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The Spirit Returns: Stories

The Spirit Returns: Stories

by Richard Burgin

She didn't have anything to say so she smiled as he sat down. When he got settled she looked at him and the oddest thing happened. She couldn't see his face. She knew he was a man, but where his face was supposed to be, there was a blankness like a white sheaf of sky.

-- from "Carbo's"

The Spirit Returns is the fourth collection of original


She didn't have anything to say so she smiled as he sat down. When he got settled she looked at him and the oddest thing happened. She couldn't see his face. She knew he was a man, but where his face was supposed to be, there was a blankness like a white sheaf of sky.

-- from "Carbo's"

The Spirit Returns is the fourth collection of original short fiction from Richard Burgin. His characters are everyday people at emotional and psychological crossroads. In "The Liar," a man opening up to a dinner companion is reminded of the emptiness of his own life when the promise of emotional intimacy unexpectedly goes unfulfilled. A couple on a date face their own gender prejudices, past disappointments, and sexual expectations in "Carbo's". In the title story, a man who takes an unusual pleasure out of frightening strangers is forced to deal with his own fears when he shares this pleasure with one of those strangers. These are flawed but genuine individuals, rooted in honesty and compassion, and the lines of their compelling stories trace journeys through insecurity, despair, and, ultimately, hope.

Praise for Richard Burgin and his work:

"Burgin has given expression to a chorus of alienated voices too haunting to be easily forgotten." -- New York Times Book Review

"Richard Burgin's ingenious tales are disconcerting from the word go." -- Los Angeles Times

"Richard Burgin's tales capture the strangeness of a world that is simultaneously frightening and reassuring, and in the contemporary American short story nothing quite resembles his singular voice." -- Boston Globe

"One of the most stimulating practitioners of the[short story] form." -- Philadelphia Inquirer

"Brilliant." -- Review of Contemporary Fiction

"Compelling... poignant" -- Library Journal

"There is a new warmth and depth here, a melancholy sweetness and an intensified longing for human connection." -- Houston Chronicle

" Fear of Blue Skies has a powerful cumulative effect, like watching a movie with a slow beginning that you suddenly realize has mesmerized you." -- Chicago Tribune

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Most of the characters in these 11 hard-edged stories fall well outside our culture's conception of normalcy. Lonely, damaged people who desire love and intimacy, they're doomed to thwart every opportunity for connection. The eponymous lonely traveler in the Pushcart Prize-winner "Miles" is drawn into a bizarre situation involving an abusive airport shuttle driver and the driver's sister. The traveler and the sister are both in desperate need but are constrained by the bizarre situation the shuttle driver creates. The odd, disquieting title story deals with an advertising copywriter who gets his jollies by jumping out of hiding places and frightening strangers. He meets a woman, a would-be victim, who joins him as a partner for an evening, but again the connection fizzles. "The Ignorant Girl" tells of a lonely man who almost develops a relationship with a battered woman, but eventually each goes their own desolate way. "The President's Party" concerns a young woman who may have just murdered her wealthy lesbian lover. She picks up a depressed young journalist, but thinks "she'd have to keep him for a while which would mean doing him a lot in all kinds of ways to keep him hooked until she got far enough away for a long enough time that she could finally dump him." Burgin (Fear of Blues Skies) writes crisp and intelligent dialogue and description, and he handles disconcerting situations with deadpan ease. Reminiscent of Mary Gaitskill's protagonists in Bad Behavior, his characters alone, alienated, desolate and desperate come alive on the page. (Nov. 1) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Johns Hopkins University Press
Publication date:
Poetry and Fiction Series
Product dimensions:
5.46(w) x 8.48(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


                   "You're the rookie, I'm the veteran—you should listen to me," the veteran said, turning towards her in the front seat. She didn't acknowledge him, just kept driving her route, staring ahead poker-faced, maddeningly placid from the veteran's point of view, Miles thought. "See, it's not about what's comfortable and convenient for you, it's about time-is-money; you hear me rookie?" She still said nothing. Kept her poker face, although Miles thought it was a pretty poker face and he'd been trying, so far without luck, to make eye contact with it from the backseat via the mirror in the front seat where the rookie and veteran sat. In that regard he sympathized with the veteran. Miles's hope was that if she would look back at him he'd show some sympathy for her, try to talk to her and maybe find a way to get her phone number later. But, realistically, he thought this could never happen. She was simply driving the shuttle to his home—there was no basis for contact. Besides, there were several other factors going against him. She was probably black, she hadn't said more than three words to him and she was under a great deal of pressure from her mentoring fellow driver, who might or might not be involved with her and who was certainly more than a little mean.

