This debut collection of stories — featuring a talk-show host and her talking hand, a women’s activity group that writes to prisoners, and a poncho-making nudist — is as unique as it is compelling. Set in their own melodramatic worlds, the stories take inspiration from Old Hollywood, Gothic novels, art-world gossip, and maybe a Lifetime movie or two. Balzer's observations are as sharp as Flaubert’s, and his characters are drawn with the complexity of George Saunders (and the wit of George Sanders). Beautifully illustrated throughout, Contrivances proves that tragedy is comedy when you play with it long enough.
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By David Balzer
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2012 David Balzer
All rights reserved.
PATRICIA WAS PUTTING ON A DRESS, but she was not going out dancing. She was staying in; she was playing hostess. Patricia liked putting on dresses for occasions that did not normally require them. Tonight, it was required, yet held for her, because of her proclivity, a different meaning than she assumed it did for others. The dress was a costume. It was this way, to be sure, for all women, but, still, it was different for her: it was, she imagined—she hoped—an abutment for wit. Patricia's dresses held discourses. They were old dresses, some from fifty years ago—her grandmother's ones, for instance, that had, in their day, been shown at, well, dances. Dances and many proper social outings: they had certainly been tools of status.
But when Patricia wore them she was not in them for that. The one she wore tonight was of thick, cobalt-colored silk and announced, with all its might, that it had been a graduation dress. It, in Patricia's opinion, was at once the most comfortable thing in the world and the most awful of traps. And how could it not be both, given what it had been intended, always, to do: to decorate, to flatter, to give the illusion of mobility? Yet Patricia allowed herself to feel free, to enjoy the room the dress provided her legs. She was not about to censor her movements to conform to its shape.
So, she wore things on her own terms. This one she had augmented with a crinoline and fishnet stockings; in this way, she was free to spread her legs without vulgarity. And the top of the dress, which fit snugly and had spaghetti straps, didn't necessarily bother her, for her arms and shoulders were, like her legs, at liberty. And this liberty was, on the whole, a secret guarded from men, some of whom read the dress, outwardly, as a form of bondage. And that was okay, too. That signified a lot; that was, nicely, part of the contradictions to which she firmly devoted herself.
And the dress and she were still beautiful; there was no denying that. The fact remained: Patricia looked better in the old than in the new, this adherence to history and, further, to her reconstruction of it, making her all the more special and specialized, pleased and pleasing. Patricia was born for this; she was not a contemporary body type. She was not slight. She had, she knew, the danger, because of her shortness, of looking too round, but she was not too round now. She took care of her shape, always, wrapping it well. She remarked to herself as she put on lipstick—curling her top lip and admiring how well her braces shone against the shade and her outfit—how much independence and courage had to do with it.
She had clued in to that truth that not everyone was represented popularly. People had rampant cowardice; they would not admit that the kinds of beauty discussed in media left out all those forms they all liked equally well. Lately, Patricia tried to push things further; her lipstick and eyeliner were tending more and more towards the confrontational, the tribal, her outfits more and more towards the conventional. It worked. Even her parents and their acquaintances knew it. She was electrically pretty.
It worked best, however, when Patricia was in the place where she had been designed to be. Last week she had, she thought, gone too far, showing up onstage in lemon-hued polyester coordinates, nude-colored pantyhose, and pink pumps. She decided that she would not take that outfit apart at all before appearing in it. She even added a purse and earrings that matched the pumps. She wanted everyone to get it. They did. When she yelled an introduction to her first song, they yelled back, and at one point a girl below her tried to steal the purse. This was not, in Patricia's opinion, to rip her to shreds, but to express jealous admiration. They wanted what she wore and knew her closet was voluminous.
Thus with her ensemble tonight, with its fishnets that seemed almost elegant, she was indeed who she was—who she really was—when wearing it.
Paul would know. Having just stepped out of the brilliant hallway, he closed himself in hurriedly and smiled. And Patricia, full of love and lust, laughed teasingly: not only had he somehow managed to brave the front door and its various intricacies, but he was also wearing a tuxedo. It was a surprise; his style was not about finely tuned paradoxes. He was, in a way, what she desired because he was opposite, yet so akin. He revealed, and made no excuses; she concealed, and in turn revealed, also making no excuses.
She rushed to him and he grabbed her tightly, moving his hand up and down her back, almost taking her dress off. They both laughed more, and Patricia whispered in his ear (though there was no risk of her parents hearing) that he had smudged her lipstick and had better be careful with her dress. He backed away, still holding her in his arms and allowing her to appreciate him fully, in portrait: his dark eyes, eyebrows, long nose, and chin, an attractiveness that, to her, was miraculously superior because of how inborn, how almost-feral, it was. He seemed, in pulling back, also to be assessing the extent of the damage he had done, but Patricia did not care at all and grabbed him close once more. The two fell on her bed and continued their kissing and touching.
