Overview


A funny and observant story collection that captures the complexity of human relationships

In this smart and original story collection, Heidi Jon Schmidt paints her subjects with delicate care. What emerges are characters who are both flawed and lovable—flighty women married to unbearably academic men; a diligent psychotherapy patient obsessed with her middle-aged narcissistic dump of a therapist; a gaggle of talentless writers too concerned with marketing strategy to put ...

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Darling?: Stories

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Overview


A funny and observant story collection that captures the complexity of human relationships

In this smart and original story collection, Heidi Jon Schmidt paints her subjects with delicate care. What emerges are characters who are both flawed and lovable—flighty women married to unbearably academic men; a diligent psychotherapy patient obsessed with her middle-aged narcissistic dump of a therapist; a gaggle of talentless writers too concerned with marketing strategy to put words on paper. Sparkling with keen wit and sharp insight, Darling? marks the return of an extremely gifted writer.
 

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A clever rueful set of tales about women...by turns poignant and ironic.” —Chicago Tribune

“Witty, bracing and...full of insight and feeling...Oh, and she is very, very funny.” —The Washington Post Book World

“Generous, poignant...an unsparing eye and a keen wit: Alice Munro throwing her arm around the shoulder of J.D. Salinger. One doesn’t often raise the banners that say profound and enormous fun over the same book, but here we can and we do.” —Elinor Lipman

“Schmidt’s stories are tinged with hope. Her precise and elegant prose is artful indeed.” —The New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781466886094
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 11/25/2014
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 304
  • File size: 337 KB

Meet the Author


Heidi Jon Schmidt published a well-received story collection, The Rose Thieves. She lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she teaches at the Provincetown Arts Center.

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Read an Excerpt

Darling?


By Heidi Jon Schmidt

Picador

Copyright © 2001 Heidi Jon Schmidt
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8609-4



CHAPTER 1

Songbirds


We wanted to fly Swissair—Switzerland being neutral, the gods would never dash an airliner full of nice well-tailored Swiss people back to earth in flames. But the connection to Venice wouldn't work and we had to go Lufthansa. Garrett was reading The Decline of the West, looking up only to order more scotch from the stewardess, who glanced at me with pity, I thought, for my having got stuck beside him. We don't seem married: he's twenty years older and his general fury shows in his face, while I look helpful and trustworthy, his amanuensis maybe, or his nurse. I had on a black jersey suit, bought for the trip; his corduroys were worn translucent and his elbows came through his sweater. What does it matter to him what the living see? A celestial jury will consider what he's reading and spare him, for the first leg of the flight at least.

As we lined up to debark in Frankfurt, the stewardess flicked a curtain shut between us: I went out one side while Garrett and those behind him were directed to the other. I waited at the foot of the ramp until even the pilot was off, and the sign announcing Flight 172 from Boston flipped to read Flight 433 for Hong Kong, but Garrett never came.

I tried the Venice gate, but no luck and no wonder: he didn't know the time or number of the connecting flight, and who knew if he'd remember the destination? He can get lost in a supermarket—why had I ever let go of his hand? Over the public address system a cruel voice snapped out the departures. There, I thought, you wished him away: Germany will oblige you. I had him paged, but hearing his name in the heavy accent knew he'd never recognize it, so I ran from gate to gate, up and down the escalators and along the endless conveyor belt between terminals, reaching the Venice gate for the third time to find him leaning beside the metal detector, reading the chapter on "Faustian Physics and the Dogma of Force." When he saw me, he sighed and let the book fall to his side—"I almost gave up," he said. "I didn't know what to do." They'd sent him to a lower floor and he'd gone through one terminal and then another until he stumbled into the right spot. Tears stung my eyes at the thought of him lost and frightened, all alone. I lay my head on his shoulder, kissed his unshaven cheek, looked into his eyes that found only fault with me.

He had been seized, after six years of marriage, with the conviction that I was the wrong woman—he loved me, of course, but every time I took off my clothes he felt a dreadful disappointment. He wouldn't have brought it up, but somehow the night before the trip I'd started complaining that he never tells me anything really important, anything that resides in his deepest heart, that it made me feel lonely, as if I hardly knew him.

"Well, if you really want to know ...," he began, and went on at some length, ending by insisting that this was a sacred instinct—awful, yes—but wasn't life mostly awful, after all?

