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The End of the Story
By Lydia Davis
PicadorCopyright © 1995 Lydia Davis
All rights reserved.
The last time I saw him, though I did not know it would be the last, I was sitting on the terrace with a friend and he came through the gate sweating, his face and chest pink, his hair damp, and stopped politely to talk to us. He crouched on the red-painted concrete or rested on the edge of a slatted wooden bench.
It was a hot day in June. He had been moving his things out of my garage and into the back of a pickup truck. I think he was going to take them to another garage. I remember how flushed his skin was, but I have to imagine his boots, his broad white thighs as he crouched or sat, and the open, friendly expression he must have worn on his face, talking to these women who were not demanding anything of him. I know I was conscious of how my friend and I looked, the two of us sitting with our feet up on our deck chairs, and that in my friend's presence I might seem even older to him than I was, but also that he might find this attractive. He went into the house to get a drink of water, then came back out and told me he was finished and would be on his way.
A year later, when I thought he had forgotten me altogether, he sent me a poem in French, copied out in his handwriting. There was no letter with the poem, though he addressed it to me, using my name, as though beginning a letter, and closed it with his name, as though closing a letter. At first, when I saw the envelope with his handwriting on it, I thought he might be returning the money he owed me, over $300. I had not forgotten that money because things had changed for me and I needed it. Although the poem was addressed to me from him, I wasn't sure what he meant to say to me with that poem, or what I was meant to think he was saying, or how he was using it. He had put his return address on the envelope, so I knew he might expect an answer, but I didn't know how to answer it. I didn't think I could send another poem, and I didn't know what kind of letter would answer that poem. After a few weeks had passed, I found a way to answer it, telling him what I thought when I received what he sent, what I thought it was and how I discovered it was not that, how I read it and what I thought he might mean by sending me a poem about absence, death, and rejoining. I wrote all this in the form of a story because that seemed as impersonal as his poem. I included a note saying the story had been hard for me to write. I sent my answer to the address on the envelope, but I didn't hear from him again. I copied the address into my address book, erasing an earlier one that had not been good for very long. No address of his was good for very long and the paper in my address book where his address is written is thin and soft from being erased so often.
* * *
Another year went by. I was touring in the desert with a friend, not far from the city where he had lived, and I decided to look for him at his last address. The trip had been uncomfortable so far, because I felt oddly estranged from the man I was with. The first night I drank too much, lost my sense of distance in the moonlit landscape, and tried drunkenly to dive into the white hollows of the rocks, which appeared as soft as pillows to me, while he tried to hold me back. The second night I lay on my bed in the motel room drinking Coca-Cola and barely spoke to him. I spent all the next morning on the back of an old horse at the end of a long line of horses, riding slowly up into a single cleft in the hills and down again while he, annoyed with me, drove the rented car from one rock formation to another.
Out of the desert, our relations grew more comfortable again, and as he drove I read aloud to him from a book about Christopher Columbus, but the closer we came to the city, the more preoccupied I was. I stopped reading and looked out the window, but I noticed only isolated pieces of what I saw as we approached the sea: a ravine full of eucalyptus trees descending to the water; a black cormorant sitting on a monolith of pitted white limestone that had weathered into an hourglass shape; a pier with a roller coaster; a cupolaed house high above the rest of the town beside a queen palm; a bridge over railroad tracks that wheeled away ahead of us and behind us. When we headed north toward the city, we went along next to the tracks, sometimes within sight of them and sometimes away from them, when they veered inland and our road continued along the top of the cliff by the water.
I went off by myself the next afternoon and bought a street map. I examined it sitting on a stone wall that was cold under me though the sun was warm. A stranger told me the street I wanted was too far away to reach on foot, but I set off on foot anyway. Every time I came to the top of a hill, I looked out over the water and saw bridges and sailboats. Every time I descended into another small valley, the white houses closed in around me again.
