After the Parade

A Novel

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About The Book

From Flannery O’Connor and Rona Jaffe Award winner Lori Ostlund, a deeply moving and beautiful debut novel about a man who leaves his longtime partner in New Mexico for a new life in San Francisco, launching him on a tragicomic road trip and into the mysteries of his own Midwestern childhood.

Sensitive, big-hearted, and achingly self-conscious, forty-year-old Aaron Englund long ago escaped the confines of his Midwestern hometown, but he still feels like an outcast. After twenty years under the Pygmalion-like direction of his older partner Walter, Aaron at last decides it is time to stop letting life happen to him and to take control of his own fate. But soon after establishing himself in San Francisco—where he alternates between a shoddy garage apartment and the absurdly ramshackle ESL school where he teaches—Aaron sees that real freedom will not come until he has made peace with his memories of Morton, Minnesota: a cramped town whose four hundred souls form a constellation of Aaron’s childhood heartbreaks and hopes.

After Aaron’s father died in the town parade, it was the larger-than-life misfits of his childhood—sardonic, wheel-chair bound dwarf named Clarence, a generous, obese baker named Bernice, a kindly aunt preoccupied with dreams of The Rapture—who helped Aaron find his place in a provincial world hostile to difference. But Aaron’s sense of rejection runs deep: when Aaron was seventeen, Dolores—Aaron’s loving, selfish, and enigmatic mother—vanished one night with the town pastor. Aaron hasn’t heard from Dolores in more than twenty years, but when a shambolic PI named Bill offers a key to closure, Aaron must confront his own role in his troubled past and rethink his place in a world of unpredictable, life-changing forces.

Lori Ostlund’s debut novel is an openhearted contemplation of how we grow up and move on, how we can turn our deepest wounds into our greatest strengths. Written with homespun charm and unceasing vitality, After the Parade is a glorious new anthem for the outsider.

Excerpt

After the Parade 1
Aaron had gotten a late start—some mix-up at the U-Haul office that nobody seemed qualified to fix—so it was early afternoon when he finally began loading the truck, nearly eight when he finished. He wanted to drive away right then but could not imagine setting out so late. It was enough that the truck sat in the driveway packed, declaring his intention. Instead, he took a walk around the neighborhood, as was his nightly habit, had been his nightly habit since he and Walter moved here nine years earlier. He always followed the same route, designed with the neighborhood cats in mind. He knew where they all lived, had made up names for each of them—Falstaff and Serial Mom, Puffin and Owen Meany—and when he called to them using these names, they stood up from wherever they were hiding and ran down to the sidewalk to greet him.

He passed the house of the old woman who, on many nights, though not this one, watched for him from her kitchen window and then hurried out with a jar that she could not open. She called him by his first name and he called her Mrs. Trujillo, since she was surely twice his age, and as he twisted the lid off a jar of honey or instant coffee, they engaged in pleasantries, establishing that they were both fine, that they had enjoyed peaceful, ordinary days, saying the sorts of things that Aaron had grown up in his mother’s café hearing people say to one another. As a boy, he had dreaded such talk, for he had been shy and no good at it, but as he grew older, he had come to appreciate these small nods at civility.

Of course, Mrs. Trujillo was not always fine. Sometimes, her back was acting up or her hands were numb. She would hold them out toward him, as though the numbness were something that could be seen, and when he put the jar back into them, he said, “Be careful now, Mrs. Trujillo. Think what a mess you’d have with broken glass and honey.” Maybe he made a joke that wasn’t really funny, something about all those ants with bleeding tongues, and she would laugh the way that people who are very lonely laugh, paying you the only way they know how. She always seemed sheepish about mentioning her ailments, sheepish again when he inquired the next time whether she was feeling better, yet for years they had engaged in this ritual, and as he passed her house that last night, he felt relief at her absence. Still, when he let his mind stray to the future, to the next night and the one after, the thought of Mrs. Trujillo looking out the window with a stubborn jar of spaghetti sauce in her hands made his heart ache.

Aaron picked up his pace, almost ran to Falstaff’s house, where he crouched on the sidewalk and called softly to the portly fellow, waiting for him to waddle off the porch that was his stage. At nine, he returned from his walk and circled the truck, double-checking the padlock because he knew there would come a moment during the night when he would lie there thinking about it, and this way he would have an image that he could pull up in his mind: the padlock, secured.

A week earlier, Aaron had gone into Walter’s study with a list of the household items that he planned to take with him. He found Walter at his desk, a large teak desk that Walter’s father had purchased in Denmark in the 1950s and shipped home. He had used the desk throughout his academic career, writing articles that added up to books about minor Polish poets, most of them long dead, and then it had become Walter’s. Aaron loved the desk, which represented everything for which he had been longing all those years ago when Walter took him in and they began their life together: a profession that required a sturdy, beautiful desk; a father who cared enough about aesthetics to ship a desk across an ocean; a life, in every way, different from his own.

Though it was just four in the afternoon, Walter was drinking cognac—Spanish cognac, which he preferred to French—and later Aaron would realize that Walter had already known that something was wrong. Aaron stood in the office doorway, reading the list aloud—a set of bed linens, a towel, a cooking pot, a plate, a knife, cutlery. “Is there anything on the list that you prefer I not take?” he asked.

Walter looked out the window for what seemed a very long time. “I saved you, Aaron,” he said at last. His head sank onto his desk, heavy with the memories it contained.

“Yes,” Aaron agreed. “Yes, you did. Thank you.” He could hear the stiffness in his voice and regretted—though could not change—it. This was how he had let Walter know that he was leaving.

