“Deb Olin Unferth’s stories are so smart, fast, full of heart, and distinctive in voiceeach an intense little thought-system going out earnestly in search of strange new truths. What an important and exciting talent.”George Saunders
For more than ten years, Deb Olin Unferth has been publishing startlingly askew, wickedly comic, cutting-edge fiction in magazines such as Granta, Harper’s Magazine, McSweeney’s, NOON, and The Paris Review. Her stories are revered by some of the best American writers of our day, but until now there has been no stand-alone collection of her short fiction.
Wait Till You See Me Dance consists of several extraordinary longer stories as well as a selection of intoxicating very short stories. In the chilling “The First Full Thought of Her Life,” a shooter gets in position while a young girl climbs a sand dune. In “Voltaire Night,” students compete to tell a story about the worst thing that ever happened to them. In “Stay Where You Are,” two oblivious travelers in Central America are kidnapped by a gunman they assume to be an insurgentbut the gunman has his own problems.
An Unferth story lures you in with a voice that seems amiable and lighthearted, but it swerves in sudden and surprising ways that reveal, in terrifying clarity, the rage, despair, and profound mournfulness that have taken up residence at the heart of the American dream. These stories often take place in an exaggerated or heightened reality, a quality that is reminiscent of the work of Donald Barthelme, Lorrie Moore, and George Saunders, but in Unferth’s unforgettable collection she carves out territory that is entirely her own.
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Wait Till You See Me Dance
By Deb Olin Unferth
GRAYWOLF PRESSCopyright © 2017 Deb Olin Unferth
All rights reserved.
She could see she was becoming a thoroughly unlikable person. Each time she opened her mouth she said something ugly, and whoever was nearby liked her a little less. These could be strangers, these could be people she loved, or people she knew only slightly whom she had hoped would one day be her friends. Even if she didn't say anything, even if all she did was seem a certain way, have a look on her face, or make a soft sound of reaction, what she did was always unlikable — except in the few cases when she fixed herself on being likable for the next four seconds (more than that was impossible), and sometimes that worked, but not always.
Why couldn't she be more likable? What was the problem? Did she just not enjoy the world anymore? Had the world gotten away from her? Had the world gotten worse? (Maybe, probably not. Or probably in some ways but not in the ways that were making her not like it.) Did she not like herself? (Well, of course she didn't, but there was nothing new in that.)
Or had she become less likable simply by growing older — so that she might be doing the same thing she had always done, but because she was now forty-four, not twenty, it had become unlikable because any woman doing something at forty-four is more unlikable than a woman doing it at twenty? And does she sense this? Does she know she is intrinsically less likable and instead of resisting, does she lean into it, as into a cold wind? Maybe (likely) she used to resist, but now she sees the futility, so each morning when she opens her mouth she is uni ikable, proudly so, and each evening before sleep she is unlikable, and each day it goes on this way, she turning more unlikable by the hour, until one morning she will be so unlikable, inconveniently unlikable, that she will have to be shoved into a hole and left there.CHAPTER 2
Somehow they have wound up with these two turtles. The woman says she saved them. Her son says all she did was move them from one place to another — from the basement of her sister's house to their apartment (also a basement) — and the turtles' lives are no better than they were before, and her own life is significantly worse, since now she has to take care of them.
Well, the woman and her son will take care of them together.
Not him. He's not the one who took them. He doesn't even know why she did it — making off with somebody's pets? That's weird.
Those turtles would have died down there in the dark, like all the other pets in her sister's life. It was a philanthropic moment, taking them. It's called philanthropy. Does he even know what that is? she wonders.
Besides, the turtles aren't much work. She has to feed them and check the water temperature and turn their light on and off. She has to clean the tank each week. She has to take the tank's water out, cup by cup, pour it into a bowl, then carry the bowl to the tub, walk through two rooms to do it (drops of dirty water falling on the floor). She has to empty bowl after bowl. She doesn't know how many bowls fill a tank. Many. And many cups to fill a bowl. Another way to do it is by siphon. She could put the siphon in her mouth, suck, and when she sees the water coming up, pour it into the bowl.
