We Others: New & Selected Stories (Vintage Contemporaries)

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9780307743428: We Others: New & Selected Stories (Vintage Contemporaries)

PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist

From the Pulitzer Prize–winning author: the essential stories across three decades that showcase his indomitable imagination.

Steven Millhauser’s fiction has consistently, and to dazzling effect, dissolved the boundaries between reality and fantasy, waking life and dreams, the past and the future, darkness and light, love and lust. The stories gathered here unfurl in settings as disparate as nineteenth-century Vienna, a contemporary Connecticut town, the corridors of a monstrous museum, and Thomas Edison’s laboratory, and they are inhabited by a wide-ranging cast of characters, including a knife thrower and teenage boys, ghosts and a cartoon cat and mouse. But all of the stories are united in their unfailing power to surprise and enchant. From the earliest to the stunning, previously unpublished novella-length title story—in which a man who is dead, but not quite gone, reaches out to two lonely women—Millhauser in this magnificent collection carves out ever more deeply his wondrous place in the American literary canon.

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About the Author:

Steven Millhauser is the author of numerous works of fiction, including Martin Dressler, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1997, and, most recently, Dangerous Laughter, a New York Times Book Review Best Book of the Year. His work has been translated into fifteen languages, and his story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” was the basis of the 2006 film The Illusionist. He teaches at Skidmore College and lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


Excerpted from The Slap

Walter Lasher. One September evening when Walter Lasher returned from the city after a hard day’s work and was walking to his car in the station parking lot, a man stepped out from between two cars, walked up to him, and slapped him hard in the face. Lasher was so startled that he did not move. The man turned and walked briskly away. Lasher was a big man, six one, with broad shoulders and a powerful neck. No one had dared to hit him since the sixth grade. He remembered it still: Jimmy Kubec had pushed him in the chest, and Lasher had swung so hard that he broke Kubec’s nose. Lasher looked around. The man was gone, a few commuters were strolling to their cars. For a moment he had the sensation that he’d dreamed the whole thing: the sudden appearance of the stranger, the slap, the vanishing. His cheek stung: the man had slapped him hard. Lasher entered his car and started home. As he passed under the railroad trestle, crossed Main, and drove along streets lined with maples and sycamores, he kept summoning the little scene in the station parking lot. The man was about five ten, well built, tan trench coat, no hat. It was difficult to remember his face, though he’d made no attempt to hide it and in fact had looked directly at Lasher. What stood out was something about the eyes: a hard, determined look; not rage, ­exactly—­more like a cold sureness. The man had hit him once: hard. Then he had walked away. Lasher pulled over to the side of the road and checked his face in the rearview mirror. He ­wasn’t certain, but the cheek looked a little red. He pulled back onto the street. The man must have mistaken him for someone else. A crazy guy, some loony off his meds, they should keep them locked up. But he ­hadn’t looked crazy. Maybe a client, in over his head, unhappy with the performance of his investment portfolio in a tanking market. Or maybe Lasher had offended someone without knowing it, the man had followed him up from the city, and all because of a sharp word, an impatient look, a biting phrase, he had no time for fools, a bumped arm in the street. The man had looked directly at him. Lasher would talk it out with his wife. They’d lived here for ­twenty-­six years and nothing like this had ever happened to him. It was why you stayed out of the city, took the long commute. A few blocks from the beach he turned onto his street, where the lights were already on. They must have come on all over town while he was ­driv­ing from the station. How could he have missed it? The man had taken him by surprise. He ­hadn’t had time to react. He ­didn’t like the man’s eyes, ­didn’t like the thought of himself standing there doing nothing. It was probably too late to call the ­police—­the man would already be far away. Anna would know what to do. Lasher pulled into the drive and sat motionless in the darkening car. The man had looked hard at him: there was no mistake. He should have smashed him in the mouth. Jimmy Kubec had worn a bandage on his face for two weeks. Lasher walked across the flagstones and up the steps of the front porch. In the hall he could smell roast beef and basil. He’d save his misadventure for after dinner. The man had come right up to him and slapped him: hard. As Lasher hung up his hat he understood that he would not speak of it to Anna, who was coming ­toward him. “Katie ­called—­she’s coming on Saturday. I said it was fine. I mean, what else could I do? Oh, and Jenkovitch left a message. He says he never can get hold of you. He wants you to call him back. Here, give me that. How was your day?”
 
Our town. Our town is bordered on the south by a sandy public beach that faces the waters of Long Island Sound and on the north by a stretch of pine and oak woods. To the east lies an industrial city, where streets of crumbling brick factories with smashed windows give way to neighborhoods of new ­ten-­story apartment complexes rising above renovated ­two-­family houses with porches on both floors. To the west lies a wealthy town of ­five-­bedroom homes set back on rural lanes, with a private beach, a ­horse-­riding academy with indoor and outdoor practice rings, and a harbor yacht club where powerboats and racing sailboats are moored on floating docks. We like to think of ourselves as in the middle: well off, as things go, with pockets of wealth at the shore and on Sascatuck Hill, but with plenty of modest neighborhoods where people work hard and struggle to make ends meet. In this way of thinking there’s a certain amount of ­self-­deception, of which we’re perfectly ­aware—­it pleases us to think of ourselves as in the middle, even though, as statistics show, we’re well above the national average in per capita income. Although we’re on the commuter line to Manhattan, many of us work right here in town or in small cities not more than half an hour away. For the most part our lawns are neat, our streets well paved, our trees trimmed once a year by men in orange hats who stand in baskets at the ends of high booms. Our school system is one of the best in the ­county—­we believe in education and pay our teachers well. Our Main Street is lively, with cafés and restaurants and a big department store, despite the new mall out by Route 7. Because we’re on the commuter line, we don’t feel shut away from the center of things, as if we were stuck up in Vermont or Maine, though at the same time we’re happy to be out of the city and take pride in our ­small-­town atmosphere of ­tree-­shaded streets, yard sales, and the annual fire department dinner. But make no mistake, there’s nothing quaint about us, what with our new semiconductor headquarters and our ­high-­end boutiques, unless it’s our ­seventeenth-­century town green, with a restored ­eighteenth-­century inn where George Washington is supposed to have spent the night. Most of us know we’re lucky to live in a town like this, where crime is low and the salt water is never more than a short drive away. We also understand that to someone from another place, to someone who is disappointed or unhappy, someone for whom life has not worked out in the way it might have, our town may seem to have a certain ­self-­satisfaction, even a smugness. We understand that, for such a person, there may be much to dislike, in a town like ours.
 
