For about a year now an idea for a new novel has been asking me to dance. Up to getting the phone call from the NEA, I had been quite successful at turning it down. But now, alas, I may have to slip on my dancing shoes once again. According to my notes and diagrams for this new book, it's set in Newport, Rhode Island, and has a single plot that takes place over the course of four centuries, meaning that the plot gets handed off like a relay baton from one cast of characters to another, from 17th-century slaves to 18th-century Loyalists to a 21st-century tennis bum down on his luck at the Newport Casino. As I say, I'm just at the planning stages now--shining a light on certain characters and casting others into the void--but this vote of confidence from the NEA will make those first steps out on the dance floor a little less terrifying
From the short story "Presently In Ruins"
They did a dry run. He helped his father out of the wheelchair and into bed, laid out the items from his briefcase. They tried the painting mask first, just to get used to breathing through it. Then he helped put the baseball cap on, then after a minute the icebag. That was so he would keep cool, the son explained. It would get hot once the plastic bag was on. Was he all right? Was it comfortable? The son did everything with the plastic gloves on. He didn't want his fingerprints on anything.
They tried the plastic bag. He waited a few minutes and then mock-tied the panty hose on, showed the father how he was to slip his fingers between the hose and his neck whenever he wanted to breathe. The Seconal would eventually put him to sleep, but until then he could breathe whenever he wanted. Did he understand? Was he okay?
They took the items off, one by one.
It was then that his father told him about the Shadwell, about the torpedo, about standing around on deck waiting to sink, having to relieve himself.
"It's hard to kill little Willy, you know," he said. He went through a funny pantomime his son hadn't seen since childhood: licking a make-believe stamp on the tip of his thumb, then stamping it on his chest like a badge of approval. "Twice now," he said, "three times if you include the Japs." He made his little chuckle; then: "How long's it take those pills to work?"
The son said twenty minutes, maybe half an hour.
He nodded, looked off into space, then over at his nightstand. He twiddled his thumbs, laughed. "Ever show you this?" he asked and lifted a toy off the nightstand that the doctors had given him. It was a battery-powered gizmo--Pull it! Bop it! Twist it!--about the size and shape of a nightstick. The son had seen it before. When you turned it on it commanded you to pull a lever or bop a button or twist a shaft. If you did it quickly enough the thing whistled with glee, if you didn't it screamed bloody murder at you. It was supposed to help maintain coordination and reflex.
Now when the old man turned it on and the thing cried "Bop it!" he pulled instead and got screamed at. He let the toy fall to the floor.
"Story of my life," he said. He shrugged, whistled a little tune, then: "Well, let's have them."
The son kept himself from saying anything. It was one of the rules he'd set: if it turned out his father had worked up the courage, then he would not get in the way. And yet as he handed the pills two by two to the old man, helped him drink, he knew he had been half-hoping his father would call it off. He was a timid man, wasn't he? The world had been too much for him, hadn't it? But it was the son who found himself having to suppress the stirrings of panic.
"Now what? We wait?"
It was a horrible place to die. He didn't mean the Harpswell House--which was horrible in its own way--but Belmont, Indiana, so far from the New England of their birth, even if the New England of their birth was not the New England of magazine covers but a 19th-century mill town gone to 20th-century ruin. Why didn't his father mind? This exile from everything that he knew--the flat land, the cornfields, the southern-inflected accents of the people. It was, once again, as if the outside world didn't matter, as if what mattered was what he carried within--his model railroad like a gene in the recesses of his personality, carried into the Opportunity Room when he was five years old, into the engine room of the USS Shadwell, into the deep sleep of a dozen Seconal.
"I feel funny."
The son looked up in time to see his father's eyes flutter closed, then open. "It's the drug," he said.
The old man looked around, looked at the wheelchair, at the mirror, at the door. It was as if he were checking on the world.
"The bag?" he asked.
"When you start to get sleepy."
He nodded. He had his hands folded on his lap.
There had to be something else, the son thought. There had to be more. He had half an impulse to apologize, to say he was sorry for something, maybe sorry for not loving Annelise as he should have. And then he thought he should get up, go get the 2-8-2, give it to his father, let him hold it. But it seemed stupid, corny, a gesture. His hands were hot inside the rubber gloves.
On the other side of the wall someone flushed a toilet. His father's breathing grew regular, deep.
"Dad?" he said when a few more minutes had passed. The old man stirred.
The plastic bag lay at the foot of the bed. He did not want to make the decision himself if his father fell asleep.
"Is it time?"
The son couldn't help himself: "You don't have to do it," he said. The old man managed to open his eyes. He blinked, tried to rouse himself. He motioned for the gear.
Gregory Blake Smith received his MFA from the Iowa Writer's Workshop and is currently the Lloyd P. Johnson-Norwest Professor of English and the Liberal Arts at Carleton College. He has been a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and has received grants from the Bush Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board, as well as a previous literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His short stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The New England Review, StoryQuarterly, Fiction, and the Pushcart Prizes. He is the author of three novels, The Devil in the Dooryard (Harper Collins, 1987), The Madonna of Las Vegas (Three Rivers Press, 2005), and The Divine Comedy of John Venner (Simon & Schuster, 1992), which was selected by The New York Times as one of its Notable Books of the Year. He lives in Northfield, Minnesota with his wife and daughter.
Photo by Laura Goering