Labors of the Heart: Stories

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9780312427412: Labors of the Heart: Stories

Set in the small towns and outlands of the American West, Claire Davis's fiction has been anthologized, published in our most respected literary magazines, and widely praised as some of the truest, most affecting prose about this region in decades. Labors of the Heart demonstrates the breadth of her talent, insight, and empathy. "Adultery" follows a middle-aged man who learns that his mother is cheating on her new husband. In "Grounded," a mother doggedly follows her son as he tries to run away along Montana's highways. And in the title story, a lonely man is literally struck by love for a woman he sees at the supermarket.

These stories, from the beloved author of Winter Range and Season of the Snake, trace the hidden longings of seemingly stoical people, seeking out the rifts and ruptures in their quiet lives.

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About the Author:

Claire Davis is the author of Season of the Snake and Winter Range, which won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award for Best First Novel and the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award for Best Novel. Her stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, and Ploughshares, been read on National Public Radio's Selected Shorts program, and been selected for the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Price anthologies. She lives in Lewiston, Idaho.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One 
Adultery
 
For twenty years Joe Earley encouraged his mother to divorce his father. They were no good together. Fought blow for blow. Not physically, understand, but sniping, from the bedroom, over the kitchen table, outdoors, in company. They battered each other with words. And then, just when he'd given up, his mother left his father after thirty-five years, and Joe discovered, despite his brave urgings, that his parents' divorce hurt, though by then he was himself married and had two children. Four months after the divorce, his mother married Harold, a wildlife artist--good God--who planned to make his career by winning the annual federal duck stamp competition. "Certain glory," Harold said. A pie-in-the-sky thing, just the sort Joe's mother always fell for.
 
To make matters worse, they all continued to live in the same small central Idaho town, Cordwood, where his parents had attended high school, gotten engaged, and raised their two children, and all the neighbors were the same neighbors, and everybody's business was everybody else's. And now this. Adultery. Especially with an ex-husband. His mother and father, and Harold--what an uncomely threesome that was. Enough to make a son pack his bags, wife, and children, flee the tiny town--two square blocks of one- and two-story business buildings, surrounded by single-family residences--whose only respite from boredom was gossip and the annual sausage feed. The only thing lacking? a town crier. Just beyond town were dairy farms and wheat fields interrupted by the occasional legumes, patch on patch of cultivation ending in the foothills of the Seven Devils on one side and the Gospel Range on the other.
 
The Devils were out today, their horned peaks white-capped and cheerful. Joe goosed his rig through the town's three stop signs and one light, past the West One Bank and the Log In Bar, the Lewis-Clark movie house whose owner, Harvey Manners, an ex-logger Christian fundamentalist, was bankrupting himself by limiting features to G and PG. Double bill--Charlie the Lonesome Cougar and The Shaggy Dog. Again. All these years later. Maggie, his five-year-old who squirmed through double features, would suffer doggish nightmares. And his son, Ted, a glutton at eight, would want more popcorn and candy than his stomach could hold. But they'd beg to be taken. He decided his wife, Grace, could do it, though he'd like to see Charlie again, watch the log drive down the Clearwater River, the part where the wannigan--the floating cookhouse--catches on fire in the Lenore eddy, a scant forty miles from home, a river he fished for steelhead.
 
Off Main Street he turned on Quackamore, and four houses down pulled into the driveway. He flipped the air-conditioning off, waited before he cracked the door to the July heat that evaporated the spit in his mouth. The sprinkler was on. His son lay under it, hands crossed over his chest in imitation of the dead. Ted waved a weary hand, lifted his head to peer at his dad, and dropped it back down on the brown grass. Always brown. Just another losing battle.
 
He opened the screen door, called, "I'm home,"--no answer. He peeked in Maggie's room and she was asleep on the bed, shades drawn. She was naked, her small buttocks poked up in the air the way an infant sleeps. Joe was startled and mildly embarrassed. A wanton little thing--shedding clothes in the grocery store, outdoors, at the breakfast table. His wife, Grace, was at the kitchen table, reading the classifieds.
 
"If we bought a dog, there'd be someone to greet me," he said.
 
"Um-hmm," she said, not looking up.
 
"Nice to see you home, dear, I missed you, did you have a good day, dear, would you like dinner? Some fathers come home to children grabbing him around the knees. Our son's playing dead under the sprinkler. Our daughter's sleeping with her bare butt stuck up in the air for God and everyone to see--"
 
"If we bought a cat, you'd have something to kick," she said.
 
"Am I crabby?"
 
She crossed to him, ran her hand over his forehead, and kissed his cheek. "I've had a hellish day," she said.
 
"How about tomorrow, I come home, the kids spread rose petals in my path, then run out and play. I walk in the house and find you sleeping with your bare butt in the air?"
 