Are you kidding me, putting that turtle shit in your mouth? says her son.
Since when does he use words like that and at his mother too.
Can I use words like salmonella? says her son. Can I use words like incredibly stupid?
Another question: when was the last time someone actually touched this woman, not counting the turtles? A long time.
She wound up with the turtles in the first place because every time she looked in the basement that week she saw the turtles. One of her house-sitting jobs for her sister was to feed them. Really, the situation was so pathetic. You'd go down to the darkest, coldest basement, make your way toward a corner that had a little light, and there would be two turtles, one sitting on top of the other because they had only one rock, and it was bad. You'd toss in a few food sticks and think, Okay, this is why we will all go to hell. Or think, Well, God did put us in charge of things, right? Or think, What was God thinking? Or think, What were the owners of this house — her own sister and that God-awful husband of hers — thinking? Who are these people that they could leave these little animals down here with their long frowns? So she called her sister in Florida and said, There are two turtles in the basement, and I have to say they don't look very pleased.
Do you know how long turtles live? said the sister. Do you know what it's like to have kids who one day come home with one turtle and then another day come home with another, and you get to be either the mom who will let them have turtles or the mom who won't? And then guess who's stuck taking care of them for the next hundred years?
By all means, said the sister, I'm sure you'd do a better job. Take them. Take everything — tank, food, thermometer, rock. Get them out of my house.
Now one of the turtles is sick or something is wrong with it. It just lies on the bottom of the tank, not moving — see that? How it's lying there? It could drown.
Don't look at him, says her son. He's just leaving, just out the door.
Was she looking at him? Would he like to report where her eyes were resting at the moment of the observation? Was it on the tank or him? And don't forget how much he always said he wanted a pet.
He wanted a pet when he was eight.
The turtle could drown.
Well, she's responsible for it, he says. It was her philanthropic moment that led her into this and he's not going to be the one to lead her out. If he were her, he would first toss the turtle out into the courtyard and vow never to have another philanthropic moment again. Then he would go out to the courtyard and find the turtle and bring it to the vet.
So she does all that and she waits her turn and then the vet says he has no idea. He's a vet for mammals, he says. He puts the turtle on a scale and says, Its weight is fine! And the nurse and the other people around there laugh. He pulls on its little legs and measures it and says, Well, it's long enough! And the nurses laugh again.
It's all a big waste of her time and embarrassing, and it costs forty bucks. Then she has to carry the turtle in a tool case all day because she's worried it might die in the tank while she's gone. She takes the turtle to work and puts it under her desk by her feet and then she takes it to her AA meeting. She opens the case a little because she's worried it might suffocate inside.
What is that thing? someone at the AA meeting says. That is really ugly.
She looks down at it. True, it's not the nicest-looking animal, but how many creatures of the earth can honestly say that they are, including this person before her?
People gather around. What's wrong with it? they say.
It's covered in mud, they say.
The shell just looks like that, she says. It just looks that way.
You can't have that in here, they say.
It's just a turtle, a new man says.
The others look at him. It may have a disease, they say. Get that thing out of here.
She takes the case and leaves.
She sits at the kitchen table with her head in her arms. Her son comes in and says she could leave the turtle out in the street. Maybe a car would come along and hit it.
The turtle doesn't get better. She calls the pet store, calls her sister, calls other people she knows who have pets or who are generally responsible people. No one has any idea. No one knows, until finally someone says, Oh, I know. It needs those vitamin flakes and a special light so it can absorb nutrients. So she goes out and buys the special light and the vitamin flakes and they are expensive and the store is far and she sees she has a ticket on her car when she comes out, but lo and behold, the turtle is better in a few days or at least swimming around like before.
No thanks to her son, who couldn't help her with one little thing.
No thanks to her son, who couldn't manage to get home at a decent hour. Here it is, nearly midnight. Where is he? She goes up in her robe to the entryway to see if he is lying dead in the street. The security door is propped open with a brick, so anyone could come in and kill them. She stands looking out into the dark to see if her son is being held up on the corner, or being stabbed or shot. A man comes in who isn't her son.
Are you the one who propped this door open? she says. So anyone can come in here?
I'm a single woman living alone with my son, she says.
The man shrugs. So get a husband, he says.
Her son appears at 2 a.m. Have you been drinking? she says, following him down the hall. Just tell me that.
A tall glass of shut-the-fuck-up, he says and goes into his room.
She can't do this, just can't. She's not equipped to deal with small animals, teenagers, basement apartments. She calls her sister. Do you think your kids want their turtles back?
Oh no you don't, her sister says. I don't care what you do with those turtles but don't bring them here. I'm the good guy for once. Their aunt stole them — it wasn't anything I did.
I saved them, says the woman.
I think you were looking in the wrong basement.
She hadn't been the best mom. She knows that. There were a few rough years. He used to want to be with her all the time. Now he avoids her.
Do you want to go shopping on Saturday? she says.
Do I want to sit in traffic for hours with only you to talk to? Not likely.
Go to the movies, then? Dinner?
Look, Mom, you're not my date. Okay? And we're not friends. You're the parent. I'm the kid who suffers in your presence until I can get away.
She never left him chained to a radiator or locked in a closet. She did leave him with friends a couple of times, once when he had the chicken pox, once when she went into detox. Twice. Once on Halloween.
With no costume, her son says.
But it worked out all right, didn't it? You like Ron and Cici. Ron and Cici are very nice people.
At least they weren't drunk, if that's what you mean.
They liked you. They took you trick-or-treating. You got a pumpkin full of candy.
They felt sorry for me. My mother was a drunk.
They bought you a costume.
Of a superhero nobody ever heard of, he says.
And another thing, he says. You didn't leave me with them. I called them. They came and picked me up.
But now that the turtle is better it keeps fighting with the other turtle, the smaller one, hurting it, snapping at it, its friend, the only one it may ever have and some have less than that, and still the turtle keeps biting. And it is really sad because the smaller one wants to be near the bigger one all the time, can't rest unless it is next to the bigger one, who keeps biting it each time it gets close. So she calls all the same people again and they say they have no idea again and she thinks this is going to go on eternally. She'll always have a question no one can answer and a long list of people to ask. She goes to an AA meeting and talks about it, and they, too, look bored, wishing she'd go away. Finally the new man says, Sounds like you need a second tank. Or one less turtle. Why don't you take one to the pet store?
It has been so long since anyone gave her advice that she wanted to hear, she is tearful with gratitude.
We can't take that, the clerk at the pet store says.
Oh please, she says. I'll pay you.
Sorry. Why don't you take it to the reptile swap?
It turns out there's a place you go to bring your reptile if you don't want it anymore and are willing to take another one home. Maybe she could get a frog or a fish, a pet that lives less long. It's very far and it's illegal so she takes the turtle in a hatbox, drives out on the toll road on a Saturday. The reptile swap is held in a muddy field, which she hadn't understood would be the case. She is wearing high heels. Her shoes sink when she steps and she can feel water seeping through the soles. She wants a drink. It's hard to walk and she wobbles with her hatbox. People look at her strangely. She carries the hatbox from table to table. Nobody wants her turtle. They have chirping dragons, six-foot snakes. There's a single tiny monkey gripping the bars of its cage like a convict. No one looks at her turtle. She brings it back home.
Monday she finds a note on her desk: Were you going to send out the minutes before leaving for the weekend? Never mind, I did it. P.S. I'm writing this at 9:15, did I forget you were coming in late today?
She wonders, Why do other people have pets? Is it for the same bad reason as she? What is her bad reason? She doesn't know. They aren't even cute, the turtles, this one especially. It looks like an oven mitt. She feels nothing for these turtles. She hates them. They are ugly. They smell bad.
Now she has two tanks and she has to clean two of them and it is awful. She hates it so much that she waits and waits until the water is cloudy and polluted and stinks. Finally she begins dumping out the water, carrying both tanks' worth of water across two rooms to the bathroom and pouring it into the tub, but there is so much shit in it, it clogs. A puddle of brown water in the tub.
Oh God, what is she going to do now? There's shit in the tub.
You put it in the tub? her son calls from his room. Shit goes in the toilet, Mom.
