Seven knowing, witty stories from the widely praised author of Transactions in a Foreign Currency.
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
March 31, 2011
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Excerpt from Under the 82nd Airborne by Deborah Eisenberg
Under the 82nd Airborne
A CAUTIONARY TALE
"STOP THAT, STUART," PATTY said as Stuart struggled with the suitcases, which were way too heavy for him, she thought. (Almost everything was way too heavy for Stuart.) "Just put those down. Besides," Patty said, "where will you go? You don't have anyplace to go." But Stuart took her hand and held it for a moment against his closed eyes, and despite the many occasions when Patty had wanted him to go, and the several occasions when she had tried to make him go, despite the fact that he was at his most enragingly pathetic, for once she could think of nothing, nothing at all that he could be trying to shame her into or shame her out of, and so it occurred to her that this time he really would leave--that he was simply saying goodbye. All along, Patty had been unaware that time is as adhesive as love, and that the more time you spend with someone the greater the likelihood of finding yourself with a permanent sort of thing to deal with that people casually refer to as "friendship," as if that were the end of the matter, when the truth is that even if "your friend" does something annoying, or if you and "your friend" decide that you hate each other, or if "your friend" moves away and you lose each other's address, you still have a friendship, and although it canchange shape, look different in different lights, become an embarrassment or an encumbrance or a sorrow, it can't simply cease to have existed, no matter how far into the past it sinks, so attempts to disavow or destroy it will not merely constitute betrayals of friendship but, more practically, are bound to be fruitless, causing damage only to the humans involved rather than to that gummy jungle (friendship) in which those humans have entrapped themselves, so if sometime in the future you're not going to want to have been a particular person's friend, or if you're not going to want to have had the particular friendship you and that person can make with one another, then don't be friends with that person at all, don't talk to that person, don't go anywhere near that person, because as soon as you start to see something from that person's point of view (which, inevitably, will be as soon as you stand next to that person) common ground is sure to slide under your feet.
Poor Patty! It hadn't even been inclination or natural circumstances that led her to Stuart--it was Marcia. And perhaps if it hadn't been for Marcia, Patty and Stuart never would have carried their association further than their first encounter, which took place almost exactly a year before the sweltering night when Stuart packed his things and left.
Patty had been in Manhattan for several weeks, living in the ground-floor apartment that Marcia had sublet to her, but Patty had been too shy to go down the hall, as Marcia had instructed her, and knock on Stuart's door, so she didn't meet Stuart until one evening when, on her way out for an ice-cream cone, she found two men chatting above an immense body stretched out across the hall floor. Bodies! she thought. Chatting! Marcia had not prepared her for this.
"Relax," said one of the men, calling Patty's attention to the thunder that reverberated around them. "She's snoring. It's a vital sign. I'm Stuart, by the way, and this is Mr.Martinez, our superintendent, and that's Mrs. Jorgenson down there. I bet you're Marcia's friend."
"Nice to meet you," Patty said. "Should we call an ambulance?"
"Marty and I used to," Stuart said. "But it just makes her mad."
"She get so mad," Mr. Martinez said. "The mens come, they put Mrs. Jorgenson on hammock, she bounce up like Muhammad Ali."
"Maybe we should try to get her to her apartment," Patty said.
"You can try," Stuart said. "But she lives on Three, and she's even bigger when not all of her is on the floor."
"Is nice girl!" Mr. Martinez announced happily, pointing at Patty.
In fact, Patty had been ready to abandon Mrs. Jorgenson and go about her business, but Mr. Martinez's praise revitalized her concern. "There must be something we could do," she said.
"Not really," Stuart said. "She just does this for a while, and then she goes back upstairs. But she could probably use a blanket." So Patty went back into Marcia's apartment and got her Hudson Bay blanket, which the two men gently tucked around Mrs. Jorgenson.
"Nice young girl come to make home," Mr. Martinez declaimed accusingly to the hallway, "but what she see? Is Mrs. Jorgenson and floor." He turned grieving eyes to Patty and made a tiny gallant bow. "You need something, miss, you come to Marty."