"You're right." She laughed. "We need a dog."
 
Stooping, he wrapped his arms around her. This was good, the feel of this small woman tucked in his arms, her hair smelling of strawberries, the way it mussed under his chin. In his own home. With a kitchen the color of slab butter. There might be better things in this world, but he wasn't convinced. He wanted to believe that this was all marriage was ever meant to be, that you could live happily ever after in the same pair of arms, but evidence to the contrary was tucked in his pocket--a picture of his mother he'd discovered while lunching at his father's house. Left out. Carelessly. Maybe purposefully--his mother in a chair, dressed in a scanty nightgown, a motel room painting behind her. And on the back, in his father's scrawling print: Emmaline. Dated three weeks ago.
 
Grace squirmed in his arms. "Woof," she said.
 
 
They took the kids to Becky's Burgers, stuffed their bellies before packing them into bed. Then Grace baked potatoes and grilled steaks; a bottle of Merlot was airing beside chilled peaches. He'd called his mother twice, hung up both times before she answered. He didn't mention anything of it to Grace, sneaking off like an adulterer himself to make the calls.
 
Grace had changed into a nightgown, the one with the thin straps that kept shrugging off her shoulders in a way he found ingenious. He loved hooking them back up, letting his thumb graze a moment longer than necessary where the little crease of skin at her armpit turned under neatly as a secret. This time the left strap had slipped. There was candlelight on the table, glass holders, and a hank of daisies. She cleared the plates before he had a chance to swab up the grease and blood with a slice of bread and detract from the mood. But after the steak, and especially after the wine, he felt compelled to tell her about his parents. Maybe his timing was off. Maybe this wasn't quite what Grace had in mind, because after he produced the picture she hiked her own straps up, sat brooding.
 
"She looks good in red," she finally said.
 
"That's it? My mother's running around with my father behind her husband's back, and you say she looks good in red?"
 
She looked confused. "Well, she does. The rest isn't my business."
 
He tipped the bottle of Merlot, and a crimson stream dribbled out. "Tell me that once the word gets out."
 
"You act like this is a new thing on the face of the earth. It happens all the time. Adultery."
 
"Not in Idaho. Not with my mother."
 
"He's her husband--was--whatever. It's sort of endearing. They must miss each other." She patted his hand as if he were a misdirected child.
 
She was so composed, and he knew how he must look, a man whose spreading paunch belied the child he still felt like, embarrassed at the thought of his parents' sexuality, his mother's infidelity. Grace had taken it well, better than he'd expected, and it was clear she was willing to condone more than he could. He was caught off-balance, not just by her reaction, but by his inability to foresee it. He wasn't so sure he knew his wife anymore. It was the wine, he decided, that made her more worldly than he, able to swallow the news like an unfortunate piece of gristle at the dinner table, then go on with the meal, with the rest of her life. "You're saying you understand this?"
 
She laughed, and the tip of her tongue wicked out between her lips like a small garden snake. "Because it's not you cheating on me." She got serious. "Haven't you ever thought about adultery?"
 
He felt the steak congeal in his stomach. He felt ill. She'd asked as if it was a familiar question, as if it was something she tarried with on a hot summer day while the kids took naps. "No," he said, "I don't."
 
"Liar," she said.
 
So, all right, he was a small-town hick who loved his wife too much to look at others. It had never occurred to him it might not be the same for her. Did she think about other men, an old high school love--Jake Bently at the hardware store--or someone he didn't know, a newcomer to town, there were a few of them, or worse yet, some packing boy at the grocer's? He'd believed he knew her so well--the way she sat with her heels hooked beneath her buttocks when her back hurt. The way she ground her teeth to keep from making noise when they made love, or bit the pillow--the children sleeping in the next room, the walls thin as the chambers of a heart. He'd always believed himself an observant man with a certain acumen for reading women's needs, a skill his father had refused to develop.
 
"You're really upset by this, aren't you?" she asked.
 
"I feel like a fool. All those years I told her to get out, she put up with his drinking, his moods."
 
"Other women?" she asked.
 
He shrugged. His father had been a log-truck driver. A rugged, good-looking man who came home with aching kidneys and a well-used look, that Joe, in his teen years of awakening sexuality, had come to attribute to something other than long hours behind the wheel. Curly looked used in a new way.
 
Joe laid his soiled napkin on the table. "And if there were other women, what's it matter now, all these years later? She's gone back for more."
 
"Your father's not the same person. He's been depressed. She's probably worried about him." She blew out a candle.
 
"Worried, you check a person's temperature, send flowers, a get well card. That's worried."
 
She ignored him, licked two fingertips, and snuffed the smoking wick between them. "But poor Harol...

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