The Good Life

Overview

Erin McGraw's fiction has been hailed as "graceful . . . gratifyingly substantial" (New York Times Book Review) and "brilliant... [she's] a writer to watch" (Los Angeles Times). Wry but poignant, her new collection brims with priceless insights and fresh descriptions. The Good Life features characters battling daily demons of envy, fear, and disillusionment while somehow maintaining an abiding optimism. Here are characters trying to weather the confounding people of the world—the chronically successful, the lucky...

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Overview

Erin McGraw's fiction has been hailed as "graceful . . . gratifyingly substantial" (New York Times Book Review) and "brilliant... [she's] a writer to watch" (Los Angeles Times). Wry but poignant, her new collection brims with priceless insights and fresh descriptions. The Good Life features characters battling daily demons of envy, fear, and disillusionment while somehow maintaining an abiding optimism. Here are characters trying to weather the confounding people of the world—the chronically successful, the lucky in love, the athletically gifted—characters clinging to their cynicism while admitting that real hope and passion demand a suspension of skepticism. Erin McGraw writes with charm and sweet irony, and her new collection is impossible to put down.

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Editorial Reviews

John Schwartz
McGraw draws her small portraits with little of the studied, artists'-colony smugness that taints many literary writers' descriptions of the lives of ordinary people. In its place there is humor and compassion, and an understanding that diminished expectations might be better than shattered dreams.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
McGraw (Lies of the Saints, etc.) ably leavens heartbreak with humor in this slim collection of poignant stories. As in her two previous collections, she renders quirky, refreshingly real characters a mediocre ballet dancer who takes in a more successful dancer's daughter; an insecure self-help author who's thrown for a loop by a visit to her parents; a disillusioned bed-and-breakfast owner who flirts with moving to Aruba; Catholic priests who have trouble living up to their vows on the verge of improving their lot in life. The happiness they catch glimpses of, though, frequently eludes their grasp. While most of the stories explore timeless themes infidelity, addiction, the disappointment that all too often comes with getting what you wish for the book's most memorable story, "A Whole New Man," takes a more contemporary tack. The teenage daughters of Frederick and Pat, a pair of aging hippie activists, sign them up for a reality-television makeover. While Pat embraces the change, Frederick weeps over his lost ponytail; a postshow dinner leads to questions about their marriage ("This is the part of the show that doesn't get advertised, where the couple starts fresh," Pat tells the waiter. "They decide whether they want to get started with each other.... Negotiations are under way"). McGraw's pitch-perfect dialogue and artful closeups on the telling, trying details of ordinary lives deliver stories that are easy to read but hard to forget. Agent, Gail Hochman. (June 9) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
All the stories in this latest collection from McGraw (Lies of the Saints) begin with a pithy hook of a sentence, a starting point from which each fans out in a different and unexpected direction. In "Ax of the Apostles," a priest known for his spartan diet begins bingeing on the contents of the church refrigerator late at night. "Lucky Devil" features a 66-year-old woman forced to confront her gossipy neighbors and her husband's lecherous advances toward them. In "Daily Affirmations," a support group leader sees childhood issues resurface when she returns to her parents' home for the holidays. In many cases, the characters have reached a point when self-examination, however painful, becomes necessary. Perhaps most difficult is realizing that all the self-awareness in the world may not be enough to save them from poor choices, vulnerability, and bad luck. Throughout, McGraw seems intimately aware of what makes her characters tick, even when they themselves are not. Her straightforward, matter-of-fact prose elucidates their thought processes so accurately that they are almost unsettling in their familiarity. Recommended for literary collections. Julia LoFaso, Long Island City, NY Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Eleven longish stories that hit about as often as they miss, in a second collection from McGraw (Lies of the Saints, 1996). The trouble is usually with McGraw's people-that they're one-dimensional, say, or unbelievable, or so unprepossessing as to be loathsome-though even then the stories can have a surface interest, since McGraw is a deft realism-whiz, and things as disparate as running a B&B and being a seminary priest can come off with equal authenticity. But that's not enough if the realism is hung on caricature, as in "The Beautiful Tennessee Waltz," with its two paper-thin and unlikable young husbands, or in the thinny-thin "A Whole New Man," about an activist college prof who agrees to doff his 1960s look and style-by undergoing a makeover on a TV show. There's just nothing to him. In "Daily Affirmations," an overweight woman of 33, support leader "for survivors of difficult childhoods," and author of a book on the subject goes home for Christmas with her weak father and diabolically manipulative mother. And why does she go home to suffer? Dunno. Other stories succumb to the same terminal psychological thinness, like that of the hateful priest who comes on to a woman and then denies it ("Appearance of Scandal"), or the singing teacher in "One for My Baby" who inexplicably makes herself a doormat for one of the dimmest male bulbs in memory. Certain pieces, though, do succeed-like that of the priest in a mortal struggle with food-desire ("Ax of the Apostles"), or the more contrived "Lucky Devil," about the near-breakup of an old married couple. The two very best are the on-the-mark tale of two women who were in dance school together ("The Best Friend") and a seminary story-grippinglypainful-about a young man desperate to be a priest, though he may simply be too shy and possibly not bright enough. Skilled so-so stories in the main, with one or two real zingers. Agent: Gail Hochman/Brandt & Hochman
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618386277
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 6/1/2004
  • Pages: 204
  • Sales rank: 1,394,899
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.47 (d)

