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I Cannot Tell a Lie, Exactly: And Other Stories

I Cannot Tell a Lie, Exactly: And Other Stories

by Mary Ladd Gavell

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It is the stuff of fiction: A collection of stories, never made public, is lost in a drawer for thirty years until, miraculously, the stories are discovered and published. It is also the true story of the book you are holding in your hands.

Mary Ladd Gavell died in 1967 at the age of forty-seven, having published nothing in her lifetime. She was the managing


It is the stuff of fiction: A collection of stories, never made public, is lost in a drawer for thirty years until, miraculously, the stories are discovered and published. It is also the true story of the book you are holding in your hands.

Mary Ladd Gavell died in 1967 at the age of forty-seven, having published nothing in her lifetime. She was the managing editor of Psychiatry magazine in Washington, D.C., and after her death, her colleagues ran her story "The Rotifer" in the magazine as a tribute. The story was, somehow, plucked from that nonliterary journal and selected for The Best American Short Stories 1967. And again, thirty-three years later, "The Rotifer" emerged from near obscurity when John Updike selected it for The Best American Short Stories of the Century. In his Introduction to that collection, Updike called Gavell's story a "gem" and said that her writing was "feminism in literary action."
"The Rotifer" has remained, until now, Gavell's only published work.

The sixteen stories collected here include the anthologized classic "The Rotifer," in which a young woman learns the extent to which a bit of innocent interference, or the refusal to interfere, can change the course of lives. "The Swing" depicts a mother's strange reconnection to her adult son's childhood as she is summoned outside, night after night, by the creak of his old swing. "Baucis" introduces a woman longing for widowhood who is cheated of the respite she craves and whose last words are tragically misunderstood by her family. The title story, based on the last-minute announcement by Gavell's own son that he was in a school play, is infused with the gentle humor and vivid insights that make all of Mary Ladd Gavell's stories timeless and utterly beguiling.

With the publication of I Cannot Tell a Lie, Exactly, Mary Ladd Gavell takes her rightful place among the best writers of her, and our, time.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The story behind this collection is nearly as intriguing as the collection itself. The late Gavell was the managing editor of Psychiatry magazine and wrote stories, all unpublished, in her spare time. When she died at the age of 47 in 1967, the magazine published one of her stories "The Rotifer" as a tribute. The story was chosen for 1968's Best American Short Stories and then tabbed last year by John Updike for the Best American Short Stories of the Century, standing alongside those of Cather, Fitzgerald, Bellow, Carver and others. The 16 short fictions collected here prove that "The Rotifer" was no fluke; its easy complexity and sudden punch may remind readers of Alice Munro. Gavell's territory is that quintessential 1960s phenomenon, the nuclear family. With straightforward, cutting prose she unveils lives of elegant despair, much like Lorrie Moore, if Moore's characters were housewives who made appearances at the American Legion Hall. In "The Swing," an elderly woman is patiently sharing a house with an ailing husband. Their only son, emotionally reserved and uncommunicative, lives on the other side of town. One evening he walks into her backyard except that it's her son of 30 years earlier, a warm, enthusiastic seven-year-old boy. The denouement is a gentle surprise. Gavell demonstrates her range in "Sober, Exper., Work Guar.," in which she inhabits the unconsciously funny voice of a working-class plasterer plying his trade in an upper-class home. If anything dates these stories, it's that they feature neat endings, but many readers may find comfort in that now-rare style of short-story writing. Anthony Gavell's tribute to his mother and an introduction by Kaye Gibbons illuminateGavell's qualities as a writer and as a woman of her times. Agent, David McCormick. (Aug. 21) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Gavell's only published story, the puzzling but intriguing "The Rotifer," appeared posthumously in 1967 but was selected for The Best American Short Stories of that year and then again by John Updike as one of the Best American Short Stories of the Century. It is collected here with the other stories Gavell, an editor at Psychiatry magazine, wrote in her spare time. They are a mixed bag: most focus on fairly routine domestic issues but with an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and rage. In "Boys," a mother addresses her instinctual fear of the mysterious male species. "Baucis" tells of a woman whose family patronizes her and fails to understand her, right up to and beyond her death. The less successful stories employ flat, stock characters that seem to exist only to illustrate a predetermined point. The title tale is a charming family scene, though perhaps a bit too cute and with a telegraphed resolution. For larger public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/01.] Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
From Gavell (1919-67), 16 mostly rural stories, many set in the south of Texas where she was born. Kaye Gibbons calls Gavell's work "magnificent," places it in the "ageless, classic grand era" of the American short story and declares its life-blood to come from its use of "our regional language." It's true that the pieces-all perfectly honed-do evoke the classic tones of, say, Eudora Welty or Katherine Anne Porter. But at the same time they're often thin to the point of anemia or familiar enough to seem more antique than classic. At her best, Gavell is very good, as in "The Rotifer" (included in "The Best American Short Stories "for 1968 and in the best of the century in 2000), an adept placing together of three disparate but similar moments in a young woman's life. Elsewhere, though, she relies on melodramatic extremes of character to push a story into being at the cost of psychological depth, as in "Penelope," where a middle-class girl gives a gift to poor Mexicans; "Lois in the Country," about an almost perversely reserved and cautious mother; or "His Beautiful Handwriting," about a schoolteacher whose well-known mentor was insensitive and bigoted. Sometimes the stories remain at the level of little more than anecdote, as do "Yankee Traders" (a couple goes antiquing) and the title story (a schoolboy tells his mother he needs a play costume-the next day). Still, in execution Gavell never stumbles, and when her ambitions rise to the level of her abilities, the results can be notable-as in the elegantly simple closing tale, "The Blessing," about belief, marriage, and the nature of dedication over three generations of a rural Texas family. Dubiously substantial enough for an entirevolume, though two or three well worthy entrants help carry the rest along.
From the Publisher
“Everyone should have this book on their shelf...for the pleasure of reading a perfect story again and again.”
—Chicago Sun-Times

