from Simple Stories (Fantagraphics, March 2018)
He’s written about this too. He’s almost sure of it. Or at least thought seriously of writing about it a number of times and jotted the incident down in his notebook as an idea for a story. That every time he sits down at his typewriter for the first time that day, or almost every time — six times out of seven, he’d say — he thinks about his wife. But not just thinks of her but of the same scene of her shouting to him from their bedroom window on the second floor of the cottage they rented in Maine that summer that she has great news for him — sometimes “the most wonderful news.” That someone from Time magazine called and said they’re going to run a review of his new book next week and are sending up a photographer from Portland to take pictures of him to go with the review.
It’s always right after he gets out of their car. The Chevrolet Citation, the one with the rear-wheel lockup problem that spun around on them on ice a couple of times and was finally recalled and fixed. She must have heard him — he never asked her if this was it — drive down their road and park on the grass in front of the cottage. In the image he has of her she always, as he’s getting out of the car or just after he gets out of it, cranks open the window, if it isn’t already open, or cranks it open all the way and raises the window screen as far as it can go so she can stick her head out, and shouts “Charles, Charles” — always twice and always excitedly — “I have great news for you” or “the most wonderful news. Someone from Time magazine called and said they’re going to run a review of your book Endings” or just “they’re going to review Endings in next week’s issue and they’re sending up a photographer from Portland to take pictures of you to go with the review.”
Sometimes when she tells him this he’s with their daughter, who was how old at the time? The book was published in June or July, 1985, and she was born in late September, ’82, so she was almost three. The way he remembers it, when he’s with their daughter, he yells up to his wife “That’s great; that’s fantastic. Time magazine. Jesus Christ,” or something like that, and then gets their daughter out of the child car seat and picks her up and says “Did you hear? Time Magazine. A very big important magazine. Is going to write about Daddy’s new book and is sending a man with a camera to take pictures of me to go with the story the magazine is writing about my book. Probably pictures of me at the beach behind our cottage, or at my typewriter. And there’s a good chance this person, a photographer, will want to shoot pictures of you and Mommy too.” “I don’t want anyone to shoot me and Mommy and you,” and he says “Don’t worry, my darling, he won’t. It’s with a camera, I said. And if it’s a lady photographer, she won’t too.”
If it’s his daughter he’s with when he comes back to the cottage and his wife shouts to him from the upstairs bedroom window, then they’ve just returned from getting her an ice cream and to pick up a New York Times and a few necessary items at the general store in town four miles away. But if it’s his mother he’s with, who visited them for a week every summer for about fifteen years, it’s because he’s taken her, and probably also his daughter, to lunch in town or to another lunch place a few miles from it, and maybe for a drive someplace his mother would be interested in — an antique store or two; a beach with a beautiful view; a larger market in a much larger town about twenty miles from the cottage. In other words: to be out of the house for a few hours with his daughter alone or mother alone or with both of them so his wife could get some work in without being interrupted by any of them. Her mother also used to spend a week with them every summer, but always in late August, and the review was in July. So it definitely wasn’t her mother he was with when he drove up to the cottage and learned about the Time review. And her father only visited them in Maine once, the first summer they were there together, and then swore off it because of the mosquitoes and deer flies and black flies and some other biting insect so small you could barely see it but which drew blood. “I’ll see you when you get back,” he used to say the day they picked up her parent’s two Siamese cats and drove to Maine with them and their two and their daughter.
