Short Stories 366:177 — “Shepherd,” by Bryan Washington

coverThe notion of a singular “coming out” is something I try to push back against whenever I see it happen, and I kept thinking about that while I was reading “Shepherd.” Found in Bryan Washington’s Lot: Stories, “Shepherd” is very much a story about a young man figuring out his own desires, and the ways in which some of us queer people can so easily project onto others, or deny ourselves, or any number of a hundred other things we sometimes do to try and hold on to “not knowing” one moment longer.

The narrative itself is surrounded in a framework of a visiting cousin, Gloria, who is there to relax and recover, and the young boy is aware of the gossip of this cousin’s past, where sex work was one of the paths she took to getting out of a slowly collapsing Kingston. Jamaica-that-was and Kingston-that-was kind of loom over the story, affecting the mother, the cousin, and even the young man himself, and their interactions shift and weave with a sense of “we’re here now, we’re okay” alongside the young man’s building awareness of his own otherness. His family has made it to a more affluent area of Houston (though he honestly can’t tell much difference in the homes), and you get the sense from the mother that she does not trust their situation. Gloria becomes a focal point, a woman who reads voraciously, who seems to just be with an effortlessness that alternately infuriates or befuddles those around her—mother, sister, father all have oddly out-of-character reactions to her. And for the young man, she is so much more: someone who might know about him. Might understand. Even if he doesn’t.

The way this story ended had me catching my breath. The boy turns on Gloria at one point, tries to push her away with the worst he can offer, but she knows and leaves him a message that might help him later. What happens with that message felt both like a gut-punch and an inevitability, a literal example of how understanding yourself never actually ends (much like coming out), and as much as I so often talk about wanting and needing hopeful endings in stories, this one left me with something different without it feeling like a loss, if that makes sense.

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