Authors: Alan Cheuse
“This work isâas Chekov saidâinformed by the deeper harmonies. When Alan Cheuse writes, âshe is retreating from desire but not from love,' it is as if the woman suffering from this relentless condition has just entered the room.
offers the twin bequeathing of profound sadness and enchantment. Cheuse is a writer of immense gifts.”
âHoward Norman (author of
The Bird Artist)
“With intelligence and wit, Alan Cheuse takes us through the searing, tragic, heart-breaking and hilarious business of being alive. The two novellas that make up
âone of sorrow and one of radianceâare filled with characters trying to maneuver that space between creation and destruction. Some come to ashes and some find forgivenessâeven for themselves. Through it all, Cheuse never betrays the dignity or humanity of his characters. His brilliant creations are in good hands right to the end, as are we.”
âAna Menendez (author of
In Cuba I was a German Shepherd)
“Alan Cheuse is one of the most engaged and vital writers on the scene today.”
âRobert Stone (author of
A Flag for Sunrise)
“Cheuse has for years been one of the smartest, most trustworthy reviewers in America. Now he shows us where he gets his authorityâa fiction writer of startling talent.”
âJohn Gardner (author of
The Sunlight Dialogues
“[Cheuse]reminds us how close art and chaos really are.”
âNew York Times Book Review
“Cheuse's skill as a writer makes it hard not to be drawn in â¦and to exit feeling transformed.”
Copyright Â© 2007 by Alan Cheuse
All rights reserved under international and
Pan-American Copyright Conventions
No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a database, or other retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, by any means, including mechanical, electronic, photocopy, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Santa Fe Writers Project, SFWP and colophon are trademarks.
Library of Congress Control Data
The Fires/by Alan Cheuse
ISBN 13: 9780977679911
Library of Congress Control Number: 2006939320
Cover design by Bill Douglas at The Bang
Printed and bound in Canada
TRANS 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Candace & Other Stories
The Grandmothers' Club
The Tennessee Waltz & Other Stories
The Light Possessed
Lost and Old Rivers
Fall Out of Heaven
The Sound of Writing
, Editor (with Caroline Marshall)
Listening to Ourselves
, Editor (with Caroline Marshall)
Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work
, Editor (with Nicholas Delbanco)
Listening to the Page: Adventures in Reading and Writing
Writers Workshop in a Book, The Squaw Valley Community of Writers on the Art of Fiction
, Editor (with Lisa Alvarez)
Seeing Ourselves: Great Early American Short Stories
The worst news always comes at the worst possible moment. In Gina's case, this happened to be while she was squatting over the commode in the upstairs bathroom, attempting to catch a urine sample for Dr. Betsy Cohen. She felt so ridiculous, the weeks of hot and cold flashes, the upswings and downturns of mood, the deep and nearly debilitating sense of longing for Paul, and then long stretches of absolute indifference, evenâoh, this may just have been the worst of it all before the telephone rangâeven wishing, yes, that he might stay away a while longer.
This was, in fact, Gina's third try at catching a sample.
Steady, steady, she was saying to herself. I can fix a perfect Bloody Mary on demand, I know exactly when I begin to ovulateâor used toâand I can flip a pancake in a thirty-mile-an-hour windâremembering that lovely camping trip they had taken in the Sierra just after a visit to Paul's mother in Sacramentoâbut I can't seem to collect pee in a vial.
Actually, on her first attempt, she had done it perfectly, scarcely splashing anything on her fingers and hand. But then it turned out that she had forgotten whether or not the collection
had been of her first urination of the day or her second. She was supposed to save a sample of her second. And she was almost sure this had been it. Except that she had a vague recollection of waking in the early dawn light and staggering into the bathroom. Or could that have been the morning before? Or might it have been a dream? Paul had come to her in the night, pulling a red wagon, the kind that small boys use to deliver sand to their neighbors while pretending that it is gold. Nothing portentous in that, yes? Then the dream changed, a wall of darkness became a scrim of rain, and there was her fatherâyears since she had dreamed of himâin deep conversation with her first husband, and try as she might, Gina could not make out anything they said. Funny, how she had strained to listen, immediately forgetting the sight of Paul.
The second try? She had gotten the timing right, she had peed in a jiffy into the container, and then, as she was putting the thing away in the freezer to store while she waited the appropriate time according to the instructions for collection of her saliva samples, she dropped the little collection vial, spilling some of her urine onto the kitchen counter.
And now wait, here she was, just about to finish this third time, her pants down around her ankles, her skirt rucked up into her lap, tangy liquid gushing out of her, her knuckles damp but her mind focusedâwhen the telephone rang.
