EDITOR’S NOTE by Kevin Sampsell
“Pulls” is a classic example of a Gary Lutz story. It passes what I call “The Lutz Sentence Test” — close your eyes and point anywhere and be astounded by whatever sentence you land on. (I have customers do this all the time when I show them Lutz’s books at my bookstore job.) “Pulls” also displays the kind of push and pull (no punning intended) between the isolating sadness and dark humor that colors much of Lutz’s work. My reaction while reading “Pulls” is that I want to laugh out loud, but stabs of heart-aching sentences suffocate my urges. It is exactly this push/pull craftsmanship that makes Lutz a writer unlike any other. Sometimes I think maybe Lorrie Moore does this too, or Sam Lipsyte — both with crafty precision. But Lutz goes a shade darker, writing with language that would seem confrontational if it weren’t so dang perfect.
I want to talk about the humor in “Pulls.” At the risk of sounding like I’m explaining why something is funny, I’ll quote a few lines:
(On pets): “I wish I could remember whether they bailed on us, or just died, overfed.”
(On a co-worker): “Home was probably just an air mattress somewhere.”
(On family): “I had a sister, too, drying out again in the tedium of debt somewhere.”
These are sentences that would stand out in any other story by someone else, but in the scheme of a Gary Lutz story, these gems are surrounded by other sentences just as propulsive and witty and powerful. But “Pulls” isn’t merely a cobbled fancywork of lines. It is a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. A story with establishing scenery (an air conditioner that “required a bucket underneath it”), a strange, almost beautiful description of the characters trying to make sense of their lives (the narrator running multiple washing machines at the same time, with one item in each, for a “cautious, tyrannical clean”), and an ending where a love triangle seems to shrink to two.
We’re very excited to have this story in the new, expanded version of Partial List of People to Bleach. Gary has been my favorite storywriter ever since I discovered him way back in 1997. His collection Stories in the Worst Way is still my favorite book ever. So I am thrilled to work with one of my heroes, as is my partner and book designer Bryan Coffelt, another Lutz fanatic. When we put out the chapbook version of Partial List six years ago, we ended up printing quite a few copies–probably over 1,000–and it became hard to staple the thing. At 56 pages, it was a bit thick. Now, the book is twice that size and it looks beautiful as a little paperback (and limited edition hardcover!). And even though it’s a small collection, like Gary’s other books, it’s mammoth on the inside.
Founder, Future Tense Books
It has always been my custom to go hungry for people, then make my way practically from door to door. But there was a time I had a wife and a new best friend.
I was just doing the weary thing of being in my forties.
My wife wanted to be known best for her parting shots, the breadth of her good-byes. I could count on her to be back within hours, though, tidily silent in her chair.
And the best friend? He was an uncrusading man, rebuttable in everything. He looked felled, or probably at least fallen.
I began dividing my nights between them.
This wife and I had a rented house, two storeys of brutal roomth. The air conditioner required a bucket underneath it. Our meals were the cheapest of meats thinly veiled.
My best friend had some uncovetable rooms above a garage. We took down hours with our talk.
Here’s her name — Helene — though she will probably tell you different.
For a while, I tried to get her steered toward women. We settled on a blowhard of sporty despondence, crude to the eye but newly starving for her own sex. I staked the two of them to a meal and threw in good wishes.
She came home ebbing in all essences, looking explored and decreased.
She wanted to know about my best friend. I told her that he and I fell onto each other more in sexual pedantry than out of affection, that our life together did not grow on us or chew away at our hearts. His body was just profuse foolery.
Thirty-eight years of picked-over, furying age she was — brittled hair, a bulwark forehead, a voice that sounded blown through. There were hidey-holes in whatever she said.
I felt indefinite inside of her, out of my element and unstately in my need.
One night he wanted to know what it had been like to go through with the nuptials, the hymeneals. Not much had held up in memory. I let out that the minister had spoken of a “middle ground” between women and men or husband and wife, I forget — someplace irrigated and many-acred, maybe a plain. I had felt unchampioned that day. The minister got me alone at the reception, snapped his fingers, said, “This better not’ve been just some skit.”
There are only two things, really, to ever say to anyone.
Try: “I’m very happy for you.”
Or: “This is just not done.”
I made no more than the arcanest of passes at others. They probably never even knew they had been addressed or beset. I worked for a sloganless bail-bond concern. The people closest to me in seating were a rough-playing woman and a man about my age, drowning in the hours. The woman drank liquored sodas that brought something flowerful into her voice: words were now petally with extra syllables. The man took a restroom break whenever he saw somebody else come out. Maybe he found something engreatening about being in there so soon after anything dirtily human had been done. I pictured him taking deep, treasuring breaths, filling up on us. Home was probably just an air mattress somewhere.
I lived in the lonelihold of my portents and pulls.
Weeks kept fleeting past us.
My wife restocked her mind daily with factual packing from TV and the papers.
I would want a day to quit. Thinking what, though? That the one rising behind it might have a more encouraging bone structure in its hours or at least be calibered better for my regrets?
Then one night she wanted to know how she might recognize my friend on the street.
I spoke of the ordering of creases above his eyes, the general tempo of both his blinks and his nostril-flarings, the pitch and range of his arms, the usual drift of the rib that slid about inside him.
But nothing eased for her or for me.
My parents were still alive, still short on marvelry, still saying, “We’re all he has.”
I had a sister, too, drying out again in the tedium of debt somewhere.
She was an acher, patient but baneful in her morbid sweats.
I thus sing the praises of my kind, but more often I just look for signals in the faces of grocery cashiers who are required to say “hi” — women mostly, overevident in their agony; features miseried, it must be, by hitches in the upbringing of their men.
