Among the narrative gems is “Family,” in which a husband and wife bicker incessantly before realizing that their two children are missing, only to discover them in a surprising place–and in a disturbing condition. In “Everything Cut Will Come Back,” a long-distance phone call between two brothers takes a turn when their own tragic past crackles over the line. In “History,” a widow thinks she spots her son at the airport and is left instead with a simple memory of her late husband that resolves her grief. The innocence of three boys is lost when they witness a devastating winter tragedy in “The Train, the Lake, the Bridge.”
Within these pages, adulterers are unceremoniously caught, epiphanies arrive during bizarre encounters, and characters move through everyday moments with a fortitude that elevates these stories almost to mythical status. Without a stroke of false sentimentality, The Difference Between Women and Men will leave you strangely shaken–and ever aware of the odd permutations of humankind.
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The Difference Between Women and Men
By Bret Lott
Random HouseBret Lott
All right reserved.
In the heat of the fight, they forgot about the children.
They were yelling at each other about an issue neither could now recall. They could only remember that one or the other of them had been wronged somehow.
Then she'd stopped, said, "Where are the kids?"
"Of course," he shouted, "it would be you to take the higher ground. It would be you to bring the kids into this, make me feel like a heel for not thinking about them!"
"And of course," she shouted, "it would be you to think I'd use them as a weapon against you!"
But then they fell silent, and the quiet of the moment--neither could now recall when there had been silence in the house-- infused them both with fear, so that they dropped their hands from the authoritative gestures they'd held them in, index finger of one hand pointed at the other's face, the other hand clenched in a fist at the hip, and let their arms go loose, useless.
They had forgotten about the children.
"Where are they?" he said, but she was already out of the room, headed upstairs.
She could not find them in their rooms, saw only evidence they had been here before: In Scott's room were plastic models of fighter jets hung by fish line from the ceiling; on the walls were pennants of major league baseball teams and posters of heavy metal bands with names such as The Broken Necks and The Disease. The dresser in Jennifer's room was strewn with barrettes and combs, the bed left unmade and littered with Barbies and teen magazines, at least a dozen different outfits heaped on the floor inside the closet.
But the children were not there.
He checked the garage, saw their bicycles, Jennifer's with the wicker basket, the purple streamers off the ends of the handlebars, Scott's with the black banana seat and chrome sissy bar. There was more in there, too, to suggest to him the lives of his children: a half-deflated basketball, a pair of skis leaned against the wall beside the shovel and rake and hoe, a pink plastic Barbie Dream House, perched atop it a plastic jeep, a couple of Scott's G.I. Joes in the front seat.
But there was only evidence of the children here. Not the children themselves.
This was when he remembered the swimming pool out back, stretched over it a green tarp littered with leaves. He feared the worst: his two children climbing under the tarp, then drowning in some freak accident like those he read about routinely in the morning paper. The pool itself had been covered, as best he could recall, since a week or so after Labor Day, when the air had turned cold perhaps a little too early and the leaves had started to change, and as he made his way through the living room to the sliding glass windows onto the back patio, he pushed aside the image in him of his two drowned children and let fill him instead that old joy of raking leaves into piles and then burning them with Scott, the two of them armed with rakes and standing still and quiet before the smoldering heaps, the rich and deep aroma of burning leaves a smell like no other, and he remembered then how he cherished this time with his son, fall's leaves a tangible truth that we all grow old, that winter is fast upon each of us, but that, too, spring will come again, and the trees will burst wholly green with proof positive of life's renewal. Father and son, he thought.
He moved out onto the deck, looked at the pool, the empty trees, the small shed huddled out among them, that place where he kept the pool cleaning equipment and various other summer items: beach chairs, the barbecue, an ice chest.
But it was the pool he was headed for, the pool and what horrors it might hold for him at this very moment.
Then he was at the edge and he knelt, lifted a corner of the tarp, fearful of what he might find there.
He saw nothing, the water opaque and dark, no light other than the sliver he'd let in with pulling back the corner of the tarp.
He stood, pulled back more of it, the tarp heavy and ungainly, and he felt his heart pounding for the work of it; felt, too, the way his muscles seemed suddenly his enemy, unable and unwilling to exert the force needed to do this work.