A few moments of comedy as she stood up, spraying her underwear, her skirt, the bathroom mat, the tile floor, and struggled to adjust her clothes even as she dropped the vial onto the mat and staggered out of the bathroom and sent herself stumbling toward the telephone on the bedside table. She was thinking this wouldn't happen to Paul, he takes the portable telephone into the bathroom with him. Which made her laugh out loud.
And thenâmore comedyâthe doorbell rangâshe would never know who it was at the door, because after a while they stopped ringingâjust as she picked up the telephone.
“Hello?” she said, hoping, of course, that it was Paul. She would tell him immediately about her immediate circumstances, squatting, aiming herself at the vial. He wouldâ
Thick accent, something out of Russia? Did she know a Russian? Did she know someone in Russia?
Satellite delay, the connection fading in and out. This feeling of telephone limbo, an awful by-product of modern life. Sometimes Gina told herself that she might have been better off born into an earlier age. Just when that might have been, she couldn't figure. Sometime whenâ?
“Missus Morgan, This is Mohammed Kirov. Your husband'sâ”
It wasn't that she cut him off, it was just the satellite delay made her overspeak his voice.
“I know who you are, yes,” Gina said. “Paul has oftenâ”
And then the same thing happened to her as happened to him.
“Here in Uzbekistan, the roadsâ”
“âspoken about you. But whyâ?”
“â[words faded out]
traveling, you understandâ?”
“Why are you calling? Where'sâ”
Silence at the other end, nothing there at all except the slight echoing in and out of the reflection of the silence in the space between here and some point above the Earth, or
along the line where her voice bounced back down on his side of the globe.
Suddenly his voice returned, stronger than before, emphatic, almost as though he had something to sell her or a message of great importance and he stood just outside the door to the room demanding to be let in.
And then of course it came to her, and as if this Kirov, or some other man, an intruder bent on wounding her, pounding away at her, raping her, killing her, had smashed in the door and pushed her down beneath it, she felt all the air leave her lungs and she staggered back onto the bed, feeling the dampness between her legs, the legacy of comedy, but the comedy had ended.
On the flight east, she had plenty of timeâmany times the timeâto reenact the incident in her mind. The medication that Dr. Betsy had prescribed for her a few weeks ago, just after Paul had left on the first leg of this trip, hadn't kicked in, or it wasn't strong enough a dose. Her departure from home was just too hurried for her to worry about such things. But when she settled back in the leather seat after takeoffâluckily, she had gotten a place in first class, a combination of her frenzied state when she appeared at the airport and a sympathetic clerk behind the ticket counterâand God help you that you need such things to happen to you in order to travel in this mannerâshe knew that the trip was going to be the most difficult of her life.
Turbulence over the Atlantic didn't bother her. Dishes rattled, other passengers spoke in harried whispers, unable to sleep through the frightening bounces and jamming in air. She was awake, alert, and in her mind going over and over again the incident as Kirov had described it to her.
First of all, Paul wouldn't have been drunk. It had been two years since he had stopped drinking and there was no reason in the worldânone, at least, that she could at first imagine, and her imagination was certainly racing along at least as fast as the jet she was flying inâthat would lead him to start again.
But then she tried to picture it, and suddenly, on the wings of this awful euphoriaâthe only way that she could describe itâof delusion in which you would think anything in the world no matter how illogical if it would bring him back to youâit didn't seem all that preposterous that he could have perhaps taken one, maybe two, drinks. He was alone, tired, why not?
The flight attendant came up the aisle, smiled, showing beautiful white teeth, the kind Paul always admired. (Gina had off-white teeth and always felt a little uneasy when Paul would point out the brilliant smile of even a particularly plain woman whom they might encounter.) What if he had met a woman with a smile like that? What if she had sat next to him? That might have led him to ask the flight attendant for a Bloody Mary, his old favorite. So what if he had one or two? He hadn't ever been an alcoholic, he just drank too much. And he had decided to stop. On a long flight, the same flight that she was on the first leg of, any man might have succumbed to the urge to make himself comfortable.
(But why wasn't she drinking? She always enjoyed a drink, fixing at least one of those perfect Bloody Marys for herself for every two he drank. Why wasn't she drinking? She couldn't say. Well, yes, she could. Why lie to herself? The alcohol would combine with the tranquilizer and knock her out. She didn't want oblivion. She wanted to stay awake, to think about him.)
