Susan Perabo: “Indulgence” from One Story #178, 5/3/13

“I wanted to write a love letter to cigarettes. I wanted to write a story that genuinely, without irony, celebrated smoking… now, ten years after quitting, I recall cigarettes with an affection that I feel for no other nonliving thing.”

~~ Susan Perabo, One Story Q&A

You’ve got to read this story.

I’m not going to say much about it. I’m not going to trace the plot, or explain how I identify with the characters, or guiltily admire the structure, or even relate my experience of reading it (with one exception). I’m not even going to link to the author’s interview at the One Story website as I usually do (the quote above will have to suffice unless you want to go googling) because I think it’s too spoilery, even before you get to the capital SPOILER ALERT warnings. And, above all, I’m not even going to talk about why I won’t talk about it.

But you’ve got to read this story. Trust me on this. You should probably read it at a time and place where it doesn’t matter if you melt into a sobbing puddle of goo for a while afterwards. Not, say, on your lunch hour.

If you, like me, are an ex-smoker, you might find it a difficult story to read. As is obvious from the Q&A quote above, Perabo is an ex-smoker. I could tell, as I read, it was written by a smoker – not someone who lived with a smoker or observed smokers – because she got so many of the tiny details right. The “musical wheeze.” Missing cigarettes between cigarettes. And the best one of all:

What I loved about smoking, after my first day as a smoker, maybe even after my first puff, was that a cigarette was a thing to reach for every time I wanted to reach for something. It was a permanent answer to the persistent question now what?

That was the best thing about smoking for me: it gave me something to do. I’m so glad to know I’m not alone.

Now, it may seem a little narcissistic (a little?) to write about myself, instead of addressing the story this post is ostensibly about. But I can’t discuss the story – even a little, even in an abstract way, which would be the best way to discuss it, talking about form, about rules, about my experience of reading it – without spoiling it, I believe. So I’m left with smoking.

Ok, that’s just ridiculous. Let me try to get a little closer:

Don’t go away thinking it’s a story about smoking. It’s a story about indulgence on many levels (I never realized the depth of the word before). It’s a brilliant love story in form, content, and effect. It’s a story that will get you thinking about the decisions you make, the ones that seem pretty shaky at the time, and how, even if you make a decision with love, you may not know if it was the right one for a long time. In fact, you may never know it at all, unless someone tells you. And inversely: someone else may never know, unless you tell them.

You’ve got to read this story. It costs $2.50, the price of about eight cigarettes. It’ll last a lot longer.

Pushcart 2011: Susan Perabo, “Shelter” from The Iowa Review, Spring 2009

I’ve gotten through a lot by not over-thinking things, by being able to keep certain matters out of my mind. You busy yourself with living, however it is you choose to busy yourself – dogs or kids or broken cars or numbers in a book – and you might well forget that after a year of anticipation your father decided not to move the family to Florida after all, or that the man you almost married had a change of heart at the last minute and traded you in for another. My sister, who lives down in Boston, thinks all the time about everything and as a result takes a half-dozen pills every morning. Last year I watched her suffer every detail of her daughter’s wedding and I thought: you can have it.

This story is available online. It’s not very long, and it’s easy to read.

One of the things this first-person narrator (a 62-year-old woman who takes in unwanted dogs and places them with families who want them) has not thought about is the acorn-sized lump she found one day in the shower. She doesn’t want to get sucked into the medical machinery, so she focuses on placing the nineteen dogs she has waiting for homes, as quickly as possible. She thinks she has enough time for that.

It’s a dance of intimacy without intimacy between the narrator and Jerry, who wants a dog. They are both careful to stay distant. And yet, they end up perhaps closer to each other than to anyone else in their lives. While the characters aren’t sentimental at all (“I did not want there to be a single sentimental moment with a dog in this story, because neither character would tolerate such a thing.” Perabo says in an interview with The Iowa Review), it’s a story that’s quite sentimental about how non-sentimental they are.

It’s another story that took a long time to take shape:

It grew (as my stories often do) from the collision of two separate stories that had been knocking around in my head for some time: the story of a lonely woman doing “home visits” to place stray dogs, and the story of the strange old man in Cornish. Even after I realized these two stories were actually one, it took me probably three years to complete the piece, and I gave up on it numerous times….
Winning [a Pushcart prize] for a story like “Shelter,” which was so long in coming, confirms my belief that the stories you really care about – even when you give them up for dead, and abandon them for months and years at a time — are always worth returning to.

While it didn’t astound me the way some of the other stories in this volume did, it’s a truly interesting approach to these two people, and I enjoyed it very much.