a bar, he reduces human interaction to “manic disclosures and lustful intimations.” Without his UPS uniform, the ever-ready exit of his next delivery, being with Zoelle feels “reckless.”

    I was struck by this word, rereading Brinkley’s two books in recent weeks; it appears twice in A Lucky Man and three times in Witness. In the new book it’s always associated with desire. In “Bystander,” an unhappy woman considers her husband’s attempt to initiate sex a “reckless lack of consideration”; Silas, in the title story, thinks his sister is “reckless” when she gives a man who approaches her on the street her phone number. As always when I get caught by a word I look to etymology, and found that the root is the Middle English recchan, “to care, heed, have a mind, be concerned about”; it’s the root too of a word I grew up with, reckon. To be reckless is not to think, then, in the sense of not concerning oneself with consequences; it’s a condition of the defenselessness desire throws us into. Not just desire: any open-ended social situation, any situation in which human agents are free radicals, not bound by the kind of ironclad procedure that protects the narrator when he’s in uniform. The narrator finds it unbearable, and this first date very nearly founders. Finally, when Zoelle has reached the end of her resourcefulness, he tosses her a line; long after she offered her own porn name (the terrible “May Flowers”) he suggests his own: “Pierce Tulips.” It’s corny, it’s perfect, it gives her the opening she needs. They had talked about grabbing something to eat; now she suggests they go straight to her apartment.

    Sex is everywhere in Brinkley’s stories—the fact of it, the hunt for it, the threat of it—and he puts it to varied use. In one of the finest stories from A Lucky Man, “Infinite Happiness,” one character makes sex the basis of his identity, an identity the narrator of that story responds to with equal parts wonder and skepticism; in “Comfort,” in Witness, it’s one of a grieving woman’s strategies for self-annihilation. The work sex does in “Bartow Station” is more ambivalent. It’s the one place the narrator’s relationship with Zoelle works, the one place they can reliably find their way to one another—though that may be putting it more positively than the story will allow. For one thing, they often need alcohol as a prelude, to get them past the troublesome selves they’re locked inside: “But if we arrive drunk enough, or drink enough after we arrive, we quicken past all that, or skip it entirely,” the narrator says. (An interesting, somewhat uncommon usage: “quicken” as an intransitive verb—meaning “to speed up,” but maybe also “to revive” or “to receive life.”) For another, the narrator says early on that “we undress, and become other versions of ourselves,” suggesting that sex is a kind of subterfuge, an avoidance of connection.

    But later he’ll offer a more expansive sense of what happens between them. “In bed, naked, we both speak and we both listen,” he says. “We learn a little more about each other.” That sounds affirmative, but what they learn is more complicated:

    I learn, after the first few times, that she wants to roughen the sex. I learn, after she says it, that she likes a hand tightened around her throat. I learn, after she does it, that I like my face slapped. We’ve been silly, saying the names we made up among the murals. But mostly we say other names, names we impose on each other, names we insist on for ourselves. Names that sting and bruise. I learn her names, the ones that turn her on, names for someone who is there, in bed, only to be a body, only to be of use. She learns my names too, and I learn that there are more of them than I knew, names for someone who is filth, someone who is base, someone who isn’t fit to exist, or who doesn’t exist at all.

    Typically in Brinkley’s work, small touches convey a lived-in sense of character: the narrator, withholding, tentative, waits to be told what to do (“I learn, after she says it”); Zoelle simply acts (“I learn, after she does it”). The extremity the passage works up to is remarkable, as is the complicated dynamics of witness it dramatizes, of being and not being seen. Is it something like love, to let someone see your desire to disappear, to inhabit with them your desire not to be? I’m not sure it is, necessarily; but maybe it’s not not love, either. Maybe it’s as close as this narrator can get, at least for now. Sex provides a frame that allows the narrator and Zoelle to perceive each other, even if the perception is complicated or fraught, even if the story is quick to delimit it: “We learn each other’s secret names, and say them, but neither of us learns the reasons they exist.”

