Follies: New Stories

Overview

Ann Beattie's Follies is a novella and collection of stories about adult children, aging parents, and the chance encounters that irrevocably alter lives. In Follies, she looks at baby boomers in their maturity, sorting out their own lives and struggling with parents who are eccentric, unpredictable, and increasingly dependent. In "Flechette Follies," a man rear-ends a woman at a stoplight, and the ripple effect of that encounter is vast and catastrophic. In "Apology for a Journey Not Taken," a woman's road trip ...
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Follies: New Stories

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Overview

Ann Beattie's Follies is a novella and collection of stories about adult children, aging parents, and the chance encounters that irrevocably alter lives. In Follies, she looks at baby boomers in their maturity, sorting out their own lives and struggling with parents who are eccentric, unpredictable, and increasingly dependent. In "Flechette Follies," a man rear-ends a woman at a stoplight, and the ripple effect of that encounter is vast and catastrophic. In "Apology for a Journey Not Taken," a woman's road trip is perpetually postponed by the UPS deliveryman who wants to watch TV in her house, by the girl next door who has lost her dog, and by the death of her friend in a freak accident. Impatient in his old age, the protagonist of "That Last Odd Day in L.A." can hardly manage a pleasant word to his own daughter, but he finds a chance for redemption on the last day of a vacation he spends with his niece and nephew.
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Editorial Reviews

David Means
Follies may be hit or miss, but when Beattie's work is clicking her stories are wonderful to behold. Her best work (and this includes some of the stories here) will endure long after so much of what we know now -- the brand names, television shows and quick-shop stores -- is gone.
— The New York Times
Michiko Kakutani
Happily enough, with Follies Ms. Beattie has hit her stride again, creating some of her most resonant fiction since the early 90's. With the exception of one egregious story ("Apology for a Journey Not Taken," a chronicle of a ditsy narrator's ditsy efforts to find ditsy excuses for not taking a trip), which reads like a parody of an early Ann Beattie story, the tales in this volume showcase a newly flexible voice that accommodates both the author's patented gift for social observation and her more recent interest in her characters' inner lives, a voice that allows her to move fluently back and forth in time, back and forth from memory to rumination.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Odd but subtle coincidences, missed connections, strained family relations these are the major dynamics in Beattie's latest collection of nine stories and a novella. In the latter, Flechette Follies, a random accident George Wissone rear-ends Nancy Gregerson at a stoplight in Charlottesville, Va., sparks a connection that affects far-flung people. Nancy's troubled son is MIA in London, and she hires George (whom she correctly guesses to be in the CIA) to track him down. When George himself disappears, it affects not only Nancy but also George's on-again, off-again girlfriend and others who join forces to learn his fate. Beattie's stories of adult children attempting to make sense of their aging parents and their own relationships are also compelling. In Find and Replace, a woman tries to comprehend her mother's decision to suddenly move in with another man following the death of her husband; The Rabbit Hole as Likely Explanation spools out the strained relations between two siblings after their mother has a stroke. While a few stories read more like extended vignettes, Beattie's trademarks are here: the careful language, the deft humor and the sad, slow sweetness of life winding its way on. Fans should be happy to find that after all these years, this esteemed writer's characters can still be expected to muse over life's ironies and find no easy conclusions. Agent, Lynn Nesbit. (May) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Aging baby boomers as only Beattie can present them; with a three-city tour. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Beattie's seventh collection explores middle age and generational conflict in an edgy novella and nine stories of varying intensity and excellence. The novella ("Flechette Follies") depicts the fallout from a fender-bender involving middle-aged Charlottesville divorcee Nancy Gregerson and out-of-towner George Wissone. Beattie gradually fills us in on each character's thwarted life: Nancy's demanding job as an old-people's home nurse and estrangement from her compulsive screw-up adult son, and George's relationship-destroying employment in a covert government operation ("the rescue of rich Americans who got themselves in trouble" overseas). The novella form suits Beattie's practice of defining characters through their relationships, habits and possessions-and when Nancy hires Wissone to find her missing son, the story branches out in several tense and revelatory directions. The briefer tales are decidedly mixed. Forced zaniness yields middling results in a male college student's account of his employment by an eccentric professor with a mother who probably went to school with Auntie Mame ("Duchais") and a solitary woman writer's ditsy "Apology for a Journey Not Taken: How to Write a Story." The latter figure appears variously, as an adult recalling "The Garden Game" of childhood visits to relatives that soothed the pain of her parents' separation; as a Roman tourist, sublimating an unwanted family obligation into a fantasized romance ("Mostre"); and in a memorable tale ("The Rabbit Hole as Likely Explanation") of its middle-aged narrator's dealings with her elderly mother's snappish temper and wandering mind (a beauty of a story, featuring a delicate blend of black-comic dialogue andrestrained sentiment). Best is "That Last Odd Day in L.A.," as lived by an aging man separated from loved ones by " his sarcasm and his comic asides and his endless equivocating," redeemed by his searching intelligence and generous imagination. When Beattie is this good, she's essential reading. When she isn't, it's the usual mixed bag.
From the Publisher
"Beattie is a shrewd observer of human nature and one of the best short story writers alive." — The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Ann Beattie is one of our era's most vital masters of the short form." — The Washington Post Book World

