Authors: Lorrie Moore
Also by Lorrie Moore
Birds of America
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?
This book is for
Victoria Wilson and Melanie Jackson
“As for living, we shall have our servants do that for us.”
VILLIERS DE L’ISLE-ADAM,
“All seats provide equal viewing of the universe.”
MUSEUM GUIDE, HAYDEN PLANETARIUM
For their myriad insights, my deepest appreciation goes to Max Garland and Charles Baxter. Also for their help, many thanks to Ashley Allen, David McLimans, Elizabeth Rea, the Emily Mead Baldwin family, the University of Wisconsin Arts Institute, the UW Graduate Research Committee, and the WISELI/Vilas program. My boundless gratitude, too, to the Lannan Foundation.
he cold came late that fall and the songbirds were caught off guard. By the time the snow and wind began in earnest, too many had been suckered into staying, and instead of flying south, instead of already having flown south, they were huddled in people’s yards, their feathers puffed for some modicum of warmth. I was looking for a job. I was a student and needed babysitting work, and so I would walk from interview to interview in these attractive but wintry neighborhoods, the eerie multitudes of robins pecking at the frozen ground, dun-gray and stricken—though what bird in the best of circumstances does not look a little stricken—until at last, late in my search, at the end of a week, startlingly, the birds had disappeared. I did not want to think about what had happened to them. Or rather, that is an expression—of politeness, a false promise of delicacy—for in fact I wondered about them all the time: imagining them dead, in stunning heaps in some killing cornfield outside of town, or dropped from the sky in twos and threes for miles down along the Illinois state line.
I was looking in December for work that would begin at the start of the January term. I’d finished my exams and was answering ads from the student job board, ones for “childcare provider.” I liked children—I did!—or rather, I liked them OK. They were sometimes interesting. I admired their stamina and candor. And I was good with them in that I could make funny faces at the babies and with the older children teach them card tricks and speak in the theatrically sarcastic tones that disarmed and enthralled them. But I was not especially skilled at minding children for long spells; I grew bored, perhaps like my own mother. After I spent too much time playing their games, my mind grew peckish and longed to lose itself in some book I had in my backpack. I was ever hopeful of early bedtimes and long naps.
I had come from Dellacrosse Central High, from a small farm on the old Perryville Road, to this university town of Troy, “the Athens of the Midwest,” as if from a cave, like the priest-child of a Colombian tribe I’d read about in Cultural Anthropology, a boy made mystical by being kept in the dark for the bulk of his childhood and allowed only stories—no experience—of the outside world. Once brought out into light, he would be in a perpetual, holy condition of bedazzlement and wonder; no story would ever have been equal to the thing itself. And so it was with me. Nothing had really prepared me. Not the college piggy bank in the dining room, the savings bonds from my grandparents, or the used set of World Book encyclopedias with their beautiful color charts of international wheat production and photographs of presidential birthplaces. The flat green world of my parents’ hogless, horseless farm—its dullness, its flies, its quiet ripped open daily by the fumes and whining of machinery—twisted away and left me with a brilliant city life of books and films and witty friends. Someone had turned on the lights. Someone had led me out of the cave—of Perryville Road. My brain was on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir. Twice a week a young professor named Thad, dressed in jeans
a tie, stood before a lecture hall of stunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James’s masturbation of the comma. I was riveted. I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie.
The ancient cave, of course, had produced a mystic; my childhood had produced only me.
In the corridors students argued over Bach, Beck, Balkanization, bacterial warfare. Out-of-state kids said things to me like “You’re from the country. Is it true that if you eat a bear’s liver you’ll die?” They asked, “Ever know someone who did you-know-what with a cow?” Or “Is it an actual fact that pigs won’t eat bananas?” What I did know was that a goat will not really consume a tin can: a goat just liked to lick the paste on the label. But no one ever asked me that.
From our perspective that semester, the events of September—we did not yet call them 9/11—seemed both near and far. Marching poli-sci majors chanted on the quads and the pedestrian malls, “The chickens have come home to roost! The chickens have come home to roost!” When I could contemplate them at all—the chickens, the roosting—it was as if in a craning crowd, through glass, the way I knew (from Art History) people stared at the
in the Louvre:
its very name like a snake, its sly, tight smile encased at a distance but studied for portentous flickers. It was, like September itself, a cat’s mouth full of canaries. My roommate, Murph—a nose-pierced, hinky-toothed blonde from Dubuque, who used black soap and black dental floss and whose quick opinions were impressively harsh (she pronounced Dubuque “Du-ba-cue”) and who once terrified her English teachers by saying the character she admired most in all of literature was Dick Hickock in
In Cold Blood
—had met her boyfriend on September tenth, and when she woke up at his place, she’d phoned me, in horror and happiness, the television blaring. “I know, I know,” she said, her voice shrugging into the phone. “It was a terrible price to pay for love, but it had to be done.”
I raised my voice to a mock shout. “You sick slut! People were killed. All you think about is your own pleasure.” Then we fell into a kind of hysteria—frightened, guilty, hopeless laughter I have never actually witnessed in women over thirty.
“Well,” I sighed, realizing I might not be seeing her all that much from then on in, “I hope there’s just hanky—no panky.”
“Nah,” she said. “With panky there’s always tears, and it ruins the hanky.” I would miss her.
Though the movie theaters closed for two nights, and for a week even our yoga teacher put up an American flag and sat in front of it, in a lotus position, eyes closed, saying, “Let us now breathe deeply in honor of our great country” (I looked around frantically, never getting the breathing right), mostly our conversations slid back shockingly, resiliently, to other topics: backup singers for Aretha Franklin, or which Korean-owned restaurant had the best Chinese food. Before I’d come to Troy, I had never had Chinese food. But now, two blocks from my apartment, next to a shoe-repair shop, was a place called the Peking Café where I went as often as I could for the Buddha’s Delight. At the cash register small boxes of broken fortune cookies were sold at discount. “Only cookie broken,” promised the sign, “not fortune.” I vowed to buy a box one day to see what guidance—obscure or mystical or mercenary, but Confucian!—might be had in bulk. Meanwhile, I collected them singly, one per every cookie that came at the end atop my check, briskly, efficiently, before I’d even finished eating. Perhaps I ate too slowly. I’d grown up on Friday fish fries and green beans in butter (for years, my mother had told me, margarine, considered a foreign food, could be purchased only across state lines, at “oleo” stands hastily erected along the highway—
PARK HERE FOR PARKAY
read the signs—just past the Illinois governor’s welcome billboard, farmers muttering that only Jews bought there). And so now these odd Chinese vegetables—fungal and gnomic in their brown sauce—had the power for me of an adventure or a rite, a statement to be savored. Back in Dellacrosse the dining was divided into “Casual,” which meant you ate it standing up or took it away, and the high end, which was called “Sit-Down Dining.” At the Wie Haus Family Restaurant, where we went for sit-down, the seats were red leatherette and the walls were covered with the local
dark paneling and framed deep kitsch, wide-eyed shepherdesses and jesters. The breakfast menus read “Guten Morgen.” Sauces were called “gravy.” And the dinner menu featured cheese curd meatloaf and steak “cooked to your likeness.” On Fridays there were fish fries or boils at which they served “lawyers” (burbot or eelpout), so-called because
their hearts were in their butts
. (They were fished from the local lake, where all the picnic spots had trash cans that read
NO FISH GUTS.)
On Sundays there was not only marshmallow and maraschino cherry salad and something called “Grandma Jell-O,” but “prime rib with au jus,” a precise knowledge of French—or English or even food coloring—not being the restaurant’s strong point.
A la carte
salad. Roquefort dressing was called “Rockford dressing.” The house wine—red, white, and pink—all bore the requisite bouquet of rose, soap, and graphite, a whiff of hay, a hint of hooterville, though the menu remained mute about all this, sticking to straightforward declarations of hue. Light ale and dunkel were served. For dessert there was usually a
pie, with the fluffy look and heft of a small snowbank. After any meal, sleepiness ensued.
Now, however, away and on my own, seduced and salted by brown sauce, I felt myself thinning and alive. The Asian owners let me linger over my books and stay as long as I wanted to: “Take your tie! No lush!” they said kindly as they sprayed the neighboring tables with disinfectant. I ate mango and papaya and nudged the stringy parts out of my teeth with a cinnamon toothpick. I had one elegantly folded cookie—a short paper nerve baked in an ear. I had a handleless cup of hot, stale tea, poured and reheated from a pail stored in the restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator.
I would tug the paper slip from the stiff clutches of the cookie and save it for a bookmark. All my books had fortunes protruding like tiny tails from their pages.
You are the crispy noodle in the salad of life. You are the master of your own destiny
. Murph had always added the phrase “in bed” to any fortune cookie fortune, so in my mind I read them that way, too:
You are the master of your own destiny. In bed
. Well, that was true.
Debt is a seductive liar. In bed
. Or the less-well-translated
Your fate will blossom like a bloom
Or the sly, wise guy:
A refreshing change is in your future
Sometimes, as a better joke, I added
though NOT in bed
You will soon make money
Wealth is a wise woman’s man
Though NOT in bed
And so I needed a job. I had donated my plasma several times for cash, but the last time I had tried, the clinic had turned me away, saying my plasma was cloudy from my having eaten cheese the night before. Cloudy Plasma! I would be the bass guitarist! It was so hard not to eat cheese. Even the whipped and spreadable kind we derisively called “cram cheese” (because it could be used for sealing windows and caulking tile) had a certain soothing allure. I looked daily at the employment listings. Childcare was in demand: I turned in my final papers and answered the ads.
One forty-ish pregnant woman after another hung up my coat, sat me in her living room, then waddled out to the kitchen, got my tea, and waddled back in, clutching her back, slopping tea onto the saucer, and asking me questions. “What would you do if our little baby started crying and wouldn’t stop?” “Are you available evenings?” “What do you think of as a useful educational activity for a small child?” I had no idea. I had never seen so many pregnant women in such a short period of time—five in all. It alarmed me. They did not look radiant. They looked reddened with high blood pressure and frightened. “I would put him in a stroller and take him for a walk,” I said. I knew my own mother had never asked such questions of anyone. “Dolly,” she said to me once, “as long as the place was moderately fire resistant, I’d deposit you anywhere.”