Meet the Author

Erin McGraw is the author of four previous books, including The Good Life and Lies of the Saints (a New York Times Notable Book). She has published stories and essays in the Atlantic Monthly, Story, and other publications. She is married to the poet Andrew Hudgins and is a professor of creative writing at Ohio State University.

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Read an Excerpt

THE BEAUTIFUL TENNESSEE WALTZ

The day after Alice and Dik’s second wedding anniversary, Alice called to tell me how they had celebrated: cross-legged at sunset, hand in hand, chanting melodies that Dik had composed. I loved Alice, but this was rich, and I called my friend Martin as soon as she hung up.
“Hoo-ooh. Hooooh,” I chanted for him. “It’s the cosmic wind that holds us all together.” “Don’t winds blow people apart?” “Alice and Dik? Not far enough.” He fell silent, and I understood that I had violated one of Martin’s unstated rules, a code of acceptable discourse that changed with his moods. I spent half of our conversations scrambling to figure out what was currently permissible. “Hoo-ooh,” he finally intoned.
“You’re not doing it right,” I said, relieved. “Pay attention. This is Dik’s gift to the universe.” “Dik has a wide heart,” Martin said, quoting Alice.
“He brings joy. He restores balance,” I said, riffing.
Neither of us could stand Dik, and we worried about his sway over Alice, but he provided first-rate conversational fodder. With savage mimicry, Martin was now recalling Dik’s discussion of the crucial, too-often-neglected role of ritual in daily life. Dik lit candles every night to usher in the darkness and chanted every morning to usher it back out again. In a moment I would bring up how he had gone from “Richard” to “Dick” to “Dik” as a way of honoring his desire for simplicity.
Martin would remind me of the tray heaped with mulch that Dik had placed before a pine tree in his front yard to apologize for the travesty of Christmas.
“You don’t need to be so ugly about it,” Alice had told Martin helplessly when he and I came over with holiday brandy. Martin was elaborately bowing to the tree.
“Did Dik give you a present?” Martin said, straightening up.
“He doesn’t believe in presents.” Catching Martin’s look, she said with exquisite wryness, “Being together is a gift.” “Martin’s a traditionalist,” I’d murmured to her after he charged off the patio. “He believes in presents that come in boxes you can unwrap.” “The kind you can return and exchange.
Just ask his ex-wife,” Alice said, in a flash of her old, sharp self, which heartened me, though I wouldn’t share the moment with Martin.
He was combustible on almost any topic, but he was incendiary about marriage. His ex, Charlotte, had left him four years before, and though we all thought he should be getting over her, he still brooded and drank, revisiting every humiliation. Sometimes he broke plates. She had left him not just for another man, but for a man and his horse, her riding teacher across the bay, in Oakland. “Stallions, probably. Certain jokes present themselves,” Martin said when he broke the news.
“Please don’t tell them.” “I don’t see any jokes,” I said.
“Does he wear spurs, do you think? Can you hear those little metal teeth jingling when he walks from room to room?” “You’re only hurting yourself.” “I hope he wears them to bed,” he said.
Martin’s wife had insisted on a court hearing, where she testified in a whisper about manipulativeness and mental cruelty, but in the end the fair-minded judge weighed her boisterously successful catering company against Martin’s several unacquired screenplays and awarded Martin alimony. “At least there’s that,” I said when we left the courthouse, Martin’s jaw still locked. Since then, if I happened to be around when the check arrived, he would hold the envelope in front of me. “At least there’s this,” he’d say.
My husband, Jeff, said that Martin was feeling sorry for himself, as of course he was. But Jeff didn’t understand how thoroughly Martin had been blind-sided. He had loved his marriage vows. A cynical man, he nevertheless had faith in marriage—for its difficulty, he said. For the pure challenge. For the action of getting up every morning and recommitting to a promise made one or twenty or fifty years before. He made marriage sound like a prison sentence, but I knew what he was driving at and admired his standards. He and I believed in marriage. We just didn’t believe in Alice and Dik’s marriage.
“It’s not up to you to believe in it,” Jeff said the night I demonstrated the anniversary chant, throwing in some arm motions to amuse him. “She’s your friend. Be happy for her.” “Secretly she’s miserable. She only thinks she’s happy.” “I’m sure she’s delighted to have you around to point out her errors in perception.” Jeff had put on a clipped accent, cribbed from 1960s movie thrillers. In college he had majored in film studies, although he worked as a loan officer now, “supporting my dainty wife.” He used to use the phrase all the time. He said, “Tell me again why Alice puts up with you.” “We’re her best friends. Worrying about her is our job. Do you remember that she used to eat hamburgerrrrrs? I’ve never seen Dik give up anything for her.” “Maybe she likes having somebody tell her how to live. A lot of people do.” “One of these days she’s going to wake up and grope around, wondering where her personality went,” I said, quoting Martin.
“She won’t need to grope long. You’ll be right there to tell her,” Jeff said.
I picked up sleek gray Toulouse, our cat, who was slithering figure eights around my ankles. “I’m not bent on her and Dik’s destruction, okay? In case you’re interested, Martin and I talked today about giving them an anniversary party.” Jeff had been shredding carrots for a salad. He stopped midgrate. “Okay, I’m nervous.” “She likes parties. At least she used to. And Martin can stand around and talk, which he’d be doing anyway.” “Does he talk about us?” His voice sounded comfortable. On the other hand, he was mangling the carrot against the grater.
“Not to me.” “Why not?” I pulled down Toulouse, who was trying to sit on my head. “You and I are like one of those ice-skating couples. When he jumps, she jumps. When she spins, he spins. There’s nothing to talk about with us. We don’t even have to look at each other to know when to start skating backwards.” He shook his head, a smile crimping his lips. “You’re good, Lisha.” “We’re good together.” Some thick emotion swelled between us, and I talked into it. “Martin thinks the second anniversary is a watershed. People can get to the first one on the wave of sheer newness—new relatives, new tax forms, all those new appliances. By the second year, though, you start watching yourself change. You see the new grooves and calluses in your brain from rubbing every day against this other person. You realize you’ve signed on for the duration. Martin calls it the Panic Anniversary.” “I don’t remember panicking,” Jeff said.
“You, my darling, are blessed with a lack of imagination.” He tried to scowl, an expression his even, pale features could never pull off. “So what are you going to do for this party? Provide topographical maps of Alice’s and Dik’s brains?” “Champagne. Cake.” “I’ll toast the happy couple. Am I invited?” “It’s at our house,” I said, kissed him on the ear, and took off to call Martin.

