From the Publisher
“Profound. . . . Get ready to expand your sense of what [Moore]—and a novel—can do.” —The Washington Post Book World
“An indelible portrait of a young woman coming of age in the Midwest in the year after 9/11…. Moore has written her most powerful book yet.” —The New York Times
“A miracle of lyric force, beautiful and beautifully constructed, with a comic touch that transforms itself to a kind of harrowing precision.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“A Gate at the Stairs has the power to make you laugh and cry, sometimes almost simultaneously.” —The Miami Herald
“Lorrie Moore’s writing is everything that life is, funny and heart-breaking—and rich.” —The Denver Post
“Moore may be, exactly, the most irresistible contemporary American writer: brainy, humane, unpretentious and warm.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Fifty years from now, it may well turn out that the work of very few American writers has as much to say about what it means to be alive in our time as that of Lorrie Moore.” —Harper’s Magazine
“Moore tells a deeply troubling story about race and class and gender in post-9/11 America. And she does it with characteristic wit and intelligence, without letting a soul off the hook. . . . Dazzling.” —The Oregonian
“This novel explores, with enormous emotional precision, the limitations and insufficiencies of love, and the loneliness that haunts even the most doting of families. . . . Moore gives us stark, melancholy glimpses into her characters’ hearts.” —The New York Times
“Spectacular. . . . Gate is a gift.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Moore . . . has created a delightful protagonist and narrator—funny, mouthy, good-hearted and deliciously awkward. . . . What rings true over and over is Tassie’s—and of course, Moore’s—choice of humor as body armor against terrors both new and old.” —The Plain Dealer
“Lyrical, funny, disturbing, and at times brilliantly insightful. . . . There’s not much . . . predictable about this electric-bass-playing, Sylvia-Plath-spouting, motor-scooter-driving, pun-making college kid. . . . Uncommonly rich in pithy observations, startling realizations and zany nuggets of satire.” —The Seattle Times
“Beautiful. . . . Wonderfully described and worthy of savoring. . . Bright and lovely.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Tassie’s awakening is nothing short of brilliant. . . . This is not merely a coming-of-age novel, but a world coming to grips with a new, uneasy existence.” —Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
“The story’s apparent modesty and ambling pace are deceptive, a cover for profound reflections on marriage and parenthood, racism and terrorism, and especially the baffling, hilarious, brutal initiation to adult life. . . . Strange and moving.” —The Washington Post Book World
“A stunning examination of grief—the learning of it, the insidious ways in which it seeps into everything, eating away at people and relationships, lingering until sometimes forgiveness becomes impossible.” —Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“Moore balances pathos and humor, poetry and puns, often on the seesaw of the same sentence. . . . A Gate at the Stairs is vintage Lorrie Moore.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Moore’s penetrating and singular voice as a writer is one I could listen to for years and years.”—Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air, NPR
“Tassie is achingly real and, thanks to Moore’s nimble prose, an unbeatable guide through the thicket of early adulthood.” —People
“Moore’s acute intelligence and sheer love of wordplay make her challenging and interesting to read. She’s also funny as hell. A Gate at the Stairs is not a novel anyone will want to put down. . . . This is Greek tragedy cloaked in a coming-of-age cape.” —Houston Chronicle
“Lorrie Moore inspires fierce loyalty, for good reason. She’s the sheriff of a wild and lonely territory, in which empathetic people fight despair with charming words.” —Newsday
“A fiction writer with as fine a bead on contemporary life and relationships and absurdity as anyone writing today. . . . Startling, painful, funny.” —Elle
“Moore is by turns ironic and tragic in her portrayal of a woman struggling to find herself in a troubled new century.” —More
“Incisively funny. . . .Witty and endearing. . . . There are some books that you don’t so much want to review as to hand out copies to all your reading friends. This is one of those.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Lorrie Moore has a unique gift. She can be screamingly funny—and in the very next paragraph, able to convey terrible grief. . . . Pitch-perfect. . . . Dazzling.” —USA Today
“In Tassie Keltjin . . . Moore has created an indelible character who leaves the reader with a startling and poignant story.” —The Kansas City Star
