Cover image for The clouds in Memphis : stories and novellas
The clouds in Memphis : stories and novellas
Hribal, C. J.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Amherst : University of Massachusetts Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
212 pages ; 23 cm
General Note:
"Winner of the Associated Writing Programs award for short fiction"--Jacket.
The clouds in Memphis -- The last great dream of my father -- Consent -- And that's the name of that tune -- War babies.
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PS3558.R52 C58 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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This collection charts both the recesses of the human heart and the resiliency of the human spirit. In three novellas and two short stories, the author traces the arcs of emotion and the action that can follow on the heels of calamity.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Unlucky victims of fate confront the careless, sometimes fatal accidents of their haphazard lives in Hribal's (Matty's Heart; American Beauty) latest collection. In three heart-wrenching novellas and two short stories, mostly set in a small Wisconsin town, Hribal brings to life striking, surreal characters while exactingly detailing the mechanics of everyday existence. The portrait gallery includes a divorced mother attempting to cope with the trial of the blond preppie who killed her son in a drunk-driving accident ("The Clouds in Memphis"); an unwed mother suspiciously watching her co-workers at a canning factory for clues to her sister's death in the cooling tank ("War Babies"); a son who has escaped smalltown life recalling his father's last hopes and disappointments ("The Last Great Dream of My Father"). "Consent," a chilling interior monologue, reveals the secrets of a real estate developer who arrives at a ravine where an unidentified boy has drowned. The developer knows who is responsible, but chooses to remain quiet rather than upset the "tranquility" of his investment and disturb the affluent people who live on the site. Hribal slides the emotional fabric of America under a literary microscope to reveal the lies, betrayals and yearnings that connect and divide us all, giving his stories extraordinary power. He establishes an American landscape in the tradition of Cheever and Updike, though his is a world not of cocktail parties but of trailer parks, bars and courtrooms. The subtle power of these stories will leave the reader hungry for more. Winner of the Associated Writing Programs 1999 Award in Short Fiction, Hribal does not quite achieve the effortless prose of Cheever and Updike, but there is an immediacy to his stories that could make this book a sleeper for readers of literary fiction. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One 1     The military payloads always come through at night.     Janie walks toward the hollow clanking of the trains with her arms crossed and the wind whipping her hair wavy and seaweed-like over her face and shoulders. It's cold for October, maybe only the high forties, and the wind on her cheeks makes the world go blurry. Birds, hundreds of them, fly straight up out of the oaks and magnolias, then get beaten back or sideways. It's as though they're launched, then tail away, lacking the power, the velocity to get anywhere near where they want to be. They should just stay in the trees, but then it's her startling them that makes them burst from the trees with that sonorous beating of wings.     At first, watching their strange flights, their sudden cutaways and swoops, Janie thought they were bats. Do bats congregate in Memphis? Later she finds out they're a kind of thrasher or catbird. Or grosbeak. Whatever somebody tells her she forgets. She's like that. They're beautiful, she thinks, but just as quickly They're only birds . And under the magnolias and oak trees they make such a terrible mess. See? The wrought iron fences are chipping, and the sidewalks are gouached white and black and purple.     Still, at least they weren't bats.     Janie hugs herself as she nears the railroad tracks. You can't go very far in any one direction in Memphis and not run into them. They're everywhere. The switching yards seem to expand in girth every time you turn your head. All that growth, like rings on a fat man's stomach. Somebody tells her no, nobody's added lines in years and years, but she simply won't believe them.     The backs of her hands feel good underneath her armpits. She's pleased at the way her workouts make her feel less rubbery. Janie is a rangy woman. Some might call her petite but she gave up that way of thinking years ago.     She takes a deep breath. The roaring of wind and the rustling of leaves is tremendous. It is the kind of wind that whips birds out of trees and the moisture from your eyes. Her feet on the cement sidewalk don't even sound like her feet. They sound like they're coming to her from some distance away; they are somebody else's feet and they're coming up behind her, or obliquely from across the street. She turns quickly, expecting to see someone or something approaching, but there's just the scattering of yellow ginkgo leaves that have already fallen and the tumble of dirt and grit they always get mixed up with.     