American Innovations: Stories

BOOK: American Innovations: Stories
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For Georgie and Yosefa



Title Page

Copyright Notice


The Lost Order

The Region of Unlikeness

Sticker Shock

American Innovations

Wild Berry Blue

The Entire Northern Side Was Covered with Fire

Real Estate

Dean of the Arts

The Late Novels of Gene Hackman

Once an Empire


Also by Rivka Galchen

A Note About the Author






I was at home, not making spaghetti. I was trying to eat a little less often, it’s true. A yogurt in the morning, a yogurt at lunchtime, ginger candies in between, and a normal dinner. I don’t think of myself as someone with a “weight issue,” but I had somehow put on a number of pounds just four months into my unemployment, and when I realized that this had happened—I never weigh myself; my brother just said to me, on a visit, “I don’t recognize your legs”—I wasn’t happy about it. Although maybe I was happy about it. Because at least I had something that I knew it wouldn’t be a mistake to really dedicate myself to. I could be like those people who by trying to quit smoking or drinking manage to fit an accomplishment, or at least an attempt at an accomplishment, into every day. Just by aiming to not do something. This particular morning, there was no yogurt left for my breakfast. I could go get some? I could treat myself to maple. Although the maple yogurt was always full cream. But maybe full cream was fine, because it was just a tiny—

My phone is ringing.

The caller ID reads “Unavailable.”

I tend not to answer calls identified as Unavailable. But sometimes Unavailable shows up because someone is calling from, say, the hospital.

“One garlic chicken,” a man’s voice is saying. “One side of salad, with the ginger-miso dressing. Also one white rice. White, not brown. This isn’t for pickup,” he says. “It’s for delivery.”

He probably has the wrong number, I figure. I mean, of course he has the wrong—

“Not the lemon chicken,” he is going on. “I don’t want the lemon. What I want—”

“OK. I get it—”

“Last time you delivered the wrong thing—”

“Lemon chicken—”

“Garlic chicken—”


“I know you,” he says.


“Don’t just say ‘OK’ and then bring me the wrong order. OK, OK, OK. Don’t just say ‘OK.’” He starts dictating his address. I have no pencil in hand.

“OK,” I say. “I mean, all right.” I’ve lost track of whether it was the lemon chicken or the garlic he wanted. Wanting and not wanting. Which tap is hot and which is cold. I still have trouble with left and right.

“How long?” he asks.

“Thirty minutes?”

He hangs up.

Ack. Why couldn’t I admit that I wasn’t going to be bringing him any chicken at all? Now I’m wronging a hungry man. One tries not to do too many wrong things in life. But I can’t call him back: he’s Unavailable!

Just forget it.

*   *   *

Forgetting is work, though. I returned to not making spaghetti, a task to which I had added not setting out to buy yogurt. Then it struck me that getting dressed would be a good idea. It was 10:40 a.m. Early for chicken. Yes, I should and would get dressed. Unfortunately, on the issue of getting dressed I consistently find myself wishing that I were a man. I don’t mean that in an ineluctable gender disturbance way, it’s not that; it’s that I think I would have an easier time choosing an outfit. Though having a body is problematic no matter what. Even for our dog. One summer we thought we would do her a favor by shaving her fur, but then afterward she hung her head and was inconsolable. Poor girl. The key is to not have time to think about your body, and dogs—most dogs anyhow—have a lot of free time. So do I, I guess. Although, I don’t
like I have a lot of time; I feel constantly pressed for time; even though when I had a job, I felt like I had plenty of time. But even then getting dressed was difficult. For a while it was my conviction that pairing tuxedo-like pants with any of several inexpensive white T-shirts would solve the getting-dressed problem for me for at least a decade, maybe for the rest of my life. I bought the tuxedo-like pants! Two pairs. And some men’s undershirts. But it turned out that I looked even more sloppy than usual. And by sloppy I mostly just mean female, with curves, which can be OK, even great, in many circumstances, sure, but a tidy look for a female body, feminine or not feminine, is elusive and unstable. Dressing as a woman is like working with color instead of with black and white. Or like drawing a circle freehand. They say that Giotto got his job painting St. Peter’s based solely on the pope’s being shown a red circle he’d painted with a single brushstroke. That’s how difficult circles are. In the seven hundred years since Giotto, probably still—

I found myself back in the kitchen, still not making spaghetti, and wearing a T-shirt. Not the one I had woken up in, but still a T-shirt that would be best described as pajamas and that I wasn’t feeling too good or masculine or flat-chested in, either. Giotto? It was 11:22 a.m. Making lemon chicken for that man would have been a better way to spend my time, I thought. Or garlic chicken. Whichever. I felt as if there were some important responsibility that I was neglecting so wholly that I couldn’t even admit to myself that it was there. Was I really taking that man’s delivery order so seriously?

At least I wasn’t eating.

I decided to not surf the Internet.

Then to not watch a television show.

Hugging my favorite throw pillow, I lay down on the sofa, and thought, Just count backward from one hundred. This is something I do that calms me down. What’s weird is that I don’t recall ever having made it to the number one. Sometimes I fall asleep before I reach one—that’s not so mysterious—but more often I just get lost. I take some sort of turn away from counting, without realizing it, and only then, far away even from whatever the turn was, do I realize I am elsewhere.

The throw pillow has matryoshka dolls on it. I started counting down. Ninety-six, ninety-five, ninety-four …

The phone is ringing.

It’s Unavailable.

I hate my phone. I hate all phones.

