Mine & Certain Riddances by Gary Lutz

Two stories from STORIES IN THE WORST WAY for the 20th anniversary of the original collection


Gary Lutz’s debut collection, Stories in the Worst Way, was published on October 29, 1996 by Alfred A. Knopf, Gordon Lish its editor and dedicatee. Publishers Weekly was brutal (“unremittingly grim, pretentious and oblique”) while the New York Times (“more like stylistic exercises than stories”) wrote it off in a single-paragraph squib. No paperback followed the hardcover. Stories, to be blunt, was born dead.

But every book’s life, sooner or later, is an afterlife. Stories in the Worst Way found its following, and Lutz his. The collection was reissued in 2003 by 3rd Bed Editions, the book-publishing arm of the journal of the same name, devoted to “fresh voices who are making excursions into new territories, expanding beyond the front lawn and kitchen table of American realism.” The press was established specifically to instigate Stories’ resurrection. A third edition was published by Calamari Press in 2009. Lutz is now the author of (so far) four story collections, which together comprise a beloved and influential body of work unlike any other in American literature. A chapbook, Assisted Living, will be published by Future Tense Books in December. One hopes for a Collected Stories in the coming years.

Sven Birkerts has compared the experience of a Lutz story with “the feeling that I so often have after reading a John Ashbery poem, a feeling of having been drawn, attentive, through a cloudy tonality.” George Saunders is equally trenchant in observing that “the insanely tight, compressed sentences build into insanely tight, compressed stories that show us what America and contemporary life can feel like, at their darkest core.” The assessments seem veritable antitheses, yet both are true, emphatically and at once. Amy Hempel cuts to the chase: “Gary Lutz is, simply, one of my favorite writers.”

When I first encountered Lutz’s work I fell rapidly and ecstatically under its influence. I read his lines aloud to anyone who’d listen (my nonplussed mother, for instance) and wrote miserable imitations by the score. The hard lesson learned was not that I couldn’t out-Lutz Lutz (though I couldn’t; no one can) but rather that I should not have been attempting to. The young writer, if he is ever to end his apprenticeships, must come to distinguish fellow-traveling from footstep-following. There are other ways than imitation to assimilate influence. The debt my work owes Lutz’s is only greater for the fact that nobody’s going to mistake one of my stories for one of his.

As luck would have it, Lutz and I were put in touch when I was still in those fierce initial throes of admiration. The interview he graciously granted was among my first pieces of literary journalism. On a few occasions, I have been privileged to publish his stories — in an anthology here, a journal there. It frankly floors me to reckon we’ve now known each other for better than a decade.

There are 36 stories in the 151 pages of Stories in the Worst Way. I have chosen two of them: “Mine” is very short, “Certain Riddances” a bit longer. If this is your first time reading Gary Lutz, I hope they leave you eager for more. And to those already familiar, may this modest marker of a major milestone renew that thrill and awe you felt on first encounter. Stories in the Worst Way is as richly estranging and rewarding as it was 20 years ago, and if we are better equipped to appreciate it now than we were back then, I suspect it is because Lutz has taught us, with patient faith and unswerving conviction, how to read him. He has made his ferocious fluencies our own.

Justin Taylor
Author of Flings

Mine & Certain Riddances by Gary Lutz


by Gary Lutz

Do what I do: come from a family, have parents, have done things, shitty things, over and over and over. There was the one day I got too friendly with my friend. The next summer, I welcomed men into the house while my mother and father were at work. I did this to the exclusion of everything else I was cut out for at twenty-two. The men passed through me one way or the other and came out narrowly mine.

That was the one summer my heart had clout.

In the early evening, I would sit on the patio while my father stooped among his flowers. I could never sit for more than half an hour without having to get up to walk to the bathroom at least once. I don’t know what I was expecting to come out, but I never once looked. I would put the lid down before I flushed.

Later, in the dining room, where the table would already be set, my father would say his piece. It always amounted to the same thing: if there was a problem, I should let Dr. Zettlemoyer know.

After dinner, I would go straight to bed. I crossed each night by linking one minute securely to the next, building a bridge that swung through the dark. I did my real sleeping in the morning sun, and around noon the first of the men would knock. The fact that they spaced themselves out assured me that they all knew one another and got along and were reasonable. Whoever was first was never a matter of surprise, but I think they would have liked the sequence to hold meaning.

My father never came home sick in the afternoon to find me on my knees in the living room with my mouth full of somebody’s grave, helpless perpendicularity. I never got to see my father eye to eye like that, the only way I wanted to.

My father: what stood out about him was that his life got put past him.

It was my mother who taught me the one worthwhile thing: when they ask if you like what you see in the mirror, pretend that what they mean is what’s behind you — the shower curtain, the tile, the wallpaper, whatever’s there.

