Eating Naked: Storiesby Stephen Dobyns
From the bestselling author of The Church of Dead Girls and Boy in the Water, a collection of award-winning stories that probe our strange and unpredictable emotional lives.
In his first collection of stories, Stephen Dobyns, peerless chronicler of the menace and unease that lurk in small-town America, turns his attention to the dark, inescapable forces that test… See more details below
From the bestselling author of The Church of Dead Girls and Boy in the Water, a collection of award-winning stories that probe our strange and unpredictable emotional lives.
In his first collection of stories, Stephen Dobyns, peerless chronicler of the menace and unease that lurk in small-town America, turns his attention to the dark, inescapable forces that test the patience, fidelity, and even good sense of the most ordinary people.
The sixteen stories in Eating Naked-two of which appeared in The Best American Short Stories-range from surreal to poignant, from chilling to comic. At the center of them all are men and women challenged by their own uncontrollable, illogical natures: poets with free-floating guilt, spouses with unacceptable sexual compulsions, farmers with midlife crises, gas men with erratic timetables. Marriages unravel, well-laid plans dissolve, and placid lives are turned upside down by something unforeseen-be it as mundane as a chance conversation, as inevitable as death, as improbable as a murderous pig. Now writing in a new form, Dobyns once again reveals his psychological acuity and grasp of social frailty. Sharp, funny, and profound, Eating Naked gets to the heart of a world in which order and reason rarely prevail over human peculiarity and longing for the astonishing and the unexpected.
Times Literary Supplement
The Boston Book Review
- Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 5.70(w) x 8.68(h) x 1.11(d)
Read an Excerpt
A HAPPY VACANCY
There are perils in life so disturbing that we need to hold ourselves in a state of readiness, ever alert to exercise our outrage or disbelief. Yet even these events must be dealt with and understood. Worse than such events may be how the world responds to them. Consider the following.
Jason W. Plover, a poet with six books, was killed when a pig tumbled out of the sky and crushed him as he was crossing Massachusetts Avenue against the light at Harvard Square.
The pig was a seven-hundred-pound boar being used in a film about a bank robbery. A helicopter had been transporting it from a farm in Lexington to Memorial Drive along the banks of the Charles where a famous actress was waiting, as well as a Brinks truck rented for the afternoon. It was a key scene concerning the use of the pig as a porcine roadblock. The pig had been doped but not enough. It woke, saw daylight, heaved its huge frame toward the open door of the helicopter, breaking its bonds, and took a fatal step, a six-hundred-foot step with Jason W. Plover as its destination.
No telling what the pig thought. Its mind was probably a mass of question marks. The sky was blue, the weather mild, and the view of the Boston skyline must have been marvelous. It was late September and trees were turning color. An idea having to do with a possible mistake was perhaps being assembled in the pig's dim brain when it squashed Jason Plover to a splop of jelly.
One of the witnesses spoke of hearing a squealing.Another described a pig on a man's shoulders. A third spoke of seeing an angel falling out of the air. People paused, looked up, and saw what appeared to be a pink cloud dropping fast. Much was made of the fact that Jason Plover had been crossing against the light, that he had not waited. He had been on his way to a lunch meeting at the Harvest with his editor, Josie Kahn. A seventh book of poems was already in manuscript and he was eager to rush it into print. Jason Plover was someone always in a hurry. Had he been a tad less serious, a tad more casual, he might be with us still today.
But seriousness had amounted to Jason Plover's trademark. He had been a tall, heavyset man fond of wearing a thick tweed overcoat, which made his figure resemble a rolled-up mattress. When he walked he liked to set his entire foot flat upon the ground before lifting it for the next step. His heavy tread was well known in the halls of the English department at Tufts, where he had taught for fifteen years. He had had vast black eyebrows that he could wield as a samurai wields his sword. One position showed scorn, another superiority, and a third deep thought. There are many writers in the Boston area. Toss a stone in a public place and you are likely to hit one. But for seriousnesssheer, bullying, heavy-lidded, I'm-the-most-important-poet-on-God's-green-acre seriousnessJason Plover had the rest of the writers beat.
Now all was changed.
The headline in the Boston Herald read PLUMMETING PORKER PULVERIZES POET.
In the same way that Jason Plover had taken liberties with the truth when alive, so had the headline writer at the Herald taken liberties with the truth in announcing Plover's death. He wasn't pulverized, he was squashed.
