[An excerpt from WRITING, WRITTEN which is now available from Fantagraphics Books. Order your copy here.]

 

IN THIS ONE he’ll only have one daughter and no other child. In this one he’ll be divorced and his ex-wife will live in California. In this one he’ll live in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan and not in a house in Baltimore. In this one no one will live on Riverside Drive or West 75th Street. In this one he’ll be a novelist who’s written only five short stories in his entire writing life. In this one he’ll have finished a novel a month or so ago after working on it for more than three years. In this one he won’t use the expression “or so.” In this one he’ll have a dog instead of a cat. In this one he’ll want almost desperately to start a new novel but can’t come up with any idea for one. It’s never happened before, not for more than fifty years of writing, and in this one he’s getting anxious he’ll never come up with something to write again. In this one no one will go to a concert, recital or opera and no music will be played on a radio or CD. In this one his daughter tries to fix him up with a woman about ten years younger than he whom she becomes friendly with at work, but nothing comes of it. They have lunch a couple of times and in this one he finds her attractive but not interesting and she tells his daughter she doesn’t find him interesting or attractive. In this one other people besides his daughter try to fix him up with women, but it never works out, mainly because neither is interested in most of the things the other is. In this one he doesn’t make a play for women much younger than he. In this one no one goes down in a ship in the North Atlantic or is killed by a fallen tree or a huge chunk of concrete that comes off a building. He doesn’t dream in this one, or if he dreams he doesn’t describe them. In this one there are no conversations in cars. In this one he hasn’t been a reporter or news editor or waiter or bartender or cabby or artist model or gardener or luncheonette counterman or department store salesman or middle or junior high school teacher before he becomes an assistant professor. In this one he hasn’t made love for more than three years. In this one the last woman he made love to wasn’t his wife. In this one his wife doesn’t get very ill and no one he knows is dying or dies. In this one there are no funerals or memorials and no one gets taken to Emergency in an EMS truck. Did he already say that? In this one he never says or thinks, “Did he already say that?” and right after it, “Even if he did.” In this one he’s not going to fall apart or cry or shout hysterically or drop to his knees and bang his fists on the pavement. In this one he’s not going to have any trouble with his memory and letter by letter have to go up the alphabet to get someone’s first or last name or a book title, and there’ll be no talk or thoughts of writers and books. In this one he won’t feel he’ll never have a chance to make love to a woman again. In this one the last woman he makes love with is someone he was engaged to almost fifty years ago. In this one, after not being in touch with her for almost forty years and not even realizing she lives in the city and has for about twenty years, he bumps into her in front of a Rembrandt self-portrait in the Dutch wing of the Metropolitan Museum. In this one they have dinner the following night and after dinner she invites him to her apartment for a drink. In this one no one calls a drink like that a nightcap. In this one she says while he’s finishing his second brandy and she’s nursing her first, “So, my ex-dearie, care to have a go at it for old time’s sake?” In this one, though he knows what she means but wants a little more time to think about it, he says, “Excuse me but a go at what?” and in this one he’s not going to use the expression “says” or “said something like.” In this one, what he says or said is just that. In this one he won’t wonder, for instance, if he’s using the word “expression” right or if it sometimes shouldn’t be called “phrase.” In this one she says, “Excuse me yourself, but what do I have to do, spell it out for you? I’m being open and honest and forward and I deserve a mature and honest response.” In this one no one used the expression or phrase “the least,” as in “the least I deserve,” or anything like that. “Sex. Act of love. Love act. Two bodies coupling,” she says. “You want to add to that, do. We’re certainly of age, but not beyond it, thank goodness, and because we both work out so much, appear to be in pretty good shape for our seventy-plus years. You’re not in danger of having a heart attack, are you?” and in this one, because he’s used the word too many times too, there’ll be no mention of a stroke. “Spare me and yourself if there is that danger. Not only don’t I want you to be sick, but having an attack like that would be devastating to us both. If you simply don’t want to go to bed with me, that’s perfectly all right too. We could still see each other as friends, but I doubt we would. And help me. You, having been a writer for so long and of God knows how many sentences and books, must know if I used ‘for old time’s sake’ correctly or if it should have been ‘for old time sake.’” “Whatever it is,” he says in this one, “and I have to admit that at the present moment I don’t know which is right, yes. I’d like to. Go to bed with you. Would love to, in fact,” and in this one he’ll use the expression or phrase “in fact” and the word “anyway” only once. “Anyway, one thing you should know is that I’m not sure I’ll be able to perform in bed all that well. I’m not saying I won’t, but there is that chance. It’s been a while. And last time—I should say last three to four thousand times—was with my wife, whom I loved deeply and probably still do, and deeply miss too. That could affect my performance, I hate calling it, but you know what I mean. It’s possible I won’t even be able to get started. I’ve warned you, so please don’t criticize or blame me if it turns out to be a bust. If you’re still willing to go ahead with it, after that spiel, I’m game.” In