“[Stories of] wives, mothers and daughters who know more than they say and subtly question the conventional surfaces of their lives...In her best work, Gavell’s prose is both light and deep, wry, with a quick, sharp edge.”
—The New York Times Book Review

“Like Grace Paley, Gavell takes the slice-of-life incident and transforms it into something more...with resonance and meaning.”
—San Francisco Chronicle

“Her stories made the ordinary compelling and often jabbed the sad and serious with an elbow of humor....[I Cannot Tell a Lie, Exactly] helps elevate the short story to a national art form.”
—The Seattle Times

“Replete with an understated wisdom and humor that make one regret that the book will have no encore.”
—Time Out New York

“Each [story] is a perfect gem....John Updike selected ‘The Rotifer’ for The Best American Short Stories of the Century, but any of the pieces in [this] collection could be rightly chosen for this honor.”

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The Swing

As she grew old, she began to dream again. She had not dreamed much in her middle years; or, if she had, the busyness of her days, converging on her the moment she awoke, had pushed her dreams right out of her head, and any fragments that remained were as busy and prosaic as the day itself. She had only the one son, James, but she had also mothered her younger sister after their parents died, and she had done all of the office work during the years when her husband’s small engineering firm was getting on its feet. And Julius’s health had not been too good, even then; it was she who had mowed the lawn and had helped Jamie to learn to ride his bicycle and pitched balls to him in the backyard until he learned to hit them.

But she was dreaming again now, as she had when she was a child. Oh, not the lovely, foolish dreams of finding oneself alone in a candy store, or the horrible dreams of being pursued through endless corridors without doors by nameless terrors. But as her days grew in quietness and solitude—for James was grown and gone, and Julius was drawing in upon himself, becoming every day more small and chill and dim—color and life and drama were returning to her dreams.