"A sacred instinct!" I roared. "You said you were a rationalist! I married a rationalist! A sacred instinct, I have never heard anything so ridiculous." And on I went, shrieking and sobbing, dripping contempt, begging, suggesting he suffered from some ocular or neurological problem and ought to get help from a professional. All of which only inflamed him, until he declared that of all the women he'd slept with (and the one time he'd tried to count he'd had to give up at three hundred) I was the least attractive.

"Worse than the dwarf?"

"Well, the dwarf ..."

"Worse than the woman who peed in her shoes?"

His eyes narrowed, and he looked ready to slit my throat for the honor of the woman who peed in her shoes, and I started crying again and vowed to become a nudist and stick my revolting self under his nose every day for the rest of his life, though in fact I instantly hid myself like a Muslim and began hanging my head so as not to inflict my ugliness on any innocent passersby. When you marry you take a share in someone else's nightmares; this was something I hadn't known.

Exhausted, disgusted, Garrett sat down to comfort me. There was nothing to worry about, he said, he'd always be loyal. I wanted a child, he would see that I got one. His formal locutions, the Calvinist rectitude I'd always loved, began to unnerve me. Was he taking me to Italy then to find a father for my child? I've never seen a working marriage, how would I know what one looks like? I fastened my seat belt: We were circling down over the fourteenth century, a gilded fantasia of pink marble domes reflected in an Adriatic shimmer, the city encompassing east and west, ancient and modern, exquisite beauties, and tortures ...

"Venezia," Garrett said. "It takes your breath away."

It's the closest airport to my sister Etta (generally spoken of as poor Etta ), whose husband works in a box factory near Mestre, and whom one must visit when traveling—else, all alone and away from her family, how would she survive? During the visit one raves on about the food, the wine, the art, the romance ... lest Etta, who lives among a profusion of in-laws in an industrial valley, fail to realize how lucky she is. (No need to link poor Etta with lucky Etta—one pities or envies her as the occasion requires.) Our parents imagine her in Amalfi—they haven't spoken since their divorce, so neither knows what the other is thinking, and now they always agree. I don't tell them this, as it would drive them mad—like looking in the mirror and seeing the person you most despise. I do hint that Etta's is not la dolce vita, but this is taken as malicious and has made me the hapless recipient of bushels of Italian tourist brochures, coffee-table books on Tuscany and Bellagio, a case of Chianti, and gallons of extra virgin olive oil, all meant to help me recognize Etta's great good fortune.

I called her from a pay phone on the airport quay.

"Pronto." She clings to the American accent as if it's her last possession; she will not roll an r. She refuses, even by Italy, to be carried away. This is my doing: our parents being transfixed by their own drama, I raised her, and her faults reflect my own. I was emotionally ungainly, throwing myself into things and at people—at my high school graduation, for instance, I leapt into the arms of a beloved teacher and knocked him off the podium. It was embarrassing, and Etta had to study me very carefully to avoid becoming like me. She's made a great success of it—she's perfectly cool and still, a pale flower alone in its vase.

"Etta! Buongiorno!"

"Buongiorno?"

"It's me, silly," I said, feeling this was unwelcome news.

"Oh, hi," she said. "You sounded Italian ... Where are you?"

"Venezia!" Did it come as a surprise? The trip had been planned for weeks, and I'd called her from Frankfurt, too.

"We can't pick you up," she said. "Gino can't get off work." And she'd given up her driver's license long ago—the butcher and bakery are a block away, and Gino takes her to the mercato on Saturdays—she has no need to drive. So I'd have to come by bus—was that so far beneath me? It was very suspicious, my flying into Venice when everyone else saves fifty dollars by getting a cheap charter to Milan and taking the train. Who did I think I was? Just as Etta is envied and pitied, I am envied and despised. I seem to be succeeding and they hate me, while Etta ekes along, suffering but beloved—each one gets something; it's all fair in the end. I'd driven myself nearly mad in the mall before we left, trying to find a gift she'd think neither ostentatious nor stingy, settling on a flowery skirt without noticing it was the image of one she'd borrowed from me years ago and never returned. The card might have read, "Here, take, so you won't have to steal."