Paul had arrived late on the flight from Moscow. A foolish thing, to go through Moscow, but he had not been there for several years and wanted to see all of the fabled changes he had heard about, the markets overflowing with fruit from the south, the new boutiques, the flashy dressers on the street, herds of big expensive new cars. And of course he had wanted to see their old apartment. That thing he had for history, personal, public. It was just a hobby, nothing at all to do really with how he earned his living. But it was all-consuming. Digging about in his family's past, pressing her for the details of her own past. Keeping a notebook. What if they had had children? (Well, a child who had livedâ¦) That might have turned his eye toward the future rather than the past. Maybe. But when you consider the way friends of theirs who did have children kept such methodical records, photographic and otherwise, of their childrens' lives, Paul would probably have done the same, making notes of everything fromâwhere did it begin?âfirst breath and first bowel movement, on to first steps, first words, and beyond.
Gorky Street, across from one of the big tourist hotels. Seventh floor, with a wonderful view across the Kremlin and the river. The apartment had belonged to a mid-level Party official, who had somehow managed to sell it to Paul's company during that ephemeral time when Gorbachev's people were talking about deals they wanted to make with western companies but no one was putting anything on paper.
“The government's just like this apartment,” Paul had said. “They want to air it out, but the windows are stuck.”
“It certainly smells like every head of cabbage they boiled.”
“Gina, these were privileged Party people,” Paul said. “If they boiled anything in here, it would have been artichokes
imported all the way from California.” He laughed his hearty laugh and went out the door. Gina opened a window and leaned out over the street seven stories below and watched as he exited the building and followed his progress along the sidewalk until he was lost in the crowd.
With Paul at his meetings, she used the time to explore. That is what wives of American engineers did, wasn't it? Moscow was then still a safe city and with her British-bought rain slicker concealing her obviously American clothes, she could walk the streets and ride the metro without people paying her too much attention. So she floated silently through flea markets and half-filled shops, to small museums and even to the wretched Moscow zoo where most of the animals looked like refugees from happier zones.
In front of the compound where the ammoniac odor of the big cats was so overwhelming that she felt her knees begin to give, a man caught her by the shoulder.
He said something in Russian.
“I don't speakâ¦” Gina turned around. He was middle-aged, with a day's growth of white beard, and wore jeans and an oddly made denim jacket.
“Are you all right?” the man asked in French.
She nodded, thanked him, took a quick look at the two ragged tigers lying there on the filthy rocks, and walked away.
She couldn't wait until Paul came back that night, even if it was only to hustle her out the door to a business dinner at the city's most famous Central Asian restaurant. There was a British couple from the corporation and several Russian men, all of them absolutely polite even after they had run through the table's fourth bottle of Hungarian red. There was music from an accordion player and a guitarist,
with a young girl who played the flute and a boy, who could have been her brother, tapping on small drums and clinking tiny tin cymbals.
“Our American partner,” said one of the Russians, a young man with long hair curling over his ears and a suit that to Gina's eye appeared to have cost more than Paul's. He raised his glass.
The couple from London did the same.
By the time they finished toasting, they had emptied two more bottles of the red.
“And do you find our city interesting?” The other Russian spoke. He was older, and portly, clean-shaven and smelling of expensive western cologne.
“I went to the zoo,” Gina said.
“There is zoo here?” the younger Russian said.
The older man looked at him with a piteous glance.
“It's a filthy place,” the British woman said.
“We're rebuilding,” the portly Russian said. “And thanks to people such as Paul Morgan, the good things will come faster.”
“Who goes to this zoo?” the younger Russian asked.
“Families,” the portly man said.
“Yes,” Gina said, “there were families there.”
“Do you and Paul have any children?” The British woman hovered closer to her.
“No,” Gina said, looking at Paul. “Wellâ¦noâ¦”
Paul might have been about to speak, but the young Russian businessman had a question.
“Perhaps there is money to be made in zoo?”
The older man laughed.
“Selling off the seals by the pound?”
Gina had a flickering thought about the unshaven but courteous man at the tiger pit, and then asked the British woman about her family. And with that wonderful manner of his, within a minute or two Paul got them all laughing again. She was very proud of him and pleased that she had decided to take two weeks away from her job at the museum in order to accompany him on this trip. But then she had for years wanted to see him in action on the road. It was a memory that no one could take away from her, ever.
When they returned to the apartment after the meal Gina imagined she caught a whiff of the rank scent of the big, bedraggled catsâthis didn't blend well with the lingering traces of the artichokes or whatever they had cooked here. She was suddenly sorry that they had eaten such hot food. And then she took the taste of Paul's mouth in hers, and a wonderfully dreamy half hour of love-making followed, flavored with Central Asian spices.
Had Paul remembered some of it when he passed through the city this time? He might have been too busy. The firm had a large office in the city center and the same portly Russian, or so Paul had explained it to her over the telephone before he left on his flight to Tashkent, was now the chief executive officer of an entirely new configuration of oil and gas interests, something as close to a subsidiary of the American corporation as you could get under the current Russian laws. While she listened to Paul, she could hear the noises of a busy office in the background.