He managed the tarp halfway across the pool, walked the huge sheet of green plastic away from the deep end, until he knew there was enough light to see the entire length and depth of the pool, still in him this fear of what he would find there.
But there were no children in the pool. He took in a breath, thankful for the twisted blessing this was: His children were not at the bottom of the pool, yet still they were missing.
He looked up at the trees, at the bare branches up there, and longed for his children, in him the melancholy of autumn, the smell of burning leaves and the image of Scott and himself staring into smoke like some dream he might have had years before, back when his heart was strong, his arms willing and able to work.
But where were the children? he wondered, and let go the tarp, turned to the storage shed.
She turned from the bedrooms, headed down the hall toward the bathroom in the vague hope they might be there, Scott maybe combing his hair for school, Jennifer doing her best to French-braid hers all by herself. It was then she remembered her promise to her daughter last night as she'd tucked the girl into bed, that promise to French-braid her hair for school this morning.
She thought of those moments at the close of a day when she sat on the edge of her daughter's bed, Jennifer lying on her side and facing the open bedroom door. The bedroom light off, it was then she listened to the girl's cares and woes, listened and saw in her daughter's eyes the glint and sparkle of light from the hall, Jennifer's words a song of life, whether she spoke about the boy she liked, David Burgess, and how he'd drawn with a pen a devil's pitchfork on her sneaker during naptime; or spoke of how her best friend, Lisa Spuhler, had beaten her at tetherball on the playground; even as she spoke of her brother, Scott, and how he'd let the air out of her bike tires just to be mean, and how much she hated him.
They were words of a child's sorrow and joy, and as she listened each night she gently touched at her daughter's auburn tresses, carefully lifted long tendrils of it away from the girl's face, laid them behind her head and across the pillow, her daughter's hair then a swirling and perfect wave, beautiful hair, hair the same color as her own, hair just like her own when she was her daughter's age, the color and length and beautiful sheen of it evidence sure enough of the passing of blood between generations, the beautiful gift of life: Mother and daughter, she thought.
She reached for the bathroom door, hoped to see inside two children preparing for school, and she resolved in the moment she pushed open the door that she would take care of her daughter's hair for her, would even drive her in to school if they were late as a result of the braiding.
But they were not there.
The bathroom was empty, inside only the 101 Dalmatians shower curtain crowded with cartoon puppies, dinosaur and Care Bear bath towels on the racks, the sink counter strewn with even more of Jennifer's barrettes and clip combs, Scott's single black plastic pocket comb.
Only an empty children's bathroom, and in spite of her fears she smiled at the familiarity of it, the welcome sight of the room, all this evidence of their children's lives.
But where, she still worried, were the children?
"Found them!" she heard then, her husband calling from outside, his voice reaching her through the small window above the bathtub. "They're out here!" he shouted.
She felt her heart ease, the melancholy of the missed moments of her hands moving deftly in her daughter's hair gone now with the good knowledge Jennifer hadn't yet left for school. She could still braid her hair.
And what were they doing outside? she thought, as she made her way back to the kitchen, then to the living room, where the sliding glass window stood open to reveal to her a sharp fall morning, bare trees, the swimming pool cover peeled back, the surface of the water already scattered with leaves.
It was then he emerged from the storage shed, smiling, a proud look on his face, and for a moment she believed he'd use this triumph of his against her once the fight picked up again.
She saw, too, he had the little Igloo cooler they used to take with them to football games and on day trips, the small one that held only a few sodas, a couple of sandwiches. He carried it not by the handle but with the cooler set atop his hands like a pillow bearing a crown. Or the body, she thought for a moment, of a dead child borne from the depths of the pool. But it was only an ice chest, she thought, and a little one at that, and she felt a brief smile play across her face, felt herself blink.
He held the cooler with both hands, careful not to tip it or drop it for what he'd found inside it, and now he stepped out of the shed and into light down through empty trees, light so sharp and cutting it seemed to slice into him, a sky too bright and sharp for words.
She walked around the edge of the pool, came toward him, and he saw how she looked past him, toward the doorway into the shed, as though there might be something inside he'd overlooked.
