A STORY BY ALICE MUNRO IS RECOUNTED
It was the earlier ones I liked best. You could see her with pedal-pushers on, walking the dusty roadsides. And her mother with the bibles in the trunk. That’s what I liked. A looking back that filled in details, like how she put the ice in the pitcher of lemonade; I could hear it clink all the way up in Grande Prairie, where I was reading the story. And those aunts! How they arrived, one fatter than the other. That’s what I like in a story: ice cubes, hot afternoons, women talking around a kitchen table.
That’s what matters to me, these stories, you kick them up in the dust and they get inside you. You go back to the farm, you’re walking, and you have a bouquet of stinkweed, and the night is sweet as cut hay, and you don’t have asthma, and there is no war—not here, not yet—and your husband is still alive, and, if you think real hard, if you slow it all down, you can hear your mother in the kitchen flipping cards. You might understand it’s temporary. It might have always been, but for a moment it was real. It was a place you could inhabit.
One morning they woke up to find all the stores ravaged: honey pots upturned and pawed out, flowers with the heads bitten off, anthills sculpted into elaborate centrepieces, trees overturned to distinguish one mosh pit from another, millions of fish in heaps, flung across oceans and lakes, deer skins in piles, bat wings in piles, dogs in corrals, corals in jars, eyeballs in oil, all of it catalogued, the sky, demarcated, clouds in nets like poker chips lined up, elbows on the great green table, dealers off and on, bow ties, even the cataloguers with bar-coded necks, themselves the very next items to be scanned.
A DIFFICULT MOMENT
I didn’t know what to do, he said. I’ve never had to follow naked women but there they were, having just read an essay buff. It was a hard act to follow and I confess to feeling a little upstaged. Naked women are all very well in one’s head, but not on stage, not with words, not with full sentences and sentience.
HER NINE NEW YORK SELVES
She is walking under Macy’s big screen where the children of Belsen are being carried out on stretchers. We have come to, we are so, some of us, she thinks, turned around. The children hang in the balance like shekels. She pauses, fishing in her bag while bodyguards frisk.
Overhead the red streaks of a Target ad and she thinks of that kettle, that kettle, the designer one, she meant to buy it on the weekend. She had been in the diner on Sixth, the one that Isaac Mizrahi frequents (BLT no mayo). She hadn’t seen him, but had been scowled at (deliciously) by Fran Lebowitz.
Men in camouflage, men in suits, there is an orange alert today and she has lost her lipstick. Off to a cocktail party in Gramercy Square, but not without lipstick, into Macy’s, to the Mac counter for Miss Dish, or is it Mac Red? They are always changing the name of her shade. Everything overstocked, she cannot sell or save—but there is no tax this week to celebrate the Grand Old Party doing its dirty in town.
Please, she thinks, adjust your dial, tune out and tune in, the moment is a frieze of scent and cashmere and the most delicious lips in the world, all here, smiling and lipstick is not political . . . She is not convincing herself, cool as a bottle of spring water in Chelsea on a Saturday afternoon before she heads back down to her loft in the Meatpacking District next to Julianna’s. Or is it uptown to a tiny but perfect apartment where she lives with her lawyer husband and they take dancing lessons with a little old man, wiry as a yogi, who kids with Liza, who winks at you too, as you both wrap your knees.
Everything is luscious Hudson Valley greens and Tiffany blues in rooms the colour of Arctic char, that latte waiting for you around the corner when you tire of your own company (rarely . . .). But at that moment she remembers that she lives in Brooklyn and needs print cartridges from Target, not a kettle, and will probably buy some street meat from the vendor on Atlantic, where lithe tattooed boys in white tees sneak out with DVDs, and oops, no, she is still at the border waiting for paperwork, about to take a job at a state college in New Jersey, a small one no one has ever heard of at which she will be of little use and make no mark, but think of Williams as she drives through to the city for her weekly culture fix.
Or she is that person who eagerly attends poetry readings at the Ear Inn (where a basset hound paddles past her), and over the beer, her ear, over the bear, her ear, strains to hear something off of Spring Street, something a little more Soho, more like the Grand, where she sits of an afternoon working on a screenplay, modest, with a role for Björk—a feature art-avant-garde sort of MoMA thing, abstract, but still completely commercially viable with multiple soundtracks depending on the cinema you see the movie in . . .
Or now, jerking herself into the street, not exactly into oncoming traffic but surfing a sea of New York taxis riding the afternoon tide down Fifth Avenue bustling with so many versions of herself she feels them mingling with other versions of other people, small, compact projectors flashing through the streets, endless reels of selves and selves and selves and selves and selves . . .
A STORY FILLED WITH UNNECESSARY TENSION
The train came to a stop mid-tunnel. She knew it was mid-tunnel because at a certain point the energy of Manhattan begins to act as both magnet and relaxant, both buoying and energizing. They had just reached that moment. And stopped. Silence.
Only the Verizon phones worked under the tunnel. She had gone with another service and so could only cling to her cell and breathe, which she did. Which they all did. Several minutes passed with only the sound of the man trading stocks, he was worried about devaluing. He should be, she thought, and wondered, as she knew they all must be wondering, if this was another attack, whether at any moment a ball of flame would shoot backward from the city, or whether, when they finally climbed back out of the system, there would be anything left of either side. And then, “I have no contact with either end,” came a voice, a little shaky. “I repeat. No contact with either end.”
She thinks of the bodies falling, closes her eyes and walks backward in time to the island, where her golden retriever is waiting for her to throw a stick. The beach is deserted. It’s winter. The arbutus have shed their bark, the leaves glisten and the air is sweet. She can see fires across the strait, on Lasqueti.
All is well in the world despite the sense of something about to, about to . . . The woman beside her gets more anxious by the moment, the failed attempts to call her daughter who waits at Penn Station (is there still a Penn Station?) and the mother with her two young sons who have been silent this whole time. “Check. Still no contact with either end.”
Why, she thinks, as the dog stops and turns to see if she is still there, and suddenly there is heavy cloud cover and a wind from the north, why won’t they reassure us?