The Foreigner as Apprentice

You do not believe me. Why won’t you believe me? Whose vengeance is it that keeps cursing me for my making an evermore ghastly investment in what’s to be made over to me from my more and more telling all? I am neither liked nor believed—or did I just lay down a plank of past-participializing wrong-way-wise from left to right? No matter, Gordo’s busted—left behind by wife and child, naught remained for him to do for himself but to rattle around in search of gash and/or gash and romance. And so it was that I was able to form a yeasty introduction to a woman who said that she was Susan.

Or had said Susanne.

No matter—the matter was settled with dispatch—the routine considerations ensuing at all modest speed—a brief tea at a tearoom excessively dainty enough, a not unmodulated vehemence of enthusiasms passing from one to the other by telephone—and, with charming promptitude, the whole of it, concluded—to wit, that Susan or Susanne would come with herself to my place to a small supper that I would serve to her, and, if all appeared to go acceptably, not remove herself therefrom until an hour in the morning.

And so it was that I was, on a certain afternoon, making my way along the avenue to first fetch and then carry home with me a kind of stylish bread in support of my arrangements to encourage this outcome.

Well, I was weeping as I went. I do often do this—weep some—chiefly—no, entirely—when I am out-of-doors and mainly in motion, as of course one is when one walks. I mean to say to you that I seem to myself to be weeping—but whether this effect results from a feeling that is unbeknownst to me seizing me or from eye tissue punished by the cruel vapors of our streets, how am I to know?

Tears occur in me.

Are an occurrence in me.

Were then occurring in me as I went making my way along the avenue for the bread—and would doubtless occur in me, be a homeward recurrence in me, would presently be recurring in me as I went coursing back up the avenue for home and for the woman Susan—or would it be for Susanne?

But I was tearless when taking the loaf that I wanted from the basket where all the loaves, in invitation, were tipped all of the way up on end.

Tearless, too, when preparing myself to turn to give money to the young thing at the cash register.

Tearless, three, when I heard “Mr. Lish is it?”

I said to no face that I could see: “Sorry?”

But then there was a face, all right, and from it there issued a revision: “You’re Mr. Lish, are you not?”

I had had to move the bread from one hand to the other to use my customarily favored hand to be ready with the money—and so the bread seemed to me, given the locus of the hand that held it and the less grace that hand was able to do this task with—to be rudely prodding the space that was now assembling itself between my accuser and myself.

“Please”—it was the voice again—”it’s been years. But you must, you must, you must be Mr. Lish.”

It was a woman.

Uninteresting eyes, sadly too interesting eye-glasses, spectacles established pugnaciously forward on a nose never meant to sustain even a light sneeze.

I wiped at my eyes.

I had the money in the hand that did it.

It did no good.

I used my knuckles to wipe at the cloudier eye harder. “I’m very sorry,” I said. “You seem to know me,” I said. “It’s the snow,” I said. “I’m just on an errand,” I said. “This bread,” I said, now unbearably conscious of my bearing the ficelle as if about to poke at her chest with it.

“Yes,” she said. “Snow is so disconcerting, isn’t it?” she said.

“It’s lovely when it first falls—but now look at it—just slush and dirt and wretchedness, wretchedness,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “One’s shoes,” I said. “They get to look so awful,” I said.

“Wear boots,” she said. “I wear boots,” she said.

“Of course,” I said, and got the bread out from between us even though I did not want to take it into the hand that held the money.

“Let me just pay for this,” I said.

“Oh, but you don’t remember me,” the woman said.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Sometimes the snow,” I said.

“I’m Harris Drewell’s mother,” the woman said.

“Yes,” I said. “You are Harris Drewell’s mother,” I said.

“Harris Drewell,” the woman said, and I could see that what she had in her arms were several loaves of a different style of bread. “A classmate of your boy’s at school.”

“Well, of course,” I said, and the thought rushed through me that she had taken for herself a kind of bread that might better have worked my will with Susan.

Or with Susanne.

“Mr. Lish,” the woman said, “I just want to say for Mr. Drewell and myself that we are all of us very sorry for your unhappiness. And for Harris, too, you understand—Harris would offer his sympathies too, you understand.”

“Oh, well,” I said, “this snow, you know. Can you countenance it? Can you ever?” I said, and struggled to swing myself around a little so as to, by so doing, give evidence to all concerned that the girl at the cash register could not, for one more instant, be kept waiting for her to have payment.

“He’s gone with the Foreign Service, you know. It’s just an internship, of course. He’s just an intern, of course. But we’re all of us of course very proud of him.”

“As am I,” I said, and gave to the girl the money and got back from her the coins that were coming to me and then made—my vision awash with confusion, confusion, avalanche, devastation—for the door.

“Oh, they’ll be back, Mr. Lish—have no fear of it, have none!” I heard the woman call to me, but thought, once I had gotten myself back onto the sidewalk and again onto my course, thought no, no, I had imagined it, I must have just imagined it, that what she had instead said was, “Wear boots, you silly, for pity’s sake—boots!”

It was a block or so onward that I could recall my sometimes seeing this person when I had escorted my child to school and had stood about with the fathers and mothers and more often nannies and chauffeurs in such hopeful assembly.

“My God, Harris Drewell’s mother!” I called out to myself as I went.

For hadn’t I once begged the gods for them to please give me Harris Drewell’s mother please for me to please fuck?

I am telling you.

This is the truth that I am telling you.

Just as I am telling that I was making up my mind not for me to get out my shoebox and clean off my shoes, that I was making up my mind, had, had, just as I was turning off the avenue to go the rest of the distance for the corner and home, made up my mind not ever again for me to clean off my shoes for this Susan or for this Susanne or for anyone, but instead to get her fair share of the bread into her and of everything else spread out for her into her—food, the food—as fast as it all could be decently gotten into her and then to get rid of her and then of—please God, please God!—of everybody else.

So there’s the proof for you.

Don’t you see it’s only a fool who tells a story that is true?

Even the names, by Christ—the very names!—come out looking—nay, crying their equivocations aloud—like lies.

 

Gordon Lish is the author of the novels Dear Mr. Capote, Peru, and My Romance as well as a number of short story collections. He was an editor, first at Esquire and then Knopf, and a writing teacher who shepherded, championed, or otherwise greatly influenced numerous others, including Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, Amy Hempel, Gary Lutz, Diane Williams, Christine Schutt, and Sam Lipsyte.

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