* * *

Walter had already tended to his “nightly ablutions,” as he termed the process of washing one’s face and brushing one’s teeth, elevating the mundane by renaming it. He was in bed, so there seemed nothing for Aaron to do but retire as well, except he had nowhere to sleep. He had packed the guest bed, a futon with a fold-up base, and they had never owned a typical couch, only an antique Javanese daybed from Winnie’s store in Minneapolis. Winnie was Walter’s sister, though from the very beginning she had felt more like his own. Sleeping on the daybed would only make him think of her, which he did not want. He had not even told Winnie that he was leaving. Of course, he could sleep with Walter, in the space that he had occupied for nearly twenty years, but it seemed to him improper—that was the word that came to mind—to share a bed with the man he was leaving. His dilemma reminded him of a story that Winnie had told him just a few weeks earlier, during one of their weekly phone conversations. Winnie had lots of stories, the pleasure—and the burden—of owning a small business.

“I’m a captive audience,” she had explained to him and Walter once. “I can’t just lock up and leave. People know that on some level, but it suits their needs to act as though we’re two willing participants. Sometimes they talk for hours.”

“They are being presumptuous, presumptuous and self-involved,” Walter had said. Walter hated to waste time, hated to have his wasted. “Just walk away.”

Aaron knew that she would not, for he and Winnie were alike: they understood that the world was filled with lonely people, whom they did not begrudge these small moments of companionship.

The story that Winnie had called to tell him was about a customer of hers, Sally Forth. (“Yes, that’s really her name,” Winnie had added before he could ask.) Sally Forth and her husband had just returned from a ten-day vacation in Turkey, about which she had said to Winnie, pretrip: “It’s a Muslim country, you know. Lots of taboos in the air, and those are always good for sex.” Sally Forth was a woman impressed with her own naughtiness, a woman endlessly amused by the things that came out of her mouth. The first morning, as she and her husband sat eating breakfast in their hotel restaurant and discussing the day’s itinerary, her husband turned to her and requested a divorce. Winnie said that Sally Forth was the type of person who responded to news—good or bad—loudly and demonstratively, without considering her surroundings. Thus, Sally Forth, who was engaged in spreading jam on a piece of bread, reached across the table and ground the bread against her husband’s chest, the jam making a red blotch directly over his heart. “Why would you bring me all the way to Turkey to tell me you want a divorce?” Sally Forth screamed, and her husband replied, “I thought you’d appreciate the gesture.”

Winnie and Aaron had laughed together on the phone, not at Sally Forth or even at her husband but at this strange notion that proposing divorce required etiquette similar to that of proposing marriage—a carefully chosen moment, a grand gesture.

Sally Forth and her husband stayed in Turkey the whole ten days, during which her husband did not mention divorce again. By the time the vacation was over, she thought of his request as something specific to Turkey, but after they had collected their luggage at the airport back home in Minneapolis, Sally Forth’s husband hugged her awkwardly and said that he would be in touch about “the details.”

“I feel like such an idiot,” she told Winnie. “But we kept sleeping in the same bed. If you’re really leaving someone, you don’t just get into bed with them, do you?”

And then, Sally Forth had begun to sob.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Winnie told Aaron sadly. “I wanted to hug her, but you know how I am about that, especially at work. I actually tried. I stepped toward her, but I couldn’t do it. It seemed disingenuous—because we’re not friends. I don’t even like her. So I just let her stand there and cry.”

As Aaron finished brushing his teeth, he tried to remember whether he and Winnie had reached any useful conclusions about the propriety of sharing a bed with the person one was about to leave, but he knew that they had not. Winnie had been focused solely on what she regarded as her failure to offer comfort.

“Sometimes,” he had told her, “the hardest thing to give people is the thing we know they need the most.” When he said this, he was trying to work up the courage to tell her that he was leaving Walter, but he had stopped there so that his comment seemed to refer to Winnie’s treatment of Sally Forth, which meant that he had failed Winnie also.

He went into the bedroom and turned on the corner lamp. The room looked strange without his belongings. Gone were the rows of books and the gifts from his students, as well as the Indonesian night table that Winnie had given him when he and Walter moved from Minnesota to New Mexico. It was made from recycled wood, old teak that had come from a barn or railroad tracks or a chest for storing rice—Winnie was not sure what exactly. For Aaron, just knowing that the table had had another life was enough. When he sat down on his side of the bed, Walter did not seem to notice. That was the thing about a king-size bed: its occupants could lead entirely separate lives, never touching, oblivious to the other’s presence or absence.

“Walter,” he said, but there was no reply. He crawled across the vast middle ground of the bed and shook Walter’s shoulder.

“Enh,” said Walter, a sound that he often made when he was sleeping, so Aaron considered the possibility that he was not faking sleep.

“Is it okay if I sleep here?” he asked, but Walter, treating the question as a prelude to an argument, said, “I’m too tired for this right now. Let’s talk in the morning.” And so Aaron spent his last night with Walter in their bed, trying to sleep, trying because he could not stop thinking about the fact that everything he owned was sitting in the driveway—on wheels nonetheless—which meant that every noise became the sound of his possessions being driven away into the night. He was reminded of something that one of his Vietnamese students, Vu, had said in class during a routine speaking exercise. Vu declared that if a person discovered an unlocked store while walking down the street at night, he had the right to take what he wanted from inside. Until then, Vu had struck him as honest and reliable, so the nonchalance with which Vu stated this opinion had shocked Aaron.

“That’s stealing,” Aaron blurted out, so astonished that he forgot about the purpose of the exercise, which was to get the quieter students talking.

“No,” Vu said, seemingly puzzled by Aaron’s vehemence as well as his logic. “Not stealing. If I destroy lock or break window, this is stealing. If you do not lock door, you are not careful person. You must be responsibility person to own business.” Vu constantly mixed up parts of speech and left off articles, but Aaron did not knock on the desk as he normally did to remind Vu to pay attention to his grammar.

“But you did not pay for these things,” Aaron cried. “I did. We are not required to lock up our belongings. We do so only because there are dishonest people in the world, but locking them up is not what makes them ours. They are ours because we own them.”