We tried pets, my wife and I. Bought a dog at cost, then a budget cat.
The dog was unawed by my guidance, my sweet talk.
The cat behaved — out of a love or regard, though, that was iotal, toiling.
If you bought for one, you had to buy for the other. (Mostly novelties to squeeze for a spectral, unmerry squeak.)
I wish I could remember whether they bailed on us or just died, overfed.
Another generation had shot up behind us anyway.
I had heard about these persons — that they were handling things differently.
This was the generation that was discovered to have been “just reading words” and then was taught how to get through a textbook by coloring the sentences so that a page, when the fingers had finished with it, looked beribboned, or zoned into chromatic blocks and runs. The books were handed in to the teacher, who graded mostly on pizzazz.
Nothing went untouted about these kids.
I went out and found one at a shopping center.
She was aimless of face, but things had been staged in her hair — demonstrations of metal and feather in the low altitudes of stickied coralline. What she wore wasn’t so much a cover as a kind of kiting, blown about before her as she thugged away at a mood. Whims of string (from a shoe, I think) were ringed around her wrist.
She had just been graduated from the two-year institute outside of town.
I took her out for one of the current coffees.
She asked whether I knew that cold water melted ice cubes faster than hot.
I nodded learnedly.
She mentioned “sleeping in.”
I told her I had been well into my central twenties before it dawned on me that to “sleep with” someone didn’t simply mean to take a companion for your horizontal hours and thereby get sleep domed over you so much the higher than it would if you went home to bed alone. I had thought that was how you gave greater compass, greater volume, to your dreams.
She sipped, and shook her head, and said sleep roamed all over her — it was tramply; it left reddening trackage on her back.
“Not that you’ll ever get to see,” she said.
She wanted my address anyway. I gave her the friend’s. I did get one letter later, a good-bye. It was, she wrote, a “bill adieu.”
I am leaving out the hobbies, the odd jobs, the aplomb I had that just got harder and harder on people.
But I will admit I went to the doctor about the ache in my face. It eventually swelled my cheeks and slit into my sleep.
The doctor called it a “referred” pain. It had arrived, he claimed, from someplace else.
He shunted me off to a specialist, who said the body always waits until the last minute to explain itself to you.
And my wife? I had borne some of the brunt of her fresh starts, seen what helping hands could do with someone like that.
Even her arm — the flesh of it looked tilled, perfected in every lurid turning away. It could withstand scrutinies more spiteful than mine.
She fell in with a man full of biblical quips, brash intelligence about the presaging capers of his Lord. I saw her vivified and steep by his side in the business district one day. I was by myself in the house every other night. I liked the reliable isolations. I spent some time in the book she had been through. There had been obvious violence in her sessions with it. The binding was loose. It barely had a clutch on the leafage anymore. The bookmark kept sliding out.
She came back to me with tiny growths in her groin and a new, striving vagueness of eye.
Then I found a huge laundry room in an apartment tower near the house. For a time, I couldn’t do enough laundries there. Nobody caught on that my basket was practically empty. I would enchant every machine with dollar-store detergent, then get the things gushing and thumping through their cyclicals.
I confined myself to one item per load. This ensured a cautious, tyrannical clean.
Even better, there was a lost-and-found, a big cardboard box torn down a little from the top. I started bringing things to kick in — whatever clamored up toward me from the lowest of my life. The thinking must have been that I was most devoted to people I had not yet met, that I was best at laying out courtesies in advance. Thus the box filled mostly with helpings from my wardrobe: shirts gathering further shine; slacks that were negligences of hemmed fabric, down whose twinned chutes my legs had once gone their separate ways.
My best friend and I were now living in an underhanded familiarity that, from farther off, might have been taken for an advance in attachment.
We made it to the yard sales and brought back further caprices of the culture. Once it was just a mug whose hectic lettering said, “READ A MAGAZINE TONIGHT!”
But nothing much was flaring in my heart.
One night I told him that our lives differed in unbeautifying ways. I told him our bodies could never really be in league.
I pointed at his hand. It had just left mine and was started on its way elsewards.
His fingers always looked as if they were squabbling among themselves, undecided about what might next be deserving of touch.
My wife was walking a fine line, wearing herself away from me.
Months broadened in their burden.
Then the advent of her scandal: sprigs of intimate hair trapped, specimenized, in the clear sealing tape all over the holiday packages that went out one noon to “influentials.” Her defense? Anything hailing from a body had to be worthy of at least flitting reverence on your way to the sink.
But cracks had started forming in her words. Things ever after were fissured in her speech.
Then the girl wanted to see me after all. Told me to meet her in the new wing of the closest mall. There was a swinge of ambition in her step as she saw me drawing near.
She hated all her friends now, she said — preeners mostly, demanding dripling sorrows of every instant in her shadow. And what about me? she wondered. Did people my age have friends?
I mentioned a couple of people who lifted emotions without giving credit yet expected originality in any affections coming from me.
“Tell me your wife’s side,” she said.
One evening, I caught sight of a man who had assumed himself anew in my slacks, my shirt, my jacket and shoes.
He was startleproof in some sort of painless hurry, apparently.
The look he gave me was not a grateful one, or even salutatious, but I felt at large.
One night the three of us were in our right minds around the same table. There might have been a birthday. I remember that something consolatory had been ciphered into the icing of a store-baked cake.
I grabbed her hand.
Released its fingers — or set them out, rather, in severalizing meander — onto his arm.
I must have thought I was getting something exalted on one or the other.
The fingers, I could see, were stuck.
I got up, feeling scanted and surpassed.
My life now dates from that day.