A few years ago, I found an issue of Ploughshares from 1988, a special issue titled “Fiction Discoveries” that was edited by George Garrett. Established writers such as Fred Chappell, Andre Dubus, James Alan McPherson, and Pamela Painter nominated emerging writers who had yet to publish a book. While it was interesting to read early work from Noy Holland, Susan Straight, and Josip Novakovich, the most intriguing and memorable story in the issue was by a writer I had never heard of, Cynthia Schad.
Richard Yates provided the nomination for Schad, then a twenty-one-year-old graduate of Emerson College. The story, “Close to Autumn”, is a an impressive piece, a brief portrait of a young girl, Edie, who lives alone with her devoted father. Edie finds the outside world to be a suspicious, sometimes terrifying, place, and her fear is the engine that drives this story into uneasy places. School makes her nervous. At church, the sudden sound of the organ startles her so much that she begins to scream and her father has to carry her out of the building. And when, at a Dairy Queen, she is forced to walk past a group of laughing teenagers on her way to the bathroom, she becomes so paralyzed with fear that she wets her pants. In short, simple lines, Schad conjures up an exaggerated world that, through Edie’s eyes, hums with potential danger.
Teenagers hung out at the Dairy Queen, loud kids who smoked and chewed gum at the same time. They sat on top of the booths and put their black boots on the seats. They took up three or four booths in the back of the Dairy Queen and they never ate any ice cream. They kept cans of beer tucked between their legs that they’d tip to their mouths when no one was looking. The boys wore black leather jackets and white T-shirts, except for one boy who never had a shirt on under his coat. The few girls seemed just like the boys, smooth, hard, and unbreakable…She was in the middle of their booths now and their laughter swarmed around her. Their voices lowered to mutters and her eyes crept up to the table next to her. The boy with no shirt slid from the top of the booth to the seat and leaned toward her. “Hey baby,” he whispered. He smirked with one side of his mouth and greasy sweat dotted across his nose and under his eyes. He leaned closer and for a moment she was afraid he’d touch her. He reached out his hand and someone behind him snickered.
Her father, who has recently started dating a woman with whom Edie connects, seems to have his own issues. He accosts, with startling violence, those same teenagers in the Dairy Queen after the incident with his daughter and then, on his 30th birthday, reacts to the sight of his girlfriend with a cake she has baked for him by shouting, “Get that thing away from me,” and hiding in the kitchen. In short, Edie and her father seem wounded by circumstances just beyond the edges of the story. Yates addresses the story in his introduction by saying that “almost nothing is explained to the reader, but then, explanations have little value in the dynamics of the heart.”
Since reading this story, I have searched for more work by Cynthia Schad but have come up empty. I think that she might have published a story in the literary magazine Witness in the same year as her Ploughshares publication, but have been unable to find a copy of the particular issue. I can find no books attributed to her. And perhaps she never wrote again, but the amazing promise of “Close to Autumn” makes me wish I had the chance to discover more of her work. Schad, in her contributors note in Ploughshares, says, after attributing the shape of the story to “repeated playings of a record album by Tom Waits,” that “I don’t really think of writing as a career; it’s just what I am.”
Having spent a good portion of my life feeling like I am a failure if I don’t write, that if I don’t produce stories then I’m just this lazy guy who reads comic books and argues about different kinds of barbecue, I feel a strange joy at the idea of someone, twenty-one years old, writing a nearly perfect story and moving on, doing something else. If there will never be any other stories by Cynthia Schad, there is “Close to Autumn”, and I am happy for that.
If I learn from one of you that Cynthia Schad got married, took her husband’s last name, and subsequently published dozens of books, I am going to feel very happy that I have the chance to read more of her work and, also, very stupid that I wrote this entry.