For Heidi Pitlor
“I can fancy what you saw. Yes; it is horrible enough; but after all, it is an old story, an old mystery played… Such forces cannot be named, cannot be spoken, cannot be imagined except under a veil and a symbol, a symbol to the most of us appearing a quaint, poetic fancy, to some a foolish tale. But you and I, at all events, have known something of the terror that may dwell in the secret place of life, manifested under human flesh; that which is without form taking to itself a form. Oh, Austin, how can it be? How is it that the very sunlight does not turn to blackness before this thing, the hard earth melt and boil beneath such a burden?”
Arthur MachenThe Great God Pan
One day in 1972, I came home from work and found my wife sitting at the kitchen table with a pair of gardening shears in front of her. She was smiling, which suggested I wasn’t in too much trouble; on the other hand, she said she wanted my wallet. That didn’t sound good.
Nevertheless, I handed it over. She rummaged out my Texaco gasoline credit card-such things were routinely sent to young marrieds then-and proceeded to cut it into three large pieces. When I protested that the card had been very handy, and we always made at least the minimum payment at the end of the month (sometimes more), she only shook her head and told me that the interest charges were more than our fragile household economy could bear.
“Better to remove the temptation,” she said. “I already cut up mine.”
And that was that. Neither of us carried a credit card for the next two years.
She was right to do it, smart to do it, because at the time we were in our early twenties and had two kids to take care of; financially, we were just keeping our heads above water. I was teaching high school English and working at an industrial laundry during the summer, washing motel sheets and occasionally driving a delivery truck around to those same motels. Tabby was taking care of the kids during her days, writing poems when they took their naps, and working a full shift at Dunkin’ Donuts after I came home from school. Our combined income was enough to pay the rent, buy groceries, and keep diapers on our infant son, but not enough to manage a phone; we let that go the way of the Texaco card. Too much temptation to call someone long distance. There was enough left over to occasionally buy books-neither of us could live without those-and to pay for my bad habits (beer and cigarettes), but very little beyond that. Certainly there wasn’t money to pay finance charges for the privilege of carrying that convenient but ultimately dangerous rectangle of plastic.
What left-over income we did have usually went for things like car repairs, doctor bills, or what Tabby and I called “kidshit”: toys, a second-hand playpen, a few of those maddening Richard Scarry books. And that little bit of extra often came from the short stories I was able to sell to men’s magazines like Cavalier, Dude, and Adam. In those days it was never about writing literature, and any discussion of my fiction’s “lasting value” would have been as much a luxury as that Texaco card. The stories, when they sold (they didn’t always), were simply a welcome bit of found money. I viewed them as a series of piсatas I banged on, not with a stick but my imagination. Sometimes they broke and showered down a few hundred bucks. Other times, they didn’t.
Luckily for me-and believe me when I say that I have led an extremely lucky life, in more ways than this one-my work was also my joy. I was knocking myself out with most of those stories, having a blast. They came one after another, like the hits from the AM rock radio station that was always playing in the combination study-and-laundry-room where I wrote them.
I wrote them fast and hard, rarely looking back after the second rewrite, and it never crossed my mind to wonder where they were coming from, or how the structure of a good short story differed from the structure of a novel, or how one manages issues of character development, backstory, and time-frame. I was flying entirely by the seat of my pants, running on nothing but intuition and a kid’s self-confidence. All I cared about was that they were coming. That was all I had to care about. Certainly it never occurred to me that writing short stories is a fragile craft, one that can be forgotten if it isn’t used almost constantly. It didn’t feel fragile to me then. Most of those stories felt like bulldozers.
Many bestselling novelists in America don’t write short stories. I doubt if it’s a money issue; financially successful writers don’t need to think about that part of it. It might be that when the world of the full-time novelist shrinks to below, say, seventy thousand words, a kind of creative claustrophobia sets in. Or maybe it’s just that the knack of miniaturization gets lost along the way. There are lots of things in life that are like riding a bike, but writing short stories isn’t one of them. You can forget how.
