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Vaquita and Other Stories

Vaquita and Other Stories

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    Vaquita and Other Stories
    Book Description:

    When asked to describe her short stories, Edith Pearlman replied that they are stories about people in peculiar circumstances aching to Do The Right Thing. She elaborated with the same wit and intimacy that make her stories a delight to read:"Before I was a writer I was a reader; and reading remains a necessary activity, occupying several joyous hours of every day. I like novels, essays, and biographies; but most of all I like the short story: narrative at its most confiding."My own work, and particularly the stories inVaquita, aims at a similar intimacy between writer and reader. My imagined reader wants to know who loves whom, who drinks what, and, mostly, who answers to what summons. Thank Heavens for Spike Lee! Before his movies writers and critics had to natter about moral stances; now I can say with a more tripping tongue that my characters are people in peculiar circumstances, aching to Do The Right Thing if only they can figure out what The Right Thing is. If not, they'll at least Do Their Own Right Thing Right."And I'm drawn to heat: sweltering Central American cities; a steamy soup kitchen; Jerusalem in midsummer; the rekindled passion of an old historian; the steady fire of terminal pain. I like solitaires, oddities, charlatans, and children. My characters are secretive; in almost every story somebody harbors a hidden love, dread, regret, or the memory of an insult awaiting revenge."When I stop writing stories I plan to write letters, short and then shorter. My mother could put three sentences onto a postcard and make the recipient think he'd read a novel. I'm working towards a similar compression."

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7799-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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    (pp. 1-12)

    “Some day,” said the minister of health to her deputy assistant, “you must fly me to one of those resort towns on the edge of the lake. Set me up in a striped tent. Send in kids who need booster shots. The mayor and I will split a bottle of cold Spanish wine; then we will blow up the last storehouse of canned milk …”

    The minister paused. Caroline, the deputy, was looking tired. “Lina, what godforsaken place am I visiting tomorrow?” the minister asked.

    “Campo del Norte,” came the answer. “Water adequate, sewage okay, no cholera, frequent dysentery …”...

    (pp. 13-27)

    Gifford van Valkenburgh was as thin as a pike. On top of the pike his head waggled a little. His hair, a whitened yellow, sprang abundantly from his high forehead and sparsely from the sides of his neck. It sprouted in the mysterious recesses of his ears. Mustache and eyebrows were thick, too. The long torso was bent in the middle of the back. The shallow angle of this deformity measured one hundred and sixty degrees, by his estimate. “You see the identical crook in many of the figures in Daumier,” he said to Lolly Perkins on the day of...

    (pp. 28-46)

    “I don’t mind sleeping on the floor,” Raphael said to Donna on one of their rare nights in her apartment. “It’s getting up that’s hard.”

    “Don’t get up.”

    He didn’t, not then. Later that morning, having in fact risen with agility, he busied himself with breakfast. He laughed at the muddle in her kitchen cabinets but offered no suggestions. This pleased Donna. Earlier that same week her cousin Josie, hands on hips in the living room, had started with a critique of the apartment and ended with a lengthy interpretation of Donna, her parents, her siblings, her education, and her...

    (pp. 47-57)

    “I’m invited to a bat mitzvah,” said Donna.

    “Lovely. What’s a bat mitzvah?” said Mag.

    Silence. Mag moved her mop back and forth.

    “A ceremony of initiation for a Jewish child” Donna said at last.

    “And you a lamb of Christ. So, whose ceremony of whatever?”

    “Bluma’s granddaughter. You know Bluma, she volunteers on Thursdays.”

    “I do. Painted yellow hair, painted purple mouth. A wide lady.”

    Silence again. Donna’s Ladle made a point of discouraging antisocial behavior—drinking, shooting up, stealing, catty remarks.

    “Wouldwidebe a bad word, now? Perhaps I intended a compliment.” Mag raised her mop and...

    (pp. 58-67)

    By the time the left-most toilet in the ladies’ room had completely ceased to function, all three members of the staff of Donna’s Ladle had taken a hand in trying to fix it. Some of the guests offered advice, too. Since the Ladle served breakfast and lunch to women five days a week, the bathrooms were important. The ladies’ room had three stalls; often all were occupied at once. The men’s room, commandeered by the Ladle during its open hours, had one stall. It also had a urinal, which was occasionally used—against the advice of staff—for brushing teeth....

    (pp. 68-89)

    Donna’s aunt, who was also Josie’s aunt, was supplying the flowers for the wedding. Whatever kind they wanted, she said, however many they wanted. Boutonnieres for the men and bouquets for the women, and as much greenery as possible—palms, lilacs, citrus trees in tubs—anything to beautify the thoroughly unattractive locale. “MustDonna be married from her soup kitchen?” the aunt husked into the telephone—in her eighth decade, she still had the voice of a femme fatale. “The place is so uncompromisingly a church basement.”

    “You know our Donna,” said Josie. “It’s the basement or nowhere. Your flowers...