"Beattie has a keen eye for love's fault lines, for our missed signals and hidden motives." — More

"Beattie's style works brilliantly — as, seeming only to report the events of an evening, she reveals the essence of her tale." — The Atlantic Monthly

"The stories of Follies shine with the insights of time." — Los Angeles Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743269612
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 4/26/2005
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Ann  Beattie

Ann Beattie has been included in four O. Henry Award Collections and in John Updike’s The Best American Short Stories of the Century. In 2000, she received the PEN/Malamud Award for achievement in the short story form. In 2005, she received the Rea Award for the Short Story. She and her husband, Lincoln Perry, live in Key West, Florida, and Charlottesville, Virginia, where she is Edgar Allan Poe Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.

Biography

After publishing several stories in The New Yorker, Ann Beattie burst on the literary scene in 1976 with not one, but two books -- a collection of short fiction entitled Distortions and a critically acclaimed debut novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter. Almost immediately, she was proclaimed the unofficial diarist of an entire generation, evoking the lives of feckless, young, middle-class baby boomers who came of age in the 1960s yet never really grew up, choosing instead to lug around their dashed expectations like so much excess baggage.

Indeed, Beattie's fiction is filled with such unhappy characters -- intelligent, well-educated people whose lives are steeped in disappointment and a vague sense of despair. Failed relationships, nostalgia for the past, and the inability to reconcile youthful idealism with the demands of adult life are recurring themes in short story collections like Secrets and Surprises (1978), What Was Mine (1991), and Park City (1998), as well as novels such as Falling in Place (1981), Love Always (1985), and Another You (1995).

Yet, Beattie vehemently denies that she set out to chronicle an era or to describe a particular demographic. ''I do not wish to be a spokesperson for my generation,'' she told The New York Times in 1985. She explained further (in the literary magazine Ploughshares) that she simply wrote about the people who surrounded her -- refugees from the '60s, bewildered by the real world and longing to return to the seductive counterculture of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.

A writer of spare, elegant, whip-smart prose, Beattie has been classified as a minimalist, a label she rejects as reductive. In many ways, though, her writing fits the bill. Her stories, like those of minimalism's famous poster boy (and Beattie's good friend) Raymond Carver, are composed of simple, declarative sentences teeming with irony and finely observed detail; also like Carver, she is a nonjudgmental narrator, completely detached from her characters and their actions and meting out contextual clues to be interpreted by the reader. However, as she has matured as a writer, she has traded in strict minimalism for a more realistic style, endowing her characters with emotions (and something of an inner life!) and rendering her fiction more fully "human."

Occasionally, Beattie has come under attack for loading her stories with brand names and pop culture references. But even this use of "Kmart realism" seems not to have dimmed her light. Reviewing her 2008 anthology Follies for The New York Times, David Means had this to say: "[W]hen Beattie's work is clicking her stories are wonderful to behold. Her best work ... will endure long after so much of what we know now -- the brand names, television shows and quick-shop stores -- is gone."

Good To Know

Beattie's first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, was adapted into a film by Joan Micklin Silver starring John Heard and Mary Beth Hurt. It was first released in 1979 as Head Over Heels with an unsatisfying, tacked-on happy ending. Audiences were lukewarm. In 1982, the movie was re-released under the novel's title and with an ending that matched the book. This version was a success.

Beattie is married to the painter Lincoln Perry. In 2005 the two collaborated on a retrospective of Perry's paintings entitled Lincoln Perry's Charlottesville, boasting a long essay and interview by Beattie.

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    1. Hometown:
      Maine and Key West, Florida
    1. Date of Birth:
      September 8, 1947
    2. Place of Birth:
      Washington, D.C.
    1. Education:
      B.A., American University, 1969; M.A., University of Connecticut, 1970

Read an Excerpt

Find and Replace

Linda turned left, into a housing development with a waterfall to one side, above which rose a sign: Beechwood Village. Underneath it, someone had spray-painted on the rocks: sucks shit. "We weren't able to have children because of treatments Rich had for an illness, long ago. We should adopt, you'd think. But I've never felt like doing that. If it's God's will that we can't have children, maybe we should honor that. Not that it wouldn't be a great idea and all that, but I just don't really...the thing is, I've sort of said to Sister Mary Matthew that we'd do it, one day, but I really think it's enough that Rich gets the children out. There are families waiting for them. I mean, lists of families. It's just not something Rich and I ever talked seriously about doing, even though Mary sort of thinks it is. You know what I mean?"

"You mean she assumes it's going to happen, and it isn't," Paula said.

"Exactly!" Linda said. She pulled into the driveway of a big house and touched a button on her visor. The garage door began to rise. "I mean, we let her think it, because she couldn't imagine not thinking it. You know what I mean?"

She knew, and had known since childhood: she meant that the course of least possible pain was to let somebody retain his view of how things were, even though you knew otherwise.

Father Ambrose raised a champagne flute. "In the thirteenth century," he began, "Saint Francis was blessed and privileged to live in times of compelling significance. Today, in times whose complexities we may dread, and in an age that may lack so many qualities we identify with Christian charity" — he drank most of his champagne — "with Christian charity," he repeated. "But, like Francis, there are always those individuals who stand apart and distinguish themselves from others not through any feeling of superiority, but because they understand that they have been called. The message received may be humble. It need not be the case, as it was with Francis, who saw around him the disorder of the state and the paucity of honorable examples and felt compelled to take a stand. One's being selected can come not as an epiphany, but begin as an enigmatic question, a thing confusing rather than enlightening." A man stepped forward and poured more champagne into the empty glass. "Thank you," Father Ambrose said. "As a longtime friend of the groom, I am here today to say that one must act according to one's conscience, which may mean..."

Paula wandered off. The next morning, the wedding couple would be gone and the three of them would finally set out for Charlottesville, the town where George had last lived, where he had met a woman who somehow persuaded him — she must have persuaded him, though Paula described him repeatedly to her shrink as intractable — to move outside his usual parameters. And what exactly were they? she thought, bringing herself up short. So much analyzing, when she had only limited information to go on. She supposed that if she thought like some of the people at the wedding, she would have to say that she had committed the sin of Pride. What a surprise to find out that he and Rich went to the aid of ailing honchos in places they shouldn't be, the U.S. government — and even American Express, if she could believe what Linda had later told her — entering into bribes and blackmail with foreign governments, and if that wasn't problematic enough, they got to be heroes by hauling back children, like remora, along with the sharks. What had she, with her brilliant novelistic imagination, thought he was doing? She had thought he was killing people, was the answer. She had not wanted to ask because she had been so sure. For years, she had assumed he was an assassin, and she had been relieved but also let down, as if his life were downright ordinary, when she began to piece the puzzle together from what Linda described and what bare-bones details Rich O'Malley assumed she knew.

Father Ambrose was reading from something called Canticle of the Sun. He was a little tipsy, which added to the strangeness of the day. She shuddered to think that she had almost married the wrong man. If only she could see George again, she might think seriously about proposing to him. What she'd thought all those years she didn't ask questions was that he was an assassin, and she had always assumed that because of his ability, he would be all right; now, even though she'd had it verified that he'd been involved in dangerous activity, she felt less sure that he was safe. There was her inimitable reasoning, as her shrink liked to call it: if he could kill people, he wouldn't be killed. If he was just some glorified body snatcher, somebody might be able to kill him.

She walked around inside the house, where it was darker and cooler, and the young bartender followed her with his eyes. What did he make of these people with their flushed faces and their purses stashed here and there, as if they were squirrels, burying nuts? Her own purse was upstairs, in the bedroom where she'd slept the last two nights, bizarrely papered in gingerbread wallpaper, with a mobile of gingerbread boys and girls suspended from the ceiling, as if the room awaited children. She had pulled the door closed when she went down to meet the bride and groom, so she was surprised to see it open when she walked upstairs to comb her hair. A teenage girl was sitting on the side of the bed, reading a magazine. She had stepped out of her high heels, and one foot was tucked under her, the other planted on the woven rug on the floor. The girl looked surprised. No — just unhappy to be discovered. She had been reading a thick issue of Vanity Fair, Paula saw; the girl put her thumb inside and closed the magazine.

"Hi. I'm Paula."

"Shalissa Ray," the girl said. Her black hair was pulled back in an elastic band. "Am I in your room?"

Paula nodded.

"I don't like weddings," the girl said. "My sister was killed the night of her wedding."

"How awful," Paula said.

"I know," the girl said. Like many teenagers wearing their best clothes, she looked uncomfortable. "I'm not going to get married. Not because my sister died, just because you can just live with somebody."

"I used to think that way," Paula said. "Then my boyfriend disappeared, and suddenly I'm missing him so much I'm thinking about getting married to him."

The girl shrugged. "How come you've got a room that looks like a kid's room?" she asked.

"Well, I'm only staying here temporarily, so it isn't really my room. I came up because the ceremony didn't make a lot of sense to me."

"Yeah. The stuff about Saint Francis taming the wolf."

"He was talking about Saint Francis. I'm afraid I didn't quite understand the point, so I thought I'd take a breather."

"He practiced what he was going to say last night, at my parents' house. He's my uncle," the girl said. "And his boyfriend's my stepuncle, supposedly. I don't care if people are gay. I just don't understand why weddings are such a big deal. I mean, I guess if I'd been a nun, a wedding would be a surefire way to let everybody know I was having sex and all."