Vu regarded him calmly. “When the policeman comes, he will ask, ‘Did you lock this door?’ If you say no, he will not look very well for your things. He will think, ‘This man is careless, and now he makes work for me.’?”

“I’m not saying it’s a good idea to leave your door unlocked, Vu. I’m only saying that the things inside are mine, whether I remember to lock the door or not.” Belatedly, he had addressed the rest of the class. “What do you guys think?”

They had stared back at him, frightened by his tone. Later, when he tried to understand what had made him so angry, he had come up with nothing more precise than that Vu had challenged the soundness of a code that seemed obvious, inviolable.

Aaron got out of bed to peek at the truck parked in the driveway. He did this several more times. Around three, having risen for the sixth time, he stood in the dark bedroom listening to Walter’s familiar wheezing. Then he put on his clothes and left. As he backed the truck out of the driveway with the headlights off because he did not want them shining in and illuminating the house, the thought came to him that he was like his mother: sneaking away without saying good-bye, disappearing into the night.

All along their street, the houses were lit up with holiday lights. That afternoon, as Aaron carried the first box out to the truck, Walter had blocked the door to ask, “Whatever is going on here?,” adding, “It’s nearly Christmas.” In the past, Aaron would have made a joke along the lines of “What, are you a Jew for Jesus now?” They would have laughed, not because it was funny exactly but because of the level of trust it implied. Instead, Aaron had continued loading the truck without answering, and Walter had retreated to his study.

It was quiet at this hour. Driving home from the symphony one night several years earlier, he and Walter had seen a teenage boy being beaten by five other boys in the park just blocks from their house. Though Albuquerque had plenty of crime, their neighborhood was considered safe, a place where people walked their dogs at midnight, so the sight of this—a petty drug deal going bad—startled them. Walter slammed on the brakes and leaped from the car, yelling, “Stop that,” as he and Aaron, dressed in suits and ties, rushed toward the fight. The five boys in hairnets turned and ran, as did the sixth boy, who jumped up and sprinted toward his car, a BMW, and drove off.

Later, in bed, Walter joked, “Nothing more terrifying than two middle-aged fags in suits,” though Aaron was just thirty-five at the time. They laughed, made giddy by the moment and by the more sobering realization that the night could have turned out much different. Walter got up and went into the kitchen and came back with two glasses of port, which they sat in bed—the king-size bed—drinking, and though Walter insisted on a lighthearted tone, Aaron took his hand and held it tightly, reminded yet again that Walter was a good man who cared about others.

When Aaron got to the park, he pulled the truck to the curb and turned off the engine, which seemed very loud in the middle of the night. He sat in the dark and cried, thinking about Walter asleep in their bed down the street.

* * *

Aaron was in Gallup buying coffee when the sun rose, approaching Needles, California, when he fell asleep at the wheel, awakening within seconds to the disorienting sight of the grassy median before him. He swerved right, the truck shifting its weight behind him, and found himself on the road again, cars honking all around him, a man in a pickup truck jabbing his middle finger at him and screaming something that he took to be “Asshole!” He was not the sort who came away from close calls energized, nor did he believe in endangering the lives of others. He took the next exit, checked into a motel in Needles, and was soon asleep, the heavy drapes closed tightly against the California sun.

But as he slept, a series of thuds worked their way into his dreams. He awoke suddenly, the room dark and still, and he thought maybe the thudding was nothing more than his own heart. It came again, loud and heavy, something hitting the wall directly behind him. A body, he thought, and then, Not a body. A human being.

He reached out and felt a lamp on the table beside the bed, then fumbled along its base for the switch. From the next room, he heard a keening sound followed by the unmistakable thump of a fist meeting flesh. He slipped on his sneakers. Outside, it was dusk. He ran down a flight of steps and turned left, into the motel lobby. The woman at the desk was the one who had checked him in. He remembered the distrustful way she looked at him when he burst in and declared that he needed a room, so exhausted he could not recall his zip code for the paperwork.

“Call the police,” he said.

She stared at him.

“You need to call the police. A man in the room next to me is beating someone up—a woman, I think, his wife or girlfriend. Someone.” He could see now that beneath her heavy makeup, she was young, maybe twenty, the situation beyond anything for which either her receptionist training or meager years of living had prepared her. “Nine-one-one,” he said slowly, like he was explaining grammar to a student. He reached across the counter, picked up the receiver, and held it out to her. She looked left and right, as if crossing the street. He knew that she was looking for someone besides him.

At last, a switch seemed to flip on inside her. She took a breath and said, “Sir, you’re in room two-fifty-two, correct?” He shrugged to indicate that he didn’t know, but she continued on, his uncertainty fueling her confidence. “It must be two-fifty-three, that couple from Montana. But they had a child with them? Is there a child?” she asked.

“Just call,” he said, and he ran back outside. When he got to room 253, he hesitated, the full weight of his good-fences-make-good-neighbors upbringing bearing down on him. He raised his hand and knocked hard at the door. The room went silent, and he knew that something was very wrong.

“Hello?” he called, making his voice louder because he had learned early on in teaching that volume was the best way to conceal a quaver.

The receptionist came up the steps and stood watching, afraid, he knew, of the responsibility they shared, of the haste with which she had wedded her life to his. “Key?” he mouthed, but she shook her head. He stepped back until he felt the walkway railing behind him and then rushed at the door, doing this again and again until the chain ripped away and he was in.

* * *

The receptionist’s name was Britta. He had heard her spelling it for the policeman who took down their stories as they stood outside the door that Aaron had broken through minutes earlier.

That night she knocked at his room door. “It’s me, Britta,” she called, without adding qualifiers—“the receptionist” or “we saved a boy’s life together this afternoon.”