She stood before him, and he saw her eyes go from the cooler to his own eyes to the cooler again.
She said, "So where are they?"
"Where do you think?" he said, and nodded at the cooler. Still he smiled at her.
He knelt, still just as careful with the cooler as he'd been since he'd taken it from the top shelf, drawn there by a strange and muffled sound, a rhythm of some sort that seemed to have emanated from the cooler, next to it on one side the dust-covered Coleman lantern, on the other a rusted and label-less can of paint.
He looked at his wife one more long moment and saw in her features the same fear he'd known until a few moments ago.
Excerpted from The Difference Between Women and Men by Bret Lott Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide
1. The title story gives no real answer to what the difference between women and men really is. What, then, may be truly at stake for the wife in this story, now that she has decided not to listen when her “strange and loud” husband tries to explain to her that difference? What may be the significance of the armoire itself and its contents, and the fact that she can lift it now with “a miraculous ease”?
2. Throughout the collection, there are instances of what may be termed “magical suburban realism” (the armoire and its seeming weightlessness in the title story, the children residing inside an Igloo cooler in “Family,” the husband slowly becoming invisible in “A Way Through This”). What was your reaction as a reader when you encountered these strange elements of the stories? How might this alternate world, in which the unbelievable is a part of everyday life, allow the characters involved to understand more deeply their own situations?
3. In “An Evening on the Cusp of the Apocalypse,” a man encounters every worst-case scenario one can imagine, from losing his job to having his home repossessed to his wife ’s infidelity.
And yet, at the story’s end, he finds himself absolutely content with his life, but only once that life has been restored intact (and in some ways improved upon). How does this speak to the tenuous nature of our lives as consumers,
as parents, as husbands and wives? What do you fear most when you consider the possibility of losing the routine of your everyday life? What do you value most about that routine, and why?
4. Read the classic short story “A Rose for Emily” by
William Faulkner. (This is his most famous short story, and you can find it in almost any anthology of American short stories, as well as in the Vintage paperback edition of The
Collected Stories of William Faulkner.) How does Bret Lott’s
Miss Emily in “Rose” compare to Miss Emily as understood by the townspeople in Faulkner’s story? What is the significance of the child being buried beneath the floorboards in
Bret Lott’s version?
5. In “The Train, the Lake, the Bridge,” why does the fact that there are no ghosts involved in this “ghost story” make this a story they tell one another only on those nights when they know they cannot dig out from the snow? Why is it easier for them to tell ghost stories than it is to tell the truth of what happened that night of the storm?
6. “Everything Cut Will Come Back” seems to be about the narrator’s brother trying to tend to his neighbor’s yard after the death of his neighbor’s wife. But the story turns, finally, to the brothers themselves, and their shared sense of loss at the death of their parents many years before. Why does the work
Timmy performs on the yard signal the narrator that indeed the two brothers are talking about their own loss? How is it that the narrator, who feels that his words of comfort to his brother about his work on the yard are meaningless, knows exactly what Timmy means when he says, “I miss them”?
7. One of the shortest stories in the collection, “History”
seems almost a fragment. But how does this momentary snapshot of an anonymous traveler illuminate the narrator’s life? Is there in this instant of recognition and memory a sense of grief, or is there a sense of fulfillment?
8. “Nostalgia” differs from nearly every other work in the collection in that it tells the story of two children, and does so from a point of view that does not place itself as an adult looking back on his life (as with the narrator in “The Train,
the Lake, the Bridge”). Yet the word nostalgia itself means a sense of longing or a mixture of happiness and sadness when recalling the past. Given the brutal facts of the story—
pelting the babysitter into submission with tomatoes, the horrific death of the babysitter’s brother, and the insensitivity of the children toward that tragedy—why might this indeed be an appropriate title for the story?
9. The last story in the collection, “Postscript” employs by far the greatest role of “magical suburban realism” in the book: here a lifetime passes by, the family moves to other homes, their children grow up and have their own children,
all in the span of a single day, and all while the main character,
a writer, tries to put words in an order that will tell a story all by themselves. What is the irony of his trying so desperately to tell a story while his life passes him by? And why is the story a fitting close to this collection?