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Labors of the Heart
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Labors of the Heart

by Claire Davis

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Set in the small towns and outlands of the American West, Claire Davis's fiction has been anthologized, published in our most respected literary magazines, and widely praised as some of the truest, most affecting prose about this region in decades. Labors of the Heart demonstrates the breadth of her talent, insight, and empathy. "Adultery" follows a


Set in the small towns and outlands of the American West, Claire Davis's fiction has been anthologized, published in our most respected literary magazines, and widely praised as some of the truest, most affecting prose about this region in decades. Labors of the Heart demonstrates the breadth of her talent, insight, and empathy. "Adultery" follows a middle-aged man who learns that his mother is cheating on her new husband. In "Grounded," a mother doggedly follows her son as he tries to run away along Montana's highways. And in the title story, a lonely man is literally struck by love for a woman he sees at the supermarket.

These stories, from the beloved author of Winter Range and Season of the Snake, trace the hidden longings of seemingly stoical people, seeking out the rifts and ruptures in their quiet lives.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Claire Davis writes beautiful stories. Let's get that much out there right away. Her new collection, Labors of the Heart, is filled with gems, plot lines and characters that stick with you long after you have put the book down.” —The Oregonian

“Davis's lyrical prose breathes startled life into the everyday problems of everyday people. . . . Tenderly and acutely illuminates the longings and desperations of the wretchedly imperfect human heart.” —Missoula Independent

“The prose is lovely. . . . Though these are quiet crises, they will echo long in the minds of readers.” —Booklist

“An excellent debut collection of short stories; many portray small-town life in the Northwest with grit and nuance.” —The Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Publishers Weekly
The ranch and logging towns of Montana and Idaho frame 10 heartfelt studies by novelist Davis (Winter Range), in which she explores the work involved when marriage fails and when it succeeds. In "Adultery," a married man with two children is the only one shocked when his mother, who has remarried, has an adulterous affair with his father/her ex-. The title story features a narrative duet played by a woman embittered by three failed marriages and an obese man who never risked loving anything other than food. In "Mouse Rampant" a wife of 40 years takes up taxidermy as a means of coping with loss. Age and experience cannot protect Davis's characters from enormous change. Most stories climax with lyrical passages conjuring big sky landscape as a metaphor of love's mystery a strength of Davis's, but one that renders several pieces too similar in tone and mood. There are some surprises, though: in "Stiff Soup," a child refusing to eat his dinner comes up with the best reason ever to be excused from the table. (Oct. 17) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

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First Edition
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Read an Excerpt

Labors of the Heart

By Davis, Claire

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2006 Davis, Claire
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780312332846