At night. In the middle of the night Walter Lasher woke beside his wife and immediately recalled the episode on the playground that had taken place ­forty-­two years ago. He saw Jimmy Kubec with startling vividness: the thick black ­combed-­back oily hair, the loose jaunty walk, the mocking mouth, the large ­long-­lashed eyes. Kubec had long thin biceps, with a vein running down along each upper arm. He wore black jeans and a tight white T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his shoulders. He walked ­toward Walter, looking at him with a little taunting smile, and as he approached he held up the palm of one hand and made a pushing gesture at the air. He did not touch Walter, who nevertheless felt the mockery and the challenge. Walter had grown six inches over the summer. His shoulders were filling out, and he felt an energy in his arms that was almost like anger. The mocking little gesture cut into him like glass. He walked up to Jimmy Kubec and smashed him in the face. He could see the surprise and pain in Kubec’s dark eyes, the blood streaming from the broken nose, the look that seemed to say: Why did you do that to me? Kubec had no friends. He stayed out of Walter’s way after that, standing alone by a tree in a corner of the schoolyard. Lasher lay in bed and thought: Could it have been him, after all these years? The idea was absurd. The man in the trench coat had sandy hair, sharp features, grayish or bluish eyes. It must have been someone else, someone who had it in for him. He saw it again: Jimmy Kubec coming ­toward him, the veins in his arms, the little pushing gesture in the air. Kubec ­hadn’t touched him. All that was in another time, another life. Anna lay with her back to him, her hair rippling over the pillow. On the street a car passed, sending a thin bar of light across one wall and up along the ceiling.
 
Robert Sutliff. Some sixteen hours later, Robert Sutliff arrived at the station on the 7:38. It was an hour after his usual time. The lights were on in the lot, though the sky was still gray with the last light. He had worked ­late—­tomorrow’s design presentation was a big one. He still needed a few hours after dinner to do a little ­fine-­tuning, a little ­last-­minute cleanup on the three logos he was planning to show them, each with six presentation pages, with and without type. That way he’d give them the illusion that they were actively involved in the decision process, that they were making a contribution to the final product, while he slowly steered them in the direction of the third mark, the one they ­wouldn’t be able to resist: the ­yellow-­gold ring surrounding a solid dark ­coffee-­colored circle, as if you were looking at a cup of coffee from above, and in the center a design of classic simplicity, in five bold yellow lines: a horizon line, a half circle representing the rising sun, and three sun rays. Coffee and morning, coffee and the energy of the new day, the energy of a new beginning, all in a visually striking, distinctive, versatile design. It worked perfectly on a ­two-­inch business card, and it would work just as well on a ­ten-­foot billboard or the side of an ­eighteen-­wheeler. He hurried down the platform stairs, the stone shining dully under the orange lights. He would talk up the first two designs, the tame one and the ­way-­out one, then hit them with the winner. His car was parked ­toward the back of the lot, not far from a light pole. As he reached into his pocket for his key, he heard someone walking up to him. Sutliff turned. The man raised his arm and swung at Sutliff’s face. Sutliff heard the sharp sound of the slap, like a gunshot. “Hey!” he shouted, but the man was striding away. His cheek burned. The man had struck him hard, but it ­wasn’t a punch, he ­hadn’t made a fist. Sutliff angrily began to follow him, shouted again, and stopped. That was not how he did things. He knew exactly how he did things. Sutliff looked around, rubbed his cheek, and got into his car. He drove quickly out of the lot, turned onto Main, made a left onto South Redding, and stopped at the police station. A man in a trench coat, no hat. Five ten, five eleven. Short hair, brown, darkish, hard to tell. Clean shaven, ­mid-­thirties. A stranger. They would send a car out right away. Sutliff thanked the officer and continued on his way home. What angered him about the whole thing was that people liked him; people took to him. It was part of his success. It had been that way as far back as kindergarten. It had all come together in high school, where he’d set a new record in the ­hundred-­meter dash, acted the part of Tom in The Glass ­Menagerie—­Blow out your candles, Laura!—and nailed Sandra Harding in her living room in front of the fireplace after the spring dance. UPenn, Harvard Business. Now he was someone to watch, someone on the way up, though always with a friendly greeting, a kind word for everyone. The man had looked at him angrily. Sutliff tried to think who it could be. He had a good memory for faces; it was no one he knew. Sutliff loved his wife, his daughter, his work; there had been the one brief fling in the months before Amy’s birth, but that was two years ago, no husband in the picture, no brother, she’d been good about it, disappointed but not bitter. He had nothing to reproach himself with. Who would do this? His cheek felt hot. The man had swung hard but ­hadn’t made a fist, ­hadn’t wanted anything from him. A crazy mistake. The police would take care of it.

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