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In Short Measures: Three Novellas

In Short Measures: Three Novellas

by Michael Ruhlman

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“Fans of Michael Ruhlman’s nonfiction and new readers alike will marvel, as I did, at his fictional debut. Ruhlman writes with intelligence and grace about the things that matter: love and loss and redemption. This is a literary achievement of the first order.” —Ann Hood, award-winning and bestselling author of The Knitting Circle<


“Fans of Michael Ruhlman’s nonfiction and new readers alike will marvel, as I did, at his fictional debut. Ruhlman writes with intelligence and grace about the things that matter: love and loss and redemption. This is a literary achievement of the first order.” —Ann Hood, award-winning and bestselling author of The Knitting Circle

In his three novellas, “In Short Measures,” “Strong Conspirators,” and “Sally Forth,” Michael Ruhlman delves deeply into the nuanced complexity of romantic and sexual love—and the inevitable evolution of the heart over the span of years and decades.

Each novella asks questions about the nature of love in terms of loyalty and fidelity—what are our obligations toward one’s spouse, one’s family, and one’s heart? In the first novella, “In Short Measures,” these questions are bound up in a writer’s work and a long-ago love. In the second, “Strong Conspirators,” an unforeseen, cataclysmic event calls for responses from a husband and wife that have never been rehearsed—because they have never been required nor even imagined. In “Sally Forth,” a pair of old friends are forced to explore lost youth and lost love, relative to maturity, marriage, and the passage of time.

Profoundly thought-provoking and satisfying, these novellas are beautifully written with plot twists from beginning to end that will captivate the reader.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Bestselling food writer Ruhlman (The Soul of a Chef) turns to another form of sustenance—love—in these three novellas. In the emotionally satisfying title story, the longest in the book, Grimsley Feller is a middle-aged single woman, a curator of Duke University’s rare books collection. One day, on campus, she bumps into Emerson Randall, the man who, when they were students at Duke 25 years ago, was the love of her life. He is back to attend the memorial service of his one-time mentor. Now a Hollywood writer, and married with children, he and Grimsley excavate their shared past and wind up in bed together. The consequences of this act form the basis for a soap opera-ish situation that the author rescues through his sensitive handling of Grimsley’s predicament and how she negotiates it. In “Strong Conspirators,” a middle-aged husband and wife find the bonds of their relationship tested when an automobile accident forces one of them to make a huge sacrifice. This intense, gripping story will keep readers hooked. In “Sally Forth,” a less consequential variation on the first story, with echoes of James Salter, two former college lovers from 20 years ago meet accidentally in New York City, where they find that, though both married, they are still attracted to one another. Although all three stories are narrow in terms of the variety of characters and the social worlds they explore, they are deep in their exploration of the characters’ divided hearts, making Ruhlman’s trio a worthy read. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
A bestselling food writer tries his hand at fiction.After 20 nonfiction books and cookbook collaborations, Ruhlman (Egg, 2014, etc.) has written three novellas linked by themes of nostalgia, midlife sexuality, marital fidelity (or lack thereof), and drunk driving. The first, In Short Measures, set at Duke University, explores a midlife reconnection between college lovers occasioned by the funeral of an important writing professor. The woman has remained at the college as a classic single-lady librarian; the man is a successful screenwriter in Los Angeles, married with children. Despite much literary window dressing—Gatsby is read aloud in its entirety; Ben Jonson and Shakespeare make contributions—the story of this interrupted affair has a bit of a romance-novel feel. The third story, Sally Forth, is similar to the first: again college lovers, one of whom is a writer, are center stage; again, their reconnection has dramatic consequences; again, the action is set among references to Hardy, Nabokov, Dickinson, etc. Fortunately, these two are separated by a quite different story, perhaps the most successful of the three. Strong Conspirators is more of an emotional thriller than a romance. Here, the central couple has good reason to yearn for "the way we were" since they are currently embroiled in covering up the truth about an alcohol-fueled vehicular homicide a few days before Christmas. The wife, who wasn't even in the car, lies to the police to protect her husband; the questions of whether or not they will get away with it and who they will become because of it create the most powerful narrative momentum in the collection. Strong Conspirators, which doesn't have characters who are writers and is not filled with literary hat-tipping, suggests the direction Ruhlman might best pursue if he continues to play this side of the street. The rarely seen but quite enjoyable novella form serves this maiden effort well.
From the Publisher

