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Where I Live Now: Stories 1993-1998

Where I Live Now: Stories 1993-1998

by Lucia Berlin

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Overview

Set mainly in Los Angeles, Lucia Berlin's gritty working-class stories bridge the gap between the Americas—rich and poor, North and South, Anglo and Hispanic. While her style has been compared to Raymond Carver's, and her dream- and drink-addicted characters to Richard Yates', her fictional territory and fatalistic humor are hers alone.

"Berlin's literary model is Chekhov, but there are extra-literary models too, including the extended jazz solo, with its surges, convolutions, and asides. This is writing of a very high order."
—August Kleinzahler, London Review of Books

"This remarkable collection occasionally put me in mind of Annie Proulx's Accordion Crimes, with its sweep of American origins and places. Berlin is our Scheherazade, continually surprising her readers with a startling variety of voices, vividly drawn characters, and settings alive with sight and sound."
—Barbara Barnard, American Book Review

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781574230918
Publisher: Godine, David R. Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 04/01/2017
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.74(d)

About the Author

Lucia Berlin was an American short story writer. She had a small, devoted following, but did not reach a mass audience during her lifetime. She rose to sudden literary fame eleven years after her death, in August 2015, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s publication of a volume of selected stories, Manual For Cleaning Women, edited by Stephen Emerson. It hit The New York Times bestseller list in its second week, and within a few weeks, had outsold all her previous books combined. The collection was ineligible for most of the year-end awards (either because she was deceased, or it was recollected material), but was named to a large number of year-end lists, including the New York Times Book Review’s "10 Best Books of 2015." It was also a finalist for the Kirkus Prize.

Berlin was born in Juneau, AK, and spent her childhood on the move, following her father's career as a mining engineer. The family lived in mining camps in Idaho, Montana and Arizona, and Chile, where Lucia spent most of her youth. As an adult, she lived in New Mexico, Mexico, north and south California and Colorado.

Berlin began publishing relatively late in life, under the encouragement and sometimes tutelage of poet Ed Dorn. Her first small collection, Angels Laundromat, was published in 1981, but her published stories were written as early as 1960. Several of her stories appeared in magazines such as The Atlantic and Saul Bellow's The Noble Savage. Berlin published six collections of short stories, but most of her work can be found in three later volumes from Black Sparrow Books: Homesick: New and Selected Stories (1990), So Long: Stories 1987-92 (1993) and Where I Live Now: Stories 1993-98 (1999).

Berlin was never a bestseller, but was widely influential within the literary community. She has been compared to Raymond Carver and Richard Yates. Her one-page story "My Jockey", consisting of five paragraphs, won the Jack London Short Prize for 1985. Berlin also won an American Book Award in 1991 for Homesick, and was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


LET ME SEE YOU SMILE


It's true, the grave is more powerful than a lover's eyes. An open grave, with all its magnets. And I say this to you, you who when you smile make me think of the beginning of the world.

VICENTE HUIDOBRO, Altazor


Jesse threw me for a loop. And I take pride in my ability to size people up. Before I joined Grillig's firm, I was a public defender for so long I had learned to assess a client or a juror almost at first glance.

    I was unprepared too because my secretary didn't announce him over the intercom and he had no appointment. Elena just led him into my office.

    "Jesse is here to see you, Mr. Cohen."

    Elena introduced him with an air of importance, using only his first name. He was so handsome, entered the room with such authority, I thought he must be some one-name rock star I hadn't heard of.

    He wore cowboy boots and black jeans, a black silk shirt. He had long hair, a strong craggy face. About thirty was my first guess, but when he shook my hand there was an indescribable sweetness in his smile, an openness in his hazel eyes that was innocent and childlike. His raspy low voice confused me even more. He spoke as if he were explaining patiently to a young inexperienced person. Me.

    He said he had inherited ten thousand dollars and wanted to use it to hire me. The woman he lived with was in trouble, he said, and she was going to trial in two months. Ten counts against her.

    I hated to tell him how far his money would go with me.

    "Doesn't she have a court-appointed attorney?" I asked.

    "She did, but the asshole quit. He thought she was guilty and a bad person, a pervert."

    "What makes you think I won't feel the same way?" I asked.

    "You won't. She says you are the best civil liberties lawyer in town. The deal is she doesn't know I'm here. I want you to let her think you're volunteering to do this. For the principle of the thing. This is my only condition."

    I tried to interrupt here, to say, "Forget it, son." Tell him firmly that I wasn't going to do it. No way could he afford me. I didn't want to touch this case. I couldn't believe this poor kid was willing to give all his money away. I already hated the woman. Damn right she was guilty and a bad person!

