Criminals: Love Stories

Criminals: Love Stories

by Valerie Trueblood


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Valerie Trueblood is, simply put, one of the finest story writers who is currently working in the American language, as prize committees acknowledge. In this, her beautifully made third collection, each of the fifteen stories asks two defining questions: What kind of love story is this? as well as, Who here is exactly what kind of criminal?

In “His Rank,” an armed man enters a bar to claim the girl he understands to be his destiny only to be told she has, the weekend before, married someone else. In “Skylab,” in which lovers have run away together to work medical relief in Malaysia, the young woman is reading the Koran to learn what it says about adulterers even as she waits for satellite debris to rain down on her. She’ll be punished, won’t she, for the crime of happiness? And in “The Bride of the Black Duck” a new widow falls in love with an entire complicated family in her neighborhood, with whom she’s suddenly, irrevocably plighted her troth: she is theirs, just as they are hers.

In Criminals the stories are linked by theme, the characters often tender, movingly, but flawed; that is they are realistic. Love is hard won.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781619026186
Publisher: Counterpoint Press
Publication date: 01/12/2016
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Valerie Trueblood is a co-trustee of the Denise Levertov Literary Trust and is a contributing editor of The American Poetry Review. Her novel, Seven Loves , was selected for Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program. She lives in Seattle, WA.

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bride of the black duck

"O if I am to have so much, let me have more!"
"Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,"


It was my husband, not me, who had the binoculars and the bird books. He closed his heavy Audubon on his chest and died with a finger marking a page. The nurse moved the book, so I don't know which bird his eyes saw last. I didn't want to look at them. I never wanted to know all about birds. What Walt Whitman told us in poems, of his little canary greater than books, his frigate bird that "rested on the sky": that was enough. His gray-brown thrush. His mockingbird. Not symbols but animals with souls, like himself. One his sad brother.

My husband would have been glad when the black duck appeared, glad to see me take an interest in it. In the first months, I would hear his voice in the house. "Take an interest!" "Go ahead and cry, I'm honored. Cry, but not all day." "Go to the doctor." "Just give the bird books to the library." He had loved birds, put time and thought into them, but they were a hobby. He would not have stayed up at night worrying about a particular one. Yet if you were to do that, he was a man who would have tried to console you.

The year he died, the year the duck appeared, I got involved with a family in the neighborhood, the Lesages.

Raya, the mother, would not settle for anything halfhearted once you crossed into her house and she into yours. That was a troth. People were always breaking it, though. Half the friends she had made had lost patience with her drinking and her high-handed, possessive affection. Of a defector she would say, "I don't know what it is, I've known her forever, she's someone I love."

"That's probably it," her son would say. He could say it kindly.

The one I would have wanted when I was young was her son, for his beauty. He, Randy, was a twenty-one-year-old boy with a perfect good nature — the only good-natured one in the family. It was hard to say how an ordinary liking for people could have sprung up in that family. But Randy would single you out, invite you. "Connie, come upstairs. You can see my stuffed animals! Mom kept them all." He would take the stairs two at a time: to him you were not somebody having to grab the banister and catch up. In his old room, stuffed animals by the dozen were flopped on the comforter and sitting up on the shelves. Looking out of the black eyes at us was Time itself. I lost my breath. Did I have sons in their fifties, living in cities of their own? Where had I put the donkey, the elephant without ears? Quickly Randy gave me his arm.

Randy was a sharer; he stood ready to share your moment of panic. He had long-lashed blue eyes, a child's eyes. He could disarm and flatter you with a beautiful, intimate, predatory smile, for along with his sweetness went a streak of something less than cruelty but more than mischief.

He lived with his lover, Hans. Hans was in his forties, a fit, handsome, unsmiling man with hair cut so close you could see the curl only as a silver ripple. "You're going to love Hans," Raya said, and she was right. I would love him for his resemblance to my husband, in his austerity, his ardent, unshareable, preoccupying interests, but would he love me? I didn't say that of course. At this age we are thought to have left off longing to be anyone's favorite, while coming ourselves into a manageable and harmless general fondness, as for books we finally have time to read.

