But Not for Long

But Not for Long

by Michelle Wildgen


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Greta has left her old life behind and moved into a sustainable foods co-op in Madison, Wisconsin. Just as she begins to settle in with her two housemates, the husband she left behind appears on their porch, drunk. His arrival begins a dark three-day period during which all three residents of the house will have to reckon with a disquietude lurking under the surface of their little society. A series of summer blackouts, gas shortages, and an ominous disappearance will force them all out into a larger world that seems everywhere on the verge of crisis.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312571412
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 10/13/2009
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

MICHELLE WILDGEN is a senior editor at Tin House. Her first novel, You're Not You, a New York Times Editor's Choice and one of People Magazine's Ten Best Books of 2006, is now in development for film by Hilary Swank and Denise DiNovi. Wildgen's work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, The New York Times, and literary journals including Prairie Schooner and TriQuarterly.

Read an Excerpt

But Not For Long

By Michelle Wildgen

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2009 Michelle Wildgen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-8693-9


The loose dock drifted into view on a Monday morning at the end of May. Hal had stationed himself at the kitchen window at six A.M. with a cup of coffee. This way he could wake up slowly as he gazed over the short stretch of his backyard, with its fallow mud square that was supposed to be a garden, and out onto the calm water of Lake Monona. Upstairs, he heard Greta and Karin begin to stir: two alarms going off, two sets of footsteps moving back and forth from their respective bedrooms to the bathroom. He tried to distinguish one from the other: Greta's brisk staccato even in bare feet; Karin's heavier tread.

A flock of geese was moving from his neighbor's yard through Hal's yard, chomping grass. Periodically one would pop up its head and cast a watchful eye at its surroundings, making Hal wonder if the geese could sense him there behind the glass.

The geese were fat and smooth as eggs, their undulant necks a wonder of engineering and sensitivity. They were beautiful, Hal reflected, and they were plentiful — that flock alone might feed fifty people or more. Goose meat, even wild goose, was dark and filling. Not to mention that in the arboretum across town were gangs of turkeys that often fanned out over the roads, intimidating the joggers. How far would a few of those birds go, if they were roasted and stuffed? Hal figured he could manage some meager dressing from whatever frozen bread and bottled spices he had in the warehouse at work.

It was spring, the wrong time of year to be thinking about serving turkey or goose, but since winter Hal had had a growing list of food pantries, soup kitchens, and families asking for increasing help from his employer, the Southern Wisconsin Food Initiative. The letterhead said "SWFI," but the workers had nicknamed the organization "The Swiffies" instead. Meanwhile, all the Swiffies' usual donors of surplus lunch meat or frozen pizzas or white rice were suddenly models of efficiency. Hal, whose job depended on the wanton largesse of corporations, hated a recession even more than most people. He wanted every CEO smoking cigars and tossing brandy snifters into their fireplaces if it meant they'd keep up their donations, but they were all getting lean and efficient, the bastards. So each morning that spring, Hal had been getting up earlier and earlier, and drinking his coffee while he looked out the window and ran numbers in his head. Seven hundred pounds of potatoes. Twenty cases of pretzels. One thousand pounds of star-shaped noodles. Seven hundred pounds of cherry-flavored candies half-melted into possum-sized blocks of wax. It all sounded like a huge amount until he reviewed how many orders had been placed for that week, how many food pantries and church groups came in to shop and wandered through the shelves, increasingly pissed off and disheartened, leaving with only a few gallons of ice cream and boxes of bread. Then Hal would head toward the Swiffies' own kitchens, where volunteers were stretching boxes of noodles and commodity ham into hot meals for delivery. His coworkers got a lot of mileage out of the daily spectacle of vegetarian Hal, who lived in a cooperative house devoted to sustainable eating and organic local food, being so relieved to get his hands on bins of dried veggies flavored with chicken solution and sodium chloride.

Thank God for the prison gardens. They were the Swiffies' best source of summer vegetables. If Hal could just hold out a couple months, there'd soon be truckloads of cucumbers and peppers and tomatoes, all carefully tended by hundreds of felonious hands. Amazing how quickly that aspect ceased to matter. The first year Hal had worked for Swiff and the prison veggies arrived, he'd been unable to stop himself from regarding the huge bins with suspicion, as if an inmate might be hidden among the zucchini. Now he was desperate for that donation, with inmate or without.

The thought of the prison gardens reminded him that he ought to have been planting his own garden. Even the prisoners were ahead of him.