this one she gets out of the chair she’s been sitting on across from him. In this one he’s also in a chair. In this one there’s no mention of a sofa or couch and he doesn’t sit on one next to a woman. In this one there’s a Hollywood bed with pillows on it against the wall but she tells him it’s full of cat hair and is uncomfortable and he shouldn’t sit on it unless he wants to be brushing off his pants for the next two days or get them dry-cleaned. In this one there’s no kissing before they go into the bedroom. In this one the only time they kissed that night before they were in the bedroom was when they met in front of the restaurant, and that was on the cheek. In this one she says after she stands up, “The bedroom’s through there,” and points to a short hallway. In this one she says, “Wait a minute. I’m not being a good host and I don’t want to rush you. Would you like another drink before we go to the bedroom?” He says, in this one, “I’d actually like to—the brandy was delicious—but it’s getting late and it might tire me and affect my performance, again, for want or wont of a better word, so I won’t. What I would like is to clean up a little—wash my face and hands and brush my teeth. Do you have a spare toothbrush? And may I use the towel in the bathroom? If not, for my teeth, I’ll clean them with this,” and holds up his right index finger. “I have two,” and she says in this one, “both in the holder, and you can use either one. Toothpaste should be in the cup there, and there are face towels on the towel rack you can use. Why don’t you go first?” In this one, he goes into the bathroom and shuts the door. After he comes out, she goes into the bathroom and he goes into the bedroom and sits on the side of the bed nearest the door, waiting for her to come into the bedroom. It’s been a while, as he said in this one, since he’s been with a woman for the first time, or what seems like it—more than thirty years—and he’s not sure what he should do. Should he take off his shoes before she comes in here? He thinks in this one. Also his socks? Should he put his socks, if he takes them off, in his shoes? If he does, he thinks in this one, where should he put his shoes, under the bed on the side he’s sitting on? Or should he leave them on the floor but not under the bed till he finds out which side of the bed she wants to be on? In this one he leaves his shoes on. In this one, each of them spends a few minutes in the bathroom. In this one, while he’s in the bedroom, she shuts all the lights off in the rest of the apartment and brings their glasses into the kitchen and puts them in the sink. In this one she comes into the bedroom after she leaves the bathroom and says, “I left a nightlight on in the bathroom in case you have to go there later on.” In this one she says, “The cat hasn’t made an appearance yet, but give him time. Don’t be alarmed if he tries to get in bed with us when we’re sleeping.” “If he does,” he says in this one, “can I push him off the bed?” “I’d prefer,” she says in this one, “you pick him up gently and set him down on the floor.” In this one she starts undressing first. Each takes off his own clothes, in this one, and then gets in bed, she by the side furthest from the door. In this one they kiss for the first time while lying in bed. In this one the sex isn’t as good as he last remembered it with his wife and he was hoping for with her. He does okay, though, in this one, mostly because she was so helpful. In this one, it’s a relief when he finally completes it and more of a relief in a different way when a few seconds later she starts it too and he can still help her. In this one, after they make love they lie on their sides facing away from each other and he doesn’t hold her from behind and isn’t held from behind as he falls asleep. In this one he gets up three times at night to pee. After he comes back to bed the third time, she says, “Is anything wrong?” and he says, “No. I don’t know what it is. It’s just pee, though, no discoloration, and probably from all I drank tonight. Good thing you had a nightlight to leave on.” In this one, in the morning while she’s still sleeping, he lies in bed and thinks he doesn’t ever want to make love with her or even see her again. In this one he doesn’t have a prostate problem. In this one he isn’t taking medication for high blood pressure. In this one no one has MS or Parkinson’s disease. In this one he doesn’t have precancerous scalp lesions that have to be burned off by a dermatologist every six months. In this one he isn’t bent over a little from an arthritic lower back and is the same height he was when he was twenty and hasn’t shrunk three to four inches the last five years. In this one he has blue eyes instead of nondescript brown and has no acne scars and he’s lost only a little hair at the temples and none in back and is just slightly gray. In this one he works out every other day in a health club in New York and swims a mile in its pool twice a week, instead of in so many of the other ones working out in the Towson Y in Maryland every day and not once getting into its pool. In this one he’s a soon-to-retire professor in New York rather than a retired one from a university in Baltimore. In this one he reads two to three books a week of various lengths rather than a single average-size book that usually takes him a month to read. In this one he speaks decent Yiddish he learned from his grandparents on his father’s side when he was a boy and is fluent in German and French. In this one all his grandparents were alive when he was born instead of all of them being dead for several years. In this one he has no sisters and his only brother is three years younger than him and in excellent health. In this one his father was a doctor instead of a dentist or pharmacist or textile salesman in the Garment District and his mother was a stage actress for many years and not, in her early twenties, a dancer in Broadway musical reviews and former beauty queen. In this one he doesn’t meet a woman at a cocktail or dinner party, or did he already say that? If he did, then that’ll be the only time he