Lorrie Moore is the author of several story collections and novels and she has won honors from the Lannan Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Moore has won the Irish Times International Prize for Fiction and the Rea Award for the Short Story. She is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. A Gate at the Stairs was published in 2009.
It is a cold December in Troy, Wisconsin, in the winter of 2011, and twenty-year-old Tassie Keltjen is looking for a job. She is from a small farm and came to the university town of Troy to attend school, and for her it was like moving from a cave to a bustling civilization. This city is known to the rest of the state as being a “smug, liberal, recycling, civic-minded” place. Troy is an antagonistic town, particularly towards religion; to its citizens, God is “a cross between a billboard, a charlatan, a hamburger, and a fairy king.” In general, Tassie believes “a little’s a dangerous thing. But so is a lot. And so is none.”
Tassie has just finished her college exams for the semester and is looking for a child-care job beginning in January, though she does not particularly like children—at least not for long stretches of time. After five interviews, Tassie arrives at a house which, though somewhat neglected, makes her think of familiar things. It is on a corner lot, and the gate at the fence is loose and missing a nail. The thin woman who answers the door is colorful, a little older than the other women with whom she has interviewed, and not pregnant.
The interview is odd and a bit uncomfortable, but Tassie is generally uncomfortable in these kinds of settings—actually, in most settings. Her roommate, Elizabeth Murphy Krueger (“Murph”) is never at a loss for words; however, Tassie is. The woman is Sarah Brink. She is forty-five years old and owns a classy restaurant in town; she...
(The entire section is 725 words.)
Tassie’s younger brother Robert meets her at the bus and drives her home. Neither of them is content in Dellacrosse, a town in which nothing happens, nothing is expected, and nothing changes. Gail, their mother, is Jewish. Robert (shortened to “Bo” to avoid the confusion of two Roberts in the house) is a Protestant. Neither of them is particularly devout, so Christmas is almost a non-event in their home. Robert is a good-looking, bright young man with a lot of friends. Unfortunately, he often answers too quickly on his exams (he blurts) and, as a consequence, he does poorly. Robert is unhappy and doing poorly in school; because he sees few other options, he is planning to enlist in the military. He has heard the war in Afghanistan is over, so he figures he is “not going to get killed or nothing.” Jokingly, he asks his sister not to let them bury him in a huge coffin since he does not want to take up too much space. Tassie just kind of laughs and does not take the conversation too seriously.
Gail is not, and never has been, a good mother. She is disconnected from her children and, though she says she loves her children, “her love is useless.” Robert suffers from the same kind of loneliness Tassie does, though he had always been their mother’s favorite. Robert’s burden is probably heavier, as the pressure to help his father around the farm was far greater for him than for Tassie. Everything Gail does annoys Tassie; on the other hand, nothing her father does annoys her. He does not start drinking until later in the afternoons, and he is content to be a gentleman farmer—even though the “real” farmers around him do not consider him to be one of them.
There are no old friends Tassie is interested in seeing while she is home, so she spends time with her brother, plays her electric bass guitar, and does some extra reading for her classes next semester. Others celebrate the New Year with fireworks and carousing, but Tassie is not interested. This town, her home, and the lives of the people here seem sad, narrow-minded, and desperate to her. On New Year’s Day afternoon, Tassie receives a phone call. It is Sarah Brink, her employer, and she asks if it is possible for Tassie to come back to Troy early—on January third. She knows it is a lot to ask, but both women laugh in a “confusing manner.”
Tassie takes the virtually empty bus back to Troy and settles back into her apartment. Early the next morning, Sarah calls to tell her to pack an overnight bag—they are going to fly to Green Bay to meet with another prospective birth mother. Edward, again, is away at a meeting and will be flying into Green Bay to meet them. At the airport, Sarah shows her identification rather furtively, as if she is embarrassed of her picture. Tassie has never been in a taxi, not to mention taken a plane, so she is full of nervous excitement. Edward is not in Green Bay when they arrive, and Sarah is distraught for a few moments. They get in their rental car and go to the lawyer’s office.
This birth mother’s name is Bonnie, and she is in her late twenties. The baby is apparently a year old, maybe two, and it is part black. Sarah surmises this is the reason no one has adopted the child yet. The lawyer, Roberta, is a colleague of Letitia’s who recommended Sarah for this baby. Bonnie looks sad and old and in need of adopting herself, Tassie thinks. As they talk, Sarah looks at a rather blurry Polaroid of the little girl. Just then, the elusive Edward appears. His name is Edward Thornwood, he appears to be much older than Sarah and is quite self-absorbed. Tassie sees that while she does not find Edward particularly lovable, Sarah loves him very much. He explains that he is a researcher in the field of eye cancer. Sarah jokes that even with her professional kitchen and Edward’s laboratory, they have not been able to “get anything cooked up between us.” There is an awkward moment in which Tassie knows Sarah has crossed some kind of line—of sensitivity, privacy, or even honesty, though she does not know that for sure until later. Edward looks at her sharply. After Bonnie and Roberta have a short, private conversation, Roberta announces that Bonnie has approved them as her daughter’s new parents.
