Read a Good Story Lately?

I am a sucker for short stories. Short stories by such amazing writers as Anton Chekhov, Ray Bradbury, Alice Munro, Kurt Vonnegut, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Lorrie Moore, Tim O’Brien and Kevin Brockmeier often blow me away. For my money though, the Irish writer William Trevor is one of the best, a real master of the craft. If you love short stories the way I do, you’ll enjoy his Selected Stories.

There’s nothing like a good start to a story. Here’s the opening sentence from Trevor’s “The Piano Tuner’s Wives”: Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man, Belle married him when he was old. When a story gets off to a good start like that, I know I am in for a treat.

The story, “A Friendship”, opens with a practical joke two brothers play on their father. But soon the tale turns into the story of a slowly dissipating marriage. As is true for many of Trevor’s stories, it doesn’t take you where you thought you were going. When I finished the story, I could see the influence Trevor may have had on another writer, Alice Munro, and her “Runaway”. In his “Child’s Play”, there is the story of two children. They use their imagination to create dramas to help them overcome the pain of separation from their divorced parents.

If you think Trevor only creates tragic stories, think again. For instance, there’s “A Bit of Business”. Two thieves see an ideal opportunity for burglary on the day the Pope visits Dublin. They’ve done their business for the day. It’s been a successful business. Then, on a whim, they decide to do one more house. One more house. That will always get you into trouble.

Trevor’s endings can be just as stunning as his beginnings. Such is the masterpiece of a story called “After Rain”. A woman entering her thirties finds herself ditched by her boyfriend. She returns to the Italian hotel where her parents took her when she was a girl.

It concludes with this: She sees again the brown-and-green striped tie of the old man who talked about being on your own, and the freckles that are blotches on the forehead. She sees herself walking in the morning heat past the graveyard and the rusted petrol pumps. She sees herself seeking the shade of the chestnut trees in the park, and crossing the piazza to the trattoria when the first raindrops fell. She hears the swish of the cleaner’s mop in the church of Santa Fabiola, she hears the tourists’ whisper. The fingers of the praying woman flutter on her beads, the candles flare. The story of Santa Fabiola is lost in the shadows that were once the people of her life, the family tomb reeks odourlessly of death. Rain has sweetened the breathless air, the angel comes mysteriously also. These closing lines remind me of another Irish master of the short story, James Joyce, and the end of his most famous story, “The Dead”.

Trevor’s stories often have echoes of other great predecessors of the short story, most of all Anton Chekhov. Trevor does for Ireland what Chekhov did for Russia. He explores the landscape of a country and its people, giving each character her dignity. With a rich, lush language, he is as likely to offer the life of a woman as he is a man, of a Catholic or a Protestant, and to burrow in deep to find out what that character carries in his or her heart.

In his stories, there are priests, wives, businessmen, tramps, blind piano tuners, farmers, children, burglars, auto mechanics and dressmakers, people from many of the nooks and crannies of Irish society. And there is love, or the desire for love no matter the consequences. Trevor shows us that it’s the little things, the quiet moments that matter in a life, and that a life can mean so much.

His particular way of saying things often makes me stop in awe and question how I might write like that. Lines that soar. Lines that are more than lines. There never is fairness when vengeance is evoked or Their own way of life was so much debris all around them or This no-man’s land was where Gerard and Rebecca played their game of marriage and divorce or All the love there had been, all the love there still was–love that might have nourished Ellie’s child, that might have warmed her–was the deprivation the child suffered or gratitude was always expressed around this table. It’s a great writer working his magic and I am never disappointed with that magic. He always leaves me wanting more.

The Water and the Sea

Tally did not know his fore from his aft, his port from his starboard. Not that it mattered that he know something of ships. That was for others to know. He was not a sea man, and he wasn’t a sailor.

He came on the cruise to please his wife. Mara thought it would do him good to get away from everybody, including herself. “A good oceangoing voyage might just be the thing,” she said. It would break the melancholies he wore like a suit of clothes. Since the death of his friend, Breaker, they had their way with him. It was his way of coping.

So he chose to return from Breaker’s funeral in London by ship. It had been an uneventful voyage so far. Three days of moping around the decks, then sitting on deck and watching the tides in an easy rise and fall. Rising and falling like Breaker himself.