forgets something in this one, if he didn’t already say that too. In this one he tells his daughter on the phone how lonely he sometimes gets since her mother left him, but not to worry about it and he’s sorry he brought it up. In this one, without first telling him what she was going to do, she registers him with an online dating service and writes his resume and sends it and a recent photo of him to the service. In this one he doesn’t respond to any of the women the service tries to match him up with and the ones his daughter thinks might be right for him and asks her to unregister him…deregister him…just get him out of the system, which he’d do himself if he knew how. In this one he tells his daughter that probably the only way he’ll get to meet a woman he’ll be interested in is by accident—in a movie theater lobby, for instance, when both are waiting in line to be let inside, or at a bookstore in the fiction or literary criticism or poetry section, and more likely the first two. In this one he sees from the street, after he stands up from retying the shoelace on one shoe, an attractive woman sitting alone at a small table in a coffee shop near where he lives. She’s reading a book and on her table are an untouched chocolate croissant and a mug of some coffee drink with a thick mound of white foam on top. Means she must have only recently sat down, he thinks in this one. He also, while looking through the window, thinks his wife liked to do the same things when they lived together in New York: sit alone in a coffee shop—usually the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam Avenue—and read a book and have a chocolate croissant or almond horn and a cappuccino with lots of foam and sometimes whipped cream on it. In this one—still looking through the window but prepared to quickly turn around if she looks his way—he thinks he’ll never meet a woman again to go out with unless he makes an effort to. He goes inside, gets a double espresso—a single, he thinks in this one, would be consumed in two sips—and sits with it at a small empty table next to the woman’s, reads a page of the book he has with him and then starts a conversation with her about the book she’s reading, which he’s heard is very good and always wanted to read but for some inexplicable reason has put off. In this one they talk about the author of the book she’s reading, contemporary Austrian fiction, late nineteenth-century Austro-Hungarian fiction, which she wrote her doctoral dissertation on and he’s completely unfamiliar with, and teaching—she’s also an associate professor but a visiting one for two years at a university downtown. In this one they talk for about half an hour. Then she looks at her watch, says, “Oh, my gosh,” stands up, collects her things, says it’s been nice talking to him but now she has a dental appointment to go to, “something I should have thought about before I got a chocolate croissant, of all things,” and leaves. In this one, still sitting at the table, he thinks he should have asked if she’d like to meet him one day for coffee or lunch and got her first and last names. After all, he thinks in this one, they’ve similar interests, she seemed to enjoy talking to him, they live just a few blocks from each other, and he also found out in their conversation that she’s divorced—a year longer than him—has one child, a son around his daughter’s age, and a grandchild. He did, though, he thinks in this one, still sitting at the table, break the ice with a woman he was attracted to and, far as he could tell, seemed right for him. In this one, a month later, he stops in front of the same coffee shop window and looks inside, which he’s done, he’d say, about a dozen times since he last saw her, hoping she’d be here, and sees her sitting at the table he sat at and the one she sat at is empty. She’s reading a book, and a half-eaten chocolate croissant and mug of some coffee drink are on the table—probably the same drink she had the last time he saw her, but this one has no foam. Don’t pass up this chance, he tells himself in this one, because who knows if he’ll ever see her here again. He goes inside, goes over to her and says, “Hello, what a pleasant surprise. May I join you after I place my order?” and she says, “If you don’t mind, and please don’t think I’m being rude or unfriendly. But I have to finish this book in the next fifteen minutes because I’m teaching it in an hour, and I still have my extensive notes on it to read.” “By all means,” he says in this one, and thinks should he leave? Should he stay? Should he get a coffee and maybe a pastry of some sort to make it seem as if he really did come in for them and sit at the counter or a table far away from her and read his book and never look at her, and leaves.

 

 

Stephen Dixon (b. 1936) grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with six siblings. Before he became a college professor at the age of 43, he lived a life, working as a school bus driver, a bartender, a systems analyst, an artist’s model, a middle school teacher, a department store clerk, and a reporter in Washington, D.C., where he interviewed John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Nikita Khrushchev, and L.B.J., among others. He wrote his first short story in 1959 and attributed to his older brother, Jim, a fiction writer, the best advice he had ever gotten: “You have to finish them.” Which advice, having subsequently written over 500 short stories, he decidedly took. His first published short story, “The Chess House,” appeared in The Paris Review in 1963 (#29). He taught at Johns Hopkins University for nearly three decades. He was also a two-time National Book Award nominee—for his novels Frog and Interstate—and his work was selected for four O. Henry Prizes, two Best American selections, three Pushcart Prizes, one Best Stories of the South, two stories in the Norton Anthology of American Literature and possibly others he was too modest to list. He hammered out his fiction on a vintage typewriter. He passed away on November 6th, 2019, at the age of 83.

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