When he opened the door, she said, “I came to give you an update on Jacob,” but she was carrying a six-pack of beer, which confused him. Still, he invited her in because he could not sleep, could not stop picturing the boy—Jacob—lying on the floor as though he simply preferred it to the bed, as though he had lain down there and gone to sleep. There’d been blood, and the boy’s arm was flung upward and out at an angle that only a broken bone would allow. The mother sat to the side, sobbing about her son from a distance, from the comfort of a chair. She was not smoking but Aaron later thought of her that way, as a woman who sat in a chair and smoked while her husband threw her son against the wall. It was the husband who surprised him most: a small, jovial-looking man with crow’s-feet (duck feet a student had once called them, mistaking the bird) and a face that seemed suited for laughing.

He and Britta did not drink the beer she had brought, though he could see that she wanted to. “It’s still cold,” she said hopefully as she set it down. She would not go further, would not slip a can from the plastic noose without his prompting. She was an employee after all, used to entering these rooms deferentially. Aaron was relieved. He had left behind everything that was familiar, but at least he recognized himself in this person who would not drink beer with a teenager in a cheap motel room in Needles, California.

The beer sat sweating on the desk between the television and the Gideon Bible. “Were you reading the Bible?” Britta asked, for of course she would know that it was generally kept tucked away in the bottom drawer of the desk. He felt embarrassed by the question, though he could see that she considered Bible-reading a normal activity, one to be expected given what had happened earlier.

“Not really,” he said, which was true. He had spent the last three hours not really doing anything. He had tried, and failed at, a succession of activities: sleeping, reading (both the Gideon Bible and Death Comes for the Archbishop, his least favorite Willa Cather book, though he periodically felt obligated to give it another chance), studying the map of California in an attempt to memorize the final leg of his trip, mending a small tear that had appeared in his shirtsleeve, and watching television. When Britta knocked, he had been sitting on the bed listening, the way he had as a child just after his father died and he lay in bed each night straining to hear whether his mother was crying in her room at the other end of the house. Some nights he heard her (gasping sobs that he would be reminded of as an adult when he overheard people having sex) while other nights there was silence.

“Where are you going?” Britta asked him.

“San Francisco,” he said.

She nodded in a way that meant she had no interest in such things: San Francisco specifically, but really the world outside Needles. He tried to imagine himself as Britta, spending his days interacting with people who were on the move, coming from or going to places that he had never seen, maybe never even heard of. Was it possible that she had not once felt the urge to pack up and follow, to solve the mystery of who Britta would be—would become—in Columbus, Ohio, or Roanoke, Virginia? It seemed inconceivable to him, to have no curiosity about one’s parallel lives, those lives that different places would demand that you live.

They sat in silence, he at the foot of the bed and she in the chair beside the desk. He did not know what to say next. “Do you like working at the motel?” he asked finally.

“It’s okay,” she said. “It’s kind of boring most of the time, but sometimes it’s interesting.”

“Give me an example of something interesting,” he said, his teacher’s voice never far away. “Other than today, of course.”

“Today wasn’t interesting,” she said. “It was scary. I threw up afterward. Weren’t you scared at all?”

“Yes,” he said. “Actually, I was terrified.”

She smiled, and then she began to cry. “Do you think we did the right thing?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “My boyfriend—Lex—he said that it was none of our business. And my boss is this Indian guy—he’s all in a bad mood now because he said it’s bad for business for people to see the cops here.”

Aaron’s first impulse was to ask what her boss’s ethnicity had to do with the rest of her statement, but he did not. He sensed no malice, and the question would only confuse her. “Listen,” he said sternly. “We definitely did the right thing. Okay? We saved a boy’s life.”

His voice broke on the word saved. It seemed he had been waiting his whole life to save this boy, though he did not believe in fate, did not believe that everything in his forty-one years had happened in order to bring him here, to a run-down motel in Needles, California, so that he might save Jacob. No. They were two separate facts: he had saved a life, and he was alone. He had never felt so tired.

“I need to go to bed,” he said, and he stood up.

Britta stood also and picked up her beer, leaving behind six wet circles on the desktop. “He’s in a coma,” she announced as she paused in the doorway. “Jacob. So you see, we might not have saved him. He might die anyway.”

Aaron leaned against the door frame, steadying himself. “At least we gave him a chance,” he said. Then, because he did not have it in him to offer more, he offered this: “You’re a good person, Britta, and that’s important.”

They were standing so close that he could smell alcohol and ketchup on her breath. He imagined her sitting in a car in an empty parking lot somewhere in Needles with her boyfriend, Lex, the two of them eating French fries and drinking beer as she tried to tell Lex about Jacob while Lex rubbed his greasy lips across her breasts.

“Good night,” Aaron said, gently now. He shut the door and pressed his ear to it, waiting to slide the chain into place because he worried she might take the sound of it personally, though later he realized that she would not have thought the chain had anything to do with her. It was a feature of the room, something to be used, like the ice bucket or the small bars of soap in the bathroom.

* * *

When the telephone rang, he sat up fast in the dark and reached for it. “Hello,” he said.

“Front desk,” said the man on the other end. He sounded bored, which reassured Aaron. “You have the U-Haul in the parking lot.”

“Yes,” said Aaron, though the man had not inflected it as a question. “Is something wrong? What time is it?”

“You’ll need to come down to the parking lot. Sir.” The “sir” was an afterthought, and later Aaron knew he should have considered that, should have weighed the man’s reassuring boredom against that pause.

“Now?” said Aaron. “Is something wrong?” But the line had already gone dead.

He looked at the bedside clock. It seemed so long ago that he had been lying beside Walter, worrying about the truck, yet it had been only twenty-four hours. He dressed and ran down the steps to the parking lot, where a man stood beside the truck. Aaron had parked under a light—not intentionally, for he had been too tired for such foresight—and as he got closer, he could see that the man was young, still a boy, with hair that held the shape of a work cap.

“What’s wrong?” Aaron asked. The boy lifted his right hand in a fist and slammed it into Aaron’s stomach.

