Ordinary Life: Stories

Ordinary Life: Stories

3.6 7
by Elizabeth Berg

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In this superb collection of short stories, the bestselling author of Open House and Talk Before Sleep takes us into the times in women’s lives when memories and events cohere to create a sense of wholeness, understanding, and change. In Ordinary Life, Mavis McPherson locks herself in the bathroom for a week, and no, she isn’t contemplating gettingSee more details below


In this superb collection of short stories, the bestselling author of Open House and Talk Before Sleep takes us into the times in women’s lives when memories and events cohere to create a sense of wholeness, understanding, and change. In Ordinary Life, Mavis McPherson locks herself in the bathroom for a week, and no, she isn’t contemplating getting a divorce—she just needs some time to think, to take stock of her
life, and she comes to a surprising conclusion. In Today’s Special,a woman recognizes the solace she finds in the simple, timeless fare and atmosphere of the local diner and, ultimately, the harmony within her own spirit that familiar comforts can evoke. In White Dwarf, the secrets of a marriage are revealed as a couple passes the time with a seemingly insignificant word-association game. And in “Martin’s Letter to Nan,” the unforgettable husband and wife from Berg’s novel The Pull of the Moon engage in a new correspondence in which a different aspect of their marriage is revealed.

Elizabeth Berg’s fiction has been praised for its "brilliant insights about the human condition" (Detroit Free Press), and The Charlotte Observer has said that "Berg captures the way women think as well as any writer."Those same qualities of wisdom and insight are everywhere present in Ordinary Life.

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Editorial Reviews

In the tradition of Berg's Open House, her Oprah's Book Club-selected novel, this is a collection of moving stories about women whose lives are governed by domestic chores and good sense. When their daily routines are interrupted by madness, disease or death, they are much too prudent to call attention to themselves. Instead, they collapse inward, causing their husbands and children as little discomfort as possible. In the title story, seventy-nine-year-old Mavis McPhearson decides to "go on retreat" in order to take stock of her life. Too thrifty to spring for a beach vacation, she lives in her bathroom for a week, sustaining herself on women’s magazines and boxes of Wheat Thins. Berg's adult heroines quietly struggle to reconcile their desire for love and family with their need for independence and self-discovery; however, the most lyrical, energetic stories are narrated by girls who haven't been silenced yet by gender expectations. Reading this collection is like being privy to one of these late-night conversations among women. You leave it feeling privileged, included, reassured by stories that are at once familiar and refreshingly different from your own.
—Susan Tekulve
Publishers Weekly
Focusing, in 15 short tales, on those moments in women's lives that provide opportunity for reflection, bestselling author Berg (Open House, an Oprah's Book Club selection) zeroes in on the same kind of emotional revelations she plumbs in her novels. In many cases, her characters have simply reached a point at which they need to take stock, as has 79-year-old Mavis in the title story, who decides to hole up in the bathroom for a week. Supplied with food and magazines, and keeping her baffled husband at bay, Mavis ponders the seemingly arbitrary events of her marriage, the upbringing of her children, and the recent death of her sister, wondering if there is any meaning to it all. The adult daughter in "Caretaking" remembers her childhood as she learns how to cope with her mother, afflicted with Alzheimer's disease; in "What Stays," a young daughter takes solace in memories of her mother's gentleness and love. Couples who are at a dead end in their relationships learn things about themselves in unexpected ways, such as the pair in "White Dwarf," who examine the fallout of the wife's affair while playing a word-association game. "Martin's Letter to Nan" is the husband's response to the wife who left home in Berg's novel, The Pull of the Moon. While the men and women who populate the stories typify the monolithic entities of the fabled battle of the sexes "men don't talk" is a refrain repeated more than once Berg's gentle probing of everyday events offers insight into turning points of life that may not set off fireworks but are nevertheless indelible. Affecting and sentimental, these stories could easily appear in the magazines sold at grocery checkout counters; as light commercial fiction, they should provide sustenance for Berg's fans. Agent, Lisa Bankoff. 10-city author tour. (Feb. 26) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
This book is a collection of 14 short stories by Berg, who has a gift for writing dialogue that expresses how people communicate between the lines, and how they struggle to connect with each other. For example, in "What Stays," grown-up daughter Lizzy thinks back to her childhood and tells the tale of her mother's spiraling mental illness. Lizzy recounts her confusion about her mother's illness, and how her father struggled to protect his daughter from the truth about her loving but eccentric mother. Berg is also especially adept at showing the differences in how men and women communicate, with her older male characters often avoiding any conversations about feelings. In this vein, another poignant story, "Martin's Letter to Nan," consists entirely of a letter written by a husband, after he's found a note from his wife that says she's gone. The title story, "Ordinary Life: A Love Story," is one of my favorites. In that tale, a 79-year-old woman named Mavis decides to take a self-styled soul-searching retreat-in her very own bathroom-much to the confusion and chagrin of her stodgy husband. Ordinary Life is a compilation of short stories that are accessible, but somehow they pull no emotional punches. There's no sense of tricked-up artistry in Berg's stories. She indeed does write about ordinary life, with humor and pathos, cruelty and kindness. There are some hints of sexuality, and violence, but nothing is graphic or explicit. KLIATT Codes: SA-Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, 192p., Ages 15 to adult.
— Janice Bees
Library Journal
Berg's first collection of short stories takes us, as the title promises, into the ordinary daily lives of its characters. The shorter fiction form allows Berg to focus on smaller slices of life where she can explore the struggle and either loss or gain in both the routine and in its interruptions. The 14 pieces are clearly from Berg's familiar world: domestic uneasiness, illness, dependency, and self-discovery. "Martin's Letter to Nan," in fact, is the husband's response to his wife from her novel The Pull of the Moon. Laura Hicks's reading suffers from poor pacing between stories, as the title of the next tale tends to latch onto the end lines of the previous one. Also, she is more comfortable with female voices. An uneven set of lighter reading and moving glimpses that capture the essences of these mostly women's lives. Recommended for larger fiction collections.-Joyce Kessel, Villa Maria Coll., Buffalo, NY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Oprah's Book Clubber Berg (Open House, 2000, etc.) offers 15 stories deftly detailing those defining moments in ordinary women's lives when fresh insights help explain their discontents.
From the Publisher
“Immediate, moment-to-moment storytelling that unfolds with the naturalism and authenticity of real life.” —The Boston Globe

