When I ran into Joshua for the first time in nine years, I was working at the Delta terminal and had just cleaned the men’s room next to Malibu Al’s. I can’t remember why I looked up, but whatever the reason, there he was coming out of 58A.
It wasn’t allowed, but I was taking my twenty minutes in the terminal rather than the break room – a windowless box I hated many times more than the job itself. Joshua was at the head of the line walking off the jet bridge wearing a black suit and the loosened tie the color of a good lime. At first I thought he was alone, but then a woman, mesmerized by her phone, glided to him as if guided by radar and gave him a little hip check. I was frozen and my adrenaline was going like I’d been caught doing something I shouldn’t have been. Which, from a certain perspective, was exactly right.
I sat there waiting until he turned his head and looked right at me. Our eyes met for a second. He made no move and I thought, Thank God, he doesn’t recognize me. And then I thought, The fucker is pretending he doesn’t recognize me. And I started to feel all righteous, but I realized he was doing exactly what I was doing, and it made me sad to think we’d just let it go, that he’d just keep on walking, I’d keep on sitting there, he’d keep on wearing suits and getting off airplanes with his pretty wife or whoever she was and I’d go on racking elephant rolls of toilet paper and scrubbing shit from white tile.
But he stopped…
I wish this story were available online. First, because it should be read, and felt. Second, because I’m going to quote several long passages, necessarily, because that’s the story it is: gold nuggets in luxurious paragraphs that aren’t padded in the slightest, where everything matters, where the style is embodied in the story itself. And third, because I’m going to get spoilery. So see if you can dig up a copy of Tin House Winter 2014. It’s stories like this that renew my regret at being unable to renew my subscription.
The effectiveness of the story lies in what is barely hinted at. Peter, our narrator and protagonist, mentions some murky past event involving cinder block walls. Prison? A mental institution? Rehab? All of the above? It’s never spelled out. But whatever it was, it was enough to turn him from the optimistic college grad who moved to LA with best buddy Joshua to seek his fortune, into… something else. Someone who would rather clean airport toilets than take his lunch break in a windowless room. Someone who’s ambivalent about seeing Joshua nine years later, the friend who’s fulfilled all those dreams from that earlier time, because it’s so clear that Peter… hasn’t. And while that particular situation is probably not something he has to worry about most of the time, here in this story, it’s the personal hell the writer shoves him up against.
Hemingway spelled out his iceberg principle of fiction writing in a 1959 Paris Review interview with George Plimpton: “There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know, you can eliminate, and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it, then there is a hole in the story.” Maksik took it to heart when he wrote Peter’s story, as he explains on the Tin House blog: “In earlier drafts, I included a great deal more of Pete’s life – past and present. As is often the case at the beginning, I found that I was writing those scenes more as a way to discover Pete’s character than in direct service to the story. I find it’s the best way for me to start – don’t think, include everything. The problem is that I fall in love with sections (or sentences) that serve me, but not the reader. That was the case with “Trim Palace” and it took me years to excise what needed to be excised.”
I could see the result in the story. The visible part is carefully sculpted, just enough to make sense: it’s just a story about a guy taking care of an old friend’s old dog. But that’s just the plot; the story, the invisible part, broke my heart as I read, unawares, until the tears blurred my vision.
I was thinking about Joshua at the bar, sitting on a stool all the way at the end, leaning his shoulder against the window, the window giving onto the street. Joshua watching me work in the early days, drinking for free. Those nights when he was always there, coming in early after whatever job he was doing – working in mailrooms, working as someone said assistant, someone’s gofer. Those early days before our impatience set in, before our fear.
I was thinking about the flickering fluorescent light, my palm against the cool white cinderblock. My cheek. Sometimes my lips, my tongue. The constant noise. The screaming at night.
I opened my eyes. A jet drew a neat white line across the sky.
Juliette watched me, head bobbing in rhythm with her easy panting. I reached for her. She flicked my hand.
Juliette is the old dog. Following their brief airport meeting, Joshua offered Peter $2000 to dog- and house-sit for a week while he and the perfect wife fly off somewhere stylish and exciting. This could be a simple plot twist, but the details and nuance here are important. Look at the new relationship that’s developed. In that first accidental reunion, Joshua is shocked at what’s become of his friend. He does follow up, which is a plus. And in that call, because he was, at least once, a close friend: “I got to ask. Short version, okay, but, what the fuck happened?”
Short version. Just the tip of the iceberg is all he has time for. But there’s no short version for Peter, so he changes the subject. It’s a mark of generosity that Joshua is entrusting his elegant house, and beloved dog, to someone who obviously isn’t the same person he used to know. But it has to hurt, to know you’re only worth the short version.
I’m guessing Peter’s had a lot of experience dealing with humiliation. It’s revealed beautifully in the scenes with Juliette, the old Great Dane. She has trouble walking. Can’t poop when and where she should. Needs help to get up. But she’s still the same dog who was once a playful puppy, and she’s still beloved enough to hire a dog-sitter rather than send her to a kennel during vacation week. Peter observes her every humiliation, gives her the assistance she needs, cleans up after her. Takes care of her, because it’s his job.
He calls his parents.
Again, both of us waited. I listened and I imagined him doing the same, as if some sound in the background might answer a question neither of us knew how to ask.
“I was thinking, dad. I was thinking I’d like to come home for a while. Come to see you.”
“Oh, I’d like that, Peter. I’d like that so much.”
“Me too,” I said beginning to speak more quickly, walking out to the trees. “I was thinking I’d come home next week and just, I don’t know. I’d see you and Mom and, really, I don’t know exactly. Just be home and get things together and figure out what’s next. It would be nice to be home with you both.”
“Peter,” he said. “You know I’d love that.”
Juliet was still watching me.
“I’d like that. You know I would. I’d love it, love it more than anything, but you also know I’m going to have to ask your mother. I’ll have to ask her. I’ll have to find the right time to ask her. See what she says, see what she thinks about it.” He paused and then said, “About you coming home,” as if I’d forgotten what we were talking about.
I was walking back across the lawn to the house.
I can hear the voice of Edna in Carver’s “Chef’s House” in the cadence of the father’s speech. I can hear his heart break as he hesitates to welcome his son home. And yes, this is where the iceberg started carving into me.
The final scene (which I won’t reveal; I have to leave something as a teaser) consolidates it all in a decision point. I made the mistake of reading this on the bus. I’ve never been able to hold back tears. It’s one of the risks of reading on the bus.In my mind I could hear Adam Crossley’s “Prisoner” playing as I read – “Take me home….” I could see the face of Kalief Browder, whose suicide still haunts us all.
To be clear, this isn’t Kalief’s (why is there so often a sense of intimacy when it’s too late to matter? If we’d had this intimacy sooner, could things have gone differently?) story , not at all. It’s Peter’s story, and I get the clear sense, if from nothing else than his mother’s persistent anger, that his sorrows are more the product of his own deeds. But they’re sorrows nonetheless, and I don’t buy into this obsession we have with rationing our compassion, as though we might run out.
The art of the iceberg story lies in how little is told, and, maybe, in how we can adapt it to what’s in our lives. I heard and saw what I did because of my own experience, and timing, but we’ve all had those moments when we run into someone from the past, and our failure to live up to our potential hangs heavy on us. Sometimes, we just think it does. And sometimes, as with Peter, it really does. It’s everyone’s story. It’s just that, sometimes, it cuts a little deeper.