May 25: “I Knew You’d Be Lovely” by Alethea Black

Hello, Story366! Writing to you from Chicago once again, as I’ve returned after just a week in Missouri. Got some family stuff going on here tomorrow, but on Friday, I’ll venture up to Wrigley Field to reignite my second career, selling beer at Wrigley Field. Last week, I came in for beer vendor orientation, but this time, I’m ready to go and pass the pilsner. Instead of preparing lectures, reading stories, and conducting workshops, I’ll be buzzing up and down the aisles of the Friendly Confines, lugging lager for the refreshment needs of thirsty (and spendthrift) Cub fans. I’ll be adding a lot of beer vending stories into the blog as the summer commences—lot of interesting shit goes down at Wrigley Field every day—so stay tuned.

Of course, Story366 will still stay focused on short stories, and today, a travel day (an eight-hour drive), is no different. I had the pleasure of reading from Alethea Black’s collection I Knew You’d Be Lovely, out from Broadway Paperbacks. I’ve seen Black’s work in lit mags over the years, but this is the first time I’ve focused on it with any intention other than just reading it, let alone writing a little essay about it. That’s really not going to be a problem, though, as I enjoyed the few stories from I Knew You’d Be Lovely very much.

Upon reading the lead story, “That of Which We Cannot Speak,” I thought I’d write about it instead, as it’s a fun, uplifting story, a cocktail party story, and I like party stories. I’ve written about a couple of dinner party stories—Rebecca Lee’s “Bobcat,” for example—and whenever I read a story about a party, I’m always attracted to it. Party stories always have interesting things going on, interesting characters, and a few surprises, mainly because writers need to make party stories more interesting than actual parties—or, reading about parties. Parties are often fun to go to, but have you ever described a party to someone who wasn’t there? Don’t you always get his look, like, “Yeah, great. Wasn’t there. Stop talking.” It’s almost like dream: Ever tell someone about your dream and realize that you’re boring them to death? Of course you have, every time. Parties are the same way: If you’re not there, then it’s just people talking and drinking. So, writers spice parties up with all kinds of events and characters and drama, and Black does that in her opening story, a New Year’s Eve party where a guy meets a woman with laryngitis who can only talk to him by writing a dry erase board (hence, the punny title).

But I’m not writing about “That of Which We Cannot Speak,” as much as I like it. I’m instead writing about the title story, “I Knew You’d Be Lovely,” the last of the three stories I got to so far. In it, Hannah, our protagonist, is looking for a birthday present for her husband, Tom. She’s obsessed with finding the perfect gift, looking up ideas online, asking friends, even reading men’s phones on the train, trying to get an idea, to see into men’s minds for what they really want.

But that’s not the real plot of the story—not really—as there’s this other complication going on at the same time: Tom has a pen pal. A pen pal whom he met at a writer’s workshop in the Czech Republic. A pen pal who lives not so far away, in New York City. A very beautiful female pen pal. That’s the real conflict here.

Just as Hannah obsesses about a present, she obsesses about this pen pal. It’s not helping that this “pen pal” sends letters—Hannah wonders why they can’t just email, why they need to do this traditional, romantic exchange—as Hannah has to get them from the mailbox and give them to Tom. First, she asks him about it. Then she kids about an affair. Then she starts to ask about an affair, not kidding. Then she and Tom speak openly and often about the possibility of an affair. Tom hands her the stack of letters, letting her read them, and the best thing Hannah can come up with, by way of evidence of infidelity, is a poetic, obscure passage in which Sydney (the pen pal) describes her loneliness. Not exactly a red flag, or even a pink one. Plus, Tom isn’t really disappearing or coming home smelling of strange perfume; in fact, he seems to have come home from Prague reinvigorated by his writing retreat, for Hannah, for their physicality.

Hannah reaches a plateau in her jealousy, but really, I have to note—this doesn’t have anything to do with the story, just a sidebar on this situation from your Story366 host—I don’t think Hannah’s being all that nosy or overly suspicious. I don’t consider myself a jealous person, but really, if I was Hannah, and if letters, on fancy stationery, with beautiful, feminine handwriting for the address, started coming, and came every week, on the same day, like clockwork, and the person sending these letters was a beautiful woman who just spent a couple of weeks in Prague with my husband, I wouldn’t just shrug and forget about it, either. One thing I like about this story is that Black doesn’t make Hannah into a nervous harpy—Tom’s behavior presents some debatable judgment, at the very least. Plus, he knows it’s driving her nuts and he doesn’t do anything to assuage her insecurities except drop the stack of letters in front of her; also to note, he’s kept the letters on a stack, so they mean something to him.

Anyway, while Hannah is on this jealousy plateau, lo and behold, Sydney drops by unannounced—she was in the neighborhood—to drop off a birthday present for Tom. Boom. I love this about this story, such a great choice by Black. So much conjecture, so much fantasy, and really, but nothing concrete, so the only thing that was going to make this story work was to put Hannah and Sydney in the same room and see what happens. If this story had not done that, I would have been screaming that the author had left too much on the table, had loaded Chekov’s gun, waved it around like an orchestra conductor, but forgot to squeeze the trigger; I would have murdered a student for missing the opportunity. But that’s why Black is such a great writer, because we get that confrontation, we get these rivals, eye to eye, alone, no one to interrupt in case they … well, anything.

I’m not going to tell you what happens once Sydney and Hannah are alone in Hannah and Tom’s apartment—except that Hannah utters the collection’s titular line “I knew you’d be lovely” (to Sydney)—because that would be giving away too much. But once Sydney is there, alone with Hannah, literally anything can happen, and Black doesn’t disappoint. She makes something happen, for sure, and it wasn’t what I’d expected, yet completely satisfying.

Note, Black also strays POV a couple of times in this story, just to give some perspective from both Tom and Sydney at different times, key bits of information about the story that work best coming from their inner thoughts instead of dialogue or any other clunky way Black could have revealed them without Hannah finding out. So, it’s a daring story in that way, breaking POV protocol, but it’s subtle, abbreviated, and adds to the story. I give her credit for taking a chance, for having it pay off.

I really, really like the stories in Alethea Black’s collection I Knew You’d Be Lovely, stories about people finding each other, about finding themselves in others. This is one I’ll explore further, the stories so easy to read, Black’s prose so inviting, so soothing, even when there’s utter chaos. A great collection, another I highly recommend.