"A bestselling food writer tries his hand at fiction. . . . The rarely seen but quite enjoyable novella form serves this maiden effort well." —Kirkus Reviews

"... with echoes of James Salter, . . . [these novellas] are deep in their exploration of the characters' divided hearts." —Publisher's Weekly

"Ruhlman dispels the notion that novellas don’t allow for a well-developed narrative. In Short Measures is rich, textured, and carefully constructed not only for surprises, but also with a powerful love of language and description throughout." —Washington Independent Review of Books

"Fans of Michael Ruhlman's nonfiction and new readers alike will marvel, as I did, at his fictional debut. Ruhlman writes with intelligence and grace about the things that matter: love and loss and redemption. This is a literary achievement of the first order." —Ann Hood, award-winning and bestselling author of The Knitting Circle

"In Short Measures is a propulsively well-written trio of novellas linked by a sense of loss and an inquiry into the impossible past. Ruhlman's voice is poetic and visceral, and his characters feel both familiar and strange in the way of the best fiction. This is a richly layered book, full of surprises and pleasures." —Kate Christensen, author of The Great Man, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

"In his fictional debut, Michael Ruhlman gives us three intriguing novellas about loss, regret, and the passage of time: how we lose each other and ourselves, and what we do when we reach the outer limits of the commitments we've made." —Lily King, bestselling and award-winning author of Euphoria

"The three novellas in In Short Measures take on the joys and sorrows of romance, especially middle-aged nostalgia for the lost, seemingly perfect loves of the past. 'We can't hold feelings for this long, can we?' one character wonders. Yes, Michael Ruhlman answers, we can, and just look what it does to us." —Stewart O'Nan, author of West of Sunset

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Skyhorse Publishing
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In Short Measures

Three Novellas

By Michael Ruhlman

Skyhorse Publishing

Copyright © 2015 Michael Ruhlman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63450-225-2


In Short Measures


He appeared again, in the archway one hundred feet away. Just his shadowed silhouette, his form, was visible from that distance, but I knew who he was with the suddenness of a blow to the back of my head.

I've always believed it's the ordinary lives that are the best, and given what was about to happen because of him, I'm even more certain of it. As most of us lead ordinary lives, I figure it works out right. I count myself a lucky woman to know it.

I've always accepted I wasn't put in this world for any greater purpose than daily constancy to the people around me — my family, my friends, the people I work beside. I have a job to do well each day and a small house and home in a place that matters to me. I cook for family and friends at least three times a week. When I'm greedy for more, I ask God to maintain my power to see this Carolina landscape, to inhale the birch and pine forests I came of age in, to feel the red clay between my toes, to taste the barbecue and fried okra and sweet iced tea native to my place. I've kept my girlish figure without trying, thank you — maybe my one point of pride. Sleep comes easily and my dreams are rarely troubled.

We all have an age we're dealt at birth, an age we hit when we are most ourselves. In men it's more obvious. Anyone who's half awake has encountered thirty-year-old men who are sixty in their souls and will only truly feel at home when their actual age aligns with their spiritual age. The regrettable fact is the majority of men are seventeen at heart and spend their whole adult lives trying to deny it, making themselves and the families they've created miserable. Women tend to hide (or ignore) their spiritual age and present to the world what they think the world wants to see, forever in doubt, and thinking a new haircut or handbag will change who they are so that they can be at ease, which they rarely seem to be, for any long stretch at least.