“Brims with the sort of humor and piquant social observations that first brought [Moore] fame as a short-story writer.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Lovely and amusing.” —Time Out New York
“On finishing A Gate at the Stairs I turned to the reader nearest to me and made her swear to read it immediately (well, the dog was between us, but she doesn’t read much, and none of what I recommend).” —Jonathan Lethem, The New York Times Book Review
“A powerful, compassionate novel, both funny and tragic, and always beautifully told.” —Newsweek
“Readers of contemporary fiction who don’t love Lorrie Moore just haven’t read her. . . . A rich, expansive and singularly quirky feast.” —Salt Lake Tribune
“A remarkable meditation of a novel. . . . Moore is a master of the defining detail, and she shines a revealing spotlight on Tassie and the kaleidoscope of characters surrounding her.” —The Denver Post
“Wise, rueful, luminous, intoxicating. . . . A startlingly moving, gorgeously written book.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Lays bare the fissures in American society as one young woman is forced to confront not just the changes in the world around her, but in herself.” —New York Post
“The crafted dazzle of Moore’s writing stands center stage. . . . Lovers of language will find much to enjoy here.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Tassie’s wit and bruisable heart makes this novel refreshingly real.” —Good Housekeeping
“Breathtaking. . . . You’ll want to have some tissues ready—and we’re not even getting to half of it. But the saddest part will be when it’s over.” —Daily Candy
“Reverberates with a quiet, lingering power that leaves the reader pondering the randomness of life and death, and the wisdom and futility of love.” —Sacramento Book Review
“Comic, moving, and ultimately harrowing. . . . Its wonderful, heartbreaking conclusion reminds us that no matter how we suffer, we still can reach a peculiarly human state of grace.” —The Miami Herald
…more expansive than either of her two previous novels…also a novel that brandishes some "big" material: racism, war, etc.albeit in Moore's resolutely insouciant key…Great writers usually present us with mysteries, but the mystery Lorrie Moore presents consists of appearing genial, joshing and earnest at onceunmysterious, in other words, yet still great. She's a discomfiting, sometimes even rageful writer, lurking in the disguise of an endearing one. On finishing A Gate at the Stairs I turned to the reader nearest to me and made her swear to read it immediately
The New York Times Book Review
A Gate at the Stairs is Moore's first novel in 15 years, which means a whole generation of readers has grown up thinking of her only as one of the country's best short-story writers. Get ready to expand your sense of what sheand a novelcan do…The story's apparent modesty and ambling pace are deceptive, a cover for profound reflections on marriage and parenthood, racism and terrorism, and especially the baffling, hilarious, brutal initiation to adult lifewhat all of us learn to endure "in the dry terror of cluelessness"…what's so endearing is Moore's ability to tempt us with humor into the surreal boundaries of human experience, those strange decisions that make no sense out of context, the things we can't believe anyone would do.
The Washington Post
…Ms. Moore has written her most powerful book yet, a book that gives us an indelible portrait of a young woman coming of age in the Midwest in the year after 9/11 and her initiation into the adult world of loss and grief…in this haunting novel Ms. Moore gives us stark, melancholy glimpses into her characters' hearts, mapping their fears and disappointments, their hidden yearnings and their more evanescent efforts to hold on to their dreams in the face of unfurling misfortune.
The New York Times
Moore (Anagrams) knits together the shadow of 9/11 and a young girl's bumpy coming-of-age in this luminous, heart-wrenchingly wry novel—the author's first in 15 years. Tassie Keltjin, 20, a smalltown girl weathering a clumsy college year in “the Athens of the Midwest,” is taken on as prospective nanny by brittle Sarah Brink, the proprietor of a pricey restaurant who is desperate to adopt a baby despite her dodgy past. Subsequent “adventures in prospective motherhood” involve a pregnant girl “with scarcely a tooth in her head” and a white birth mother abandoned by her African-American boyfriend—both encounters expose class and racial prejudice to an increasingly less naïve Tassie. In a parallel tale, Tassie lands a lover, enigmatic Reynaldo, who tries to keep certain parts of his life a secret from Tassie. Moore's graceful prose considers serious emotional and political issues with low-key clarity and poignancy, while generous flashes of wit—Tessie the sexual innocent using her roommate's vibrator to stir her chocolate milk—endow this stellar novel with great heart. (Sept.)
