Little Raw Souls
Autumn House Press
“Absolute Zero” is from Steven Schwartz’s collection LITTLE RAW SOULS (Autumn House Press). Schwartz is the author of two previous story collections, To Leningrad in Winter and Lives of the Fathers, and two novels, Therapy and A Good Doctor’s Son. His writing has received the Nelson Algren Award, the Colorado Book Award for the Novel, two O. Henry Prize Story Awards, and other recognition.
Schwartz said this about his story of a seventeen-year-old boy seeking to join the Marines, but needing his dying mother’s permission: “Absolute Zero” had its genesis, like many stories, in several real-life counterparts of the characters. Two of these were the children of neighbors. Sam suffered from cystic fibrosis. Sam had the easiest smile, the gentlest presence. Unfailingly, he would wave hello as I drove past his house. Small in stature, his skin appeared translucent, his thin blond hair nearly as transparent.
We didn’t know the family well, and I could only imagine their grief when Sam died of complications from his illness at eighteen. I could not, however, forget how brave and – there is no other word even for a secularist like me – holy he seemed in his bearing throughout his short life. It wasn’t much of a leap to turn Sam into the Seer, a quasi-mystical figure presiding over the world’s inexplicable sorrows.
The other boy was Nick, seventeen, a brilliant and sensitive kid with some behavioral issues that eventually led to his being homeschooled. Despite his mother being a dyed in the wool anti-war liberal, Nick started hanging around the Marines and pressuring her to let him join, which he eventually did.
The final individual, and perhaps the linchpin for my emotional involvement that held me fast to getting the story right, was one of my closest friends, Liza, who died of breast cancer at forty-two, leaving two young children behind.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were very much on my mind when writing the story. At the same time, I couldn’t stop thinking of Sam, doomed at such a young age, while my friend, Liza, fought unsuccessfully also to save her life. Somehow all this unfairness got mixed up with war, illness, manhood, as well as a sergeant with a self-destructive and violent daughter – for violence is the common link whether it be from others or insults to the body – into a story about sentient existence that moved far enough from its original sources to live beyond them.