Why should I have to deal with this hungry man’s problems, these problems that stem from a past to which I don’t belong? Not my fucking jurisdiction.

Although admittedly, the fact that our paths are now entangled—that part kind of is my fault.

“OK?” I say, into the phone.

“I think I know where it is,” a familiar male voice says.

“It’s not even on its way yet,” I confess. “I’m sorry.”

“What’s not on its way? Are you asleep?”

I locate the voice more precisely. The voice belongs to my husband.

“Sorry, sorry. I’m here now.”

“I’m saying I think I know where it is. I think I lost it when I was in the courtyard with Monkey, tossing tennis balls for her.” Our dog’s name is Monkey. One of the reasons I was lonelier than usual was that Monkey was on a kind of dog holiday in the country, with my in-laws. “My hands were really cold. I had bought an icy water bottle.”

“OK,” I say.

“You know how it is, when your hand gets cold; your fingers shrink. So maybe that’s when the ring fell off. I’m almost sure of it. It’s supposed to rain later today, and I’m worried the rain will just wash the ring right into a gutter. I’m sorry to put this on you, but would you mind taking a look around for it?”

He is talking about: a couple of weeks earlier I had very briefly gone away, to my uncle’s funeral, and when I returned, my husband was no longer wearing his wedding ring. It’s such an unimportant thing that to be honest, I didn’t even notice he was no longer wearing it. And he hadn’t noticed, either. We’re not symbol people. We didn’t realize that his ring was gone until we were at dinner with a friend visiting from Chicago and she asked to see both of our rings. Then my husband was a little weird about it. I guess he had simultaneously known and not known. Meaning he had known. A part of him had. And had worried enough about it to pretend that it hadn’t happened. Poor guy.

“I’m not going to go look for it,” I find myself saying into the phone. It’s not really a decision, it’s more like a discovery. I’m not going to be a woman hopelessly searching for a wedding ring in a public courtyard. Even if the situation does not in fact carry the metaphorical weight it misleadingly seems to carry. Still no. I had recently seen a photograph of Susan Sontag wearing a bear costume but with a serious expression on her face; you could see that she felt uneasy.

“Just go and even try
looking for it,” my husband is saying. “Just give the courtyard a little visit. Please.”

“There’s no way it’s still—”

“You really can’t do this one little thing?”

“This is my fault?”

“I’m on hour twenty-nine of my shift here.”

“I’m not doing nothing,” I say. I find I’ve neither raised nor lowered my voice, though I feel like I have done both. “You think I’m not capable, but that’s not right. You just don’t understand my position. You see me all wrong. It’s not fair, it’s not right—”

“I’m so sorry, my love,” he is saying. His voice has hairpin-turned to tender. Which is alarming. “I’m on your side,” he says. “I really do love you so much. You know that, right? You know I love you so much.”

We hadn’t always conversed in a way that sounded like advanced ESL students trying to share emotions, but recently that was happening to us; I think we were just trying to keep a steady course through an inevitable and insignificant strait in our relationship.

“I’m sorry, Boo,” I say. “I’m the one who should apologize.” I am suddenly missing him very badly, as if I have been woken from one of those dreams where the dead are still with us. Being awake feels awful. I language along, and then at some point in my ramblings he says to me, “I have to go now,” and then he is gone.

*   *   *

The daytime hours in this neighborhood belong almost exclusively to deliverymen and nannies. The deliverymen are all men. And the nannies are all women. And the women are all dark-skinned. I had not given much thought to my neighborhood’s socioeconomic or gender clustering before I became a daylight ghost. I mean, sure, I knew about it vaguely, but there it was—under cover of day, one saw, or at least it seemed as if one saw, that decades of feminism and civil rights advances had never happened. This was appalling. Yet there was not no comfort for me in the idea that men had strong calves, and carried things, and that it was each toddler’s destiny to fall in love with another woman. Was it my fault that these feelings lived inside me? Maybe.

I had not always—had not even long—been a daylight ghost, a layabout, a
mal pensant
, a vacancy, a housewife, a person foiled by the challenge of getting dressed and someone who considered eating less a valid primary goal. I had been a fairly busy environmental lawyer, an accidental expert of sorts in toxic mold litigation—litigation concerning alleged damage to property and persons by reason of exposure to toxic mold. I handled the first toxic mold case that came into the firm, so when the second case turned up, shortly thereafter, I was the go-to girl. A Texas jury had made an award of thirty-two million dollars in a case in 2001, and that had set a lot of hearts to dreaming. But the Texas case was really an insurance case, and so not a precedent for toxic mold cases. Most people don’t understand that. An insurance company had failed to pay promptly for repairs to leaking pipes in a twenty-two-room mansion that subsequently became moldy; all claims relating to personal injuries from toxic mold were dismissed, and an award was made only for property damage, punitive damages, mental anguish, and to cover plaintiff’s legal fees of nearly nine million dollars. But since the case was on the evening news, it was, predictably, radically misrepresented. Hence, toxic mold–litigation fever. It has been established that mold, like dust, is environmentally pervasive; some of us are allergic to some molds, just as some of us are allergic to dust, though whether any mold can damage our health in a lasting or severe way is unlikely, and certainly not scientifically proven. Also clear is that basic maintenance is an essential duty of a property owner. But beyond that … I handled quite a large number of mold cases. I filled out the quiet fields of forms. I dispatched environmental testers. The job was more satisfying than it sounds, I can tell you. To have any variety of expertise, and to deploy it, can feel like a happy dream.

BOOK: American Innovations: Stories
12.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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