The New York Times
Almonds to Zhoof: Collected Storiesby Richard Stern
For decades, Richard Stern has been acclaimed as one of the American masters of the short story. Almonds to Zhoof: Collected Stories brings together for the first time forty-nine of Stern's best short works and novellas-from "Dr. Cahn's Visit," which The New Republic praised as "the very best very short story in the English language," to classics/i>/i>
For decades, Richard Stern has been acclaimed as one of the American masters of the short story. Almonds to Zhoof: Collected Stories brings together for the first time forty-nine of Stern's best short works and novellas-from "Dr. Cahn's Visit," which The New Republic praised as "the very best very short story in the English language," to classics like "Teeth" and "Wanderers."
Stern's stories-witty, moving, always full of energy-never sacrifice storytelling to mere elegance or wandering wisdom. This collection demonstrates Stern's astonishing ability to portray people from all walks of life, their flawed relationships to ideas, their sometimes bizarre relationships with lovers and friends, their often brilliant, if skewed, appraisals of themselves. The stories always reflect an abiding compassion for his characters whoever they are and whatever their origins. All exist within the politics and workplaces and bedrooms of the real world. All are incorrigibly human.
The New York Times
- Northwestern University Press
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Almonds to Zhoof: Collected Stories
By Richard G. Stern
Northwestern University PressCopyright © 2005 Richard G. Stern
All right reserved.
THE ILLEGIBILITY OF THIS WORLD
Tugged by sunlight and the phone from a dream about populating the universe with sperm; a spaceship stocked with fertile cells unloading on empty planets with the blueprints of civilization; the humanization of the universe. "Yes?"
"Mista Biel. Deejay."
"Jeesus. What time is it?"
"Comin on nine, cep you put the clock back. Joo member to do that?"
Did I? "Yes." On the table, the knowing pine face of the clock, gold fingers at VII and X. "It's ten of seven."
"How many times, Deejay?"
"Was finkin you wanted those leaves up."
"The leaves, yes, me, no."
"You doan want me to come over?"
"I should say no."
"No, come on over."
"I be over haf'n hour." This could mean three hours or the next day, depending on whom he ran into or what; what bottle, that is.
"You don't need to ring. You've got the garage key."
"I need maw bags."
Ellen wanted me to get rid of him. "Never darken our door again." I can't. We're the last people on the block for whom he can work. He botches most tool jobs. Still he can fetch, lift, carry, mow the lawn, pick up leaves, he's not stupid, he's honest, he's not always drunk; I like him. "I'll put some on the porch."
This weekend, between the World Series and Halloween, I'm alone. Ellen's in Buffalo for our daughter Annie's thirty-sixth birthday. Friday, I drove her to Midway, then went downtown to my one-room office on Adams, checked the markets, bought a Kansas City municipal, faxed a letter to our insurance agent, sent copies of our living wills to our granddaughterold enough now to be in on it, who knows, she might be the one to unplug the tubesand walked five blocks to the Pub Club for the best hour of the day, lunch at the Round Table on the eleventh floor, looking over the silver river and the blue bulge of the State of Illinois Building.
I've been a club member thirty-five years. It's more important than ever now that I've retired. I used to ridicule my uncle Bert's life, a shuttle between the City Athletic Club and his rooms at the Hotel Warwick across the street. I thought that twenty-five-yard shuttle the icon of his narrowness and ignorance. Now my life resembles his. I arrive early enough11:45to ensure a seat at the Round Table. (It's gauche to turn up earlier, but if you come as late as 11:50, the table's full and you take your chances with less congenial company.) The table doesn't have the best view, but I've had enough scenic views in my life. I hunger for the day's stories, for jokes, for the latest aches, grandkids, market tips, slants on the news.
We usually start with stories in the Wall Street Journal, the Trib, and the New York Times. Royko's column gets big play from us. International, national, local news, the latest this or that. We've got fellows who follow science, books, the arts, we're all readers and TV watchers. Mondays we go over the Bears game. We cover restaurants, travel, we're a worldly bunch. We know each other's form sheet, we have roles: I'm the left-winger; three or four of us are political Neanderthals basically unhappy that Gorbachev has changed the old game. Two regulars have been assistant secretaries (one of state, one of commerce) and one of us was on Reagan's economic council; we feel we're privy to inside dope. Anecdotes about politics in Washington and Chicago are one of our stocks-in-trade.