Patricia began to take off what Paul had on. It was too delicious, this disrobing: he had gone to the trouble of wearing, of renting, a tuxedo, just for her, and now was allowing her to take it off him! She jerked his coat away and began undoing the buttons on his vest and then on his shirt, which were not like real buttons at all. They just sort of popped out, falling to the side. She put her fingers in the parting she had made, rubbing his chest over the T-shirt he had on underneath. As it was uncovered, she squealed.
"Where did you get this?" Patricia stopped her fondling and looked straight at Paul with ecstatic affection.
"You know where I got it." He smiled. "I've got to support you."
He sat up and opened his starched folds meaningfully; the T-shirt said, in capital letters, "CLAPTRAP."
Patricia grabbed him and began kissing him again. His fandom made her giddy.
But Paul looked uncertain. Did he not want to? She looked back, knowing that, if she seemed as grateful as possible, he would. She pushed him down and continued her work, not undressing him further but kissing him sensuously, hoping she was relating the message that this was the right thing with which to start the night. She was absolutely enamoured, and the T-shirt made her think, naturally, of playing a gig—which she had not previously thought of while doing this, at all. And Paul did keep relenting the harder she tried.
And it was the dress, above all, that kept her trying this hard. She resolved not to take it off. She merely pulled away her crinoline, which was cheap and held in by an elastic band, tossing it aside with a vehemence that renewed her laughing, her squealing. Paul was into it, and she undid his fly and pulled down the top of her stockings and underwear to meet him. The hemline of her skirt had been touching his neck, and as she bent down to kiss him, she made sure to pull it up there again, for she liked seeing him covered in this way. Apparently, he did, too. He was being outrageously acquiescent. And Patricia, while the two found a rapid rhythm together, added an extra idiosyncrasy by pulling, on occasion, the tip of her dress just slightly down from Paul's neck, and gazing at the word, CLAPTRAP, and then staring at him with fervor and kissing him once more. And when she knew he was almost finished, she began to sing in a loud whisper: "A string / A string / A string is the thing / You use to connect / To correct / To bisect"—he seemed to enjoy this, especially her stress on the "bi" in "bisect," and so she went on—"A string is the thing you play with / A string is the thing you play on / A string is the thing you pull / On the thing you want to sing." She yanked her dress over her head and flopped down beside her concluded lover.
"We can't have made too much of a mess," said Paul, after a pause. "Check your clothes."
Patricia got up and checked her makeup and hair instead. Then she grabbed her crinoline, wiggling into it, and checked Paul, who, it seemed, was falling asleep.
"I'm going to meet you downstairs, okay?" She pulled a curl down her forehead.
Paul groaned blissfully. "I know more about Satanic Ritual Abuse," he said.
Patricia cackled and corrected. "SRA. Later," she said, and left the room.
* * *
Patricia had been to Paul's place for dinner and he had certainly not worn a tuxedo. She had certainly worn a dress; however it had not quite signified in the way that she had wished. She had felt overdressed; she had felt uncomfortable. Not maladroit, though: she had felt, actually, as if she had had to beat down some of her gracefulness. She had wondered, then, when she arrived, what Paul had really told his parents about her: if he had somehow delineated class differences; made their match seem unlikely, or subversive; somehow prefaced her in any sense as aristocratic. He, and all her friends, would make fun of her, as the child of diplomats, but never entirely derisively. The derision was her own scepter there, in the club, regardless. Her origins made her fascinating, funny. Who better to communicate with the underworld, to charge it with importance, than someone bred within the art of negotiation and cultural mediation?
Patricia's discomfort at Paul's parents' was not total, but their not making fun of her, their not making light of what she was anyway, made her slightly uneasy. She did, really, love them so. His father was some kind of technician (Patricia wasn't sure of what) and a painter manqué. Paul had shown her his work. His mother was a dental hygienist, but a nonconformist officially, full of hilarious stories of her youthful days of smuggling out tanks of nitrous oxide to parties. They had had a raucously good time over dinner, and Patricia, conscious of her place and its humble honor, had thought she had made a good impression.
Still, however, there was the apparent deadliness of their making something out of finding, or singling, her out. Paul's parents seemed fixated; they were, in practice, a bit sheepish even when it came to probing her upbringing—a probing she didn't mind at all, but that she found, almost uniquely here, humiliatingly abrupt. Had she ever flown in a private jet? Had she been schooled by the same team who tolerated the peccadilloes of Shahs? She had, in a way; but to answer affirmatively, to say as she wanted that it was in fact nothing special, would, as it did, stain the tenure of their socializing. Patricia was angry because she had known, after these questions, that it was Paul who was, essentially, behind them. She would never have been asked if he had not told his parents such things about her. It was not that he had told, but rather how he had told—and Patricia imagined, for the first time since she met him, that he, at heart, removed his own experience from hers, and didn't quite see them as kindred.
