Sunday, April 11, 2010

People Like That are the Only People Here

That's the title of one of my favorite short stories ever. It's by Lorrie Moore, and when I first read it in The New Yorker magazine, my daughter had recently been diagnosed with infantile spasms, the epilepsy syndrome that would so cruelly progress and evolve. The story is bitter and hilarious and tragic -- just the way I like it. I tore it out of the magazine and folded it up into a square and carried it with me wherever I went. The story became a sort of touchstone for me because the writer is a mother documenting her experience of having her child diagnosed with a rare cancer and the subsequent surgery and hospitalization of the baby -- the particulars are not the same as mine but the sentiment and feeling behind them, the brutality with which she faces her feelings and then articulates them really resonated with me and actually still does. I pull it out periodically and reread it, marveling at its power and wondering why some words, these words are so powerful. How can that be?

The story appeared in Lorrie Moore's excellent collection Birds of America. Here are a couple of excerpts:

She will live according to the bromides. Take one day at a time. Take a positive attitude. Take a hike! She wishes that there were more interesting things that were useful and true, but it seems now that it's only the boring things that are useful and true. One day at a time. And at least we have our health. How ordinary. How obvious. One day at a time. You need a brain for that?

How can it be described? How can any of it be described? The trip and the story of the trip are always two different things. The narrator is the one who has stayed home, but then, afterward, presses her mouth upon the traveler's mouth, in order to make the mouth work, to make the mouth say, say, say. One cannot go to a place and speak of it; one cannot both see and say, not really. One can go, and upon returning make a lot of hand motions and indications with the arms. The mouth itself, working at the speed of light, at the eye's instructions, is necessarily struck still; so fast, so much to report, it hangs open and dumb as a gutted bell. All that unsayable life! That's where the narrator comes in. The narrator comes with her kisses and mimicry and tidying up. The narrator comes and makes a slow, fake song of the mouth's eager devastation. 

She loves her friends, especially loves them for coming, since there are times they all fight and don't speak for weeks. Is this friendship? For now and here, it must do and is, and is, she swears it is. For one, they never offer impromptu spiritual lectures about death, how it is part of life, its natural ebb and flow, how we all must accept that, or other such utterances that make her want to scratch out some eyes. Like true friends, they take no hardy or elegant stance loosely choreographed from some broad perspective. They get right in there and mutter "Jesus Christ!" and shake their heads. Plus, they are the only people who will not only laugh at her stupid jokes but offer up stupid ones of their own. What do you get when you cross Tiny Tim with a pit bull? A child's illness is a strain on the mind. They know how to laugh in a fluty, desperate way -- unlike the people who are more her husband's friends and who seem just to deepen their sorrowful gazes, nodding their heads with Sympathy. How exiling and estranging are everybody's Sympathetic Expressions! When anyone laughs, she thinks, Okay! Hooray: a buddy. In disaster as in show business.


  1. I love her and I love you because I had forgotten A gate at the stairs- that most people panned and that for some reason I liked - and The Collected Stories and I am going to rummage the place and find them and re-read them. Grazie mille cara mia.

  2. I read and have A Gate At The Stairs, which was a weird experience for me, where I found myself marveling at her skill but still not liking the book. I'd really like to read her shorts and her first novel. Did you know her son was diagnosed with cancer? I think that was the inspiration for that short story. Her son is older now and in remission.

    I love the snippets you pasted. Yes.

  3. Powerful, with the feel of truth. Thanks for posting this.

  4. Maybe we need A Gate at the Stairs book club?

  5. WOW! Yes, yes, yes! - and thank you. I have never read this story, but now, I think I should.

  6. I didn't know the author and the story. Thank you.

  7. I'm glad you have friends like you need in your life. That's what struck me when I read about Sophie's recent birthday celebration. Your post reminds me of an experience I had years ago. I was at a party and met a women who had been fighting cancer. Tatiana. She was about my age, a mom of 2 little kids, bald head covered in a scarf. I asked her how it was, how she was doing with the cancer. She was so happy to have someone inquire about the obvious, and told me so, insinuating that most people avoided this topic with her. We talked, and even told some jokes, and years later when I saw her she always treated me like her friend. It was as if in that instance she decided that I was her friend. Sometimes in these types of situations its hard to know what to say but I guess in that instance I said the right thing for her.



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