Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories

Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories

by Christine Sneed

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Overview

The ten stories in this debut collection examine the perils of love and what it means to live during an era when people will offer themselves, almost unthinkingly, to strangers. Risks and repercussions are never fully weighed. People leap and almost always land on rocky ground. May-December romances flourish in these stories, as do self-doubt and, in most cases, serious regret. Mysterious, dangerous benefactors, dead and living artists, movie stars and college professors, plagiarists, and distinguished foreign novelists are among the many different characters. No one is blameless, but villains are difficult to single out-everyone seemingly bears responsibility for his or her desires and for the outcome of difficult choices so often made hopefully and naively.

"If this story collection crackles with the energy of youth, it also feels written by a cool-eyed soul reincarnated at least three times ... By turns funny and pitiless, these tales amount to a vision. The book's voice is unforced in its ready wit, detached compassion. There is an admirable candor. Each character's sexuality seems the natural outcome of a life fully risked."-Allan Gurganus, contest judge and author of The Practical Heart and Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620400456
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/12/2013
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Christine Sneed is the author of Little Known Facts. She has an MFA from Indiana University and teaches creative writing at DePaul University, Northwestern University, and Pacific University. Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry won AWP's Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, was named the Chicago Writer's Association Book of the Year, received Ploughshares's first-book prize, the John C. Zacharis Award, and was named one of the 7 best books of the year by Time Out Chicago. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Short Stories, PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, Ploughshares, Southern Review, among other journals. Visit her website at http://www.christinesneed.com.

Read an Excerpt

Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry

STORIES
By Christine Sneed

UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS PRESS

Copyright © 2010 Christine Sneed
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-55849-858-7


Chapter One

Quality of Life

Mr. Fulger called when he wanted to see her and she obliged. For a while it was all very matter-of-fact, like a visit to the library, the reasons for going unequivocal. Regret rarely played a part. And there was little premeditation, as far as she could tell. Mr. Fulger, when not with her, resided on a plane that did not intersect her own, and after her initial period of infatuation had worn off, she had ceased to hope they might meet by chance. She had tried for a few weeks to find where he lived and worked, but he had remained unreachable, her attempts at tracing him fruitless, and soon she began to feel ridiculous to have spent the time searching for him—in their tremendous haystack of a city, he was smaller than a needle. In any case, she did not know what she had expected—certainly not a marriage proposal, nor more permanent terms for their involvement. It seemed to her that primarily she had wanted acknowledgment of his steadfast desire for her, however infrequently this desire was manifested. At times she saw him twice a week; others, twice a month. Even when she was dating another man—a man closer to her age who sought her out in earnest, publicly and otherwise—she answered Mr. Fulger's phone calls with a yes that triggered the naming of a meeting place, almost always a restaurant or hotel close to the center of the city, rarely the same one.

Mr. Fulger could not be his real name, because she had found only two in the phone book and neither, when she called them, had turned out to be him. One had died very recently; the dead man's brother had answered her call, informing her tonelessly that there would not be a funeral service but donations could be sent to a Vietnam veterans' charity. The other had spoken in a high-pitched voice that had possibly been female. "No," this person replied when she asked to speak with Mr. Fulger, adding that he was a tall man with salt and pepper hair. "I'm not the one you're looking for," replied the unpleasant voice. "Wrong number, Miss."

After a while it became evident that Mr. Fulger traveled frequently overseas, and at times he had gifts for her that were not extravagant, though it was clear they had been chosen with care. One evening he had given her a necklace with a heavy tiger's eye pendant; another night, a book from the Louvre. He knew that she could draw; she had once shown him a charcoal sketch of a mournful-looking elephant. She had meant to be funny, but he had admired the drawing and asked to see others. Aside from her sister and a few close friends, he was the first person who had shown more than a solicitous interest in her talent. He told her that he might want to buy some of her work, and when he saw how this surprised her, he suggested almost harshly that she take herself more seriously. She did not tell him that hers was a family long distrustful of artists, having been burdened with a legacy of schizophrenia on one side and depression on the other. Her accountant father and real-estate agent mother had objected strenuously to her choice to study graphic design in college, their tacit worry that if she met with failure, she would end up in an institution as her great-grandfather and his brother had, or else do herself in as had two poet-aunts years before, darkly inspired by Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Whenever she heard these melodramatic stories told and retold by various family members over the years, Lyndsey remained dismissive, though in her private heart she wondered if theirs truly was a family more fragile than most.