Midwesterner Tassie Keltjin learns hard lessons about lying, life, and love during her first year of college in Moore's long-awaited third novel, following Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994) and featuring her signature juxtapositions and wordplay. Actress Mia Barron, recipient of a 2003 Publishers Weekly Listen Up Award, narrates this character-driven bildungsroman, perfectly delivering Tassie's thoughtful and wry musings. Recommended for public libraries; possibly of interest to precocious teens as well as adults. ["The challenge for readers is to reconcile the beautiful sharpness of (Moore's) language with two wildly improbable plot threads," read the review of the Knopf hc, LJ 8/09.—Ed.]—Carly Wiggins, formerly with Allen Cty. P.L., Fort Wayne, IN
In How Fiction Works, the tutorial by the New Yorker critic and Harvard professor, James Wood writes, "Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on."Contemporary fiction has produced few noticers with a better eye and more engaging voice than Tassie Keltjin, the narrator of Lorrie Moore's deceptively powerful A Gate at the Stairs. For much of Moore's first novel in 15 years-her short stories have established her as something of a Stateside Alice Munro-Tassie's eye and ear are pretty much all there is to the book. And they are more than enough, for the 20-year-old college student makes for good company. Perceptive, with a self-deprecating sense of humor, she lulls the reader into not taking the matter-of-fact events of Tassie's life too seriously, until that life darkens through a series of events that even the best noticers might not have predicted. Because her ostensible roommate now lives with a boyfriend, we get to know Tassie very well-as a fully fleshed character rather than a type-and spend a lot of time inside her head. She splits her year between the university community more liberal than the rest of the Midwest and the rural Wisconsin town where her father is considered more of a "hobbyist" farmer than a real one. "What kind of farmer's daughter was I?" she asks. A virgin, but more from lack of opportunity than moral compunction (she compares her dating experiences to an invisible electric fence for dogs), and a bass player, both electric and stand-up. Singing along to her instrument, she describes "trying to find themidway place between melody and rhythm-was this searching not the very journey of life?"Explains Moore of her protagonist, "Once I had the character and voice of Tassie I felt I was on my way. She would be the observer of several worlds that were both familiar and not familiar to her . . . Initially I began in the third person and it was much more of a ghost story and there were a lot of sisters and, well, it was a false start."It's hard to imagine this novel working in the third person, because we need to see Tassie's life through her eyes. As she learns some crucial lessons outside the classroom, the reader learns as well to be a better noticer. Tassie's instincts are sound, but her comic innocence takes a tragic turn, as she falls into her first serious romance, finds a job as nanny for an adopted, biracial baby and suffers some aftershocks from 9/11 a long way from Manhattan. The enrichment of such complications makes this one of the year's best novels, yet it is Tassie's eye that makes us better readers of life. And so on and on. First printing of 100,000. Author tour to Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Madison, Wis., Miami, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C.
In a recent talk, Lorrie Moore suggested that 20 is "the universal age of passion" -- the point at which the unique shape and expression of our feelings like love and disgust and fury becomes fixed. It is also, she observed, the perceptual halfway point of most people's existence. Our first two decades seem to pass as slowly as the whole of the rest of our lives, according to scientists, so that our early experiences carry vastly more psychic weight than those of adulthood.
It's interesting to consider the impact of Moore's own work by this metric, and not only because A Gate at the Stairs is narrated by a 20-year-old. Since the publication of her first collection, Self-Help, in 1985, so many readers have identified with Moore's witty, cynical, and yearning failed-relationship stories at a similarly impressionable stage that her writing has become as formative an influence on American fiction as her hero John Updike's was in an earlier era.