During the late eighties and nineties, I wrote fewer and fewer stories, and the ones I did write were longer and longer (and there are a couple of the longer ones in this book). That was okay. But there were also short stories I wasn’t writing because I had some novel or other to finish, and that wasn’t so okay-I could feel those ideas in the back of my head crying to be written. Some eventually were; others, I’m sad to say, died and blew away like dust.
Worst of all, there were stories I no longer knew how to write, and that was dismaying. I knew I could have written them in that laundry room, on Tabby’s little Olivetti portable, but as a much older man, even with my craft more honed and my tools-this Macintosh I’m writing on tonight, for instance-much more pricey, those stories were eluding me. I remember messing one up and thinking of an aging sword-maker, looking helplessly at a fine Toledo blade and musing, I used to know how to make this stuff.
Then one day three or four years ago, I got a letter from Katrina Kenison, who edited the annual Best American Short Stories series (she has since been succeeded by Heidi Pitlor, to whom the book you are holding is dedicated). Ms. Kenison asked if I’d be interested in editing the 2006 volume. I didn’t need to sleep on it, or even think it over on an afternoon walk. I said yes immediately. For all sorts of reasons, some even altruistic, but I would be a black liar indeed if I didn’t admit self-interest played a part. I thought if I read enough short fiction, immersed myself in the best the American literary magazines had to offer, I might be able to recapture some of the effortlessness that had been slipping away. Not because I needed those checks-small but very welcome when you’re just starting out-to buy a new muffler for a used car or a birthday present for my wife, but because I didn’t see losing my ability to write short stories as a fair exchange for a walletload of credit cards.
I read hundreds of stories during my year as guest editor, but I won’t go into that here; if you’re interested, buy the book and read the introduction (you’ll also be treating yourself to twenty swell short stories, which is no poke in the eye with a sharp stick). The important thing as it affects the stories that follow is that I got excited all over again, and I started writing stories again in the old way. I had hoped for that, but had hardly dared believe it would happen. The first of those “new” stories was “Willa,” which is also the first story in this book.
Are these stories any good? I hope so. Will they help you pass a dull airplane flight (if you’re reading) or a long car trip (if you’re listening on CD)? I really hope so, because when that happens, it’s a kind of magic spell.
I loved writing these, I know that. And I hope you like reading them, I know that, too. I hope they take you away. And as long as I remember how to do it, I’ll keep at it.
Oh, and one more thing. I know some readers like to hear something about how or why certain stories came to be written. If you are one of those people, you’ll find my “liner notes” at the back. But if you go there before you read the stories themselves, shame on you.
And now, let me get out of your way. But before I go, I want to thank you for coming. Would I still do what I do if you didn’t? Yes, indeed I would. Because it makes me happy when the words fall together and the picture comes and the make-believe people do things that delight me. But it’s better with you, Constant Reader.
Always better with you.
February 25, 2008
You don’t see what’s right in front of your eyes, she’d said, but sometimes he did. He supposed he wasn’t entirely undeserving of her scorn, but he wasn’t entirely blind, either. And as the dregs of sunset faded to bitter orange over the Wind River Range, David looked around the station and saw that Willa was gone. He told himself he wasn’t sure, but that was only his head-his sinking stomach was sure enough.
He went to find Lander, who liked her a bit. Who called her spunky when Willa said Amtrak was full of shit for leaving them stranded like this. A lot of them didn’t care for her at all, stranded by Amtrak or not.
“It smells like wet crackers in here!” Helen Palmer shouted at him as David walked past. She had found her way to the bench in the corner, as she always did, eventually. The Rhinehart woman was minding her for the time being, giving the husband a little break, and she gave David a smile.
“Have you seen Willa?” David asked.
The Rhinehart woman shook her head, still smiling.
“We got fish for supper!” Mrs. Palmer burst out furiously. A knuckle of blue veins beat in the hollow of her temple. A few people looked around. “First one t’ing an’ den anudder!”
“Hush, Helen,” the Rhinehart woman said. Maybe her first name was Sally, but David thought he would have remembered a name like that; there were so few Sallys these days. Now the world belonged to the Ambers, Ashleys, and Tiffanys. Willa was another endangered species, and just thinking that made his stomach sink down again.
“Like crackers!” Helen spat. “Them dirty old crackers up to camp!”