Chapter One 
For twenty years Joe Earley encouraged his mother to divorce his father. They were no good together. Fought blow for blow. Not physically, understand, but sniping, from the bedroom, over the kitchen table, outdoors, in company. They battered each other with words. And then, just when he’d given up, his mother left his father after thirty-five years, and Joe discovered, despite his brave urgings, that his parents’ divorce hurt, though by then he was himself married and had two children. Four months after the divorce, his mother married Harold, a wildlife artist—good God—who planned to make his career by winning the annual federal duck stamp competition. “Certain glory,” Harold said. A pie-in-the-sky thing, just the sort Joe’s mother always fell for.
To make matters worse, they all continued to live in the same small central Idaho town, Cordwood, where his parents had attended high school, gotten engaged, and raised their two children, and all the neighbors were the same neighbors, and everybody’s business was everybody else’s. And now this. Adultery. Especially with an ex-husband. His mother and father, and Harold—what an uncomely threesome that was. Enough to make a son pack his bags, wife, andchildren, flee the tiny town—two square blocks of one- and two-story business buildings, surrounded by single-family residences—whose only respite from boredom was gossip and the annual sausage feed. The only thing lacking? a town crier. Just beyond town were dairy farms and wheat fields interrupted by the occasional legumes, patch on patch of cultivation ending in the foothills of the Seven Devils on one side and the Gospel Range on the other.
The Devils were out today, their horned peaks white-capped and cheerful. Joe goosed his rig through the town’s three stop signs and one light, past the West One Bank and the Log In Bar, the Lewis-Clark movie house whose owner, Harvey Manners, an ex-logger Christian fundamentalist, was bankrupting himself by limiting features to G and PG. Double bill—Charlie the Lonesome Cougar and The Shaggy Dog. Again. All these years later. Maggie, his five-year-old who squirmed through double features, would suffer doggish nightmares. And his son, Ted, a glutton at eight, would want more popcorn and candy than his stomach could hold. But they’d beg to be taken. He decided his wife, Grace, could do it, though he’d like to see Charlie again, watch the log drive down the Clearwater River, the part where the wannigan—the floating cookhouse—catches on fire in the Lenore eddy, a scant forty miles from home, a river he fished for steelhead.
Off Main Street he turned on Quackamore, and four houses down pulled into the driveway. He flipped the air-conditioning off, waited before he cracked the door to the July heat that evaporated the spit in his mouth. The sprinkler was on. His son lay under it, hands crossed over his chest in imitation of the dead. Ted waved a weary hand, lifted his head to peer at his dad, and dropped it back down on the brown grass. Always brown. Just another losing battle.
He opened the screen door, called, “I’m home,”—no answer. He peeked in Maggie’s room and she was asleep on the bed, shades drawn. She was naked, her small buttocks poked up in the air the way an infant sleeps. Joe was startled and mildly embarrassed. A wanton little thing—shedding clothes in the grocery store, outdoors, at the breakfast table. His wife, Grace, was at the kitchen table, reading the classifieds.
“If we bought a dog, there’d be someone to greet me,” he said.
“Um-hmm,” she said, not looking up.
“Nice to see you home, dear, I missed you, did you have a good day, dear, would you like dinner? Some fathers come home to children grabbing him around the knees. Our son’s playing dead under the sprinkler. Our daughter’s sleeping with her bare butt stuck up in the air for God and everyone to see—”
“If we bought a cat, you’d have something to kick,” she said.
“Am I crabby?”
She crossed to him, ran her hand over his forehead, and kissed his cheek. “I’ve had a hellish day,” she said.
“How about tomorrow, I come home, the kids spread rose petals in my path, then run out and play. I walk in the house and find you sleeping with your bare butt in the air?”
“You’re right.” She laughed. “We need a dog.”
Stooping, he wrapped his arms around her. This was good, the feel of this small woman tucked in his arms, her hair smelling of strawberries, the way it mussed under his chin. In his own home. With a kitchen the color of slab butter. There might be better things in this world, but he wasn’t convinced. He wanted to believe that this was all marriage was ever meant to be, that you could live happily ever after in the same pair of arms, but evidence to the contrary was tucked in his pocket—a picture of his mother he’d discovered while lunching at his father’s house. Left out. Carelessly. Maybe purposefully—his mother in a chair, dressed in a scanty nightgown, a motel room painting behind her. And on the back, in his father’s scrawling print: Emmaline. Dated three weeks ago.
Grace squirmed in his arms. “Woof,” she said.
They took the kids to Becky’s Burgers, stuffed their bellies before packing them into bed. Then Grace baked potatoes and grilled steaks; a bottle of Merlot was airing beside chilled peaches. He’d called his mother twice, hung up both times before she answered. He didn’t mention anything of it to Grace, sneaking off like an adulterer himself to make the calls.
Grace had changed into a nightgown, the one with the thin straps that kept shrugging off her shoulders in a way he found ingenious. He loved hooking them back up, letting his thumb graze a moment longer than necessary where the little crease of skin at her armpit turned under neatly as a secret. This time the left strap had slipped. There was candlelight on the table, glass holders, and a hank of daisies. She cleared the plates before he had a chance to swab up the grease and blood with a slice of bread and detract from the mood. But after the steak, and especially after the wine, he felt compelled to tell her about his parents. Maybe his timing was off. Maybe this wasn’t quite what Grace had in mind, because after he produced the picture she hiked her own straps up, sat brooding.
