AN INTRODUCTION BY MANUEL GONZALES
Look, I’m not going to come in here and say some goofball thing like, reading a Ramona Ausubel story is like being caught in a venus flytrap that coaxes you deep into its craw with its fragrant smell of rotting meat and bright colors and then, before you know it, you’re held fast and the walls are closing in and only then do you realize these stories have teeth. But if I did come in and say something goofy like that, I wouldn’t be wrong.
Except for the part about teeth.
Technically, a venus flytrap doesn’t have teeth, has more of an icky digestive fluid that dissolves you in its craw.
In all of her work, Ausubel creates fragrant, brightly colored, magical worlds. Worlds in which, for every new love you experience, you grow a new limb. Worlds in which a cyclops can find love, in which mermaids are real, in which grandmothers in the afterlife all get to live together on a cruise ship. And she coaxes you deeper and deeper into these worlds with her spare and gorgeous prose, and only when you’re in too deep do you realize: the cyclops is vicious and kind of awful, the mermaid is horrifyingly decrepit, and the grandmothers are adrift and lost at sea. A darkness, an underlying and beautiful darkness, limns practically every moment in Ausubel’s work, but you hardly notice the darkness while reading, so dreamily enchanted are you by Ausubel’s language, her humor, her generosity on the page. There are few other writers I recommend as frequently and as fervently as I recommend Ramona Ausubel.
In “Template for a Proclamation to Save the Species,” Ausubel introduces us to a mayor of a small town in northern Minnesota. To alleviate the dreariness and drudgery of his citizens’ lives in this cold, dark place, he declares a day of sex. Everyone gets the day off, everyone should fuck, and whoever births a baby on an appointed day nine months down the road wins an economy car. And in the space of 14 pages, Ausubel dismantles everything I knew about being a parent, about the urge to bring life into this fraught, dangerous world. She reconstructs it all, and gives it back as something devastating and new. It’s a subtly heartbreaking story wrapped in a deliciously ridiculous conceit.
I invite you to wade deep into the dangerously compelling mind of Ramona Ausubel, and before you know it, you’ll find your insides have been turned into a digestible goo and all that’s left is your tiny exoskeleton, which will then flutter away, carried off by the next stiff breeze.
Author of The Regional Office is Under Attack!
The Mayor Who Gave His Town a Holiday for Sex
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“Template for a Proclamation to Save the Species”
by Ramona Ausubel
Perhaps it is the shittiness of the northern Minnesota town that keeps her residents from reproducing. Theirs is not a furious protest, a political movement. It is as if their lives are so boring, so deeply muddy that it hardly even occurs to two people to couple with enough feeling to create anything other than a disappointed sigh.
The small town’s mayor, Tom Anderson, reads a story about a mayor in a small Russian town, also cold and dark and relatively poor, also reproductively slow, who declared September twelfth “Family Contact Day.” The Russian mayor said he had chosen the date because it was exactly nine months before Vladimir Lenin’s birthday and he offered prizes — a station wagon, a refrigerator — for babies born on the same day as the Great Leader.
Tom had not meant to go into politics and hadn’t even wanted to remain an American. He had spent a semester in college in Russia and gotten a taste for fish eggs and first wave communism and had planned to stay and study literature but had to go home to the cold, flat north of his own America to take care of his aged aunt.
Tom thinks about a designated sex day. Everything around him is dreary. The economy droops. Winter is nigh. He takes solace in the fact that the whole city seems to have reached the sloppy bottom place, has sunk to the pond-scummy floor and that anything, it seems, would be an improvement. Tom begins to draft an announcement for the newspaper. He changes the name of the holiday to Love Day. He does not mention anything about communism or Russia — though some politicians seem to admire the brute force of Russia, this is a town where ‘socialism’ is the dirtiest word and Tom does not want to navigate the narrow channel between admiration and fear — so he claims the idea as his own. Everyone will get the day off, and they will stay home, and they will screw. And, the part that makes the mayor squeeze his fists in pride is the prize he will arrange: the first mother to give birth on June twelfth wins an economy car, a tiny white Ford.
The mayor’s decree is published in the newspaper. Online, the comments are mocking. The mayor wonders how it is taken in Russia, what the Great Leader would think. Would he be proud? Or is he watching from death as his birthday is commemorated with a badly made refrigerator bestowed upon a disinterested mother, her unprepared husband and their howling alien of an infant. On one side of the glass, there is a dream of perfect equality, and on the other, life in exchange for a kitchen appliance. There is something Russian about this, the mayor thinks to himself, but he is American and doesn’t know what it is.