“An extraordinary short story collection that deserves our closest attention.” —Detroit Free Press

“Elizabeth Berg’s gift as a storyteller lies most powerfully in her ability to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, the remarkable in the everyday.” —The Boston Globe

“Berg’s...deftly drawn pictures of ordinary life can help remind us of its oft-unheeded charms.” —Los Angeles Times

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Chapter 1
Ordinary Life: A Love Story

Mavis McPherson is locked in the bathroom and will not come out. The tub is lined with pillows and blankets. Under the sink, next to the extra toilet paper, there is an economy-sized box of Wheat Thins, a bowl of apples, and a six-pack of Heath bars. Against the wall, under the towel rack, is a case of Orangina, and next to that is a neat pile of magazines and three library books. A spiral-bound notebook and pen lie on top of the toilet tank. Hanging from the hook on the back of the door are several changes of underwear.

Mavis is on retreat, she tells her husband through the crack in the door when he comes home that evening. Al volunteers at St. Mary's Hospital, dividing his time between delivering newspapers to patients and helping maintenance fix faulty equipment, though this is a secret from the administration-volunteers aren't supposed to do that. Al's mechanical skills are legendary, but he is not known for his sense of humor. "Come on, Mavis," he sighs. "What's for dinner?"

"You might as well go on over to Big Boy," Mavis tells him. "I'm not cooking dinner. I'm not coming out for a week or so. It's nothing personal." She leans her ear against the crack in the door, listening for his response.

She hears only the wheezy sounds of him breathing in and out. She's afraid Al has emphysema, but he won't go to a doctor. "See 'em enough at the hospital," he always says. "Stuffy little bastards." She tries to look through the crack in the door, sees a tiny slice of Al's blue shirt, a piece of his ear. "Let me in, Mavis," he finally says, rattling the doorknob. "I gotta use the can."

"You know perfectly well we have another bathroom. You'll have to use that."

"I don't like that one. And it doesn't have a bathtub."

"Well, I know that."

"So how am I supposed to shower?" Al likes to shower in the evening, a characteristic Mavis has never liked, finding it somehow effeminate. Overall, though, she has few complaints. She loves Al dearly.

"You'll have to ask the neighbors," Mavis says. "Or maybe the Y. I'll bet the Y would let you shower there."

Silence. Then Al says, "What is this, Mavis, a fight? Is it a fight?"

