Some fiction leaves you sad, some happy; some draws out a bittersweet tear or makes your heart pump faster with thrills. But the best stories are often the ones that leave you conflicted, that complicate your feelings and perspectives on topics you previously thought settled—the ones that make you twist in your seat, uncomfortable. That’s exactly what Paige Cooper does in her story “Moriah” in the new online issue of Gulf Coast.
Moriah is a woman who lives in a quiet, dying former mining town, which is also named Moriah. She lives in the house of her father, who passed years ago and who “had told her the town had been named after her, a hundred years in advance of her birth.” Moriah drives a bookmobile that serves the town and also the small colony of men who have taken up residence in the abandoned shacks of the dead mine across the lake.
Every week Moriah rotated the collection from the library’s stock. The men liked their success memoirs, sexy horrors, world records and sociological histories. Tyler was working through Shakespeare, and took an occasional showy jab at poetry. Victor preferred self-help and science fiction. None of them worked; no one would hire them. Three books each, every week, and every week each asked for more. There was no imagining their boredom.
Underlying the seemingly normal exchange of library books, there is a palpable tension. Even as she amicably recommends books to some and makes sure that requests are filled for others, Moriah wears dark blouses to hide her nervous sweating. The feeling is magnified by Cooper’s sharp prose and unexpected descriptions: at one point she describes the men as mothers, bent over their books to shield them from the rain, but at others she cuts any feeling of safety with excellently disturbing lines like, “He had a sucker’s scowl, and his dark eyes held white points, like they contained a smaller animal’s flashlit glare within them.” And then on top of it all, there’s the lingering question: why won’t anyone hire these men? What did they do to deserve this exile?
In a scene involving a nosebleed while in a very compromising position, we discover that Moriah is in a secret sexual relationship with one of the men, Adrian. Moriah parks the bookmobile a little up the mountain where no one can see it, and Adrian meets her there every week for their clandestine affair. Adrian is a soft-spoken man with a “skinny burnt-out body and bald ostrich skull” who likes reading popular history and whose favorite book is White Fang. The scene between the two is as tender as it is awkward, as sweet as it is viscerally described. We’re left liking Adrian. And then we find out why these men are squatting in the mining village, why Moriah is nervous around them, why she has to keep her relationship with Adrian secret.
The men are all sex offenders.
For twenty years the miners’ cottages decomposed, then, three summers ago, the men showed up. Just a few, but more arrived every year. Over a dozen, now. The law was clear about where they could live. No parks, schools, public swimming pools, bus stops within measurable distance. Moriah had none of these things. Moriah was childless.
This is where it gets complicated. These men have committed horrible acts. The idea of having a sexual relationship with one of them is gut-churning. But before we’re aware of their crimes, Cooper has humanized them. They read Shakespeare and sci-fi. They plant vegetable gardens. They are kindly old men. Before they are revealed to us as monsters, we have seen them as people. Cooper so brilliantly unfolds the story that we are forced to shift our vision. For a moment, things are not so easily categorized, not so black-and-white. We have felt sympathy for the monster.
But when a sixteen-year-old girl from the town is found assaulted, public sentiment immediately turns against the sex offenders on the other side of the bay. The men are threatened with violence; the town is mobilizing against them. What happens next further complicates our conceptions of good people and bad people, victims and victimizers. “Moriah” makes it clear that people are not so easily put into boxes and that evil, as much as we’d like to think it is, is not the province of only a few. Evil is accessible to us all.