Short Story

What Can We Steal From Angela Pneuman’s “Occupational Hazard”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Occupational Hazard,” short story
Author: Angela Pneuman
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story made its premiere in the Spring 2011 issue of Ploughshares as the winner of the Alice Hoffman Prize for Fiction.  (Ploughshares, by the way, is one of the best journals out there.)  The story was subsequently chosen for the 2012 edition of Best American Short Stories.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material

Discussion:
The story begins as Calvin, a worker at a wastewater treatment plant, accidentally steps into some sewage.  This is a great metaphor for the entire story, as poor Calvin seems to have stepped into a few messes.  Calvin likes his coworker Dave Lott, but doesn’t particularly like spending time with the guy.  Jill (Calvin’s wife) wants another child, which is most retrograde to Calvin’s desires.  Life only gets worse when Dave Lott dies from a terrible staph infection—an occupational hazard for wastewater treatment workers, of course.  Calvin and Jill offer Dave’s first wife and his fifteen-year-old daughter a place to stay for the funeral, which is a depressing affair.  To Calvin’s eyes, daughter Jennifer is an odd bird; he takes the young woman to see her Dad’s office.  In an odd and suspenseful scene, Jennifer disappears.  Calvin finds her in a supply closet where they share a fascinating moment of intimacy.  Stasis re-establishes itself after Calvin gets home.  Jill mistakes his existential angst and cry for help for arousal and the reader is left to wonder what will happen to the characters in the future.

The great short story writer Lee K. Abbott once pointed out, correctly, that there aren’t too many stories about the workplace.  Isn’t this odd?  So much of our lives take place in an office or on the work site, but such settings seem to be underrepresented in fiction.  Ms. Pneuman points out in her author’s note that she once worked in a support capacity for wastewater treatment personnel in Indiana.  I certainly believe that she has depicted the sewage plant faithfully; I can imagine the concrete maze of water and the unpleasant stench.  Honestly, why shouldn’t sewage plant workers have their say in fiction?  As writers, one our responsibilities is to explore new worlds and shed light on the fringes of humanity.  After all; who wants to read the same story about the same people over and over again?

It’s very tempting to write about writers or artists or some other job that stands in as a placeholder for “writer.”  (I’ve done it…have you?)  It would be a shame to miss out on all of the great details and good stories that come out of the workplaces we know.  (Even if we don’t love them.)  Most of us have spent time in hourly retail jobs, right?  What are the unique stories of the unique people who fill these positions?

Here’s an example.  One of the latest “dumb things young people do” is “firebombing.”  Crummy people will go through a restaurant drive-thru window and throw stuff on the worker staffing the post.  One jerk took the concept to a new low; he squirted hot sauce in the worker’s eyes.  Here’s a news report about it.

Maybe the video gets your “What would that be like?” going.  What if this wasn’t the worst part of the character’s day?  What if he knew the jerk?  What if the jerk missed and the worker simply had had enough?  What restaurant policies might change after the attack?  We’ll never know unless someone sets a story in a fast food joint.

The climax of the story, it seems to me, is the scene in which Calvin and fifteen-year-old Jennifer…share a moment in the darkened office.  Now, I’m always up for “weirdness.”  Is a story interesting if a character or situation is “just kinda normal?”  The first time I read the story, I definitely picked up on the fact that Ms. Pneuman was putting Calvin and Jennifer together in the narrative.  The instant the young lady arrives, Ms. Pneuman is careful to make it clear that Calvin is thinking about her and is preoccupied.  Without such clues, Ms. Pneuman may not have made the scene of intimacy very realistic.  Anything will make sense, so long as you make it clear that the events make sense in the context of the world you’ve created.

What Should We Steal?

  • Train your focus on the world of work.  Think of how many hours your characters spend in the workplace.  Thirty?  Forty?  Fifty or more?  During that time, your characters are interacting with other people, suffering setbacks and feeling resentment growing in their hearts.  Consider dramatizing these oft-overlooked moments of your characters’ lives.
  • Ensure that your weirdness makes sense in the context of the story.  Think of The Twilight Zone.  (It’s something I do all the time.)  So much crazy stuff happens on that program, but we buy it.  Why?  Because Rod Serling clearly established the rules of The Twilight Zone.  Okay, aliens don’t turn the lights on and off in the real world…but we believe that it can happen in the world Mr. Serling created for us.

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