Three days after her twentieth birthday, a young woman who grew up in Germany during World War II crosses the Atlantic to start a new life. Outside Is the Ocean traces Heike’s struggle to find love and happiness in America. After two marriages and a troubled relationship with her son, Heike adopts a disabled child from Russia, a strong-willed girl named Galina, who Heike hopes will give her the affection and companionship she craves. As Galina grows up, Heike’s grasp on reality frays, and she writes a series of letters to the son she thinks has abandoned her forever. It isn’t until Heike’s death that her son finds these letters and realizes how skewed his mother’s perceptions actually were.
About the Author
Matthew Lansburgh’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, StoryQuarterly, Columbia, the Florida Review, Guernica, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Joyland. He lives in New York.
Read an Excerpt
Queen of Sheba
Al gives me zero. All day long he sits glued to his armchair, drinking glass after glass of V8 juice and making a mess with his crackers. The crumbs end up everywhere — the upholstery and carpet, not to mention the little table he drags in front of the TV. At dinner, he's tight-lipped. In bed it's the same. For quite some time, he's been unable to satisfy me. From the moment we met, he had difficulty in this department. He was not even seventy then. I was just fifty-four. For a woman, especially one who keeps in good shape, this is quite young.
I play violin. I play tennis. I go hiking and skiing. None of this interests him. Finally, for my birthday, I said, "That's it! I go crazy with you. At least take me on a small trip." I called up his daughter, Laurie, who has this adorable little Crystal, and invited them along to Las Vegas. "Come on," I said, "we go to the Circus Circus hotel."
In summertime this place is a steal — $29.95 a night. For that you get everything: a huge amusement park full of games, including roller coaster, slot machines coming out of your ears, and of course the main attraction: a circus, complete with stadium seating.
All night I stayed up packing the car, making nice jagdwurst sandwiches and a wonderful curry from these frozen shrimp they sell by the package at Vons. I made sure to bring lemon-lime Hansens along and even a few M&Ms.
Laurie is just like her father — provides no help whatsoever. She showed up empty-handed, wearing these sweatpants of hers. "What's wrong?" I said. "Aren't you happy to go on vacation?"
"Yeah. We're happy." She works as a nurse at the hospital and always shuffles behind. Crystal at least shows her enthusiasm. She brought along two dolls in nice outfits and these picture books I bought her for Christmas full of beautiful castles from Füssen and Heidelberg and the Swabian Alps.
Last year, Laurie's husband had an affair with a woman from church. Laurie came home at lunch and found them in bed. For three months she cried. "Laurie," I told her, "these things happen sometimes. You must learn to forgive."
No, no, no. She wouldn't listen. She went to a lawyer for a divorce. "Don't be so rash," I said. "Raising a child on one's own isn't that easy."
"How can I ever trust him again?" she asked me, blowing her nose. "What kind of example would that be for Crystal?"
What could I say? Was I going to tell her that Al himself had once cheated on me? Some people are too stubborn to listen. Laurie is still young. She thinks the world will hand her French toast on a silver platter. She didn't grow up in wartime when a pair of shoes was a luxury not to be had. She never struggled on food stamps. Look at me, I wanted to tell her. Do you think your father is the Prince Charming I had in mind? We all make compromises in life.
Six hours we drove, Al at the wheel. Luckily, this is one area where he can deliver. Never gets tired. Crystal behaved herself nicely in the backseat while I taught her the songs I myself sang as a girl in Germany. Laurie said nothing, watching us with a long face.
Finally we arrived. The hotel was fantastic: super luxurious. "Come on, Crystal," I said. "Let's have ourselves some fun!" We rushed down to the nickel machines before even checking into the room. Crystal held on to the cup with the coins and kept count. First try, I hit three cherries — twenty-dollar payout came down. Twenty bucks! I put half in my purse and kept going.
Few minutes later there came this man with a very thin moustache, like an inspector. "Madam," he said, "minors are not permitted in the casino."
"She just sits here politely and watches. I don't allow her to play."
"Sorry, ma'am. House rules. No one allowed under twenty-one."
"That's ridiculous. We drove all the way from California to give her some fun. Today is her birthday!"
"No exceptions," he said, very stern.
"Fine. Upstairs with Papa," I instructed. "It's time for the old guy to carry his weight."
That night Al took us for a fabulous all-you-can-eat dinner, though as usual, he refused to wear decent clothes — he insisted on this old red shirt he always has on, while I put on my gorgeous burgundy outfit. Very sexy. The men in line couldn't take their eyes off me.