"T-t-true," Paula said.

"My sister used to stutter. You didn't even ask how she died. A tire came off a truck and turned their car over, and he lived, but she didn't. Anyway: she learned how not to stutter by using puppets. She'd put on these little finger puppets, and they'd say everything she was saying, but it came out perfect. She didn't do it in public, but she did it at home, so really all she had to learn was how to think her fingers were talking."

"Never heard of that," Paula said.

"Nobody's ever heard of it," the girl said.

"Want to go back down together?" Paula said, combing her hair.

"I guess so," the girl said. "Especially if my uncle's done with his speech. I never understand what he's talking about. He's obsessed with Saint Francis, though. He's got a blind bird named Francis, which makes sense, with Saint Francis having so much trouble with his eyes and hiding in that dark cave and all."

"I went to Assisi once," Paula said. "With the person I was telling you about. We went to a monastery because I wanted to see the garden."

"What was it like?"

"The person who showed us around was very nice. He spoke Italian very slowly and gestured, so I could pretty much understand him. There was a cat there that they took care of. Everywhere else, the cats were starving. Pretty scary cats, actually. The guy who showed us around was there because the brothers had helped him to give up drugs. He wasn't one of them. He was more or less just there to live a clean life."

"That's a lot more interesting than that myth about Saint Francis and the wolf," Shalissa said. "One really lucky cat shut up inside a monastery, being taken care of — that's something you can understand if you believe in good luck and bad luck." She looked at Paula, to make sure that it went without saying that her sister was still part of the conversation; her sister who'd had bad luck.

"What's the luckiest thing that ever happened to you?" Paula said, dropping her brush in her purse.

"Being rescued from Vietnam. But long after the war," she added. "You might say I was lucky not to be born yet, during the war."

"You were rescued? Your sister, too?"

"Yep. We went to Massachusetts, but I don't remember it. It was really cold. I think that's something I do remember, not just something I was told. But nobody knew we were sisters, and we weren't reunited for a whole year. Then I went to live in Louisiana with Nora. They gave her an American name. I don't know what, exactly, the point of my name is supposed to be. Anyway, they found out we were sisters, and then Sister flew with me to New Orleans."

"My boyfriend might have been the one who got you," Paula said.

"Really? Did he fly with Rich?"

"Y-y-yes," Paula said.

"That would be way cool if I was meeting the girlfriend of one of the guys who saved me," she said. "Worms were eating my intestine. I had to have surgery once I got here. I don't remember anything about it, but Sister Mary Matthew kept me all that year, while my sister was gone."

"You must be very fond of her."

"She wasn't all that nice. If my sister was alive, you could ask her. She was four years older than me. There was even a letter from Sister Mary Matthew to the people who adopted both of us, saying that they could give us back if we didn't get healthier. I mean, what's so nice about that?"

"Wow," Paula said. "You're right. That's not very reassuring."

"I think maybe I was fated to meet you," Shalissa said. "Since I don't much like Sister, somebody nice showed up that I could like instead."

"My new friend," Paula said, putting her hand lightly on top of the girl's shoulder.

"So what's your boyfriend's name?" Shalissa said.

"I've always called him George, but his real name is Larry."

"Then why do you call him George? I know! It's his middle name."

"No, he — he has aliases."

"What's that?"

"An alias? It means you have an assumed name. A made-up name."

"A pen name."

"Well, yes. But I think you only call it a pen name if the person has written something."

"Hey, he should write about his adventures. Uncle Ambrose told me a couple of things when he was drinking, and I know they risk their lives to get kids and all."

Maybe he should, Paula thought. Maybe she could advise him. Help edit whatever he wrote. Wouldn't that be nice? Just the two of them by the fireplace, as she held a pen in her hand and learned about his adventures. Well, that was obviously not going to happen. If they got together again, he would be just as secretive — perhaps even angry that she'd found out all she had. She flashed on an image of herself in the kitchen in California, taking the cookie sheet out of the oven. She had tried to be nice, to be liked by her fiance's daughter. That was what happened when you tried too hard: you usually got fucked. In a way, she was like George. Larry. She sometimes imagined scenes in which what she wanted came true, but she always made them so sticky-sweet (like the damned cookies), she always sensed the hidden cliché, she inflated everything until it became ludicrous, in order to dismiss the possibility of happiness, because she didn't believe in it. She had picked a man who didn't believe in it, either. His way of coping was to run away, while she sat still long enough to play out the fantasy, subverting it until its sugary unreality made her run, too. She thought again of California, with a shudder. And even in Sonoma...she had stayed there, but she was the one who'd bought the motorcycle to ride farther and farther from home. So far out into the country, and the sunshine, and the moonlight, and the breeze, that she really lost him back then, long ago. Even though she'd returned every time, it was during that time that she'd lost him.