"Well," Stuart said. He moved slightly, buffering Patty against the dismal spectacle of Mrs. Jorgenson. "I was just looking for a girl to make cookies with anyhow."
"So Marcia was right," Stuart said as he set the cookie ingredients out on his counter. "She told me you were nice. 'Caring,' actually, is the word she used, which I have to say is a word that makes me fundamentally throw up. You know, I watched you dragging in all those cartons, and I figured you had to be you. I've been waiting for you to come say hello. I thought maybe you were avoiding me."
Patty was puzzled by Stuart's probing pause. "Of course not," she said.
"Well, here we are, anyway. Yeah, Marcia talked and talked about you. Patty this, Patty that."
"Really?" Patty said. Certainly Marcia could talk and talk, she thought, but it wasn't usually by way of praise for her female friends. "Marcia and I used to be in the same dormitory. She was a few years ahead of me."
"I know," Stuart said. "You'd be surprised the things I know about Marcia. We're very tight. In fact, there was serious consideration put into my going out to Austin with her while she set up her practice."
"Oh?" Patty said. She wasn't sure why she'd expected Stuart to be glamorous, although, now that she thought about it, Marcia's descriptions of him had been studded with words like "artistic" and "unpredictable." Well, he might be artistic and unpredictable, but he didn't seem glamorous enough even for Marcia, whose tolerance had been widely remarked upon at school. But perhaps Marcia and Stuart's relationship had professional roots. "Are you involved in therapy, too?" Patty asked.
"Therapy," Stuart said. "All right. Let's get it over with. Let's just concede that therapy's the most revolting expression of the hydra-headed pragmatism of our times." Patty picked uneasily at the chocolate chips while Stuart pressed forward with the tedious sifting. "Of course, Marcia always thinkswhat she wants," he said, "but, between you and me, that's actually why I let her go out West alone. Total misappropriation and subversion of the insights of a few geniuses."
"But therapy can be very helpful to people," Patty protested.
"Yeah, to would-be thieves and assassins crippled by restrictive superegos," Stuart said.
"Well, I don't really know much about it." Patty felt she'd become lost on some twisting private path. "I studied graphic design."
"Uh-huh," Stuart said unreceptively.
"Actually, that's why I've come to New York," Patty said. But Stuart maintained a bristly silence as he spooned dough onto tins, so Patty glanced around for clues. "Are you ..." She noticed stacks of paper and a typewriter. "Are you a writer?"
"In the sense that I sometimes write things," Stuart said. "Here. Or are you too mature to lick the bowl?"
"Well, what--Thanks," Patty said, accepting the bowl. "What sorts of things do you write?"
"A little of this, a little of that. Look, I really don't want to get into this thing of 'I do this' or 'I write that.' If you develop a stake in some rickety prefab construction of yourself, you have to keep shoring it up."
"But that's an unproductive way to think, isn't it?" Patty said. "I mean, people have different things to contribute. Everybody's part of a system."
"I agree," Stuart said. "And I'm the worthless part. I'll tell you something. I think that every really good system has a significant worthless sector. The rotting leftovers on which the healing penicillin mold grows. That's me. Except that now greed is shrinking the world--you know what I mean? Desire for personal gain is collapsing the entire range ofhuman activity into, essentially, resale value. So at this moment in history there's no room for people like me, who don't contribute anything that's recognizably salable."
Patty hesitated. Was she being criticized? "But graphic design is something I enjoy," she said. "And I might be able to succeed at it."
"Ha!" Stuart said. "Maybe what you consider failure I consider the milieu of freedom."
"Look--" He was smug, Patty thought. "I understand that you think there's something wrong with my career choice, but I don't understand why."