Self-Help, the young depressive's answer to the dating manual, was my first exposure to Moore. In this debut story collection, which Knopf snapped up when the author was just 26, the characters cheat or are cheated on; they are phoned by married lovers at pointless office jobs; they "make attempts at less restrictive arrangements," only to "watch them sputter and deflate like balloons." Reading the book back in college, my friends and I felt as if someone had distilled the essence of our own bad decisions and aimlessness into a terrible and irrefutable prediction that we would spend the rest of our days making the same mistakes we already had, only more so. Moore's instructional second-person narration and knowing wisecracks leant her prose an aura of authority. Relationships are futile and hazardous no matter which way you go about them, Self-Help seemed to say, but you're not going to give them up, so you may as well just gird yourself with dread, and soldier on. Subsequent works, which I read in quick succession, induced to a lesser degree the same feeling of witnessing my own future car wreck.
When Moore's Birds of America appeared in 1998, however, I was thrown. Although precisely observed and often moving, the stories lacked the galvanizing concision of her earlier fiction. The humor was more acutely sardonic than ever, but -- especially in "People like That Are the Only People Here," an astonishing story set in a children's cancer ward -- slowed by a new kind of bitterness and a wrenching, very adult pain that I couldn't fully access and wasn't sure I wanted to.
Before reading this long-awaited novel, though, I went back through Moore's body of work and was amazed to discover that many of the stories in Self-Help now seem tinny and monotonous, and some actually grate. In part this is due to their familiarity; returning to the characters and their predicatments after so many years is like beaming directly into to the mind of my 20-year-old self (The fact that lesser imitators have drained the second person of freshness doesn't help.) By contrast, Birds of America, Like Life, and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? revealed themselves as stronger works -- deeper and more cohesive in their particular blend of anger, hopelessness, and nostalgia.
A Gate at the Stairs, Moore's first book in 11 years, is set in a midwestern university community in the months following 9/11. While it engages with familiar themes -- deception, boredom, and failure in love; the laziness of youth; the cluelessness of parents -- it also represents a significant departure for Moore, both in scope and tone, from what has preceded it. The novel is far more overtly political than her prior fiction, contemplating racism, fundamentalism, war, and liberal hypocrisy.
In the opening pages, Tassie, a college student and small-town farmer's daughter, revels in the electrifying uselessness of undergraduate study: "My brain was on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir. Twice a week a young professor named Thad... stood before a lecture hall of stunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James' masturbation of the comma. I was riveted. I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie."
Tassie has already handed in her final papers and plans to spend winter break looking for work. Although she interviews for nanny positions with one "fortyish pregnant woman after another," there are no call-backs until she meets with Sarah, a restaurateur who coincidentally buys potatoes from Tassie's father. Tassie is surprised to hear her dad's rarified produce spoken of approvingly; back home, the locals disdain his small operation, viewing him as a "hobbyist," a "vaguely contemptuous character, very out-of-town," even more ridiculous than the despised ginseng growers.
Sarah and her husband are trying to adopt, and she calls that very night to offer Tassie a job. Moore immediately sets up the tensions and affinities between Tassie and her new boss. "[E]ven once she had a baby," Tassie observes, Sarah "would never be able to shake the Auntie Mame quality from her mothering. There were worse things, I supposed." The bumper stickers on the back of her car -- "PERHAPS YOU WOULD DRIVE BETTER WITH THAT CELL PHONE SHOVED UP YOUR ASS" and "IF GOD SPEAKS THROUGH BURNING BUSHES, LET'S BURN BUSH AND LISTEN TO WHAT GOD SAYS." -- add pointed confirmation.
The first prospective adoptee doesn't work out, but Sarah eventually manages to get her hands on a toddler, a beautiful, friendly mixed-race child. She renames the little girl Mary-Emma (but calls her Emmie), bakes picture books from the library "to get rid of the germs," and, to supplement the baby food, arranges to have risotto Fed-Exed home from her restaurant. After a teenager shouts the n-word at Emmie from his speeding car, Sarah starts a Wednesday-night support group for parents of mixed-race children. Tassie overhears their talks from her perch up in the nursery with the kids:
"Racial blindness is a white idea." This would be Sarah.
"How dare we think of ourselves as a social experiment?"
"How dare we not?"
"I'm in despair."
"Despair is mistaking a small world for a large one and a large one for a small....
The opinions downstairs were put forth with such emphasis and confidence, it all sounded like an orchestra made up entirely of percussion....
Every time a meeting convenes, the dialogue continues for pages, but the participants are barely, if at all, distinguished.
At its best, Moore's uncanny dexterity for dipping into the flow of language -- for detaching conversations from characters' back-stories and evoking the realities of how people talk to one another -- fosters a sense of universality. After all, people really do misspeak, antagonize, and confuse. They air anxieties and grievances they had meant to suppress and then try to dispel the resulting awkwardness with bad jokes. Yet the profusion of clever repartee in fiction can erode the reader's sense of the characters as individual people worth investing in. Tassie is strangely jaded and politically informed for a girl with her background, and her rendition of events occasionally suffers from a satirical quality that threatens to undermine the realism and emotional resonance of the book.
When eventually it becomes clear that the adoption is in jeopardy, the plot takes on an urgency reminiscent of a good crime novel. Mysteries pile up: why is Sarah suddenly so dispassionate; who calls the house all day and hangs up; is Tassie's boyfriend somehow related to the person who drives by at strange times, music blaring? The hollowness of Sarah's liberalism is expertly exposed, and Moore's fusion of heartbreak and satire reaches alchemical perfection as the now-bourgie Emmie cries "Ciao, Mama! Ciao, Mama!" from the window of a departing car.
While Tassie's relationships with Sarah and Emmie are genuine and complex, forming the heart of A Gate at the Stairs, the novel's many subplots engage less fully and often fail to convince. There is the gorgeous, lying boyfriend whose zealotry, racism, and exit don't feel supported by what has come before. There is the absent roommate, who is more remarkable missing than when she finally turns up. And there are Tassie's parents and brother, who seem, until tragedy wrenches them into focus toward the book's end, to exist largely as background..
For all the evidence supporting Moore's claims about the shape of our passions at 20, this latest book belies her argument that they become fixed. While deception in love often serves as her early works' raison d'etre, here it detracts. Tassie's lover is not sufficiently particularized to hold our attention as a character, and her feelings toward him are too ill-defined for us to empathize with her grief. Through the peripheral story lines and the one-liners, it's the fate of Emmie that resonates. A Gate at the Stairs is, fundamentally, about the lies people -- especially well-meaning ones -- tell themselves. --Maud Newton
Maud Newton's writing has appeared in numerous publications. Her blog is at maudnewton.com.
Read an Excerpt
The cold came late that fall and the songbirds were caught off guard. By the time the snow and wind began in earnest, too many had been suckered into staying, and instead of flying south, instead of already having flown south, they were huddled in people’s yards, their feathers puffed for some modicum of warmth. I was looking for a job. I was a student and needed babysitting work, and so I would walk from interview to interview in these attractive but wintry neighborhoods, the eerie multitudes of robins pecking at the frozen ground, dun-gray and stricken—though what bird in the best of circumstances does not look a little stricken—until at last, late in my search, at the end of a week, startlingly, the birds had disappeared. I did not want to think about what had happened to them. Or rather, that is an expression—of politeness, a false promise of delicacy—for in fact I wondered about them all the time: imagining them dead, in stunning heaps in some killing cornfield outside of town, or dropped from the sky in twos and threes for miles down along the Illinois state line.
