Some Advice on Reading Short Stories

By Kirk Lynn

Buy the book; the stories could be very good and if the cover is nice and you have twelve dollars (or better yet, you find it used), then buy the book.

Ask the clerk for a bag. It may be the good kind, thin white paper, almost clear, almost a wax paper bag into which the book is placed. The bag may be small, so the book just fits and the cover shows through the thinness just enough to pique someone's interest, someone you might know, the friend you think might be most like you, who wants to know what everyone else is reading, who also thinks, at parties, that books are a good topic of discussion, and if you saw this friend—if this friend saw you set the bag on the table between you two—she would ask about it first thing, and want to know what book it is inside there.

You've thought of a specific friend, I hope. So call this close friend like yourself; take her out for a beer; ask the friend after two or three beers some questions like how is her husband, does she want a cigarette; say, Will you take this book from this bag? Will you turn to the table of contents page and without showing me, will you tear up the book? Just the table of contents page. Will you tear it out and tear it up and put the pieces in your purse, for me?

She will say, He's fine. Why do you ask? He's the same as he always is, fine. I will have a cigarette. And finally she will say, Why do you want me to tear up the book?

The book is still sitting on the table between you two. She didn't try to reach into the bag and drag it out. But she lets it just sit there, which is maybe nice too. Among friends you can have a thing that eventually you will share, like a bottle of wine, or packet of pictures fresh from the drugstore development lab, and you can let it sit there, because with friendship you know you'll get to it eventually.

We should go to the G&S. They serve drinks and not just beer. I think with some real drinks you would tear out the table of contents page and tear it up and put the pieces in your purse for me without asking why.

You can go or you can not go. You don't know what this whole book ruckus is about. Sure it means he's snapped, but he was snapped when you met him so so many years ago, and he's still snapped, snapped every time he calls you for drinks, and snapped, you'll recall, is one of the things you like about him, one of the things that made you friends, or better said, snapped was one of the things that first attracted you to him, and not in some women's supermarket psychology magazine put-him-back-together fashion; it was just the way snapped was the opposite of fragile, a couple of steps passed fragile, so you don't have to mess with actually snapping the guy, or the guilt of being the snapper, or even the women's supermarket glamour magazine desire to put-back-together the thing you snapped. Snapped is refreshing. You don't have to save your marriage with a snapped guy because he's not the guy you married; he's just an old friend whose always been snapped, always talking about what you're reading, what he's reading, what your husband should read. Besides, it's a nice bar, seedy at any time of day and it's always cool there and they have drinks there, real drinks.

The walk down the street is nice, like a scene from a movie in which there is a deep blue sky and clouds and a road like this running as if right to the center of the sky, and then green trees along the road, and in the scene in the movie, we know the couple knows the street, knows the trees and the shadows at this time of day, knows even the sound of just some breeze in the trees, and the temperature even of this town at this time of year. It's all something familiar, and for each, the person on his or her arm is familiar, and you know the bar they're approaching is their favorite, and the scene in the movie gives you the feeling that they could keep at this for the rest of their lives; they could stick to just the streets they know, and places they have been before, already at not even mid-way through life there is so much with which they are familiar they could keep themselves occupied walking from one familiar place to another and another and not be bored, and they would likely see some people they know and like, and often, like now, their walks will be with someone they even love in a way, and in a deep way at that, even if it is sometimes that they love people in an odd way or an indelicate way, it is still a familiar way. And after this scene and all the other scenes in the movie, the movie ends with a nice scene of just this road and these trees and this sky, without even the people, and you realize that as the walk along this road was for them, this scene in the movie is now for you something with which you are familiar, and can add to the other things in your life that you regard with a solid fondness.

Drinks arrive and so the conversation drops, even though all you were talking about was a movie, there's still a silence as though you were talking secrets, and even when waiter leaves there is some hitch in your conversation. The interruption of the flow caused you to lose your place? Not likely. The interruption caused you to lose your will. What you were saying now seems less important and what you will say next has yet to seem important enough. So what should you do to cover the silence of the moment, the awkward end of one train of thought, to cover the gearing up of some other train you will roll out next that may be even less agreeable, that could start a scene, or, at the least, begin a disappointment with the friendship if the pattern continues and everything you say is disagreed with by the other? The answer is: you take a drink. That's what they're there for, and as you pull the glass to your mouth, the other person says the thing you were thinking, a version of the phrase you were going to say next, the other person says, Let's get out of here.

You never thought you would have to think about saving your affair. You never thought the affair, as a separate thing from the rest of the guy, might snap too, and leave him really in the lurch, snapped now in a new way. But here you are, hoping this thing will land without crashing, wishing you could remember the way it was, and remember in a way that would make it that way again, wishing for a physical memory that would physically change things, like a time-machine, but not a time-machine that takes you back to a past time, but a time-machine that carries the past time into the present, so you could still be the same person with all the things you've learned and all your memories and not have to give anything back and still have things go on the way they used to be.

Forget about the book. Take your friend to a hotel and fuck. When you get to your room and shut the door behind you with the soft thud hotel doors have because the room is sealed almost air tight, when you are finally in the room so cold against the familiar temperature of this town at this time of year, when you are finally together in the room, make the mistake; forget about the book; throw the book on the bedside table and make the mistake; the book has nothing to do with this. If you haven't held hands or touched at all before you got to the room, it's the best. The kiss can act more desperate because it was kept secret. Have rough sex; do the little things that will get detected, things that add to the regret, like bite the neck hard, or rip a shirt or a blouse off, and give a mean hickey on the inner thigh, fuck with screams and bang the bed and let everyone know there are two people in this room who fuck in this room so no one will see them fuck; fuck and cry if you have to, or even if you fuck and cry, do it the soft way, a long slow fuck like a bath, like relaxing into and out of each other with time between, and give little kisses on eyelids, and with the time between each fuck motion, reach up to push a little hair behind the other's ear, or reach down to push a little hair behind the other's ear, depending on where you are in this, and do the looking into each other's eyes, or even if you look into each other's eyes, laugh while you do it, having fun, talking while you fuck, sentences punctuated with little gasps, and then laughs; goof off, and call each other names, and hit each other with a pillow, or one hit the other with a pillow and the other just laugh as if there's no tension here, just a nice time, and it will be a nice time, being whatever sort of sex you can't get at home.

So I have to go. She chooses those words to drop her towel and in a strangely athletic way, and strangely familiar way, picks up her underwear with her foot, pinching it in between her toes and lifting her underwear off the ground with her foot and reaching down with her hand and taking the underwear from her foot's grasp, all instead of bending over to pick up the underwear. Will you get dressed now? And you get up and start dressing without a shower because you don't have to go back to work, you can go home and have a shower there and start making dinner and just say you left work early so you could go home and start cooking a nice dinner. There is silence in the hotel room again and then she, fully dressed now, picks up the bag on the bedside table and turns it upside down and dumps out the book and flips to the table of contents and rips it out and says, There. You happy? I ripped it out, but I'm not going to put it in my purse. That's weird. It seems like some sort of trap. It's just weird, like you want me to have this thing in my possession that's a part of the thing you have in your possession. I'll leave the page here, face down, and you can take the book and leave the page. You happy with that?

Take a shower when you get home and start dinner and act like nothing happened, act even better than that, be nice at dinner, and nice all through the evening as if there's no reason but you like being nice, and watch what she wants on TV, and offer to fetch ice cream, and play with her hair, and when you get into bed, start reading the short stories. See if she's still like you, still wants to know what everyone's reading, still reaches over and takes the book from you without asking, like the two of you are one person, like there's no reason to ask for what you want from a person who gives you anything, and see if looking at the front cover she decides to flip the book over and read the back cover blurbs, see if she decides to open the book and flip through and notices the torn edge where the title page was; she if she asks.

A book of short stories is different from other books. With a novel you know how close you are to the end because you start running out of book, but with short stories, if you don't look at the contents page, and you don't flip ahead, they can end at any point. You could make it fun by ripping out the table of contents and just read wondering, each page, how long the story goes on.

Then there is a sequence where the street is empty but familiar, even if it is night by now, even if the blue sky is black and there are no stars or street lamps, so any trees along the road are black and flat, and the trees off the road behind the fences of the black flat houses are only outlines too, outlined against the outlines of trees even farther beyond, and there is no one there, and everything is black and flat and known.