    (pp. 90-97)

    On these heavy afternoons the children squabble. Pavel and I let them argue, even slap; but if they bite or scratch we separate them. No trouble; they cower at once.

    At present there are six in our care. This morning, when not at each other’s throats, they managed to turn the dusty courtyard of this old mountainside hacienda into a theater. They shot one another from behind posts. Then they staged a royal pageant. Maria and Jacopo—who in real life are surely sister and brother, probably twins—were married beside the dry fountain. I crouched on the stones, watching....

    (pp. 98-104)

    His father (he told her) epitomized their miserable country.

    What did he mean? (she inquired).

    Whatdidhe mean … They were sitting on damp sand underneath the boardwalk. He scratched his left shoulder blade and then his right against a wooden post. “My father is a hotel waiter,” he began. “Not an ordinary waiter, a headwaiter. At the Hotel Grande.”

    She nodded, her chin on her knees, her arms wrapped around her calves. Her striped skirt looked like a circus tent. How old was she, he wondered—forty-five? New England roughened women early, he’d observed.

    “Your eyes are twinkling,”...

    (pp. 105-119)

    He was the last Jew in a cursed land.

    A ruined country, a country of tricksters. Rich haciendas hid within the folds of mountains. Guns lay under crates of bananas. Even the green parrots practiced deception. They rested in trees, not making a sound; suddenly they rose as one, appearing and departing at the same time, leaving the observer abandoned.

    The only Jew!

    In truth, there was a second Jew: his son, Lex. They faced each other across the kitchen table. Lex seemed to pity the plight of his father: that on the eve of Yom Kippur there was no...

    (pp. 120-130)

    “If they finish up the war I’ll never be a nurse,” complained his oldest daughter.

    “Why not?” asked Richard.

    “There won’t be any more battles,” she said. She frowned at him from the foot of his bed. He remembered that she was reading a child’s biography of Florence Nightingale: she must see herself gliding from tent to tent in the dusty Crimea, bringing comfort to brave British tommies.

    “You could be a peacetime nurse,” he said. “Like the ones who helped me when I was operated on.” In fact he had not found them helpful, those pitying, red-armed women. He...

    (pp. 131-142)

    One Sunday morning at eight o’clock Peter Loy stood on the corner of Congdon Street and Brighton Avenue, waiting for the bus downtown. It was October, and the wind was strong enough to ruffle the curbside litter and to make Peter’s coat flap about his knees, open and closed, open and closed. He wouldn’t have been sorry if the wind had removed the coat altogether, like a disapproving valet. It had been a mistake, this long glen plaid garment with a capelet, suitable for some theatrical undergraduate, not for an ex-schoolteacher of sixty-odd years. He had thought that with his...

    (pp. 143-154)

    Avigdor never worried about his first wife’s faithfulness. Dahlia was pretty in a hot-eyed, half-groomed way; and at parties she’d been openly flirtatious. He remembered her stance, pelvis forward, hand on hip, sleeveless flowered blouse revealing moist dark underarms. He’d shrugged. He knew she preferred him to other men. And he’d had the confidence of his own seductive powers, and of his youth, too, or at least relative youth. He was only fifty when they divorced—a tall man whom women looked at more than once; a French-born Israeli whose slightly accented Hebrew made them listen, made them move closer...

    (pp. 155-164)

    One morning at breakfast Lisa said to Felix, “What would happen to you if the postal service went kaput?”

    “I’d do business as usual” replied Felix. “Mail is as old as the Ptolemies. If the government abolished the post office department, private couriers would take over.”

    “But suppose Congress made letter writing illegal.”

    “I’d drop underground.”

    Lisa said in a rush, “Suppose correspondence went out of fashion? Litigation is never out of fashion. If you were married to me, you’d always have something to eat.”

    Felix recognized this as a proposal despite its conditional mood. He was unsurprised by the...

    (pp. 165-177)

    On the subway Sophie recited the list of stations like a poem. Then she read the names from the bottom up. Saying something backwards made it easy to remember, sealed it in.

    When the family got off at the Harvard Square station she frowned at a platform sign. “Outbound?” she asked her mother.

    Joanna was bending over Lily’s stroller, adjusting the child’s harness. So Ken answered. “Outbound in this case means away from the center of the city,” he said. “There are two sets of tracks, coextensive.” He paused. Coextensive? Sophie had learned to read at three; her vocabulary at...

    (pp. 178-184)

    Maybe, as philosophers hint, we are all figures in another’s dream. But perhaps instead we are the inventions of our associates, who helplessly concoct us as their stories demand.

    One thing I’m pretty sure of: twenty years ago I spent a lot of time on benches.

    At the tot-lot in the local park my young children easily made friends. I slouched against the slats and read, too solitary to join the groups of nannies, au pairs, Orthodox mothers wearing snoods, and in the summer, confident academics.

    Alice turned up one July. Our children were the same ages—five-year-old girls and...