Oh God, why is this happening? Why does everything she does turn out this way? There is no way out of this. This is hell. And you know what? She is supposed to have a date tonight, the only one in, what, a year? Two years?
A what? her son comes out of his room to say. What did you just say?
Yes, she has a date. With a man from a meeting.
One of those drug addicts, those drunks?
Yes, well, after she was forced to leave with the turtle in the tool case and was crying in the parking lot holding the turtle case in one hand and her purse in the other, the new man came out and said, Let's see what you've got there? And she showed him. At the next meeting he said something nice about her remarks and at the next meeting he sat next to her and asked if he could bring her a cup of coffee when he went to get his own cup, and after that he asked after the turtles and after her son, and at the next meeting he asked if she wanted to go to dinner.
And you said yes?
And she said yes. So basically she has a date and she is trying to hurry it up with these tanks, and dirty water keeps splashing onto the floor and now the tub is clogged. And yes, the man is a little old for her and not as good-looking as her son's father and is maybe not going to win any awards for being dashing and rich, but anyway it is more or less a date.
When were you going to tell me? her son says. What the fUck is going on? How old is this guy who's a little old for her — eighty?
So she goes and buys some drain cleaner, the really powerful stuff. She pours it in and waits (You didn't mention any man, says her son, didn't say a word. Well, she does have other concerns on her mind just now) and the drain explodes. Turtle feces all over the tub and the wall and the curtain and the window because that is the kind of place she lives in with her only son, a basement apartment with cheap drains in a bad neighborhood because her husband divorced her and left, even though she stopped drinking, and he never calls his son, not even on his birthday, never sends enough money, and there is turtle shit on the wall and she has to be up early, and meanwhile years are going by, her son growing up and she fading further from his mind.
There's turtle shit everywhere, her son is saying. And you're bringing home drunks. This place has got to be unfit. Who do I call to report you? I should go live with Dad.
Go ahead, she says. If you can get him on the phone.
How has she come to this? How? She can put a heroic spin on it or a negative one. She could make herself look enlightened or close to tramphood. She has never seen a woman make worse choices than she. She has never known any person so transparently wrongheaded, so obviously in need of job counseling, parenting classes, therapy, help of any kind, any lifeboat, any raft, so obviously in need of a hard, careful look at herself, and so obviously not going to do it. She is that unaware. That full of the opposite of insight, that doomed to middling livelihood at best, certain solitude, early illness, weakness, not-quite poverty, strained relations with her son, relatives who don't really like her taking care of her when she is old. The indignity of all this, the shame. How exhausting, this life, this topic, how senseless, how difficult. She has her face in her hands. And what is that now — turtle shit in her hair? Well, this is a lovely way to spend the afternoon. Does she feel better now, Miss Pity Party? The phone rings. That would be her date.
Don't answer that, her son says.
She reaches for the phone.
Don't you dare, her son says. You're going to go out with that drug addict and leave me here in this shit?
All right, all right, she says. She picks up the phone. I can't go, she says to the man on the phone. I'm sorry. I can't go out.
Come on, says the man on the phone. You need a night out.
Excerpted from Wait Till You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth. Copyright © 2017 Deb Olin Unferth. Excerpted by permission of GRAYWOLF PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Wait Till You See Me Dance, 18,
Stay Where You Are, 42,
To the Ocean, 63,
The Vice President of Pretzels, 65,
A Crossroads, 69,
An Opera Season, 71,
How to Dispel Your Illusions, 74,
My Daughter Debbie, 77,
Open Water, 81,
The Applicant, 84,
The Walk, 86,
Your Character, 90,
Fear of Trees, 92,
Voltaire Night, 95,
Mr. Simmons Takes a Prisoner, 114,
The First Full Thought of Her Life, 125,
The Mothers, 154,
Final Days, 157,
Decorate, Decorate, 159,
37 Seconds, 160,
The One Fondly Mentioned, 165,
The Last Composer, 172,
Abandon Normal Instruments, 175,
The Magicians, 180,
Dirty Joke (in translation), 183,
Mr. Creativity, 185,