The talk I prefer is personal. Friday, we talked about fathers; time has cleared mine of wrong, translating his naïveté into honesty, his timidity into modesty. I told how he read the morning Times, so lost in it he flicked cigarette ash into his coffee and drank without blinking. No one laughed. I described his going down the elevator in his pajamas, forgetting his address in a taxi. I drew another blank: the Round Tablers know what's around our own corners. We've all had operations. Bill Trask's back curls with osteoporosis, Harlan Schneirman's lip from last year's stroke. Death bulletins are a regular, if unstressed, feature of our talk.
Of his father, Harry Binswanger says, "I shcarcely knew him." Though he's been in America more than forty years, German phonemes pass in and out of his speech. Till he retired, he was my dentist, a good one, though Dr. Werner, my dentist since, says my mouth was in poor shape when I came to him. Harryit used to be Heinz is large, clumsy, thick fingered. I felt secure with the heft of his fingers around my jaw, though they may have handicapped the delicacy of his bridge and canal work. I've heard something of his history for twenty-five years, but there's always more to know. Nor do I mind listening to what's familiar. (I'd have to leave the Round Table if I did.) Harry's parents divorced when he was eight. He visited his father in Mainz every Christmas. "Muzzer sent him my presentss. He unwrappd zem, showed me vat they vur, zen mailed zem back." Harry shook his head, a semaphore of passed anger. "He vass eggcentric, eggcitable, unshtable, couldn't make a liffing. Muzzer's fazzer said she deserfed vat she got, marrying a hergelaufenen Juden, 'a Jew from God knows vere.' Fazzer had a farm near zuh Neckar Riffer. He bought turkeyss, zey drowned; he bought marigoldsshe luffed flowersszuh riffer flooded zem; he bought pigss, zey broke out of zuh penss. Grandpa said, 'Not even pigss vill stay viz him.' He became a portrait photographers but vass no good viz children. He vanted a picture uff me on zuh riffer, crying. I vouldn't sit on zuh raft. He tied me zere, slapped my face: 'Now cry.' He put his photographss in vat do you say? a cabinet viz a glass front. Vitrine. Tough kidss Nazi toughssbroke it. He said, 'It's time to get out.' He vanted to go to Brassil. He'd been born in Bukovina, zuh Rumanianss lost his paperss. At zuh emigration office zey said, 'Für uns, bestehen sie gar nicht.' 'For us, you don't exist.' He vuss schtuck. Somehow he made it srough zuh var. I saw him after, vonce. He lived in a basement room, zuh rest of zuh block vuss wrecked. Outside his vindow vur a few inches of dirt viz sree zinnias."
Driving back home along the lake by the Museum of Natural History, it struck me that Harry's in-and-out German accent was his mind's way of preserving that hergelaufener father of his, even as his stories turned him into comic relief.
Ellen called at eight o'clock. "How're you doing?"
"Fine. I warmed up the chicken. Delicious. How's Annie?"
She was fine, so were Chuck and little Anne, the Buffalo weather was being its notorious self; the plane was an hour late. "Take care, dear," she said. "I'll see you Monday."
Though it was nice to be alone, a hue of freedom I hadn't noticed that I hadn't noticed. At the same time, the house felt loose around me, slightly spooky.
In my leather armchair, I read a new book about an escaped prisoner and stopped at a German phrase I didn't understand. (The second time today.) Die Unlesbarkeit dieser Welt"the illegibility of this world." The German pleased me, and I repeated the words till they felt at home on my tongue. Their author, a poet named Celan, was born another coincidencein Romania. His mother was killed in a death campthe phrase suddenly made senseand, decades later, he drowned himself in the Seine.