As a child, Aaron had been bullied—punched, taunted, bitten so hard that his arm swelled—but he had always managed to deflect fights as an adult. It was not easy. He was tall, four inches over six feet, and his height was often seen as a challenge, turning innocent encounters—accidentally jostling someone, for example—into potential altercations. He did not know how to reconcile what other men saw when they looked at him with the image preserved in his mind, that of a small boy wetting himself as his father’s casket was lowered into the ground.

The boy hit him again, and Aaron dropped backward onto his buttocks. “What do you want?” he asked, looking up at the boy.

“I’m Lex,” said the boy.

“Ah, yes, Britta’s friend.”

“Boyfriend,” said the boy.

“Yes, of course,” said Aaron, but something about the way he articulated this angered the boy even more. He jerked back his foot and kicked Aaron hard in the hip. Aaron whimpered. He had learned early on that bullies liked to know they were having an effect.

“What was she doing in there?” asked the boy.

“Where?” said Aaron. “In my room, you mean? We were talking. She was telling me about Jacob, the child we saved this afternoon.”

“So why was she crying then?”

“Crying?” said Aaron.

“She was crying when she came out. I saw her. I was right here the whole time, and I saw her come out of your room. She was crying, and she wouldn’t talk to me.”

“Well,” Aaron said, trying to think of words, which was not easy because he was frightened. He could see the fury in the boy, the fury at being in love with someone he did not understand. “You do realize that people cry. Sometimes we know why they are crying, and sometimes we do not. Britta had an extremely hard day. She saw a child who had been beaten almost to death.”

The boy looked down at him. “She was in your room. You can talk how you like, mister, but she was in your room.”

Aaron realized only then what it was the boy imagined. “I don’t have sex with women,” he said quietly. He thought of his words as a gift to the boy, who did not have it in him to add up the details differently, to alter his calculations. Behind him, Aaron could hear the interstate, the sound of trucks floating past Needles at night.

“What?” said Lex. “What are you saying? That you’re some kind of fag?” His voice was filled with wonder.

Later, when he was in the U-Haul driving away, Aaron would consider Lex’s phrasing: some kind of fag, as if fags came in kinds. He supposed they did. He did not like the word fag, but he knew where he stood with people who used it, knew what they thought and what to expect from them. He had nodded, agreeing that he was some kind of fag because the question was not really about him. Lex’s fist somersaulted helplessly in the air, his version of being left speechless, and he turned and walked away.

Aaron’s wallet was in his back pocket, the truck keys in the front. He could simply rise from the pavement, get into the truck, and drive away. He wished that he were that type of person, one who lived spontaneously and without regrets, but he was not. He was the type who would berate himself endlessly for leaving behind a much-needed map and everything else that had been in the overnight bag. He went back up to his room, checked beneath the bed and in the shower, though he had not used the latter, and when he left, he had everything with which he had arrived. He drove slowly away from Needles, waiting for the sun to catch up with him.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for After the Parade includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Lori Ostlund. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Aaron Englund is in search of a new life in San Francisco. But before Aaron can begin his new life, he must leave his old one with Walter, his partner of twenty years. He does so by driving away in the dark of night—the same way Aaron’s mother abandoned him years earlier.

Aaron’s life is divided into a series of befores and afters. After Aaron’s father dies in a freak accident during a town parade when Aaron’s young and after Aaron’s mother abandons him at the age of seventeen, the changes in Aaron’s life are drastic. Even as an adult, the causes of these events—the befores—remain painful mysteries.

As Aaron struggles to settle into a new life in San Francisco, it becomes clear that until he has closure, he will not be able to move forward. When Aaron is unexpectedly given his mother’s address, he must decide if the pain of dredging up the past is worth the chance at a happier future. What follows is a stunning meditation on the ways the past shapes us and how we cannot move forward without first looking back.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Discuss the significance of the title of the book. Did your interpretation of the title change as you read? In what ways and why?

2. Many years into Aaron and Walter’s relationship, Aaron finds “the Pygmalion aspect of their relationship…the hardest to shed.” (p. 21) How has Aaron’s relationship with Walter shaped him? After Aaron ends his relationship with Walter, Walter tells him “I saved you, Aaron.” (p. 5) Why does Walter say this to Aaron?

3. Ostlund begins After the Parade with two epigraphs. Discuss the significance of each. Do they enhance your reading of the book? If so, how?

4. Despite telling Aaron that Mortonville is “not a place for starting over,” (p. 110) Aaron’s mother, Dolores, chooses to move there after the death of her husband. Why does she do this? Is she right about Mortonville?

5. Why does Ostlund alternate between Aaron’s current perspective and his childhood? How does this shape the narrative?

6. Aaron’s mother tells him “I think about that every day, Aaron—how lucky I was to have that missionary visit our class.” (p. 125) Describe the missionary’s visit. What does Dolores learn as a result? Why is she so grateful for the experience?

7. Describe Aaron’s teaching style. Do you think he is a good teacher? Why has he chosen to teach?

8. As Aaron is leaving Walter “the thought came to him that he was like his mother: sneaking away with[out] saying good-bye, disappearing into the night.” (p. 9) In what other ways is Aaron like his mother?

9. When Aaron’s father has an outburst of anger during a family vacation, “Aaron and his mother got into the car. They said nothing because they know that silence was best in the aftermath of his father’s anger.” (p. 55) In what other ways does silence shape Aaron’s life and reactions to things?

10. Aaron learns that “unlikely friendships…were often the easiest to cultivate.” (p. 185) What other examples of “unlikely friendships” are there in the book? Why are these friendships “easiest” for Aaron?

11. Gloria tells Aaron that Clarence “hate nearly everyone, but especially children…. I always thought it had to do with their size, but after you left that day, he told me he thought you might group up to be ‘more bearable’ than most folks.” (p. 275) Why do you think that Clarence feels disdain for most of people? What is it about Aaron that Clarence responded to in a positive way?

