Monday, December 20, 2010

Human Stories

Willa Cather once said "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before."

I've started a series of short fiction based on this concept.  Are there really only a few stories, repeated endlessly in various manifestations?  Here's my first exploration, which I've entitled Human Stories, Number One.  Consider it my holiday gift to you (you're welcome)!  And please send me your ideas for other "human stories!"

Boy Meets Girl
          The theme for the evening was the Roaring Twenties, although none of them were born then.  The women rented flapper attire—glittering headbands, shiny, bobbed wigs and fringed skirts—from the costume supplier they had emailed and texted each other about in the preceding weeks.  It seemed strange, really, to celebrate someone’s fiftieth birthday, a milestone certainly, by embracing a decade and its imperfect impressions and subjective symbolism, by adopting this era that had nothing to do with any of them, to mark a person’s birth this way, and to do it by having a party in someone’s garage, no matter how expertly finished it was.
          In one corner, by the newly installed wet bar complete with leather barstools, Glen Hanley ordered a scotch and soda from his wife’s PTA friend, Susan Gleeson.  He had met Susan before, had come home from work once to find four women huddled over a mound of papers at the kitchen table, had listened politely through the introductions and explanations while wondering what was to be done about his dinner.  Now that both girls were in college, his wife Janet had given up the custom of regular dinners.  But he still worked at the bank and still played in his tennis group on Tuesdays and Thursdays, weather permitting.  He, Glen Hanley, still wanted dinner. 
          Susan slid the sweating glass across the bar.  It was July and hot despite the central air conditioning vented in from the house.
          In the center of the ceiling, where a garage door opener should be, the Gleesons had strung up a disco ball.  It wasn’t until later, much later, when the recycling bin was full of bottles and the brie started to harden and ooze, that the disco ball would be in its full glory, when the overhead lights were dimmed and the dance floor got crowded.
          At that point, Glen Hanley was sitting once again on a leather stool, having been mildly humiliated by his wife and her wisecrack about the banality of mortgage lending, having been numbed and incited by his fifth scotch and soda to walk off and leave her dancing to Night Moves, which had nothing to do with the Twenties either.  And once again, there was Susan Gleeson and her red satin cleavage.  Susan Gleeson with her refreshing beverages.  He felt that Doug Gleeson was probably quite lucky, having been allowed to finish his garage for a terrific fiftieth birthday party when he himself, Glen Hanley, couldn’t even get a hot dinner most nights.
          So when the next song on the Gleeson’s playlist was Blinded By the Light, a song that Glen Hanley used to blare in his bedroom on Santa Marina Street, with his ailing mother under an afghan on the living room couch and his twin sisters laughing or fighting in the next room (because Glen Hanley had been surrounded by women his entire life), when this song that made him feel nineteen and not fifty in seven months himself, when this music started, Glen grabbed Susan Gleeson’s hand, his wife be damned, and brought her to the newly laid dance floor.
Death Comes for Boy (or sometimes, for Girl)
          Kizzy Hanley parked her car near the fire hydrant where her sister Lurie slipped in a puddle one summer and got a concussion.  Their mother blamed Kizzy of course, who was older and therefore in charge.  The hydrant had been dripping a slow drip for several days, but the neighborhood kids swore a pact of silence, preferring instead to fill cups and bowls for their own purposes, to occasionally submerge a sweaty head under the faint stream.  Lurie, excitable and absentminded, was destined for accidents.  Even now, Kizzy had a text that Lurie’s plane out of Denver was snow delayed.  Kizzy and her mother would spend the evening worrying and checking the airline’s website.
          Kizzy slowly got her purse and the take-out bag.  She’d been camping at her parents’ house (her mother’s house she’d have to get used to saying) for three nights.  Ever since her father collapsed at his Thursday tennis game.  There was no reason for it, no sense to be made.  He was only fifty-four years old.  Kizzy bit her lip, shook the wave off.
          Her mother was where she’d left her, cleaning the refrigerator.  Her backside in its bluish polyester pants protruded from the opened freezer door, jiggling as she scrubbed.  Boxes of vegetables, cellophane wrapped meat, a ice-covered Ben and Jerry’s, all of it on the marble counter, all of it in individualized tiny puddles.
          “Almost finished then, Mom?” Kizzy asked.  “The food is melting.”
          Her head came out, face shiny from the cold, eyes red-rimmed.  “Okay.”
          Kizzy helped her load the things back in.  Then she gathered plates, forks, napkins, took it all to the kitchen barstools.  They hadn’t eaten in the dining room since she arrived.  Already they were starting new ways of being.
          “You don’t have to stay,” her mother said for the tenth time.  “I know you’ve got your job, your apartment.”
          “Mom, it’s ten minutes away.  Everything will stay the same there.”  She dished Kung Pao chicken for her mother.  “I want to stay through the service.  I want to see Lurie.”  Lurie’s expanding figure, Lurie with her happy marriage and baby on the way. 
          Her mother, resigned but glad:  “Alright then, Kizzy.”
          The clock in the hallway chimed six o’clock.  An heirloom of sorts, Kizzy’s grandmother purchased it when her daughter married Glen Hanley.  It rang every half hour.  Can’t you change the settings, her father would ask.  But Janet Hanley insisted that she didn’t notice it at all, having lived with it for so long.
          Kizzy and her mother looked at each other during the chiming.  A brief moment, nothing to say.  Marvelous and terrifying, Kizzy thought, how quickly we go, how quickly we stay.
Girl (or alternately, Boy) Grows Up
            Living in Barstow didn’t afford Janet Lemon many opportunities for excitement.  The sleepy town, a crossroads really, soldiered on in the shadow of its mining days. 
          The three-bedroom ranch house was home to eleven:  Janet, her parents and six siblings, and her aunt and a cousin.  They shared one bathroom and the square of grass in the back.  Her father worked as a welder and her mother took occasional work, babysitting or cleaning houses. 
          So when Janet had a chance to go with friends to Los Angeles, she packed a bag and left with no regrets.  Many things happened to Janet in the next several years, among the most memorable:  a job at a dingy coffee shop, night classes in history and art, a bitter fight with a roommate, three days of debauchery in Tijuana, a protracted relationship with an aspiring singer, more night classes, a visit home when her aunt died, a Bob Seger concert, a broken wrist while rollerblading, a brief, emotionless liaison, a sailboat ride, a job at a grocery store, and a trip to San Francisco where she fell in love and subsequently, settled down.


  1. Mary, I'm enjoying your descriptive and controlled text. Nice imagery! Wonderful use of alliteration, too - 'backside in its bluish polyester pants protruded'. Overall super writing!

  2. A great blog. Very interesting. I like to read this type of posts. Feel free to have a look at my website related to technology. I am interested in high pressure hydraulic pumps
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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka