Authors: Peter Ferry
Peter Ferry is a teacher, writer and editor. He has
written textbooks for
pieces for the
. His short stories have appeared in
New Review of
. He has won the
Illinois Arts Council Award for Short Fiction. He
lives in Evanstown, Illinois.
This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.
Published by Vintage 2009
2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1
Copyright © 2008 by Peter Ferry
Peter Ferry has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and
Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work
Chapters one and two appeared in a slightly altered form in
#17 (2005); "The Doctor", which is chapter two of book
2, appeared in slightly altered form in the October 2004 issue of
Review of Literature
; chapter eight of book 2 about Quetico appeared
in slightly altered form in the
on 23 June 1985.
While some characters in
None of This Ever Really Happened
real people, the book is a work of fiction. The characters' words,
actions and motivations are fictitious.
This electronic book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
First published in Great Britain in 2008 by Chatto & Windus
Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road,
London, SW1V 2SA
Addresses for companies within The Random House Group Limited
can be found at:
The Random House Group Limited Reg. No. 954009
A CIP catalogue record for this book
is available from the British Library
For Lisa Kim,
Charlie Duke, and
Carolyn O'Connor Ferry
The men on the river were fishing. (Untrue; but
then, so is most information.)
—E. M. Forster,
A Room with a View
OMETIMES I TRY
to show my students the power of
the story by telling them one. I say, "Last night I was
driving home from work and—now, I'm just making
this up off the top of my head—I noticed in my rearview
mirror that there was a car swerving in and out of my lane.
Anyway, I was on that stretch of Sheridan Road just south of
Kenilworth that's two lanes each way and no divider and no
shoulder and no margin for error, in other words, so I slowed
down to let the car pass, or would have slowed down to let it
pass me if this had really happened, which it didn't, and as it
went by I had a look—a quick look—at the driver and I saw
three things. First, that it was a woman and that she was very
exotic and quite beautiful. Second, I noticed—or would have
noticed if I weren't making this up—that there was something
wrong with her; her head was bobbing as if she were
drunk or sick or fighting sleep. Now, the third thing I noticed
was that her shoulders were bare, and I had the strange sensation
that more was bare—that her breasts were exposed or
perhaps she was completely nude. Now, remember I'm just
making this up. Anyway, I followed her for some time watching
her weave and bounce off the curb, wondering what I
should do, wishing I had a cell phone, although unsure who
I would or should call, when we came to a red light and I
found myself drawing up beside her."
By this point, a girl whose hair is green today and who
has been passing notes is listening to me, and a dog-faced boy
who has surreptitiously been doing his Spanish homework
has stopped and a kid whose head was down on his arm—
call him Nick—has sat up. When I have eye contact with each
member of the class, I stop. I say, "But of course none of this
ever really happened, and I've told you that four times, and
you know it didn't happen. But look at you. You're interested,
you want to know the rest, you want to know if she was naked
and what was wrong with her and what I did or didn't
do and all the rest, even though I'm making it all up right in
front of you, and that is why stories are so powerful."
So, I'm a teacher, a high school teacher. In our society that
gives me very little authority. About the highest compliment
most people can pay a teacher is to ask why he or she became
a teacher. That's supposed to be flattering, as in "You
could have really done something important with your life."
To boost my stock, I guess, I also do some writing, especially
travel pieces for newspapers, magazines, and travel guides.
I teach English at the public high school in the wealthy
Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, which in an odd way gives
me even less authority than if I taught in a blue-collar neighborhood
or a farm town where I would at least have more
education than the parents of most of my students. In Lake
Forest teachers are sometimes treated like the lawn service.
"Honey, see if you have time to call the caterers about Saturday,
and let's get someone out here to fix that toilet and
someone to teach Charlie the difference between active and
passive voice." Mind plumbers. But that's okay. It's a lovely
place to teach, and we're paid a living wage. Besides, I like
working with people who bring their own lunches and drive
little cars. Most teachers are pretty good people.
Before teaching I worked for a publishing house. I sat in
a windowless cubicle writing textbooks for which someone
else made a lot of money; it isn't glamorous, but you can get
rich if you can get every eighth grader in the state of Texas
to read or at least buy your thirty-dollar book. And somehow
people think that it
glamorous. I would go to parties
and say I was an editor, and people, especially women—and
that was important to me then—would say, "Oh, really?" and
raise their eyebrows and look at me a little more carefully. I
remember the first party I went to after I became a teacher,
someone asked me what I did for a living, and I said, "Well, I
teach high school." He looked over my shoulder, nodded his
head, said, "I went to high school," and walked away.
Once I repeated that anecdote around a big table full of
Mexican food in the garden at a place called La Choza in
Chicago, and Becky Mueller, another teacher at the school,
said that I was a "storyteller." I liked that. I was looking for
something to be other than "just" a teacher, and "storyteller"
felt about right. I am a teacher and a storyteller in that order.
I have made my living and my real contribution to my community
as a teacher, and I have been very lucky to have found
that calling, but all through the years I have entertained myself
and occasionally other people by telling stories.
But it really did happen, of course, the girl in the car, or could
have or might as well have happened. It happened just as
surely as Ernest Hemingway went down to Pamplona with
a bunch of people one of whom was not Lady Brett Ashley,
but was Lady Duff Twysden, and she really did sleep with
everyone under the sun so that years later when she died of
tuberculosis at the age of forty-five in Taxco, Mexico, all of
her pallbearers were former lovers, and they really did drop
her casket coming down the steps of the cathedral, and those
people all drank way too much and slept with each other or
tried to and couldn't, so that one morning drinking coffee
in the Café Iruña or six months later in Paris, Hemingway
said "what if " and "suppose . . ." It happened just as surely
as Stephen Crane was shipwrecked off the coast of Florida
in 1896 and spent four days in a lifeboat and then wrote one
of the best American short stories ever about it. But it hadn't
happened the night before, and, of course, the woman wasn't
naked; I just put that in for purposes of teenage titillation.
No, it was some time ago now on a Friday evening in December
a week or two before winter break. I had stayed around
to clear my desk, so it was after six when I was driving home
for the weekend, tired and happy. And she really
crazily and bouncing off curbs. I did get behind her, and
as she went by I had just a glimpse of her and saw that she
thing about falling in love with women I see through glass.
Once I had a fantasy that lasted some months about a drive-in
bank teller with a sexy voice. I finally had to see who she
was, so I went into the bank. From a distance I spotted her at
the drive-in window with her back to me, and I was thrilled,
but when she turned around I saw that she was horse faced
and middle-aged. I went back to my car disappointed and
wondering what I had fallen in love with and if I was still
in love with it. So, anyway, I followed Lisa Kim, for that was
her name, down Sheridan Road on this dark winter evening,
which wasn't very hard because her right rear taillight cover
was broken and the light shown white. I followed her, becoming
increasingly fascinated and concerned at the same
time. How had she gotten so drunk so early? Had she been to
an office party? And what could I possibly do about this situation?
I looked for a cop, or rather hoped one would see her
because by the time I'd have told the story, she'd have been
gone, lost in the traffic. Could I signal to her? Should I pull
up beside her and have another look? But there was no doubt
she was in trouble, and besides, she might swerve into my
lane and drive me into oncoming traffic. And why was I so
concerned? Would I have been if she had been a woman on a
cell phone in an SUV? A black guy with his cap on sideways?
An old man? Then there was the stoplight when I did pull
up beside her, the one at Sheridan Road and Lake Street, the
one just before the S curve that skirts the Baha'i temple. And
there she was, head bobbing, car hazy with smoke, music so
loud I could hear the words although both our windows were
up. It was then that I could have done something. Over beers
a few days later, a friend who is an attorney would say, "You'd
have been in big trouble legally."
"But what about morally?"
"I don't know about that, but legally you'd have been in
Moot point. I didn't do anything. Before I could decide
what to do or if to do and just after she had looked at me and
we had for one tiny, shadowy instant made eye contact and I
had seen on her face a look that may have said "watch this"
but may have said "do something," the light changed and she
pulled away. Fast. She fishtailed and drove right through the
S curve, missed it completely, hit the curb with her front tires
hard, which launched her into the air, and hit a cast-iron
lamppost about four feet off the ground, breaking the damn
thing in half. I got there about the same time as a man in a
camel-hair coat and a younger woman who might have been
his wife. They had been coming north. We looked through
the driver's window. Lisa Kim was lying facedown across the
passenger seat and onto the floor. There was some blood, but
not too much. I felt the door handle, pulled it carefully, tentatively,
pulled the door open (it creaked but came), reached
across, and turned off the engine, although my hand was
shaking so badly that I could barely do it. Already there were
The young policeman said I shouldn't worry about it, that
I couldn't have prevented it.