"That's cute." Stuart leaned back and squinted at her. "That's sweet. You're earnest, you know that? You look like a Girl Scout, with your little face, and your little sneakers and stuff. But the problem is, you're going for the wrong merit badge. Yeah, Marcia warned me I was gonna have to take you in hand. And the first thing is, it's that word is what I'm saying; that word 'career'--it's a meaning substitute used to camouflage a trench. I mean, that's exactly what I'm saying: the more you identify yourself with a set of economic expediencies, the greater your interest in rationalizing indefensible practices. And that's why people whose jobs yield a large income or a lot of prestige are usually incapable of thinking through the simplest thing. In fact, in my opinion, abstract ability decreases in direct proportion to prestige and income."
"Stuart"--Patty was held in check by the tranquilizing aroma seeping from the oven--"that is absurd. That is absolutely ridiculous. Take me, for example. I don't have any job at all, but I don't think more clearly than anybody else."
"True," Stuart said. "But that's because you want a job. You've been corrupted by desire."
"Desire has absolutely nothing to do with me and jobs at this point." Exasperation empowered Patty to bound with unaccustomed agility across clumps of thorny concepts. "Atthis point, the relationship between 'me' and 'job' is 'need.' I need a job!"
"See?" Stuart nodded triumphantly, as if apprehending some brilliantly crafted but specious argument. "You've already found a way to construe this degraded appetite of yours as need."
"Then how do you suggest I pay the rent, please? I've been scraping and scrimping since December so I'd be able to get here and have some time to find a job--"
"Since December?" Stuart said.
"That's right." Patty was far too annoyed to remark Stuart's sudden attentiveness. "No movies, no dinners out, no--"
"You and Marcia planned this out in December?"
"What's the matter?" Patty said. "Is something the matter?"
"Listen," Stuart said. "I apologize. I don't know why I'm such an asshole. It just sort of comes over me from time to time." He looked around restlessly and tapped his foot. "Just standard-issue archaic bohemian bullshit."
"Wait--" Patty was stricken. "You have a right to your opinion."
"By the way," Stuart said. "Just what, exactly, is Marcia charging you for her miserable sty?"
"Well, I know it's a lot more than she pays for it herself," Patty admitted, "but it's still way under the open-market rate, because it's rent-stabilized. So even if she makes a big profit from me, it's still much cheaper than anything else I'd be able to get. It's the only way I could afford to come to New York and the only way Marcia could afford to leave." ("One hand washes the other," Marcia had remarked cheerfully when she explained this to Patty.)
"Yeah," Stuart said. "Marcia. I should have guessed. It was Marcia who actually drafted the Hammurabi Code of Friendship, did you know that?"
Considering that he'd almost gone to Austin with Marcia,he was being kind of nasty about her, Patty thought. But she had to remember how quickly it had become understood in the dorm that when Marcia appeared at the door of one's room gripping a six-pack or offering the loan of her car, she had probably just slept with one's boyfriend.
"And you know what she's going to do next," Stuart continued ominously. "The instant this building goes co-op, she'll reclaim her apartment, buy it at the insider's price, and sell the tiny squalid treasure for a king's ransom."
Why was he talking about Marcia's apartment like that, Patty wondered. It was no more tiny, no more squalid than his own! (And it was true that while Marcia's apartment was now bare except for Patty's few things and Stuart's was cozy with layers of an accreted past, and Marcia's faced the airshaft and Stuart's faced the garbage cans that lined the street, the two were virtually identical.) Besides, it was Stuart's problem if he was living like that at his age, Patty thought--he must be at least thirty-five. If Marcia could do better for herself, why should he hold it against her? "Well, it seems fair enough to me," Patty said.
"Oh, Jesus," Stuart said. "I suppose. No wonder I drive everyone nuts. No wonder everyone can't wait to get rid of me."
"Stuart--" Patty said. "Hey, you should try one of these cookies! And some of what you were saying is very interesting."
"Let's just drop it," Stuart said. "I'm an asshole."
"Oh, look"--Patty cast about--"you've got Sprouse's Tented Desert!" What luck to have recognized the title among all those books; as she remembered, her English Lit teacher had said it was fabulous. "Could I borrow it?"
"Sure," Stuart said listlessly. "Whatever you want."
"People say it's fabulous," Patty said.
"People who admire it," Stuart said.
Patty looked at him warily. "You don't think Sprouse is a good poet?"