    And yet it’s sex, too—or a failure of sex—that forces the narrator across these limits. One day, Zoelle invites him to go with her on a tour of “the world’s oldest subway tunnel,” the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel, built in the 1840s. Underground, the narrator panics, gripping Zoelle’s wrist until she hisses that he’s hurting her. Back at her apartment, he hurts her again; having sex he seems to dissociate, and belatedly realizes that he’s choking her too hard, that she’s been tapping his thigh to make him stop. He’s apologetic, and she’s not really harmed—but it prods Zoelle to give him an ultimatum: they can only keep seeing each other if he can explain to her what happened, so that they can make sure it doesn’t happen again. She needs to feel safe.

    At first the narrator responds to this as we’d expect, by shutting it down. “I just got carried away,” he says, then says it again; he feels that Zoelle is “a casual lover making excessive demands and humiliating me.” But he’s as shaken as she is. Something profound has happened, and he finds, to his surprise, that he’s weeping; he won’t talk about that, either. Zoelle, disappointed, maybe a little disgusted, lies down with her back to him, and after a time, he begins to speak. He tells her about his cousin Troy, whom the story has by this point mentioned several times. The first mention is on the second page, and the first thing we learn is that Troy is dead. The narrator is thinking about his shoes: “The last time I wore them was the last time I set foot in a church. In memory of my cousin. Troy.” How expressive that syntax is, the two strangled fragments conveying both how bottled up the narrator is, and how hard he finds it to acknowledge Troy’s death, even in the privacy of his own thoughts. He thinks of Troy again in one of his early encounters with Zoelle, when she reminds him of “the stormy hands of the eighth-grade girls who liked to play-fight with me and Troy in the parking lot after school—quick hands that sudden and seize the air.” (That last clause—“that sudden and seize the air”—is an example of the extravagant, gorgeous lyricism that sometimes breaks out in Brinkley’s prose, though it’s more restrained in Witness than in A Lucky Man. His prose never strays far, or never for very long, from poetry.) The memory of Troy pierces the text again during the narrator and Zoelle’s first date, when the narrator recalls watching cartoons with him in childhood, a memory that introduces the story’s first note of real bitterness: compared to death in cartoons, where the spirit floats up, accompanied by harps, in real life one is left with “dead meat.” Finally, there’s a long paragraph where the narrator remembers summers working with Troy at Troy’s father’s restaurant on City Island, earning some pocket money, eating ice cream by the water.

    What comes from the narrator now, near the end of the story, is entirely different. Something that fascinates me in Witness are sudden, I think very daring, tonal shifts—though maybe shifts isn’t the right word, since sometimes they occur at the beginnings of stories; maybe better to say sharp departures from Brinkley’s usual sound. The first story in the collection, “Blessed Deliverance,” strikes me that way; it’s also an experiment in POV, told in a first-person plural that gets winnowed down until, in the final line, the narrator’s singular “I” is finally revealed, a syntactical enactment of the hiddenness typical of many of Brinkley’s characters, including the narrator of “Bartow Station.” Another example is the vertiginous first paragraph of “That Particular Sunday,” which hurls us into a description of a family almost Jamesian in its elaborate metaphor. And then there is this moment in “Bartow Station,” which sounds unlike anything else in Brinkley’s published work. The narrator explicitly refers to it as a confession (“The words pour out of me as I confess”), which unfurls over two long paragraphs. The first begins like this:

    Back when my cousin Troy was alive, I tell her, before we put his body into the ground, back when he and I traveled from Mosholu Parkway east across the Bronx toward City Island, often, in the spring or summer or fall months, we would skip off the Bx29 bus just after it crossed Pelham Bridge into the park and together, walking on the edge, follow a trail with horses and their riders to a clearing obscured by trees, and there, difficult to find within the abundance of wood anemones, trout lilies, daylilies, blue violets, cutleaf toothwort, mugwort, garlic mustard, and knotweed, was a hidden place whose actual history and name Troy would never know: Bartow Station.