He had first met Breaker in his freshman year of college. Breaker showed up at every party Tally attended. What would be a boring affair suddenly became a blow-out. When Tally was a sophomore, Breaker was a junior, and his roommate. They had become close. Breaker would share all  his dreams. Until Tally met Breaker, he never had many dreams for his future. He’d picked the path of least resistance. He was going to be a cpa. “That’s no life,” Breaker sai. Of course, he was right.

So Tally followed Breaker into the Peace Corps. When Tally finished his time with the Corp, Breaker was already a war correspondent for CBS. Tally decided wars were not for him. Instead he went off to Africa and started a safari business. There he met Mara just about the time Breaker married his English wife, Pamela. Next thin g he knew Breaker was off to Israel. He and his wife were in kubutz.

Mara was pregnant, so Tally sold the business and took his wife and new baby back to the states. That was when he got in on the internet craze and sold his new software company for several million dollars. It seemed that Tally had found that he had a knack for making money. Every so often Tally would hear a new story of his hero. Breaker was always in some place new doing something Tally would never think about doing. Breaker had become something of a legend in Tally’s family.

Then, at forty, a phone call came from London. It was Pamela. “Breaker’s dead,” she said.

“How?” Tally asked, tears in his eyes.

“Suicide. Can you fly over? He wanted you at the funeral.”

“Sure,” Tally said and took the next plane over to England. Tally had been surprised at how well Pamela held up at the funeral. Afterward she gave him a big hug and went back to her apartment for her own private grief.

On the voyage back to the states, Tally took in all that had happened since he first met Breaker. He would not be the man he was if not for Breaker. He would not have believed that he could have a life that was not dull and ordinary. He would not have Mara and the kids. He would not have the friends he had, and the adventures he had lived. Now that Breaker was gone, what was he to do. He was forty. Now suddenly he had no future.

Sitting in a deck chair, he closed his eyes and slipped off to sleep. Everywhere there was water. No sky or land, just water. He opened his eyes.

He walked over to the edge. The sea before him was like glass. Possibly he might walk on the sea. He gazed out at the sea and sky. A dark blue with light only from the ship. And the quietness. He listened and all he heard was the humming of the ship’s engine. What if he stepped off the deck of the ship and onto the sea? Now that would be a happy thing.

A hand reached from behind him. “Don’t,” a voice said. Tally turned and there was no one there.

“What the hey?” Tally asked.

He went back to his deck chair. Where there was only dark blue sky a few moments ago, now there were stars. He didn’t count but he estimated a million and seven. Why a million and seven? Just because.

Then he saw Mara’s face. Not in the stars, not in his imagination. She looked out at him from where she was. She was crying, her face pleading with him. All through the last couple of weeks he had forgotten her. He had only been thinking about Breaker. And his loss. Now there she was and what he was thinking really hurt Mara.

Right then and there he discovered he had a future. It was Mara.

The Seven Roommates

Gluttony was not happy, He was broke, and there was nothing to eat in the house. It was Sloth’s turn to buy groceries, but he kept procrastinating.

Big G’s mouth was especially watering for an apple tart. Even though he had recently given them up. Every time he said to Sloth, “Could you get me some tarts,” Lust took it the wrong way. He droooled all over everything. What else could you expect of a guy who thought he was God’s gift to women?

The thing was that there was no chance for Big G to get his hands on one of the tasty treats. As soon as they came into the house, Greed hogged them all to himself. It wasn’t that Greed was especially fond of apple tarts, he just didn’t want the others to have something he didn’t have. And he could always trade them for the goodies he really wanted.

And what Greed had, Envy wanted. He had gone out of his way any number of times trying to get Anger to do a Rocky on Greed so he could get Greed’s stuff. Anger was having nothing to do with Envy’s pestering him about Greed. Anger had been taking an anger management class lately. And he’d learned to count to ten before his temper got the best of him. It seemed to be working too.

Until Pride came home and showed off his new Lamborghini. The sound of the engine roared up the driveway. It woke poor Anger up. And after three all-nighters at his Security Service job, he was in no mood to be woke up. He stormed down the stairs three stairs at a time just as Pride was showing off his car to Envy.

“I got to have one of them cars,” Envy said.

“Maybe I can help. After all, two Lamborghinis in front of the house would win us the City’s Blue Ribbon for Best House. HGTV might even take notice.”

Anger burst out of the house, a warpath on his mind. He punched Pride in the nose. Pride had a nose bleed but he tried to hide it. Not wanting the others to see his vulnerabilities. But Envy saw it and wanted a nosebleed too.

Lust was bringing home his new girlfriend, Delores. Delores took one look at Pride’s nosebleed. She fainted.