"But what if I'd blocked her at the light, taken her keys?"
"Then I'd probably be here arresting you."
"But she was driving drunk. I mean, look what happened."
"That's a little hard to accept." But I accepted it, at least
in part, and began to feel a little better. And we all felt better
when someone (the man in the camel-hair coat?) said he
thought he saw her move on the gurney, and someone else
(the younger woman who might have been his wife?) was
sure she groaned.
"She'll be all right."
"Kids are tough. Kids are resilient."
That's the great thing about being American; we're so relentlessly
cheerful and optimistic. Our glass is always half full.
Daisy's green light is always out there giving us hope. I just
don't believe that a group of Europeans would have reached
the same conclusion that we did before we got back in our
cars and went on about our lives.
I read somewhere that 60 percent of Americans still believe
in Heaven and Hell. Of that 60 percent, 97 percent think
that they personally will go to Heaven. Only 3 percent of that
60 percent or 1.8 percent of all Americans think they are going
to Hell. Wouldn't that distress Cotton Mather? Wouldn't
it make Norman Vincent Peale proud? I mean, talk about
corn fed, Rocky Balboa, Little-Engine-That-Could positive
thinking. Even the most basic understanding of human nature
and the law of averages would suggest a miscalculation.
Lisa Kim was dead. Dead on Arrival. DOA.
I once heard Kurt Vonnegut say a writer has to believe that
what he's writing right now is the most important thing anyone
has ever written. That was hard for me in the beginning
because my Presbyterian minister father taught me to be
modest, humble, and circumspect. At potluck suppers in the
church basement, we always waited to be the very last in line.
I never learned how to be important.
Then along came David Lehman. In high school an English
teacher told David that he was a poet, and he believed
her. The day I met him he stuck his head out of his dorm-room
door as I was entering mine for the first time, suitcases
in hand (we were both students in a summer program at
St. Hilda's College, Oxford) and asked me, "You don't have
a copy of the
with you do you?"
I've got a poem in there. Hi. I'm
David Lehman. I'm a poet." I did not see a poet. I saw a gawky,
pimply eighteen-year-old kid with a New York accent and a
Yogi Bear lilt in his voice.
"Pleased to meet you," I said. "Pete Ferry, Undersecretary
of the Interior." David didn't seem to hear me. He shook my
hand. Oh, we had a good time with David for a couple of
weeks. We (three of us had come together from Ohio and
had never even been to New York much less London) had
chips on our shoulders, probably a bit of residual Midwestern
adolescent anti-Semitism, and an absolute phobia about
being ugly Americans. And now one of us was David, our
worst fear, the ugliest American of all, a New York Jew. So we
mocked him, imitated him, asked him stupid questions ("Do
poets wear boxers or whitey-tighties?"), and it all missed
him. ("I don't think it really matters. I wear briefs. Kenneth
Koch wears boxers. This I happen to know because I once
came home to my apartment to find him playing the violin
She was quite beautiful.") For a couple of weeks we huddled
together talking about all the stupid things David did and
said, and then he did something stupider. He challenged
John Fuller to a poetry reading. We were just mortified.
Fuller was one of our dons. He was young, handsome,
witty, wry, bored, very British. He was also a rising star among
British poets and the son of Roy Fuller, who was the sitting
poet laureate of Oxford University. Fuller accepted, and on
a Wednesday evening after sherry and shepherd's pie, we sat
back gleefully to watch David's vivisection.
John Fuller began the evening with some nakedly deprecating
remarks about his young challenger from across the
sea. He was at least annoyed, perhaps insulted. We choked
on our laughter, bit our thumbs, but David beamed at us
oblivious, certain that we were all on his side or certain of
something, at least. Then they began to read. They took
turns standing at the podium. We were quieted. David
wasn't that bad. David was pretty good. We looked sideways
at each other and raised our eyebrows. After half an hour,
David said that he would now read some of the New York
poets who had influenced him: Koch, Frank O'Hara, David
"No, no," said Fuller with a wave of his hand. "Read your
own stuff." They read on. David was damn good. After an
hour, Fuller took the podium and looked back at David. "Got
a long piece?"