    He said that the problem was the police report, which the judge and jury would read. They would pre-convict her because it was distorted and full of lies. He thought I could get her off by showing that his arrest was false, that the report of hers was libelous, the cop she hit was brutal, the arresting officer was psychotic, evidence had definitely been planted. He was convinced that I could discover that they had made other false arrests and had histories of brutality.

    He had more to say about how I should handle this case. I can't explain why I didn't blow up, tell him to get lost. He argued passionately and well. He should have been a lawyer.

    I didn't just like him. I even began to see that spending his entire inheritance was a necessary rite of passage. A heroic, noble gesture.

    It was as if Jesse were from another age, another planet. He even said at some point that the woman called him "The Man Who Fell to Earth." This made me feel better about her somehow.

    I told Elena to cancel a meeting and an appointment. He spoke all morning, simply and clearly, about their relationship, about her arrest.

    I am a defense attorney. I'm cynical. I am a material person, a greedy man. I told him I would take the case for nothing.

    "No. Thank you," he said. "Just please tell her that you're doing it for no charge. But it's my fault she got into this trouble and I want to pay for it. What will it be? Five thousand? More?"

    "Two thousand," I said.

    "I know that's too low. How about three?"

    "Deal," I said.

    He took off one of his boots and counted off twenty warm hundred dollar bills, fanned them out on my desk like cards. We shook hands.

    "Thanks for doing this, Mr. Cohen."

    "Sure. Call me Jon."

    He settled back down and filled me in.

    He and his friend Joe were dropouts, had run away from New Mexico last year. Jesse played the guitar, wanted to play in San Francisco. On his eighteenth birthday he was to inherit money from an old woman in Nebraska (another heartbreaking story). He had planned to go to London where he had been asked to join a band. An English group had played in Albuquerque, liked his songs and guitar playing. He and Joe had no place to stay when they got to the Bay area, so he looked up Ben, who had been his best friend in junior high. Ben's mother didn't know they were runaways. She said it was okay for them to stay awhile in the garage. Later she found out and called their parents, calmed the parents down, told them they were doing fine.

    It had all worked out. He and Joe did yard work and hauling, other odd jobs. Jesse played with other musicians, was writing songs. They got along great with Ben and with his mother Carlotta. She appreciated how much time Jesse spent with her youngest kid Saul, taking him to ball games, fishing, climbing at Tilden. She taught school and worked hard, was glad too for help with laundry and carrying groceries and dishes. Anyway, he said, it was a good arrangement for everybody.

    "I had met Maggie about three years before. They called her to our junior high in Albuquerque. Somebody had put acid in Ben's milk at lunch. He freaked out, didn't know what was happening. She came to get him. They let me and Joe go with her, in case he got violent. I thought she was going to take him to a hospital, but she drove us all down by the river. The four of us sat in the rushes, watching red-winged blackbirds, calming him down and actually helping him have a pretty cool trip. Maggie and I got along fine, talking about birds and the river. I usually don't talk much but with her there is always a lot I need to say."

    I turned a recorder on at this point.

    "So we stayed a month at their house in Berkeley, then another month. At night we'd all sit around the fire talking, telling jokes. Joe had a girlfriend by then and so did Ben so they'd go out. Ben was still a senior and he sold his jewelry and rock star photos on Telegraph, so I didn't see him much. Weekends I'd go to the marina or the beach with Saul and Maggie."

    "Excuse me. This report says her name is Carlotta. Who's Maggie?"

    "I call her Maggie. At nights she'd grade papers and I'd play my guitar. We talked all night sometimes, our whole life stories, laughing, crying. She and I are both alcoholics, which is bad if you look at it one way, but good if you look at how it helped us say things to each other that we had never told anybody before. Our childhoods were scary and bad in exactly the same way, but like negatives of each other's. When we got together her kids freaked out, her friends said it was sick, incestuous. We are incestuous but in a weird way. It's like we are twins. The same person. She writes stories. She does the same thing in her stories that I do in my music. Anyway, every day we knew one another more deeply, so that when we finally ended up in bed it was as if we had already been inside each other. We were lovers for two months before I was supposed to leave. The idea was to get my money in Albuquerque on December 28th, when I turned eighteen, and then go to London. She was making me go, said I needed the experience and we needed to split.

    "I didn't want to go to London. I may be young but I know what she and I have together is galaxies beyond regular people. We know each other in our souls, all the bad and the good. We have a kindness to each other."

    He told me then the story of going to the airport with her and Joe. Joe's belt knife and zippers had turned on the alarm at security, all three were strip-searched and Jesse missed the plane. He was hollering about his guitar and music being on the plane, got put into handcuffs, was being beaten by the police when Maggie came in.