The meal was out of this world. Crystal loaded up on the sweet tangerines she adores, while Al and I gorged ourselves on salmon filets and expensive prime rib. Laurie sat there with a small salad. "Come on," I said, "have yourself some of these entrees. It all comes included."
"I'm on a diet," she responded. She's always on a diet. Doesn't do any good. I have offered many times to teach her tennis, but she never accepts.
"Fine, but if you want a nice body, you need to get out of the house. You can't just sit in front of the TV eating powdered donuts out of the box."
"Don't tell me what to do," she said, very snippy. "My weight issues are my business, not yours."
"Suit yourself. Just don't expect room service later tonight."
After the meal, Al wanted to go back to the room. No big surprise. Laurie and Crystal went with him to watch TV while I strolled around on my own. Immediately a wonderfully dressed gentleman with blazer and tie caught my eye. He was busy teaching a card game to a group of old fogies, and as I approached he looked up and gave me a movie-star smile. "Why don't you join us," he said, pointing to the last empty seat. I sat down very student-like while he continued his spiel. Blackjack was the name. For me it was new. You strive to get twenty-one but no more. He spoke in a baritone voice.
"There is such a thing as a hard sixteen and a soft sixteen," he explained, looking into my eyes. "The ace can be played two ways, aces and eights should always be split. Then there is also insurance. At seventeen the house stands."
Luckily I had paper and pen in my handbag so I could write it all down.
Next he wanted us to pull out our money. "Ha! Not a chance! I watch but don't play."
"Come on," he said. "Just give it a try."
"Fine, I buy two chips with my afternoon winnings." So I gave my ten-dollar bill, and he dealt out the cards. First hand, I lost five smackers.
"That's it," I said. "I take my chip and go home."
"Go home? You just got here."
He had this very persuasive way.
"No, no, no." Off I went to the ladies' room.
When I came out, who did I see but the same gentleman. He came over to me, very suave. "You're a knockout. What's a beautiful woman like you doing here all alone?"
"I came here with a girlfriend of mine who's sick with the flu. She's upstairs in her nightie."
"Come, let me buy you a drink." He had ocean blue eyes and thick silver hair.
"A drink would be wonderful. I love a cold Coke."
He put out his arm and escorted me through the halls. "A Coke for the lady and a Bloody Mary for me," he told the bartender. Then he turned to me and, just like that, he kissed my hand. "You're a beautiful woman," he confided, caressing my skin.
I almost collapsed to the floor.
"Where do you come from?"
"Me? From Bavaria. Near the Austrian border."
"Ah, Bavaria. Can you yodel?"
"Of course, but not here."
Then he tried to entice me back to his place. Joops! I got up. "I have to go," I said. "My friend is in need. She's sick as a dog, and I promised to bring her some soup."
"So quickly? We're just getting acquainted."
He rubbed his finger over my arm, then gave me the most sensual kiss. Right there at the bar. Luckily, my gang was nowhere around. Down the hall I went, rather coquettishly, leaving my name on a slip of white paper.
All night, I was unable to sleep. For two years I had been a good girl, respecting my vows. Even when I found out about Al and Gloria Delgado, I still didn't stray. "I forgive you," I told him, when he came crying to me, saying he'd made a mistake. Then, six months ago, he had a stroke and I also stuck by. "It's okay," I said. "I'll help you recover." I drove him to physical therapy and made hand exercises to help him regain his strength. A woman should stick by her man, I told myself. After all, women my age don't have that many options. Elke, my friend from the German club, tells me I'm lucky to have someone like Al. "At least he takes you to dinner," she says. "The only men who ever call me split everything right down the middle."
Eventually the sun peeked into our room, and I put on my house shoes. I wanted to go down the hall to retrieve ice cubes from the machine, but when I opened the door, what did I see before me but an oversized bouquet of red roses. I thought it must be a mistake. They have delivered these flowers to the wrong room. I bent down to look at the card and saw "To Heike" printed on the envelope. "You've stolen my heart," was written inside. "Meet me tonight at the bar for a drink. I get off at 9:00. Your admirer, Jerome."
What on earth can I do with these flowers? I wondered. Quickly, I took them into the bathroom. Each flower was gorgeous — very long-stemmed. Must have cost him a fortune!
My God, I said to myself. This is a true gentleman.
I sat in the bathroom for a good twenty minutes trying to figure out what possibly to tell Al. Should I say the flowers came from my son in Boston? From this student who comes over on Tuesdays to learn violin? It had been years since Al gave me a bouquet. Finally, he got up and knocked at the bathroom.
"You never guess who sent me some roses," I said. "Bernie Kramer." Bernie is my tennis date each Wednesday at 10:00. Al knows I don't find him one bit attractive; I call him the shrimp, he's so short.