I had told Jeff the truth. The party Martin and I had in mind was old-fashioned and generous, with mixed drinks and music and dancing. Back when I first met Alice, she went square dancing on Tuesday nights, ballroom dancing Wednesdays. All that had stopped since Dik, and I wanted to give her the chance to strap on her dancing shoes again. Of course, I also looked forward to watching Dik, who moved as if he were assembled out of Tinkertoys, box- step around the room.
Already Dik had told Martin that he couldn’t wait. “Dik likes to glide,” Martin reported over breakfast.
Martin had a new temp job, taking inventory at a consignment store in San Rafael, so we met at a nearby diner, where we shared the long counter with pensioners and truants. “I thought Dik would want to do interpretive dance to the music of the spheres, but it turns out he loves to waltz. He’s at home right now, polishing his Earth shoes.” “So who are you going to waltz with?” I asked.
“My partner’s off dancing with somebody else.” “It’s high time for you to find yourself another partner. Try reading the personals. The Bay Area is loaded with gals ready to take a chance on love.” “Bully for them.” “Why do I bother? You’re in love already. You’re in love with your own misery.” I saw no reason to add that this was Jeff ’s speech; we’d been talking about Martin the night before.
“You’re like a dog that’s found something disgusting to roll in. You’re ecstatic about how awful you can make yourself feel.” He set his cup down. When he looked at me, his square face was rigid. “You didn’t talk this over with Alice, did you?” “Settle down, Martin.” “You didn’t invent little schemes, audition a lineup of women ready to take a chance on love?” His rough features roughened even more. His eyes went flat and his mouth twisted.
Even after years of practice, I flinched from talking to that face and so looked at my plate, its old ceramic worn to gray at the center.
“Think about who you’re talking to here, would you? I sat in your living room every night for six months after Charlotte left. I made rice pudding for you. I cleaned your toilet. I know you.” I held off the urge to tell him I loved him. Though it was true—no other friend built up in me such shimmering excitement—the last time I had told him this he overturned an ashtray in my lap. I said, “These days Alice and I don’t see each other all that often. When we get together, we don’t talk about you.” “I don’t believe you. I don’t know a single topic as riveting as me.” “Alice has so much to tell me about Dik, and I have so much to tell her about Jeff.” “Tell me. You never talk to me about him.” His voice sounded nonchalant, but he was never nonchalant. I took care with my response. “We eat take-out and watch TV. We have extended conversations with Toulouse.
Jeff does a terrific imitation of Cary Grant. It’s a good life.” He let that comment hang for a moment before telling me, “You were born to be married.” “Here’s a news flash: so were you.” “And that’s just my bad luck.” He gestured at my half-finished omelet and cold toast. “Are we finished here?” “Nearly. But you should know that I’m not letting you into the party if you don’t come with a date. And this is not a party you’re going to want to miss.” “You’ll let me in, all right. Otherwise I’ll howl outside and embarrass Jeff.” “You sulk. You don’t howl.” “You think you know so much.” Tilting his head back, he opened his mouth and let out a yodel that was long, intricate, and chilling. He rode the notes until they quivered, then shattered, and then he started again. Every conversation in the restaurant stopped, and waitresses started toward us from three different directions. He grinned at me, and I grinned shakily back.
“You know what you are?” I said.
“The man of your dreams,” he said.
“Bad dreams,” I said. We said it all the time.