She steps back, fingers the ruffled collar of her white blouse. "Why, no," she says, a little surprised. "I just got an idea that I really want some time completely to myself. And I'm taking it. I don't see the point in running off somewhere. We can't afford it anyway. Can we?"


"So," she says, "I'll stay right here. I don't need anything but some quiet. I want to be in a small room, alone, to just . . . relax, and not do anything else. I was thinking of the ocean, but this is fine."

"Oh, boy. I'm calling the kids," Al says. "And I'm calling Dr. Edelson or Edelman or whoever that robber is that you go to every twenty minutes. You've gone around the bend this time, Mavis. What have you got in there, Alzheimer's? Is that it?" He knocks loudly at the door. "Mavis, have you lost your goddamn mind?"

Mavis goes to the mirror to look at herself, tightens one of her pearl studs that has loosened, then walks back to the door. "I am seventy-nine years old, Al," she says softly, into the crack.

"What's that?"

"I say I'm seventy-nine years old," she says, louder.

He inhales sharply. "Aw, jeez. This is about my missing your birthday?"

"It's not my birthday for five months, Al. Remember? I was born in December. In a blizzard. Remember?"

"Well, I'm calling the kids," Al says. "Yes sir. All three of them. Right now." She hears his voice moving down the hall. "And your doctor, too."

"That's not necessary," Mavis calls out. And then, yelling, "Al? I'm not going crazy. I'm just thinking. I was going to tell you about this, but you . . ."

He can't hear her. She sits down on the closed seat of the toilet, peels the wrapper off a candy bar. "I am seventy-nine years old," she says aloud, and takes a bite. This is the beginning of what she wanted to say. Truthfully, she wasn't sure what would come next; she figured it would just happen, naturally. She examines the candy bar as she chews. She has always liked this, looking at food while she eats it. Makes it taste better. She wonders how they get that curly little swirl on the top of every candy bar. It's a nice touch, even though some machine did it and it is therefore not sincere. She crosses her legs, gently swings the top one, then leans over to the side to inspect it. She used to have great legs. "Oh, honey," Al had said the first time he undid her garters and pulled her nylons off. "Look at these gams." He had kissed her thighs, and she blushed so furiously she thought surely he'd see it in the dark. They were on their honeymoon, in a cottage in the Adirondacks. Her hair had been long and honey blonde, pulled back at the sides by two tortoiseshell combs, curled under at the bottom in a pageboy. The Andrews Sisters were on the radio at the moment she lost her virginity, her white negligee raised high over her breasts, one comb fallen off and digging into her shoulder, though not unpleasantly. She shook so hard when Al entered her he wanted to stop, but she wouldn't let him. "It's fine, honey," she said. "It just hurts." Her fingers were balled into fists against his back and she uncurled them, tried to relax. She looked for a place on the ceiling to focus on. She'd concentrate on that, take her mind off things.

"I can wait," Al had said. "Why don't I wait?" He'd raised himself up, tried to look into her face. But she hid herself in his shoulder, embarrassed and silent, then giggling.

"I don't think that helps, waiting," she'd finally said. "You just go on ahead. It's all right."

Afterward, they'd made a nest of the blankets and pillows, faced each other in the dim light, spoke in low tones of all the things they wanted to do: candlelit dinners every Saturday night, four children, the biggest Christmas tree on the lot every year. They touched each other's faces with the tips of their fingers, probed gently at the openings between each other's lips. At breakfast the next morning, Al had said Mavis looked different. More womanly. She said she'd noticed exactly the same thing.

He took her hand, she put down her fork, and they went back

to the bedroom. Already they had a special language, Mavis had thought, and the intimacy grounded her, fueled her. It hadn't hurt so much the second time.

"Hey, Mavis," Al says now, banging on the door. "Jonathan wants to talk to you. He's on the phone. You'd better come out here."

Mavis walks to the door, straightens her skirt, speaks loudly into the crack. "Listen to me, Al. I just told you I want to have a week to myself. I'm not coming out to talk on the telephone to Jonathan or any of the other children. I wish you'd stop running off and just let me tell you about this. No need to take offense or to think I'm crazy. For heaven's sake."

"Jonathan is on the phone, long distance," Al says.

Mavis rolls her eyes. "Well, I guess I know it's long distance, Al. If he lives in California and we live in Minnesota, then obviously it's long distance."

