“Goods” by Matthew Baker, recommended by Hayden’s Ferry Review
Issue No. 155
On one level, Matthew Baker’s “Goods” is a political story denouncing the obsessive consumerism of American culture. The story’s narrator and his brother believe in collective, ephemeral ownership; they walk through stores pretending to own the things they find on the shelves, then leave those things on the floor as they exit. But to focus on this aspect of “Goods” is to risk overlooking what also makes the story so remarkable: the masterful balance between narrative and lyricism in Baker’s pared-down prose.
The music of Baker’s sentences is like a familiar, unnamable tune. Its mystery sticks in your head. “Literary truth,” says Elena Ferrante, “is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence.” Accordingly, Baker’s sentences shine with a blinding wattage. They are startling yet well controlled, a hybrid of adolescent whimsy and general axiom: “My brother and I owned a jar of pencils, but at the orphanage that was meaningless. Ownership is a belief, and without authorities to propagate a belief, a belief disappears.” The clarity of these insights triumphs over the intellectual incongruity of a child concerned with “propagation.” Herein lies the magic of Baker’s stories: they accumulate incongruities that propel rather than hamper the narrative.
And “Goods” never slows down. Years pass in a sentence. Lives end in a clause. The story tends toward the surreal and mythic—in the orphanage, a boy named Henri sits stiff on his cot for weeks; a graveyard beggar predicts the boys’ futures. Alongside these odd events, everyday moments seem equally bizarre. “Goods,” we begin to discover, is not so much surrealist narrative as an honest look at what it means to live in a world as strange as ours. The story does what good writing must: it defamiliarizes, allowing us to fully experience what we normally overlook. Ownership is exposed as guilt-inducing and brief. Money and grades become meaningless when banks and teachers quit asserting their value. In this way, “Goods” is political, anarchic, and also emotionally stirring. It is a story built of the unplanned, a story that unexpectedly swerves, a corrective to consumerism and its literary cousin: the paint-by-numbers stories we all too often read. Hayden’s Ferry Review has been fortunate enough to publish two of Matthew Baker’s stories. We hope that you enjoy this story as much as we do!
Alex McElroy & Allegra Hyde
Editors, Hayden’s Ferry Review
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by Matthew Baker
Recommended by Hayden’s Ferry Review
When my brother and I were children, our mother would take us to stores. My brother was a small blackhaired bucktoothed child who kept his hands clenched into fists. I was a small whitehaired bucktoothed child who kept his hands tucked into his underarms. We liked scowling. The game would begin when we entered the store. When we entered a store, we would choose things. My brother might choose a baseball. I might choose an umbrella. We would take them from their displays. As our mother led us through the store—loading cartons of eggs into our cart, boxes of tampons, bottles of pills—my brother would carry the baseball and I would carry the umbrella. We weren’t hoping our mother would buy us the baseball and the umbrella. Our mother couldn’t buy us the baseball and the umbrella. We knew that. That was the game. During our time in the store we would carry the baseball and the umbrella, and we would use them, like they were ours.
My brother would sniff the baseball. My brother would spit onto the baseball. My brother would pretend to pitch the baseball through an elderly shopper’s legs.
Meanwhile I would twirl the umbrella over my shoulder.
When we exited the store, we would leave our things there.
My brother and I liked when our mother took us to stores. We liked when our mother took us to stores because my brother and I didn’t own many things. We didn’t own a baseball. We didn’t own an umbrella. But when we were within a store’s walls, we could own a baseball and an umbrella. As customers of a store—as people who had the potential to buy any object within the store’s walls—we were given ownership, temporarily, of any object within that store. We could carry the objects with us wherever we wanted. They were ours.
My brother would kick his sneakers into our cart—clods of dirt scattering across the store’s floor—and yank rubber waders over his jeans and his socks.
I would wear unusual hats meant for the colorblind and the blind.
Once we owned skateboards.
Once we owned backpacks.
Once we owned calculators. My brother and I didn’t like calculators—even if our mother could have bought us calculators, we wouldn’t have wanted our mother to buy us calculators. We thought calculators were boring. But we had never owned calculators, so we carried calculators through a store, once—adding things, subtracting things, multiplying things until the calculators’ displays were maxed at nines—because we felt that that was an experience we needed to have. Felt that if we ever were to understand children who owned calculators, we ourselves would have to have owned calculators. Felt that if we ever were to understand anything about our country, first we would have to understand children who owned calculators.
My brother and I owned few things, when we weren’t within a store’s walls. In our neighborhood we were chased by children who owned calculators. The children would tackle us. The children would pin us against dumpsters. The children would use their calculators to tally our imaginary crimes.