    It was starting to get dark out. Five minutes ago, the last people besides Miles had left the shuttle and the veteran began to get even angrier. He pointed outwith more than a little contempt that the elderly couple they'd just dropped off lived in one of the wealthiest communities in Delaware County, then said how he hadn't appreciated their oversized guard dog that'd charged him. The veteran described the dog's charge and its relentless barking in some detail, although nothing had happened to him bite-wise.

    "I wish that dog did bite me so I could sue their ass," he said, and Miles made a little supportive sound—something like a part laugh, part uh-huh.

    Speaking of money made the veteran think again about the longer, cost-ineffective route the rookie was taking and he lit into her once more. Now Miles started to worry. It was like becoming aware there was a bee flying near him, not exactly on his nose but perhaps two or three feet away.

    He thought it was hard to know if it was worse being a rookie or a veteran, then checked again and saw that the rookie being criticized was definitely black. He tried one last time for eye contact with an expression that he hoped combined both lust and sympathy, but she still didn't respond. Once more he wouldn't get his way.

    He remembered sitting in the backyard of his building complex a week ago, shortly before he started packing for his company's latest trip. He'd moved his white plastic chair off the five feet of concrete in front of his sliding doors onto the backyard itself, then started picking some blades of grass and rubbing them against his face. A fat bumblebee was flying around in an irregular pattern as if it were drunk. Miles had been thinking: there are as many people in the world as blades of grass in this yard but it's only the few blades you can pick and rub against your face that you feel. It was the same with people. The ones you picked weren't any more different from each other than the blades of grass were. They wanted light and water and growth and maybe to be picked by the right hands. They wanted their way—it was built into them, just as it was built into the grass. But how long could you accept your will being denied?

    It was a tricky question, especially with women. He remembered when he started with them, in his late teens and early 20s, thinking the pleasure lay in getting as much of your way as you could. He would look for and eventually find ones who would let him mostly do what he wanted, but they always thwarted him one way or another. Either they said too many words or not the right ones afterwards or none at all, or else they would simply lie to him or ultimately leave him, or if one ever did do what he wanted he found out that wasn't what he really wanted either.

    The veteran was talking warmly to the rookie now, even laughing, and Miles wondered what was behind this good cop / bad cop behavior. Was the veteran becoming worried about the way he'd acted in front of a customer, or was he merely trying another approach to get some response from her? Then the rookie asked Miles in a toneless voice if his home was off Route 113. Miles answered and the veteran started speaking sarcastically to the rookie again, but by then Miles had turned back to his own thoughts.

    He was thinking about his sister now—sibling rivalry would be too weak a word to describe the intense, complicated power struggles between them that took place over the years on the playground, in their yard and, of course, inside their home in the form of endless games and competitions. Much more often than not, however, when he would win in Chinese checkers or badminton (and especially when she'd cry afterwards), instead of feeling happy he'd feel a sadness verging on despair. It was almost the same thing, years later, when he got divorced. The fact that his ex-wife didn't find anyone for years, and he did, didn't make him feel happy or vindicated—though she'd left him and falsely accused him of so much. Instead her loneliness caused him more pain than if she'd married again right away and he'd been left like a dog chasing its tail or like that drunken, useless bee.

    "OK, you gonna stop this bullshit right now," the rookie said. She still wasn't looking at the veteran when she spoke, but then she'd just left a red light and couldn't afford to.

    "You saying something to me?"

    "You heard me."

    "You talk that way to me, you're looking for trouble."

    "You're the one doing all the talking. You're the one in trouble talking like that to me in front of a customer."