"I know he's a lot older than Randy," Raya went on, "but I think of it this way: Randy's safe there. He's safe with Hans."

Hans was a professor of anthropology and had a name in his field; he was Hans Klaas, author of books about the original peoples of the Northwest. Once he knew you he would let fall facts about them here and there, in his withdrawn but precise way. What happened to these people to eradicate all they lived to do was too serious for conversation. You had to go out onto the balcony of his condo in winter and stand in the cold rain at night, hold the wet railing with him in a stiff homage to the lost. You had to look down at the Sound, cross out the freighters and tugs, the ferries with their lights, and place on the black waters one high-prowed dugout canoe as long as a semi.

Hans never touched on the subjects Randy chattered about away from him — the two-spirit, once known as berdache, who dressed and lived as the opposite sex, or the "manly-hearted woman." "Don't ask him about that stuff," Randy said. "No no no."

That first night, on being told that I had taught English and even written a book in my younger days, Hans said, "Indeed!" The cold smile he gave me was the opposite of Randy's.

"It's about Walt Whitman," Randy said. "I'm halfway." People are always halfway through your book. Zeno was right; they will never reach the end. I'm thankful not to have written another. "It's good!" Randy added.

"I would have assumed no less," said Hans. That was our meeting. It didn't matter; we would be friends. A midnight would come when, overcoming his hatred of the phone, he would call me and say lightly, "You don't happen to remember where Randy's class was meeting, do you, dear?"

Randy was attending the community college where he could get night classes, though moving in with Hans had taken him far from the campus and the cruising areas of Capitol Hill.

The rooms were huge, spare. There was an elaborate sound system, and once Hans knew I was losing my hearing he would invite me over to listen with the volume up. He planned carefully so as not to do this when his neighbors were at home. The music open on the rack of the piano was the Diabelli Variations, but he had an intention tremor that had put a stop to his playing. "He won't shake hands," Randy told me in the elevator, the first night. With someone my age, however, politeness compelled Hans to offer the hand with its slow tremble.

"I'm his only friend," Randy said in the elevator going down. "People come over because of his cooking. I'm the one who talks to them. If they touch the piano they can't come back. I tell him he's just like my mother — he doesn't like anybody." This he said with some pride.

"They both love you."

"Oh, love." Randy waved his hand.

The strength of Hans's feeling for Randy was such that when you were in the room with them the air felt close, as in a dedicated enclosure like an ICU or an indoor pool. He wanted Randy home; he disapproved of his day job as a transporter at the hospital. "I couldn't possibly quit. The nurses bring me cookies!"

"Ah," I said. "But now half the nurses are guys. And the doctors are women." This I had noticed in my recent stay in the hospital, but what made me say it?

"Guys can make cookies now, it's the law. Hans makes the best macaroons."

* * *

The day I met the Lesages I was halfway through my cardio circuit with the pedometer when I heard shouts coming from one of the big houses. I didn't know who lived there. Even without my hearing aids I could hear the words. Never! Never! Liar! A man and a woman. It was ten in the morning, an hour when most people are not home to scream and weep, but safe in the office or school. A third voice, young and shrill, joined in. I had stopped walking anyway, short of breath and lightheaded, but I listened until a silence fell and one of them opened the door and let the dog out. The dog was a golden retriever, so I put out my hand as he — or as it turned out, she — tore down the steps and ran at me. She was whining rather than barking. She bit me on the hand. After the bite she hung her head, curled her tail under, and retreated. A tall woman stepped onto the porch. "What are you doing here?" she said. Her face was white.

"I'm walking," I said. "Your dog bit me."

"You're trespassing."

"I'm standing on the sidewalk."

"You're spying."

"I am not. I'm having a heart attack." I squatted down to rest my palms on the sidewalk, which tilted and became a gray slope. A phrase I had read came into my mind: desert of sidewalk. Something from the paper, about a suburb. Desert of sidewalk, I said to myself as I got down on my side. I reclined like Whitman. I felt I could begin on a poem.