"He's an 0. K. poet." Stuart picked a crumb from the table and glanced around for someplace to deposit it. "A small poet."
But gradually Stuart's gloom cleared, and Patty found that she was grateful for his company: she'd been lonely. When she went back down the hall, there was no sign on the floor of Mrs. Jorgenson or her blanket, but as she passed the spot where they'd lain a psychic net seemed to be cast over Patty, and later, trying to sleep, she flopped about, struggling, unable to disengage her mind from the phantom form of supine Mrs. Jorgenson. How tender Mrs. Jorgenson's puffy ankle had looked, where it was exposed by her rolled-down stocking. From the shadowy crevasse there, demons now leapt to haunt Patty.
Patty had assumed, until this night, that she'd been drawn to New York by a lodestone buried at the core of her unexplored life. And images had seemed to shimmer out from the direction of its pull--images, for instance, of gleaming white drafting tables accoutred with complex systems of shallow drawers; a wineglass, held in a powerful, manicured (ringless) hand, which cast a bouncing patch of brightness on table linen; the balcony of a brownstone where a marvelous man lounged while he waited in the surging twilight for the woman inside to finish dressing.
But now, as Patty lay in bed, what she saw was herself--herself as Mrs. Jorgenson, distended and bleary from poverty's starchy diet; herself weeping into her gin at a darkened bar while some grimy bore expatiated incoherently into her ear; herself standing over the stove while she ate, straight from the pan, her scrambled eggs. Oh, were they scrambledeggs? Dear Lord, she prayed, let that stuff be scrambled eggs. And all around Patty's little bed circled the terror that perhaps those former shimmering lures had not been signs of some central imperative but were instead the snares of a mocking siren; that perhaps she was soon to be dashed, like Mrs. Jorgenson, against the rocks (so to speak) of the hall floor.
The weeks that followed were truly disheartening. By August, Patty had exhausted the heady sensation of exerting mastery over a new apartment, the temperature fluctuated between ninety-eight and a hundred and two degrees, and she had sat through numbers of futile interviews and sent out numbers of futile r�sum�s. The city, in fact, appeared to be quite overstocked with women, each more ornamental and accomplished than any nineteenth-century young lady, huge quantities of whom, Patty noticed with growing terror, were waitresses.
It would be a temporary necessity, she reasoned; she would have to support her job hunt by waiting on tables. And soon her days were occupied with getting rejected for two entire lines of work, one of which she had recently despised. So in the evenings she was glad when either Stuart or Mr. Martinez would open his door to her, expanding the city that seemed to have no room for her by day.
Often Stuart was eager to share his views and his casseroles of vegetarian oddments with Patty. On other occasions, Mr. Martinez would hear her footsteps in the hall and invite her in. He would alternately extol and revile the United States while he and Patty sat together at his kitchen table eating slabs of a gelatinous confection with a plantlike undertaste and drinking a clear, stinging beverage that implied unregulated domestic production. Patty suspected it was this beverage, rather than his heavy accent, uneven grasp of English,or discursive approach to conversation, that made Mr. Martinez so difficult to understand, but after she'd had several glasses herself she could easily follow his tortuous Delphic outbursts. And she would watch, rapt, when he became agitated, either with despair or with gaiety, and swelled slightly, turning a deep translucent red, like a plastic bag filling with wine.
One evening Mr. Martinez, unsteady in his doorway, beckoned to Patty. "Miss, miss," he whispered. His apartment was dark except for the flickering of a few candles, and it was saturated with the fragrance of his arcane beverage. "Come, missy," Mr. Martinez said, drawing Patty over to a photograph that was propped up on a shelf between two candles.
She glanced at Mr. Martinez, but he only stared at the picture, breathing heavily and holding her hand in both of his. She peered back through the darkness and scaled herself down to enter the picture. Oh--there was a field, a great golden sweep of field distantly edged by tiny pointed mountains, and there were people sitting at a table in the foreground: an elderly couple, a young woman, and four or five children. They all had broad, appealing faces, like Mr. Martinez's, and black hair that gleamed in the sunlight. Sunlight poured down. The people smiled into the sunlight--dazzled, yielding smiles. Sunlight poured down on them and out from the picture into the dark room where Patty's hand, in Mr. Martinez's, was beginning to register discomfort.