To my surprise, Alice agreed to go shopping for a party dress. We spent two hours before she found what she was looking for, a pink confection of a frock with a skirt that would twirl. To celebrate, she suggested a mineral water at High Five, a sports bar across from the mall. I looked at her clear glass with its bobbing lime slice, called back the waitress, and ordered a Singapore sling.
“When I told Dik we were going shopping, he told me to get something pretty,” Alice said. “He told me that celebrations are external as well as internal. He thinks it will open the door to new energies. That’s as good a way as any to get him to a party.” “I was trying to decide on music,” I said. “Do you still have your square-dancing tapes? The only country music I have is Patsy Cline.” “I learned the two-step to Patsy Cline.
I never hear her without wanting to tap my feet.” “You hear ‘I Fall to Pieces’ and want to dance?” Alice ate her lime rind. Back when she was a secretary for a temp agency, she was plumply pretty, her dimpled face set in a corona of springy yellow curls. She went to singles bars and never left alone. Now her face was thin and brown as bark from the hours she and Dik spent in their immense garden. Her hair looked like straw, but her smile could still make heads swivel. “I haven’t turned into a total flake, you know,” she said.
“I wouldn’t have a party for a flake.” “I’m trying out some new ways of living, and Dik helps me with that.” “I’ve got eyes, Alice.” “Well, some eyes need glasses. He isn’t—the easiest person to live with.” She swirled her water, and I counted to five to keep from saying anything stupid.
“Who is?” I said. “Apart from us.” “He’s this terrific optimist. The universe makes him an optimist. If he wants rain, we get rain. If he wants asparagus tips, they’re pointing through the dirt the next day.” “Does he want Alice to get what she wants?” I murmured.
“Shoot. I want Dik, and there he is, every morning, out on the deck.” She gave her water glass another swirl. “Don’t leave me out here all alone. What do you want, you and Martin?” I clutched my throat. “Jeff. You’re supposed to be my friend. Don’t marry me off to Martin.” “Freudian slip. You and Jeff,” she said. I didn’t know another soul who blushed.
I said, “Can you even imagine living with Martin? One minute everything’s fine, the next minute you’re in the volcano. I love the guy like I love my right arm, but I wouldn’t want to live with him.” “I meant to say Jeff.” “You want to know a secret? I sided with Martin’s wife in the divorce. Who couldn’t look at Martin and tell he’d be hell to live with?” “You don’t want to talk about Jeff, do you?” Plucking the thin red straw from my cloying drink, I flattened the plastic into a stick. “The only problem with Jeff and me is that we don’t have any problems.” I looked up in time to catch Alice’s extremely expressionless face. “If this is denial, tell me what I’m denying. Jeff and I tell each other jokes. We divide up the chores. We see the same world.” “I’ll bet this party wasn’t his idea,” Alice said.
“It wasn’t. But he can’t wait to see you.” “Tell him I can’t wait to see him, either.” She nibbled at her fingertip and glanced up at me through demure eyelashes.
“Why, Alice. I didn’t think you remembered how to flirt.” “I’m married, not dead. You told me at my wedding shower not to forget the difference.” “Tell Martin,” I said.
“You first,” she said.

I drove home feeling a little sick from the liquor pooled balefully in my stomach. Jeff was stretched across the couch, watching All About Eve, Toulouse slung over his shoulder like a stole. “Your night to cook,” Jeff said.
“Yeesh. Forgot. I’ve been off getting half plotzed with Alice. You should see the dress she got. It’ll send the whole party into insulin shock.” I watched him watch the TV, Toulouse snoring beside his ear. “How long have you been zoned here?” “Since the last half-hour of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? It’s a Bette Davis festival. That was one terrible movie.” “You want me to call for a pizza? You don’t have to get up—I’ll feed it to you a bite at a time.” Even I couldn’t decipher my tone.
“Up to you. The Little Foxes is on next.” He waited until I was settled on the couch next to him before asking, eyes still on Bette Davis’s bow-tie mouth, how Alice was.
“You’ll like this. She thinks that you and I are secretly miserable.” “There’s a lot of that going around.” His eyes didn’t waver from the TV screen, and I reached over to scratch Toulouse under the chin, a caress that always made him extend his claws. “Martin would say we need misery.
He’d say it’s how we know we’re alive.” Jeff extracted the cat’s claws from his neck and sat up. “I wonder what it would be like to go through a day without hearing Martin’s name.” “He thinks you’re a lucky man. He says I should tell you so. If I don’t, he says, he will.” I meant to sound saucy, but I could feel the words slipping as they left my mouth. Jeff ’s face was stiff and peculiar, and my stomach felt as if cold air were pouring into it.
“Lucky. What a word.” His voice clotted, and the cold feeling spread across my lungs. “Here’s a Martin story for you. Back when things were getting so rocky between him and Charlotte, she called me about getting a personal loan. Her name only.
Martin had broken all of her antique serving dishes—not in one big rage, but across months. She would come home and find another tureen in pieces.
He used to scream at her until he wasn’t even saying words anymore, just howling. She was terrified. Your friend Martin.” He blinked at me, then looked away. “You and I had been married two years. Charlotte and I didn’t last long. Six months.” “What.” My voice was dry as wind. “What are you doing?” “I’m telling you my secret despair. An homage to Martin.” “Stop talking about Martin.” “I can’t stop talking about Martin.
He’s over every inch of our life.” The image of a slow, creeping stain in the air between us came immediately, as if I’d been holding it ready. “Does he know?” I said.
“Why else would I tell you?” “So you’re acting out of kindness.” Jeff closed his eyes. “I haven’t seen her since then. Not a phone call or an email. Zip.” “Congratulations.” “Aren’t you itching to get on the horn and tell Martin, ‘Guess what I just found out?’” Jeff ’s face, even his eyes, were pale as dust. He might blow away any second. I said, “What do you think I am? I don’t want him to know this. I don’t want to know this.” “But now you do. You know everything Martin knows. And I think it will be very hard for you not to tell him that.” He sat Toulouse up on his lap and addressed him as if he were conducting an interview. “Felicia has a secret. What do you think Felicia will do?” “I didn’t ask for this,” I said.
“Think of it as a gift,” he said.

