Thursday, August 19, 2010

Short-a-Day: Richard Bausch's "The Fireman's Wife"

From The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 98.

Perhaps there's a little bit too much written about the peripheral characters in Bausch's story, perhaps the pacing feels a little too neat, a little too tended, but in the end, it's hard to complain about a single element of the story, especially given this: "Everything seems to stand for the kind of life she wants for herself: an attentive, loving husband; children; and a quiet house with a clock that chimes." Jane, Martin the fireman's wife, really is that observant--she's raking in the details of what she wants, filing it all away for the day at which she'll leave her husband. And all the while, she's unable to see what really is going on, beyond the mere data that open the story ("Among the arguments between Jane and her husband--about money, lack of time alone together, and housework--there have been some about the model planes"); that's why the tale arcs perfectly back to those model planes: "She picks one of them up and turns it in the light, trying to understand what he might see in it that could require such time and attention. She wants to understand him." 

Terrific dialogue, too: really mundane stuff and yet so fleshed out by the third-person thoughts wrapped around it that it takes on great consequence. ("You're bored then." "A little." "How's the headache?" "Just the edge of one." "I'm sorry." "It's not your fault." " Sometimes I feel like it is." "How's your head?") The story even manages to use blunt dialogue--or expository thoughts--in ways that feel utterly normal for the setting of this tale, as when the pregnant Milly (another fireman's wife) leans in to confide: "You feel trapped, don't you." She also drops this pearl, in a section that very much resembles Carver's "What We Talk About": "You know, for a while there after Wally and I were married, I thought maybe I'd made a mistake. I remember realizing that I didn't like the way he laughed. I mean, let's face it, Wally laughs like a hyena. And somehow that took on all kinds of importance--you know, I had to absolutely like everything about him or I couldn't like anything.... All I had to do was wait. Just--you know, wait for love to come around and surprise me again." 

And I'll be damned if that double-surprise ending doesn't work--not because of the death and near-death surrounding her husband, nor because of the packing she suddenly finds herself doing, but because "something in the flow of her own mind appalls her, and she stops, stands in the dim hallway, frozen in a kind of wonder: she had been thinking in an abstract way, almost idly, as though it had nothing at all to do with her, about how people will go to such lengths leaving a room--wishing not to disturb, not to awaken, a loved one." (Even the word choice here; "appalls" and "wonder" in the same sentence.)

It's so true, isn't it? Love isn't caught up in the details--that's where they say they devil lies, after all--and it's not even really in the so-called "thought that counts." It's in those between-moments, those least-expect-its, and when a story about that finicky creature manages to actually surprise you, well, then it has done its job.

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