What I like best about Lucia Berlin's stories isn't their verisimilitude (although they do feel very true)—rather, it's their casual artfulness, their compressed lyricism, wry humor, and searing insight. But also their adventurousness and speed and sentiment and thrilling, reckless poetry. During various stories in this collection, I was struck by connections to Dubliners-era James Joyce, Grace Paley, and Lydia Davis, who wrote the book's introduction. But most of all, perhaps, I thought of Denis Johnson, with both authors' clear intuitive gifts and addictions and fleeting salvations. Berlin's stories feel, to me, both inevitable and surprising. They are deeply evocative of their place and time and yet singular to their author and, because of that, ultimately timeless.
The following story, "Friends" is taken from A Manual for Cleaning Women, the new book of collected stories by Lucia Berlin, available August 18 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Loretta met Anna and Sam the day she saved Sam's life.
Anna and Sam were old. She was 80 and he was 89. Loretta would see Anna from time to time when she went to swim at her neighbor Elaine's pool. One day she stopped by as the two women were convincing the old guy to take a swim. He finally got in, was dog-paddling along with a big grin on his face when he had a seizure. The other two women were in the shallow end and didn't notice. Loretta jumped in, shoes and all, pulled him to the steps and up out of the pool. He didn't need resuscitation but he was disoriented and frightened. He had some medicine to take, for epilepsy, and they helped him dry off and dress. They all sat around for a while until they were sure he was fine and could walk to their house, just down the block. Anna and Sam kept thanking Loretta for saving his life, and insisted that she go to lunch at their house the next day.
It happened that she wasn't working for the next few days. She had taken three days off without pay because she had a lot of things that needed doing. Lunch with them would mean going all the way back to Berkeley from the city, and not finishing everything in one day, as she had planned.
She often felt helpless in situations like this. The kind where you say to yourself, Gosh, it's the least I can do, they are so nice. If you don't do it you feel guilty and if you do you feel like a wimp.
Hours later, exhausted, she would drive home to her house in Oakland, saying to herself that she couldn't keep on doing this.
She stopped being in a bad mood the minute she was inside their apartment. It was sunny and open, like an old house in Mexico, where they had lived most of their lives. Anna had been an archaeologist and Sam an engineer. They had worked together every day at Teotihuacan and other sites. Their apartment was filled with fine pottery and photographs, a wonderful library. Downstairs, in the backyard was a large vegetable garden, many fruit trees, berries. Loretta was amazed that the two birdlike, frail people did all the work themselves. Both of them used canes, and walked with much difficulty.
Lunch was toasted cheese sandwiches, chayote soup, and a salad from their garden. Anna and Sam prepared the lunch together, set the table and served the lunch together.
They had done everything together for 50 years. Like twins, they each echoed the other or finished sentences the other had started. Lunch passed pleasantly as they told her, in stereo, some of their experiences working on the pyramid in Mexico, and about other excavations they had worked on. Loretta was impressed by these two old people, by their shared love of music and gardening, by their enjoyment of each other. She was amazed at how involved they were in local and national politics, going to marches and protests, writing congressmen and editors, making phone calls. They read three or four papers every day, read novels or history to each other at night.
While Sam was clearing the table with shaking hands, Loretta said to Anna how enviable it was to have such a close lifetime companion. Yes, Anna said, but soon one of us will be gone...
Loretta was to remember that statement much later, and wonder if Anna had begun to cultivate a friendship with her as a sort of insurance policy against the time when one of them would die. But, no, she thought, it was simpler than that. The two of them had been so self-sufficient, so enough for each other all their lives, but now Sam was becoming dreamy and often incoherent.
He repeated the same stories over and over, and although Anna was always patient with him, Loretta felt that she was glad to have someone else to talk to.
Whatever the reason, she found herself more and more involved in Sam and Anna's life. They didn't drive anymore. Often Anna would call Loretta at work and ask her to pick up peat moss when she got off, or take Sam to the eye doctor. Sometimes both of them felt too bad to go to the store, so Loretta would pick things up for them. She liked them both, admired them. Since they seemed so much to want company, she found herself at dinner with them once a week, every two weeks at the most. A few times she asked them to her house for dinner, but there were so many steps to climb and the two arrived so exhausted that she stopped. So then she would take fish or chicken or a pasta dish to their house. They would make a salad, serve berries from the garden for dessert.
After dinner, over cups of mint or Jamaica tea they would sit around the table while Sam told stories. About the time Anna got polio, at a dig deep in the jungle in the Yucatán, how they got her to a hospital, how kind people were. Many stories about the house they built in Xalapa. The mayor's wife, the time she broke her leg climbing out of a window to avoid a visitor. Sam's stories always began, "That reminds me of the time..."