She had met Mr. Fulger at a concert hall where she bartended during intermission, not long before she found a better job with a firm that designed theater programs. He had given her a tip much larger than the cost of his drink. He had also left his phone number, which had turned out to be an answering service. She had called him two weeks after meeting him, leaving her name and number, the concert hall's name as a reference. He had called back in less than three hours, inviting her to meet him for dinner that evening at an Italian restaurant on the top floor of a famously tall building.

"An old story," Mr. Fulger had said, sipping his wine. "The decrepit and shiftless enraptured by youthful beauty."

"You're hardly decrepit," she answered, barely suppressing a nervous laugh.

He smiled. "But perhaps I'm shiftless."

"I wouldn't know about that."

"And that is my good fortune."

"I know nothing about you at all." She felt a shiver climb her spine. His dark eyes unnerved her; he was grander, his manner more daunting, than the night they had met.

He nodded, not replying. She fidgeted with her napkin, not looking at him for several seconds. When she met his gaze again, his expression was mild, as if he were patiently listening to someone tell a dull joke.

Unable to match his silences during the hour and a half that they dined, she talked on and on about herself. He was possibly older than she had initially thought, somewhere in his late fifties instead of his late forties. She did not want to think that he might already have reached sixty. She was twenty-six. Her maternal grandfather was sixty-eight. Mr. Fulger seemed nothing like her grandfather, but she still did not want to imagine him her grandfather's peer.

She felt that in a way, however, she deserved what she got; if she were allowing herself to call strange men, the circumstances of their meeting would presumably be strange as well. This tendency to court real danger was new, something she would have to monitor closely.

The first night he did not suggest that they go to a hotel. He had instead taken her for a drink in a cavernous, smoky bar where a brass trio improvised discordant, rambling songs that would have impressed one of her former boyfriends, an unsuccessful pianist who violently detested his job as a receptionist at a popular radio station.

"Why do you live in this city?" Mr. Fulger asked.

She smiled, inexplicably embarrassed. "I went to college here. It's not a bad place to be."

"Will you stay forever?"

"Forever? I doubt it."

"Why stay at all if you know eventually you'll leave?"

"I wouldn't know where else to go right now."

"But at some point you'll meet someone who will."

Her face colored. "I don't know. Maybe."

"Of course, Lyndsey, of course." He smiled, swirling the red wine in his glass. "We often rely on others to make our most important decisions. There's no reason to be ashamed of this."

"But I don't think I've done that." She realized it might be a lie, though at that moment she did not want him to know it.

When they left the bar, he hailed two taxis, pressing money for her fare into her hand and brushing her cheek with his lips. She tried to refuse the money, but he turned abruptly away, disappearing into his own taxi. He had given her too much, fifty dollars for a twelve-dollar fare.

It would become his habit to give her money, and after a month and a half of seeing him, she would stop trying to return it. His money, indisputably, made her life easier. Also, the promise of his spontaneous reappearance enriched it, the phone call that arrived like a herald of what one day her life might be, though not necessarily with him: no more tiny apartments, nor the hopscotch from one debt payment to the next, nor the envy she often felt for those who wore impeccable clothes. In the end, the invincible protection of a powerful man's money and esteem, perhaps also his love. It would have been very easy for her to do much worse.

