Some writers say they don’t read fiction when they’re in the middle of writing fiction, so afraid are they of unconsciously picking up the other’s voice. Not me. I read anything.
Early the other day, waiting for breakfast in a Toronto café, I opened Grace Paley’s Collected Stories. I was starving. I am always starving if I have to travel for a book event. I sleep little – wake early – lie in bed starving.
The café on Bloor (which didn’t open its doors until the criminally late hour of 7:30 a.m.) put a plate in front of me of eggs, toast, broiled tomatoes and fried potatoes, and a few minutes later I read, “There were two husbands disappointed by eggs.”
Ah, Grace, I thought, you’re wonderful. You are feeding me too. One of the husbands pushed the eggs away, “pain and disgust his escutcheon,” she writes. And in five words, there was my father.
I think of him all the time and always with a trace of shame. There was the day, for instance, when he came to Toronto and I was there, working for a radio program frantically, nervously, with no thought for anything but my deadline. And here was my father interrupting my work by phoning and inviting me to have breakfast with him the next morning. Not intending to hurt him, I gave him my explicit reluctance. Then hearing his disappointment, I relented and agreed.
And we did have breakfast. Awkwardly, as was always the case. We were never comfortable in each other’s presence.
If only I had been more affectionate, how the affection would have poured back! But I had too many grievances against him. Well, I was afraid of him with a fear that never left me.
Paley’s story is “Two Short Sad Stories from a Long and Happy Life.” It’s the first of the two that’s about the disappointed husbands and it overflows with the abundance of complicated family life. There are two husbands, two sons, two fathers, an old boyfriend named Clifford, a mother and two-time wife named Faith. The story moves through visiting, playing, memory, religion, schooling, politics – talking, talking, talking – and it’s like village life in a slightly unhinged New York apartment. You long to be there, too.
So Grace, think I, bring on your influence. Let some of your writing juices flow into me.