"I'll tell you what," the girl whispered. "Let's say what we really think about people. I'll go first. Mary's fat, and her husband has nasty, narrow eyes. Now you say."

Paula looked around. Speeches were over, and an orchestra was playing. She finally located her host and hostess and said, "Those people are unhappy, and neither one will admit it. He's looking at women out of the corner of his eye, and she's scared she's not pretty enough to keep him."

"She's not pretty, is she?"

Paula shook her head no.

"It's all about how a person looks. It's a lie that it isn't. Some people are never going to have what they want because they're not attractive enough."

Paula looked down and saw that the girl had walked downstairs barefoot. Her feet were a child's: soft skin on her heels; toenails badly polished — no doubt, she'd done them herself. Paula felt the sudden urge to hug her tight, to reassure her that she would be a beauty, but that right now — like a puppy — her paws were too big, and she had too much energy so that certain people who'd forgotten their own youth — or never really lived it — would want to punish her.

In fact, she did say those things. She started by mentioning Shalissa's sister, though. She said, "Was your sister beautiful? I'll bet she was. And you worry you won't be that pretty, or you worry she might have been punished for being beautiful, right? But none of it is true. People are in the wrong place at the wrong time sometimes, that's why bad things happen to them. You're going to be every bit as pretty as she was, and your feet will stop growing and you'll learn how to make your hands look pretty by wearing rings and putting perfume on your wrist, and even if you don't get married, there'll be someone who loves you."

"How could you know that?" the girl said. "There's no way you could know."

"I know it the same way I know those were the things you would have asked."

The girl looked at her. Hesitant, she almost drew back, but didn't. The bartender from inside the house circulated through the tent, with a tray of salmon arranged on little rounds of melba toast to look like roses.

"Don't be fooled," she whispered, high on her own certainty about what Shalissa thought and wanted and liked. Hands cupped around the girl's ear, she leaned closer and whispered so softly she risked her missing what she had to say, "Don't fall for it. It's fish."

So, just like that, after having come from New York to Bethesda, Maryland, Paula didn't continue to Virginia. She got up early and left a note thanking them for wanting to help. She thanked them for inviting her to the wedding, which she still thought it was extremely strange not to have mentioned. That thank-you was insincere: the only good thing about the wedding had been Shalissa, and she felt more than a little sorry that she would probably never see her again. Sure, they'd exchanged e-mail addresses, but friendship depended on gestures, and smiles, and whispered words, and how could you do that with e-mail? If she called, and got the girl's parents, it might have been fine once, but beyond that, they would have wondered about her. She also thought — gratefully, not egotistically — that the girl had served her purpose. It had been in talking to her that she reconnected with her own hopes and fears at that age that still made her insecure. More than that, she had learned something from trying to console the girl. She had learned that her relationship with George — if it was ever to get back on track, which she seriously doubted — would require a lot of renegotiating, because she had ended it in Sonoma and only retained the necessary delusion that it continued. But that wasn't something she wrote in the note. They wouldn't have known what she was talking about. What did they know about her relationship with George, and what could she have told them? Their own relationship seemed to be coming apart, and adoption was the least of their worries. If he spent so much time grieving for an out-of-business restaurant, then it was displacement, pure and simple. He was grieving something else.

She snuck out of the kitchen and turned on her cell phone. There must be a Yellow Cab. There was a Yellow Cab everywhere in the world. Or she'd walk a little, take the metro back to Union Station. It was a beautiful day, and quite frankly, she was glad that Sister Mary Matthew was on her honeymoon and that she wasn't. It would have been a disastrous mistake to marry her fiancé, and it would be equally disastrous, she thought, to propose to George. She had just been there for his convenience, and she was proud of herself for not following him to Charlottesville, and equally proud that she'd come to her senses and not gone there with Rich and Nancy. What was their plan? To waylay some woman on her way out of her house? To gang up on her and demand that she explain her relationship to the Mystery Man, who was obviously less of a mystery to Rich and Linda than he'd been to her all those years? She had some mild curiosity about what the woman looked like, and how much of a factor that had been in his taking off for London. Though she didn't feel sure he'd really gone to London. She thought he might be in Mustique, and pictured him there, alone, hands plunged in his pockets, in Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt, surveying his land with a builder at his side. If there was a woman, as well as the builder, she didn't want to know about it. She had a strong suspicion that that was where he was, and she should leave him there. Let him return to her, if that was what he wanted. She had returned, but not returned to him, one too many times.

The bartender had given her his phone number, but she was not going to call him. He was too young. The Demi Moore thing was faintly embarrassing. The Cher thing.