Sloth drove up behind the Lamborghini. He had gotten the apple tarts Big G wanted. Big G took one look at Sloth and the apple tarts. He rushed toward the tarts and tripped and fell right on Envy’s face, giving him a bloody nose.

Greed too saw the tarts and he couldn’t resist. He had to have them. As he rushed toward Sloth, his nose ran into Big G’s nose.

Anger was so angry at himself for loosing his temper, he hit himself in the face with his fist. And not to feel left out, Sloth picked up Big G off the sidewalk and helped him inside, while Big G bled all over him.

All this goes to prove one thing. When you let the Seven loose on the world, all you get is a bloody nose.

Don’t Cry for Me, Miss Argentina

A pickin’ and a grinnin’ lyric
I’m at the Best Western
And she’s got the house.
She had an affair;
I looked like a louse.
She’s gettin’ it all,
The cat and the mouse.
I was such a fool
So I’m gettin’ real soused.

Chorus:
But don’t cry for me, Miss Argentina.
You could’ve been Miss World.
You went for The Pool Guy,
Now you’re just a regular girl.

She flipped her a dime.
It came up heads.
She went out dancin’.
I was on my meds.
She had her some fun,
Playin’ musical beds.
Left me for a pool guy.
‘Least that’s what she said.

I couldn’t give up,
Not without a fight.
If I didn’t try hard
I wouldn’t feel right.
Followed her around,
Keeping out of sight.
You wouldn’t believe
What I saw that night.

She got in her red coupe
And went for a whirl.
Hit all the hot spots
Dancin’ her twirls.
She’s doin’ nothin’
Bad ‘cept shakin’ her curls
Till I did see her
Kissin’ The Pool Girl.

A War Widow’s Prayer

Inspired by “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce

Lord.

I shot a Yankee today.  I know it ain’t right to kill a man. That’s what the Commandments say. I had no say in the matter. He come snooping around. Wanting to know where Peyton was. I didn’t dare tell him Peyton was off fighting Yankees down at the bridge.

Little Eli, he told the Blue Coat to git. The man was having none of that. He just laughed and laughed like he knew something we didn’t. He knocked my boy out of his way and come at me, looking like he had something dreadful on his mind.

I pulled that pistol Peyton done give me out of my apron. It was hard cocking that gun but I done it. I shot that Yankee in the face and killed him.

My oldest, Noah, was out plowing the field. He heard the shot and come running into the house and seed the dead man, lying on the floor. He rolled the Yankee’s body onto the rug I braided last winter, rolled that red rug up, and tied that rug around the body real tight. Then that boy, only thirteen, threw the bundle onto his shoulders. With that body of his, all tall and muscular like his granddaddy, he toted the bundle out to the back of the house. I stood there on the back porch and watched my boy bury that Yankee and cover the grave so there’s no trace.

He said to me that we got to speak some words over the man. Ain’t right to leave a man in his grave without some words, no matter how mean he was, or how much he’s out to do the bad things this Yankee had on his mind, So that was what we did. We stood over that grave and my boy said them words just like the preacher would’ve. Noah made me so proud, him taking charge and all.

About the time Noah got hisself cleaned up, this Yankee lieutenant come riding into our yard. He was real spit and polish sittin’ on the back of a mighty fine horse. He calls down to me, “Ma’am, we hung your husband. He’s on that wagon there. Where you want him?”

I never cried. I would not cry. I would not wring my hands. I would not grieve. I would not let that Blue Coat of a lieutenant see me weak like he was expecting. I give Mr. Spit-and-Polish directions to the little church down the way. Then me and the boys followed that wagon to the church. Preacher tried to comfort me, and I was comforted best I could be. It was best to get the burying over with, and that’s what we done. We sent Peyton on to You, Lord. I just want You to know that Peyton was a good man. The best man I ever knowed. And I’m wanting You to take good care of him, y’hear. I’ll be much obliged if You do.

There’s just me and my two boys left now. That Blue Coat lieutenant told us to gather our things and git. We couldn’t stay at the house. The Yankees aimed to burn the house and the barn down, and the crops too. He give us no choice but to hitch up our wagon with the mule. So we’re going now.

Oh, Lord, strengthen me for the road ahead in these dark times. Lead this husbandless woman with her two fatherless boys safely through the wilderness and to the promised land of my sister’s house.

I got to go for now. Night will be upon us soon. May light return on the morrow, and may Your grace light all our tomorrows.

Amen.