Hal was still sipping, brooding in the direction of the lake, when the geese snapped to attention. The big one raised its head and issued an echoing call. There was a thunderous flapping of wings and alarmed cries as the gaggle rose into the cool May air and fled the bank of the lake.

Then Hal saw why they'd left. Out on the shimmering water was a raft of some sort, floating into his view from the northeast. On the raft sat an empty chair, beside which was a small rectangular shape that might have been a crate or a bucket. But what had startled the geese was a dog — a huge, toast-colored, heavy-shouldered thing even from a distance — that was standing by the chair, gazing searchingly into the water. Hal watched the dog's jaws snap, its ears flopping toward the surface of the lake and twitching in communication. The dog's weight tipped the structure slightly downward, exposing the pontoons beneath the wooden planks. The lake splashed against the wood and then smoothed out again.

After a few seconds, the images began to order themselves for Hal, causing him to set down his mug, spilling coffee onto the counter. The empty chair, the drifting raft, the dog barking fiercely into the lake. It was not a raft, Hal realized. The dog was standing on the dock that was supposed to be anchored to the bank of Lake Monona, in a park three houses east of Hal's house. Someone must have unfastened the dock and set it adrift.

The rising sun illuminated the edges of the dog's fur, so that the fuzz seemed to glow at its haunch and skull, its belly and tail. The dog's tail stuck straight out behind it. Its barking was harsh and rhythmic. The chair was dark against the white pools of light on the water. Its fabric was pinholed with sunlight, sagging at the seat and backrest with the lost weight of its inhabitant.

The park near Hal's home was tiny, just a square of grass with a few climbing toys, a sandbox, a picnic table, and a small dock. The dock, part of which was now drifting in Lake Monona, was meant to be a two-part object, a small section anchored on the bank plus a detachable length of wood. In the winter the city removed the long section from the water and let it rest on the snow-covered bank till the thaw. This year, overwhelmed by the rising lakes and streets buckling from weather shifts, the city had not returned the Morrison Street dock back into the water until only a month earlier, at the end of April.

It was the long, buoyant section of the dock that had been unsecured and was now floating in the lake. When Hal ran over to the park, he found the metal pole, which was supposed to fasten the two sections together, in the grass beneath a tree. He decided not to touch it.

The neighbors had begun to gather, standing with their arms crossed against the breeze, which was still crisp even in May. They saw Hal on his cell phone and nodded, content to let him do the calling, content to assume he knew whom to call for an event like this. He didn't know — he just called 911. Once he finished, he joined six or seven people clustered at the edge of the bank, their row of feet braced in the sloping mud. They watched the dock float gently away from them — perhaps fifty feet out? forty? — and speculated on the breed of the dog. How long could the dog have been out there, if the dock was now moving toward shore — all night, or only minutes? No one knew enough about the movement of lake water to guess; no one was even sure if lakes had tides — Hal thought maybe they didn't.

"Anyone recognize the dog?" asked one man. Hal turned to look at him: the man was huge, maybe six six, with rimless glasses and a giant's mouth. He barely knew his neighbors, Hal realized. He'd lived on this street for years, waving politely, but he didn't know the names of any of the people around him.

"I don't think so," Hal said. He never noticed dogs, which made him feel guilty, as if he were single-handedly contributing to their unspayed plight. His roommate Karin adored them; she kept a dish of treats on the front porch for passing canines. She also kept trying to vote in a pet, but to no avail.

"I might," said a woman. "Maybe from the other side of the Yahara River? I feel like I've seen it somewhere."

Hal waited for someone to speculate on how the dog had come to be out on the lake by itself. Because clearly someone had brought it here. When no one else mentioned this, he finally raised his voice and asked, "Do you see anyone else out there?" The group was silenced. Now all of them shaded their eyes and peered out toward the placid water beyond the dog.

"Its owner might have fallen in," said a young man, protecting his shaved head from the sun with a hand held above the crown. For some reason, this suggestion prompted the group to turn to Hal, startling him. Their faces all shifted inquisitively in his direction.

"I told the dispatcher there might be a person in the lake," Hal offered. "I'm sure they're sending a boat."

"Or someone could have just put it out there for a joke," said another person. No one answered immediately, but this possibility seemed to calm them all, and they returned to debating the breed. Just as they had settled on a mix of retriever and possibly some shepherd in its dark face and low haunches, the dog raised its head, twice patrolled the length of the dock, and leaped into the water.

Now they all leaned out over the lake, taking turns holding on to a tree trunk at the edge of the bank, and observed the dog's progress. It swam in eager jerking motions in the direction of the shore. Hal felt the crowd around him becoming almost jolly, cheered by the dog's smiling jaws and the happy look of its bobbing head. He even began to enjoy the crispness of the breeze and the time with his neighbors.

"It's moving awfully slowly," a female voice observed.

The group quieted; all its lightness fled. The dog was indeed slowing down. Hal turned and saw Karin in her running gear, her long maple-colored hair in a ponytail, the muscles at the tops of her thighs standing out flat and smooth below her yellow shorts. She was twenty-four, twelve years younger than Hal and fifteen years younger than Greta. Much of the time the age differences didn't matter.

Karin patted his shoulder in greeting, then observed the others: the huge man in glasses; the bald young man who was now wrapping an arm around a woman; two bearded graduate students from the crumbling house across the park; a tall silverhaired man in khakis and a polo shirt whom Hal had once helped ease a canoe onto a Volvo; a woman dressed for work in dark pants, heels, and a glinting silver ring; and two women in jeans, bright T-shirts, and leather sandals.

"It's having a hard time," one of the graduate students said. "It's farther away than I thought." The dog seemed to be treading water about twenty feet out, several houses down from where they stood. Now they began to move as a troop, heading through backyards, which they normally would not have done, to the spot on the bank closest to the dog.

As they moved through Hal and Karin's yard, Hal saw Greta's shape in the upstairs window; then she darted out of the frame. He saw Karin glance in Greta's direction as well and then turn back toward the dog. The dock, with its empty chair, was now heading toward the capitol.

"Was Greta on her way?" Hal asked.

Karin squinted at him in the sunlight. "What's she going to do?" Hal shrugged. "I have no idea," he said. "But probably something we haven't thought of." Greta had an air of frightening efficiency.

At that, Karin frowned. "Did it have a leash?" she asked. She began to remove her running shoes, dropping them casually to the dirt. She peeled off one sock, then the other.

"I can't remember," Hal said. He closed his eyes and pictured the silhouette of the dog, the sun, the nimbus of fur standing on end. "I don't think so."

"Well," she said, "if anyone has one at home, they might run and get it." She peered into the water's edge to judge its depth and then hopped in and began to swim.

The two women in jeans and T-shirts ran off down the street, hopefully in search of a leash, and Hal watched Karin do a neat, strong crawl in the direction of the dog. As she neared it, she switched to a breaststroke. She didn't want to frighten it, Hal decided. Next to him the woman in heels murmured appreciatively.

Karin had reached the dog now and seemed to hook a hand inside its collar. The two began to move in rhythmic surges, powered by kicks, toward the shore. Karin was on her side, an arm wrapped beneath the dog's chest.

Hal was feeling relieved now. He had forgotten for the moment about whoever had brought the dog out there in the first place and was simply enjoying a satisfying rescue. He had often had the feeling his neighbors regarded their house with amusement or even suspicion; kids rarely came to the co-op to sell candy bars or cookies for the marching band, and after one unsuccessful block party to which Hal and his roommates had brought baba ghanoush and homemade pita chips and everyone else brought bratwurst, they'd given up on making friends on their street. But with Karin out there saving the day, his house might take on a new aura.

A tranquil silence occupied the group until the second the dog showed its teeth. The dog and Karin were a few feet from the shore when it seemed to recover itself: its head pivoted toward Karin and its jaws snapped at her face. Hal saw her flinch backward, splashing water. The dog broke away, jerking toward the edge of the dirt and clambering up the bank. The group drew back as the dog's head and shoulders appeared over the edge of the grass. Suddenly the dog was a real creature, huge and frantic. Its paws and belly were black with mud, its face darkened and golden-eyed. It darted in their direction and Hal, along with everyone else, feinted backward. Hal collided with the huge man he'd talked to earlier. He caught a whiff of coffee, cinnamon, and pine from his neighhor's chest.

Now Karin had reached the bank and had begun to climb out of the lake. Hal skirted the barking dog to lean down and offer a hand, hauling her up the muddy slope. Her clothes clung to her in streaming ripples and her legs and arms were cross-hatched vividly from the dog's claws.

The dog was darting in arcs, first away from the lake and then from the people, and now it bolted, disappearing between houses. No one followed. Most of the group was still scanning for a police boat, and so the arrival of two uniformed cops from the sidewalk behind them took them all by surprise. The cops strode toward them, boots shining and picking up grass. They looked each person over in turn. Their arrival only made Hal more nervous, their grave expressions confirming what they had all managed to forget while chatting about breeds and lake tides. Yet Hal noticed the police were relaxed. The park was now the cops': any place that experienced an upheaval immediately belonged to them.

Hal felt a cold wet hand on his shoulder. Karin was catching her breath next to him. The claw marks on her arms looked as purposeful as tribal scars. She smelled of algae and water, something vegetal and fermenting, and her bare feet seemed huge in the earth. She was breathing hard, wiping water from her face. Hal had lived with Karin for nearly a year, had watched her head out for her run each morning of the week, and somehow had never equated that discipline with practical physical strength. He wanted to get her a brandy and a towel, a giant breakfast, and watch her move furniture. He looked closely at her, relieved to see that the dog hadn't actually bitten her. Her face was unmarked, but reddened at the nostrils and cheeks, her pupils huge, her lips the color of clay.

Now Greta came jogging from around the corner, her hair still in a towel. She wore an elegant little silk skirt, blown against her legs by the breeze, and a huge Bucky Badger T-shirt. She must have just gotten out of the shower; wet patches showed at the small of her back and chest. She nodded at Hal but went straight for Karin, took the damp towel off her head, and wrapped it over Karin's shoulders. Then she took a quick step backward, as if the gesture had been too intimate, and folded her arms.


Excerpted from But Not For Long by Michelle Wildgen. Copyright © 2009 Michelle Wildgen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

Michelle Wildgen, on moving from New York back to Wisconsin

Madison seemed to have compressed while I was gone. That was one of the first things I noticed upon moving back to Wisconsin in November 2007, after seven years in the New York area. At this point I had written one novel, You're Not You, set in Madison, and was halfway through another that was also set in Madison. I found that my memory sometimes did peculiar things with the city—odd, zoom-lens, fish-eye-focus sorts of things. I would recall a particular site with utter clarity: the riotous schoolyard with its giant multi-culti mural; the purple walls and brass elephant sculptures in the vegetarian brunch joint-turned-Laotian restaurant; the orange, yellow, and red metal tables and chairs spread across the Memorial Union alongside Lake Mendota. These places I found precisely as I recalled them. But the Lake Monona neighborhood where I had set my co-op full of nervous characters had gotten fuzzy in my head. I had begun to imagine its streets (reasonably neatly platted in real life) as a sort of dropped necklace of dead-end curves and illogical cross-sections. I was confused about where my characters went when they left the rickety front porch of the co-op house. They were confused as well—Hal, Greta, Karin, and Will all tended to shimmer and fade into the ether at the end of the block, forgetting where Jenifer Street was

So as soon as we moved back, just after Thanksgiving, my husband and I drove over to Morrison Street to see what the hell I'd been talking about for two years or so. I didn't have much of a game plan. I was trying to rework the opening, and trying to zap a few synapses back into communication. And I too was nervous. We'd moved from New York to Madison for a very simple reason—we thought it would be a calmer, better life, sufficiently relieved of transit and financial stress to compensate for the accompanying and potentially more tragic loss of first-run indie movies, excellent Asian noodles, jewelry makers, and competitive bahn mi preparation. When you uproot yourselves from a pretty good life in search of improvement, improvement had better surface, or you feel really, really stupid.

We were still unpacking when the first blizzard hit, and so the day Steve and I drove to Morrison Street the neighborhood was silenced by deep drifts of snow and the streets were still slushy tidepools. We drove up and down the few blocks of Morrison, looking for a parking space, looking for a house that might magically be the pink Victorian co-op I had invented. The street looked little as I had imagined when I was writing. In my head, the yards were wide and the houses distant. It would be easy to avoid ever seeing one's neighbors in that street. But this was tightly packed, mere inches between some buildings, and this street bore few of the brightly colored houses I recalled—those were up on Jenifer, or Spaight, a couple blocks away. These were more muted, browns and bricks and pale blues. I didn't know whether to feel disappointed or triumphant: embarrassed that I'd prettified the place in my head, or delighted that I'd automatically added some interest in the course of writing?

And yet I really didn't care whether the book precisely matched the real world. That's the prerogative of fiction writers, to deliberately add in a nonexistent street to a real city, to create an enclave where none exists. I believe in using the real world as a starting point, but I don't see any reason to be hemmed in by it. If I did, I'd be a nonfiction writer. So while I was interested to re-discover what the real place was like, I was mainly looking to see how I could exploit the information. That's the kind of person you turn into after awhile with a novel: you look around, brain clicking away like an android's, deciding what to consume. To put it a prettier way, I was looking for inspiration that day. I knew where things were headed in this book, but I was looking for the thing that set the earth crumbling beneath the characters' feet. Not a cataclysm, and not all at once—just the first sensation that the footing might not be sure