Certain Riddances

by Gary Lutz

The boss had a long list of reasons for letting me go — most of which, I am ashamed to admit, were generously understated. It’s true, for instance, that I hogged the photocopier for hours on end and snapped at whoever politely — deferentially — inquired about how much longer I would be. I was intent on achieving definitively sooty, penumbral effects to ensure that copies looked like copies, and that, of course, took time. Some days I spent entire afternoons reproducing blank sheets of paper, ream after ream, to use instead of the “from the desk of — ” notepads the boss kept ordering for each of us.

It’s also largely true that I had never bothered to learn the names of any of my co-workers. Everybody was either Miss or Sir. I am talking about people with whom I had shared a water fountain and a single restroom for years, people whose office wardrobes I had inventoried in pocket notebooks, people whose sets of genitals had often steamed only inches from my own. Actually, I had known their names but could just never stoop to using them. Most days what I felt was this: the minute you put a first name and a last name together, you’ve got a pair of tusks coming right at you (i.e., Watch out, buddy). But on days when I didn’t disapprove of everybody on principle — days when the whole cologned, cuff-shooting ruck of my co-workers didn’t repulse me from the moment they disembarked from the sixth-floor elevator and began squidging their way along the carpeted track that led to the office — my thinking stabbed more along these lines: A name belittles that which is named. Give a person a name and he’ll sink right into it, right into the hollows and the dips of the letters that spell out the whole insultingly reductive contraption, so that you have to pull him up and dance him out of it, take his attendance, and fuck some life into him if you expect to get any work out of him. Multiply him by twenty-two and you will have some idea of what the office was like, except that a good third of my colleagues were female.

My real problem, of course, was that I could dispatch an entire day’s worth of work in just under two hours. It’s not that I was smart — far from it. But I was quick. I knew where things should go. I had always liked the phrase “line of work,” because to me there actually was a line, raying out to the gridded, customered world from my cubicle, with its frosted plastic partitions that shot up all around me but gave out a few feet shy of the tiled, sprinkler-fixtured ceiling.

With so much extra time on my hands, I had to keep myself busy with undertakings of my own. For instance, there was a young woman, a fine-boned receptionist, who each day veiled her legs with opaque hosiery of a different hue, never anything even remotely flesh-toned. Every morning when I passed her desk, I would glance at her calves to note the shade. I soon began keeping track of the colors in a special file vaulted in the upper-right drawer of my battered dreadnought of a desk. Once, on my lunch hour, I made a special trip to a drugstore near the office to soak up the entire palette of hosiery shades — off-black, coffee, smoke, stone, mushroom, misty gray — because I wanted my record to be precise. Eventually I began to worry that beneath the cloak of the receptionist’s hosiery the flesh of her legs was crisply diseased. The worry enlarged and clamored itself into a conviction. Soon it became critical for her to understand the extent of what I had on her. On the first of each month, I began slipping into her mail slot a little unsigned booklet — an almanac, really — with unruled four-by-six index cards for covers. The booklet consisted of as many pages as there had been days in the previous month, and each page recorded the date, the shade of the hosiery she had worn that day, and an entirely speculative notation about the degree of opacity and what it implied about whatever man had been entrenched in her the night before (sample: “June 6, charcoal, glaucomatous — how remarkably hateful of you and your niggard”). All of this would be jittered out in a near-gothic script with a calligraphy pen bought especially for the purpose in a hobby store on an overbright Sunday afternoon. By and by, I would find each booklet tacked to the bulletin board above the Xerox machine, along with a memo from the boss saying: “This must stop.”

There was another woman, a pouncy administrative assistant, with a pair of succinct, pointed breasts — interrogative breasts. Even though I smeared past her in the corridor, wordlessly, no more than once or twice a week, I would feel grilled, third-degreed, for hours or even days afterward. At first, whenever the pressure to respond was acute — maybe every other day — I would simply slide an anonymous, index-carded “True” or “False” into her mail slot. But my responses eventually thickened into essays — with longish, interjaculatory asides about my lactose intolerance, my disloyalties, the gist and grain of my extracubicular life — and then into sets of dampish, insinuative memoirs, some of which kept me slumped over my desk for days at a time. These, too, which I photocopied until the words got shadowed and blurry, would wind up pinpricked to the bulletin board, with pealing cautionary memos from the boss.