Plover had had a wife, Harriet Spense, who was an associate professor of Feminist Studies at Tufts. She too had a deep seriousness, but, lacking her husband's physical mass, her seriousness was qualified by the weight difference separating her from her departed spouse. Additionally, she had a certain lightness of soul and imagined herself someone who could take a joke. She was an attractive forty-year-old woman, tall and statuesque, with dark red hair.
She first had a glimmer of the changes that lay before her when she entered the faculty room at Tufts the day after her husband's death. A friend was covering her classes and Harriet had stopped by briefly to pick up a book. She assumed that one of her colleagues was telling a funny story because the eight or nine faculty members were laughing with an abandon she had never before witnessed within these walls. Harriet Spense loved her husband and grieved over his death. Yet she also looked forward to whatever might distract her from the awfulness of his passing, meaning that she hoped to share in the joke. However, when her colleagues caught sight of her, they clamped their mouths shut, turned away, and began to make coughing and choking noises, as if it were not something amusing but acrid smoke that was responsible for their condition. Although suspicious, Harriet didn't quite catch on.
Then at the funeral home, as she spoke to the director, whose face was bright red, she found herself distracted by chuckling from a farther room, as if corpse preparation held charms the nature of which had so far escaped her. Indeed, the director himself began to stammer as he tried to enunciate with proper seriousness the word "reconstruction." At the church, the minister wouldn't meet her eye and again she heard distant laughter, as if the church workers found extraordinary delight in their daily tasks.
There were other small signs that need not be fully recounted: the attentiveness of the press, people staring at her on the street, neighbors behaving with inappropriate heartiness. Actually, it was at the funeral that all became clear and Harriet caught an unpleasant glimpse of her future. There were a lot of TV cameras. The Episcopal service was conducted with appropriate solemnity yet there were occasional giggles, even guffaws. Sitting in the front row with her two embarrassed sons, Harriet Spense realized that the oddity of her husband's death might wipe out the accomplishments of his life. It is hard for six serious books of poetry, with a seventh on the way, to compete with the burden of being killed by a falling pig. Put the seven books on one end of a teeter-totter and the pig on the other and there is no contest. We read in history that the Greek poet Aeschylus was killed when a turtle dropped by a passing eagle struck his head and split his skull. Aeschylus's reputation has long since recovered but presumably in Athens there was a period of furtive laughter. It was wartime and people needed a joke.
Jason Plover was now the poet who had been killed by a falling pig. His books immediately disappeared from the stores and new printings were planned. Years earlier he had written a poem entitled "The Pig and I" that had appeared in his second collection, Household Mysteries. It was not a great poem but it detailed those differences in thought, generosity, and humanity that separate the human being and the pig. A human being cares about his or her brothers and sisters; a pig does notsuch was the poem's theme. It was astonishing to Harriet Spense how many requests she had over the next few months to anthologize this poem. It was as if Jason Plover's death were an example of how the animal kingdom can strike back; as if the falling pig had been on a revengeful kamikaze raid. And, too, the anthologizing of the poem allowed the editors, mostly other poets, to write a biographical note detailing the manner of Plover's death. In this they had a lot of fun.
Plover had been a moderately well-known poet and it was not uncommon for literary magazines to ask him for work. Now Harriet was swamped with requests. Her husband had had about twenty unpublished poems, which he intended to include in his seventh volume. These poems were actually fought over; editors called Harriet Spense day and night. Many said they would be happy to publish material that had already appeared in other magazines. These were magazines with circulations between five hundred and two thousand copies. With Plover's name on the cover, their sales would triple.
The editor of a famous poetry magazine in the Midwest was particularly insistent. Some years earlier he had begun devoting himself to theme issues, which let poets feel that their work was being rejected because it wasn't sufficiently about "Fatherhood" or "Nature" or "Cemeteries" or "Home Owning" or "Buying a Dog." This editor called Harriet Spense a dozen times. He was planning a "Pig" issue and it wouldn't be complete without a poem by Jason Plover. In vain did Harriet say that her husband had no other poems about pigs. "Any kind of poem will do," said the editor. Not even its quality was important. He would take an unfinished poem, even rough notes. The editor offered to pay double the rates and was offended when Harriet refused to send him anything. He seemed to think she was attributing a seriousness to poetry that his theme issues were hoping to deny.