Rufus is snapping at a whorl of leaves and grit. He barks twice at the foot-high dust devil, then yips as it blows right past him. Rufus is the reason she can walk at night. He's a black collie mix, five years old, the result of one of Stephen's prized bitches getting out at night with the neighbor's black Lab. Stephen was going to throw the whole lot into the river. His standard practice with accidents: take the entire litter of yelping pups, cinch them inside a burlap sack, and heave the whole thing into the Mississippi. "What you can't help, you correct with dispatch," he says. Janie hugs herself tighter and hardens herself again and again against him. What does he say about Stevie then, or Peter? Dispatch. She bets it's something they say with pride down at the office. 2     Every day Stephen comes to the trial, but leaves early. They neither speak nor sit together. Stephen is not a man who likes inaction, and sitting with his hands folded in his lap or his head inclined in his upright palm, his feet jiggling, he is the picture of something wild and untamed, forcibly restrained, his obedience temporary, reluctant. Janie can't help sneaking sidelong glances at the woman next to him, a blond in a blood red suit whose gold and diamond brooch is nesting where the lapels on her jacket cross. Her skirt and jacket match her lipstick and her hair is done up in that poofy-curly style favored by homecoming queens and cheerleaders. She is the type of woman for whom sitting next to Stephen is a kind of apotheosis, something for which she has trained and studied and denied and maneuvered herself, and Stephen is the result of that denial, the indulgence she gets in exchange for her self-mortification.     Which makes what Janie has done a kind of apostasy.     As often as not Stephen leaves at the first lull. He gets up, the blond gets up, and then Stephen crosses the aisle and presses his card into Janie's hand. "Call me if something develops," he says. He has given her the card twice now. The blond, who's very tall, waits with her overcoat draped over her forearms. Janie wonders if this woman thinks she's stupid or a basket case or just forlornly unlucky or what. It bothers her she even wonders what this woman thinks. She--the blond--is probably a woman to whom Stephen gave his business card only once, and even that was superfluous. The card, or his number if he wrote it on a napkin or envelope, went immediately into the Rolodex by her phone. Janie, however, who married him, is given his number weekly. This is Stephen's way of saying he remembers the startling rapidity with which pieces of paper get buried under or fly out of Janie's life. No doubt the tall, lemon-haired woman has been told this. No doubt Janie must appear to her to be a very dreary woman. It's evident in the way she stands, one wool and silk sheathed thigh canted slightly in front of the other. "Oh, yes, the wife." She's behind Stephen, her unspoken, "Oh, do let's get on with this, Stevie," is communicated by her posture.     Only a tall drink of water--Stephen has always referred to his women as something consumable--in a blood red suit could get away with calling Stephen "Stevie." It's probably a liberty with which she experiments.     "Call me if something develops," Stephen repeats. His blunt-edged fingers drill his card into her palm. He's making sure she acknowledges that he's leaving. She knows Stephen. He has no interest in process. Results, verdicts, decisions--now there's something to concern yourself with. He wants to make sure he's there when the decision is reached. Since he cannot make the decision himself, he at least wants to be there when they reach it. The difference between reach and make is the difference between approximation and creation. All a jury can hope to achieve is approximation, a confirmation of what he has already decided. And his appearance, his being there (he believed this about their marriage, too) will be the cause, the instrument by which judgment is reached and justice rendered. Reasonable doubt and due process are obfuscating intrigues. If he knew this judge he'd have called him already.     Pity there has to be a jury.     This is one time Janie agrees with him. She would like to skip completely this business with juries and advocates for the defense and plaintiff, this whole courtroom procedure where the simplest facts get worried into meaninglessness or badgered into nonexistence, where every possible permutation the sequence of events could take is given weight and credence, where the trivial " might coulds " concerning her son's death are examined discussed analyzed reanalyzed and cross-indexed for reference. And yet the facts of this case are simple: a drunken boy in a Plymouth convertible struck her son and killed him. What else is there to know? She wants to stand up and scream at the jury, That boy killed my son! What else is there to know?     