"A Gram of Mars," p. 14
In the title story an adult daughter, visiting her father after moving across the country two years ago, struggles with her father’s reluctance to accept her mother’s loss of love for him and his inability to accept responsibility for his life. In Hagenston’s quiet but powerful ending, it is what father and daughter cannot confide to each other that will define the future of their distanced, strained relationship. “I can’t tell him,” the narrator writes, “that my worst fear is a future as empty and terrible as this, and that sometimes I think I can feel myself being pulled toward it, caught in the orbit of his sorrow.” (p. 28)
In “Till Death Do Us Part” after witnessing her mother marrying three times and her older sister deciding that “her particular brand of happiness did not include a husband,” Joyce concludes that falling madly in love is a “sickness, similar to the flu. It passed soon enough, then you recovered and went on with things. It was what got people like Kathy and her mother into trouble.” (p. 58) So she chooses predictability over passion, and repeats the expected “I do” as ambivalent thoughts swirl in her head.
The jilted young wife in “Holding the Fort” stalks her adulterous husband after their separation, even to the point of entering the house while he is asleep and slipping items into a duffel bag to tote away in a defiant act of retaliation:
"While he sleeps, she moves silently through the house, shining her flashlight, taking objects and putting them in the bag—coffee filters, the batteries from his Walkman, the light bulb from the bathroom. She takes the toilet paper, the can opener, the remote control. Small things. Replaceable things that he will notice missing, that he will miss." (p. 78)
In two linked stories, “Parking Lot Ham and Other Acts of God” and “Fishhook Girl,” a mother and daughter cope in different ways with the societal limitations imposed upon them by being the wife and daughter respectively of a small town minister.
In “Parking Lot Ham and Other Acts of God” Carrie realizes she must hide her ambivalence about religion when her husband quits his corporate job, follows a vision, and becomes a minister.
"There is a part of her that wants to be the best minister’s wife Wickerville, Maryland has ever had. She wants to be known for her charm and her compassion and her sympathetic ear—none of which, as yet, she’s had a chance to employ.
Then there is that other part of her that wants to be run out of town. There are certain things she’s never done before, and now she suddenly wants to. Smoke cigarettes, for instance. Walk around in a bikini. Drink martinis in the tub. Flirt with strangers in parking lots. She wants to tell the ladies all about the wicked, tawdry past that isn’t hers, complete with topless bars and Parisian opium dens, if there are such things. Topless Parisian opium dens. She wants to be Wickerville Methodist Church’s dirty little secret: the minister’s wife who just gets in her red Toyota one day and keep son driving, forever and ever, amen." (p.10)
Although she can occasionally “feel her true self creeping back out of the shadows,” Carrie is learning to play the restrictive roles expected of her as wife and mother with only occasional outbursts that express her true angst.
Carrie’s daughter, Wendy, experiences a similar oppression in “Fishhook Girl,” leading an adolescent life trapped in dull ordinariness. Realizing she cannot escape her bland fate, Wendy escapes vicariously by convincing her best friend to run away from her dysfunctional family. Wendy arranges financing for the trip through church donations she steals from Sunday morning collection plates. As Annie departs, Wendy envisions herself as the runaway instead, a fantasy she will carry into adulthood:
"Sometimes I think about my other, phantom life, reeling itself out in the shadowlands of possibility. I know how it begins: I get out of the car instead of Annie; I take the duffel bag from the trunk, and the manila envelope of money; we hug each other; I give her the car keys and say, 'I’ll call you from someplace. I disappear.'" (p. 162)
The ending of this story is especially poignant as father and daughter drive in silence, carrying the last of his possessions from his ex-wife's house, each unable to express what they are feeling with the other. She can’t tell her father about how she is unhappy with her decision to move to Arizona and how she worries that her own future might be as bleak as his. At the same time he can’t express to his daughter his continued hope for the impossibility that his former wife will love him again, has lack of money to pay the rent, and most of all, his wish that she would stay. For now, she senses it is enough for the two of them to simply be together: “The sky vaults over us and silence settles down, like a pact we’ve made together," she writes, "like a precious, immeasurable weight.” (p. 28)
Becky Hagenston's Writing Style
Her descriptions are packed with imagery. Describing her father’s haphazardly furnished basement apartment in “A Gram of Mars,” the narrator writes: “Everything seems mismatched and displaced, as if the furniture itself is visiting from somewhere else and wishes it could go home.” (p. 4)
In the collection’s foreword, Hagenston says that her stories often have a starting point in real life. Her mother was actually given a ham in a parking lot and her father owns a small piece of Mars. She comments: “My characters don’t always understand what’s happening to them, what they’ve lost or even what they’re looking for. These stories are guided by own search for what’s most important, the things I need for the happiness my characters don’t always find.” (p. xii)