Harriet Spense's life became increasingly difficult. Not only had her husband been transformed into a figure of fun, but she became amusing because she had been married to him. There was a facial expression that Harriet learned to recognize as the Oh-you're-the-woman-whose-husband-was-killed-by-falling-pig expression. People would try to be sympathetic, yet giggle at the same time. They would cover their mouths and look away and their eyes would water. Because her husband had really been killed and because people like to think they possess some shred of decency, very few made jokes to her face, yet when they saw her coming they were clearly prepared to be amused. Even the most serious of us seek out chances to partake of the long slide into laughter. There is a sweetness to that wonderful forgetting that makes us crave it. Had Jason Plover been a plumber or a postman, the humor would not have been so great. But as a poet with a deep seriousness he was especially vulnerable.
Jason Plover had had a characteristic gesture. First he would join his thumb to the fingertips of his left hand. Then he would draw back all five digits toward the palm, pause, and shoot them forward as he opened his hand wide, duplicating, as it were, a miniature explosion. It was a dismissive gesture. Something small and inconsequential was being blown away. He would make this gesture at the end of summing up another poet's work or discussing an inferior poem. He would make it after discussing another writer's intellect or chance of true success. No telling who made it first after Jason Plover had been squashed by the falling pig, but soon Harriet Spense began noticing it all over Cambridge. And she came to understand that the gesturethe little outward puff of fingersnow referred to Jason Plover himself: events had conspired to blow him away.
Harriet's sons were deeply depressed. Frank was a junior at Boston University. Charles was a senior at Harvard. Three weeks after their father's death they dropped out of school. They spoke of needing to visit the West Coast to see what was going on. They regretted that their namePloverwas sufficiently unusual to remind people about that poettheir fatherwho had been squashed by a falling pig. They discussed new names: Jacobs and Wellerby and McBride. They were intelligent young men who had had a clear vision of a bright future. Now they felt their lives were finished unless they renamed themselves and moved to another part of the country. They needed something like the FBI's witness protection program. Harriet tried to dissuade them, but in her heart she couldn't blame them. Her own teaching had suffered greatly from the particulars of her husband's death. For one thing strangers began sitting in on her classes. There was always a whispering, and once she heard an "oink-oink" from the back of the room.
"Perhaps you should take a leave," her chairman told her. He was a tweedy bearded man who liked to rub his stomach as he talked.
"It's all so ridiculous," said Harriet.
"It is, rather," said the chairman. "Think of being killed by a falling pig." And the chairman covered his mouth with his hand.
"No, I don't mean that," said Harriet. "I mean people's response to his death."
"I would have given my foot to have seen it," said the chairman. "No offense intended."
And so Harriet Spense took a leave. The dean made no problems. Actually, when she sat waiting to see him, she heard gales of laughter from his office, and when several men came out they refused to meet her eye.
Harriet had a fairly large amount of money from Jason's publisher owing to his increased sales and the rights to his poem, "The Pig and I." His new book was to have been called Transcendent Moments in the Spiritual Veldt, but the editor, Josie Kahn, wanted to change the title to Pigging Out or Pork Thoughts. Harriet refused, even though Josie said it might mean an extra ten thousand dollars. "To think," said Josie, "I was so close. Just my luck that I didn't see it happen."
One night at the beginning of November while Harriet was boxing up Jason's clothes to give to the Tufts Impoverished Students' Fund, she thought, I'm sick of Jason's poetry. I'm sick of the life we had together Then she glanced around guiltily, as if afraid her thoughts had been overheard.
Harriet had never until now questioned her life with Jason. Her husband had been a highly respected poet and she was a highly respected feminist thinker whose book on gender issues in the workplace was used in classes at more than thirty colleges and universities across the country. They had often been invited out to dinner and were much in demand for the quality of their conversation. Jason Plover's high seriousness and Harriet Spense's moderate seriousness were given a value that was almost monetary. It paid for a lot of meals. When Jason's opinion was asked, other guests fell silent. Jason would rub his jaw, manipulate his black eyebrows, and enter his sentence much in the way an icebreaker enters a frozen sea. He had liked to make hrumphing noises and clear his throat. He liked to make that little exploding gesture with the fingers of his left hand. And while Harriet's own ego was not so tied up in her conversational abilities, she also liked being someone to whom people listened.