12. Aaron “was not even sure that talking about the past helped. Maybe it did allow you to clarify things so that you could move on, or maybe it just kept pulling you backward.” (p. 295) What do you think? Is Aaron’s trip back into the past cathartic? What does he learn?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Clarence shows Aaron photographs from a book by Diane Arbus, telling him “[i]t is the photographer who has captured my interest.” (p. 133) Explore the work of Diane Arbus with your book club. What about Arbus’s work appeals to Clarence? What did you think about Arbus’s photographs?

2. References to Richard Hugo’s “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” appear several times throughout After the Parade. Read the poem with your book club and discuss it.

3. Read the author’s short story collection, The Bigness of the World. In particular, read “All Boy” and compare the author’s use of closets in this story and in After the Parade.

The Rumpus Interview with Lori Ostlund

This interview first appeared on the Rumpus.net.

By Richard Russo

December 4th, 2015

Welcome to Guildtalk. For this exclusive series, the Rumpus has partnered with the Authors Guild to bring attention to exciting new voices in American literature. In each installment, an established Authors Guild member will choose an emerging talent or a largely unknown master to interview about writing, publishing, marketing, craft, and teaching. The result should broaden our understanding of what it means to live a literary life. It will also bring us together for a conversation about what it means to be a writer in the twenty-first century.

In this third installment, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo returns to talk to debut novelist Lori Ostlund, author of After the Parade. The book follows Aaron Englund, its protagonist, as he travels from San Francisco, California, to his childhood home of Mortonville, Minnesota, and back again; it contains a creative and surprising cast of characters, from a “sardonic, wheelchair–bound dwarf” to Aaron’s “kindly aunt,” who is “preoccupied with dreams of The Rapture.”

Lori Ostlund is also the author of a collection of short stories, The Bigness of the World, which won the University of Georgia Press’s Flannery O’Connor Award.

***

The Rumpus: A new Authors Guild survey shows that income for the majority of writers is down significantly from a decade ago (surveys in the UK and Canada reveal similar results), with many writers now living below the poverty line; that suggests that the writing life (as it is commonly understood—the ability to earn a living from writing) is much diminished. Give us a snapshot of your writer friends, especially the younger ones. How are they faring? Are they hopeful? Despairing? In addition to writing, what kind of jobs are they working at? How much time are they finding to write? Do they feel like they’ve missed the boat?

Lori Ostlund: I’ll begin with my own road to publishing, which is reflective of the general situation that many of my friends face, I think, though not entirely. I came to publishing (though not writing itself) late. My story collection, The Bigness of the World, came out when I was forty-four, and now, at fifty, I’m seeing the publication of my first novel. While so much has gone right for me, it took me this long to get published partly because my stories had a hard time finding their way out of the slush piles and partly because I was busy earning a living. I have spent twenty-plus years in the classroom, all of them adjuncting, and another seven as a small business owner in New Mexico. People are shocked when I tell them that the latter allowed far more writing time than the former, but it did, partly because business didn’t occupy my thoughts nonstop the way that teaching tends to (which probably also explains why the business didn’t last).

In 2008, I went on strike at the fly-by-night ESL school where I had been teaching since my partner (now wife) and I moved to San Francisco in 2005. I had taken a couple of years off from submitting work, wanting to focus on developing my voice without the pressure to publish, but when I began submitting again, I still had trouble landing stories. The strike ended badly, and that summer, jobless and despondent, I vowed to quit writing fiction and find a job that would reward me financially for my work ethic and writing ability: I decided to become a paralegal. I enrolled in a program and secured classes teaching developmental English, and in the way of such things, when I came home from the first day of classes, I had a voicemail from University of Georgia Press: my collection had won the Flannery O’Connor Award. At that time, I didn’t know other writers, except my partner, so I’d been stumbling toward publication blind. I didn’t do an MFA and knew little about publishing, nor did I think of writing in career terms. That is, it didn’t occur to me to think of the writing and teaching of fiction as a way to earn a living. Needless to say, I did not give up writing, nor do I imagine that I would have even without the Flannery news. I also did not become a paralegal, and today I continue on as an adjunct because I love teaching, though this means a low salary and no job security; I have healthcare only because my wife, who teaches high school, claims me on her plan.

I do know other writers now, and here is some of what I hear from them and see discussed on social media. Many want to teach creative writing, so the urgency to publish seems even greater to them because it is the means to both a writing and teaching career as well as a way to pay back student loans. In the meantime, many work as adjuncts and/or have teaching loads of 4/4 and even 5/5, all of which leaves little time for writing. Among my short story–writing friends, there is despair at the difficulty of getting a collection published, especially among those who do not see themselves as novelists. Writer friends talk increasingly about “building a platform” and are much more likely to engage their own publicists, which requires money. And among my older emerging-writer friends, there is the added frustration that publishing seems to reward youth. Overall, I think that writers run the gamut from hopeful to despairing, often on the same day.

Rumpus: Where did the idea for this novel come from?

Ostlund: I don’t think that the idea came from any one place but instead started in several places with ideas that steadily evolved and grew toward one another. The title, for example, refers to the fact that the father of the main character, Aaron, falls from a parade float, onto his head, and dies when Aaron is five. Years ago, I heard of someone dying in this way, and it struck me as at once tragic and humorous, an intersection of emotions that I am always drawn to.

Around fifteen years ago, I started writing about a boy who loses his father in this way and moves with his mother to a town of four hundred people in Minnesota. I grew up in a similarly sized town, a town that I left thirty-two years ago but which nonetheless has had a profound impact on how I see the world, and I found myself drawn to the question of why some people stay in a place where they feel different or unfulfilled, and why others leave. By then, I had come to understand Aaron, my main character. He was a boy more enamored of words than activity, a boy who is sensitive and fearful and lonely. The world can be particularly hard on boys like this, and I knew that part of Aaron’s story would be leaving but that he would find himself drawn to “misfits” and outsiders who could not.

