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In his newest book, the author of Frog and Interstate draws a portrait of a man through his romantic and sexual involvements, as well as a portrait of modern American life over the past 40 years. By turns comic and deeply touching, Gould is a bravura performance delineating the leaping arc of love--and all too often, the miscarriage of that love. 288 pp. Author readings. National ads. 12,500 print.
The story divides into two novellas, "Abortions" and "Evangeline," but they are of a piece, chronicling the relationships Gould experiences from the 1950s onward. Dixon writes in a run-on style that drifts in and out of these relationships, capturing, in the process, the emergence of a more liberal moral climate, and the evolution of a naive adolescent into a mature man. "Abortions" thus moves from back-alley abortions to legal ones; it is the relationships themselves, however, that are abortive here, unsatisfactory and temporary. Gould doesn't have much to offer his women except sex, and the assets they have, in his eyes, are purely sexual. He flits from one female to another until, finally, he's married and a father, but his wife, too, is purely a sexual being, and abortions still happen. Gould's longest relationship is not with his wife but with the title character of the second novella, with whom he maintains a correspondence and whom he continues to sees long after he's married. Evangeline is a free spirit, raising her son on the fly as she takes on lover after lover, pops pills, and plays at becoming an artist. She and Gould proclaim a hundred times that they don't belong together, that they have nothing in common, that each wants most to be free. Ironically, they are in fact exactly suited to each other—they're both irresponsible, selfish, and self-absorbed in much the same way.
Extremely readable and clever work, but the pages don't add up to much except sex and more sex, described in clinical detail and with clinical dispassion, featuring a cast of characters who seem incapable of thinking about anything other than their bodies and their appetites.
Mr. Dixon wields a stubbornly plain-spoken style; he loves all sorts of tricky narrative effects. And he loves even more the tribulations of the fantasizing mind, ticklish in their comedy, alarming in their immediacy.
[Dixon's] stories, strengthened by their unity, almost have a novel's ability to develop character, to suggest a life outside the confines of the plot.
[Time to Go] emphatically establishes him as one of the short story's most accomplished if quirky practitioners.
Each year when spring comes I do a lot of handyman work for the row houses that line Wilmin Park Drive on the 2900 to 3300 blocks. Across from the 3100 block is a park bench and this spring for about a month on the nice days I see this man push a stroller with a baby in it to the bench and stay there for an hour or two around the same time every afternoon. Sometimes he reads for a few minutes or eats an orange while the baby sleeps or is quiet, but usually he has the baby in his lap or stands it up on his thighs or holds it in the air or feeds it some bottle or baby-jar food or keeps it sitting up on the bench but always with a wide bonnet on or its face out of the sun and he kisses and hugs it a lot and smiles and talks to it a lot too, words I never hear, this baby of around six to nine months. I've never seen a man so affectionate to his baby, maybe not even a woman to her baby too. I mention him a few times to some of the people I work for. Several times when he looks our way as we talk or just my way if I'm working alone then and sees us or me looking at him, he waves and we wave back or I wave back alone and then he goes back to being so affectionate to the baby.
Then one day he doesn't show up, but a nice sunny day, one I'd think he would. And not the next nice day and the next nice day after that. When he doesn't show up on the nice days for a couple of weeks, I mention it to the homeowner I'm working for that day. "Remember that man with the baby on the bench—he was pretty tall and had kind of sandy hair—but there almost every afternoon or at least every afternoon when I worked around here?" and she says "Most certainly do. Hasn't been around for awhile, I know. Something terrible—almost unspeakable—happened." I say "Yes?" and she says "He got mad one day, but I mean stark raving crazy mad—I got this from a woman I know who lives on his street and knew he spent some time on our park bench almost every day. Anyway, he got so mad that he shot his wife—because she made him mad or as a result of his getting that way—and killed her instantly—in their home—and is now up for trial and the baby's with his wife's sister. I didn't read anything about it in the papers, but this woman friend said it absolutely happened and that everything bad like that that happens in the city doesn't appear in the news. I thought I spoke about this with you."
"No, really—I'm shocked and surprised. I didn't think he'd do anything like that to his worst possible enemy. He had so much to lose, with that baby, and seemed so peaceful and affectionate; and with those spontaneous waves of his, to other people and myself, very nice."
A week later, the man I'm trimming bushes for says "Howard, you recall that strange man who used to spend the end of almost every pleasant afternoon on the bench there?" and I say "Yes sir. I heard something awful happened to his wife and child." "Something awful indeed. For a few weeks I was wondering why we didn't see him anymore—he had practically become a fixture on the drive. Then—I'm talking to Bill Schechter"—someone else I work for—"but about something entirely different, when he says that the man's wife suddenly got very sick and died in less than a month. And the man got so upset over it that he couldn't function normally and had to be institutionalized, and the baby, until the authorities can find a relative of the husband and wife willing to take her in, had to be placed in a temporary home."
"No," I say, "that's terrible. And the baby's a girl? I heard something much different happened, but both things couldn't be worse." "What did you hear?" he says and I tell him and he says "Oh no, Bill Schechter's brother lives two doors away from the family and that's what Bill's brother said."