But on that first night when she heard the creak of the swing, she did not think that she was dreaming at all. She had been lying in bed quite awake, she thought, in the little room that used to be Jamie’s—for nowadays her reading in bed, and afterward her tossing and turning, disturbed Julius. The swing was not an ordinary one. Julius had put it up, in one of the few flashes of poetry in all his worrisome, hardworking life, when Jamie was only a baby and nowhere near old enough to swing in it. The ladder Julius had was not tall enough, and he had to buy a new one, for the tree was tremendous and the branch on which he proposed to hang the swing arched a full forty feet from the ground, and much thought and consideration and care were given to the chain, and the hooks, and the seat. The swing was suspended from so high, and its arc was so wide, that riding in it was like sailing through the air with the leisurely swoop of a wheeling bird. One seemed to travel from one horizon to the other. And how proud Julius had been of it when Jamie was old enough to swing in it, and the neighborhood children had stood around to admire and be given a turn, for there was no other swing like it.

The swing was hardly ever used now; it was only a treat, once in a while, for a visiting child, and occasionally when she was outside working in her flower border she would sit and rest in it for a moment or two, idling, pushing herself a little with a toe. But the rhythmic creak of the chains was so familiar that she could not mistake it, she thought. Could the wind be strong enough to move it, if it came from the right angle? She finally gave up thinking about it and went to sleep.

Nor did she think of it the next day, for they were due for Sunday dinner at James’s house. He lived in a suburb on the opposite side of the city—just the right distance away, she often thought, far enough so that aging parents could not meddle and embarrass and interfere, but near enough so that she could see him fairly often. She loved him with all her heart, her dear, her only son. She was enormously proud of him, too; he was a highly paid mathematician in a research foundation, an expert in a field so esoteric that she had given up trying to grasp its point. But secretly she took some credit, for it was she—who had kept the engineering firm’s books balanced and done the income tax—who had played little mathematical games with him before he had ever gone to school and had sat cross-legged with him on the floor tossing coins to test the law of probability. Oh, they had had fun together in all sorts of ways; they had done crossword puzzles together, and studied the stars together, and read books together that were over his head and sometimes over hers too. And he had turned out well; he was a scholar, and a success, and a worthy citizen, and he had a pretty wife, a charming home, and two handsome children. She could not have asked for more. He was the light and the warmth of her life, and her heart beat fast on the way to his house.

She drove. She had always enjoyed driving, and nowadays Julius, who used to insist on doing it himself, let her do it without a word. They drove in silence mostly, but her heart was as light as the wind that blew on her face, and she hummed under her breath, for she was on her way to see James. Julius said querulously, “I could have told you you’d get into a lot of traffic this way and you’d do better to go by the river road, but I knew you wouldn’t listen,” but she was so happy that she forbore to mention that whenever she took the river road he remarked how much longer it was, and only answered, “I expect you’re quite right, Julius. We’ll come back that way.”

They did go home by the river road, and it seemed very long; she was a little depressed, as she often was when she returned from James’s house. “I love him with all my heart”—the words walked unbidden into her mind—“but I wish that when I ask him how he is he wouldn’t tell me that there is every likelihood that the Basic Research Division will be merged with the Statistics Division.” He had kissed her on the cheek, and Anne, his wife, had kissed her on the cheek, and the two children had kissed her on the cheek, and he had slipped a footstool under her feet and had seated his father away from drafts, and they had had a fire in the magnificent stone fireplace the architect had dreamed up and the builder added to the cost, and Anne had served them an excellent dinner, and the children had, on request, told her of suitable A’s in English and Boy Scout merit badges. They had asked her how she had been, and she told them, in a burst of confidence, that she had had the ancient piano tuned and had been practicing an hour a day. They looked puzzled. “What are you planning to do with it, Mother?” Anne asked. “Oh, well nothing, really,” she said, embarrassed. She said later on that she had been reading books on China for she was so terribly ignorant about it, and they asked politely how her eyes were holding up, and when she said that she was sick of phlox and was going to dig it all up and try iris, James said mildly, “You really shouldn’t do all that heavy gardening anymore, Mother.” They were loving, they were devoted, and it was the most pleasant of ordinary family Sunday afternoons. James told her that he had another salary increase, and that the paper he had delivered before the Mathematical Research Institute had been, he felt he could say without exaggeration, most well received, and that they were getting a new station wagon. But what, she wondered, did he feel, what did he love and hate, and what upset him or made him happy, and what did he look forward to? Nonsense, she thought, I can’t expect him to tell me his secret thoughts. People can’t, once they’re grown, to their parents. But the terrible fear rose in her that these were his secret thoughts, and that was all there was.