By the time I realized this, I’d written around four hundred pages and Aaron was only in the second grade, so I set the book aside to think and to work on stories. At the time, we were closing our business in New Mexico and moving to San Francisco, where I returned to the ESL classroom, and so the idea for the present story came about because of the sudden turn that my own life was making at that time. My daily life and preoccupations generally have an osmosis-like relationship to my writing, so when I sat down to work on the book again, there was Aaron, moving to San Francisco and teaching ESL. Suddenly, the book had found its beginning point.

Rumpus: Did you think of Huck Finn at all when you were writing Aaron Englund? He has a wonderful innocence about him, and he seems to be surrounded by adults who would corrupt him if he’d let them.

Ostlund: I would like to answer yes, but the truth is that I did not think of Huck at all, though I’m delighted that you did.

Rumpus: Lots of your characters are confined in small spaces. Adult Aaron in his San Francisco apartment, his mother in the closet, Clarence in the clothes basket. Was that part of a conscious plan or just your subconscious at work?

Ostlund: I love this question the way that one often loves a question that points clearly back to something about one’s writing that one has missed. It had not occurred to me that confinement was one of my writing preoccupations. I am not fearful by nature, but I have my fears and silly phobias, most of which I deal with either by making fun of them in my writing (as is the case with my belly button and phone phobias) or by taking the stoic Midwestern approach and ignoring them. That said, I don’t like elevators or sitting in the dentist chair with people huddled over me or riding the subway during rush hour, all of which may have to do with a “game” that my brother used to play when we were young. When I was stretched out watching television, he would throw a beanbag chair on top of me and sit on it for the duration of the show while I screamed and cried and flailed around beneath it.

Speaking metaphorically, I think I have a fear of being trapped in one place, in the smallness of the world, which might account for the ease with which I can pick up and move. My parents owned a hardware store, so we almost never left that town of four hundred people, except to go once a year to the hardware convention in Minneapolis, two hours away. The first time I saw the ocean, I was twenty-four, in graduate school. During spring break, I drove twelve hours west, from where I was living in New Mexico, to Los Angeles. Years later, I attempted to put words to what I had felt, looking out at the Pacific, in my story collection The Bigness of the World. In the title story, a nanny says to her two young charges, “However can you expect to understand the bigness of the world if you do not see the ocean?” While I credit my wife, Anne, with handing me this line one afternoon as we looked out at the ocean here in Northern California, it expressed what I understood in 1989 as I encountered the ocean for the first time—half of my life ago now: there are those who look at the ocean and, overwhelmed by the world’s bigness, want only to hide, and there are those who feel comforted by the fact of its bigness. While I understand the former urge, the simple truth is that I am most often comforted by the bigness.

Rumpus: Aaron is an ESL teacher and his classroom sessions are some of my favorite parts of the book because his lessons in grammar provoke such profound discussions about human behavior. Were these always a part of the book and central to its structure?

Ostlund: When I develop a character, I always need to find a way in, and usually that happens by giving the character some of my traits or experiences. I’ve taught ESL among numerous other subjects, and as I wrote in my acknowledgments, teaching makes me feel useful and hopeful, both of which I need in order to continue writing, and it seemed to me that Aaron might feel similarly about teaching. Like Aaron, I embraced grammar because it struck me as necessary knowledge, as a way to feel more sure of myself, especially as I found myself living in a world much different than the one I grew up in. Like Aaron, I have allowed grammar to become a barrier to communication, including with my students. Also, I liked the idea of writing about the teaching of grammar because I knew that there was potential for humor as well as misunderstanding since the ESL classroom is fraught with both. I drew heavily on my own classroom experiences in writing those sections—the Culture Game, my students’ obsession with learning phrasal verbs, the trickiness of “hope” versus “wish.” My main concern was not to overdo the classroom stuff while still letting the students be more than just a two-dimensional chorus. I credit my editor, Liese Mayer, entirely with helping me find that balance.

Rumpus: The novel is also a story about stories, about the effect of stories on our lives. But often you choose to tell them in a non-linear fashion. You’ll get a big chunk of the story on page 250, and then, just when you’ve all but forgotten, you’ll get that story’s conclusion on page 325. That’s a high-risk, high-reward strategy. To this reader it paid huge dividends, but did it worry you that readers with ever-decreasing attention spans would get frustrated and bail on you?

Ostlund: For me, one of the benefits of not doing an MFA was that I wasn’t exposed to certain guidelines or best practices (to use a term that I dislike). I remember one of my thesis students asking me if she needed to follow a certain “rule” for novel structure, the gist of which I have since forgotten. I told her that since I didn’t know the rule, I could hardly enforce it. To be clear: I think that guidelines generally come from good intentions—our desire to quantify certain aspects of writing in order to make them easier to talk about and teach—and are helpful for a lot of writers, particularly in the early stages. However, I’ve learned that, for myself, considering guidelines or even talking with others about my ideas often has the opposite effect: it shuts doors in mind that I want left open. So, I’ve accepted that if my novel takes longer to write because I don’t know what I’m doing, then I’m okay with that.

With After the Parade, the structure came about because I was trying to mimic the way that memory works, particularly in times of transition or upheaval, when everything you see or hear triggers thoughts of the past, and these memories often come at you in fragments. Using structure, I wanted to create the feeling of being inside Aaron’s head as his memories crept up on him and then overwhelmed him, and I didn’t think that a more chronological structure would create that effect.

Rumpus: To me, After the Parade reads like a plea for understanding and empathy, for the surrender of our national angry, self-righteous default-mode. One of the reasons we like Aaron so much is that he seems to take people one at a time, which results in his having unlikely friendships, like the one with Bill, the detective. Would readers be correct in assuming that his creator shares Aaron’s extraordinary generosity, his determination not to classify people and judge them accordingly?