"Oh God! Nathan! Call 911! Morgan bit her! Jesus, she's having a heart attack!" The woman ran back into the house, where, as she would tell it later, her stepdaughter stopped crying to say, "And if you say Jesus in my presence one more time I will call the police," and she, Raya, the stepmother with two DUIs, in therapy for failing this girl, Caitlin, and all the other members of her family, screamed, "Do that, they'll love it, they'll lock you up and shock your little shit brain. Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!" Raya was to confess this, and many worse things screamed at this praying girl entrusted to her as a daughter. "But I love her!" And she did, faithful as Caitlin was at that time to a group of kids who stood passing out leaflets about the Rapture. "Convicted Christian! Convicted! That's the word they use!"

Meanwhile a man had crouched and rolled me onto my back. He had his arm under my neck and he was cramming an aspirin past my teeth. "Chew it." I swallowed and whispered, "You're a doctor, I bet."

"I am," he said with that proud sternness they have. Of course he was, as my husband had been, along with the owners of a good number of these houses. He picked up my bitten hand, looked at the tooth marks. He must have been thinking, they put your dog down for this.

"For God's sake, Nathan, start CPR!"

"She's breathing, Raya, and she has a pulse." The aid car pulled up.

The next day was the first of our friendship. I was going to have a bypass in an hour. The Lesages walked into the CCU holding hands. "I'm so sorry I said you were trespassing," Raya said, starting to cry as she raised my hand with the IV in it and kissed my fingers and her own. "Oh, if you'll just believe me."

"About what?"

"Just please believe that Morgan is a gentle dog. She was worked up. She can't take screaming. She starts racing back and forth, up and down the stairs. ... Oh Jesus, what's wrong with me?"

To this her husband had no answer, but while we were waiting they filled me in: Nathan was an orthopedist and this was the hospital where he admitted. They had a son, Randy, who had a part-time job there; Raya volunteered there. "Actually, it's community service. Court-ordered. My real work is at home," Raya said. "Destruction and repair."

From the CCU you go in your own bed instead of a gurney. Everybody said hello to Nathan as I was rolled along half hearing — now my hearing aids were out — and looking up at the soundproof tiles. I thought of his shouts the day before. What if the OR techs putting on their soft booties had heard him? What if a patient knew the surgeon had been at home screaming, "Because you're a bitch!" before gentle hands gowned him in the OR?

They both walked me all the way to the elevator, where the doors opened for my bed and Raya laid her hand on her heart.

At the bus shelter near my house we have a round lily pond with turtles and ducks. That's the kind of neighborhood it is. At least there's a bus. The people waiting at the river-rock shelter, with its shake roof and benches and pleasantly leaf-strewn floor, carry briefcases.

Across the way is a low ivy-covered church whose bells clang out a hymn at noon. "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee," a hymn I sang as a child. "Wellspring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest!" The bells are so out of tune the newspaper ran a letter of complaint. It said you should not do that to Beethoven, and who would disagree? In deference to a life of such mad certainty and exaltation, re-erupting out of every misery, you must not play the music except perfectly. That's what Hans would say, did say. The tragedy of Beethoven's life went far beyond the deafness. No one would love him, let alone marry him. Were his last words really "The comedy is over," in Latin? I wish I had asked Hans. He would have known.

You must start right now memorizing music, Hans advised me. Where my hearing was concerned he was almost tender.

I know without needing to hear it that ducks quack to each other in little snaps, sotto voce. It's an intimate voice, not after a response from anything but a duck.

The dog walker goes by with six dogs, who do not bother the ducks or fight among themselves or even cross leashes, no matter that they did not choose each other. He lets them off the leash in the empty parking lot of the church, where there's a fence and they're safe to play like children. Before she moved away with Nathan and Caitlin, the dog Morgan, who bit me, was sometimes among them. She would recognize me, but quickly look away.

All spring, nannies and a few mothers come to the pond wheeling the new giant strollers, bringing toddlers to feed the ducks. They squat with their bags of crumbs, unconcerned about avian viruses or anything else disorderly or malign, like the SUV that jumped the curb and landed in the middle of the pond among the lily pads. It was nighttime and no one was hurt, not even a duck. These are calm wide streets where you might buy a house and move in imagining you had reached a kind of resolution.

