October 15: “Two Women” by Stephen Dixon

Good morning, Story366! Once again, I write to you from the road, as I’ve returned to Chicago so I can got to tonight’s Cubs-Dodgers game at Wrigley. That’s two weekends in a row I’ve made the eight-hour drive from Springfield, but this time, I brought the boys. This trip marks the first time I’ve traveled, Springfield to Chicago, with them in tow, Karen not in the passenger seat to run interference, put straws into juice pouches, ketchup on fries, that kind of thing. She’s doing a reading in Tennessee tomorrow for her press, Sundress Publications, so if I wanted to go to Chicago, I was taking the boys. After a week of trepidation, me worrying if they were going to kill each other while I was speeding across the prairie, it turned out all of it was for naught: They were both awesomely well behaved. The three-year-old actually fell asleep around 9 last night, meaning the last few hours were just me and the ten-year-old. We talked. He played video games. I listened to the radio. It was a trip without incident, my favorite kind.

Today’s featured author is Stephen Dixon, a writer I’ve admired for a long time. I was especially pumped to see that my own press, Curbside Splendor, was putting a new collection out this year, Late Stories, via one of their imprints, Trnsfr Books. A couple of years ago, my other press, Dzanc Books, published a new novel by Robert Coover, which completely blew me away: I was honored to have been in the same house as one of my literary heroes. Now it’s happened again: Dixon having a book with Curbside is no less and honor and I’m equally thrilled to be featuring him here.

Dixon writes short short stories and stories that are barely longer than shorts, so he was able to pack a lot of work into this book, thick with his brilliance. I assume the title, Late Stories, means that these are Dixon’s stories that he wrote later in his career (he’s 80, by the way, and still pumping out new work), and not stories that missed their deadlines or were written after midnight. That means this book is a bit of a culmination for him, which he’s certainly earned, and I’m glad he didn’t have to call it Last Stories (still pumping!).

As the pieces are short, I read a bunch, and wanted, so badly, to write about “The Dead,” because it’s an awesome story, plus it’s called “The Dead.” It takes someone of Dixon’s stature to consider calling a story that, as that luminary Joyce piece still gets dubbed “the greatest short story ever written” in some circles. Alas, I’ve read Dixon’s “The Dead” before, in last year’s Pushcart anthology, making it ineligible for the blog by my own rules. I easily could have written about any of the stories in Late Stories, as I like them all and have something to say about all of them. For today, I’ll just pick my other favorite, “Two Women.”

“Two Women” is about this guy, a widower and a writer, who has met someone new at a Christmas party. After the party, he and the woman start meeting every week for lunch, and do so for quite some time, until finally, the woman takes initiative and asks if she can see his work space, that she’d like to maybe photograph it, as she likes to see where writers do their thing. They could have some wine after, too. Now, I’m no Rudolph Valentino, but even I would recognize this as a serious come-on. Women with whom you have weekly lunches don’t want to have wine in your apartment because they’re curious about that mess of papers on your desk and what version of Word you have. Our widower and writer, our protagonist, has played his cards nominally right and it looks like he’s going to get lucky.

That’s not, however, where Dixon starts his story, just a rundown of how we got to the actual beginning, a frame of sorts. At the start, this woman, from the Christmas party, is already in his bed, naked, calling out for him to join her. Her line? “Come on. What are you waiting for? Get your penis in here!” So, she’s not, at this point, being coy, in fact, just the opposite. It’s what I dubbed, for years as a composition instructor, the “attention-getter.” Dixon employs it in that way, and so does this woman: Our guy’s attention has definitely been gotten.

But that’s not even the crux of the story. Remember the title, “Two Women.” If your mind’s going to “threesome,” then all the power to you, and you’d not entirely be wrong (just mostly). The whole gist, or pallor, maybe, of this story is that while our writer is being courted (quite aggressively) by this new woman, he’s actually thinking of his dead wife the whole time. In fact, the line immediately after the get-your-penis-in-here line describes our guy as being confused as to whose voice is calling him to bed, his dead wife’s or this new woman’s. Okay, kind of understandable, this being his first encounter after losing his life partner. However, neither he, nor Dixon, stops there. The rest of the story, this guy makes the same comparisons. He compares the two women’s bodies, their touches, their scents, their everything. Most intriguing/bizarre: He tells the woman this, narrating his thoughts as he crawls into bed with her, embraces her, lies in the dark in her arms. “Your breasts feel like my wife’s, …,” he notes, to give you a sense of his tact, of his mindset.

Dixon is one of our great absurdists and “Two Women” represents that ability exceedingly well. The story features a man suffering inside, trying to let go of something that was so remarkable, exchanging it for something so certain, so wonderful. Would any woman put up with the constant comparisons to a dead wife? Well, not many, but perhaps one that would order a man to bring his penis to her as actual dialogue. Like all of Dixon’s work, “Two Women” is starkly funny, but tragic at the same time, the absurdity perfectly timed, perfectly toned, yet right on target. Painful indecision has never been so fun.

Late Stories by Stephen Dixon is like a box of popcorn at a movie theater, as every time I finished a story, deciding I had to go do something else, I kept saying to myself Just one more, then I’m done, but kept reading, anyway. What a great thing to have, to possess, this collection by this master. Can’t wait to finish, then await Later Stories, or whatever he decides to call what’s next.