Sunday, May 01, 2011

On the Matter of Short Stories

I happen to love short stories, even though it appears to be the case they have pretty much fallen out of favor. Starting early with Guy DeMaupassant, Anton Chekhov, Balzac, then through Edgar Allen Poe, Washington Irving, and O. Henry, and up through F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Somerset Maugham, and more recently J.D. Salinger, John Irving, John Cheever, and others, the short story has enjoyed great popularity and success, and also fallen on relatively hard times, as at the present moment.

Throughout all of my adult life I have occasionally written short stories although I am not certain just why. Many of my stories have appeared on this blog, especially during the first few years of its existence. Very few people have read them. I do not know whether this is because people are not very interested in short stories, whether whatever they request of Google does not direct them to the short stories as it does to essays, or whether people just don’t like my short stories in particular. With a couple of minor exceptions, none of my stories have been published. The fact is, because of the incredible difficulty in getting short stories by an unknown author published (other than here), I have made no serious attempt to have them published, although I would like to, and I believe at least some of them are eminently publishable. Some of my stories are at least partly autobiographical, some of them not at all. Here, for the sake of discussion, is a recent one.

Imaginary Love

“Well, I can certainly understand the confusion, and how you must have all felt.”

It was nearly three a.m. Jennifer had decided to tell me about the death of her father. Early morning conversations often take a turn like that, revealing personal or sensitive things more often kept secret. We had a brief but interesting history, Jennifer and I. Our initial romance had lasted long enough to prove we loved each other, but as we each valued our independence as well, we had agreed not to potentially mess it up with marriage. Because neither of us had yet met Mr. or Ms. Right, we still often spent our lonely nights together. At the moment we were sprawled on the huge, lush, white Moroccan rug that dominated the large living room of her condominium, defining the parameters of the major comfort zone.

“Those were his exact words,” Jennifer repeated, “Ida…Ida…, and he reached out as if expecting someone. This was on his death bed! We were stunned and completely bewildered. Why would a ninety year-old man say the name of a woman none of us had ever heard of? It made no sense. Christopher was very upset, even angry. ‘Who in the hell is Ida,’ he demanded. Neither Jonathan nor I had any idea. Mother’s name was Mary, as you know. Jonathan said ‘Maybe he was dreaming, or hallucinating.’ Christopher said, ‘How could he do such a thing to mother? They were married for more than sixty years. It’s just awful.’ I was as bewildered as they were. I didn’t know what to say. We just sat there confused.”

“Yeah,” I offered. “That really is strange. Did you ever figure out why, what it was all about?”

Oh, we found out soon enough, but that’s where it really gets weird. You know when someone dies you have to settle their affairs, get rid of things, clean everything up, stuff like that. You remember, my father was a lawyer. He had a large study at home where he often worked. They had lived in the house for over fifty years, so you can just imagine how much stuff there was to sort through. None of us wanted the house. We decided to sell it and split the proceeds. But while cleaning out his study we learned it was apparently also a kind of Ida Lupino, of all people! You know, the actress. There was a framed, autographed photo of her on the bookcase. In some drawers there were dozens more photos of her. There were playbills, posters, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, and other assorted memorabilia. It was unbelievable. We were horribly surprised and had no idea what to think. Father had never mentioned this to any of us. My mother, of course, must have at least been aware of the photograph, but she had never said anything about it either. It was so totally unexpected we had no idea what to make of it all. What would you have thought?”

“I don’t know. It looks like he must have been a real fan of hers. Perhaps he kept it a secret because he thought it was unseemly for a grown man to be such a movie fan. I mean, usually avid fans are younger people or even bored housewives or something. Was there any evidence he belonged to a fan club or anything?”

“No, nothing like that, we were forced to the same conclusion. He must have just been a real fan of hers and wanted to keep it a secret. It was not like him, but we couldn’t think of anything else.” Jennifer fell silent, staring into the embers of the dying fire. I turned to face the fireplace as well, resting my head on one of the gigantic overstuffed pillows we had once carried home from Macy’s one winter night, too impatient to wait for delivery. I looked across her slim body at the floor to ceiling window. Snowflakes had begun to fall. In the momentary quiet I could hear the wind blowing in from across the lake.

“We assumed that was all there was to it,” Jennifer began again, “But then we found the letters.”

“Letters? What letters?”