“She looks good in red,” she finally said.
“That’s it? My mother’s running around with my father behind her husband’s back, and you say she looks good in red?”
She looked confused. “Well, she does. The rest isn’t my business.”
He tipped the bottle of Merlot, and a crimson stream dribbled out. “Tell me that once the word gets out.”
“You act like this is a new thing on the face of the earth. It happens all the time. Adultery.”
“Not in Idaho. Not with my mother.”
“He’s her husband—was—whatever. It’s sort of endearing. They must miss each other.” She patted his hand as if he were a misdirected child.
She was so composed, and he knew how he must look, a man whose spreading paunch belied the child he still felt like, embarrassed at the thought of his parents’ sexuality, his mother’s infidelity. Grace had taken it well, better than he’d expected, and it was clear she was willing to condone more than he could. He was caught off-balance, not just by her reaction, but by his inability to foresee it. He wasn’t so sure he knew his wife anymore. It was the wine, he decided, that made her more worldly than he, able to swallow the news like an unfortunate piece of gristle at the dinner table, then go on with the meal, with the rest of her life. “You’re saying you understand this?”
She laughed, and the tip of her tongue wicked out between her lips like a small garden snake. “Because it’s not you cheating on me.” She got serious. “Haven’t you ever thought about adultery?”
He felt the steak congeal in his stomach. He felt ill. She’d asked as if it was a familiar question, as if it was something she tarried with on a hot summer day while the kids took naps. “No,” he said, “I don’t.”
“Liar,” she said.
So, all right, he was a small-town hick who loved his wife too much to look at others. It had never occurred to him it might not be the same for her. Did she think about other men, an old high school love—Jake Bently at the hardware store—or someone he didn’t know, a newcomer to town, there were a few of them, or worse yet, some packing boy at the grocer’s? He’d believed he knew her so well—the way she sat with her heels hooked beneath her buttocks when her back hurt. The way she ground her teeth to keep from making noise when they made love, or bit the pillow—the children sleeping in the next room, the walls thin as the chambers of a heart. He’d always believed himself an observant man with a certain acumen for reading women’s needs, a skill his father had refused to develop.
“You’re really upset by this, aren’t you?” she asked.
“I feel like a fool. All those years I told her to get out, she put up with his drinking, his moods.”
“Other women?” she asked.
He shrugged. His father had been a log-truck driver. A rugged, good-looking man who came home with aching kidneys and a well-used look, that Joe, in his teen years of awakening sexuality, had come to attribute to something other than long hours behind the wheel. Curly looked used in a new way.
Joe laid his soiled napkin on the table. “And if there were other women, what’s it matter now, all these years later? She’s gone back for more.”
“Your father’s not the same person. He’s been depressed. She’s probably worried about him.” She blew out a candle.
“Worried, you check a person’s temperature, send flowers, a get well card. That’s worried.”
She ignored him, licked two fingertips, and snuffed the smoking wick between them. “But poor Harold. Do you think he knows?”
And there was that. Harold. A tidy little man who used coasters under his drinks, who painted birds, and was willing to live with all the froufrou—doilies, patchwork pillows, the wreaths of dried flowers Emmaline was so fond of. A gentle man who must have thought he’d won it all when he snatched her from Curly. No. It would never occur to Harold unless someone trumpeted it in his ears. And in Cordwood, someone would.
She blew out the second candle, led him by the hand to their room. When she lifted the gown over her head, she was beautiful, her stomach mildly pooched from childbearing with small stretch marks shining like rain on a windowpane. He thought it utterly wonderful that her body could detail their lives together. And there she was, warm and inviting and his. He felt like crying. He excused himself and went into their bathroom, where he ran the water while looking in the mirror. He had his mother’s gray eyes, full lips and narrow forehead. He felt betrayed. He wished he’d never brought any of it up, had never found the picture or visited his father that afternoon. He wished his wife were the woman he imagined her to be. He wished his parents were other than who they were.
The next morning was Saturday, a day off from his job as loan officer at the bank. He found his brother at Smitty’s Auto Repair on Fifteenth Avenue, where Chuck worked as a grease monkey. Their motto: We’ll fix your heap for a whole heap less. There was an ’84 Grand Prix on the lift. It belonged to Zack Garner, the prosecuting attorney, an avowed philanthropist without the means, who spent his salary maintaining his eight kids and the remainder on the arts—a significant need in Cordwood if you counted quilting, whittling, chain-saw sculpture. Tom Higgin’s boy was manning the pumps. One gas station, full service; they had you by the balls in this town.
Chuck was under the rear axle with a trouble light. His coveralls were striped with grease where he wiped his hands, a habit he’d acquired doing dishes at home as a child. His hair was a black swatch he swiped back off his forehead and that, by the end of the day, obeyed under a shellac of motor oil. He wore his work like a lover. Chuck knew tools: ratchet wrench, torque wrench, spark plug socket, crimper, clamp, like Joe knew spreadsheets and numbers. He envied Chuck’s down-to-earth competence, how he could listen to a motor’s ping, diagnose it, tighten the bolt, replace the part, send the car humming to its befuddled owner. Where’d he gotten that? The same place he got his looks, his straight black hair—from their father, which had left the boys to wonder how their father’d gotten the nickname.
They’d asked him once, at home, at the picnic table on a hot summer day where he sat drinking with Erv Hastings, a wanna-be mountain man who lived in the foothills of the Gospel Range, trapping in season, poaching off. Curly said Erv was a man’s man, coming down off the mountain for his monthly visit. Emmaline said Erv crawled out of the woodwork.
“Got the name from my long black curly eyelashes,” their father teased.
Erv leaned into the boy’s hearing. His breath smelled of beer and Fritos. “Don’t you know? Your daddy’s dick’s as curly as a pig’s tail. Drives women crazy.”
And then Erv was flopping back off the bench, their father’s fist still curving in a follow-through and Curly was on the man, leading him off their property like a bad dog on a short leash. And of course, they’d believed it, what Erv said, because why else would you thrash someone unless they’d given away your best secret. For months after, they’d marvel at the thought, try to get peeks of their father’s privates, inspect their own for a hint of the miraculous, until one day their mother caught them at it, and they confessed. That night she made Curly show them his. “These fool boys will grow up twisting their dicks trying to live up to you,” she said. Curly was drunk enough to be convinced. It was straight and moderately sized. But in that, at least, it wasn’t his fault he was a disappointment.
Chuck took a break, walked with Joe around the back of the building, where Joe sat on upturned soda crates and Chuck perched atop an oil drum. They drank Cokes from cans. When Joe told Chuck about their mother and father’s affair, Chuck kicked the drum with his heels, the sound poinging across the lot. “Goddamn,” he said, “I’m never getting married.”
Right now, handsome as he was, Chuck had the pick of girls, but Joe could warn him how in a town this small, someday he’d wake up to find them married away. All he’d get was older as the girls got younger. Then again, Joe thought of his mother. Wait a while and the girls would be single again, older, no wiser but readier. Enough to make a man dizzy. He thought about Grace, wished last night had been better.
“Cripes,” Chuck said. “Mom’s fifty-five. Two men?” He belched, sipped the Coke, and belched again. “What stamina. Maybe it’s genetic?” He smiled at the thought.
“Get a handle,” Joe said. But maybe it was genetic. Maybe they too were loose cannons knocking about in a small town just waiting to be damaged. He thought about his father, the handsome younger man hauling logs. How he stayed sober on runs—he had that much restraint, but afterward spent his weekends at home soured on beer. And there was some justification for it, after a week driving down mountain roads with twenty-five tons of logs chasing your heels. Joe’s mother treated her husband’s drinking like an occupational hazard—tiptoed around him, collected the checks, rang up the groceries, quarreled endlessly, sobered him, and always kissed him good-bye. Which brought up the picture of them in a motel—the bullheaded perversity of it all. “She’s got a husband, Goddamn it. Whatever Curly used to be to her, it’s different now. She’s married to Harold.”
“Harold,” Chuck said. “That sap. Never could see what she saw.”
“Like Dad’s such a catch?”
“I mean, what do they talk about anyway?” There was a sequence of strangled barks from the Pomeranian chained to the fence in the neighboring yard. Small dust devils chalked funnels across the gravel lot and the sun spangled the fading chrome of a ’52 Mercury gutted for parts.
“But Harold loves her, don’t you think?” Joe asked. “And she married him. Shouldn’t that count for something?”
“You could say the same for Dad.” Chuck kicked off the oil drum. “He must have loved her once, long ago. They had good times, even I remember.”
“Barely,” Joe said.
“Remember the day we got dressed in our Sunday best on a Saturday for a picnic and Curly packed us all into his logging rig and we highballed it for the mountains?”
“I remember that bench road up into the woods, and Ma whimpering in the cab.”
“And Dad singing the whole damn way. Wasn’t he something? And once we got up there. Wasn’t that something?” Chuck crushed the soda can under his heel and kicked it short of the Dumpster. “But since she left, it’s crazy—he quits drinking and goes to hell. Sits around all day. Sleeps mostly.” Chuck swiped at his hair. “Love will do that. Look at you.” He poked a finger in Joe’s stomach. “Put on ten pounds. Goddamn.” He shook his head, turned back toward the garage. “I ain’t never getting married.”
Copyright © 2006 by Claire Davis. All rights reserved.


Excerpted from Labors of the Heart by Davis, Claire Copyright © 2006 by Davis, Claire. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Claire Davis is the author of Season of the Snake and Winter Range, which won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award for Best First Novel and the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award for Best Novel. Her stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, and Ploughshares, been read on National Public Radio's Selected Shorts program, and been selected for the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Price anthologies. She lives in Lewiston, Idaho.

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