We got out of the car and began walking around. No one, absolutely no one, was outside. It was mid-afternoon on a Saturday, the sky a woolly, blank expanse over the lake. We came to a tiny park I'd sat in before: just a square between houses, with a tree or two and a little jungle gym and a bench and table was how I recalled it. But as we approached I could see that there was a big dock, severed from its anchor at the bank of the lake and beached on its pontoons beneath a tree in the park, as bulky and out of place as a manatee. It had never occurred to me before to wonder what the city did with docks in the wintertime. I just assumed they left them in the lakes, let the water freeze around them and slowly heave the dock upward as the ice swelled. But it turned out that at least at this park, they detached the dock, hauled it up the grass, and let it sit for months. It was hideous, really, and we circled it in bafflement for a few minutes, kicking idly at the swollen pontoons.

Somehow this idea stuck in my head, that the long dock that usually thrust out into the water from its secure anchor on shore was in fact a transient thing. Who else knew about this? Did the whole neighborhood know you could detach a dock if you had the expertise, or did they glance right past this park until spring? I was standing in the cold, thinking about how an object like this could go awry. How it could be misused. I felt I'd learned some little tidbit of handy info, the kind of info a practical person would know, someone good with tools and taxes and local elections. And yet this was not the person I wanted to imagine—not the one who would know which agency to phone if he saw a piece of city property floating aimlessly some place it was not meant to be. Not the one who knew how to fit it back into place. I was thinking about the person who might tug it out of place. Who would find the metal joist where the dock was meant to be joined and, instead of detaching it and pulling it safely to dry land, would carefully, noiselessly give the dock a push. The person who'd slide that dock down into the water and away from shore, until it floated past the window where one of my characters stood in his kitchen, drinking coffee, relaxed until the moment when he realized something was there that shouldn't be.

Discussion Questions

1. What do you think draws Greta to the co-op? Hal and Karin?

2. How does the presentation and perception of community change over the course of the novel?

3. What about family? Do you think either institution, family or community, seems to be an effective source of comfort or strength to the characters, and why?

4. How does the movement of narration from one character to another affect how you see each person? Do you see Hal differently through Karin's eyes, or Greta's, than you did through his own point of view, for instance?

5. What's making these characters so uneasy? Do these uncertainties resonate with you? Do they feel like something that could happen? Already have?

6. What effect does this uneasiness have on everyone's ability to connect with one another, or with their larger community?

7. How do you feel about Will and Greta's relationship? Do you think one is more culpable than the other in bringing about their separation? Why?

8. There are several examples of alternatives to the one-family house in this novel: the various co-ops, the cheesemaker's farm with her extended family living on it. Do these seem very different from the single-family home to you? Why or why not?

9. Why do you think Karin and Greta are so tense with one another? When does that tension start and what exacerbates it? Where do you think they'll go from here?

10. How do you feel about the relationships between the co-op members—Karin and Hal, Greta and Hal, Greta and Karin? Are they any more or less difficult than family relationships? Do you think these relationships will continue to deepen?

11. Why does Hal's father retreat from his family? Why do you think that, of all his siblings, Hal is the most upset by it?

12. Who did you identify with the most? Who interested you the most, whether you could relate to them or not?

13. What do you think occurs after the novel ends?

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But Not for Long 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
BillPilgrim More than 1 year ago
This is basically a character study of four people. Three of them are living together in a cooperative house in Madison Wisconsin, and the fourth is an alcoholic husband of one of the coop-ers. It takes place over three days during a power outage that affects the whole city and a major portion of the region. Other catastrophic events also portend - a gas shortage, disappeared honey bees, references to flooding on the coasts. The alcoholic is trying to quit (well, sometimes he seems to be). The characters are interesting and the tone is not at all preachy. I enjoyed the read.
BillPilgrim on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is basically a character study of four people. Three of them are living together in a cooperative house in Madison Wisconsin, and the fourth is an alcoholic husband of one of the coop-ers. It takes place over three days during a power outage that affects the whole city and a major portion of the region. Other catastrophic events also portend ¿ a gas shortage, disappeared honey bees, references to flooding on the coasts. The alcoholic is trying to quit (well, sometimes he seems to be).The characters are interesting and the tone is not at all preachy. I enjoyed the read.
nyiper on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved her first book "You're Not You," so I couldn't wait to get my hands on this second book. She develops the characters so thoroughly that I can see them and follow them around. There are so many touchingly painful happenings in this description of a very short period of time where everyone is caught in a sort of strange time warp of an extended blackout. I need to compare thoughts with someone about the ending. I will happily await her third book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago