In Like Life's eight exquisite stories, Lorrie Moore's characters stumble through their daily existence. These men and women, unsettled and adrift and often frightened, can't quite understand how they arrived at their present situations. Harry has been reworking a play for years in his apartment near Times Square in New York. Jane is biding her time at a cheese shop in a Midwest mall. Dennis, unhappily divorced, buries himself in self-help books about healthful food and healthy relationships. One prefers to speak on the phone rather than face his friends, another lets the answering machine do all the talking. But whether rejected, afraid to commit, bored, disillusioned or just misunderstood, even the most hard-bitten are not without some abiding trust in love.
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September 03, 2002
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Excerpt from Like Life by Lorrie Moore
FOR THE FIRST TIME in her life, Mary was seeing two boys at once. It involved extra laundry, an answering machine, and dark solo trips in taxicabs, which, in Cleveland, had to be summoned by phone, but she recommended it in postcards to friends. She bought the ones with photos of the flats, of James Garfield's grave, or an Annunciation from the art museum, one with a peacock-handsome angel holding up fingers and whispering, One boy, two boys. On the back she wrote, You feel so attended to! To think we all thought just one might amuse, let alone fulfill. Unveil thyself! Unblacken those teeth and minds! Get more boys in your life!
Her nervous collapse was subtle. It took the form of trips to a small neighborhood park, for which she dressed all in white: white blouses, white skirts, white anklets, shoes flat and white as boat sails. She read Bible poetry in the shade on the ground or else a paperback she had found about someone alone on a raft in the ocean, surviving for forty days and nights on nail parings and fish. Mary spoke to no one. She read, and tried not to worry about grass stains, though sometimes she got up and sat on a bench, particularly if there was a clump of something nearby, or a couple making out. She needed to be unsullied, if only for an afternoon. When she returned home, she clutched her books and averted her gaze from the men unloading meat in front of her building. She lived in a small room above a meat company--Alexander Hamilton Pork--and in front, daily, they wheeled in the pale, fatty carcasses, hooked and naked, uncut, unhooved. She tried not to let the refrigerated smell follow her in the door, up the stairs, the vague shame and hamburger death of it, though sometimes it did. Every day she attempted not to step in the blood that ran off the sidewalk and collected in the gutter, dark and alive. At five-thirty she approached her own building in a halting tiptoe and held her breath. The trucks out front pulled away to go home, and the Hamilton Pork butchers, in their red-stained doctors' coats and badges printed from ten-dollar bills, hosed down the sidewalk, leaving the block glistening like a canal. The squeegee kids at the corner would smile at Mary and then, low on water, rush to dip into the puddles and smear their squeegees, watery pink, across the windshields of cars stopped for the light. "Hello," they said. "Hello, hello."
"Where have you been?" asked Boy Number One on the phone in the evening. "I've been trying to reach you." He was running for a local congressional seat, and Mary was working for him. She distributed fliers and put up posters on kiosks and trees. The posters consisted of a huge, handsome photograph with the words Number One underneath. She usually tried to staple him through the tie, so that it looked like a clip, but when she felt tired, or when he talked too much about his wife, she stapled him right in the eyes, like a corpse. He claimed to be separating. Mary knew what separating meant: The head and the body no longer consult; the wife sleeps late, then goes to a shrink, a palm reader, an acupuncturist; the fat rises to the top. Number One was dismantling his life. Slowly, he said. Kindly. He had already fired his secretary, gotten a new campaign manager, gone from stocks to bonds to cash, and sold some lakefront property. He was liquidating. Soon the sleeping wife. "I just worry about the boys," he said. He had two.
"Where have I been?" echoed Mary. She searched deep in her soul. "I've been at the park, reading."
"I miss you," said Number One. "I wish I could come see you this minute." But he was stuck far away in a house with a lid and holes punched in for air; there was grass at the bottom to eat. He also had a small apartment downtown, where the doorman smiled at Mary and nodded her in. But this evening One was at the house with the boys; they were sensitive and taciturn and both in junior high.
"Hmmm," said Mary. She was getting headaches. She wondered what Number Two was doing. Perhaps he could come over and rub her back, scold the pounding and impounding out of her temples, lay on hands, warm and moist. "How is your wife?" asked Mary. She looked at her alarm clock.
"Sleeping," said One.
"Soon you will join her cold digits," said Mary. One fell silent. "You know, what if I were sleeping with somebody else too?" she added. One plus one. "Wouldn't that be better? Wouldn't that be even?" This was her penchant for algebra. She wasn't vengeful. She didn't want to get even. She wanted to be even already.
"I mean, if I were sleeping with somebody else also, wouldn't that make everyone happy?" She thought again of Boy Number Two, whom too often she denied. When she hung up, she would phone him.
"Happy?" hooted Number One. "More than happy. We're talking delirious." He was the funny one. After they made love, he'd sigh, open his eyes, and say, "Was that you?" Number Two was not so hilarious. He was tall and depressed and steady as rain. Ask him, "What if we both saw other people?" and he'd stare out the window, towering and morose. He'd say nothing. Or he'd shrug and say, "Fthatz . . ."
"Fthatz what you want." He'd kiss her, then weep into his own long arm. Mary worried about his health. Number One always ate at restaurants where the food--the squid, the liver, the carrots--was all described as "young and tender," like a Tony Bennett song. But Number Two went to coffee shops and ate things that had nitrites and dark, lacy crusts around the edges. Such food could enter you old and sticking like a bad dream. When Two ate, he nipped nothing in the bud. It could cause you to grow weary and sad, coming in at the tail end of things like that.
"You have everything," she said to Number One. "You have too much: money, power, women." It was absurd to talk about these things in a place like Cleveland. But then the world was always small, no matter what world it was, and you just had to go ahead and say things about it. "Your life is too crowded."
"It's a bit bottlenecked, I admit."
"You've got a ticket holders' line so long it's attracting mimes and jugglers." At times this was how they spoke.
"It's the portrait painters I'm worried about," said One. "They're aggressive and untalented." A click came over the line. He had another call waiting.
"It's so unfair," said Mary. "Everybody wants to sit next to you on the bus."
"I've got to get off the phone now," he said, for he was afraid of how the conversation might go. It might go and go and go.