Dik had given mulch to a pine tree. I had given Alice brandy. Jeff had given me wretchedness, mortification, five straight nights without sleep.
I pondered his gift instead of thinking about divorce lawyers or separation, ideas that I could not give weight, though I tried. Perhaps if I had caught Jeff and Charlotte together, lunching in Sausalito with their ankles entwined, I might have stormed to an attorney’s office and dictated page after legal page of demands. But Charlotte had galloped away, leaving only memory, which had no smell or substance.
Memory was nothing at all.
In the thin dark of the study where I lay on the fold-out bed, I stared toward the nubbled ceiling and remembered, of all things, phrases of Dik’s. “Every moment is movement toward wholeness.” “Rejoice in discord, for it leads to harmony.” What kind of person could look at his wife’s friends’ marriages—one already vanished, the other blistering—and rejoice?
If I could become that kind of person, I might stop imagining how Jeff must have kissed Charlotte, his fingers caught in her long black curls. I might stop replaying the hundred conversations that he had strewn with plump hints. Already I was taking the outrage and turning it into something else—wisdom or defeat, if there was a difference. The emotion that wedged unabsorbably, like a muscle in my chest, was embarrassment. Once I had bragged to Martin about how Jeff came home from work smelling like strange spices. “Those downtown restaurants!” Now, in the dark, I felt my face turn the pillow hot.
I didn’t tell Martin what I knew. Even in simple times, let- ting on that Jeff and I had been fighting, or had come close to fighting, or might soon be fighting, would be like giving him a gift-wrapped hand grenade. But at the restaurant where we met for breakfast, Martin caught my wavery gaze and nervous fingers.
“Come on. You can tell Uncle Mart. Jeff lost his job? Toulouse got beriberi? You’re pregnant?” “Interesting parallels.” I stared unhappily at my syrup-bloated waffle. As the party grew nearer, Martin and I were meeting daily.
“Well, I hope you’ll name the baby after me.” “Are you kidding? My child will be named after someone with a pleasant nature and a helpful manner.” I couldn’t banish all of the quiver from my voice. “Now tell me that you’ve found a date for the party.” “I told you, the only date I want is already taken. Have you and Jeff been brushing up that waltz?” “Not exactly. Look, Martin, this is an anniversary party. It’s all about couples. You can’t just moon around the punch bowl.” “It beats dragging some poor gal to a wing-ding where she doesn’t know anybody and gets to watch me drink myself cross-eyed.” “The whole point—” I took a breath and started again, more softly. “The whole point of having a date is to have fun with her. So you don’t need to get cross-eyed.” “You really don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “You really don’t know what you’re asking me to do.” Too easily I imagined Jeff mimicking Martin’s words, his slump, his voice creamy with self-importance.
I’d been hearing that imitation a lot in the past few days, as every object of Jeff ’s anger tumbled loose like items from an overstuffed closet. Eventually, I assumed, anger of my own would tumble out. I said to Martin, “I’m asking you to try to be happy, all right? I’m asking you to reach out your little hand in the direction of pleasure. Just this once.” “What do you think I’m doing here? This morning? With you? Do you think it’s normal for a man and a woman to meet every single day and just talk?” His chin was thrust out, his lips curled back from his teeth. I looked away first.
“Martin, you know I love you.” “Stop right there,” he said.
“You are my best friend.” “So, Best Friend, you’ve been helping poor Martin through a rough patch? Been kind of a long patch, wouldn’t you say?” “Yes, as a matter of fact.” “Maybe that should have told you something. Jesus.” He shook his head. “You don’t pay attention.” “You’re not the first one to tell me that.” “But you keep drifting along, expecting all of us to look out for you. Why are you crying?” “Headache,” I said.
“I’m only telling you the truth.” “Thank you.” “I pay attention to the world that’s in front of me, not the one I want to see.” He waited for me to respond, then said, “Give it a try sometime. No telling what you’ll find out.” He left the diner without yelling. Even so, a waitress came over and rested her hand on my shoulder.
“You need me to call anybody?” I wiped my eyes. “We’re friends,” I said. “We do this all the time.”