Because she was, in essence, a thief. This I mulled bitterly as the water taxi churned through the lagoon, cocooned in a thick fog; it felt like succumbing to a dream. A tuft of marsh grass would emerge, followed by the barber pole mooring that marked each island estate, then a dock thrust out of pure fog: once a woman in a silk scarf and sunglasses materialized and stepped regally into the boat. Etta never wanted anything but what I had—she followed me to college, studied art like me, moved to Boston where I found her a job in a friend's gallery (they didn't take her seriously, and paid a pitiable wage), an apartment (roaches, sad neighborhood, landlady insane), and a boyfriend (another hand-me-down) ... No, I never gave what she deserved. Meanwhile Garrett bought a painting of mine, then another, then I was going over to help hang them, then ... Etta went back to my mother's, got work as a temp. When I visited she touched my clothing as if calculating how to get it for herself, and then I walked into the kitchen and found her copying a drawing of mine line for line as if she intended to divine my central mystery and make off with that, too.

I became ruthless. Study music, I told her, and she took up the flute, though she knew that if music were worth anything I would have played. Then I married Garrett without one thought for what might become of her. The night before the wedding I found her reading A Spinster's Life, a bestseller from 1940 that had latterly found a niche under the back leg of my bureau. "It seems like something I need to prepare for," she told me. The next week my mother called to say she was taking Etta on a cruise: "I've got to do something with her," she said. To Etta she spoke of dancing under the stars and dining at the captain's table as if they would be sipping champagne on a transatlantic steamer instead of going around in Caribbean circles while practicing the merengue with a bunch of retirees.

Gino was the cabin steward; he pulled a rose out of someone's bon voyage bouquet and gave it to Etta before the ship left New York. "Italian men," Mother sighed, reporting back to me. "They know what romance is. They never forget how to act toward a woman." And she called to mind a time, on her honeymoon, when a croupier leaned in so his lips just brushed her neck as he slid her chips onto 15 red; the winning number. She's a child, an innocent child—it looks absurd, a grown woman like Etta taking advice from her.

"Don't fall for somebody just because you can't understand what he's saying!" I said, and Etta cast (in the mirror; she was dressing for her trip to visit Gino's parents in Villa Padesi) a contemptuous glance at me—what made me so prim? Had I forgotten that mathematician who blinked like an owl as I declared my adoration, then scratched his head violently with both hands and refused my dinner invitation by explaining that he ate only from the basement vending machines? And what about the dance/philosophy major who wanted to give body to Wittgenstein and refused to acknowledge me in daylight? (This: he crept into my room at night and touched me with such natural urgency it seemed we were growing into each other like vines.) Not to mention my lesbian phase ...

All right, I said. I freely admit it; love is—I am —absurd. But this wasn't love, it was marriage! And marriage, I insisted, is pragmatic, if unconsciously so. Think of Garrett's general raggedness, his hired assassin look: marrying him was like buying a pit bull in terms of keeping the relatives at bay. And a Calvinist pit bull—as long as my behavior was appropriate he never so much as snarled—it was almost like having parents. When he proposed, I'd asked how well he could keep me (traditionally a father's duty and I'd long since taken these over), and he naturally drove me straight to his attorney, who set out the family accounts. Yes, yes, of course I loved him and we had all the mystery of sex between us, butpragmatism made the marriage! What could she say for Gino in the department of utility?

She set down her little palette of rouge and looked at me aghast. "I love him," she said, with some anxious belligerence. Of course—he would take her away from us, what more attractive quality is there? And here I—I, pursuer of mangy owls and lonesome cowgirls and God only knew what else—arrived with a lecture on practicality!

My mother passed by, letting the word Italia escape from her mouth like some garish paper bird. A child, with visions of sugarplums dancing ... in fact she herself hoped to marry again, a feat that would be much easier with Etta flown off on a magic prosciutto than sulkily researching spinsterhood in a corner of the living room.

"Gucci, Armani, Versace ..." she repeated the day Etta returned, as if these were the names of Etta's lovers instead of the labels on Gino's gifts. (All available at any airport duty-free shop, noticed a certain shrew.)

"Ignorance and mystery are not the same," I decreed, from my lofty, married perch. "You love him, then visit him, live with him, even, but don't rush into anything. You have all the time in the world." Though I'd never seen her willing to do anything for love before; if it only happened once every thirty years she might be right to grab the chance.

"A husband and wife—they change each other, bend each other in strange ways, finally they're alone with each other, alone in the world. Or worse, Etta—alone in Italy!" Here I stood, at the confluence of a great subject and an impressionable mind: I was moved to a grandiloquence unusual even for myself.