I had not known how large the city would seem to me as I walked or how tired my legs would become. I had not known how the sun on the white housefronts would dazzle me after a time, how it would beat down hour after hour on housefronts that grew whiter and then less white as the hours passed and my eyes began to ache. I got on a bus and rode for a while, and then got off and walked again. Though the sun had shone all day, by late afternoon the shadows were chilly. I passed some hotels. I did not know exactly where I was, though later, when I left the neighborhood, I saw where I had been.
At last, after walking sometimes in the right direction and sometimes in the wrong one, I reached his street. It was the evening rush hour. Men and women in business clothes walked up and down the street past me. The traffic moved slowly. The sun was low and the light on the buildings was dark yellow. I was surprised. I had not imagined that his part of town would look like this. I hadn't even believed this address existed. But the building was there, three stories high, painted light blue, a little shabby. I studied it from across the street, standing on a step in which was embedded a row of tiles spelling out the name of a pharmacy, though the door behind me opened into a bar.
For more than a year now, since I had written that address in my address book, I had imagined very precisely, as though I had dreamed it, a small sunny street of two-storied yellow houses with people going in and out of them, up and down front stoops, and I had also imagined myself sitting in a car diagonally across the street from his house, watching his front door and his windows. I had seen him coming out of the house, thinking of other things, his head bowed, running down the steps briskly. Or coming more slowly down the steps with his wife, as I had seen him twice before with his wife when he did not know I was watching him, once from a distance as they stood on a sidewalk near a movie theater and once through his apartment window in the rain.
I wasn't sure I would speak to him, because when I imagined it I was disturbed by the anger I saw in his face. Surprise, then anger, and then dread, because he was afraid of me. His face was blank, and stiff, his eyelids lowered and his head thrown back a little: what was I going to do to him now? And he would move back a step as though that really took him out of my range.
Though I saw that his building existed, I did not believe his apartment would exist. And if his apartment existed, I did not believe I would find his name taped up beside the bell. Now I crossed the street and went inside the same building where he had lived, perhaps very recently, certainly within a year, and read the names ARD and PRUETT on a white card next to the bell of his apartment, number 6.
I realized later that this strange, genderless pair, Ard and Pruett, must have been the ones who discovered whatever he left behind: the bits of tape stuck to things, the paper clips and pins between the floorboards, the pot holders or spice bottles or pot lids behind the stove, the dust and crumbs in the corners of drawers, the hard, stained sponges under the bathtub and under the kitchen sink that he once used in his energetic way to clean a basin or counter, the stray pieces of clothing hanging in dark parts of the closet, fragments of splintered wood, nail holes in the plaster with smudges or scrapes around them or near them that would seem random just because Ard and Pruett wouldn't know what their purpose had been. I felt an unexpected relation to these two people, though they did not know me and I had never seen them, because they, too, had lived in a sort of intimacy with him. Of course it could have been the tenants before them who found what he left, and maybe Ard and Pruett had found the marks of another person altogether.
Because I had to go as far as I could toward finding him, I rang their bell. If I did not find him this time, I would stop trying. I rang, and rang again, and yet again, but there was no answer. I stood outside on the street just long enough to feel I had arrived, at last, at the final point of some necessary journey.
I had set out to walk to a place that was too far to reach on foot. I had gone on even when it became too late in the day, and when I was at the limit of my strength. Some of my strength had returned when I came near the place where he had lived. Now I walked on past his house, toward Chinatown and the red-light district, the warehouses by the bay, and the water, as I thought, trying to remember the city, and even though he no longer lived in that house, and I was so tired, and I had to go on walking, and there were more hills to climb on all sides of me, I felt calmed by having been there, as I had not felt since he left me, as if, even though he was not there, I had found him again.
Maybe the fact that he wasn't there made this return possible, and made an end possible. Because if he had been there, everything would have had to continue. I would have had to do something about it, if only to go away and think about it from a great distance. Now I would be able to stop looking for him.