I was looking in December for work that would begin at the start of the January term. I’d finished my exams and was answering ads from the student job board, ones for “childcare provider.” I liked children—I did!—or rather, I liked them OK. They were sometimes interesting. I admired their stamina and candor. And I was good with them in that I could make funny faces at the babies and with the older children teach them card tricks and speak in the theatrically sarcastic tones that disarmed and enthralled them. But I was not especially skilled at minding children for long spells; I grew bored, perhaps like my own mother. After I spent too much time playing their games, my mind grew peckish and longed to lose itself in some book I had in my backpack. I was ever hopeful of early bedtimes and long naps.
I had come from Dellacrosse Central, from a small farm on the old Perryville Road, to this university town of Troy, “the Athens of the Midwest,” as if from a cave, like the priest-child of a Colombian tribe I’d read of in Cultural Anthropology, a boy made mystical by being kept in the dark for the bulk of his childhood and allowed only stories—no experience—of the outside world. Once brought out into light, he would be in a perpetual, holy condition of bedazzlement and wonder; no story would ever have been equal to the thing itself. And so it was with me. Nothing had really prepared me. Not the college piggy bank in the dining room, the savings bonds from my grandparents, or the used set of World Book encyclopedias with their beautiful color charts of international wheat production and photographs of presidential birthplaces. The flat green world of my parents’ hogless, horseless farm—its dullness, its flies, its quiet ripped open daily by the fumes and whining of machinery—twisted away and left me with a brilliant city life of books and films and witty friends. Someone had turned on the lights. Someone had led me out of the cave—of Perryville Road. My brain was on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir. Twice a week a young professor named Thad, dressed in jeans and a tie, stood before a lecture hall of stunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James’s masturbation of the comma. I was riveted. I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie.
The ancient cave, of course, had produced a mystic; my childhood had produced only me.
In the corridors students argued over Bach, Beck, Balkanization, bacterial warfare. Kids said things to me like “You’re from the country. Is it true that if you eat a bear’s liver you’ll die?” They asked, “Ever know someone who did you-know-what with a cow?” Or “Is it an actual fact that pigs won’t eat bananas?” What I did know was that a goat will not really consume a tin can: a goat just liked to lick the paste on the label. But no one ever asked me that.
From our perspective that semester, the events of September—we did not yet call them 9/11—seemed both near and far. Marching poli-sci majors chanted on the quads and the pedestrian malls, “The chickens have come home to roost! The chickens have come home to roost!” When I could contemplate them at all—the chickens, the roosting—it was as if in a craning crowd, through glass, the way I knew (from Art History) people stared at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre: La Gioconda! its very name like a snake, its sly, tight smile encased at a distance but studied for portentous flickers. It was, like September itself, a cat’s mouth full of canaries. My roommate, Murph—a nose-pierced, hinky-toothed blonde from Dubuque, who used black soap and black dental floss and whose quick opinions were impressively harsh (she pronounced Dubuque “Du-ba-cue”) and who once terrified her English teachers by saying the character she admired most in all of literature was Dick Hickock in In Cold Blood—had met her boyfriend on September tenth and when she woke up at his place, she’d phoned me, in horror and happiness, the television blaring. “I know, I know,” she said, her voice shrugging into the phone. “It was a terrible price to pay for love, but it had to be done.”
I raised my voice to a mock shout. “You sick slut! People were killed. All you think about is your own pleasure.” Then we fell into a kind of hysteria—frightened, guilty, hopeless laughter I have never actually witnessed in women over thirty.
“Well,” I sighed, realizing I might not be seeing her all that much from then on in, “I hope there’s just hanky—no panky.”
“Nah,” she said. “With panky there’s always tears, and it ruins the hanky.” I would miss her.
