November 24: “The Harp Department in Love” by Richard Bausch

Happy Thanksgiving, Story366! I hope you’ve had a truly wonderful day, no matter what you ate, who you spent it with, how you celebrated (or didn’t). My family and I were supposed to host a few people, students and friends here in Springfield with nowhere else to go, but all three of them pulled out today, giving the day back to us as a family unit. It would have been fun to have guests, show off our cooking skills, that kind of thing, but when it became just us, it became a different type of day. I stayed up pretty late last night, baking pies and cleaning the house (my rooms were the dining room and kitchen and I nailed it), but with a family-only holiday, we eased off on the Level 1 cleaning job and just made a bunch of food that we then stuffed into our faces. We had all the basics, plus added a sweet corn casserole, courtesy of the disgraced Paula Dean (hey, I wonder what she thinks of the election results? actually, no, no I don’t), which is a big-time winner, forever replacing that green bean casserole made with Campbell’s mushroom soup, which everyone in my family detests, a fact we found out a year or two ago, after enduring it for so long, assuming everyone else liked it and never speaking up. But click here for the corn casserole recipe, which is fantastic and is almost exactly like that awesome sweet corn cake that Chi-Chi’s used to scoop a dollop of onto all their entry plates, only with cheese on top (RIP, btw, the Chi-Chi’s franchise, which I used to like a lot [which the Wikipedia entry for says still exists in places like China, Luxembourg, and the United Arab Emirates: Time to update my passport!]).

But really, we all went into food comas and fell asleep on the couch, a football game on mute, like good Americans. Later, we took the kids to the playground and after that I actually got on the treadmill, just to process some of the gravy flowing through my veins, trying to make nice with my heart. I also read a couple of stories from Richard Bausch‘s collection Something is out there., out from Knopf. I’ve been a fan of Bausch’s since I’ve been in the writing game, having read “The Man Who Knew Belle Starr” over twenty-five years ago, then seeing him read that story aloud when he came to visit U of I in Champaign (near where he’d been stationed in the Air Force at Chanute). I was in Jean Thompson‘s class at the time and he and Jean were friends and he even came to our class on a workshop day and led the discussion on my friend Laura Otto’s story (I still know Laura, the only writer from my undergrad I still talk to). After his reading, Jean hosted a cocktail party at her house an me and Laura and this guy named Brad were invited (Brad wore a tux-type thing, the kind with the red vest and no jacket and served drinks) and we sat in the room with the food, cowering, terrified of mingling with the U of I faculty, the writers, and Jean’s high-society Urbana friends. Most of all, we were terrified of Richard Bausch, this famous short story writer and novelist, who actually poked his head in that room for a drink and talked to us for a while, a real nice guy. Twenty years later, someone introduced me to him again at an AWP and we talked and I think I relayed that story and he remembered that visit, but not necessarily me or the other nervous students. And he was still a really nice guy.

After that visit, I remember getting my hands on everything I could by Bausch and following his career, reading several short story collections and his novel Violence, which was new when he came to visit campus that time and read from during our class. I hadn’t picked up Something is out there. (yeah, I’m going with the title the way it is on the cover of the book, which I think is supposed to look like a sentence more than a title) before, but as with all of Bausch’s stories, enjoyed what I was reading a great deal. I read the title story, which is about this family in which the father is shot by an ex-business partner and is recovering in the hospital, the family stuck at home in a snowstorm later that night, other angry people perhaps on their way to inflict further violence. It’s an intense story, this scared family dealing with visitors and phone calls and bumps in the night, reminding me of what Bausch does so well, sticking his characters (and his readers) in uncomfortable, tense situations and letting them stew there for pages and pages, really building the tension as they try to work themselves out of their predicaments (which often doesn’t happen). It goes down like that with the guy in “The Man Who Knew Belle Starr,” with some people in a convenience story in Violence, and in most of Bausch’s stories—”The Fireman’s Wife” comes to mind, those people just sitting there, waiting to hear word of their loved one gone to battle a blaze. For whatever reason, I’m going to write about the collection’s first story instead, “The Harp Departmant in Love,” so here we go.

“The Harp Department in Love” is about Josephine Stanislowski, the young wife of a retired music professor, one of his former prized students. Her husband, Stan as he’s known, has just moved out, staying in his little apartment downtown that he uses to compose in private. The day before, a man whom Josephine had been seeing, with whom she had gotten too close, confronted Stan outside his building, declaring his love for Josephine, which Josephine did not return; she’s spent time with this other man, even kissed him, but certainly wasn’t in love and definitely wasn’t going to leave her husband for him. Still, the damage is done and she has to deal with the reality that she and her older-by-thirty-five-years husband might be getting divorced (though that’s okay, as she’d been considering a breakaway before any of this other-man stuff went down).

Bausch doesn’t start with that, though, or even seem to be making it what the story’s about, however. We instead are initiated with another plot, one in which Josephine is helping her neighbor and friend, Ruthie, host a surprise party for Ruthie’s husband, Andrew, who has just graduated from college (the one Stan teaches at) as a non-trad, first-generation college feel-good story. It doesn’t help that both Ruthie and Josephine have somehow both forgotten about the party until the morning of and Ruthie needs Josephine to help her pull it off, guests invited and food ordered. Josephine likes Ruthie, but would rather not even go to the party at this point—her husband has just moved out, after all—but she still agrees to run some interference on Andrew as he makes his way home, stall him, giving Ruthie extra time to get everything in place.

Again, Josephine doesn’t really feel like doing this, and we get the idea, here and there, that’s it’s not only because her husband’s left her. Josephine is described as Ruthie’s friend, but we get the idea that Josephine is kind of a loner and doesn’t really want that type of relationship with Ruthie, with anyone. She’s described, in backstory, as a lifelong vagabond; as a kid, she’d lived in over a dozen places, her mother a stripper and her dad a question mark. Her relationship with Ruthie is convenient. The only reason she’s even liked her husband, married the old boy, is their mutual love of music, their born skills—each can literally play any instrument. Going to friends’ husbands’ graduation parties, even the ones she helped plan? Not a priority for Josephine.

Anyway, Josephine’s one job—delaying Andrew on his way home—sets up that never-ending, tense encounter, as Josephine catches Andrew on his way home, at the liquor store where he stops, daily, for a quart. Josephine and Andrew share the beer outside the store—all brown paper baglike—and still needing to get Ruthie more time, she asks Andrew (who had some champagne at work before leaving as well) to come back to her house, up the street from his, to help her carry some winter clothes (metaphor alert!) up to the attic, the box too heavy for her to get rid of on her own. Andrew accepts.

I don’t want to go any further into “The Harp Department in Love,” as that would give away too much. I will say that I enjoyed the parallel storylines—the separation of the Stanislowskis and Andrew’s surprise party—one running alongside the other before they ultimately converge, but I mostly like Josephine’s character, how much depth that Bausch provides. She’s truly well drawn, as I could feel the contempt in her voice—and so does Ruthie—as she has to do this task when she has her own shit to deal with, and that’s before everything goes awry with Andrew. I’ve liked every Richard Bausch story I’ve read and now that I’ve read a couple more from Something is out there., my streak is still intact. No Thankgiving-themed story today (I’d already read Julie Orringer’s “Pilgrims,” an obvious choice), but at least I featured an author very dear to me and my career.