The card from her husband is made of one of those new materials they use in papermaking now. It's translucent as rice paper and feels flimsy enough you might poke your finger through it. Or it might dissolve in water. But you can't rip it, tear it, or make it go ragged in any way. It is indestructible.     She leaves it on the bench when they break for lunch, folded like a white crow. 3     You cannot get "Nightline" in Memphis. Instead you get reruns of "Perry Mason." Until recently Janie always pitied Della Street. Admired her, too, for her beauty and perseverance until one day she simply shouted at the screen, Wake up, would you! He's not ever going to love you. He's just your boss! and she realized with shame that she was pulling for the impossible, for something the writers hadn't even conceived of, so intent they were on making sure Perry had no life outside his cases. Della Street is an employee, and Perry's relationship with her is totally, inexhaustingly professional.     Isn't that a laugh? 4     It's usually after "Perry Mason" that Janie takes her walks. With Rufus nosing the bushes, she's given up being scared of what most women at night are scared of. She even walks on bad streets--anything south of Central is questionable--and delights in the tiny thrill that no one else she knows would be doing this in daylight, much less at night. But it's at night when the most trains come through. The military payloads are the richest. Camouflaged jeeps, half-tracks, tanks, personnel carriers, whole boxcars in dull green with black stencilling: TOP SECRET, and PROPERTY: U.S. GOVERNMENT. They are long, lumbering affairs, these trains; the wheels click and clack with a sleeplike rhythm that's broken only occasionally by the shriek of a crossing whistle. Two long, deep hooooonnngs! Then a short toot. Then a final, long hoooonnng! As a teenager, Janie had been a ham radio operator. The very idea of speaking to someone in Peekskill, N.Y., or Kingston, Ontario, or even someplace in South America excited her. Each time she got her chance at the key she was giddy, though her brother Spencer usually hogged it. From eight to thirteen she studied Morse code religiously. By age eighteen she had abandoned it completely. A whole piece of her life simply gone. It was the same way with her belief in God. Walking toward the hooooonnng! she wonders why trains sing out at crossings with the International Morse Code for "Q." It's as though the train itself were a question.     At the corner of Melrose and Central she pauses. The lawn at St. Paul's Episcopal Church is uncut and littered with leaves and dancing candy wrappers. The stop signs shiver, and the amber and cherry stoplights flashing over the intersection are uncertain discs swaying in the wind. They don't look capable of slowing down or stopping anybody.     And then the train goes past, and its irregularly regular clacking sounds like drunkards in tap shoes struggling to form a kick line.     Janie is filled with a sadness she cannot fathom. 5     Thirteen months ago she was just another divorced mother of three. She was having trouble with the rent and the school payments (St. Catherine's for Nikki, Memphis University School for Peter, special ed for Stevie); utility bills, bank statements and magazine subscription notices-- Interview, Newsweek, Southern Living, Architectural Home Digest --all tended to go in a pile by the door. She kept a pigeon-hole writing desk there, a big one with a high back, and at one time she took great delight in keeping everything separate and prepaid. She filled the empty holes with shells from trips to Biloxi and Miami Beach and the Gulf coast of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. That was back when she was married and even after, before Stephen realized, or decided, that he could wrench control of her life from her simply by delaying or skipping or scrimping on the child support payments. Stevie's medical bills were questioned constantly. He can't breathe! Janie shouted at Stephen once when he asked about the latest round of tests. They say he's got weak lungs and the air is too moist for him. Don't you remember when he was a baby? He can't breathe! He's never been able to breathe!     "I remember," Stephen said. "I'll have a check for you next week, Wednesday or Thursday at the latest. Some things need to clear this week yet." Stephen was a contractor. He inherited his hardware store from his father and had then gone into real estate development. He made his money building in Whitehaven and Collierville and Germantown--places where people paid good money to stay away from Memphis proper (though that had failed in Whitehaven; it was mostly black there now and the name seemed a cruel joke). At any given time Stephen had six or eight projects all going on at once and all of them, he claimed, required his capital.     "I need it now , Stephen. The children can't--"     " Can wait. People are used to waiting. Or at least they should be. Patience, after all, is a virtue, and whatever happens quickly--" Stephen went off on one of his important-sounding drones. Janie tuned him out. This was the man who spent ten thousand dollars getting hair to grow on his head, then complained he didn't have any money to send Nikki to a good college preparatory school in New England.     She couldn't believe she had married him, but things were different then. She had been on a spring-break trip with two other women and two men from a fraternity, who had traveled down with them. She was rather taken with George but she ended up marrying Stephen. Stephen, unlike George, was serious. He was tall and thin and wore his hair short about the ears and neck, but long on top and slicked tight to his skull. On the beach, though, his carefully plastered hair whipped about his face and long strands of paleness littered his shoulders as they broke off, bits of scalp still attached to the root ends. He was going to bald early and it touched her seeing it fall off like that. She believed she could fall in love with him in time, especially since he set himself up as Janie's protector, warding off bullies and generally acting chivalrous.     When he first kissed her and she had to pry open his anuslike pucker with the silvery worm of her tongue, she knew she would have to show him everything. But then he wiped his clamlike lips and was on her, her silence a kind of permission. He blundered into her with eagerness and love and came out again with grateful torpor. Eight months later they were married. The delay, Janie was sure, was caused by his mother's hounding him to drop her. But despite the quiet, diffident manner he assumed when in his mother's presence, Stephen stuck by her. I love her, Mama, he told her one night after dinner while they sipped tea on the porch swing. I love her and I will always cherish her.     Sex, Janie gleefully decided at the time, is stronger than blood.     A lot of things Janie used to believe have proved erroneous, but that is one idea she has not had to amend. So many things she treasured have been undermined, but that casual, defiant assertion made when she wasn't quite twenty still nags her. It's like with mosquitoes. You slap them and slap them and yet they're still buzzing, peppering you with bites that swell the longer you scratch them.     Sex is stronger than blood. Janie knows that, the secretary knows that, every trophy who ends up a wife worried about the next trophy knows that. Even Stephen's mother, who was cordially distant to her from the very first, knew it. She would never do anything so impolite as tell Janie what awful thing Janie had done, but it was clear that the horrible thing was not something for which she would ever be forgiven. On the morning of the wedding, though, Stephen's mother took her aside and issued what Janie at the time took to be a warning, but years later decided was a brief upwelling of compassion.     "Remember, dear," Stephen's mother had said, "the diamond is never big enough." 6     Stevie was a blue baby. He kept passing out as an infant and had to be revived with respirators two or three times a day. Stevie would cease breathing and his color would change the way figures in cartoons get hot or angry: the rapid progression through the hues of red to umber, to purply brown, to a midnight blue that looked like it came from a fountain pen. She went with even less sleep than she had anticipated; she was endlessly checking on him, putting her hand on his back to feel the tiny bones rise and fall, or failing that, shoving a compact under his nostrils. Once she brought iced tea out to the yardman and passed the time with him a little, talking of nothing in particular, when she was suddenly seized with dread. Back in the nursery Stevie was a blue ball, curled tight as a shrimp.     "There might be some damage," the emergency room doctor said. Janie looked at him blankly. "The brain. When he passes out like that he's not getting enough oxygen to his brain. We'll have to wait and see."     "Oh," Janie said, and found herself biting her lips until they were lumpy and sore and her mouth was filled with blood.     When she found out later, Janie wondered which was worse--that her lack of watchfulness when Stevie was a baby meant he'd always be slow, or that Stephen used Stevie's slowness as a reason to sleep with his secretary? She didn't find out until the twins were three. She'd had inklings of it early in the pregnancy, but had said nothing. She was afraid to believe it was true. When she finally confronted him about it he said, "Yes." And Janie in a blind rage told him to move out. To which he said, "Thank you." For years, he said, he'd been piling guilt upon guilt until he was freighted with a moral heaviness so great that he was grateful Janie had given him the green light to shed it. Now, he said, he could live with himself. He could live with his secretary.     And Janie was left biting her lips again, wondering how he'd managed it, a getaway as clean as God's. (Continues...) Copyright © 2000 University of Massachusetts Press. All rights reserved.