    "I'll talk any goddamn way I want to, I'm the supervisor in this car."

    "I'll talk to the supervisor, all right. You can be sure of that."

    There was another red light; then catlike, she got out of her seat belt and slammed the door.

    The veteran swore out the window at her but she was running and soon turned a corner (perhaps into the woods) and disappeared. Meanwhile, cars were honking behind him and the veteran had to switch to the driver's seat and start driving.

    "Jesus Christ, do you believe that?" he said.

    Miles couldn't think of anything to say in response and made one of his semisupportive sounds again.

    "That woman's crazy. I'm trying to help her do her job, I'm supposed to ride with her and help her do her job and she refuses to take the route I tell her to take. It's like she wanted trouble right from the start."

    "Do you think she'll be all right?" Miles blurted.

    "Oh, she'll be all right. That bitch is tough as nails. I'm the one's gonna come out getting screwed by all this. She's got a cell phone that she's probably using right now to file a complaint on me."

    "I thought I saw her run into the woods. How will she get home?"

    "She'll get home OK. She'll get them to pick her up and when they come she'll say I abused her, maybe even tried to rape her. I wouldn't put it past her. Matter of fact, you're my only chance here 'cause you're the only goddamn witness knows what really happened."

    "I really wasn't paying attention."

    "That right? Funny, I thought I saw you looking at her a couple times, like you were interested ... anyway, you know I didn't lay a goddamn finger on her. If I lose this job, it's all over for me. Your telling the truth—that's my only chance. What's your name ... sir?" he said, adding the sir as a kind of afterthought.


    The veteran pulled the car onto the soft shoulder and stopped. "Miles, I'm gonna have to get your name and address, OK?"

    The veteran produced a notebook and pen and turned on the light in the shuttle. Miles thought briefly of lying, but what would be the point since the veteran would see where he lived when he dropped him off? Besides, he'd already given the company his last name and phone number when he called the shuttle service from the Philadelphia airport.

    The veteran wrote rapidly (though his hand was shaking), asking Miles to repeat everything twice. He had a mustache and dark, intense eyes. Then he started the car up and drove in silence for a while. When they were ten to fifteen minutes from Miles's housing complex, the veteran finally spoke.

    "Hey Miles, I hope I didn't offend you with what I said earlier about you looking at the driver."

    "No, forget it. Besides, I guess I was looking a little."

    "Hey, I don't blame you. We all look, right?"


    "Be worse than hell if we couldn't even look."

    "That's for sure ... these days."

    "Hey Miles, you mind if I ask if you're married?"

    "No, I'm not married. I was once, but I'm not now."

    "Anyone special in your life?"

    "No, not now. I couldn't say there was."

    "So it must have ruined the ride for you when she left the car, huh?"

    "The whole thing was just upsetting."

    "But if me and her didn't argue, she might not have left and then you could have kept looking and maybe talked with her and who knows what might have happened? So I guess I ruined that and I owe you one, right?"

    It was a strange, though not inaccurate line of argument—like a panicked kind of logic—and Miles didn't know what to say.

    "Yeah, I can see what I ruined for you—especially since I'm gonna need you to be on my side and say that I never touched or threatened her, never did nothing like that to make her leave the car and desert her job."

    "You don't owe me," Miles said, although he was thinking the veteran did owe him for this nightmare of a ride and should give him the ride for free.

    "No, no, I think I do, and I think I know a way I can pay you back and square things between us, but first I need to know if you'd like a little action tonight; I mean a woman, Miles. Could you use one?"

    He thought of his perfectly empty apartment. The traveling life of his new job in a new place made it almost impossible to meet anyone, and the only women who'd been in his place in the year that he'd been there were the building manager once—for two minutes—and an equally brief visit from a middle-aged tenant with a petition. It was as if his will to find anybody at this point had been worn away. At 29, he knew he shouldn't be feeling that way.

    "Yeah, I could use one, l guess."

    "It just so happens I know one who lives pretty near you. I can make a little detour and get her for you right now. If you want me to."

    "What's this gonna cost me?"