Once the party got started, the guests laughing and the music not yet too loud, my spirits surprised me by lifting. Dik and Alice danced like gangly angels, and I was glad I’d resisted the frightened, last-minute impulse to call things off.
Across the room, beside the drinks table, Martin banged his hands together to laud the happy couple.
At his side, peering at the crowd with interest, stood Lora, his date.
“How nice that you’re here,” I’d said at the door. “Where did you and Martin meet?” She smiled crookedly. Her hair, almost white, stuck out in feathery tufts. “The Hot Spot. I don’t usually go there. Marty says he usually doesn’t either.” “That’s right,” I said, stopping myself from telling her that Martin invariably called the place The Wet Spot. He went there more often than he told her. “Marty,” I said.
He kissed me on the cheek. “The place looks nice. I like the balloons. Where’s Jeff?” “Pouring a drink.” Martin took off across the room, and I grabbed Lora’s hand before she could follow him. “I’m very, very glad you’re here.” Perhaps she was tipsy enough not to hear the pressure in my voice. She said, “I like parties. I go to every party I can find.” “We don’t have them very often,” I said. “You tell us if we’re doing something wrong.” I was tipsy myself, high enough on gin to be unsure whether I was feeling delight or dread.
“Promise me you’ll tell.” “You’ve been drinking,” she said.
“That’s a good start. Make sure everybody’s drinking.” As if surveillance were required.
Guests hardly paused at the door before they steamed over to our little bar. I smelled scotch, bourbon, lots and lots of gin. Martin stood with a glass in each hand. Even Dik popped open a beer, which might have accounted for his toreador spin at the end of “Walkin’ After Midnight.” Once he started dancing, the man was as light on his feet as a sunbeam. When he and Alice whirled by, he said, “Dancing puts us in harmony with all creation.” “Preach on,” I said, and he winked.
Jeff was circulating, telling jokes, freshening drinks. From across the room I noticed for the first time that his yellow shirt, which I had never liked, lent his skin a summery glow. I caught up with him on the way to the kitchen for more ice.
“Did you see Martin?” “And Lora,” he said. “Lora Ruth, first of four daughters. Never divorced, grows tomatoes on her patio, rides a Kawasaki.” “Blood type?” “I’d say she’s a universal donor.” “I hope so,” Martin said, leaning around the other side of the kitchen door. “Felicia thinks I need some new blood.” “Your old sources have dried up?” Jeff said.
Martin smirked amiably, and even through my ginned-up haze, I was alarmed. Martin was rarely amiable.
“Show some respect. Felicia is wise. She knows many things.” “Sharpen up, buster,” I mumbled. “I know everything.” “For instance, she knows how to give a party for her best friend,” Martin said. “A dancing party. Why aren’t you two dancing?” “All we can do is the waltz.” I motioned toward the living room. Someone had put on Herb Alpert. “This is a cha-cha. I guess.” “No one will be giving a grade. Get out there.” “What about you?” Jeff said to him.
Absurdly, I felt comforted, as if Jeff were trying to protect me by throwing the spotlight on Martin. “Where’s your date?” “Easy come,” Martin said, and shrugged.