Or he drives up to the cottage alone. His daughter’s napping in the cottage. Their mothers are in New York. His wife’s working at her electric typewriter in the upstairs bedroom when she hears their car coming down the private road. Or just “a car” — she doesn’t know for sure yet that it’s theirs. She gets up, looks out the window, sees their car, opens the window all the way — “I was so excited and happy for you,” she later said —, raises the window screen and when he gets out of the car — he might have gone to town to get the Times and a few other things at the general store and maybe also gone to the well-stocked library there if it was open that day — she sticks her head out the window, holds the windowsill with her hands and shouts “Charles, Charles. I have some great news” or “terrific news” or “the most wonderful news for you. You got a call from someone named Elizabeth Green at Time Magazine. I have it all written down here. They’re going to do a review of Endings next week and are sending up a photographer from Portland to take pictures of you to go with the review. They need to get the pictures in right away, so she said is tomorrow okay and I said yes. Was that all right?” “Any day. Any hour. They can come at midnight if they like. Oh, this is incredible. For a book by a small publisher to get a review in a major magazine? And for a collection of stories, no less? What could be better?” “I’ll be right down,” she says, and he hears her running down the staircase and she comes outside and they hug. If he’s with his daughter, he says “Let me get the kid out of the car seat.” If he’s with his mother, he says “Did you hear, Mom?” and she’d say something like “Time magazine. My my. You’re becoming a big man,” which she said twice before when he told her about something good that happened to one of his books, and he didn’t know either time, because of the way she looked at him and said it, if she was complimenting him or being sarcastic.
His father, he should probably mention, died six years before he met his wife and he doesn’t think he’s ever been to Maine. He asked his mother about it once and she said — they were having lunch in the Maine cottage at the time, so this would also be in the early eighties — “Not with me. And prior to my meeting your father, and we’re going back here now more than fifty years — getting to Maine, even the southern tip of it — Kittery; those places; where the vice president has a summer home — if you didn’t go by a large passenger boat, I was told, it took three days by car, if you were lucky, and wasn’t an easy journey. So nobody went except the very rich, by boat, and their staff.” “Had you been to Maine before you started coming up to see us?” and she said “I don’t believe so, but you know my memory.”
But he’s gotten away from what he first started thinking about. That almost every time — and this has gone on since a few months after his wife died and he started writing again. When he sits in front of his typewriter in the morning, and it’s always in the morning. It never seems to happen if the first time he sits at his typewriter that day is around noon or any time past that. He pictures his wife at the upstairs bedroom window of the cottage they rented in Maine their first six summers there together, excitedly telling him about the Time magazine book review. Always just before or right after he takes the dust cover off the typewriter and also before he puts paper into the typewriters and certainly before he starts typing. Opening the window all the way. Raising the window screen as high as it’ll go. Leaning out the window while holding on to the windowsill. Probably right after he gets out of the car. If their daughter’s with him, then while he’s preparing to take her out of her car seat. If his mother’s with him, then while he’s opening the front passenger door and about to help her unhitch her seat belt, which she always had trouble doing herself. If both his mother and daughter are with him, then tending to his mother first. Shouting his name twice and that she has great news for him. Terrific news. The most wonderful news. “I’m almost too excited to speak. “What is it?” he could have said. “I love it when people tell me they have good news for me.” “Time magazine called when you were out. Someone by the name of Elizabeth Green. I have her phone number. They’re going to review your new book in the next issue next week.” “That’s fantastic,” he said. Or something like it. “‘Incredible.’ ‘Unbelievable.’ For a short story collection from a small publisher? I’m really surprised.” “That’s not all. They’re sending up a photographer from Portland tomorrow to take pictures of you to go with the review.” “Even better. To get such attention for the book? I wouldn’t even care if it was a bad review, though I doubt they’d be doing it if the reviewer didn’t like some of it. But please don’t fall out for the window,” he might have said. That’d be just like him. “Get inside and pull down the screen. The mosquitoes will get in the house. Enough do, then good news and all and maybe at dinner a bottle of champagne to celebrate it with, we’ll still never get to sleep tonight.” Meet you downstairs,” he thinks she said, and a few seconds later — thirty; maybe a minute — she was outside. If it was his mother with him, he would have said “Mom, did you hear?” If just his daughter: “Do you know what Mommy just said?” If both were with him, he might have said “We better get her in the house before the mosquitoes find us,” and gotten his mother out of her seat belt and then his daughter out of her car seat.
Stephen Dixon has been nominated for the National Book Award twice, in 1991 for Frog and in 1995 for Interstate, and has earned a Guggenheim Fellowship, the American Academy Institute of Arts and Letters prize for fiction, the O. Henry Award, and the Pushcart Prize. He graduated from the City College of New York in 1958 and is a former faculty member of Johns Hopkins University.