“Yes, letters. There were dozens of them. I found them in the back of one of his filing cabinets. They were tied in bundles year by year. They were all in father’s handwriting and all addressed to ‘Ida Lupino, Hollywood, California.’ But here’s where it gets even stranger. They were all original letters, not copies, and they had obviously never been mailed. At this point I guess my brothers had had enough, for the time being at least, as they had virtually no interest in the letters. Of course they could have just been business letters or something like that, they didn’t know. I was the one who opened and read some of them. They were love letters! Incredible love letters. The first one was dated in 1939, only a year after my parents were married. Lupino had just appeared in her first important role, in a movie called ‘The Light That Failed,’ with Ronald Coleman. I guess she was supposed to be a prostitute or something, I don’t know, but father said he had fallen in love with her and praised her performance. He raved about her beauty, the shape of her face, her eyes, it was almost sickening. The following year she appeared in High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart. He wrote again, telling her she was brilliant, a wonderful actress. He wrote to her after all of her movies. He seemed to be particularly obsessed with her face which he often repeated was so heart-shaped and lovely. He thought she should have won an academy award for her performance in ‘They Drive by Night,’ and he raved about a scene in ‘Road House” where she fashioned a bikini from a couple of scarves.’ I thought it was disgusting. I stopped reading the letters, except enough to know they continued throughout her entire career. The last one was in 1995, the day she died. He was quite upset. I guess he was truly in love with her, even though as far as we knew, he never saw her in person and apparently never heard from her either. Another thing I thought was strange, he never mentioned any of her husbands, ever. She was married three times but he never mentioned that. It was all just crazy. Do you think he was crazy?”

The suddenness of the question surprised me. I paused in the still flickering light of the fire and searched for an answer to what I thought was probably an unanswerable question. Jennifer’s expression, her face lovelier than ever in the firelight, expected an answer. Helplessly I began. “Jeez, darling, I have no idea. I don’t know much about such things. I mean, I’ve heard of people having imaginary friends, you know, like Jimmy Stewart’s Harvey, and stuff like that, but I don’t know about something like this. Children sometimes have imaginary playmates but I think that must be very rare for adults. Then of course there are sometimes stalkers, individuals who become so obsessed with some actor or actress they follow them, break into their homes, force them to get restraining orders and police protection. But I don’t know about someone who just seems to idolize someone from afar, writes letters, but otherwise has no connection to them. I never heard of such a thing before. I don’t know if your father was crazy or not, but at least no one seems to have been hurt by his imaginary love affair.”

I was surprised to see that Jennifer was silently crying. Huge tears rolled down her cheeks, falling soundlessly on the thick rug. I had no idea what to do, or what to say. I waited. Finally she spoke, “Oh, yes, someone was hurt,” she began. “My mother was terribly hurt. Her life was ruined. We didn’t know. On the surface she and father seemed to be a normal couple, we had no clue she was so unhappy. Now I know it was all just a show, she pretended because she had the three of us to take care of and she had no other options. She finished High School, immediately married, had three children quickly, what else could she have done? But she was secretly miserable. She knew father didn’t really love her. She knew about Ida Lupino. It was all just a horrible farce. I feel terrible about it. I wish I had never seen the letters or learned about it. My mother lived a lie most of her life, for us, can you understand how awful that must have been?”

“How do you know she was miserable? Did she ever confide in you, tell you how she felt?”

“ How do I know? I found her diaries, all of them. My mother wasn’t stupid. She kept house, cleaned and tidied, and did what wives and mothers were supposed to do, but she wasn’t stupid. She found the letters, read them, knew all about it. He even called her Ida a couple of times at very inappropriate moments. It’s all there in her diaries, all of it, the whole horrible story. I don’t know if she ever confronted him about it or not, probably not. She just kept it to herself and was miserable. Oh, God, it’s so awful! It was…it was…just an imaginary affair…but it completely ruined her life. I don’t understand how he could have done such a terrible thing.

The tears began again, Jennifer sobbed quietly. I feared she might never stop. There was nothing I could do, nothing I could say, nothing that would make up for what had happened or make it all go away. I did the only thing I could. I held her sobbing form in my arms until the last glow of the embers finally died. We fell asleep.

I do not consider this one of my better attempts, nor do I have any delusions about my place in American literature. I cannot explain why I decided to write this story, other than the fact that I always feel better when I am writing. This story has little to do with me, except that I did think Ida Lupino was a much better actress than was acknowledged. I was in no meaningful sense a “fan,” nor did I ever write her letters or collect her memorabilia. I once owned a large white Moroccan rug that occupied an important place in my apartment, and I have upon occasion been involved in very early morning conversations. I have also often felt helpless in the face of someone else’s troubles. But that’s it. It’s merely a story, nothing more.

I find that I write stories because I enjoy it, and they are just that, stories, not a showcase for my superior prose style, or to shock the reader with a bizarre theme or the use of four letter words. I am a great fan of W. Somerset Maugham who, I believe, similarly concentrated mainly on telling stories, even though he did command what I think was much more than merely adequate prose. I would have liked to have known him, and I would also be pleased to see the genre once more in fashion.

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