“Guess she found more congenial company. My fate to be alone.” “Don’t be a jerk. Felicia will dance with you.” He didn’t look at me, which was prudent: no auctioneer should look at the flesh on the block. Confused by my train of thought, I stopped it. Jeff wasn’t selling anything. He was giving me to Martin, who was giving me back. My face buzzed with blood and liquor.
I said carefully, “Felicia is sitting this one out.” “You’re a good dancer, babe. You should get out there.” Jeff sounded almost sober, but he never called me babe.
“Both of you. Show us how it’s done,” Martin said.
“Up to you, man. You’re supposed to dance with your hostess,” Jeff said.
“Is that how Cary Grant does it?” “Shut up, Martin,” I said.
“You love his Cary Grant.” Jeff said, “Martin, this is not the time to remind us of everything we ever loved. You’re like hell’s matchmaker.” Martin’s smile was a cherub’s. “It’s a good time to remember what you’ve loved. What else is a party for?” I said, “Celebrations are external as well as internal. We are opening the doors to new energy.” Martin and Jeff stared at me. “When did you learn to channel Dik?” Martin said.
“I told you: I know everything.” My voice rang across two rooms—somebody had taken off Herb Alpert in mid–“Tijuana Taxi.” After a moment came dreamy strings and Patti Page, her voice warm as breath. “I was waltzin’ with my darlin’—” Not lightly, Martin pushed me toward Jeff. “There’s your waltz.” “Ease up, Glad Hand. We’ll dance when we feel like it,” I said.
“Do it for me,” Martin said. “As a favor.” “I don’t recall owing you a favor.” “Then I guess I’ll just be in your debt,” he said. I flinched, but his voice remained small. His hands and lips were shaking.
Jeff gazed into the living room. He said, “Alice looks like a princess.” In front of the picture window, Alice and Dik and Lora were swaying, arms linked, singing along with the old lyrics—“Yes, I lost my little darlin’ the night they were playing the beautiful Tennessee Waltz.” Alice’s pink skirt billowed, enough fabric there to wrap up the three of them.
“Jesus, this is a sweet song,” Jeff said. I was prepared to go refresh my drink, but before I could move, Martin had his arms around us both, shoving my shoulder into Jeff ’s armpit.
“Come on, now. It’s your song.” Martin’s breath across my shoulder was rough as a file. I twisted my head to look at Jeff, whose eyes were full of tears. He always cried when he drank too much, although I didn’t know how much he’d drunk tonight. The three of us swayed, a dangerous activity for people so drunk. We tottered across the room, stumbling into a lamp and a chair until we came to rest against the bookcase. When I closed my eyes, my head swam, and when I opened them I was dizzied by Jeff ’s yellow shirt.
The song seemed to last for hours, as songs in drunk time do, and until the last note we kept swaying.
Then we slowly came unstuck, Jeff ’s hands sliding down my back, Martin still unsteadily singing that he’d lost his little darlin’.
“Nobody is lost here,” I snarled.
“Nobody is going anywhere. Do you hear me?” From across the living room, Dik’s high voice: “This is the center. Get used to it,” he said. “This is joy, whether you like it or not.”

Copyright © 2004 by Erin McGraw.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Table of Contents

CONTENTS The Beautiful Tennessee Waltz 1 AWhole New Man 16 Ax of the Apostles 34 Appearance of Scandal 49 Aruba 67 Lucky Devil 84 Daily Affirmations 101 Citizen of Vienna 120 The Best Friend 137 The Penance Practicum 154 One for My Baby 173

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