    A gargantuan sentence for this narrator: compare it with the earlier, strangled syntax of “In memory of my cousin. Troy.” The syntactical kernels are clear, once you clear out the underbrush: the whole sentence is governed by “I tell her,” and there’s a lot of adverbial suspension—all those time markers: “back when,” “before,” “back when,” “often, in the spring or summer or fall months”—before we finally arrive at an independent clause: “We would skip off the Bx29 . . . and together . . . follow a trail.” This is followed by an even more elaborate construction, “There” divided from “was” by a long list of wildflowers—a list that carries a kind of crushing emotive force, since it’s the first instance of the narrator’s confession retrospectively charging with pathos an element that appeared earlier in the story. “I know what most of them are,” the narrator thinks of the flowers when he first describes the shop where Zoelle works, “but knowing stuff like that doesn’t really mean anything.” It’s an odd, seemingly purposeless aside that now becomes plangent, full of feeling: he knows them because of these outings with his cousin. (An unanswered question, more moving for being unanswered: whether the narrator and Troy learned the names of these flowers together, or whether he has learned them alone, as part of his grief.)

    The elaborately suspended syntax is part of what gives this passage its very un-Brinkley sound. Most of the other homages I hear in Brinkley’s work (there are more than those I hear, of course) are American, but this isn’t, it isn’t even English-language: it’s central European, and more particularly, I think—especially given that list of flowers—it comes from the great German writer W. G. Sebald. Sebald has been a dominant influence on English-language prose over the past fifteen or so years (think Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk, Katie Kitamura), though I’ve never heard him before in Brinkley’s work. It’s a brilliant choice here. The tone is slightly elevated (“in the spring or summer or fall months”—the addition of “months,” along with the repeated conjunction, starches the tone to my ear, turns it hieratic, when the sense would be the same without them; “with horses and their riders”; “to a clearing obscured”; “difficult to find within the abundance”; “a hidden place”), and this marks the moment off from everyday speech, placing it in a realm of exception, maybe even of sanctity: a confession, as the narrator says, maybe not merely in the juridical or psychological but the sacramental sense. More dramatically, the suspension of the syntax dramatizes the dilemma of the character, his peculiar and pained relationship to time.

    In another story from Witness, “Arrows”—Brinkley’s first experiment in the supernatural, literalizing a psychological dynamic he has explored again and again—the narrator offers a theory of how ghosts are made. It’s a theory he calls “the arrow of time.” Some people, he imagines,

    tolerate the past, give it their merest acknowledgment, the way you might quickly raise and lower your head to a passing stranger. Other people, people who tend to become ghosts, are different. They’re the ones who turn around to face the past, and they get impaled by the arrow. Stuck on something that happened to them, or on an obsession, they’re the ones who can’t accept people’s inevitably forward movement through the entanglements of time.

    This is a precise description of many of Brinkley’s characters. In “The Happiest House on Union Street,” the point-of-view character, a child, repeats something she’s been taught by her elders: “You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.” It’s a uniquely optimistic expression, in Brinkley’s work, of the relationship between future, present, and past. More often an obsession with the past inhibits his characters from going anywhere at all. This is true of characters in “A Family” and “Wolf and Rhonda,” from A Lucky Man; as well as in “The Let-Out,” “Comfort,” and “That Particular Sunday,” in Witness. Often these stories are structured in a way that delays the revelation of whatever traumatic event has trapped characters in the past, so that the revelation becomes a crucial moment of narrative drama. When I teach young writers, I often talk about what I call a character’s “horizon of possibility,” the pressure, even if only implicit, of what a character hopes for or fears—a pressure that shapes their sense of the world, and so shapes all of their actions. I often say that such pressure is necessary for a character to accrue sufficient reality to be credible. But Brinkley’s characters, who so often face backward, suspended in time, challenge this idea. It’s hard to say what possibilities the narrator of “Bartow Station” sees for himself, what hopes he has about what the world has in store—as I’ll say in a minute, I think it’s crucial that he sees and hopes for very little; and yet few characters in recent fiction have felt to me so fully realized.