Along with declaring the holiday, the mayor has a bench installed in the park, shaped like two hearts, side by side. The seat is curved to encourage couples to slide close together. He names this the Bench of Love. Teenagers immediately notice that from behind, the bench looks like two large butts.
In the newspaper, one Ruby Goebels is quoted: “I’m glad to have the day off. I have a lot of canning to do.” Still, a day off is a day off. No one considers not taking advantage of it. The question is whether the people will allow their city government to dictate their sex-schedule. For many, it is a humiliation, and instead husband and wife plan to sit side by side on the couch with the television blaring, drinking three fingers of whiskey at a time until someone gets hungry and opens a package of hot dogs.
For the teenagers, there is much confusion. It is in their nature not to do as they are told, yet what they have been told to do is so acutely in line with what they want. It is only when some of them point out that no one wants them to have babies, unmarried as they are, that they all rejoice, head to the big park after dark — thrilled to have been returned to that beloved state of disobedience — to find vaguely hidden hollows in which to fuck. Every few decades, the teenagers think, a politician might have a good idea.
Martha and Jeff act as if it is a Sunday — they cook bacon for breakfast and have beer with it. Martha does their laundry, folding her husband’s dozens of similarly striped t-shirts and baggy jeans and laying them in piles on the sofa. Across the street, Fat Henderson is standing naked, in profile, examining himself in the mirror. He looks pregnant. Martha cannot see his crotch, a fact she is grateful for, but she can’t help but think of the sad little display it must be: a deflated prize resting on two swollen, purple pillows. Martha imagines that Fat Henderson is trying to find a way of asking his wife to take up the Mayor’s suggestion, despite the fact that they are beyond the age of conception.
Martha and Jeff have been married since they were both pretty. She still is; the American man has a shorter window. His mother told him each morning in high school — “Your hairline is already beginning to retreat, your eyeballs will bulge like your father’s, your ears will grow and your lips will thin. You had better sign something with that girl of yours before it’s too late.”
Martha believes that her looks have a very specific expiration. She believes that no matter what kind of care she takes of her body, of her face, she will turn into an old lady the moment she has a child. It is like a fairy-tale curse on these mid-western plains. The short mom-hair, the square-shelf of a butt, the mini-van: they are fate, unavoidable, and their emergence will begin as soon as sperm and egg meet.
Whether this sad progression could be thwarted is untested. No generation of women has ever avoided becoming parents. Martha’s mother was a baby machine, congratulated by the church for her eleven children. For eighteen years straight, Martha’s mother had a shitting baby in the house. Martha had arrived in the middle, between Paula and Matthew, the only boy. She had no special role to play, not the oldest nor the youngest, not the idolized boy. Martha was part of an assembly line. She grew up with the feeling that children must simply appear, unbidden. Who would want to make any more of them? It was as if they hatched in some dirty, neglected corner like so many baby cockroaches and the grown-ups had had no choice but to try and raise them.
Martha and Jeff are pressed up against the wall in the living room on Love Day. They do not draw the shades. Martha can see a ghost of their reflection in the glass panes of a china cabinet she inherited from her grandmother. She admires her husband’s butt and her own lithe arms around his back. In the middle, Martha thinks to herself — There it goes. She can almost feel her calves fatten, her feet flatten and her hair turn grey. It is the exact ending of youth. Yet somehow, she is not completely sorry to see it go. She has been pretty a long time, and she is curious what the world looks like for someone who is invisible to men. What will it be like to walk down the street without getting the looks from every truck driver, every guy standing outside in the bitter cold, his own stale breath billowing out as dark and dirty as smoke.
From her position, she has a view of the whole room. Like a hologram, she sees the way it will change. The wicker basinet will take up that corner, there will be toys all over the floor, a pile of laundry. She sees herself, and it makes her tired. When the baby comes, Martha knows, it will make her wonder whether anything else has ever been true. You thought all that mattered? the world will say. That old life was a set, just a painted background.
For the next nine months, a small Ford will sit in front of the Mayor’s office adorned with a big red bow, which fades in the meager sunlit. He will look out at every few hours and allow the warmth to fill his chest.
In February, at the supermarket, Martha runs into Nathalie, a math tutor and the wife of the high school wrestling coach who really wants to win the car. “It’s the only reason good enough to ruin this body,” Nathalie says, running her hands up and down her hips and waist like they are for sale. Nathalie asks if Martha’s disinterest in the competition is a carefully crafted strategy, some kind of conniving.