"Bernie? Bernie sent you red roses?"
"Yes, you know how he has this little crush on me. He wanted to do something nice for my birthday."
"Oh," said Al, sitting down on the pot.
"You told him you were going to Vegas?"
"Of course I told him. I had to cancel our tennis. Are you jealous?"
"Of the shrimp? Should I be?"
"Come on," I said, "I invite you all to breakfast." I rounded up the gang and went downstairs where they had this wonderful buffet. Ninety-nine cents apiece. We loaded up on thick sausages, French toast, and sunny-side eggs. In went a few of the links into my handbag, wrapped in napkins, so we would have something to eat later on. I had promised Crystal we go to the water slide, and everyone knows how expensive the lunches there are.
After brushing our teeth, off we went to Soak City. We found a parking spot in the shade, and Laurie and Al insisted on waiting for us under an elm.
"Come on, Laurie," I said, "put on your bikini. It'll be fun!"
Of course she had no interest in accompanying us.
"Why not? Didn't you bring it along?"
"No, Heike," she said to me, very haughty. "I did not bring my bikini along."
Crystal had on her cute butterfly one-piece that I bought her last summer. She really is adorable, so full of life with her rosy cheeks and blond hair.
"I'll race you, Grandma," she said, chasing up the hill and getting in line. First run, we went on one mat together, splashing into the water full force. The speed you pick up going down these long tubes is incredible! Immediately, the girl raced back up to the top. All afternoon, we had a ball. It's good for the child to have fun, I thought to myself. Tonight will be my turn. I wanted to tire her out so she'd fall asleep.
Sure enough, by 9:30, Crystal and Laurie were snoring up a storm next door in their room. Al had on his pajamas and was watching a show discussing black monkeys who live in the snow.
"You know what," I said, "I think I go down and play a few more slot machines. For some reason, I have excess energy."
"Yep. Make yourself comfy. I'll be back later on."
Quickly I changed into my nice low-cut dress and gave him a kiss on the cheek. The Queen of Sheba could come out in the nude and he'd give no reaction at all.
The walk alone to the bar was quite something. I felt like royalty, making my way through these corridors, each one with wall-to-wall carpet. Everywhere you enjoy shiny brass.
I arrived at the bar, and sure enough Jerome was waiting in a wonderful cream-colored suit, sipping something delicious.
"You look ravishing," he said to me.
I stood there for a moment, letting him soak it all in.
"I've been hoping you'd show up," he said. Immediately, he called the bartender over. "Louie, bring this beautiful woman your best strawberry margarita."
"A strawberry margarita? Are you trying to get me drunk right away?"
"Would you prefer something else?"
"No, no, a strawberry margarita sounds fabulous. I haven't had one in years."
Well, now here's a refined gentleman, I thought to myself. How on earth am I going to entertain him? So I told him these stories about my mother's family in Leipzig before the war and how they sold furs and went to the opera. I narrated the struggles I had as a single mother until I met Gerry, my knight in polished armor.
Jerome took quite an interest, listening very well, then said, "Heike, come with me for a walk. I know a place in the desert where at night the moon lights up all the cactus. It's very romantic. I want to share it with you."
"A walk? At such a late hour?"
"Come on," he said.
What is there really to lose? I thought. A man this age surely won't kidnap me. All year I sit at home, night after night. Why not live a little?
"Fine. I accompany you. But promise me I return before midnight. We leave tomorrow at eight in the morning, and I don't want my friend to worry so much."
"We'll be back in time. The night is still young."
So we started out to his car and he guided me along, holding my arm in his hand. Just feeling him next to me made my legs tingle. Sure enough, he drove a Cadillac — very big and fancy with thick cushions. He put his key into the ignition and made some nice music. Then he turned to me and said, "I'm crazy for you, you know that? You're all I've been thinking about."
"My goodness," I said.
"Shhh. No talking." He leaned over, took me into his arms, and gave me a kiss. A real kiss. So passionate I almost passed out. He put his hands through my hair and his lips on my neck. I can still smell his cologne.
"You have perfect breasts," he said to me. "So many other women get implants nowadays. Yours are so natural."
"Of course they're natural. I come from the Alps!"
Then he got very fresh.
"Jerome," I said. "What are you doing?"
"I crave you, Heike."
"What about this wonderful walk you promised?"
"The walk? Do you want me to stop?"
"Yes, I'm not this kind of woman." He seemed rather surprised, but he straightened himself.
"I'm sorry. I got carried away. I hope you'll forgive me."