This too had changed. People now listened to her because her husband had been killed in a ridiculous manner. She could have said nothing but "Doo-dah, doo-dah" and her listeners would have been equally pleased. She could have done no more than whistle. And if she had grunted like a pig, oh, how happy people would have been.
As a result Harriet Spense came to question the value of her former life. Had it ever been the content of her speech that people appreciated? Was it not her serious manner and her husband's even more serious manner? Was it not to their curricula vitae, rather than their voices, that people listened? And now her vita was radically altered. This led her to an awareness of the shallowness of her life and the superficiality of what she valued. She saw that the deep seriousness with which her life had been swaddled was simply a buffer. It had existed to keep people at a distance. It indicated that she had a certain importance and needed to be treated with respect. It had been a strangler of spontaneity and impulse. It had rigidified her life as if she had been dipped in concrete. These realizations caused her a chagrin that was even greater than the embarrassment she had felt because of how Jason had died. Indeed, she now saw that the manner of her husband's death was almost fortunate because it revealed the lie she had been living. She had loved her husband and had forgiven him his foolishness, but she saw that his final gift to her had been the absurdity of his death, because it opened to her a new life, a new way of living.
So it was that eight weeks after her husband's death, Harriet closed up her house in Cambridge and moved to Ann Arbor. Her two sons had already disappeared; she knew of them only by brief postcards from California signed Magillicuddy. Harriet's undergraduate degree had been in clinical psychology and she got a job at a hospice. She was drawn to the idea of people dying in bed surrounded by others who loved them, or at least who had deep respect for them as human beings and for the whole experience of death. For her, death had become a joke, a dreadful buffo, and she needed to make it big again.
"The process of dying," Harriet told a cancer patient, "is a process that begins with birth. It continues while we occupy ourselves with what is important in our lives: our careers, our families, our pleasures. Our death accompanies us all through our years, gradually taking our place until it exchanges itself for us completely. The event that will soon occur in your life has been preparing itself for every moment of your life."
But mostly she didn't counsel anybody, mostly she helped with small embarrassing chores like bandages and bedpans, and she liked to read to people: she would read Dickens and Thackeray and Tolstoy, great long books that gave the dying the sense that enormous expanses of time stretched before them.
Each day she would have conversations with the men and women whom she thought of as her patients. The elderly, especially, had had long and interesting lives. They had traveled and witnessed events Harriet had only read about in history books. "I didn't know Lawrence of Arabia personally," said one old man, "but I often saw him from afar when I was in Damascus."
"I was a freshman at Clark when Freud presented his lectures," said an ancient lady. "Dr. Jung was there as well. He had a very pointed head."
There was something about these stories that made time seem causal, and Harriet realized she was attempting to repair her sense of causality. Her husband's death appeared to lie outside causality. The malignant Demiurge who hangs life's carrot before our eyes had been having his or her little joke. What do we do with an extremely serious poet? We kill him with a falling pig. Those people who had laughed at the manner of her husband's death: shouldn't they have been terrified? Didn't Jason's death indicate an awful truth about the cosmosthat if it has a divine direction, then its prime mover is whimsy?
There was a doctor of about Harriet's age who came to the hospice. His name was Robert Chase. He was a tall, willowy figure with a mop of graying blond hair. He never stood completely straight but kept shifting as if the wind were tugging him this way and that. He would sway with his hands in the pockets of his white coat and look at Harriet with his deep blue eyes.
"Do you ever read poetry?" Harriet asked him one day in the staff lounge.
"Absolutely not," said Robert. "Did you hear about that poet in Boston who got killed by a falling pig?"
"I read something about it," said Harriet.
"You wonder how many times something like that misses us. You know, the truck that would have run us down if we had been just a little faster."
"He had crossed against the light," said Harriet.
"Probably one of those stress-ridden Type A personalities," said Robert. "I wonder what he did to relax."
Harriet nearly said Jason had collected first editions and had been her husband, but instead she closed her mouth and shrugged. "Whatever it was," she said at last, "it wasn't enough."
After a few of these conversations, Robert Chase invited Harriet out to dinner. They went to a small Italian restaurant on the road to Ypsilanti. Robert kept looking at her, not out of curiosity or as if expecting anything from her, but just to rest his eyes upon her.
"I think people try to make their lives too serious," said Harriet, as they shared a medium-sized antipasto.
"Is that why you work at the hospice?" Robert wore a blue denim shirt and a yellow tie. Harriet liked how undoctorly he appeared.