"Mr. Martinez," she said, but he was transfixed, and tears ran down his face in rivulets. "What is it, Mr. Martinez? What is that picture?"
"But this is--" His eyebrows flew up, his arms dropped to his sides in helpless incredulity. "You do not know this? This is ... Colombia." He sat down at the kitchen table,and, laying his head upon his folded arms, he sobbed. "This is my wife ..."
The next day Patty filled out yet another job application and waited in a line of girls that snaked up several flights of stairs. Clearly her chances were poor. But she didn't really care--she was back in the dark room where she'd stood the night before next to Mr. Martinez. She had remained with him for a time, patting him on the head, but the rhythm of his sobs did not alter, and eventually she tiptoed out, closing the door behind her.
After reaching the front of the line she entered a room, where a man sitting at a wide desk took her application and put it aside without glancing at it. "What do you want," he said, looking all the way up, then all the way back down, her, "days or nights?"
"Nights," she said.
"I don't have nights," he said.
"Days," she said.
He looked up, then down, her again. "I don't have days," he said, and turned away.
Maybe she'd had enough. The thing to do was to sit down, get a bite to eat, and think rationally about her next step. It had come as a jolt that life was something to be waged, rather than relied on. And yet, Patty reminded herself, everyone on earth must have the wherewithal for it. Even Mrs. Jorgenson had the presence of mind to exist; Mrs. Jorgenson, in fact, had so developed the knack of being herself that she could fall down on the floor and lie there snoring. Whereas if she, Patty, were to fall down on the floor, Patty thought resentfully, she would only have to pick herself up again, feeling foolish.
Just who were all these people in this city? And how did they survive? The stakes were so high, the margin of comfort so slim, and yet Patty was surrounded by people who had managed to find a place for themselves here. Look at Mr.Martinez. How incredible that he was in New York, Patty thought as she entered a restaurant that had just opened up near her apartment. Something was working in the depths of her brain, churning up disturbances that broke as they surfaced, like muddy bubbles rising from a swamp. Yes, how incredible that all of them were here: herself, Mrs. Jorgenson, Stuart, the girls waiting in the line today, Mr. Martinez, the bulky, bearded, pear-shaped man with tiny feet who stood near the jukebox now, in the otherwise unpopulated restaurant, staring at her. Here they all were, an entire--well ... confraternity, sort of, of strangers, all brought together here by ... by what? What was it they had in common? Was it something fundamental--something too profound to be grasped? Or was it something ... extrinsic, manifest in, for example, er--she studied the bulky man, who was ambling toward her--frayed belt loops?
"Want something to eat?" the man asked. "Or did you just drop by to admire me?"
"Oops," Patty said, shifting her gaze to the menu he offered. "I'd like--" Right. Who cared why they were there? They were there because ... because they were there. "O.K. A beer and a medium-rare Jarlsburger."
"I haven't got my liquor license yet," the man said. "And the meat hasn't been delivered today."
"Uh-huh," she said. "Well, how about orange juice and scrambled eggs with bacon?"
"Meat," the man said, poking his large haunch. "Have an omelette. You'll like the Chive 'n' Ch�vre." He wandered off through a swinging door, from behind which awful metallic crashings began to issue, and returned to Patty's table at a rather faster rate. "He says I've wrecked his pans," the man announced cryptically just as a shockingly tall and starved-looking man burst through the swinging door.
"And what else, Arnold," the tall man raged, "is where'smy check, huh? Where's my check? You promised! Can I have it? Are you going to give it to me? No? O.K. That's it." He paused on his way out to kick the jukebox.
Arnold watched the door close before sitting down at Patty's table. "Always in a hurry," he said. "I would have had it for him tomorrow." He regarded Patty, chin in hands. "Can you cook?"
"No," Patty said. "But I'm not really hungry."