That night she heard the swing again, the gentle, regular creak of the chains. What can be making that noise, she wondered, for it was a still night, with surely not enough wind to stir the swing. She asked Julius the next day if he ever heard a creaking sound at night, a sound like the swing used to make. Julius peered out from his afghan and said deafly, “Hah?” and she answered irritably, “Oh, never mind.” The afghan maddened her. He was always chilly nowadays, and she had knitted the afghan for him for Christmas, working on it in snatches when he was out from under foot for a bit, with a vision of its warming his knees as they sat together in the evenings, companionably watching television, or reading, or chatting. But he sat less and less with her in the evenings; he went to bed very early nowadays, and he had taken to wearing the afghan daytimes around his shoulders like a shawl. She was sorry immediately for her irritation, and she tried to be very thoughtful of him the rest of the day. But he didn’t seem to notice; he noticed so little now.

Other things maddened her too. She decided that she should get out more and, heartlessly abandoning Julius, she made a luncheon date with Jessie Carling, who had once been a girl as gay and scatterbrained as a kitten. Jessie spent the entire lunch discussing her digestion and the problem of making the plaids match across the front in a housecoat she was making for herself. A couple of days later, she paid a call on Joyce Simmons, who had trouble with her back and didn’t get out much, and Joyce told her in minute detail about her son, dwelling, in full circumstantial detail, on the virtues of him, his wife, and his children. She held her tongue, though it was hard. My trouble, she thought wryly, is that I think my son is so really superior that a kind of noblesse oblige forces me not to mention it.

The next time she heard it was several nights later. She sat up in bed and, half aloud, said, “I’m not dreaming, and it certainly is the swing!” She threw on her robe and her slippers and went downstairs, feel- ing her way in the dark carefully, for though sounds seemed not to reach Julius, lights did wake him. Softly she unlocked the back door and, stepping out into the moonlight, picked her way through the wet grass, holding her nightgown up a little. When she got beyond the thick grove of trees and in sight of the big oak, she saw it, swooping powerfully through the air in its wide arc, and the shock it gave her told her that she had not really believed it. There was a child in the swing, and she paused with a terrible fear clutching at her. Could it be a sleepwalking child from somewhere in the neighborhood? And would it be dangerous to call out to the child, or would it be better to go up and put out a hand to catch the swing gently and stop it? She walked nearer softly and slowly, afraid to startle the child, her heart beating with panicky speed. It seemed to be a little boy and, she noticed, he was dressed in ordinary clothes, not pajamas, as a sleepwalker might be. Nearer she came, still undecided what she should do, shaking with fear and strangeness.

She saw then that it was James. “Jamie?” she cried out questioningly, and immediately shrank back, feeling that she must be making some kind of terrible mistake. But he looked and saw her, and, bright in the moonlight, his face lit up, as it had used to do when he saw her, and he answered gaily, “Mommy!”

She ran to him and stopped the swing—he had slowed down when he saw her—and knelt on the mossy ground and put her arms around him and he put his arms around her and squeezed tight. “I’m so glad to see you!” she cried. “It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen you!”

“I’m glad to see you too,” he cried, grinning, and kissed her teasingly behind the ear, for he knew it gave her goose bumps. “You know,” he said, “I like this swing. I like to swing better than anything, and I can pretend I’m a pilot flying an airplane, and sometimes I go r-r-r-r and that’s the engine.”

“Well,” she said, “it is sort of like flying. Like an airplane, or maybe like a bird. Do you remember, Jamie, when you used to want to be a bird and would wave your arms and try to fly?”

“That was when I was a real little kid,” he said scornfully.

She suddenly realized that she didn’t know how old he was. One tooth was out in front; could that have been when he was six? Or seven? Surely not five? One forgot so much. She couldn’t very well ask him; he would think that very odd, for a mother, of all people, should know. She noticed, then, his red checked jacket hanging on the nail on the tree; Julius had given him that jacket for his sixth birthday, she remembered now; he had loved it and had insisted on carrying it with him all the time, even when it was too warm to wear it, and Julius had driven a little nail in the oak tree for him to hang it on while he swung; the nail was still there, old and rusty.