Mr. Fulger, whose first name was Reginald, though Lyndsey rarely used it, had a small chicken-pox scar below his right eye that she found fascinating in its allusion to his unknowable childhood. There was another scar on his chest, in the cleft between his pectorals. It looked as if he had been shot—the flesh puckered in a starlike pattern—but he had smiled with amusement when she had asked if a bullet might have made the scar. A bullet so close to his heart that hadn't killed him? No, no. He had burned himself many years ago, falling asleep with a cigarette in his hand, the pain of the fire against his bare chest causing a frenzied awakening. "I was out of my head, as I have rarely been in my life," he said. "It's never an ideal situation. A person who can avoid such situations is the one whom other people naturally flock to. And then, of course, all manner of deceit and handshakes follow."

Once she had said, "Why do you give me money? You don't have to."

He had not liked the question. "It's my desire to do so," was his curt reply.

Their affair seemed as if it would go on indefinitely, until one of them died or was otherwise spirited away. Never did he fail to take her to bed after the first night he had invited her to a hotel, asking first if she wanted a view of the park, which she had, its lights distantly reassuring, as if to say she was incapable of making terrible choices and suffering their consequences. When she closed her eyes and felt her body's warmth blend with his, there was the scent of cinnamon and then of smoke, a smell she could not detect on him at any other time.

From the start it was breathtaking—in part for her shame, in part for her astonishing pleasure. He was far from youthful, his body trim but slackening, his chest and stomach inspiring a twinge of sadness since it was clear that they had once been very firm and strong. How many women, she wanted to ask. How many have there been? It thrilled her to think that perhaps he had slept with a hundred or more. In sixty years, a hundred was not so many—if he had started young, that was only two or three a year. And not particularly unnatural since in all things except for sexual intimacy, variety was a virtue in human enterprise—experience, the sampling of the unknown, was a state of grace and laudable industry.

She told no one of her involvement with Mr. Fulger. For long weeks she wouldn't see him and when at last he called, she was sometimes tempted to refuse his invitation, to say that she had other plans, which at times she did. The one night she had done this, however, he had not called again for twenty-three days. She had known him for several months and was seeing someone else she liked more than usual, but they did not yet have an understanding. Like Mr. Fulger, the new lover called her when he wanted to; he did not appear to feel beholden to her in any way.

In her head a running tally of the amount of money he had given her sometimes arrived without warning. After eleven months: three thousand, two hundred and sixty-eight dollars. Not including dinners, gifts or hotel rooms. Because of him, she had been able to pay off one of her credit cards, and fly in her mother and sister for a long weekend, taking them to two plays. They had asked how she could afford it. A scratch-off lottery ticket, she had explained. Beginner's luck since she had never before spent money on such a foolish thing.

When Mr. Fulger called during their visit, she had made an excuse to her mother and sister. "A sick friend. I'll be gone for three hours, maybe four. I'm sorry about this."

Late that evening, on her way out of the hotel room, Mr. Fulger had given her an inordinately thick envelope. She saw in the cab that he had filled it with singles and five-dollar bills. She felt the chilly heat of acute embarrassment, as if she were checking a payphone for stray nickels, passersby laughing at her petty avarice.

And when she returned to her apartment with whisker burn, her sister noticed. "A sick friend," she said knowingly. "I wish I had a sick friend."

"I'd like you to move out of this city," said Mr. Fulger after a year of amorous meetings. "I'll make the arrangements. You could be closer to your family if you'd like."

She stared at him. "I don't want to move."

"I know someone who could give you a much better job if you allow me to make the plans for your relocation. I don't see what you have to lose." He regarded her. "Unless there's someone here you'd miss too much?"

"Most of my friends are here."

"You'd make new ones." He paused. "You've said yourself that eventually you'll move away. There's no reason it couldn't be next month."

She shook her head. "No thanks. Are you trying to get rid of me?"

"Of course not. I'd see you just as often."

"I don't want to move right now."

He sighed. "Think about it for a little while. Your salary would double."

She gazed at him in surprise. "What would I be doing?"

"The same thing you do here."

"I don't know if I should believe you."

"You can. Truthfully, you can. I'd arrange for a contract from your new employer."

"My god," she said, her stomach sickened.

He smiled. "It's not a bad suggestion, is it. Few would say you're making a foolish move."

"I haven't made up my mind yet."