The last response I sent her — and the only one that didn’t end up flapping at me from the corkboard — was a twenty-three-page streak of reminiscence about a belated birthday gift I had received from my grandfather a few days after I turned ten years old. What he had mailed me was a big, gleamless omnibus set of board games. On the lid of the box, the words my treasure chest of games: a different game for every day of every week of the year were spelled out in runny, unweighted block letters. Inside were an arrowed cardboard spinner, a pair of bleary, chalkish dice, an unwaxed deck of playing cards, some plastic markers, a dozen or so flimsy, tri-fold game boards, each printed on both sides, and an unstapled book of instructions. The whole set struck me as trappy and degrading. I felt as if somebody else’s life were being lowered over mine and that it would remain there, bestraddling and overruling, for a whole year. I remember tearing up each of the game boards — they were easy enough to shred — and bedding the pieces of each board on a separate sheet of construction paper and then balling it all up and depositing each scrumpled ball in a different wastebasket. Our house was full of wastebaskets, more than one to a room, because of the people we were intent on becoming. When my grandfather died, about a year later, and I got coaxed into attending the viewing, I noticed a spatter of paint — hobby paint, I was convinced — on each lens of his bifocals. Nobody had bothered to scrape it off, or else somebody had made a big point of not scraping it off. On a lamped lectern near the entrance to the chapel was a big book open to a page that everybody at the viewing was supposed to sign with a bead-chained pen. Where my name should have gone, I remember writing: “It goes to show.”

The intern I left alone. The intern was just some college kid, a carrel-bound girl with a face full of sharp, unkissed features. She was only twenty, twenty-one tops, and yet there she was, assigned as much square-footage as I occupied after nine soiling, promotionless years. I had banked a digital alarm clock atop a butte of telephone directories on my shelf, and after lunch I would watch 1:12 virus into 1:13, 1:14, 1:15, and I would wish for enough dexterity to fold a paper airplane and then deftly sail it through the space we shared above the partitions, landing it on her desk. But what would I have typed — and left starkly unphotocopied — inside? “Be glad you’re not the one who’s going to relieve himself on a certain something the next time the boss walks out of the restroom with his suit jacket still hooked on the back of the door”?

The boss was a large man with intricately redefined dentition — a mouthful of wirework and porcelain. His eyes were slow and halting: they arrived at what they were supposed to be looking at only after lots of embarrassed trial and error. The morning he summoned me to his office to recommend that I take the first of a series of renewable leaves of absence, I kept my eyes on the cuneiform scatter of golf tees on his glass-plated desktop. The boss inquired about my “home life” and my “social life,” but he talked mostly about his own. He had a teenage son, he explained, who was taking accelerated classes in high school and also a college course in art history on Saturday mornings. He had to chauffeur the kid to the college, because the kid was afraid to drive, and then he had to kill two and a half hours walking around the campus. The textbook for the course cost ninety dollars, he said, and, stealing through its glossy pages one night while the kid was out of the house, he discovered that the kid had styled tank tops and jockstraps onto the male nudes.

“What about you?” the boss said, reaching for a form I was supposed to fill out. “Are you involved with anyone?”

“Everybody,” I said.

Because my body was shacky and provisional, I kept it buried beneath flopping, oversized brown corduroy suits. I had exactly six suits — all identical, all purchased from the same discount outlet on the same day, almost ten years earlier. At first, people had predictably, pityingly, said: “He only has the one suit.” But eventually their tune changed to: “The guy must have a hundred suits!” The once steep and erect wales had been worn down until they were almost level with the wide gutters running between them.

It was in one of those eroded suits that I found some part-time work on the night shift at an office where two dozen or so employees, mostly students and housewives, looked up account numbers on microfiche screens and then penciled the numbers onto mint-green computer sheets. The turnover was high, and I was always the only male. Every time somebody new reported for work, she would see me in my suit and plump toward my desk. I would have to wave her off in the direction of the supervisor, a tasseled, doubtful black woman.

The supervisor began her nightly announcements, a third of the way through the shift, by bleating, “Listen up, girls.” I would always sense the eyes of my co-workers on me when, instead of cleaving to my work for a manful, face-saving half-minute or longer before lifting my head and swiveling in the direction of the supervisor, I would swing around secretarially at the instant the word girls was expelled from her mouth.

I felt privileged.

Unless the landlady counted the number of times water ran in the bathtub, there was no way for her to know that I was no longer living alone. By his own choice, the kid never left the apartment, and we never fought, so what else was there for her to hear? I dressed him in cotton skirts and sleeveless sweaters that I picked out in secondhand stores, using only one criterion: each garment had to be exceptionally confiding. The life of its previous owner needed to have bled vividly into the fibers to compensate for whatever would go unsaid or undreamed of in the new wearer. I had to apply this criterion harshly, because the kid was warm but otherwise unwieldable. I knew enough not to expect much from him in the way of help around the house. But I enjoyed arranging myself into a chair he had just absented for another bath or his hourly shave. He kept the bathroom door locked behind him and took his time.

What was between us eventually got beneath everything.

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