Though the movie theaters closed for two nights, and for a week even our yoga teacher put up an American flag and sat in front of it, in a lotus position, eyes closed, saying, “Let us now breathe deeply in honor of our great country” (I looked around frantically, never getting the breathing right), mostly our conversations slid back shockingly, resiliently, to other topics: backup singers for Aretha Franklin, or which Korean-owned restaurant had the best Chinese food. Before I’d come to Troy, I had never had Chinese food. But now, two blocks from my apartment, next to a shoe repair shop, was a place called the Peking Café where I went as often as I could for the Buddha’s Delight. At the cash register small boxes of broken fortune cookies were sold at discount. “Only cookie broken,” promised the sign, “not fortune.” I vowed to buy a box one day to see what guidance—obscure or mystical or mercenary but Confucian!—might be had in bulk. Meanwhile, I collected them singly, one per every cookie that came at the end atop my check, briskly, efficiently, before I’d even finished eating. Perhaps I ate too slowly. I’d grown up on Friday fish fries and green beans in butter (for years, my mother had told me, mar- garine, considered a foreign food, could be purchased only across state lines, at “oleo” stands hastily erected along the highway—park here for parkay read the signs—just past the Illinois governor’s welcome billboard, farmers muttering that only Jews bought there). And so now these odd Chinese vegetables—fungal and gnomic in their brown sauce—had the power for me of an adventure or a rite, a statement to be savored. Back in Dellacrosse the dining was divided into “Casual,” which meant you ate it standing up or took it away, and the high end, which was called “Sit-Down Dining.” At the Wie Haus Family Restaurant, where we went for sit-down, the seats were red leatherette and the walls were gemütlichkeit and paneled, decorated with framed deep kitsch, wide-eyed shepherdesses and jesters. The breakfast menus read “Guten Morgen.” Sauces were called “gravy.” And the dinner menu featured cheese curd meatloaf and steak “cooked to your likeness.” On Fridays there were fish fries or boils for which they served “lawyers” (burbot or eelpout), so-called because their hearts were in their butts. (They were fished from the local lake where all the picnic spots had trash cans that read no fish guts.) On Sundays there was not only marshmallow and maraschino cherry salad and something called “Grandma Jell-O,” but “prime rib with au jus,” a precise knowledge of French—or English or even food coloring—not being the restaurant’s strong point. A la carte meant soup or salad; dinner meant soup and salad. The Roquefort on the salad was called by the waitstaff “Rockford dressing.” The house wine—red, white, or pink—all bore the requisite bouquet of rose, soap, and graphite, a whiff of hay, a hint of hooterville, though the menu remained mute about all this, sticking to straightforward declarations of hue. Light ale and dunkel were served. For dessert there was usually a gluckschmerz pie, with the fluffy look and heft of a small snowbank. After any meal, sleepiness ensued.
Now, however, away and on my own, seduced and salted by brown sauce, I felt myself thinning and alive. The Asian owners let me linger over my books and stay as long as I wanted to: “Take your tie! No lush!” they said kindly as they sprayed the neighboring tables with disinfectant. I ate mango and papaya and nudged the stringy parts out of my teeth with a cinnamon toothpick. I had one elegantly folded cookie—a short paper nerve baked in an ear. I had a handleless cup of hot, stale tea, poured and reheated from a pail stored in the restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator.
I would tug the paper slip from the stiff clutches of the cookie and save it for a bookmark. All my books had fortunes protruding like tiny tails from their pages. You are the crispy noodle in the salad of life. You are the master of your own destiny. Murph had always added the phrase “in bed” to any fortune cookie fortune, so in my mind I read them that way, too: You are the master of your own destiny. In bed. Well, that was true. Debt is a seductive liar. In bed. Or the less-well-translated Your fate will blossom like a bloom.
Or the sly, wise guy: A refreshing change is in your future.
Sometimes, as a better joke, I added though NOT in bed.
You will soon make money. Or: Wealth is a wise woman’s man.
Though NOT in bed.
And so I needed a job. I had donated my plasma several times for cash, but the last time I had tried the clinic had turned me away, saying my plasma was cloudy from my having eaten cheese the night before. Cloudy Plasma! I would be the bass guitarist! It was so hard not to eat cheese! Even the whipped and spreadable kind we derisively called “cram cheese” (because it could be used for sealing windows and caulking tile) had a certain soothing allure. I looked daily at the employment listings. Childcare was in demand: I turned in my final papers and answered the ads.