But Patricia did see that—completely and utterly. To her there was no reason why her parents' careers in diplomacy, and her education abroad, should stunt what they so clearly had in common. This was not just an intellectual sympathy. This was not just that they both wanted to have a certain freedom to exercise their differences, their absurdities. This was something deeper. This was a sharing of features, even: of large, dark eyes, of curly hair, of olive complexions.
And she trusted Paul. And it was now her turn to rid their relationship of any perceived difference, a reciprocation of the invitation. Paul's invitation had meant so much. She had respected him so deeply as a musician, and he had done the same for her, and then they had fallen in love—a very intimate, yet very standard, thing, which had made her ache so with its conventionalism when she had done it with others. But with Paul it was all so true; he had assured her that his parents were just like their friends, and she was assured that, essentially, at their roots, they were. But were hers? Patricia thought of this with confidence when she issued the invitation to Paul. This would be the thing that would show him; her parents were not aristocratic in temperament, but just like his own; it was all the same, all the same both in its stupidity and in its goodness. They felt, anyway, that they could conquer anything, so why would Paul doubt her in her parents' company? Her parents were, she knew, so open. They had talked to everyone, and would talk to him and adore it.
Wouldn't they? The moment she stepped out of the door, away from Paul and from their mutual delight, she asked herself this again. Her father would have got the door, wouldn't he? He would have wanted to do that, to greet Paul himself, from the start, and would not have wanted Paul to think he let the maid do such things for him. But Patricia was balked by the other possibility; she couldn't help it. Never one to hesitate in ensuring things going off wholly in her favor, she rushed downstairs to find her father and ask him before Paul descended.
"Yes, of course I did," he reassured her, looking calm and strong in his evening wear. "I was right before the door, so why shouldn't I?"
What a relief—this sanity and kindness—but Patricia's anxiety lingered. It was all in the maid, she abruptly decided, running into the kitchen to try to stop her from greeting Paul. Was it possible that she could be so foolish as to have thought that Kathy's presence here would be at all acceptable, at all agreeable to Paul? It was, to Patricia, and to the handful of others she had brought home briefly in the past months her family had been living there. It was nothing to make a big deal of, really, as Patricia and her mother and father needed and liked Kathy, and she them—but it was not something that, in this moment, was very easy to explain to someone on whom such expectations and worth were placed. To say the maid was part of the family was, while true, insufficient for a smart, young, and indeed seditionist dinner guest. Funny, this, for Paul and his friends had actually mentioned a maid in their teasing; and Patricia had, with unpremeditated panache, agreed to it ironically, up until this point thinking of it as so crazily contradictory that Paul, in confronting the reality, might just be able to take it in stride, to accept her ostensibly spoiled excuse that the maid was her friend, too. (Which she was!)
Yet at present Kathy seemed not, say, akin to her dresses. And so Patricia rushed to her, in the kitchen, and dismissed her for the evening. Patricia alone would serve the food, and prove to Paul that she was efficient and not above feeding her guest. Kathy had helped her along: the leg of lamb was in the oven, just finished and being kept warm, only needing to be sliced; the Mushrooms à la Grecque were on the counter, covered, only needing to be portioned out on lettuce leaves; the pertinent ingredients of the Salad Bagatelle had been blanched and were in the refrigerator, only needing a drizzle of vinaigrette to be completed.
The last bit of crucial business came ragingly clear as soon as Kathy left, with a kiss and a hug, being replaced in the kitchen by Patricia's mother, who had come in carrying their dog, Puff, in her thin, bejeweled arms.
She inquired after Kathy, taking a peek at what lay inside the oven.
"I'm going to serve dinner tonight," said Patricia. "I told her to go to her room. Mom, I'd really like to do this alone."
"Fine, fine." Her mother bent down blithely for a kiss as Kathy had just done. "And where's Paul? Is he here yet?"
"He's upstairs," said Patricia.
"Oh, how did he get there?" said her mother with a light laugh. Patricia knew that he would soon be down—and, now, that they, the two of them, would not be the same to each other as they had just been, for the proceeding hours.
"He's been here a while." Patricia petted Puff and then lifted him from her mother's arms. "I'm going to take him to Kathy's room," she said, and her mother nodded and left.
Excerpted from Contrivances by David Balzer. Copyright © 2012 David Balzer. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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