Sitting in the shaded cool quiet of St. Paul’s Church in Flagstaff, Walter remembers a family picnic. This memory is two years old, but nothing ever fades from it. It takes place in a small park called Hathaway Forest, on Long Island, one Sunday afternoon in early summer. He and his wife, Irene, spread blankets on the grass next to a picnic table and a brick barbecue pit; it is a warm, clear-blue day, with a breeze. Irene has insisted that they all go, as a family, and so soccer games, trips to the movies and to the houses of friends, have been put aside. Because Walter is hung over, he tries to beg off, but she will not hear of it; she will not cater to his hangovers any more, she tells him. So they all go. He and Irene sit quietly on the blankets as, in the grass field before them, the children run – William, the oldest, hanging back a little, making a sacrifice of pretending to have a good time: he is planning for the priesthood these days, wants to be Gregory Peck in The Keys of the Kingdom. He saw the movie on television a year ago and now his room is full of books on China, on the lives of the saints, the missionaries, the martyrs. Every morning he goes to mass and communion. Walter feels embarrassed in his company, especially when William shows this saintly, willing face to the world.

Richard Bausch – All the way in Flagstaff, Arizona in Aren’t You Happy For Me? 

The story of the picnic is the story of the beginning of the end of Walter’s relationship with his wife. Perfectly captures the moment when one drink becomes one drink too many.

Fridays my mother cleans at the Wiltons’, and last week she said the lady, Mrs. Wilton, asked her if she knew anyone, meaning me, who can give an estimate on some remodeling work. My mother likes to tell people what I can do with a hammer and nails, so I didn’t have any trouble believing this. I can hear her clear as if I’m standing there, her voice with the cigarettes in it, telling Mrs. Wilton about her carpenter son.

Richard Bausch – The person I have mostly become in Aren’t You Happy For Me?

This was written in the 80s but could easily have been penned during the recent GFC.

“Tandolfo,” he says to his own image in the mirror over the bathroom sink. “She loves you not, oh, she doesn’t, you poor fool.”

Richard Bausch – Tandolfo the Great in Aren’t You Happy For Me?

Bausch breathes life into the sad-children’s-birthday-clown trope as Tandolfo gives a performance children are unlikely to forget.

I had sex with this guy one Saturday night before Christmas and gave him my number and, something about him, I should have known he would be the type to call. For once, I was almost grateful that Fintan answered the phone. I could hear him through the sliding door.

‘Yes, she’s here. She’s in the kitchen, eating dead things.’

Anne Enright – ‘Pale Hands I Loved, Beside The Shalamar’ in Taking Pictures

The nameless narrator recalls her love for her former-flatmate Fintan, who she nearly went out with ‘before he was diagnosed’. You wouldn’t think it, but this opening sentence describes the beginning of a relationship that ends in marriage.

 

 

“William Coombs, with two o’s,” Melanie Ballinger told her father over long distance. “Pronounced just like the thing you comb your hair with. Say it.”

Richard Bausch – Aren’t You Happy For Me? in Aren’t You Happy for Me?

I’d been looking for a collection of Bausch’s short stories since reading his short novel Peace last year. This book, a collection of stories selected for British publication, has an introduction by Richard Ford who writes:

What both drives Richard Bausch’s stories and gives them consequences is this: they are vivid moral inquiries, pleasing us with the fineness of their notice, their alarming intuition and their unstinting but never cold-eyed seriousness about human beings. No mere catalog of grotesques or typology of American woes, they are, rather, manifestations of lives lived less than perfectly that remind us to puzzle out our own more vigorously, or face bad consequences. Again and again their characters seek to understand, as if understanding (that old rationalist ghost haunting American literature) was the first step to betterment and consolation; or at the very least as if the discipline of the inquiry itself was superior to deception and nostalgia. “Life must be lived in the uncertainty of freedom of choice,” a psychologist glibly advises a character in search of surcease. And yet, glib or not, isn’t it just true?

The title story, which opens this collection, concerns a father learning his daughter has married a man much older than him. Playing out almost entirely in dialogue delivered over the phone, it is funny and heartbreaking.

The Piano Hollywood is a piano bar squeezed between the casino and the hotel at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood, and like I deal cards instead of drinks the guy wants me to tell him the rules for Texas Hold’em. I know the rules, of course – who doesn’t?

Russell Banks – ‘The Green Door’ in A Permanent Member of the Family

What’s behind the green door? Nothing good, in this deliciously dark drama.

This is what she told me. It came almost from nowhere. I happened to be sitting next to her at the bar in Gustav’s, a German-style pub and grill in the Portland International Airport between Gates 7 and 9 on Concourse C. I was waiting out the night for a storm-delayed Minneapolis flight. I think she was already there when I came in, but maybe not. I remember the bar was otherwise empty. The local TV news and weather was on without the sound.

Russell Banks – ‘Searching for Veronica’ in A Permanent Member of the Family

The narrator, Russell, recounts the story told to him by a woman who cannot stop searching for Veronica, a woman she tried to help, but cast out on the streets. Or is the woman actually Veronica searching for her daughter Helene?

The woman’s story is a compelling almost-parable about guilt as a kind of curse. The story’s meta touches about storytelling and identity (the narrator is called Russell for a reason) seem a little forced by the end.