    The revelation that comes in “Bartow Station” is dramatic enough, but the narrator’s confession also serves to gather up, in a deeply satisfying act of narrative memory, earlier elements of the story. Those names of flowers at the start of his confession are one of these. Another comes as the narrator tells Zoelle about visiting the ruins of Bartow Station with Troy, looking at the murals on the walls there. These recall the murals he saw with Zoelle, and maybe explain part of the reason he failed to respond to them as she wished. He and Troy are both fascinated by the art, fresh tags and fading pictures, “mad with color. . . . arrows, spikes, curves, and overlapping layers.” Active train tracks run near the ruins, and he imagines riders seeing the two of them side by side as they study the murals, “not two different boys, but one caught mid-gesture, a brief illusion of motion.” On Troy’s seventeenth birthday, after drinking in celebration at City Island, they head for the ruins after dark, hoping to catch an artist at work. They don’t go their usual way, and to orient himself, the narrator starts walking on the tracks. (It will soon become easier to understand why exploring the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel with Zoelle was so debilitating.) Troy hesitates to join him; the narrator goads him, calling him “bitch” and “punk” and “pussy”—the kinds of names, we might guess, he likes for Zoelle to call him in bed. The inevitable happens: at a place where the tracks curve, cutting off their sight lines, a train is suddenly upon them. Troy shoves the narrator out of its path; the narrator looks up to see Troy’s body in the air after it’s struck:

    The impact was like a sound inside of my own chest. I found my light and ran to where he had fallen. I crouched over him. He clung to the earth, grabbing it with his fingers and with the toes in his shoes. With his ear pressed down, he seemed to be listening to the earth too. I searched for pain, waited for him to cry out, but he didn’t. His face, turned toward me, smiled. Then, under the smile, began the slow pooling of dark blood.

    The narrator stays by Troy’s body until it begins spasming, and then he runs away. This is important: he fails to stay with Troy, he fails to witness his cousin’s death. And he runs not toward help, not toward the train that has presumably come to a stop, but toward the ruins of Bartow Station, where, in the enigmatic final sentence of the story’s penultimate section, he collapses “onto its floor of leaf litter, staring at what I couldn’t see, sheltering myself.” One hears a crushing self-indictment in the final two words.

    The narrator’s failure to witness in this moment, the failure he narrates to Zoelle, is echoed by another—or by what seems to me another. In almost any other story, I think, the narrator’s opening up would be an important moment in an arc of recovery, and also result in a deepening of his relationship with Zoelle. But this isn’t what happens in “Bartow Station.” We don’t see Zoelle’s reaction right away: the confession comes in the fifth of the story’s seven sections; in the sixth, we leap from the narrative of Troy’s death to a scene with Jimmy, unplaced in time, in trouble again with the bosses at UPS. The story’s final section opens weeks after the narrator’s confession; we learn in retrospect that Zoelle begins to avoid the narrator at the flower shop, then disappears altogether. Only in the story’s penultimate paragraph do we return to the interrupted scene and see Zoelle’s response, which is one of violent rejection: “When I’m done talking, she flings my arm off of her. She makes herself bigger, the way you’re supposed to when you encounter a bear in the wild.”

    This is another instance of the story’s memory, repeating almost verbatim an image from an earlier memory of Troy. (The image also appears in “I Happy Am,” from A Lucky Man, the only instance I’ve noticed of an image migrating between Brinkley’s books.) On City Island, the narrator and Troy would sometimes sneak onto “party boats,” where they would drink champagne and try to out-dance each other, “pop-locking while the white people cheered us on.” As Troy got drunker and sloppier, the white people’s cheers become “mockery.” “It’s a scary thing to witness,” the narrator says, “this transformation of laughter, from an expression of joy you’re helpless against into a weapon deliberately honed and hurled.” To protect him from this scorn, to make him stop dancing, the narrator tries to hug Troy, but “his muscles jumped and he flung me off. He had made himself bigger, the way you’re supposed to when you encounter a bear in the wild.” Not just the image but the verb, “fling,” is repeated; Troy’s reaction and Zoelle’s are identical. In both cases the narrator’s attempt to forge or affirm a connection is perceived as a threat.