I was born aged forty-five, have dressed all my life with the same tasteful conservative style as I do today, actually forty-five, and really for the first time feeling in sync with who I am and where and what I've come to. At life's half-way mark more or less, I'm happy in my daily toil as a curator of collections in Duke University's Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, grateful for my brother and sister and their children, and lucky for the few friends I have, content even in that I'm single, relying on the odd flings to make sure the old pleasures remain available and viable. There was a time for me when sex was one of the most reliable sources of unalloyed pleasure I knew, but that's faded. Age, I guess. Today sex has become kind of like cleaning out the fridge — a bit of a hassle but it feels really good once you're done.

Again: good work, good family, good friends, in a place I love. I've seen enough of people to know that this is the best of all possible worlds, and that those called upon by God or Darwin to greatness, whether in the arts, or statesmanship, or any kind of public life, and certainly the very wealthy or very famous, aren't happy more often than not. Certainly the desire for any of it — money, fame, power — is a sentence to spiritual purgatory.

But I once suspected I had an actual purpose, and I write now with a renewed sense of it: to be there for Em, to watch him and give him whatever he needed, and now may need still. Loving him was a hard side effect of my need to fill his, to tell him it was okay, to let him know that his recklessness and narcissism were necessary for what he aimed to accomplish, was part of the fuel of his ambition, and that his genuine love of the world was his own gift to those who loved him, no matter who he'd burn through in his own hurtle through life.

There, like that, I was utterly and absolutely content the afternoon of May 18, 2010, a warm day, just four months ago, in a smooth navy dress, straight brown hair just long enough to keep in a neat ponytail, frameless spectacles befitting my bookish self. There I was, standing in Duke's main quad when he reappeared, descending the steps of the archway where I'd first seen him twenty-five years earlier. There I was, and then I wasn't.

* * *

One of the qualities that set Em apart, I would come to know after a few short years of obsessive watching long ago, was the fact that he seemed to be both thirteen and seventy, and these opposing forces — unmanageable passions and intensity paired with seeming wisdom (or what seemed like it; how would I have known wisdom at age twenty?), barefooted, swami-like calm, understanding, and humor in the face of a world that was fun, kind, absurd at best, but also terrible, even murderous. That was the boy I knew. Aware, and accepting, of it all.

When did I know I loved him? You probably won't buy this, and fine if you don't, but I felt I'd already been loving him since before I laid eyes on him. Is that kind of thing possible? I know just enough of this world to answer yes, it is. This story is further proof. A world this cruel and wonderful is bound by mysteries we cannot fathom but are obliged to try, anyone with a brain and heart anyhow. What was it that Nabokov wrote, was it in Speak, Memory, Pale Fire, an interview? I cherish the Southern people of letters, our Faulkners and Weltys, The Great Man we were to celebrate on this day. But the words of the rootless Russian genius are the ones at the center of my own heart. It was an interview — I found my paperback, Strong Opinions — and the words I'm writing down here were in response to a question: "Do you believe in a Divine Being?"

Nabokov's response: "To be quite candid — and what I am going to say now is something I never said before, and I hope it provokes a salutary little chill — I know more than I can express in words, and the little I can express would not have been expressed, had I not known more."

That's exactly how I feel about love — that the world is that mysterious, that the heart knows depths that cannot be put into words or actions, and that we are obliged to search and try at least to understand, knowing full well that, were we to be successful in that search, it would only be to deepen the mystery, which would demand deeper quests. Forever. That really is the only proof of success in understanding this world, to have deepened, or in some way enhanced, the mystery. This is why I believe that it was possible already to have been in love with Em the moment I saw him, my body primed just for him, a few days before he began his freshman year at Duke University. Is there a reason why? If there is, I can't say it. I just know it.

Beheld him, more like. He appeared within the archway to the main quad, his strawberry-blond hair aglow in the late-afternoon sun streaming in through the willow oaks, a blue t-shirt, torn at the shoulder, faded jeans, and bare feet. He led a small pack of fellow freshman who looked their age, but the only way I knew Em to be a freshman was that they were all headed to a freshman orientation gathering I was helping to run. He was older by far inside, plain to see. (The thirteen-year-old part wouldn't come out for another thirty-six hours.)

I remember it today as if it had just happened because it's simply one of those moments. You don't forget. This boy seemed literally to glow, while his classmates remained muted, as if they were on the other side of an unwashed window while he alone stood in front of it to catch the sun. His laugh was the first note of his voice I was given, and then a sentence: "Where's the fun in that?" Easy and self-confident, smiling, but he took no notice of the three juniors on the bench outside our dorm as he passed. We were there on their behalf, volunteers to be mentors to the incoming class, Freshman Advisory Counselors, FACs, we were called. My best friend Amanda, Amanda's best friend Sterly, and me, and it took a few minutes for Amanda's words — "Dog in heat, dog in heat!" — to register and then, turning to her, one moment more to realize she was referring to me. And Sterly said, "Grimsley, your face just turned red as a sunset."

I put my elbow hard into Amanda's side and said, "Y'all." I couldn't think of anything more. The boy had wiped my brain clean. "Come on, we're gonna be late."

* * *

I was seven when Daddy got a teaching job here and we moved from Goose Creek, South Carolina, north to Durham. While I don't recollect much from my youth, I did hang on to the thick South Carolina accent of my mother, proudly, I should add, as well as a perpetual hunger for tidewater shrimp and grits for breakfast anytime I'm up before 6 a.m.

I'm not naturally a sneak but that day long ago I did find out the boy's name quickly and made sure he was on the list of freshman I'd be assigned to that afternoon in the Duke Gardens. It was easy because he had a name he himself thought slightly preposterous. We'd gathered into our groups on the big lawn there and I called his name as if I didn't know who'd respond: "Emerson Randall?"

He smiled self-consciously and said, "Just call me Em, please."

"Why? Emerson's an interesting name," I said.

He looked at his bare feet and said, "Maybe if I were a nineteenth-century Chicago banker."

"Well, at least you weren't saddled with a name like mine."

"Which is?"


He looked up from his feet at me then and smiled, our eyes locked for that first indelible time, and the glow came on again, as if by a self-controlled inner hemostat. I thought for a moment he loved me too, or would soon, or at least could, but I'd quickly see he turned that inner light on for just about anyone who caught his attention. He smiled his natural and easy smile, all full of big white teeth straight out of a Pepsident commercial, fixed his speckled, hazelgold eyes on me, and asked, "What kind of a name is that?"

"Family name, a long line of South Carolina Grimsleys, by way of Kentucky."

"Grimsley what?"


Didn't think it possible but his smile got even bigger until it segued into an easy laugh. "Grimsley Felder," he said. He held out his hand. "Grimsley Felder." The grin dimming not one watt.

I only hoped he didn't notice how my jugular throbbed. This Yankee boy, not yet eighteen I'd learn, was completely at ease five hundred miles from his lower-middle-class suburban Chicago home — something of a hard-scrabble family, I'd learn; he was here on a scholarship — in a sea of strangers at a big new university, and had me two years his senior and unaccustomed to strong emotion, straining for composure.

And twenty-five years later, twenty-five years, as if planned by God, punishment for my contented complacency, I happened to be in Duke's main quad, smoothing my navy dress, feeling every bit the middle-aged woman that I was, having left the Bryan Center, turned to my right, and there, in the archway, he appeared again. As I said, from that distance, just his silhouette, his frame in the shadow of the arch, was visible, but I knew who it was with the suddenness of an actual blow to my head.


I watched Emerson descend the steps and kept on watching until I became self-conscious, then turned and faced in the direction he walked so he'd only see my back if he looked my way. I took a slug from the water bottle I carried. I'd seen enough and did not need an encounter just then. Too stunned. I felt like a storm-blown tree partly uprooted, bent but standing, roots exposed. But of course, he'd been Daniel Blackmore's prize student, or one of them, and had returned to pay his respects on this day of the memorial. I hadn't known he'd be here, hadn't thought of him in years. Not that I didn't feel a part of him was deep down inside me ever since that first vision of him twenty years ago. What are we humans, we animals? How can it be that he remained inside me? Seven or eight years, at least, not a spec of him passed through my mind. Then there he was, and my soul shook. God saying to me again, behold. And what did it mean that my first emotion was anger? Diamond and multifaceted, every-faceted, my whole life, anger. What had I done?

* * *

It's end of summer now and I can finally bring myself to record these events in the early evening coolness, knowing fully and accepting the thrilling consequences of that day, the heavy August heat having finally abated. I can only now bear to think it all through and to write it down.

I saw Em, turned, closed my eyes, sucked down water, and caught my breath. My heart beat so hard I actually put my hand to my chest as if I could slow it. He passed, and I watched him till he turned left toward the Duke chapel and was out of sight.

Would he have recognized me, would he have known who I was, that boy who shared my dorm room bed more times than I can count before sailing off into his future? Probably not. Probably not.

How many different ways women can be angry. We circle a spot and our anger strikes its target from any of 360 degrees. Men are mad in a straight line. Simple but effective. We are elusive and unpredictable. Ha, they deserve it.

But why anger? He had never done me harm, intended or accidental. He'd never done anything but make me laugh, tell me stories, adore my body and please every inch of it. I had a really good body back then. All girl, smooth clear skin, perfect proportions, nothing big and nothing small, just right and intended for guys. A girlfriend kissed me once, out of nowhere, a hard, teeth-clicking kiss, and I kissed back — just from curiosity and I admit, partly from the surprise of a new experience, kissing a face with such harmless skin. But as for feeling, there was none, and I never accepted or offered a kiss to any other woman. I was glad for her kiss — what was her name, a wild one, nicknamed White Chocolate, can't remember her actual name ... I grow old. I was glad because it told me plain and clear, I was vigorously and irrevocably hetero, doomed to the sharkskin faces and urgent hard-ons of guys. And given my pleasing twenty-year-old body, I knew what most boys wanted. I just assumed that's what Em was after when he first scratched on my screened window, clinging like a cat to the tree branch. What they all wanted.

One degree of anger, in that moment and in my dry old soul, was a presumption that he wouldn't recognize me. Had I not turned and he'd cast his speckled eyes on me — that his gaze would just pass over me like a ray of sun, pushing through moving cloud cover, passing over a rock on a hillside. Sylvester with the magic pebble — read that to my nieces and nephews a thousand times — me, the rock. He'd remember me, once he knew, I was sure of that, we did share many pleasures, or I was pretty sure — no telling what life does to a person or what a person does to him or herself. We'd stopped corresponding shortly after he graduated, so I only knew what I'd read about him and that was years ago. So I'd have been surprised if he didn't remember me, but would he have recognized me on sight?

A couple years ago, I'd gone to my twenty-fifth high school reunion. What a wreck some of the guys had become. You ever doubt life can be hard as bad weather on some people, go to your thirtieth high school reunion. The women fare worse, but the guys, they either don't damn change but for a general thickening and roughening, or they're just plain different people, fat and bald with yellow teeth and old man breath. When I read a few "Hello, my name is" stickers, I clapped my hand to mouth as if in happy surprise, but I really just wanted to keep my jaw from hitting the floor in astonishment.

Anger degree number two: Emerson hadn't changed. Yes, thickened very slightly, uniformly, but no belly, trim as a young man, hair graying but just a little, still strawberry blonde, and the same easy light gait, no hurry, wondering at it all.

But unlike in my first vision, he was not smiling. His eyes were bright and he still seemed to shine, but there wasn't a trace of a smile. He walked tentatively. If anything, he looked lost, as if he couldn't remember where he was or why he was here or where he was headed.


Excerpted from In Short Measures by Michael Ruhlman. Copyright © 2015 Michael Ruhlman. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Michael Ruhlman is the bestselling author of more than twenty books that have sold more than two million combined copies. These include The Making of a Chef, The Soul of a Chef, Ratio, Egg, and the James Beard Award winning Ruhlman’s Twenty. Having made a name for himself as a food and cookbook writer, as well as a television personality, Ruhlman has always wanted to write fiction. This is his debut. He resides in Cleveland, Ohio.

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