“The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past”
Claire Vaye Watkin’s story is from her debut collection, BATTLEBORN (Riverhead Books), winner of the 2012 Story Prize. Her stories and essays have appeared in Granta, One Story, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from the writers’ conferences at Sewanee and Bread Loaf and was named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” fiction writers.
The San Francisco Chronicle selected BATTLEBORN as one of the best books of 2012 and said of the collection: “She takes the beauty and the emptiness of the American West and employs it as a backdrop for each meticulously crafted tale.”
Watkins said this about the origins of “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past:” This is a Frankenstein of a story, and each body part comes from some part of my childhood in Nevada. The first line, “This happens every summer,” is pulled from the local folklore whirling around the town where I grew up, which is located about midway between Las Vegas and Death Valley and so relies heavily on tourism of all sorts. My mother ran the Death Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Shoshone Museum, where she supplied tourists – many of them Europeans – with maps and travel advice.
I spent a lot of time at the museum as a kid, and heard lots of speculation swirling above me about who might die out there, search and rescue operations, missing tourists. Later, I wondered what the other tourists did when someone from their party got lost, who they would turn to so far from home. Michele himself sprouted from an Italian tourist I met years later at a beer festival in Reno. He was traveling the West alone and seemed the sadder for it.
The Cherry Patch Ranch bears some resemblance to the brothels down the road from the house I grew up in, in Pahrump, Nevada, where prostitution is legal. I fixated on one of these brothels in particular, because not only was is what we called “stick-built” rather than a trailer, but it looked like a Victorian dollhouse, painted pink and purple, with flower boxes and dormer windows and a weather vane. So naturally I wanted to live there.
Years later, I began to consider prostitution’s existence on a spectrum of women’s work that includes strippers, but also nurses, teachers, social workers, waitresses and baristas. One perspective on prostitutes is that they provide, at great cost to themselves, an essential service to society. I was interested in portraying that service alongside the toll that such emotional work might take on a woman. Thus, Darla was born.