About a month later in the supermarket I bump into one of the people I work for on Wilmin Park Drive. We start talking general-like and then she says "By the way, do you remember the young very neatly dressed man on the bench right across from my house who used to wave to us from time to time?" and I say "The one who was so nice to his baby—kissing and hugging her all the time? I heard." "Isn't it something? Because rarely do you see a man so openly adoring and attentive to his child, so you can just imagine how he, and of course his wife, felt after. And at the baby's funeral—my God." I say "What funeral?—I didn't hear about any baby dying," and she says "Oh yes. Bertha Arnold saw it in the Evening Sun and over TV. She put two and two together quite easily, she said, when she saw the photo of the man and read their address and the baby's age. He and his wife and their baby were in a rowboat they rented at Loch Maiden and the man's wife stood up, it was never said for what, and the boat capsized and the baby drowned."
I don't tell her what I've already heard about the man and his family, just look very shocked when I'm really not feeling that way because I'm wondering more what really did happen.
Just a few days later I'm doing work for a couple who live a block down from Mrs. Larkin who told me the drowning story. I ask if they've heard about the man who used to bring his baby to the park every spring day for about a month and who we talked about a couple of times and Mr. Radderman says "We thought you out of anyone would have known what happened to them because you get around so much," and I say "No sir, nothing, though I am curious, because when you see a man and his baby almost the exact same time almost every day and especially when he—" "His wife left him for a friend of his and took the baby with her. They lived just a short walk from him and after he went over there a few times to take the baby back, they took off and disappeared. We heard it from our top-floor tenant, who's a graduate student in the same department the man teaches in. He knew him and in fact from his window he used to see him sit on the bench with Olivia, the baby daughter, on some of those days. It's so sad. The professor must be heartbroken—not for his wife so much but the baby. Because in your life, Howard, have you ever seen a man so attached to his child? Sometimes, I was telling Mrs. Radderman, but just a silly joke, of course, it looked almost incestuous." I say "Never," and go back to fixing their front steps, looking out to talk to their tenant who might show, but he never does.
Two months later when I'm painting the porch deck of Mrs. Cottrell, who lives a few doors down from Mrs. Larkin, I see what I'm sure is the same man on the bench. He's alone, no stroller, a book and paper bag next to him on the bench, staring at the ground for about an hour or so or maybe asleep, because either his eyes are naturally very narrow—I forget from two months ago—or closed. When he gets up and from the park side of the street passes the house, I want to wave to him but he doesn't look my way.
He's there the same time the next day, which is around the same time he used to come with his daughter. Now the sun's higher up and much stronger than it was in the spring, which could be why he wears one of those white sailing caps today, not realizing yesterday he had to. But everything else is much the same as it was when he came here in the spring: has a book, though this time he reads it for an hour, which I don't ever remember him doing then, and takes an orange out of a paper bag instead of the tote bag he had attached to the stroller. He looks up at the sun and a passing plane a few times, but mostly just stares at the trees some distance across from him and occasionally at the cars and joggers and the few people who stop in the park to let their dogs loose.
He comes back the next day. I'm at the top of a ladder against Mrs. Cottrell's house, trimming the second—floor window, frames. Suddenly she's looking out the bedroom window I'm working on, checking to see how good a job I'm doing, I suppose, or just making sure I'm working at what she's paying me for. I nod to her, she starts speaking to me while pointing to the park, then she mouths "Wait," since I can't hear her through the closed window, and leaves the room. Next she's standing at the foot of the ladder and says "Howard, excuse me for interrupting you, but what I was saying upstairs was isn't that man on the park bench the one who used to come months ago with his baby every day—the baby who I was told was in a car crash with the man's wife where they both died?" I say "Is that what they say happened, Mrs. C.? Because I've heard a half-dozen stories about what happened to him and his family," and she says "What else did you hear?" and I say "Too many to remember, but all different," and she says "Oh, if I only had the nerve to ask him. Not pointblank but around it. But pity no matter what it was, don't you think? Of course you do, because he loved that little darling. That was obvious in every one of his gestures."
She goes into the house, I go back to my trimming, but by now I'm so curious about what really did happen if anything that when the man gets off the bench and starts for the street in my direction, I put down my brush and climb down the ladder, not so much to ask him anything directly but just to get a sense of what happened by what he might say in passing or the way he looks. I take off my gloves as if I'm done for the time being, scratch some dried paint off my arms, and as he's passing the house I look up and say "Hey there, how's it going?"
"Can't complain," he says, still walking.
"And how's that lovely little daughter of yours?" and he stops and says "What lovely little daughter?"
"Well, I don't know if it was a daughter or son—all I'm saying is the baby you used to come to that park bench with almost every nice spring day for a month. We all admired you for the way—"
"I never had a baby," and I say "You didn't?"
"Never even came close to having one. I was engaged once—a century ago—but we didn't get married and certainly never had a child."
"This is really funny, but you didn't used to bring a little baby there—no more than six to nine months old at the time? In a yellow snowsuit she had when it was still a bit cool out? And then in just pants"—he's shaking his head—"or some outfit I don't know what it's called, where the feet don't come out of it and it zippers all the way up, and a sun bonnet and white sweater and maybe a little blanket?"
"In a stroller. Rolled her there, stayed for about two hours, usually put her back in it when you were leaving or sometimes carried her while you pushed the stroller? I mean, I never saw anyone who looked after and was so affectionate to his baby, that's the only reason I'm mentioning it."
"Honestly, you have the wrong man."
"I'd almost swear it was you. I'm not saying it was now, but even Mrs. C. who owns this house and who just saw you would swear, I'm almost sure, that that man with the baby was you."
"It sounds very nice. In ways I wish I were him. But I never had a child. And since I don't plan to get married, I doubt I ever will have one, I'm afraid. Nice talking to you."
I look for him the next day and then a couple of days the next week when I'm working on the drive, and then for the one or two days a week I work around the drive till the fall, but I don't see him again. I suppose I can get the real story somehow by asking a few people on the drive what else this man's university student or neighbor or brother of a neighbor or whoever it was who knew him might have heard about him. But after that last talk with him, and because I feel I did enough damage by maybe forcing him away from this part of the park, I decide I've been nosy enough.
For a Man Your Age
I'm twenty years older than you," she says. "I mean twenty years younger. I don't know if it's a problem for you but for me it is."
"Isn't for me."
"That's what I said. That it wouldn't be—might not. And it's not that I don't like you."
"Or that I love you."
"See? That particularly scares me. Because I know you do. While I don't love you. Like you, yes. But twenty years. More. Almost twenty-one. You were born in May, I'm in November."
"Let's call it an even twenty-one."
"Even twenty-one. It's so much. Tell me what you really think about it."
"What do you think? That I wish it wasn't a problem with you and that we should continue seeing each other despite the difference of our ages."
"See each other perhaps but not sleep with each other."
"See and sleep both. Or only sleep with each other. We can do everything in the dark."
"Don't joke. I'm in no mood."
"No, listen. You can come to my apartment or I to yours. The lights will be out in either. Let's say you come and ring my bell. Lights totally out, place pitch black, I'll open the door and you'll come in. If you don't remember the terrain I'll take your hand and guide you in and shut the door so no light from the stairway comes in. And then kiss you or we'll kiss and talk perhaps or no talk if that's not part of the bargain and then go to bed, everything in the absolute dark as it can get. That way we won't have to see each other."
"What about the public hallway light?"
"Okay. You ring my bell and shut your eyes. I'll shut mine, we'll both put out our hands, and I'll bring you in and shut the door. Then we'll go through what I said before till it's over and you can leave in the dark or in the light with our backs towards one another. Or I will if it's your apartment where all this is taking place."
"Doesn't sound like a bad idea, for a fantasy, but it won't work."
"Why, you don't like my lovemaking anymore?"
"No I do, I do."
"Then not in the dark"
"No. Dark, light or one of those mini-watters on with a red shirt over the globe, our lovemaking was good. But you're forty-two, I'm not even twenty-one. I'm a half year from being twenty-one. So that's actually twenty-one and a half years difference, not twenty. Why'd I always think it was only twenty?"
"Maybe because I was always referring to it as twenty. Not to make it less. Only because what the hell's a year and a half mean in all that?"
"And if you were forty-three and a half to my twenty and a half, or I was nineteen and no half to your forty-two, that wouldn't make any more of a difference to you?"
"There is probably an extreme somewhere in age differences between couples. Thirty years difference when the woman or man's twenty. Again thirty years difference when the woman or man's thirty. So I suppose thirty years difference is the beginning of the extreme, except if the younger person's fifteen, boy or girl. Then it's probably five or ten years difference, and if the younger person's thirteen or fourteen, three or four years difference, though even with any of those I'm not sure."
"I don't agree. And I think that from tonight—I know that from tonight onwards—it has to be over with us, all right? "
"What can I say to complain?"
"Then you won't phone me, write or any of those things?"
"So it's both? No sleep or see? You don't even want to be friends?"
"Friends if we really need one another—in six months, maybe more. But I won't need you. I've my parents, and good friends. And you're a very nice man, very desirable too. There must be lots of women ten to fifteen years younger or older than you or the same age who'd love to have you as their lover, husband or friend. You should even get married and have the baby you say you always wanted so much before it's too late."
"Men can be fathers into their sixties and seventies."
"Not if your prostate's removed before then. Besides, you don't want your five-year-old kid wheeling you around an old age home. You want to get down on the floor with it, run and play sports with it, dance with it at its wedding and so on, if it's a girl, and maybe even later playa little with your grandchild."
"Don't worry about me—I'm going to stay active until I'm eighty. I'll also dance with my son at his wedding if we feel like it. It just doesn't have to be a girl."
Excerpted from Time to Go by Stephen Dixon. Copyright © 2011 Stephen Dixon. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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