In a unique fertility ritual, the wrestling coach hangs up magazine ads of small American cars around the bed. He is already picking out accessories for the new car. He has decided that he will have a car-shower on the day his wife has a baby-shower so that each pink or blue bib will be met with an after-market alarm system, an expensive looking stereo, a mountain-lemon scent air freshener in the shape a sexy mermaid and a set of perfectly unnecessary mud flaps, considering that the car will barely have enough clearance for a mall speed bump.
He does not say it out loud, but Tom has complicated feelings about being in power. There is shame, of course, in the fact that he had won his election with no opponent. All the other men in town must have figured out that they could make much more money — and suffer much less scrutiny — by working in office buildings and construction sites rather than serving the public. The mayor’s constituents assumed he was in it for the same reasons politicians here always had been — a little money skimmed off the top to buy veal, blondes. No one begrudged him because no one believed anything really would, perhaps even could, be changed. What man could convince the sun to stay up past 2:00 pm in winter? They were born in this place, on these high plains, and it put short borders around the territory of hope. Yet, Tom believes in something better. A little better, anyway.
In spring, the Mayor likes to drive around spotting bellies. It is frustrating to be a single man in a moment such as this. Tom cannot participate in his own game. But still, he feels personally responsible for each of those fetuses, as if he is their godfather. If not for him, the world would have less life in it, less actual life. He is always a little surprised when the women do not come up to him and offer their thanks.
But the mayor had not thought of how long the middle would feel. He had only considered the beginning and the end. Like two cans with a string tied between them, conception and birth connected in a way that is both miraculous and plain. For the mayor, who has no everyday miracle taking place in his own house, who eats leftover pizza for breakfast and runs on the treadmill in his basement and wades through the City Council meeting and has lunch with the football coach, the wait is frustrating and overlong. He worries that by the time he gets to the end, the story will not be his anymore, that when he proudly stands up and announces the dozens of lives born of his imagination, everyone will be at home, coddling babies they consider, wrongly, Tom thinks, their own.
For Martha too, the middle is a very long space of time. In it, she tracks the disappointments. At first, she does this in order to make counter-arguments, to explain to her baby that yes, it is dark almost all day long in winter, but in summer, you don’t have to sleep at all, I will never force you to go to bed. Instead, we will all three climb up the roof and lie on our backs in bathing suits, tanning at nine at night.
In the windows: women change shape and men change shape too and then feel angry with themselves for it. It’s the fat of sympathy building up, the men think. Devotion. Really, it is boredom and bad weather and probably would have happened anyway. Across the street from Martha and Jeff’s, Fat Henderson again stands in profile, naked, observing his inglorious façade.
Tom sits out on the two-hearted bench alone, sliding into the middle with no one to drift closer to. In the square appears a nurse he hired to talk to what he imagined would be a throng of expectant parents. She is carrying a paperback novel under arm and breathing on her hands to warm them.
The mayor goes over. “Hello, Ms. Walker,” he says. “Thank you for coming.” He motions to a podium he has dragged out from his office along with a series of connected extension cords and a microphone.
“I have the right day?” she asks. “I thought you said you had advertised.”
“I’m sorry. Would you like to give the talk anyway?”
“No one is here.
The nurse walks up the microphone. On the small black amplifier beside her, she switches a switch and taps the microphone to test it. Her eyes flicker over to the mayor every few seconds, asking a very obvious question.
“So,” the nurse says. She waits for someone to relieve her. “It’s not very good to drink when you are pregnant.” The mayor smiles warmly, nods.
“Husbands who smoke should do so outside.” The nurse’s voice booms out like some god of boring advice. And truly, no one passes. Not girls with rounded bellies, not young men, not old women, not children. It is as if the streets have been cleared in preparation for a terrible storm, a bomb threat, an asteroid headed straight this way. No matter how tightly tucked the nurse’s brow, Tom just smiles at her. Tell the world what you know, his eyes say.
“It’s getting dark now,” the nurse says. “I think I’ll pack up and go home.” It starts to snow. The low sun makes everything seem suddenly brighter for a moment before it shuts the light out altogether. The mayor feels that they are in a very old place, dust gathering around them, hundreds of years passing while the nurse folds her notes back into her book and brushes the flakes off her fake fur collar.
“Thank you,” he says. “It was helpful.” He means it. She realizes this, and it makes her just sad enough to hold his hand a little longer than she would have otherwise.
In the week before June twelfth, four babies arrive in all their pudgy, yowling glory. The mayor makes a special point of showing up to meet them all, have their pictures taken, commemorate the moment despite its lack of prize-winning-ness.