Though they need to get started on the paperwork the next day, the three decide to celebrate and go out to dinner. Edward makes a toast to Sarah as today is her birthday and tomorrow is their anniversary. When it is time to pay the bill, Edward fumbles for his wallet but concludes he must have left it in the car. Sarah pulls out a credit card and cracks a small joke about it: “For a freak minute [Tassie] believed they were perfect for each other, a feeling [she] would never have...
(The entire section is 978 words.)
For several days, Tassie listlessly wanders around her apartment and suffers from insomnia. She receives a check in the mail from Sarah for three hundred dollars; at ten dollars an hour, she does not bother to see if that is too much, too little, or just enough for the two crazy visits to birth mothers. Finally Sarah calls, and Tassie goes to work as an actual babysitter for the first time. Sarah’s directions for taking care of Emmie (which is short for the “M.E.” she had been calling Mary-Emma) are scant and hurried as Sarah goes to her restaurant for the first time in many days. Before leaving, Sarah denigrates her own Jewish heritage (she is half-Jewish, like Tassie) as well as the Catholic and Protestant faiths; she also jokes about the many restaurants on the East Coast which she had owned and which have all failed. After pointing out a few parenting books and a list of instructions (plus the location of the ipecac in case of poisoning), Sarah leaves. In a moment, though, she is back to grab a kitchen knife which she gleefully places in her purse, joking about carrying a concealed weapon.
Tassie has to discover where the child’s room is—a difficult task in this house—and has no idea what or how much Mary-Emma eats. The two of them do seem to become amicable and when Sarah finally comes home, Mary-Emma immediately runs to mother, grasping her leg. Tassie is exhausted when she gets home and, after playing her guitar for a bit, she falls into bed without undressing. The next day she takes Mary-Emma ice skating, and when Sarah gets home from work she barely hides her distress when the child wants to leave her arms and go to Tassie. Sarah seems overly interested in knowing what kind of perfume Tassie is wearing. The adoption is not final for six months; the Thornwood-Brinks are only Mary-Emma’s foster parents during that time.
University classes begin during a dramatic cold spell, followed by a couple of quick warm-ups and several blizzards. In her Intro to Sufism class, Tassie exchanges witty conversation via notes with a Brazilian boy sitting next to her. When she is home, Tassie plays her guitar with her chapped and bleeding fingers. She spends one night at the Thornwood-Brinks when Sarah and Edward will be out late; Tassie and Mary-Emma have a lovely evening, but Edward is rather forward when he comes home, also commenting on Tassie’s perfume and making her feel uncomfortable.
One day Tassie takes Mary-Emma on an outing, and they are having an enjoyable day until a car full of teenage boys deliberately drives next to them. One of the boys hollers a racial slur at the toddler and the car speeds away, kicking hard pellets of snow onto them. Tassie is dumbfounded, for she would expect such things, perhaps, in Dellacrosse but not in Troy. It is true, some people have given Mary-Emma odd looks at times, but this is an outrage, and Tassie comforts the little girl.
At home, Sarah is distraught, as she thought this was a place which would be accepting of mixed-race families, for she had seen plenty of them at county festivals and parks. Now she realizes the depth of her naiveté. Sarah immediately determines to begin a support group for all “families of color” in...
(The entire section is 1318 words.)
Tassie is not sleeping; she is depressed and brokenhearted. No one at school asks her about Reynaldo, and no one in his neighborhood questions her. She realizes “just how private and isolated” their affair had been. She misses Murph and wishes she would come back, and she does. Murph arrives on the same day as the xylophone. Her boyfriend broke up with her, too, and they spend their time writing ridiculous songs.
Mary-Emma is learning many songs from Tassie, and Sarah half-heartedly objects to “I Been Workin’ on the Railroad” on the grounds of bad grammar and the use of slave labor. Tassie is incredulous at both ideas, and Sarah relents. She does remind Tassie that they have a high calling, though, because...
(The entire section is 1504 words.)
Tassie’s father and brother pick her up at the bus station, and Robert is already wearing his graduation gown. He asks why she never responded to his email; she thought she was supposed to ignore it and did, she tells him. At home, Tassie helps her mother dress for the ceremony. She finds a black hat with a feather in it and asks where her mother plans to wear it. Gail says she does not know yet.
The graduation ceremony was typical for Dellacrosse, and Tassie is reminded that everyone likes Robert as they hoot and holler for him as he crosses the platform. Robert’s family takes him to the bus station the next day where he will leave for, ironically, Fort Bliss. Tassie hands him a flippant reply to his e-mail on a...
(The entire section is 1266 words.)