"I think I work there in order to see just how serious life can be. If you stare long enough at the most serious thing that life has in store for us," said Harriet, "perhaps you can come out on the other side."
"You mean on the side of laughter?"
"Why not? I mean, I don't intend to laugh at the people at the hospice. My job is to help them and make their departure more comfortable and less fearful. But me, what damage does such solemnity do to me? So I look at it and study it and perhaps with time I'll grow accustomed to it."
Robert kept moving the salt and pepper shakers across the red-and-black checkerboard squares of the tablecloth as he listened. "Do you think that seriousness is connected to fear?"
"I expect it's influenced by fear," said Harriet. She thought of her husband's seriousness, how he wore it like a garment. Most often his laughter had been ironic or sarcastic or superior. His laughter had been judgmental and, as a result, all his laughter had been serious. Was it possible to laugh without any element of judgment? Jason Plover's life had been an edifice built to demonstrate the solemnity of his endeavor. Poor Jason, killed by a falling pig; his death had overturned the premises of his life.
"Seriousness," said Harriet, "often exists as something we want to show other people. We want others to think us serious, which suggests a fear of not being sufficiently respected, of not being taken seriously. What does seriousness get us? It neither delays our death nor makes it easier to bear."
"And what is the opposite of seriousness? Frivolity?"
"Most literally, perhaps, but I think the opposite of such a seriousness is love, because love accepts all possibilities, whereas seriousness only accepts what it sees as correct. Perhaps I work at the hospice for purely selfish reasons. I work to improve the quality of my love."
"That seems pretty serious," said Robert.
"I'm not against seriousness. I'm against the earnestness of seriousness. I want to go beyond it. I want seriousness to be an element in my life and not its reason for being. Look at the unexpected changes that life can force upon a person. Surely life's intrinsic definitionthat is, constant changeargues against rigidity. Seriousness may be no more than self-protection, and life can come along and just brush it aside."
"And how can it do that?"
"It can drop a pig on your head from a great height."
Harriet saw Robert more and more often, and she came to realize that they would probably begin a romance. This made her happy. She didn't tell him about Jason; she didn't want to muddy the romantic water. She knew she would tell him sooner or later but she wasn't afraid of doing so. She also knew she would eventually leave the hospice and return to teaching.
There was an old man at the hospice named Franklin, who had long ago been a high school principal in Bloomfield Hills. Now he was ninety-five. Harriet read him Bleak House and was even nearing the end of the book. One afternoon in spring, she asked him, "What is the funniest thing you can think of?"
Franklin lay back on his pillows and looked out the window. It was a sunny day and the cherry trees behind the hospice were in full flower. Franklin's gray and spotted hands lay on the counterpane and trembled as if they were getting ready to start up and go someplace.
"The funniest recent thing I can think of," said Franklin, "was something I read about last fall. A fellow was crossing the street in Boston and a pig fell out of the air and crushed him. It had fallen out of a passing helicopter. The man was a poet, I forget his name. He was hurrying someplace important and this seven-hundred-pound pig fell on top of him. It dropped like a rock and hit him right on the noggin. I don't know, it's probably not funny, but it tickles me. I mean, I got to die here in this darn bed. Why couldn't I have been killed by a pig falling out of the sky? Nobody would forget it. I'd be famous forever. This poet, `what an opportunity! Some people have all the luck."
Harriet Spense considered how Franklin yearned for the fame that had resulted in her husband's ultimate trivialization. She found herself laughing. She put her hands on her knees, leaned her head back, and gasped for breath. It was neither a guffaw nor the hysterical shriek of nervousness. It was the laugh of someone whose solemnity has been overthrown, the laugh that erases every other concern. Our plans, our memories, our fears are all replaced by a peculiar yet distinctive hooting. To some it sounds like a mob of crows; to others, a donkey's bray. In fact, it is the sound of the world disappearing as all the content is sucked from our heads, to be replacedbriefly, oh, too brieflyby a happy vacancy. And doesn't this sustain us? Doesn't it provide the strength to let us bear up our burden and continue our mortal journey?
Meet the Author
Stephen Dobyns is the author of nine volumes of poetry, a book of essays (Best Words, Best Order), and nineteen novels, including The Church of Dead Girls and Boy in the Water. His short stories have won a Pushcart Prize and appeared in The Best American Short Stories of 1993 and 1999.
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