(Southern Methodist University Press)How do you shape a short story? The same way that porcupines make love. Very carefully. In the craft one has to drop the reader in a strange new world; make one feel not so strange, quickly; and then get on with it.There are twelve stories here: brief, well-written, well-shaped. Take the title story, "Thoreau's Laundry." Celia is a maxillofacial prosthetist. She makes people-parts for people who have lost ears or eyes or noses.
That's her job and that's the frame of the story --- but below this implied agony is yet another agony. She helps people who have lost part of themselves ... but she has lost something too. Her husband Simon has come down with multiple sclerosis and she is caring for him. The two of them have lost part of his body and part of their life from before: He is not the same man she married twenty years ago.She is tired: not from her job, but from last night's emergency. She and Simon had spent most of last night in the ER. "His catheter had gone AWOL at one in the morning," she explains. He's in pain and she can't fix it, and she spent much of the early hours "repeating her husband's history over and over, to a succession of twelve-year-olds in lab coats and stethoscopes."
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In 2003 we reviewed Tumbling After by Susan Parker. It told, for the first time, at least in our memory, a refreshingly direct account of one who cares for a disabled family member, in this case, Susan's husband. He was not a quadriplegic when she married him but after the bicycle accident and for the rest of his life he is just that, a man with no use of arms nor legs (nor bowel nor bladder).
Susan has apparently, over the years, cared for him lovingly and well; what she tells us of her new life is funny, tender and heart-rending. When we lose something (a part of the body; a part of our history) things can go strange. The one you married yesterday may be someone else tomorrow. To care for Ralph (or Simon, or whoever it is over there in the wheelchair) turns into a full-time job, and certainly changes your day-to-day.
Some choose to take it on with patience and affection and humor. Others disappear or call in the martyr chip (or the nursing home manager). Those who choose to stay with it are part of Susan's story ... and, in this book, Ann Harleman's.
In "Thoreau's Laundry" and "Meanwhile" we encounter a husband with CPMS, chronic progressive multiple sclerosis. What's a good woman to do? According to Dr. Jacques, Simon's urologist,
Zere are two kind of woman. Zee kind which divorce zee 'andicapped and zee kind which marree zem.
Only two? No. There are others. There are those who choose to stay on with Ralph and Simon and Dan and take care of them, no matter what. And, too, there are those who choose to stay on with the Ralphs and Simons and Dans and, while ministering to them, take on another man. A lover? Yes. With guilt? Sure. With shame? Maybe. With love? Why not?
In "Meanwhile," we learn of the outside affair through e-mails that break in through the story here and there. There is Celia who cares for Dan and there is Celia who is also "firstname.lastname@example.org." Her new lover is "email@example.com."
Graywolf advises her that there is "some sense of amputation with the minus of you." For their upcoming visit, he asks her to
wear something that shows your beautiful arms and under it nothing.
Is it wrong for Celia the "lioness" (or anyone else for that matter) to be involved in such an affair as she is caring for a very drastically different husband? Who are we to say? And what are we to say?
You have been elected (by me; by you; by chance) as my caretaker. From time to time, we will remember the times from before (before lifts, in-dwelling catheters, the injections, the occasional trips to the ER). But what am I to do if you visit this graywolf who wonders why "ididn't take away some of yur beautiful flesh in my predatory mouth?" Should I know about him? Should I want to know? If I do, should I be angry? Hurt? Devastated?
What is a good man (or a good woman) to do?--- L. W. Milam