The stories are listed in chronological order, with either the year I started to write them or the year they were published.
I lived in Princeton, New Jersey, for six months in the latter half of 1977. Life there was in some ways peculiar, but not half as peculiar as this story. It appeared in Edges, an anthology edited by Ursula Le Guin and Virginia Kidd.
My friends lived on Chestnut Street, and when I was looking for a place to live they said, “Go see Barranca, up at the barber shop, he owns half the tree streets.”
“Chestnut, Maple, Spruce—right around here.”
The Cold Room (1983)
Also in 1977, I lucked into co-teaching a fiction writing class with Ursula Le Guin, at UC San Diego. One day she gave an assignment: write a love story. I did, and many drafts later it became this, which was published in the short-lived little magazine Stories and then was chosen by John Updike for Best American Stories 1984.
This story draws heavily on my two years (1969-71) as a conscientious objector in Columbia, Missouri, working in a lab at the medical school.
The dogs were the worst. He found it hard to work up much sympathy for rats, and he was thankful they were the only animals he had to work with—injecting them, sticking tubes into them, changing their plumbing, draining their blood for analysis. Some technicians had to deal with cows or pigs, which were too big to be moved from place to place, and usually ended up imprisoned in a lab built around them, where no one ever saw them but the people who tended their cables and tubes. Bats were too small and strange to care about, and laboratory rabbits were almost too stupid. But the cats bothered him, and the dogs were the worst. Especially when at the end of the day he took the dead rats—bulges in bloody plastic bags, their dead tails no longer pink but white like the rest of them—down to the cold room. He opened the heavy door, like that on a meat locker, and threw the sack toward one of the garbage cans inside, trying not to see the fifty-five-gallon drums of dead dogs. The dogs that wouldn’t fit into the drums lay stiffening in transparent green bags on the floor. He held his breath while doing this, and if the rats missed the garbage can he didn’t go inside to pick them up.
No Kick from Champagne (1984)
This is the other story I’ve published that is relatively autobiographical in a literal way. It was published in The Ohio Review.
It was hot again first thing in the morning, not terribly hot for August compared to being at home, but in a strange place—an apartment with floorboards turned gray by millions of strange shoes, and bulging scratchy furniture in the living room—Lemuel felt like he couldn’t breathe. He turned his radio on, the one he had insisted on bringing from home, and a man told him it was seventy-seven degrees at five minutes till eight. Down the hall he could hear his mother taking a shower and knew that if he didn’t get up she would come in next thing with dripping hair and tell him that if he didn’t hurry he’d make her late for class. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, sat up and scratched his head because it felt good to scratch in the morning. The floorboards were still cool. There was a marble parked against the bed leg, and he scooted over to hook it with his big toe and send it rolling and knocking into the same corner of the room where the other marbles were.
Lights Out (1980's)
“There was so much more she needed to know; and yet wasn’t it as though she had always known this, but somehow, carelessly, forgot?”
It was beyond hot, as far as Claire was concerned. Supposedly Cambridge, Massachusetts was as much New England as Maine was, but for the last two weeks of July, in her opinion, it couldn’t have been worse in New Orleans. Muggy, sweltering, steamy, sizzling—the dog days—subtropical—the weathermen had to acknowledge that every phrase they used to describe hot weather was worn out. And she lived on the back side of an old apartment building twenty feet or so from the back of another just like it—the bricks had been storing up heat all summer, and they reflected it back and forth, amplifying it like the voices that came out of the perpetually open apartment windows or the sound of the air conditioners that ground away the hours in rooms whose windows were closed.
Naked Women (1985)
I was teaching in the Expository Writing Program at Harvard at the time I wrote this. Expos was my second graduate school, the one where I learned invaluable lessons on writing from colleagues such as Alex Gold and Nancy Kline (who gave me good advice on the ending). Writing “Naked Women” was an enormous amount of fun. (Published in StoryQuarterly and later included in their “Best Of” collection titled The American Story.)
The fight began on a Tuesday when my wife, Elaine, was rummaging around my workshop area in the basement, looking for a can-opener that could not possibly have been there, and found the pictures of my old girlfriends. The nude pictures, that is, the ones I had put inside the service manual for a VW Bug I hadn’t owned in twenty years, which just shows that the can-opener story was not to be believed for a minute. I had almost forgotten they were there. There was a scream from the basement and then fascinated silence—I reconstructed this from the testimony of Naomi, who was only six at the time but had the observational and deductive powers of thirteen. When I got home from work that day Naomi said to me, in the tone of someone repeating a lesson, “Mommy says she has something she wants to show you in the basement.”
Vital Signs (1987)
As far as I can tell from digging in my notebooks, I began working on “Vital Signs” in 1979. For most of its life, before it got published in 1987 in Writer’s Bar-B-Q, this story was known as “Building” and was much longer—a novella, a form that an editor assured me no magazine would publish. It had a complicated evolution, and countless hours of writing underlie the version that appears here. What may be more interesting to fans of the creative process is that much later, this same kernel of an idea became the novel Over the Fence, which is both very like and absolutely unlike “Vital Signs.”
This is one of the many reasons why I believe that no writing is ever wasted.