“Mommy, how high does an airplane fly?” he asked.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, “two thousand feet, maybe.”

“How much is a foot?”

“Oh, about as long as Daddy’s foot—I guess that’s why they call it that.”

“Have people always been the same size?”

“Well, not exactly. They say people are getting a little bigger, and that most people are a little bigger than their great-granddaddies were.”

“Well [she saw the trap too late], then if feet used not to be as big, why did they call it a foot?”

“I don’t know. Maybe that isn’t why they call it a foot. We should look it up in the dictionary.”

“Does a dictionary tell you everything?”

“Not everything. Just about words and what they mean and how they started to mean that.”

“But if there’s a word for everything, and if a dictionary tells you about every word, then how can it help but tell you about everything?”

“Well,” she said, “you’ve got a good point there. I’ll have to think that one over.”

Another time he would ask, “Why is it, if the world is turning round all the time, we don’t fall off?”

“Gravity. You know what a magnet is. The earth is just like a big magnet.”

“But where is the gravity? If you pick up a handful of dirt, it doesn’t have any gravity.”

“Well, I don’t know. The center of the earth, I guess. Well, I don’t really know,” she said.

She felt as if the wheels of her mind, rusty from disuse, were beginning to turn again, as if she had not engaged in a real conversation, or thought about anything real, in so long that she was like a swimmer out of practice.

They talked for an hour, and then he said he had to go, with the conscientious keeping track of time he had used to show when it was time to go to school.

“See you later, alligator,” he said, and the answer sprang easily to her lips: “After a while, crocodile.”

He came every night or two after that, and she lay in bed in happy anticipation, listening for the creak of the swing. She did not go out in her robe again; she hastily dressed herself properly, and put on her shoes, for she had always felt that a mother should look tidy and proper. There by the swing they sat, and they talked about the stars and where the Big Dipper was, and about what you do about a boy who is sort of mean to you at school all the time, not just now and then, the way most children are to each other, only they don’t especially mean it, and about what you should say in Sunday school when they say the world was made in six days but your mother has explained it differently, and about why the days get shorter in winter and longer in summer.

She bloomed; she sang around the house until even Julius noticed it, and said, disapprovingly, “You seem to be awfully frisky lately.” And when Anne phoned apologetically to say that they would have to call off Sunday dinner because James had to attend a committee meeting, she was not only perfectly understanding—as she always tried to be in such instances—but she put down the phone with an utterly light heart, and took up her song where she had left it off.

Then one night, after they had talked for an hour, Jamie said, “I have to go now, and I don’t think I can come again, Mommy.”

“Okay,” she said, and whatever reserve had supplied the cheerful matter-of-factness with which she had once taken him to the hospital to have his appendix out, when he was four, came to her aid and saw to it that there was not a tremor in her voice or a tear in her eye. She kissed him, and then she sat and watched as he walked down the little back lane that had taken him to school, and off to college, and off to a job, and finally off to be married—and he turned, at the bend in the road, and waved to her, as he always used to do.

When he was out of sight, she sat on the soft mossy ground and rested her arms in the swing and buried her face in them and wept. How long she had sat there, she did not know, when a sound made her look up. It was Julius, standing there, frail and stooped, in the moonlight, in his nightshirt with the everlasting afghan hung around his thin old shoulders. She hastily tried to rearrange her attitude, to somehow make it look as if she was doing something quite reasonable, sitting there on the ground with her head pillowed on the swing in the middle of the night. Julius had always felt she was a little foolish and needed a good deal of admonishing, and now he would think she was quite out of her mind and talk very sharply to her.

But his cracked old voice spoke mildly. “He went off and left his jacket,” he said.

She looked, and there was the little red jacket hanging on the nail.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Mary Ladd Gavell was born in Cuero, Texas, in 1919 and graduated from Texas A&M University in 1940. She married Stefan Gavell in 1953, and the couple had two sons. They lived in Washington, D.C., where Mary Gavell worked at Psychiatry magazine. She died in 1967.

From the Hardcover edition.

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