One forty-ish pregnant woman after another hung up my coat, sat me in her living room, then waddled out to the kitchen, got my tea, and waddled back in, clutching her back, slopping tea onto the saucer, and asking me questions. “What would you do if our little baby started crying and wouldn’t stop?” “Are you available evenings?” “What do you think of as a useful educational activity for a small child?” I had no idea. I had never seen so many pregnant women in such a short period of time—five in all. It alarmed me. They did not look radiant. They looked reddened with high blood pressure and frightened. “I would put him in a stroller and take him for a walk,” I said. I knew my own mother had never asked such questions of anyone. “Dolly,” she said to me once, “as long as the place was moderately fire resistant, I’d deposit you anywhere.”
“Moderately?” I queried. She rarely called me by my name, Tassie. She called me Doll, Dolly, Dollylah, or Tassalah.
“I wasn’t going to worry and interfere with you.” She was the only Jewish woman I’d ever known who felt like that. But she was a Jewish woman married to a Lutheran farmer named Bo and perhaps because of that had the same indifferent reserve the mothers of my friends had. Halfway through my childhood I came to guess that she was practically blind as well. It was the only explanation for the thick glasses she failed often even to find. Or for the kaleidoscope of blood vessels burst, petunia-like, in her eyes, scarlet blasting into the white from mere eyestrain, or a careless swipe with her hand. It explained the strange way she never quite looked at me when we were speaking, staring at a table or down at a tile of a floor, as if halfheartedly plotting its disinfection while my scarcely controlled rage flew from my mouth in sentences I hoped would be, perhaps not then but perhaps later, like knives to her brain.
“Will you be in town for Christmas break?” the mothers asked.
I sipped at the tea. “No, I’m going home. But I will be back in January.”
“When in January?”
I gave them my references and a written summary of my experience. My experience was not all that much—just the Pitskys and the Schultzes back home. But as experience, too, I had once, as part of a class project on human reproduction, carried around for an entire week a sack of flour the exact weight and feel of an infant. I’d swaddled it and cuddled it and placed it in safe, cushioned places for naps, but once, when no one was looking, I stuffed it in my backpack with a lot of sharp pens, and it got stabbed. My books, powdery white the rest of the term, became a joke in the class. I left this out of my résumé, however.
But the rest I’d typed up. To gild the lily-livered, as my dad sometimes said, I was wearing what the department stores called “a career jacket,” and perhaps the women liked the professionalism of that. They were professionals themselves. Two were lawyers, one was a journalist, one was a doctor, one a high school teacher. Where were the husbands? “Oh, at work,” the women all said vaguely. All except the journalist, who said, “Good question!”
The last house was a gray stucco prairie house with a chimney cloaked in dead ivy. I had passed the house earlier in the week—it was on a corner lot and I’d seen so many birds there. Now there was just a flat expanse of white. Around the whiteness was a low wood Qual Line fence, and when I pushed open its gate it slipped a little; one of its hinges was loose and missing a nail. I had to lift the gate to relatch it. This maneuver, one I’d performed any number of times in my life, gave me a certain satisfaction—of tidiness, of restoration, of magic me!—when in fact it should have communicated itself as something else: someone’s ill-disguised decrepitude, items not cared for properly but fixed repeatedly in a make-do fashion, needful things having gotten away from their caregiver. Soon the entire gate would have to be held together with a bungee cord, the way my father once fixed a door in our barn.
Two slate steps led, in an odd mismatch of rock, downward to a flagstone walk, all of which, as well as the grass, wore a light dusting of snow—I laid the first footprints of the day; perhaps the front door was seldom used. Some desiccated mums were still in pots on the porch. Ice frosted the crisp heads of the flowers. Leaning against the house were a shovel and a rake, and shoved into the corner two phone books still in shrink-wrap.