    We hear Zoelle’s response in reported speech, as though the narrator can’t bear to fully enter the scene, holding it off instead at arm’s length: “She stands up from the bed and tells me I’ve told her an awful story, such a sad and awful story, possibly one of the worst she’s ever heard, but she doesn’t understand how it has anything to do with us.” I think Zoelle’s reaction is a failure on her part, by which I mean a failure to meet the narrator in his moment of vulnerability, to witness with him his shame, as well as a failure of understanding. I also think she’s right when she tells the narrator he needs a kind of help she can’t offer, and to see that need as a danger to herself. She compares him to a frozen lake: a gorgeous surface that gives way, becoming a fatal trap. Then she alters the metaphor: “She says it’s a thing about being a man, isn’t it? To be so stingy that way, to deny even a sip of yourself, to deny and deny and deny until one day it all comes out as a violence, like water spewing forth from a hose.” There’s justice in what she says; and maybe that’s what the narrator intends, maybe despite himself: after so much withholding, maybe dropping his defenses so entirely is itself a defense; he can only make himself available to her in a way he knows she can’t accept.

    That quote above about the partygoers’ mockery—“It’s a scary thing to witness”—is the only appearance in the story of the collection’s title and organizing preoccupation. The word “witness” appears four times in the stories, or five, counting its use as a title; it appears again in one of the book’s epigraphs, from James Baldwin. Even when the word itself doesn’t appear, each of the collection’s stories—and many stories from A Lucky Man as well—can be read as interrogations of the idea of witness, attempts to distinguish witnesses from bystanders (“Bystander” is the title of another of the collection’s stories), and to distinguish from both of these those who act. It appears sometimes in a limited, legalistic sense (a witness at a marriage, for instance, or a witness of a crime); it appears also, as in the quote from “Bartow Station,” in a way that underscores a character’s helplessness, their inability to intervene. This is a distinction at once drawn and challenged by the epigraph from Baldwin: “I was to discover that the line which separates a witness from an actor is a very thin line indeed; nevertheless, the line is real.”

    But there’s a further meaning to “witness” that challenges this distinction even further: to bear witness, what we mean when we import the Greek translation of the word, martyr. That word appears too in the new collection, if only once, and only ironically. (“My father was all too happy to play,” the narrator of “Arrows” thinks, “in the cheapest possible sense, the role of martyr.”) But many of Brinkley’s characters, impaled on the arrow of the past, seem to me to be witnesses in this existential sense too—trying, maybe futilely, to make their suffering meaningful as an act of witness to what they’ve lost. Everything in the narrator’s life, from his abandonment of college to his unavailability for love—even his ridiculous shoes, which cause his feet to erupt in blisters—looks different read in this light. It looks like penance. “Bartow Station” is a generous story, as most of Brinkley’s stories are, by which I mean that he allows his characters, however difficult their current circumstances, the mystery of an undetermined future. The narrator can imagine someday seeking out the help Zoelle says he needs, even if he can’t do so now. He comes to enjoy his rounds as a delivery man, those touches of social interaction, bearable because he’s shielded by uniform and protocol, interactions that nevertheless expose him to the possibility of once again finding his defenses breached. And there is the seemingly throwaway, potentially saving qualification—“I had no ambitions then of being an artist”—which suggests, if I’m right that it licenses us to imagine that he has such aspirations now, that penance might be transformed, if not redeemed, by expression: that the narrator’s act of witness might turn from mute martyrdom to something like a testament. But that’s an awful lot to hang on an adverb. Remembering Zoelle’s accusations, the narrator rejects her metaphor for him, offering one of his own that is, if anything, harsher and sadder: “I’m not a lake,” he thinks. “I’m just the small space I’m trapped in.” In this immensely beautiful and sad story, bearing witness to love and grief entails, paradoxically, a devastating sacrifice of sight. Maybe it’s this paradox—the fact that Brinkley’s narrative is complex enough to bear it—that makes for the story’s depthlessness. The narrator’s act of witness is the life he has made for himself, the only life he can endure. A life with only the barest horizon.

    Garth Greenwell is the author of two books of fiction, Cleanness and What Belongs to You

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