Henry Lander was sitting on a bench under the clock. He had his arm around his wife. He glanced up and shook his head before David could ask. “She’s not here. Sorry. Gone into town if you’re lucky. Bugged out for good if you’re not.” And he made a hitchhiking gesture.
David didn’t believe his fiancйe would hitchhike west on her own-the idea was crazy-but he believed she wasn’t here. Had known even before counting heads, actually, and a snatch of some old book or poem about winter occurred to him: A cry of absence, absence in the heart.
The station was a narrow wooden throat. Down its length, people either strolled aimlessly or simply sat on benches under the fluorescent lights. The shoulders of the ones who sat had that special slump you saw only in places like this, where people waited for whatever had gone wrong to be made right so the broken journey could be mended. Few people came to places like Crowheart Springs, Wyoming on purpose.
“Don’t you go haring after her, David,” Ruth Lander said. “It’s getting dark, and there’s plenty of critters out there. Not just coyotes, either. That book salesman with the limp says he saw a couple of wolves on the other side of the tracks, where the freight depot is.”
“Biggers,” Henry said. “That’s his name.”
“I don’t care if his name is Jack D. Ripper,” Ruth said. “The point is, you’re not in Kansas anymore, David.”
“But if she went-”
“She went while it was still daylight,” Henry Lander said, as if daylight would stop a wolf (or a bear) from attacking a woman on her own. For all David knew, it might. He was an investment banker, not a wildlife expert. A young investment banker, at that.
“If the pick-up train comes and she’s gone, she’ll miss it.” He couldn’t seem to get this simple fact into their heads. It wasn’t getting traction, in the current lingo of his office back in Chicago.
Henry raised his eyebrows. “Are you telling me that both of you missing it will improve things somehow?”
If they both missed it, they’d either catch a bus or wait for the next train together. Surely Henry and Ruth Lander saw that. Or maybe not. What David mostly saw when he looked at them-what was right in front of his eyes-was that special weariness reserved for people tem porarily stuck in West Overalls. And who else cared for Willa? If she dropped out of sight in the High Plains, who besides David Sanderson would spare a thought? There was even some active dislike for her. That bitch Ursula Davis had told him once that if Willa’s mother had left the a off the end of her name, “it would have been just about perfect.”
“I’m going to town and look for her,” he said.
Henry sighed. “Son, that’s very foolish.”
“We can’t be married in San Francisco if she gets left behind in Crowheart Springs,” he said, trying to make a joke of it.
Dudley was walking by. David didn’t know if Dudley was the man’s first or last name, only that he was an executive with Staples office supply and had been on his way to Missoula for some sort of regional meeting. He was ordinarily very quiet, so the donkey heehaw of laughter he expelled into the growing shadows was beyond surprising; it was shocking. “If the train comes and you miss it,” he said, “you can hunt up a justice of the peace and get married right here. When you get back east, tell all your friends you had a real Western shotgun wedding. Yeehaw, partner.”
“Don’t do this,” Henry said. “We won’t be here much longer.”
“So I should leave her? That’s nuts.”
He walked on before Lander or his wife could reply. Georgia Andreeson was sitting on a nearby bench and watching her daughter caper up and down the dirty tile floor in her red traveling dress. Pammy Andreeson never seemed to get tired. David tried to remember if he had seen her asleep since the train derailed at the Wind River junction point and they had wound up here like someone’s forgotten package in the dead letter office. Once, maybe, with her head in her mother’s lap. But that might be a false memory, created out of his belief that five-year-olds were supposed to sleep a lot.
Pammy hopped from tile to tile, a prank in motion, seeming to use the squares as a giant hopscotch board. Her red dress jumped around her plump knees. “I knew a man, his name was Danny,” she chanted in a monotonous one-note holler. It made David’s fillings ache. “He tripped and fell, on his fanny. I knew a man, his name was David. He tripped and fell, on his bavid.” She giggled and pointed at David.
“Pammy, stop,” Georgia Andreeson said. She smiled at David and brushed her hair from the side of her face. He thought the gesture unutterably weary, and thought she had a long road ahead with the high-spirited Pammy, especially with no Mr. Andreeson in evidence.