"Of course I forgive you," I said, wondering whether I was too firm in my rejection of him.
Jerome drove me through the Las Vegas strip full of neon lights, giving me a detailed tour. "Here's the famous Bellagio where they have paintings by Renoir and van Gogh." Then he pointed out the Sphinx, and I wondered whether he might reach over to hold my hand. I had a feeling that once we arrived at these cactus, he would try to seduce me again.
Eventually we left the city and began driving out through the desert. "I wish you didn't live so far away," he said to me. "I feel a real connection to you." He told me how lonely he had been since his wife passed away. For the past three years, he lived like a monk.
"I know what you mean. It's hard living alone."
Few minutes later, he pulled to the side of the road. "This is it?" I asked.
"Don't sound so disappointed. You'll see how special it is." We got out of the car and looked up at the sky; everywhere there were stars, tiny but vivid. There, in the distance, was the moon keeping watch. "Do you see the Little Dipper?" he asked. He pointed out the handle with the North Star. I wondered whether he would try to embrace me again. I closed my eyes, allowing him to come close.
"See there, down this path," he said, "there are some of the largest boulders in the state of Nevada."
"Is that so?" I said, looking at him. He took my hand in his and led me down a small path. Luckily, my shoes had flat soles. He told me this was where he went when he wanted to be alone and feel connected to nature. "Helen and I came here on our wedding night. We camped over there, right under the stars."
We walked together until the path became too narrow for us to go side by side, and I couldn't help but think about Gerry. Once, before he got cancer, we went down to the beach with a flashlight. We packed a blanket and a bottle of wine and made love in front of the waves. I wondered whether Gerry could see me from Heaven, amidst these large rocks, and I wished I was walking with him. Even at the end when he was nearly unable to move, he told me he loved me and kissed me goodnight.
"Jerome, I have something to tell you," I said finally. "I hope you will not think less of me. I am actually married. I live with a man in California." I apologized for lying to him.
"Really?" he said, stopping near one of the cactus. "But you don't have a ring."
The moon was high, and it made the rocks and cactus look almost silver. In this empty desert, everything seemed far away. Then, for some reason, I began to cry. "Jerome, would you mind holding me?"
He complied, embracing me nicely. I told him that after Gerry died, I didn't know whether I would ever find someone to be with again. I told him about my sleepless nights alone in the house and about Al. "He's a nice man," I said. "He swims in the pool every day. He used to before he had the stroke. Now, his shoulder bothers him all the time. The doctors say it may never get better. At first I thought he loved me, but then I found out he made love to a checker at Vons. He told me she seduced him, but it doesn't matter."
Excerpted from "Outside Is the Ocean"
Copyright © 2017 Matthew Lansburgh.
Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa 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.
Table of Contents
Queen of Sheba,
House Made of Snow,
Enormous in the Moonlight,
Outside Is the Ocean,
A Kind of Happiness,
Clear Waters Below,
The Sky and the Night,
What People are Saying About This
“That rare collection in which individual stories create a whole that is much more than the sum of those wonderful and deeply satisfying parts. What a lovely, sad, funny new voice this is.”
“Matthew Lansburgh is a great writer in the Raymond Carver vein. Deceptively simple, emotionally deep, his work shimmers with sneaky passion. He’s the real deal.”
“Outside Is the Ocean offers the thrilling revelations of masterful short stories and the deep satisfactions of a novel.”
“Matthew Lansburgh writes with a remarkable mixture of humor and empathy. These stories are taut with the most meaningful of tensions: the painful complexity of love between two flawed souls trying to find their places in each other’s lives. Outside Is the Ocean is a poignant and perceptive collection of bravely explored stories built into a deeply affecting debut.”
“Every so often a work of fiction presents us with the great gift of an entire life. What Matthew Lansburgh has given us here, like the points of a constellation, is the breadth of a family, across many decades, through all their hardships, unspeakable heartbreaks, and small victories. Outside Is the Ocean is a book full of grace and endurance. It’s an exceptional debut, and we’re lucky to have it in this world now.”
“Matthew Lansburgh has a keen eye and ear, and he puts them to great use in this lovely, and, frankly, mesmerizing linked collection. Outside Is the Ocean is a gem.”
“Matthew Lansburgh’s Outside Is the Ocean is one of the best short story collections I’ve read in years. It’s sharp and funny and it sweeps the reader along through the lives of a cast of difficult and damaged characters. But there are no villains here; the joy of reading Lansburgh’s stories is that he keeps spinning his characters around, finding tenderness alongside their abjection, compassion alongside hurt, until finally the people in this book feel as human and real as anyone you’ve known.”