Authors: David Guterson
ALSO BY DAVID GUTERSON
Songs for a Summons
A Memoir of Madness
Our Lady of the Forest
East of the Mountains
Snow Falling on Cedars
Why Homeschooling Makes Sense
The Country Ahead of Us,
the Country Behind
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright © 2014 by David Guterson
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House companies.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
Selected stories in this work originally appeared in the following: “Hush” and “Paradise” in
The American Scholar;
“Photograph” as “The Drowned Son” in
The Indiana Review;
“Hot Springs” and “Krassavitseh” in
The New England Review;
and “Politics” in
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Alfred Music for permission to reprint an excerpt from “Not to Touch the Earth,” words and music by the Doors. Copyright © 1968 (Renewed) Doors Music Co. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by permission of Alfred Music.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
[Short stories. Selections]
Problems with People : Stories / David Guterson. — First Edition.
978-0-385-35148-5 (hardcover : alk. paper) —
6 2014 813’.54—dc23 2013029700
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
, 2011, from the series “Until the Kingdom Comes” by Simen Johan, courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York
Jacket design by Kelly Blair
To Charles Johnson
They went in late September, starting out on I-5, which she handled by staying in the right lane with ample braking distance, keeping her hands at nine and three on the wheel, and disdaining speeders and tailgaters. No problem there—he found her driving style charming enough. She was a silver beauty in a dark-blue Honda Element—one of those boxy, hip-to-be-square cars—with nearly inaudible public-radio chatter on fade, and all of that was fine, too. She wore a jean jacket with mother-of-pearl buttons, an ironed pastel skirt, and suede lace sandals. Her eyes were green, her smile was warm, and she didn’t talk just to fill space. She seemed self-sufficient but not cold about it. In her politics, she was not so liberal as to be obnoxious, but not so conservative as to suggest one-upmanship. She didn’t pretend to be an organic farmer, kitchen goddess, world traveler, yoga master, or humanitarian; neither was she reactionary with regard to those personas. She was green but not gloomy and, though not indifferent to approaching sixty, not obsessed by it, either. She had a good
sense of humor—quiet and subtle. She didn’t expect to live forever via exercise and a healthy diet. She understood that he was still in the aftermath—damaged goods—without making it central to the way she treated him. In short, so far he wasn’t disenchanted. But he still expected to be.
How had this happened—this trip to Paradise? Via match.com, that was the simple answer. The idea that he would need match.com—he wouldn’t have predicted it, hadn’t seen that he would go there. But match.com was what people did now, and actually, it made sense. It saved single people trouble and grief, decreased their disappointments and misunderstandings. Digitalized, you put yourself out there, minus the pretense that it was other than what it was. You cut to the chase without preliminaries.
And the people you met were just like you—they’d also resorted to match.com—so you didn’t have to feel embarrassed, really, unless you wanted to do that together and mutually laugh at yourselves.
They’d skipped that step—the self-loathing self-punctures—opting instead for straightforwardness in a wine bar, where he told her immediately about his wife, and she told him about her former husband, long remarried. He described his children—a boy out of college and a girl still in, both thousands of miles from him—and she described her energetic twin sons, who’d found good marriage partners, stayed in Seattle, and started a successful business together, selling “hand-forged” donuts. He knew about her work from her match.com profile, but asked about it anyway, as a matter of course: sociology at Seattle University, and doing research, right now, on social networks and epidemiology. His turn
arrived: commercial litigation, specializing in securities fraud. What exactly was securities fraud? And so they got through their first date.
Their second—which he initiated, though the first had been arduous and painful—was for an early dinner and Russian chamber music. Russian chamber music was her idea, something she had enough of an interest in to have accepted, gratis, two tickets from a colleague; they might as well go, why not, they agreed, since neither knew the first thing about Russian chamber music but both were willing to find out about it. At dinner in a warehouse full of people half their age, he discovered that his date was allergic to peanuts, a light eater, and a morning lap swimmer. The World Health Organization, in conjunction with FIND—Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics—had sent her during her sabbatical, last year, to study sleeping sickness in Uganda. No, she hadn’t traveled elsewhere in Africa, but she had gone to Geneva for a WHO convention in the middle of her Ugandan research, and to Dublin on her way home to see a friend with ALS. Dublin was a subject he could talk about a little. He’d played semi-pro basketball in Cork for three seasons. A minor sport there—give them hurling instead. What’s hurling? she wondered genially. Golf without rules, he replied.
Did he play golf, then? Never, he assured her. Golf courses, they agreed, were a waste of water, although, like cemeteries, they relieved the eye of urban density. What, then? For exercise? He rode a bicycle to work five days a week. He confessed to dressing like a bike nerd to do it—the polyester jersey, the Lycra shorts, the waterproof helmet cover, the fingerless gloves.
The fluorescent, high-visibility colors. The weekend racer’s flourishes and trim. Was all of that a mistake? He couldn’t tell. Self-deprecation could easily backfire. Calling yourself a geek: surely counterproductive. He shut up about bicycling and engaged her on politics: what did she think about tearing down the viaduct and replacing it with a tunnel through downtown Seattle? They ate, split the bill, and walked toward the chamber music: twilight in the city, just a little car breeze; a waif with
scrawled on cardboard. “Maybe,” he thought, “my chinos are wrong,” but she hadn’t really dressed up, either—black with a little sparkle in her sweater. Still, she had that notable feature—the lustrous head of bobbed silver hair—that would cover her when semi-formal was required, as it might be required for Russian chamber music.
As it turned out, he didn’t love or hate the chamber music, had no strong feelings one way or the other about the string quartet and attractive young pianist playing Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich, but he did notice something in Benaroya Hall that spurred him toward a third date. Sitting beside this new and unfamiliar woman in box seats over a corner of the proscenium, he was keenly aware of her well-coiffed hair, her straight carriage, and her hands in her lap, and he found himself excited. And scared.
Their third date was for dinner at an Italian restaurant that afforded plenty of privacy. There they broached sex in plain, honest terms. He told her he didn’t know what would happen in bed. He said he hadn’t slept with anyone but his wife for twenty-six years—then add on the six months since she’d died of a heart attack while in the middle of leaving him for someone new.
Mount Rainier was cloud-bound, cloaked, helmeted, gone. The new woman in his life got off I-5 at Fife and did battle with Puyallup—its traffic lights, turn lanes, and arterial aggressiveness—by dint of the same methodical approach that had seen her through the freeway’s fury. She showed no sign of needing the right coffee shop, missing her cell phone, or worrying a list in her head. She didn’t deplore the South Hill Mall, or either of the Walmart Supercenters they passed, or the growth of Graham, or clear-cuts. Nor did she make a big deal about the apples being picked by ladder climbers wearing vest bags, or the scarlet vine-maple leaves right now at their best, or roadside fruit stands. They passed through a stretch of low-lying fog, small farms, lakes, and alder thickets. Here the light was even more dour, and the pastures were clammy, hoofed down to mud. Was that worth talking about? Was it corny and off-putting to be enamored of the fall landscape, even in a muted and prosaic way? Should he talk about these matters—fall and its merits, fall and its sadness, fall and the perils in too much description of it—or should he go on saying nothing, play it safe? Silence didn’t seem exactly right, but he felt hamstrung and chastised by his own mental chatter. Maybe it was better not to talk.