Little by little Loretta learned the details of their life story. Their courtship on Mount Tam. Their romance in New York while they were Communists. Living in sin. They had never married, still took satisfaction in this unconventionality. They had two children; both lived in distant cities. There were stories about the ranch near Big Sur, when the children were little. As a story was ending Loretta would say, "I hate to leave, but I have to get to work very early tomorrow." Often she would leave then. Usually though, Sam would say, "Just let me tell you what happened to the wind-up phonograph." Hours later, exhausted, she would drive home to her house in Oakland, saying to herself that she couldn't keep on doing this. Or that she would keep going, but set a definite time limit.
It was not that they were ever boring or uninteresting. On the contrary, the couple had lived a rich, full life, were involved and perceptive. They were intensely interested in the world, in their own past. They had such a good time, adding to the other's remarks, arguing about dates or details, that Loretta didn't have the heart to interrupt them and leave. And it did make her feel good to go there, because the two people were so glad to see her. But sometimes she felt like not going over at all, when she was too tired or had something else to do. Finally she did say that she couldn't stay so late, that it was hard to get up the next morning. Come for Sunday brunch, Anna said.
When the weather was fair they ate on a table on their porch, surrounded by flowers and plants. Hundreds of birds came to the feeders right by them. As it grew colder they ate inside by a cast-iron stove. Sam tended it with logs he had split himself. They had waffles or Sam's special omelette, sometimes Loretta brought bagels and lox. Hours went by, the day went by as Sam told his stories, with Anna correcting them and adding comments. Sometimes, in the sun on the porch or by the heat of the fire, it was hard to stay awake.
Their house in Mexico had been made of concrete block, but the beams and counters and cupboards had been made of cedarwood. First the big room—the kitchen and living room—was built. They had planted trees, of course, even before they started building the house. Bananas and plums, jacarandas. The next year they added a bedroom, several years later another bedroom and a studio for Anna. The beds, the workbenches and tables were made of cedar. They got home to their little house after working in the field, in another state in Mexico. The house was always cool and smelled of cedar, like a big cedar chest.
Anna got pneumonia and had to go to the hospital. As sick as she was, all she could think of was Sam, how he would get along without her. Loretta promised her she would go by before work, see that he took his medication and had breakfast, that she would cook him dinner after work, take him to the hospital to see her.
The terrible part was that Sam didn't talk. He would sit shivering on the side of the bed as Loretta helped him dress. Mechanically he took his pills and drank pineapple juice, carefully wiped his chin after he ate breakfast. In the evening when she arrived he would be standing on the porch waiting for her. He wanted to go see Anna first, and then have dinner. When they got to the hospital, Anna lay pale, her long white braids hanging down like a little girl's. She had an IV, a catheter, oxygen. She didn't speak, but smiled and held Sam's hand while he told her how he had done a load of wash, watered the tomatoes, mulched the beans, washed dishes, made lemonade. He talked on to her, breathless, told her every hour of his day. When they left, Loretta had to hold him tight, he stumbled and wavered as he walked. In the car going home he cried, he was so worried. But Anna came home and was fine, except that there was so much to be done in the garden. The next Sunday, after brunch, Loretta helped weed the garden, cut back blackberry vines. Loretta was worried then, what if Anna got really sick? What was she in for with this friendship? The couple's dependence upon each other, their vulnerability, saddened and moved her. Those thoughts passed through her head as she worked, but it was nice, the cool black dirt, the sun on her back. Sam, telling his stories as he weeded the adjacent row.
The next Sunday that Loretta went to their house she was late. She had been up early, there had been many things to do. She really wanted to stay home, but didn't have the heart to call and cancel.
The front door was not unlatched, as usual, so she went to the garden, to go up the back steps. She walked into the garden to look around, it was lush with tomatoes, squash, snow peas. Drowsy bees. Anna and Sam were outside on the porch upstairs. Loretta was going to call to them but they were talking very intently.
"She's never been late before. Maybe she won't come."
"Oh, she'll come... these mornings mean so much to her."
"Poor thing. She is so lonely. She needs us. We're really her only family."
"She sure enjoys my stories. Dang. I can't think of a single one to tell her today."
"Something will come to you..."
"Hello!" Loretta called. "Anybody home?"
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin will be published August 18 and is available for preorder here.
Lucia Berlin (1936–2004) worked brilliantly but sporadically throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Her stories are inspired by her early childhood in various Western mining towns; her glamorous teenage years in Santiago, Chile; three failed marriages; a lifelong problem with alcoholism; her years spent in Berkeley, New Mexico, and Mexico City; and the various jobs she later held to support her writing and her four sons. Sober and writing steadily by the 1990s, she took a visiting writer's post at the University of Colorado Boulder in 1994 and was soon promoted to associate professor. In 2001, in failing health, she moved to Southern California to be near her sons. She died in 2004 in Marina del Rey.