I love Carol's conversational voice in this story. I can easily imagine this character sitting telling me this story. Afraid (and annoyed) that she might annoy the listener:
It's time to go somewhere. Anyplace else is better than here. It will be a makeshift journey. No purpose except to get away. I didn't pack. I didn't plan. I won't bring a map. I can't depend on strangers because of my beady eyes. I have a mean smile.
So: an avowedly unlikeable character (a writer) who decides she has to escape her life. She thinks that if her grown-up kids know she wants to get away they'll try to stop her:
"Mama, you're not as young as you think you are." (I am. I am. Exactly as young as I think I am. I'm maybe even a little more so.)
Is there anyone who doesn't recognize that cry? But there are so many good lines ["I regret my books. The children will keep all the wrong ones."] that I really wish you would skip this and just go straight to the story. The ending is another cri de coeur against the damned shortness of life and our inevitable end. It's the end of the world, and that makes our writer is happy.
That honest moment of small-hearted meanness and large-hearted joy is so recognizably human that I laugh every time I read it. The little truth that echoes out to a larger one is in so many of Carol's stories and books and it often makes me want to stop reading and go out and spread the word. There's so much joy (her collection Joy in Our Cause is so well titled) in her writing that it feels me feel mean not to share it.
Ten years ago when my wife, Kelly Link, and I were working with Carol on Report to the Men's Club and Other Stories we both loved this story so much that we put it last in the book so that anyone who read the book in order (or anyone who read the last story first) would walk away with this story freshest in their head. And when Karen Meisner at Strange Horizons asked which story of Carol's I'd like to introduce, "After All" was an easy choice.
Although that's a lie. Carol has written so many good stories over the years that at first this seemed like an impossible assignment. Narrowing the choice to a book we'd published was an arbitrary decision that still left me one story to choose and eighteen stories I couldn't press on readers. How wrong!
Fortunately NonStop Press has now published The Collected Stories of Carol Emshwiller, Volume 1 so that readers can explore the full range of Carol's stories—at least up until 2002: there must be a second volume coming covering the years since—and it includes all of Report to the Men's Club and Other Stories. Knowing that made my choice here simpler but there are still four or five I'd love to have you read: "Grandma," "Acceptance Speech," "Mrs Jones," or "Foster Mother," any of which are by turns hilarious, terrifying, tragic.
And if you go and read these stories, I'll add you to my thanks here. To Carol for writing these stories. To Strange Horizons for putting Carol in the spotlight. And you for taking the time to explore the work of a writer whose unusual stories can seem so small at first until they open up to contain all of us.
Read "After All" by Carol Emshwiller