The first story in Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute is one of my favorites. “Wants” is about a woman who gets into a fight with her ex-husband at the library. It has a tone of gentility, an idleness that I equate with people who don’t believe they’ll ever be objects of tragedy. The ex-husband’s complaints are met with reserved confusion, if not an explicit shrug, and their coinciding middle-class drama (“I attribute the dissolution of our marriage to the fact that you never invited the Bertrams to dinner,” he says) is met with polite consideration (“That’s possible,” the ex-wife replies). Tidy reasons for messy things: Paley frustration at its core. “I wanted a sailboat,” the ex-husband says. “But you didn’t want anything.”
The ex-wife responds:
Don’t be bitter, I said. It’s never too late.
No, he said with a great deal of bitterness. I may get a sailboat. As a matter of fact I have money down on an eighteen-foot two-rigger. I’m doing well this year and can look forward to better. But as for you, it’s too late. You’ll always want nothing.
Finally feeling the brunt of his animosity, the woman tells us, not him, what she wants: to be a different person. Different would be an effective citizen, changing her community for the better; different would be someone who had been married forever to one man; different would be living in a world without war. All good things, but out of her control or moot. More feasibly, different also would be returning library books on time, which she hadn’t been doing, which led her to the library in the first place. She returns her books, what she calls an “appropriate action.” A baby step leading nowhere, but meaning something.
I think about this story a lot. Its metonymy is lovely to me in a way the Great Gatsby scene with Jordan and those beautiful shirts is not. Is it asinine to think that you’ve become a different person by fulfilling basic responsibilities, by taking ownership of arbitrary things? A few weekends ago, on my second pot of coffee, I read that to be a true adult (already begging the question) is to have a clean set of sheets ready for impromptu guests. Having someone scheduled to stay with me that week, and having only a comforter to give him, I felt personally impugned. I blame New York: apartments in my price range rarely have enough closet space for my clothes, let alone clean sheets. A friend recently moved into a studio and I heard myself say, “Oh my God, you have a linen closet,” as if she had suddenly grown a third, very attractive leg. Where would these sheets go if I had them? Rationalizing myself out of it, I soldiered on, not having fresh linens for others.
This symbolism came up again though, in far more dramatic circumstances; a friend needed a place to stay while he waited for a plane to LAX, stranded by the hurricane. Weighed down with stories of go bags, home damage, and inconsolable loss, I felt horrible worrying about sheets, but still, I worried. The roommate washed hers, offered her bed. There was an easy fix, there seemed like there was nothing else to do, and with so much else going on in other parts of the city, I was lucky to have such solutions within reach, such small differences that can feel so large, such idle worries as fresh sheets and whether that gives off a good impression.
Humility is another quality in Paley’s best stories. In “A Conversation with My Father” particularly, Paley’s father makes the shame of detachment explicit. The conversation begins with him lying ill in bed, offering “last-minute advice,” and demanding to be told a story, “the kind de Maupassant wrote.” After Paley tells him a story about her neighbor, whose son’s drug habits brought her to her own addiction, he laments: “Poor woman. Poor girl, to be born in a time of fools, to live among fools. The end. The end. You were right to put that down. The end.”
Paley argues that this isn’t necessarily the end for her character, and truthfully it isn’t; this woman lives across the street, and Paley knows for a fact that she has changed, is sober. She has a job as a receptionist, she is praised by her community. There’s some hope. “As a writer,” the father counters, “you don’t want to recognize it. Tragedy! Plain tragedy! Historical tragedy! No hope. The end.” This woman will slide back into addiction, he thinks. Paley and her father volley “no” and “O.K., but” back and forth until Paley brings this conversation to its arbitrary end as well. The father implores, in that tidy Paley manner:
“How long will it be?” he asked. “Tragedy! You too. When will you look it in the face?”