She found the entrance to the metro and went down the stairs, following the crowd. It was probably too soon to get sentimental about the good times they'd had. She felt sweaty and wished she could have taken a shower, or a bath, but she hadn't wanted to risk awakening Rich and Linda. Thinking about how refreshing water would have been, she remembered, again, hugging George's back in the bathtub, and how it had provoked the story about the lynx in the petting zoo. Had it ever really happened? If so, what had taken him to a petting zoo? And what had the woman really been saying, as she clawed the cage like an animal, herself, giving the advice George would of course want to hear: that he should watch his back.

Let him watch it in Mustique. Let him lie in the sand, where nothing more dangerous than pesky sand fleas would attack his back. He could watch his back, and from now on, she'd watch hers.

All the way to New York, though, she kept thinking about him. If she'd known he was in Virginia, or that the woman could have pointed her toward him, would she have gone? She envisioned a woman much more attractive than Nancy Gregerson, pointing a finger toward a sunlit island paradise, and then she imagined that finger twisting into the finger of someone else: the woman in the animal's cage. Finally, she looked at her hand and remembered the girl's advice about puppets and thought that really, as advice went, it was rather interesting. She wiggled a finger, but had nothing to say, either aloud or simply where most of her dialogue happened — in her head.

For days she wouldn't speak, as it turned out. Confusion and guilt began to seep in about why, exactly, she'd run out on George's friends, why she hadn't at least let things play out. She would become increasingly doubtful about whether he'd made it to Mustique, and be surprised, also, that Rich didn't call, and neither did Linda. Were they ever going to get in touch, or would she just be someone who'd passed through their lives on her way somewhere; or from somewhere, in a nursery that wasn't a nursery, and then ran out before they could help her look up her boyfriend? Boyfriend. He wasn't her boyfriend. He was an elusive man who made up stories that had a moral not so easy to decipher — nothing as easy as Saint Francis taming his wolf. What did it mean that all those days she passed in silence she could see the lynx up in a tree, looking down, and the woman, looking up, telling George that she knew how to outsmart it?

The memorial service for Mrs. Bell had been attended by angels — people who dressed as angels and announced themselves to be angels — and among the mourners had been the blond boy Nancy had come to suspect was retarded — correction: mentally challenged — at the nursery where she'd once bought a bush and ever after avoided. He'd approached her, wearing his flowing white robes with high-set shoulders and wings folded down as if he were a sleeping bird, and explained that he and the other angels were making an appearance as "guardians of the spirit." Mrs. Bell was still alive in what he called "every real sense" ("Riding on the back of Tyrannosaurus rex?" she'd wanted to ask), as was his sister (Ah: Vancouver was synonymous with heaven). She understood there was something wrong with him, though he stood amid four other adults with shortly cropped hair and pale faces she did not want to inspect closer for evidence of powder, their costumes lushly multilayered. While that didn't make her think they were sane, at least she saw that he was not alone in his delusion. The minister was either a very cool customer, or the angels had made other appearances at memorial services. One thing they did do was sing very nicely. The boy's tenor was joined by the stronger tenor voice of an older man, who — because he moved in with no space between their shoulders, and because he had the same sharp nose and thin lips — she assumed must be his father. The singing transported her back to her former neighbor's children, whom she'd lost touch with...those stepladder little boys who had sung, well, so angelically every Christmas, the sheet music in their hands, their mother accompanying them on the piano, their father piping out inexact little notes from a flute and looking self-conscious. Well — whatever people needed to get them through the night, she supposed: the afterlife of Mrs. Bell; the reappearance of a girl who had died on Afton Mountain, alive again in British Columbia. By such reasoning, her son could be dancing with the Tin Man down the Yellow Brick Road, and maybe he was: those druggie friends had such odd nicknames for one another. Some scraggly speed freak would be Toto. The private investigator her husband hired had come up empty-handed, and her own brilliant idea had resulted in nothing but a lot of money lost in plane fare. Instead of a white shirt, perhaps the private investigator should have worn angel wings, and then he could just have announced where Nicky was. The man had come to Virginia and searched Nicky's computer, which he'd given to a friend when he left town, since — like the majority of things the boy owned — it was perpetually broken, and in searching the hard drive had found messages back and forth from Toto and Tin Man and Judy Garland (if you suffered enough in life, were you awarded the distinction of being, simply, yourself?). What he found turned out to be nothing but drivel: code names for drugs that were so obvious, she could figure them out without being told; bleak jokes about the uselessness of normal people; plans to meet at boring places in the county deemed lively because they would grace them with their presence, and also because Sam Shepard was known to show up at the bar. Wade Butler, Private Investigator (he had handed her a business card on which was embossed the face of Sherlock Holmes), had hinted that he'd like to stay in her guest room, but she hadn't picked up on the suggestion. She gave him a few phone numbers that she copied out of the phone book and a cup of coffee, and she also did him the courtesy of pretending he was a serious person, even though his questions continued to be pathetic: Nicky's sports interests in high school (none); the name of the by now long-married girlfriend who'd gone to Lexington (she'd called Information). And pets — that was a good one! She did not say that he'd killed a turtle, while others might have tried to adopt it. She did not mention the neighbor's cat. She lied and said that he had been very fond of Bernadine's dog. If he'd asked a second time, she would have told him that blue was Nicky's favorite color. Perhaps he didn't remember that crucial question he'd asked so long ago.

