Happy Trails to You

Happy Trails to You

by Julie Hecht

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When Julie Hecht's stories first appeared in The New Yorker, her unnamed photographer-narrator became an instant literary icon. Chronicles of her strategies for surviving civilization's decline -- herbal remedies, macrobiotics, a bit of Xanax -- have established her as one of the most captivating and eagerly read voices in modern literature.

In this new collection of stories, Julie Hecht reclaims the darkly funny, existential territory for which she is known: "People say 'Good morning,' but don't believe them. It's just something to say." The uniquely eccentric narrator reappears in Happy Trails to You and recounts her perplexed engagements with our society and the larger world -- whether she's attempting to withdraw money from a bank machine, worrying about Paul McCartney, or seeking a nonexistent place of calm on Nantucket, where nail guns and chain saws have replaced the sounds of birds singing.

Appalled by life in our times, the narrator recounts innumerable artifacts from a now vanished America (civility, idealism, Elvis Presley, well-made appliances). She is also exquisitely attuned to the absurdities of our culture; her acute observations illuminate every subject, from the dangers of microwave ovens to the disappearing ozone layer. With deadpan wit, the author reveals the truths of a new century. Happy Trails to You is a radically distinctive work of American fiction.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416566175
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 05/06/2008
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 192 KB

About the Author

Julie Hecht is the author of Do the Windows Open?, Was This Man a Genius?: Talks with Andy Kaufman, and The Unprofessionals. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker and Harper's. She has won an O. Henry Prize and received a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives on the east end of Long Island in winter and in Massachusetts in summer and fall. She has been writing stories since she was eight years old.

Read an Excerpt


I owed my neighbor a visit. She'd left a message on my answering machine just before Christmas. It started with the words "All right, I'll leave a message..." People over eighty don't like answering machines, and I don't blame them. I'm like the Unabomber in that respect -- hatred of technology. And also, as I heard him described on the news, "a follower of Thoreau."

The message was an invitation to come over and see the amaryllis I'd sent her, just bursting into bloom, but I ignored it. I knew she had a houseful of children and grandchildren, so I could postpone the visit. I figured, they're all in there eating their Christmas pudding, they don't need me. I'll go when she's alone with her dog and cat.

"All right, I'll leave a message" was something my father used to say when he accepted the answering machine after two decades. But I'm not going there, as I'd heard Geraldo say on his nightly "news" show. It's too sad for me over there.

A spiritual adviser was recently quoted as saying that most people have had their hearts broken by the time they're twenty, but he didn't say what had become of those hearts by age forty-five. My neighbor is almost ninety, about twice my age -- also about twice as intelligent as anyone I know. The normal response would be to call her back. But she has a hearing problem, and on the phone she can't hear me. In person, I hoped that some lip-reading could go on.

Her sight hasn't failed her -- she's luckier than my father was. Or her brain hasn't failed her, so the cataract operations can take place. In the case of my parent, mental confusion was used as a reason to prevent the cataract operations. But surely there's a solution to that. I should have made it my full-time job to find the solutions to all things at the time. Now that I know, it's too late. That's the secret of life -- by the time you know, it's too late.

When I got the second message, I decided to go for a visit. I thought I should bring something, even though I'd already sent the double amaryllis in a clay pot with green moss, but a tin of organic cookies from a bakery in California wouldn't be appreciated over there. Besides, the red tin, to my surprise, had a poinsettia on the lid, and I'd tossed it into the recycling pail when I saw it.

A few days before, I'd baked a loaf of cranberry bread, but my husband had left it in the oven an extra hour. "I'm going for a walk," I'd told him. "Please check the bread when the timer goes off. If it's not done, set it for fifteen minutes more. Okay?"

Even though he was at his computer, he looked up and said okay. Anything to do with food will snap him out of it for a second. But when I returned from my walk -- and Thoreau walked four hours a day, so I knew walking was a good thing to do even with a windchill of seventeen -- I smelled the bread but saw no sign of it on the table or stove. "Where's the cranberry bread?" I asked.

"What cranberry bread?" my husband said.

I repeated the conversation we'd had. "I don't recall any conversation like that," he said.

The bread was dark brown, not black. So I carved and hacked it out of the Pyrex bread pan, even though it was pretty hot. "Get used to touching hot things with your bare hands," I remembered Julia Child saying on one of her TV shows. The reason given was that it saves time and is easier than grabbing pot holders.

The middle section of the bread was the least hard and burnt, and this was the section I planned to take to my neighbor. She's the one who gave me the recipe, but she doesn't approve of the results of my many attempts. For a few years, I baked the breads in a toaster oven because someone had cleaned our nineteen-thirties-era stove with oven cleaner and the toxic fumes lingered on.

As a pre-Christmas present to myself this year, and to celebrate my new series of photographs of people with their old appliances, I asked the Japanese cleaning helper if she would mind rinsing the oven with white vinegar and baking soda. In my early years of domestic servitude, in a manic spree, I cleaned our first oven and breathed Easy-Off fumes. My cleaning days are over, even though I buy only Ecover cleaning products, having heard on All Things Considered that the Ecover factory was the most ecologically advanced in the world. Employees were forbidden to smoke, even outside. I wanted to jump for joy when I heard that, but I was in the car, fastened in with a seat belt, so jumping was impossible.

The cleaning person agreed to my request. She likes the idea of cleaning with white vinegar, but not for the right reasons. It's almost impossible to teach ecology to immigrants. One problem is that they don't have the vocabulary for it. In my opinion, these words should be taught with their first English lesson. Words like toxic fumes.

"When I came to this country, I tried to buy vinegar for cooking and they gave me this," she said. "I tasted some, and I couldn't believe it!" Then we both started to laugh. "Is it true that some American people use this vinegar for salad?" she asked. I had to tell her the ugly truth. Then I'm expected to feel ashamed for the whole day, I suppose. I was reminded of the time I was told by a Japanese waitress that a kind of sushi made with fried tempura batter as an inner ingredient was invented just for Americans. "Because Americans like greasy stuff," she said.

During those early years, when cleaning an oven I often asked myself, "Would Jacqueline Kennedy be doing this?" Princess Diana was still a young teenager, so the comparison didn't come up in her case.

I'll just grab the center section of the baked bread and bring it with me to the neighbor's house, I thought as I spied some red tissue paper that would look good over the tinfoil. Then I found a flashlight and walked around the corner. As I approached the front door, I saw through the window a group of people milling about. Because it was Christmas, they all must have thought they had to wear red. Some were people I didn't recognize, and from the Republican looks on their faces I dreaded being introduced to them.

I thought I knew how to talk to normal Christians, even though I had one Jewish ancestor -- and they had one, too, if they counted Jesus. I'd first tried to do this talk when I was six or seven and my father left me in the toy department of Sears, Roebuck while he went to the tool department. These were the days before children were kidnapped from stores, and the toy department wasn't far out of his sight. I was viewing the dolls displayed on a shelf when I saw an extremely Catholic-looking girl staring at a doll -- she stared at it with an intensity I understood. At the time, I believed that all girls named Cathy or Kathy were Catholic. Since it was November, I thought I should say something I'd heard regular Americans say: "Are you hoping to get that for Christmas?" But the girl turned on me and said angrily, "I'm getting it before Christmas! Whenever I want!"

A worse incident occurred the next summer when my father brought me along to the tennis courts and I waited for him in the shade while he played the game in the blazing sun. I was introduced to the daughter of my father's tennis partner, and we discussed our life stories for a while, getting to tonsillectomies, now known to be a bad mistake, tonsils being a first line of defense in the immune system. The girl said she'd had her surgery in a doctor's office and gone right home, and I said I'd been in a hospital in Manhattan and stayed a couple of days. The girl insisted that tonsillectomies were never done in hospitals, and she became furious. I couldn't interrupt my father at his favorite sport, and by the time it was over the girl had stormed off. I believe she even used the word "liar" in her final parting words.

When at last I got a chance to tell my father what had transpired he couldn't believe it. I wanted him to follow the other father and daughter and explain that the story was true, but they'd driven away. Where is this girl now? Probably in a psycho ward. Or, more likely, the head of a movie company in Los Angeles or New York. The one who has these events on the mind decades later is the one on the way to the ward. The two incidents with these girls were perfect preparation for life.

So I thought I knew how to behave among hard-core, everyday Christians, but still with a screaming inside. With this inner screaming going on, I walked into my neighbor's kitchen. Right away I smelled bacon. I kept this to my vegan self, though. Or, I should say, to myself and from that self at the same time. Just beneath consciousness, I might have assumed this: ham or bacon had been cooked there during the day.

"Merry Christmas!" people said as I walked in. I had made the faux pas of greeting a gang of people on the road earlier in the day by saying, "Hi." They quickly called back in a cold, indifferent, yet reprimanding way, "Merry Christmas!"

How should I remember it was Christmas when the temperature was up to sixty degrees again? At the time, circa 1997, no one took it seriously when I said the words "greenhouse effect" or "global warming." One man, an editor of my photo book said, "I love this caption: 'The world meltdown has begun.'" They all thought it was a joke. The weather was as dreary as it is in Beverly Hills at Christmas, or anytime, for that matter -- the only good time in Southern California is when you're standing right under an orange tree.

