September 27, 2020: “Great Sex” by Alice Adams

Good to be here, Story366!

The Cubs are headed to the playoffs! Wait, I think I said that earlier, as they clinched on Thursday. Yesterday, they also clinched the division, and today … they won. Nothing more to clinch today, just a nice way to end the regular season. I’ll be spending a lot of time on them in the coming weeks—I hope—as they start their series Wednesday versus the Marlins. During all this COVID nonsense and our lives turned upside down, it has truly be a prime distraction. I’ve probably enjoyed watching them this year more than ever—even more than the epic 2016 championship season—this sixty-game burst just what the doctor ordered. Stay tuned for a lot of Cub updates and philosophy in the coming days. Because once it’s over, it’s over, and then I’ll move on to something else.

Today I’ve read from Alice Adams‘ collected stories, entitled The Stories of Alice Adams, out in 2002 from Knopf. Adams died in 1999, and back when I was just getting into this business, I’d read a lot of her stories, in places like The New Yorker, because that’s where she places a lot of stories. She wrote over twenty books, both novels and story collections, and was one of the more prestigious writers of her day. I first got into her because I saw that she’d once edited Best American Short Stories, which at the time was my bible. I automatically assumed that everyone who did that job was a writer I should read (which is true), though I still haven’t read a single word by Hortense Calisher. In any case, Adams was royalty when I stepped into this game, so I’m pretty glad to be covering her here now.

Back in my early 20s, I looked at Adams as a writer who wrote adult stories. Not like sex stories (ignore the title of the story I’m covering today), but stories about adults, in large metropolitan cities, doing things like taking airplanes for work, having extramarital affairs, and seeing psychiatrists. Updike seems like that type of writer to me. Cheever maybe, too. After reading Adams’ stories today, I don’t really see anything that contradicts that. Now, however, as a real adult, and a tad more “worldly,” none of that seems all that strange to me.

I started with the first story, “Verlie I Say Unto You.” This one’s about Verilie, a black maid working for the Todd family in the 1930s. She has four kids, but most of her life is spent taking care of the Todds and their children, getting there early enough to make breakfast, not leaving until everyone’s had dinner. She develops a relationship with the handyman, Carlton, but soon we find out she’s married—when her husband is killed in a knife fight in Memphis and the Todds are the one to tell her. Jessica Todd, the wife/mom in the family, is super-depressed and doesn’t understand how Verilie is so positive despite the bad news she’s gotten, not understanding that Verilie just couldn’t stand her husband. When Carlton dies from a brain hemorhage, however, she sees what true grief really is.

The last story in the book (and note, this is a thick book) is “Earthquake Damage.” This one more embodies some of those “adult” themes I was talking about before. This one features Lila, who’s stuck on a plane headed home to San Francisco in the wake of the 1989 earthquake. When her plane experiences turbulence, she starts to think of Julian, her on-again, off-again lover. She knew Julian in grad school (they’re both shrinks), and then kept up an affair with him during both their marriages, their divorces, and Julian’s current do-over with his ex. Adams actually switches us over to Julian for a while. He’s just about tired of his ex again, thinking of Lila as the earthquake disrupts his world. There’s a little back and forth, but at the end of it all (including this massive collection), Lila has a pleasant epiphany, sending us off proper.

I cherry-picked a story from the middle of the book by title, so that’s how I landed on “Great Sex” out of fifty or so others, because sex (that’s great). This one finds Alison at lunch with her friend Sheila, who is bemoaning a recent breakup, ending the conversation with a nod to the sex they had. This gets Alison to thinking about the sex she’s had, wondering if it’s as great as the sex Sheila is bragging about to her at lunch.

From there we get to a list of Alison’s most memorable lovers, the first being a grad student in math at Berkeley. Then there was a sculptor she met at a gallery. These weren’t her only lovers, but are worthy of paragraph-long anecdotes.

The third is the one that really launches the story. This lover was a married man, quite older, from out of town, and definitely the best of the sex she’s had. She and he really got along, always with the implication that he wasn’t ever going to leave his wife and kids for her. This was all fine with Alison, being his squeeze when he flies in for business, her San Francisco fling. That is until he got Alison pregnant.

Jack, the married guy, wanted Alison to abort the kid, but she didn’t. She decided to keep it—she’d already had one high school abortion—and just wanted this piece of Jack, a chance at a family.

Jump ahead fifteen or so years and now Alison’s kid, Jennifer, is out of town, visiting her grandma, and Alison is having lunch with Sheila, hearing about sex, making her think of Jack. They speak infrequently—he sends support checks that Lila never cashes—but she can’t stop thinking of him.

Lo and behold, while Jennifer is out of town, Jack is coming in for business and Lila finds this out. All of a sudden, all these years later, she’s thinking of her lover, her best lover, in that way again. I won’t reveal what happens here, but hey, this story is called “Great Sex.”

At 47, I appreciate Alice Adams a lot more than I did when I was 22, all of her mature (not in that way!) themes throwing me off then, but seeming like pretty standard conflicts and characteristics for a short story now. The Stories of Alice Adams is mine now, soon to be on my shelf, a thick, white book that I’ll see near the start of my story collection collection, one that I won’t be able to miss, one I can always grab. Lots more stories here, and I hope to get to all of them sooner or later.