There's a quiver in my pleasant self-sufficiency; but I am comfortable, snug, taken care of. (Because I've taken care?) Who knows, maybe Harry's father, in his basement, looking out at his zinnias, felt the same; having survived what so few had might have been his comfort. Harry himself had been sent to Amsterdam and, like Anne Frank, hidden. After the war, unlike Anne, he'd gone to a Dutch school. Had I forgotten, or never known, how he'd gotten to America, this man with whom I'd spent five or six hours a week for twenty-five years, whose hands had been in my mouth, to whom I'd paid thousands of dollars?
Saturday morning, I drove up to see my son, Peter. He'd moved again, the third time in five years. He gets bored with a neighborhood, seeks what he calls "action." A large, rangy boyI shouldn't say boy, he's thirty-two with lots of energy, he's chosen to be a salesman because he can't sit still. He sells polyvinyl traffic cones and is on the road three weeks a month. He doesn't much like the job, or any other he's had. The routines of moneymaking, the hierarchy of business authority, the cheerleading and critiques of salesmanship, the ups and downs of sales, go against his grain. And grain he has. As a boy, he was exceptionally gentle; in adolescence, he assumed a roughness which I felt contradicted his nature. He's still rough, argumentative, sarcastic, but now he mocks the roughness and regards it as a comic scurf he can remove at will. Deep down whatever this means is the gentle boy he was at five and six; very lovable.
A year after he graduated from the University of Illinois in Champaign he married a girl he met in a singles bar; a year later they divorced. He asked his mother and me why we hadn't stopped him from marrying. "Couldn't you see it was a mistake?"
His mother said she'd suspected it, but what could she do? I said, "I liked Louise."
Ten years and many girls later he's still unsettled. I ask him, "How long can you go on being Casanova?"
"A little. Mostly worried. Not just about disease. This is a critical decade of your life. Squander it courting, you'll end up like the queen in Alice in Wonderland, just where you are."
"What's wrong with that?"
"I don't mind, but I think you do."
His new apartment is on the first floor of a redbrick six-flat on one of the thousand tree-lined, quiet streets which root Chicago in a domestic independence which gets it through bad times better than the other industrial cities around the lakes: Cleveland, Detroit, Erie.
The front door is open, he's been watching for me. I follow him into a bright room with an old couch, an armchair, a stack of pictures leaning against the wall, boxes of books and dishes. There's a stereo, no TV. "I don't want to get addicted." His addiction is bars, music, girls, cigarettes. There are four rooms, all in more or less the same tumbled shape, though the kitchen has a built-in orderliness. "Nice," I say. "It's light, the rooms are a good size, it's a pretty street. How much're you paying, may I ask?"
"I should move down here myself."
"Too much action for you."
"Not that I can see. Except for the hurricane that hit your place."
"Come back in two weeks, it'll be immaculate. Ready to play?"
Now and then he consents to play tennis with me. I've been playing over half a century and still get around pretty well. I know where the ball's coming and get it back. Peter has speed and power and, when he's playing well, doesn't give me any points, but I can frustrate him with tenacity and junk shots. Then he starts slamming balls out or laughs so hard he misses them altogether. Now and then he gets angry"Hit the goddamn ball"but rarely, and I enjoy playing with him. Since I had a hernia operation a couple of years ago, the old sweetness of his boyhood comes through, and he's been easy on me. There's also some I suppose classicresentment. As we drive a few blocks to public courts on Montrose, he tells me what a lucky life I've led. "You retired early, you've had a good marriage, you've got a granddaughter, and except for that hernia, you haven't been sick; you still play tennis, you liked your job, you've got some dough, you haven't been hassled"
"The demographics were in my favor. No baby boom."
"Right. I'm one of too many."
"Two's more than enough."
There's some sibling resentment, though he and Annie are good friends.
It's a bit chilly. I keep my Windbreaker on but play well, serve hard, and hit good backhands. I run Peter around the court, which he needs. He sets up the game so he has to chase around. Life cramps him. He spends too much time in cars, writing reports, closed up in his apartment, in bars. On vacations he goes to national parks, where he climbs or paddles white water. A few times he's gone to the Alps and the Pyrenees. But it's not enough for him.