When I got to my neighbor's house at six o'clock, they'd been saying "Merry Christmas" all day. They must be sick of it by now, too, I thought. Of course, they might not have known about my ancestor, the way the dermatologist I saw for sun damage didn't know either, when he used a special instrument to look into my irises and said, "You're a real WASP. Light hair, light skin, light eyes -- you have to be careful."

My neighbor came over to me and said, "Merry Christmas." I smiled and leaned forward to give her a kiss. I had never given her a kiss before. I'd never gone over there on Christmas Day before. I'd always thought there was a formal religious meal going on until she told me that people just come and go all day.

"Sit down," she said. I sat down and she sat down in an easy chair across from me. Others were gathered around the table. Then the introductions began. I showed them the cranberry bread and told the story. I summed it up. I've learned that people don't have much of an attention span.

"We use butter and eggs, but she brings over these macrobiotic treats for Mom," one of the daughters said. If only it were that easy to pass for macrobiotic.

I started off by smiling. I've discovered that smiling works better than talking. I have a new false smile that I use for occasions like these.

"You should have seen it here before," my neighbor said. "The people, the commotion! You would have hated it."

"I would have? How can you tell?"

"Instinct," she said.

On the night of this Christmas Day, my neighbor and I were dressed almost alike. Cotton sweatpants, old shirts, and running sneakers. "We want to be comfortable," she explained to the guests. For the special day, I had changed out of my flannel shirt and borrowed a corduroy shirt I'd bought for my husband a few years before. At the time, the shirt was moss-green, but an accident with Clorox had turned it beige. Not very festive.

How would she hear me with all the other talking going on was what I was worrying about. "Look at your amaryllis," she said. "It'll bloom in a few days."

"I told them not to put a bow in it!" I said as I pulled the red-and-gold ribbon out of the soil where it was stuck in with a tiny stake. "I told them, no plastic stake for the card. And they didn't use enough moss. I should have waited while they packed in the moss."

Suddenly the bottles appeared. Some requested wine, others whiskey. The moment of asking for bottled water was coming up. People don't like the one who asks for water. There's always the split second when they wonder if you're a former alcoholic. They can't imagine any other reason for declining alcohol. For example, it's a drug and it causes a drugged feeling.

I have to remember to bring my own water, I thought. Club soda in a soft plastic bottle is what they always had to offer. And here, on Christmas Day, not even that. I'd given my neighbor a copy of Natural Health, Natural Medicine, and she'd underlined almost everything in it. She loves Dr. Andrew Weil, even though he has a large beard and at first she thought he was a guru. But what about the sentence describing the seeping of the plastic into the water? "Soft plastic bottles can leach plastic molecules into the water." They can't take that in.

My neighbor's son handed me one of those bottles of water and a glass full of ice. I got up and threw the ice into the sink. "I don't need any ice," I explained to him. Another thing these people can't understand is not needing ice. Those who use no alcohol need no ice. "Ice is often contaminated by bacteria," I'd read.

The man seemed offended that I'd rejected the ice. In En-gland, when my husband requested ice, he was told, "It's bad for the digestion." The real reason was that they didn't happen to have any. Only the greedy Americans requested ice water in Europe at the time. Fortunately, we were driving a car with French license plates, so we brought no shame upon our country.

The only other beverage choice I saw at my neighbor's house was a spicy kind of V8, also in a plastic bottle. I checked the sodium count. It was around eight hundred. I should go home, I thought.

The regulars were pouring out whiskey for each other. A few ounces each, it looked like to me. In some Al-Anon literature I came across once, I'd read, "Don't count, don't watch the amount. It's not your problem." But that's not true. If you're there it is your problem. Then they had a motto: "You didn't cause it, you can't change it, you can't cure it," and some other useless claptrap for the person whose family member was addicted. It was like a bad little poem. The Al-Anon authors could have used some literary assistance.

"I have a joke for vegetarians," a red-faced man said after taking a gulp from his glass. I tried to prepare myself, but I'm never prepared for the people in our society. "If God didn't want us to eat animals, why did he make them out of meat?" he said proudly.

I pictured a cow. Then I pictured a deer, a duck, a rabbit. There was nothing I could say. I wanted to try a new version of my fake smile, a special version that would show how fake it is, but I couldn't.

"Oh," I said. They all went back to their merrymaking.

These people are confident. They don't need others to like their jokes or their menu plans. They have their own lives, they're not worried about every sentence, and, most important of all, they have their bottles. The bottles were now on the table, right in the middle. I tried to get the gist of their conversation, but it wasn't exactly a conversation. There were no topics that I recognized. Global warming, asteroids crashing to earth -- these subjects didn't come up. I thought I heard something to do with golf, but my brain doesn't process golf talk. Maybe this would be a good time to quote what Mark Twain said about golf -- "A good walk spoiled." Probably not -- golfers don't like to hear it.

Copyright © 2008

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