Yet things happen here. In this same long year an old man's wife died under suspicious circumstances, drowned in the bathtub. The same day, their son disappeared. The old man was cleared; the son was the person of interest — over forty and back living at home. He was odd, of course. That's what was being said. Odd to do that, come home at his age as if you had given up, and yet dye your hair black and wear the haircut of a Beatle. Odd to go mad like that — if he did go mad — and commit such a crime for the sake of the old man, his father, yet never to have walked with him as he went around the block every day stamping his cane or eventually his walker and sometimes having to be steered back by a neighbor.

I would see the old man but I didn't know he was searching for his house. He didn't know I had a husband who had died. I would look the other way so he wouldn't see tears on my face. Maybe he had them on his, too. One day he was standing under a tree looking up with an awful concentration and I almost said, "Are you a birder?" The wife stared balefully out from the newsprint. The article said she had been in the habit of beating him with his own cane, a revelation forced on him when the investigators made him take off his shirt.

The ducks hide their eggs on little islands in the pond or among the bushes and tree roots on the banks. In the spring they swim forth, each pulling a filmy banner of puffs. One mother could have as many as ten or twelve ducklings. The line grows shorter; one spring will not leave her so many. The males swim along behind, or fly off together in a rush, and once the ducklings have grown too big to get entirely under the fluffed-out feathers of the mother, too big to be crow or raccoon bait, all of them sun together and groom their feathers on the banks of the little pond.

One day the black duck and his mate appeared among the mallards. They joined the flock, although without any friendliness, and stayed on. They were not wild ducks; someone must have left them there. Such ducks exist in a city, pets, or pedigreed animals from gardens with water features. "Ornamentals." Unlike the mallards, who rise up as one and disappear over the rooftops, these birds do not fly. They are runner ducks, I found when I looked them up, though I never saw them run.

The black pair stood apart, bigger than the mallards. At times the male would lower his head and snake his neck at them. They weren't interested in his mate but he could not seem to help it. Soon after their arrival, the female was hit by a car. No one from the neighborhood would hit a duck. Even the buses come to a stop so the ducks can parade to the big lawns across the street. But people from elsewhere don't know, they just barrel through. They killed the black duck's mate. I didn't see it, the city park people told me.

The duck went into an ugly mourning. He interrupted the shaking of his torso and stabbing at his breast only to snake his head at any duck who came near him, male or female. The green-shining black of his feathers went dull.

I got out my husband's books, trying to see what the future might hold for such an animal. I started a sheet in one of his notepads: "Interbreeding: wild w/ domestic. More males — 'oversupply.' Female offspring of hybridization often infertile, take on male plumage.???"

After Nathan left Raya and went to live with his girlfriend, Randy would sometimes spend the weekend with his mother, and when he did that he would meet me at the park bench to watch the ducks. Sometimes he would have a friend with him.

The black duck would not come to our bench with the others. He didn't have a look to spare for our kind, so occupied was he with tearing at his body in a ritual to which the others paid no heed. He drove his beak into his breastbone or rooted in his wings, or spread his flat tail and worked it up and down in spasms as if to rid his body of it.


Excerpted from "CriminalS"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Valerie Trueblood.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
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.

Table of Contents

bride of the black duck,
his rank,
you would be good,
da capo,
the war poem,
americans love dogs,
the ivy field,
novel of rose,

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Criminals: Love Stories 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
SiobhanMFallon More than 1 year ago
Tremendous collection. It was the book I gifted and recommended the most in 2016, and I will continue doing the same in 2017. There's an element of travel that especially spoke to me, of Westerners finding themselves in worlds alien to their own, and a fabulous story about life in the Pentagon during the Cold War, but, similar to Trueblood's amazing previous collection, Marry of Burn, any one who has ever been in love will find that each story will resonate in a unique and extraordinary way.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sebby! <br> I wrote a rant about all of my sorrows caused by the evil Seqyn not telling us where TAL is. cx