"So what am I supposed to say? That his mother can't be bothered talking to him?"

Mavis sighs, thinks for a moment. Jonathan in the Bathinette, his baby fists waving, his palm-sized chest rising up and down excitedly. "Water," Mavis is saying. "Yes, it's water, darling." A kerchief is around her head. She is wearing red lipstick and open-toed shoes.

Quietly, Mavis says, "Go and tell Jonathan that I'm fine, Al, that I'll call him in a week. And don't you say anything else. I can hear you, you know!"

She can't, of course, the phone is too far away, but Al doesn't know that. His hearing is starting to go, hers has thus far remained the same, so as far as Al is concerned, Mavis's hearing is suddenly extraordinarily acute.

"And come back after that," Mavis says. "I want to talk to you."

"The hell I will," Al says. "I'm going out."

"Where to?"

"The straitjacket store, that's where."

Big Boy, Mavis thinks. Well, good. When he comes back he'll be in a better mood. He'll get beef because she's not around to tell him not to, probably a cream pie for dessert, too. Fine. Then she'll be able to talk to him. Maybe he'll feel a little guilty about what he ate. That will work entirely to her benefit as well.

She slips off her shoes, climbs into the bathtub, lies back against the pillows. It's really not bad. For once in her life, she is happy she's so short. She wiggles her toes inside her nylons. She should have dressed more casually. She undoes the button on her skirt, then unzips it slightly. There is a tan-colored stain on her blouse between the second and third button. Coffee? She wets her finger, rubs at it. Well, she'll soak it later. It's convenient being in here. She closes her eyes. She's really very comfortable, could probably take a nap right now. But then it will be hard to sleep later on tonight.

She arranges the pillows to act as a backrest and climbs out of the tub to get a magazine. She feels the mean pull of arthritis in her knees. She selects a Good Housekeeping, climbs back in the tub, starts flipping through the pages, and realizes she's already looked at this one-there's the place where she tore out the recipe for low-fat lemon chicken.

Mavis used to give all her old magazines to her sister, Eileen, but her sister died last year. Breast cancer. She closes her eyes, lets herself hurt for a moment. The pain has not yet dulled, nor does she expect it to or even want it to.

Mavis and Eileen slept in the same bed as children; until she was eight, Mavis's preamble to sleep was to wrap Eileen's long hair around her fingers, then suck her thumb dreamily while drifting off. She had to make sure Eileen was sleeping first; Eileen got mad if she caught Mavis messing with her hair. Mavis had once tried wrapping her fingers in the folds of a satin doll dress her mother had given her for her birthday, but it wouldn't do-she needed the weighty, coarse silkiness of Eileen's hair. She liked the heat from Eileen's scalp at one end, reminding her of the thrilling fact of life; and the cool and bristly bluntness at the other end was wonderful to twitch your fingers over rapidly. It was worth getting caught every now and then for all that pleasure. The worst that ever happened was the night Mavis didn't wait long enough, and Eileen reared up like a ghost in her white nightgown and socked Mavis three times in the stomach. Otherwise any attack was a sleepy and halfhearted thing that barely hurt, a dull nudge in the rib, a smack on her leg that was off the mark and carried no more weight than a falling towel. And of course, she usually didn't get caught at all.

Mavis had gotten married first, and when Eileen asked her for certain essential details, Mavis had said, "Now, you might want to cry out. But don't." Oh, she missed her. Missed her. The conversations at the kitchen table, their elbows on the embroidered tablecloth, the steam from their coffee cups rising up. They would talk far into the night when they got together every week for dinner, and Al and Big Jim would get so impatient. They were all right as long as the fights were on, or some other sports event, but then the minute that was over, they wanted to go, one or the other of them, back home. When they were at Eileen's house, Al would come to stand at Mavis's shoulder, and she ignored him as long as she was able to. When they were at Mavis's, Big Jim would eventually sit down heavily at the table with them, simultaneously irritated and interested in what could possibly keep them here for so long, what could be so important that they hadn't even taken their aprons off from doing dishes before they sat down. They had just talked yesterday, hadn't they? Hell, they talked every day, didn't they?

On one memorable occasion, Al and Big Jim had both gone to sleep in the living room, both of them on the sofa with their heads back and their mouths open, and the women finally had the chance to completely exhaust themselves. They woke their husbands up at 2 a.m. after they'd taken a picture.

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