Ostlund: Thank you, Richard, for this generously worded question. I often refer to myself as a misanthrope, but the truth is that I like people a lot. I frequently lose hope for us human beings collectively, though rarely as individuals. Over the years, I’ve become increasingly sure that the truth almost never fits into one political box or ideology, and when we try to make it fit, we generally end up angry or self-righteous. Which is not to say that I don’t have strong political beliefs. I do, but I don’t lead with them when I write. In fact, a lot of times, I try to write against my own assumptions or beliefs, just to figure out what I’m missing.

Perhaps this is a reflection of the role that I play in the classroom, where my job is to make every student feel welcome and to help them figure out how best to express what they believe. Mainly, though, I think that it has to do with the fact that I was extremely shy well into my twenties, so I primarily got to know people by listening. Because I listened well, people—both friends and strangers—confided in me, and as I listened, I learned how rare a clear-cut situation was. I found my shyness quite painful then, but I think it has rewarded me as a writer. And as I tell my students, the things that make you a better person also make you a better writer: step outside your milieu, engage with strangers, find meaningful work, travel, read.

***

Award-winning novelist and screenwriter Richard Russo is the author of seven novels and two short story collections. Empire Falls won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2002. His most recent book is the memoir Elsewhere. He lives with his wife in Portland, Maine.

About The Author

Dennis Hearne

Lori Ostlund’s first collection of stories, The Bigness of the World, received the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the California Book Award for First Fiction, and the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award. It was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, was a Lambda finalist, and was named a Notable Book by The Short Story Prize. Her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, among other publications. In 2009, Lori received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award. She is the author of the novel, After the Parade and lives in San Francisco.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (September 2015)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476790107

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Raves and Reviews

"Lori Ostlund's wonderful novel After the Parade should come with a set of instructions: Be perfectly still. Listen carefully. Peer beneath every placid surface. Be alive to the possibility of wonder."

– Richard Russo, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel of Empire Falls

"A beautiful, elegant, honest, and compassionate book about trauma--and the difficult process through which we come to make sense of our lives."

– Hanya Yanighara, bestselling author of A Little Life


“[A] powerful debut novel…After the Parade provides considerable pleasure and emotional power. The teaching scenes, in which Aaron’s adult students ponder the mysteries of American English expressions and American customs, are warm, lively and engrossing. Ostlund richly evokes the rural Minnesota of Aaron’s childhood, where fine distinctions are made between Norwegians, Swedes and Finns; and, through Aaron, she casts a sharp eye on the generation of closeted gay men Walter and his friends belong to, men whose campiness both disguises and expresses their shame. Indeed, while we may be tempted to forget their struggles now that the Supreme Court has affirmed the right of gay men and lesbians to live with the same dignity as anybody else, After the Parade is a moving testament to those adults who contend with the damaging legacy of shame, and the nonconforming children who live in hostile families, trying to stay afloat and save their own lives.”

– New York Times Book Review

After the Parade is a sprawling, hefty narrative — deeply sad and profoundly moving — and its prose is like a second protagonist: Vibrant, living and practically lifting off the page."

– NPR (Best Books of 2015)

After the Parade is remarkable both for the clarity and precision of Lori Ostlund's writing and her seemingly clairvoyant empathy for the misfits of the world: the different, the foreign, the gay, the bullied, the lonely. Aaron  Englund is one of the most lovable, quietly heroic protagonists in recent memory, and Ostlund is a gem of a writer.”

– Kate Christensen, author of The Great Man

“Everything here aches, from the lucid prose to the sensitively treated characters to their beautiful and heartbreaking stories…An example of realism in its most potent iteration: not a nearly arranged plot orchestrated by an authorial god but an authentic, empathetic representation of life as it truly is.”

– Kirkus Reviews (STARRED)

“Achingly tender and wise, After the Parade is a heartfelt rumination on reconciling with the past and finding one’s place in the world that will resonate with anyone who has ever felt like an outsider.”

– Buzzfeed

After the Parade is about leave-taking and homecoming, two instrumental actions that shape the life of every one of us. So rare does one see a wise writer like Lori Ostlund. Her insight comes from understanding her characters yet not dissecting them with a mental scalpel, and portraying life with its most complex and wondrous dynamics in time and space rather than inventing a static canvas. A new talent to celebrate!”

– Yiyun Li, author of The Vagrants and Kinder Than Solitude

“Luminous…Among the many fine fiction releases crowding the market this fall, Lori Ostlund's new novel stands out from the crowd…Plotted with originality and insight…Ostlund is a keen observer of humanity, and her characters come alive on the page…It’s Aaron, her quirky and surprisingly resilient protagonist, who makes this richly comic, quietly affecting novel engaging to the end.”

– San Jose Mercury News

“Ostlund's After the Parade is a generous and full-bodied novel, insightful and quietly provocative.  Ostlund gives us characters we believe in and ache for, and she renders them with generosity and sparkling complexity.  A confident, moving meditation on home and the construction, and reconstruction, of adult lives.”

– Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise and Almost Famous Women

“As full-bodied and full-blooded a novelas I’ve read in a long time. The prose sparkles, and the author is so smart andso kind to her characters: a rare combination and so refreshing to read.”

– Daniel Wallace, author of Big Fish and The Kings and Queens of Roam

“In her appealing debut, prizewinning short story writer Ostlund writes with acuity and refreshing honesty about the messy complexity of being a social animal in today’s world…Touching and often hilarious…Ostlund captures a child’s viewpoint impeccably: the awkwardness, the amusing misunderstandings of adults’ actions and conversations, and his unusual friendships with fellow misfits. Forming connections isn’t necessarily easier when you’re grown up, as the novel compassionately illustrates, but it’s worth getting up the courage to try.”

– Booklist, STARRED REVIEW

“On a sentence-by-sentence level, Ostlund’s prose is unmatched—smart, resonant, and imbued with beauty."

– Publishers Weekly

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