Sometimes I feel that I stand in his way, a wordless usually wordless rebuke to his life. Then too I was off a lot on sales trips neckwear, accessories when he grew up; he missed me and I think he thinks I sacrificed him. The travel seemed more romantic to him than the chore it was. He thinks I've seen much more than I have, know much more than I do. I feel that he hardly knows me at all, which I don't mind. Should fathers and sons know each other? Or love each other? Well, I love him, though there are gaps of cold in all affection. Yet if the love isn't constant, it is recurrent. That should be enough for security, shouldn't it?
I win the set, 6-3. A rarity. We play another, and I don't win a game. I'm delighted. I always either try hard or appear to try hard, but it's been years since I've wanted to do better than Peter at anything. I want him to have what I've had and more. Above all, I want him to haveto want to have, and havea child.
Back at his place, I clean up in the bathroom, he washes himself at the kitchen sink. He comes into the living room, the towel working over his wet body. I haven't seen him naked for years, and I'm a little shocked. He's very hairy, has a bit of a belly. This man, who as a boy looked like an angel, is into middle age. I look away. I don't want to see him this way. There's a book open on the beaten couch, I move it and sit down. "What's this?" I ask. He's got on his Jockey shorts. His legs are enormous, they should be running up and down basketball courts or hills.
"Kafka," he says.
"Never really read him. Good stuff?"
"Not exactly." He's buttoning a blue shirt. "You ought to read that one."
"You'd understand me better."
"Maybe that's not a good idea. What's it about?"
"Read it. Take it home. But return it. I need it for my sessions."
"Your doctor's paid to understand you. All I have to do is love you."
He's put on blue jeans. "What's to love?"
"I'd better read it."
He's putting on white socks and sneakers. "How do you know it's me you love if you don't understand me?"
"That's too complicated. Do you have to understand me to love me?" As soon as I say this, I feel the discomfort of presumption. Maybe he doesn't love me. Love's too big a word anyway. It's used much too often. Morons in front of microphones hold out their arms to millions they never met and cry, "I love you." All they mean is, "How wonderful to be shining up here." I never talked about love with my wife or children, my parents didn't with me, and I'm grateful. Love was assumed. A million feelings were bunched up in it.
I'm against all domestic analysis, I'm against understanding. That word also means too much. You understand a request, a situation, but how do you understand a person? You reduce him, that's how. Do I understand myself? Does Harry Binswanger understand his father? In a way, yes, because he hardly knew him. That is, he turned his father into a little vaudeville act, a comic handle that lets him carry the hot pan around. Why did he remember "For us, you don't exist"? Because of his own fright that his father didn't exist for him, except as some snapshots of intimidation and pathos. Not enough, he knows it's not enough. Peter and I have had thousands and thousands of moments with each other, many of them, maybe most of them, charged with something you can call love. But the word itself is just a convenience, a pigeonhole that can't really hold the complexity of it all.
His blue-shirted arms lie on the seamed brown arms of the chair; he looks as big as Lincoln in the Memorial. He says, "I'm paying through the nose to find out if I'm capable of loving anyone."
That night, back in my armchair, I read the book. Had to force myself through it, though it's short, sixty or seventy pages, a story about a salesman, the support of his parents and sister, who wakes up one morning transformed into a huge bug. He can't go to work, they pound on his door, the chief clerk of the office comes to fetch him. (It's rather ridiculous.) Naturally he astounds, terrifies, and disgusts his parents and the young sister who for a while takes care of him, bringing him the rancid leftovers he prefers to fresh food. In time he annoys them so much they want him to die; when he does, they're released and happy.
Now what in God's name makes Peter think that this Metamorphosis story has anything to do with him? In the kitchen, I open a bottle of red wine, pour a third of it into a water glass, clip and light a cigar, and go back to my chair to think it out.
Excerpted from Almonds to Zhoof: Collected Stories by Richard G. Stern Copyright © 2005 by Richard G. Stern. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Richard Stern is the Helen A. Regenstein Professor Emeritus in the Department of English at the University of Chicago. In 1985 he won the Award of Merit for the Novel awarded every six years by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. His recent works include Pacific Tremors, published by TriQuarterly Books in 2001, and What Is What Was (Chicago, 2001). New editions of three of his major novelsNatural Shocks, Other Men's Daughters, and Stitch-are also forthcoming from TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern in 2004.
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