But the moment when I knew I had given up, when I knew I had ended the search, came a little later, as I was sitting in a bookstore in that city, with the taste in my mouth of some cheap, bitter tea brought to me by a stranger.
I had come to rest there, in an old building with floors of creaking wood, a narrow stairway leading downstairs, dim lighting in the basement, and a cleaner and brighter upper level. I had walked through the bookstore, downstairs and back upstairs and around the corner of every bookcase. I sat down to look at a book, but was so tired and thirsty I couldn't read.
I went to the front counter, next to the door. A somber man in a cardigan sweater stood behind it sorting books into piles. I asked him if there was any water, if I might have a glass of water, though I knew there probably wasn't any water here, in a bookstore. He said there was no water, but that I could perhaps go to a bar nearby. I said nothing, turned away, and went a few steps up into the front room that overlooked the street. There I sat down again on a chair to rest while people moved quietly around me.
I hadn't intended to be rude to the man, I simply couldn't open my mouth and speak. It would have taken all my strength to push the air out of my lungs and make a sound with it, and it would have hurt me to do it, or taken something from me that I couldn't spare just then.
I opened a book and looked at one page without reading it, then leafed through another book from beginning to end without understanding what I saw. I thought the man behind the counter probably mistook me for a vagrant, since the city was full of vagrants, particularly the sort who would like to sit in a bookstore as the afternoon grew darker and colder, and might ask him for a glass of water, and might even be rude if he did not give it to her. And because I thought, from his expression of surprise, and perhaps concern, when I turned away without answering him, that he mistook me for a vagrant, I suddenly felt I might be what he thought I was. There had been other times when I felt nameless and faceless, walking through city streets at night or in the rain when no one knew where I was, and now this feeling had unexpectedly been confirmed by the man standing across the counter from me. As he looked at me, I floated away from what I thought I was, and became neutral, colorless, without feeling: there was an equal choice between what I thought I was, this tired woman asking him for water, and what he thought I was, and there might not be any such thing as the truth anymore, to bind us together, so that he and I, facing each other across the counter, were more separate than two strangers usually are, isolated as though in a bank of fog, the voices and footsteps near us silenced, a little well of clarity around us, before I, in my new character as vagrant, too tired and disoriented to speak, looked away without answering and went into the next room.
But as I thought this, he walked up to me where I sat close by a tall bookcase. He leaned down to me and gently asked me if I would like a cup of tea, and when he brought it to me I thanked him and drank it. It was strong and hot, though so bitter it parched my tongue.
* * *
This seemed to be the end of the story, and for a while it was also the end of the novel — there was something so final about the bitter cup of tea. Then, although it was still the end of the story, I put it at the beginning of the novel, as if I needed to tell the end first in order to go on and tell the rest. It would have been simpler to begin at the beginning, but the beginning didn't mean much without what came after, and what came after didn't mean much without the end. Maybe I did not want to have to choose a place to start, maybe I wanted all the parts of the story to be told at the same time. As Vincent says, I often want more than is possible.
If someone asks me what the novel is about, I say it's about a lost man, because I don't know what to say. But it is true that for a long time now I have not known where he is, after first knowing and then not knowing, knowing again and then losing him again. He once lived on the outskirts of a small city a few hundred miles from here. He once worked for his father, a physicist. Now he may be teaching English to foreigners, or teaching writing to businessmen, or managing a hotel. He may be in a different city, or not in a city at all, though a city is more likely than a town. He may still be married. I was told that he and his wife had a daughter and that they named her after a European city.
When I moved to this town five years ago I stopped imagining that he would appear suddenly in front of me, because it was too unlikely. It had not been so unlikely in other places I lived. In at least three cities and two towns, I kept expecting him: if I was walking down a street, I imagined him coming toward me. If I was walking through a museum, I was sure he would be in the next room. Yet I never saw him. He might have been there, in the same street or even the same room, watching me from a short distance. He might have slipped away before I noticed him.