"This is not love, it's infatuation," I explained. "It's like—it is, something out of a dream, one of those dreams where everything feels so wonderful you never want to wake up ... but you do wake up, you will wake up, Etta, and ..."

"I'm pregnant," she said.

"My God! What are you going to do about it?"

"Have a baby, Francine," she said. "That's what I'm going to do about it. And we're getting married," she added, nearly stamping her foot the way she used to when she was tiny and I was trying to get her shirt on over her head. "And I'm going to Italy to live with him. And I'm happy about it."

"This is not Masterpiece Theatre, I hate to tell you," I said, but was drowned out by my mother's effusion: "I always knew my children would live wonderful, exotic lives!"


* * *

The Stazione Centrale: buses pulled into their spaces on a broad tarmac, scattering pigeons and passengers alike. I went to the ticket line while Garrett stayed with the bags.

"Due biglietti a Villa Padesi." There, had anyone seen it, how competent I was? The maps, the schedules, the phrase books, and presto, here were two tickets, the lire back in the billfold. "E ... scusi ... scusi?" I paged through Berlitz. "When does the—? Quando parte il prossimo autobus a Villa Padesi?"

"There is a strike at Villa Padesi," the vendor said, unwilling to humor my Italian any longer.

"But—?" I held up the tickets. He shrugged. Hardly his fault, he was working, selling people (a species for which Venetians feel only contempt) just what they asked for. "Refunds in the supervisor's office." And he gestured magisterially in the direction of the longest line in the room.

As I came back to Garrett, an old woman was pressing two coins into his hand.

"Alms," he explained, looking pained, and—reminded we had money enough—said, "Let's just take a cab."

"Oh, why not a coach and four?" I said. "Why not fly the Concorde? Etta despises me already, for God's sake." No, there was a train that went nearly as close, though it stopped half an hour in Mestre. Time enough, I thought, for Garrett to take everything back, tell me he lived by the light of my beauty and his sacred instinct was only a hallucination.

"Garrett, we have to talk," I said as soon as we left the station, though I know men fear the words We have to talk more than any other sentence on earth. And my voice was just dripping with estrogen—even I found it repellent.

"There's nothing to talk about," he said. "It's terrible, yes, but talking won't make it any less so. We'll get used to it, that's all." He wasn't born into this era: if indeed there's some lost continent submerged beneath conscious life, he believes that's where it should stay. He fell asleep, with his mouth open, while I looked out at the flat landscape, the factories and green canals ... Italia, indeed.

No one sees anything but through his own prism. I'd painted Etta's portrait for a wedding gift, from a photograph she'd sent home—I thought it captured something regal about her, but it made her cry. "It's wonderful," she said. "You do it so easily; you're such a good artist, Francine. It's just ... I can't bear it, that I look that way."

Different, that is, from me. Cowardly—not, as I saw her, aloof. She'd crept along behind me all this time, full of jealousy and veneration, too loyal to properly hate me, too angry to do anything else, ready to defend me from my most pernicious enemy, though as it happened that person was herself.

"Isn't it wonderful Etta's so happy?" Mother kept saying.

"Happy?" To me she seemed lost, a disembodied voice on the transatlantic phone, repeating her few grains of news—Franco's Christmas pageant, Giorgio's first steps.

"My God, she lives in Italy! Who wouldn't be happy?"

"It's hard for her there," said my father, "though she's very happy. He's a nice fellow, even-tempered.... They don't have a lot to talk about, but I guess everyone looks for something different from marriage...." (His voice was swelling here as usual when he feels he's teaching me something.) "She needs to get to know some people, find some outlet beside the kids."

"What became of the flute?"

"Oh, she doesn't have time for music. But I was thinking you could get her started as an artist, introduce her to some of your people ... no end of picturesque scenes over there ... main thing is she's happy, that's all."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Darling? by Heidi Jon Schmidt. Copyright © 2001 Heidi Jon Schmidt. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Dedication,
Songbirds,
Darling?,
A Girl Like You,
Wild Rice,
Fishman's Fascination,
Blood Poison,
An Early Death,
Out of Purmort,
Six Figures in Search of an Author,
The Funeral Party,
Acknowledgments,
Also by Heidi Jon Schmidt,
Copyright,

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