At the end of the service, which, to Nancy's surprise, Jenny had attended with her older daughter (who rushed to Nancy's side for a hug), the two women exchanged raised eyebrows about the angels. Mrs. Bell's son from Richmond was there. Mrs. Bell's doctor attended: a young man who had surprised them all by actually visiting his patient at the facility, instead of having her transported to his office. He seemed friendly with the son, and the two men stood chatting, ignoring the angels who milled about, telling anyone who would listen that death was just a journey.

Copyright © 2005 by Irony and Pity, Inc.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Fléchette follies

Find and replace

Duchais

Tending something

Apology for a journey not taken

Mostre

The garden game

The rabbit hole as likely explanation

Just going out

That last odd day in L.A.

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First Chapter

Fléchette Follies

When the accident occurred, George Wissone was returning from an errand. Among the things he'd bought was a plastic container of paper clips that flew open when he slammed on the brake. Paper clips fell from his hair as he opened the door to see what damage he'd done to the car he'd rear-ended. He winced and avoided looking at the front fender of his own rental car. Most of all, he wished no one to be hurt. He was surprised to see blood between his thumb and first finger, though he had felt the key's serrated edge as he'd pulled it clumsily from the ignition. Unlike him to do things clumsily, but there would be plenty of time to introspect later. The woman did, indeed, seem to be hurt.

Being hit from behind at a red light was the last thing she needed, so she had dropped her head to her hands, which tightly clutched the top of the wheel. She was late for work, and the day before her son had called from England to say that he would not be coming home for Christmas. So much for her excuse not to work both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at the nursing home. She finally met his eyes, but only for a second, after deciding he was not really injured. She was a round-faced woman with broad shoulders and a nervous-seeming overbite. Cars were swerving around them. Soon -- when he got to know Charlottesville (to the extent that he got to know any place) -- he would curse the unmannerly drivers of rush hour like everyone else.

He should not have taken a double dose of Contac and then operated "heavy machinery" -- such as a Geo Metro could be dignified as representing "heavy machinery." She sat there, jaw set, not opening the door tostep out. He looked back at his car and saw that he had left the door ajar. It was in danger of being sideswiped by irritated motorists, one of whom had the nerve to hit the horn as he -- make that she -- blared past.

"Wouldn't you know it," the woman muttered. "Are you hurt?"

"I'm awfully sorry," he said. "I wasn't thinking."

"Beer for lunch?" she said. "Did you think about domestic, or no: you'd go for imported, right?"

"What?"

The next car that swerved toward them was a police car. He saw a German shepherd in the back. A dog he'd never liked, along with Dobermans. Of course, he didn't like pit bulls, either. He had been driving west. The sun, which gave no heat, burned his eyes. He tried to wince it away, fixing his gaze on the police car's blue light as it pulled in behind his car. Did German shepherds have blue eyes? As a boy he'd had a mutt that was part shepherd: a dog with one blue-flecked eye, the other brown.

He had not had beer at lunch. He had not had a drink of any sort for more than four years. Another car with a dog inside passed. The dog eyed the scene, moving in the backseat.

"My job." The woman had finally left her car to talk to the policeman. Apparently she had the habit of loudly articulating the last words of sentences. "Doesn't he have a business card, so we can talk about this later?" she said, as if he couldn't answer for himself. "He plowed into me when I was stopped for the light." She was holding her business card between two fingers, as if it were usually clipped there. The cop reached out and took it. She said, "I think this man has been drinking."

"That hand okay?" the cop said, looking at the smear of blood on his jacket pocket. He had said something to the woman, first, but George hadn't heard it. Even she might not have understood, the wind had come up so strong. In a big tree, someone had hung wind chimes. Metal tinkled like toy swords.

"People overreact to blood," the woman said. "Blood, and tears. If it's a new mother, she overreacts to shit."

The cop turned his full attention to the woman, taking one step forward with a quizzical expression.

The cop was holding both of their licenses. He seemed to take George's word for the fact that he was driving a rental car, that the registration was in the glove compartment. George supposed you could tell a car was a rental from the license, though it had been so long since he'd rented a car, he wasn't sure about that. In any case, the cop obviously had no intention of seeing whether he could walk a straight line. "I don't want to make more of this than necessary," the cop said to the woman. "No need to waste time we don't got."

He watched silently as the cop returned the woman's registration and license. Her insurance company would talk to his insurance company. Surely he had an insurance company, though that would be a bit of trivia he'd never know. There were many things it was pleasant not to have to think about. On the other hand, it would have been nice to have some input about what rental car had been reserved for him.