It was a hot day in Little Dixie as Tom Hardison drove north out of Columbia, Missouri on U.S. 63. His black Bonneville with the red interior was only two years old and worked fine but he was fed up with paying for it. No satisfaction in the machine any more—except the air conditioning; he wished he had bought a VW like Kate’s instead, but the clients and the company had certain expectations. He wrenched the car around a curve and over a slight hill. On the other side a railroad track jolted him into slowing down for a moment. The highway burned in front of him, melting into mirage-pools floating on the blacktop; the horizon wavered with heat, but the trees, heavy with thick midsummer leaves, did not stir, and no one was in sight. Then some sad bastard in a John Deere hat and a sweat-soaked work shirt, crawling down the shoulder on a tractor. Tom passed him at sixty-five. Sometimes he drove slower and waved to the oncoming pickups as you’re supposed to do on country roads, but today he couldn’t bother with that.
Meditation on Bangs (1990)
Who knows where some ideas come from? This story appeared in Imagine, thanks to my friend Luis Urrea.
I have declined to comment on the appearance of small clouds of black smoke over distant parts of the city, or the ubiquity of buzz-saws, but lately I have devoted a great deal of thought to the investigation of mysterious bangs.
You are so familiar with them, perhaps, that you no longer notice them. But they seem to occur more often at night, or perhaps they merely reach the awareness better at that time. Was that a gun? you ask yourself. A backfire? A cherry-bomb? Did anyone else notice it?
A Case of the Golden Rule (1999)
In writing this story I was able, more successfully than usual, to maintain the attitude that I know is right for me: the story knows where it is trying to go. Or as Joan Didion said, “You don’t tell it. It tells you.” I had no idea this would end up where it did, until it did.
I’ve shared this story with my students several times, and it seems to drive them a bit nuts. From their reaction I realized that the protagonist is, at least for some readers, guilty of being forgiving.
Every time we go there, just the two of us, it rains. We sit in ancient armchairs, rejects dragged to the shed years ago, their upholstery threadbare where hands, backs, and butts have worn it down, the rest bearing vestiges of scratchy pattern, springs lumpy and uneven under us. Nothing can hurt those chairs anymore. There are provisions in the old fridge whose door is held shut by a rusty hook and eye: beer, salami, cheese, stale bread, mustard, one mealy-looking apple. Neither of us wants to eat it. Better to pick one from a tree, if you can find one without too many lumpy growths or wormholes. Lumber stands around in the corners, the back of the long workbench is fringed with cobwebbed sawdust where it meets the shed wall, a giant old table saw encumbers the middle of the space, with a computer sitting on it swaddled in duct-taped plastic to keep it from being ruined by dust.
The Wait (2000)
A simple story, in a way, about carrying the same longing for more years than anyone should. And then what happens if it might be fulfilled?
This story became a piece of the novel With and Without You, and its protagonist, Will, became one of that novel’s narrators.
When Will and Susannah were lovers, the fact that she was married seemed irrelevant to him, except that it limited their time together. He was sure she couldn’t love him any more than she did, husband or no husband. If she made love to her husband in the morning and Will at noon, it subtracted nothing from the truth of their love. She did do that at least once that Will knew of, because she told him. Not to make him jealous, or threaten him in any way, but because she knew he would be entertained by this curious event in her life. Will and Susannah were complete; they were a world, and though this world of theirs was tightly bounded in time and space, it was no less of a world for that.
No One Must Know (2000)
This story’s narrator burst out unstoppable, filled with the energy of no apology, the furious defiance of never being able to justify. If she were once to begin apologizing, it could never end. But she never would. That was clear from the start.
Her whole story is what can never be said. Helene Cixous seems to be describing it in a passage that I’ve read again and again:
“Writing or saying the truth is equivalent to death, since we cannot tell the truth. It is in every way forbidden because it hurts everyone. We never say the truth, we must lie, mostly as a result of two needs: our need for love, and cowardice. The cowardice of love but also love’s courage. Cowardice and courage are so close that they are often exchanged. Cowardice is probably the strange, tortuous path of courage.” (Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing)
Here is a picture of me: woman in an uprooted garden, outside a house that is being reconstructed, remembering. Sitting on the ground, trowel in hand, poking unconsciously at the dirt. Digging the point of it in, turning up a little soil, patting it back down the with the flat of the trowel. Paying little attention to footsteps of those who pass by, or the sound of hammering from inside the house. No, this woman is raptly thinking: Alex, without you I’m lost. And I can tell no one. With you, at the end, I was lost as well. But I can’t forget anything we did. Now I must be who I never wanted to be, a singleton, a dreamer, a loner, a person never fully present who gets lost from one moment to the next in thoughts that I refuse to share.
First and Last Things (2000)
This story started from a random thought I had while removing dead trees and cutting spruce seedlings, and at first I worked on it almost as an exercise. It turned into the darkest possible commentary on a plot line that I, like so many authors, keep writing—the one about courtship and the hope of finding love. I hope I won’t have to write a piece like this one again.
OLD FOOL SEEKS NEW LOVE. Fifty-something in search of Real Thing once more before succumbing to resignation. (I mentioned being a fool, didn’t I?) Passion, devotion, romantic illusions, impulsive presents all a possibility. Wife, now otherwise occupied, used to find me reasonably attractive. Judge for yourself: ask and I’ll send photo. Ripe for plucking by young woman of 35 or 40, can be had by convincing simulation of love, desire, acceptance, tenderness. Reply to Box #…
Wilson received one voice-mail telling him he should go buy Playboy and masturbate, one reminding him that marriage is a sacrament of the Lord, one from a dominatrix, one from a woman who said he could sleep over once a month if he would pay for a year’s lease on a one-bedroom apartment, one from a man who told him he should leave younger women alone and go die, one from a woman who said she was only a little over forty and her husband couldn’t get it up anymore and could he? and then got flustered and hung up without leaving her number.