I knew he was alive somewhere, and for several years I lived in a city he would almost surely visit, though my neighborhood was a dirty, run-down area by the harbor. The closer I went to the center of the city, in fact, the more I expected to see him. I would find myself walking behind a familiar figure, broad, muscular, not much taller than I was, with straight, fair hair. But the head would turn and the face would be so unlike his, the forehead wrong, the nose wrong, the cheeks wrong, that it would become ugly just because it could have been his and was not. Or a man would come toward me from a distance with his arrogant, tense bearing. Or, close by, in a crowded subway car, I would see the same pale blue eyes, pink skin with freckles, or high, prominent cheekbones. Once, the features were his but exaggerated, so that the head was like a rubber mask: hair the same color but thicker, eyes so light they were almost white, forehead and cheekbones jutting out grotesquely, red flesh hanging from the bones, lips pressed together as though in a rage, body absurdly wide. Another time, the version of his face was so lacking in definition, so smooth and open, that I easily saw how, in time, it would develop into that other face I had loved so much.
Excerpted from The End of the Story by Lydia Davis. Copyright © 1995 Lydia Davis. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I Ilike the way Lydia Davis writes, so clear, so precise and it flows. This is the sad story of a relationship, older woman, younger man, and attempts to fit the pieces back together again through the unreliable lens of memory. Very sad and very good.
This is an astonishing novel. I have more or less given up writing reviews for Amazon, because (as Nicholson Baker points out) they don't seem to add to anything or create any kind of community, they just sink into the general accumulation of texts. (He was comparing Amazon with Wikipedia, where everyone's writing adds to something large.) But I'm back again, writing for Amazon, because I think this novel needs to be remembered, and bought. There is a five-star review here that notes it's necessary to read the novel more than once. I think that is true, if you are expecting any sort of ordinary narrative. Davis has that rarest of all qualities: an original voice. She speaks plainly, in a minimalist style, and that is fairly conventional. But the use the makes of the minimalist voice (which I find myself mimicking in this review, inadvertently) is not at all usual. This is life with all its content subtracted away. The novel is about a love affair, but we are scarcely told anything about what either person looks like. We hear, in passing, that the narrator likes to identify species of grass and spiders, but we do not hear any names of grasses or spiders. She falls in love with a man, but we have no idea what kind of person he is. They are both attached to a university, but we hear next to nothing about what they study or teach. She is a translator of French, but there is no French in the book. (That is especially astonishing: think of other Francophiles, like Wallace Stevens.) Nothing has content, everything is told as her recollections of actions and places. In this contentless, abstract world the writer's voice is all we have. We listen as she wonders whether her memories are correct, and admits that some art not. We hear her descriptions of her behavior, always written as if she were at some remove from them. When she is suffering most acutely from the absence of the man she fell in love with, we hear that she seems to see herself from a distance. That is the book's strangest moment. We have always seen her from a distance. What kind of narrator could construct a novel so impeccably abstracted from the proper names and the direct emotions of life, and then say that, in her memory, she was only abstracted in that way during a short period of grief? The psychology of the book is absolutely without parallel. It is deeply sympathetic, sad, detached, and also, at the same time, entirely perverse and because of that perversity incomprehensible. The book is, in its own way, a masterpiece.
I¿ve been reading on this book for seven or eight months. It¿s an experimental novel, with the main character attempting to remember every event of her relationship with a man, starting with the last first. The end of the story is really the beginning. Fun to start, like most gimmicks, but grew quite wearing. Where did this author go for her degree in creative writing?
A truly original writer who inspires you to think about life.
Any of us literary intellectual type gals who have had a crush that we loathed ourselves for but had the crush anyway will love this book. We will all recognize ourselves in this witty tongue not totally in cheek love story. The college town milieu is perfectly drawn.