"I'll check with you in the morning then."

No one else she knew lived like this. She was half enamored and half appalled by a man she knew nothing about, other than the intimacies of his body, his style of love-making, a few other superficial details. She knew his voice well enough that she recognized it the moment he spoke a syllable into the phone; she knew some of the foods he favored (salmon over beef tenderloin, quail over chicken). She had never seen him drive, did not know if he could. She thought it odd that he carried no keys. All that he removed from his pockets before taking off his tailored slacks were a billfold with only two credit cards; a money clip with several crisp bills; a few coins; a linen handkerchief, usually pale blue. His address was never on any of the items he carried; she had checked several times, risking this indecency while he used the bathroom. The only time she had ever seen him angry was on a night when a young thief had tried to steal her small beaded purse from the back of her chair in a quiet, exclusive restaurant. Mr. Fulger had risen from the table, motioned to the maitre-d', the thief then stopped at the door with Lyndsey's purse hidden under his overcoat.

"You might know the expression, 'If thy hand offends, cut it off,'" said Mr. Fulger, fuming at the craven, inappropriately handsome thief outside the restaurant while they waited with a security guard for the police.

She had wanted to leave, feeling the thief 's fear and humiliation almost as her own, but Mr. Fulger had made her stay with him until the police arrived. "They'll need your testimony," he insisted, looking from her to the thief. "I'm sure this isn't his first offense. He knew what he was doing. But obviously so did I."

Certain words she did not allow herself to consider—concubine, whore, slut. Early on she had come to think of the money she took from him as a gift. If he had been her father, sending her money once a month because he worried about her well-being, few would have faulted her for keeping it. Mr. Fulger as well appeared to worry about her well-being. His money was meant to make her happy and specifically there could be nothing wrong with this. He insisted; he was forceful, persuasive, right about so many of the observations he made while in her company. She would have continued to see him if he stopped paying her. At least, she considered this to be true since she could not imagine not seeing him. The sex was satisfying, often thrilling. The money was simply something extra. Many would have said, once their moralizing had been proven specious, that she was very lucky.

The new job was far away, on the coast farthest from where she currently lived. Instead of theater programs, she would be designing print ads for feature films. Her parents would only be a three-hour drive if she agreed to accept Mr. Fulger's offer. The night of the offer she didn't sleep. She regarded the contents of her studio apartment, the new sofa, the sleek Chinese screen, the walnut hat stand that was purely ornamental. She sat in the window seat, looking down at the cars streaming toward and away from the city's center. She had grown to adore her small place, unsure if she could leave it so hastily, despite the promise of a doubled salary. She knew that Mr. Fulger had not lied to her; his offer, indisputably, was valid. But she did not know that she would accept it until he called her in the morning, at precisely eight o'clock. It seemed wrong to her, but she could not decide why. A terrifying thought arrived—perhaps this was the first stage of madness.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry by Christine Sneed Copyright © 2010 by Christine Sneed. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents

Quality of Life....................3
Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry....................16
Twelve + Twelve....................32
You're So Different....................47
By the Way....................64
Alex Rice Inc....................81
Interview with the Second Wife....................101
For Once in Your Life....................117
A Million Dollars....................131
Walled City....................147

What People are Saying About This

Steve Almond

I can't recall the last time I tore through a story collection with such unbridled gratitude. Christine Sneed is fearless. She sends her heroines zooming toward the disasters foretold in their own soft hearts, but she does so without histrionics. She's brutally honest and equally tender about the manners in which women find themselves entrapped. To call her a rightful heir to Grace Paley and Lorrie Moore is accurate but insufficient. Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry is a stone-cold miracle, and Christine Sneed is my new hero.

Allan Gurganus

If this story collection crackles with the energy of youth, it also feels written by a cool-eyed soul reincarnated at least three times.... By turns funny and pitiless, these tales amount to a vision. The book's voice is unforced in its ready wit, detached compassion. There is an admirable candor. Each character's sexuality seems the natural outcome of a life fully risked.

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