For our Marginalia web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite works of literature by way of a short piece of prose. This week, David James Poissant, whose excerpt from his forthcoming novel Lake Life appears in our Spring 2020 issue, examines a passage from "Xmas, Jamaica Plain" by Melanie Rae Thon.
The first time I read Melanie Rae Thon’s beguiling, gut-wrenching “Xmas, Jamaica Plain,” I’m not sure I breathed. My second reading followed the first, one of those rare times you reach the last word and turn to the beginning, incredulous, unable to believe that what you’ve read might just be the finest prose ever put to paper:
I’m your worst fear.
But not the worst thing that can happen.
I lived in your house half the night. I’m the broken window in your little boy’s bedroom. I’m the flooded tiles in the bathroom where the water flowed and flowed.
I’m the tattoo in the hollow of Emile’s pelvis, five butterflies spreading blue wings to rise out of his scar.
I’m dark hands slipping through all your pale woman underthings; dirty fingers fondling a strand of pearls, your throat, a white bird carved of stone. I’m the body you feel wearing your fox coat.
—Melanie Rae Ton, “Xmas, Jamaica Plain,” from First, Body
But “Xmas, Jamaica Plain” is such a story, one I’d place comfortably alongside James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” another story of love and loss and addiction, on a list reserved for the greatest American short stories of the twentieth century.
“Xmas Jamaica Plain” concerns two characters—an unnamed narrator and Emile—both teenagers, both people of color, both sex workers, both without homes and dependent on drugs, who break into a Boston neighborhood house on Christmas night in search of food, prescription drugs, clothing, and a few hours of peace and TV. The narrator is haunted by the ghost of her dead sister, while Emile, “who wanted to be Emilia,” is haunted by a powerful addiction and ultimately overdoses on Valium:
I’m your worst fear. I touched everything in your house: all the presents just unwrapped—cashmere sweater, rocking horse, velvet pouch. I lay on your bed, smoking cigarettes, wrapped in your fur coat. How many foxes? I tried to count.
But it was Emile who wore the red dress, who left it crumpled on the floor.
The home belongs to a family we never meet, though the narrator pieces together from framed photographs that it belongs to a couple with a son. The story, then, is epistolary, addressed to the mother the narrator will never meet. She tells the mother what happened, asks questions, and imagines what the mother must have felt coming home to a flooded, ransacked house and Emile’s corpse on the bathroom floor.
In reality, the narrator is asking the mother to confront her own privilege, the excess of her possessions, and the sense of security she’s always taken for granted. She’s asking this unseen mother to imagine what it’s like to be her: a sex worker whose safety is always in jeopardy, who, in winter, must walk all night because sleeping means freezing.
Of course, I would also argue that the narrator is partly Thon demanding empathy of the reader—empathy for the marginalized, the abused, the misunderstood—and her demands are met, I have to imagine, even by the most callous, hard-hearted reader. If Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son is a portrait of addiction that extends compassion to its characters, Thon’s story goes one step further: it offers grace, an absolution that requires no atonement.
Near story’s end, our narrator scrambles onto a frozen river and walks on water. We’re giddy, waiting to see if, confronted with the opportunity to kidnap a child, the narrator will give in to that temptation, or whether she’ll let the child stay “safe and warm, the mother not wailing, not beating her head on the wall to make herself stop.”
Thon’s prose approaches poetry: her sentences rhythmic and infectious, her love for her characters boundless. I can’t read the story without crying, though I concede that I’m an easy cry. It’s a story I turn to often, and one I can’t share often enough. It’s the kind of story the world needs more of, now maybe more than ever.