The cop unwrapped some gum and folded it over, placing it in his mouth. He looked at both of them. It was obvious he knew neither would like a stick.

The driver of the other car was Nancy Gregerson -- Gregerson having been her married name. Her maiden name, not resumed after the divorce, was Shifflett. The town was full of Shiffletts, so why add to their ranks? She had been divorced for twenty years, and her last name no longer reminded her of Edward Gregerson. A couple of Beatles songs did, and the way the corners of her son's mouth tightened sometimes brought his face to mind, but his last name? Not at all.

She had driven away saying, "Late to work," and she realized she was being obnoxious, but couldn't help herself. She put in a full shift at Dolly Madison House without taking a break (Jenny, the nurses' aide, was six months pregnant; she let her have the time). By the time an hour had passed, she felt slightly chagrined that she'd been so unkind to the man who'd hit her. Her instincts about who'd been drinking and who hadn't weren't always right; she tended to overestimate how many people were alcohol dependent. They made the staff watch so many films about drunks and smokers -- how could she think otherwise? One recent film had been a very unfunny cartoon, and an equally humorless visiting cardiologist had pointed a laser pen at a drunken elephant on the screen as if he were making rounds with his interns and an elephant just happened to be sprawled in the bed, like any other patient.

She punched out, sorry that her son wouldn't be home for Christmas. He was an unhappy young man who expected too much from his ability to draw recognizable figures. He had been painting in London for almost two years. For a while he had lived with two other would-be painters, but as often happened in his life, they decamped and went elsewhere. One had moved to a room in someone's house. The other moved in with his girlfriend. Was that it? In any case, Nicky was there, stuck with the rent. When he'd flown in to Dulles the year before, he'd stayed only three days, and he'd spent the entire time brooding about his former girlfriend, who'd moved to Lexington. Should he visit her? Should he not? Sitting in Nancy's favorite chair, his big feet in his Doc Martens dirtying her little needlepoint footstool as he mentally plucked the anxiety daisy.

Though she alternated among several routes home, this evening she decided to take the same road on which she'd been involved in the accident earlier. There was a spritz of ice in the wind: enough to scrabble at the glass for a second before it melted. The road curved, and she realized she'd been following a van too closely. Icy road, tailgating...she might plow into somebody herself, and wouldn't that be ironic. An SUV sat at the curb, and just past it a tree, lit by a floodlight above it. She turned in to a driveway and walked back to where she'd been. She saw something glinting in the street, but since she'd inspected her own car carefully, she didn't much care what had broken on his. She remembered it as a crummy little car, and thought that was about right: that was what he'd be driving. She bent to see what sparkled on the asphalt, and saw paper clips scattered there. She picked up one but left the others; they would not be a clue for her insurance company. In fact, they seemed so ordinary that she felt even sorrier that she had been so unkind to him. She'd come to believe that everywhere in the world, a little something was out of place, all the time. Like one of the old ladies on floor three: you'd find a glove pulled onto one of their feet, their shoe somewhere across the room. The poinsettia's red leaves on the floor, as if a cat had attacked a cardinal. At lunch, you might see a lipstick tube dropped on their plate, shiny among the vegetables, relinquished, at last, from their fist, or even a snapshot, disguised in the folds of a skirt, pulled out and placed on the food like a trump card.

She stopped at a convenience store for Taster's Choice and milk. A young man in front of her reminded her of her son: slouched into his own body, big black motorcycle boots, ugly tattoo of some bird that couldn't become extinct soon enough etched on his forearm. He looked through her as he pocketed his change and walked past. He was someone's son -- one who either would or would not be going home for Christmas.

Copyright © 2005 by Irony and Pity, Inc.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 14, 2005

    Beattie misses the mark

    Fans of Beattie¿s short fiction, and there are undoubtedly many including myself, might be disappointed in this latest outing. These stories left me feeling petulant, if not for the overall cheerless mood of the collection then because I dropped $25 plus tax on the hardcover. The strongest of them, ¿That Odd Last Day in L.A.¿ is a sweet if overtly sentimental meditation on the politics of generational relationships and aging (and the most likely source for the cover art of a startled deer), a theme of the whole book really, and it is to Beattie¿s credit that we feel a deep connection with not only the protagonist but also his niece and nephew with whom he visits in L.A. Beattie is often an ambitious writer, and even in these generally sub-par stories her wild imagination and inventiveness are on display in such stories as ¿Duchais¿ and ¿The Rabbit Hole as Likely Explanation,¿ which quite unfortunately cannot overcome the triteness of the title novella nor such lit-filler as the unforgivable ¿Apologies for a Journey Not Taken,¿ ¿Mostre¿ and ¿Find and Replace.¿ For those interested in reading REALLY good Beattie, I recommend her earlier books CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER, FALLING IN PLACE, and my all-time favorite, PICTURING WILL. Beattie is a talented writer indeed, but FOLLIES is not a very good book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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