On June eleventh, Martha feels the first contractions and goes to the hospital after several hours of pacing, rocking, getting in and out of the shower, the bath. In the maternity ward, the miracle of life is an every day occurrence, a job to be completed and cleaned up from. One of the nurses brought in muffins. Someone is watching a talk show in another room, loud. The pain never lets up completely, just changes intensity. Sometimes Martha is not sure she can breathe. The nurses look at her, bored by her anguish.
At 11:00 pm on the night before the winning day, the wrestling coach and Nathalie arrive, he pulling her by the elbow. She has felt no contractions, not even a twinge, but he thinks maybe a change of scenery will help get things started.
“See, baby?” he says to her belly, “you are in the hospital now. Time to come out. You only have twenty four hours.”
The nurses refuse to give them a room so Nathalie sits in a plastic chair and drinks soda while the wrestling coach hovers outside Martha’s room with his watch in his hand, observing the minutes tick. “Come on, come on, come on,” he says to the minute hand, coaxing it to slow down. If he has a chance of winning the car he needs this other baby to be born in the next fifty-two minutes, on June 11th. The mayor joins him, his own watch in his hand, “Come on, come on, come on,” he prays to his watch, begging it to slow down. God, should he be following this small drama, is going to have to choose a side. 11:15 turns to 11:35. Martha is pushing. She is crying. 11:47 and the baby crowns. 11:58pm, and he is born. The baby, two minutes shy of a prize-winner, cries. Martha does not even check the clock, cannot consider the time. Her husband allows himself one small glance, but his heart only sinks so far before the tossing fists of his son buoy it. The wrestling coach does a robot dance down the hall to celebrate.
Nathalie does not go into labor. No one goes into labor. For the first time in the hospital staff’s memory, the ward is silent. The mayor walks the halls, saying, “You never know. Any minute.” The wrestling coach knocks on his wife’s belly like it is a door behind which someone has overslept his alarm. The nurses drink coffee and read gossip magazines. The muffins dwindle. “You should have more contests,” they say. “In a town as unlucky as this one, it will guarantee us the day off.” And indeed, it does. On June twelfth, no babies are born. There isn’t even another close call, a team to cheer for. Tom wonders how they’re doing in Russia. He imagines a shiny new Lada Neva sitting outside the hospital awaiting its new owners.
Seeing that her husband will not allow her to go home, the nurses finally let Nathalie into a room, only so she can fall asleep.
Martha looks at her baby who knows nothing yet of the world waiting: corruption, bribery, teenage drivers, being flat-footed, having too little money and too much beer, doing the dishes, going out for dinner and being disappointed in the overboiled spaghetti sauce, getting up for work before light, coming home after sunset, the roses wilting on the table, the list of jobs that need doing around the house: cleaning the tiny screen on the faucet, breaking down the boxes your aunt sent and writing a thank you note for terrible smelling bubble bath that was inside, scrubbing the frozen-on pink sticky in the refrigerator. This is life. Barring environmental or political catastrophe, Martha expects the world her child lives in to look much like this one. It can be difficult to see the miracle in it. To her bundle, she offers an out-clause: you were born, innocent and beautiful and straight from the lips of God, but if you look around and see the pot-holes streets, the mud puddles, the old nurses in too much makeup, and you decide you want to be an angel instead, I will understand. I will wrap you in a soft blanket, cover you completely up, and allow you to make your decision in private. If I open the blanket and you are gone, evaporated, I will forgive you for it. But if you are still there, pink and fussing, I will know that you have chosen to stay, to endure the old world. And I will try to teach you the tricks to make it easier. How to get on the bus without buying a ticket; how to pay for one movie and see three; how to fight with your father so that you always win; how to insure maximum darkening of the skin in the sun; how to find your life’s horizon — that place just far enough in the distance to keep you moving forward but not so far as to be discouraging. “For my part,” Martha says aloud, “I will give you food when you are hungry and warmth when you are cold. Let’s start with that promise. I’ll swear to it, my love, I will cross my tired heart.” She folds the blanket loosely over her infant until she can’t see him anymore.
Outside, the Ford’s red bow is slumped and bleached. The car is a minor celebration in front of an old blocky hospital. None of this went as planned, yet somehow Tom feels fulfilled. He was part of something, if only on the periphery. In the morning, he will give the car to Martha for being the closest, and Martha will sell it to the wrestling coach for a good price and put the money away. It will be enough to buy plane tickets to someplace warm every winter until the baby is grown. She does not need a car — for transportation, Martha has feet and the bus.
Light, heat, now those are worth paying for.