    "We all got arrested. It's in the report," he said. "The newspaper headline was "Lutheran Schoolteacher, Hell's Angels in Airport Brawl."

    "Are you a Hell's Angel?"

    "Of course not. But the report says I am. Joe looks like one, wishes he was. He must of bought ten copies of that paper. Anyway, she and Joe went to jail in Redwood City. I spent a night in juvenile hall and then they sent me to New Mexico. Maggie phoned me on my birthday and told me everything was fine. She didn't say a word about any trial, and she didn't tell me she had been evicted and fired, that her ex-husband was taking her kids to Mexico. But Joe did, even though she told him not to. So I came back here."

    "How did she feel about that?"

    "She was furious. Said I had to leave and go to London. That I needed to learn and to grow. And she was believing all the shit about her being bad because I was seventeen when we got together. I seduced her. Nobody seems to get that part, except her. I'm not your typical teenager."

    "True," I said.

    "But anyway we are together now. She agreed not to decide anything until after the trial. Not to look for a job or a place. What I'm hoping is by that time she'll go away with me."

    He handed me the police report. "The best thing is for you to read this and then we'll talk. Come over for dinner. Friday ok? After you've read this. Maybe you can find out something about the cop. Both cops. Come early," he said, "when you get off work. We live just down the street."

    Nothing applied any more. I couldn't say it was inappropriate. That I had plans. That my wife might mind.

    "Sure, I'll be there at six." The address he gave me was one of the worst blocks in town.


It was a beautiful Christmas. Sweet presents for each other, a great dinner. Keith invited Karen, one of my students. I guess it's childish, but it made me feel good for him to see how much she looked up to me. Ben's girlfriend Megan made mince pies. Both of them helped me with dinner and it was fun. Our friend Larry came. Big fire, nice old-fashioned day.

    Nathan and Keith were so glad Jesse was leaving that they were really nice to him, even gave him presents. Jesse had made gifts for everyone. It was warm and festive, except then in the kitchen Jesse whispered, "Hey, Maggie, whatcha gonna do when I'm gone?" and I thought my heart would break. He gave me a ring with a star and a moon. By coincidence we each gave the other a silver flask. We thought it was great. Nathan said, "Ma, that's so disgusting," but I didn't hear him then.

    Jesse's plane was leaving at six. Joe wanted to come along. I drove us to the airport in the rain. "The Joker" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash" on the radio. Joe was sipping from a can of beer and Jesse and I from a pint of Beam. I never gave it a thought, that I was contributing to their delinquency. They were drinking when I met them. They bought liquor, never got carded. The truth was I was so much in denial about my own drinking I wasn't likely to worry about theirs.

    When we got inside the airport, Jesse stopped and said, "Christ. You two will never find the car." We laughed, not realizing it would be true.

    We weren't exactly drunk, but we were high and excited. I was trying not to show how desperate I was about him leaving.

    I realize now how much attention we must have attracted. All of us very tall. Joe, a dark Laguna Indian with long black braids, in motorcycle leather, a knife on his belt. Big boots, zippers and chains. Jesse in black, with his duffel bag and guitar. Jesse. He was otherworldly. I couldn't even glance up at him, his jaw, his teeth, his golden eyes, flowing long hair. I would weep if I looked at him. I was dressed up for Christmas in a black velvet pant suit, Navajo jewelry. Whatever it was, the combination of us, plus all the buzzers that Joe's metal set off going through security ... they saw us as a security risk, took us into separate rooms and searched us. They went through my underwear, my purse, ran their fingers through my hair, between my toes. Everywhere. When I got out of there I couldn't see Jesse, so I ran to the departure gate. Jesse's flight had left. He was yelling at the agent that his guitar was on the plane, his music was on the plane. I had to go to the bathroom. When I came out no one was at the ticket counter. The plane had gone. I asked somebody if the tall young man in black had made the plane. The man nodded toward a door with no sign on it. I went in.

    The room was full of security guards and city police. It was sharp with the smell of sweat. Two guards were restraining Joe, who was handcuffed. Two policemen held Jesse and another was beating him on the head with a foot-long flashlight. A sheet of blood covered Jesse's face and soaked his shirt. He was screaming with pain. I walked completely unnoticed across the room. All of them were watching the policeman beating Jesse, as if they were looking at a fight on TV. I grabbed the flashlight and hit the cop on the head with it. He fell with a thud. "Oh Jesus, he's dead," another one said.

    Jesse and I were handcuffed and then taken through the airport and down to a small police station in the basement. We sat next to each other, our hands fastened behind us to the chairs. Jesse's eyes were stuck shut with blood. He couldn't see and the wound on his scalp continued to bleed.

(Continues...)

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