    "No, no, you don't get it. She's for you, on me, to show my appreciation for your testimony for me in the future, OK?"

    "Yuh, OK," Miles said, feeling uneasy.

    "Good, so long as we understand each other. 'Cause I didn't hear you volunteering to speak for me, and I have to be completely clear about what you're gonna say, you hear me? I can't take no chances with you."

    "Yes, yes, I hear you."

    "'Cause if I lose this job it's all over for me. I'd rather be a corpse in the ground than be out of a job, and I'll never get work in this business again if that bitch starts flapping her lips. See I've got no defense, you get the picture, Miles. You sure you get it?"

    "Yes, I understand ..."

    "So that's why I'm rewarding you like this."

    "OK. So how's it going to work with this girl you're gonna get me?"

    "I'll pick her up, we'll drive to your place or you can do it at hers. You do it at hers, I'll wait in the shuttle and drive you home after. You do it at yours, I'll wait in the shuttle and drive her home. Would an hour be enough time? Maybe you could have a little more."

    "Yeah, sure."

    He was trying to figure where it would be better. He didn't like the idea of a stranger in his house with the veteran right outside. On the other hand it would be easier to do it in his own apartment and safer, too, since he knew where everything was.

    "You just say the word, buddy, and I'll call her on my cell phone right now so she'll be ready."

    "Yes, OK. I guess my house would be better."

    "You got it, chief."

    The veteran began to dial and Miles leaned forward slightly, like a jockey. He was trying to figure out if he was getting his way or if the veteran was. Or was this one of those rare times when both could benefit? The veteran was talking in a low voice and it was difficult to hear much of what he was saying. Miles thought he said, "You have to do it," then, "Be ready ... ten minutes, no more."

    The veteran cursed softly, but with great bitterness, after he hung up. Neither of them said anything for awhile.

    "What's her name?" Miles suddenly said, surprised by his question.

    "Who? The one I'm getting for you?"


    "Her name's Silver."


    "No, Silver, like the horse, and you can be the Lone Ranger. Me, I'll be Tonto waiting off-screen. There a place I can get a drink near you?"

    "Yuh, there's a couple."

    "Good. You tell me where they are when we get there so I'll have something to do. I could use one."

    "OK," Miles said. He was wondering just how big a pimp the veteran was, how many girls he had in his stable. It couldn't be too many otherwise he wouldn't be so worried about losing his driving job.

    They reached Paoli (15 minutes or so from his home), the veteran still muttering about the rookie. Then he took a couple of side streets and a moment later pulled the car over and said, "Wait here, I'm gonna get her."

    Was it his home? Hers? A few seconds after the veteran left the car, Miles looked out the window to get a sense of the neighborhood. It looked dim and gray, even under the stars, more shabby than sinister. The few people he saw walking were not well dressed but appeared to be ordinary citizens.

    He heard them walking, or thought he did, a split second before he saw them, and saw them too late to tell which building they came from. He felt oddly frightened and exhilarated at the same time—like a child at a horror movie. Then they were at the car door—Silver making a move to get in front.

    "You get in the back seat," the veteran said authoritatively. "Come on, don't start getting shy on me now, I'm in no mood."

    Miles moved over to give her room, then tried to figure out how old she was. It was hard to tell because she didn't look at him directly and, at any rate, seemed to have an unnatural expression on her face. As for her body, again Miles couldn't be sure. She was wearing jeans and a long black blouse. No skin was showing, but he thought she was maybe a little overweight.

    As if he were reading Miles's mind, the veteran said, "I told her to get in a dress but she wouldn't. I guess this is the night no one listens to me."

    Miles looked at Silver reflexively, wondering if she'd start fighting with the veteran like the rookie did, but she said nothing. This time he noticed that her eyebrows were dark and quite pronounced (which made him think she was hairy in other parts of her body too—something he had mixed feelings about). Her eyes were also dark, though smaller than he would have hoped, as if they were on the verge of closing to protect her from something.

    They rode in silence, no one talking except the veteran occasionally cursing the rookie or else life in general.

    "I like your name, Silver," Miles finally said, to say something.

    "Oh yeah? Thanks. What did you say yours was?"


    "Right.... `And Miles to go before I sleep.' That was the name of a poem I learned in school. You know it?"

    He did know what she was talking about but didn't want to correct her and so said, "No, I don't know."

    "Where'd you say that bar was?" the veteran said.

    "On 113 about a half-mile from where you'll drop me."

    "Gonna get wasted tonight. 'Cause it's a cruel bitch world, right Silver?" the veteran said.

    She said something under her breath, then settled back in her seat, rigid like a mummy. "Hey Miles-to-go, you got anything to drink at your place?" Silver said.

    "Yeah, I got something," Miles said.


    Miles made his little supportive laugh, trying to make eye contact with her. Instead he saw the veteran glaring at him in the mirror. Silver still hadn't looked him straight in the eye, and Miles began feeling that this all wasn't going to go well. It had been exciting at first, the thought of a girl in his apartment, and it all happening so unexpectedly. It was as if, to return to his earlier thoughts, he was not just getting his way but getting it in a guilt-free manner and with the full cooperation (enthusiastic in the case of the veteran) of the other people involved. Of course it was unclear how much he would have to say later about the rookie. That was troubling, since the veteran had scared her and Miles didn't blame the rookie for leaving the car. As a result, he had to remind himself that the rookie had never really spoken to him. There'd been one plaintive look that had encouraged him, falsely, he now saw, so really what was she to him? Still, it was troubling. Was it really, then, his conscience bothering him about her that could account for his mood or simply how sullen Silver was acting?

    Once again, the veteran seemed to read his mind. "Hey Silver. I don't hear you talking to Miles. You supposed to be friendly, I told you that. Miles is going to do something very important for me, and he's supposed to be happy, you got that?"

    She said a single "yeah" in reply. He didn't like the way the veteran was bullying her.

    At his home, Silver got out of the car and walked ahead of him through the parking lot, still not looking at him, stopping only so he could open the door. He turned the light on immediately and walked to the refrigerator, where there was a bottle of gin.

    "You want a gin and tonic, or maybe a beer?"

    "Gin's good. I'll fix them."

    He stood a few feet away now, thinking that there was something oddly sweet in the way she looked, that she was really pretty and that perhaps this would work out after all.

    "Hey Miles, what're you thinkin' about?" Silver said, handing him his drink. He saw that she'd finished half of hers. "You look a million miles away."

    He quickly took a large swallow of his drink. He liked that she was speaking lightly to him. She asked him about his job and he told her, without telling her how much he hated it. They joked for a few minutes more until he said, "I'm thinking you have a pretty face," and touched it with his free hand. Then he drank some more. He was pleased that she let him touch her there, since he thought prostitutes usually didn't like to be kissed or even touched on their faces. She looked at him closely and he saw a softness in what he'd thought were her hard little eyes.

    "I like looking at it" he said, continuing to touch it and then her hair. She seemed to be under his spell for a minute, but then broke away.

    "It's not my face you want to spend time with."

    "What do you mean?"

    "That's not the part of me you're interested in, right?"

    Miles made a semishrug, uncertain what to say. The alcohol seemed to have made her much bolder. She was walking ahead of him towards his room, holding the little bottle of gin and her glass, which she set down on his bureau. He was embarrassed that his room was so small and uninteresting. It lacked distinction or even any secrets. He thought it would be fun to share secrets with a woman under his spell, but they were all in his mind and there seemed no way to get them out. He thought he would drink some more then, like Silver.

    "What are you looking at? You keep looking outside," she said.

    "My blinds are open and I can see him in the car."

    "Yeah, that don't surprise me."

    "Feels kind of weird, like he's spying on us."

    She finished her drink and started another. She was standing a few feet away from him by the far side of the bed.

    "Why don't you shut them then?"

    "Think it would make him mad? I notice he's got quite a temper."

    "It's your house. Besides, he told me he was doing you a favor. He's worried about making you feel good, not about me."

    Miles shut the blinds, then walked towards her. He thought of kissing her but began trying to unbutton her blouse.

    "I'll handle the clothes," she said, turning away from him. "Why don't you shut off the light? You'll like me better in the dark."

    "I like you now," he said, but shut off the lamp anyway. He was starting to trust her more now, or at least trust her judgment, since he did feel both more excited and confident in the dark. The only thing that bothered him was that she was still drinking in bed, apparently straight from the bottle.

    "Put the bottle away, will you?"

    "One second," she said.

    The only thing that bothered her once they started having sex were his attempts to satisfy her. "Quit doing that, will you? What are you trying to do?" Then later, "Go faster, OK? No point in anything else." She said the last remark so ardently that he finally obeyed, uncertain again if he'd gotten his way or she'd gotten hers but reasonably content for a few seconds with the outcome. Then she started talking in a rush. It was like a fast and complicated passage in a piece of music that took him by surprise and seemed to be already well underway by the time he tuned in.

    "I was always like that," she was saying, "wanting to know the reasons for things, even as a kid. But after a while you got to wonder what's the point of learning about dresses and make-up or even brushing your teeth if you end up like this," she said, starting to cry softly.

    "What's the matter?"

    "Nothing. Don't worry about it"

    "Come on, tell me. What is it?" he said, embracing her and letting her cry against his chest. It was a refined kind of crying, too, that almost made him want to cry himself.

    "I shouldn't have drunk so much. It makes me weepy afterwards."

    "Haven't you done this a lot? I mean ..."

    "No, not a lot. A few times when he made me."

    "What do you mean? What are you saying?"

    "What do I mean? What am I saying?" she repeated.

    "You mean you never get paid?"

    "I'm no whore. It's him, he gets paid from it one way or another."

    "So why do you do it? I don't understand."

    "You're asking a lot of questions, aren't you? Especially since you wouldn't like none of the answers."

    "I like you, I ..."

    "Oh really."

    "Yeah, that's why I want to know."

    "It's an evil story, Miles."

    "He's your boyfriend, right?"

    She laughed ironically, but said nothing.

    "That's it, right? And he gets off making you do this for him whenever he wants to use you."

    "No, that's not it."

    "What else could it be? He's not your pimp, you don't get paid. Why don't you just tell me?"

    "It's not that way."

    "Come on, why bother to lie about it?"

    "I'm not lying. He's my brother, OK? You satisfied now?"

    "Your brother?"

    "You couldn't understand. We've been together a long time. You couldn't understand. My father crossed the line on both of us. My brother helped us get away. We've been together a long time. He seems mean, but he's kind too."

    "So, you're lovers, right?"

    "What? Why are you asking me that?"

    "'Cause I'm thinking that you are unless you want to lie and tell me otherwise. Look, I have a sister. I've had dreams about her. It's not like I don't understand."

    "It was only once or twice; we did it years ago when we were first away from my father, but then he stopped 'cause he said he wanted to live right."

    "Then why does he make you sleep with other people?"

    "You wouldn't get it. He has to do that 'cause he's like me. He has to ruin things. See, you were a nice man, you touched my hair and face and said nice things and I had to ruin it by telling you this. All my secrets."

    He picked up the bottle from the floor and took a drink. Silver was perceptive enough, he decided, she had ruined things. He thought he wanted her to talk but, as had been the case before, he regretted it when she did. If only people would occasionally say things you wanted to hear. The way it was, it was nothing but a recipe for confusion. You pleaded for communication and you got overcommunication that ended in pain. No wonder you couldn't win.


Excerpted from The Spirit Returns by Richard Burgin. Copyright © 2001 by The Johns Hopkins University Press. Excerpted by permission.

Meet the Author

Richard Burgin is the author of nine books, including the story collection Fear of Blue Skies, also available from Johns Hopkins, and the novel Ghost Quartet. Two of his books were named Notable Books of the Year by the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Miles," the lead story in this collection, recently won Burgin his fourth Pushcart Prize, and he has had ten other stories listed by the Pushcart Prize anthology as being among the year's best in pervious years. He is both founder and editor of the internationally distributed and award-winning literary journal Boulevard and a professor of communication and English at St. Louis University.

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