Three Little Love Stories

Pam Durban Click to

Pam Durban is the author of two novels, The Laughing Place and So Far Back, and a collection of short stories, All Set About with Fever Trees.  Her short fiction and non-fiction has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories of the Century. She is the Doris Betts Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Riddle Me This

It was comforting to sit in the car in front of Mike and Sally’s house at sunrise and watch the dark shapes around me name themselves houses and pines.  Their unpaved street looked familiar, and I tried to remember where I’d seen it before as I checked the rear-view mirror and waited for a light to come on inside the house so I could go in and tell my friends what had happened and ask them to let me stay with them for a few days while I figured out where to go next.

The husband I’d fled that morning was some fraction Cherokee, tall and graceful and strong.  We were just out of college when we met.  Though met is too humble a word for how we began.  For that occasion, something tectonic is needed, something momentous.  Collided might work.  Drowned.

He lived on the grounds of a big, brick, house that had once been a rich man’s home. By the time we entered each other’s orbits, crab-grass had sprouted in the cracks of the long, curved driveway; the empty swimming pool had filled with leaves; the lawn had surrendered to dandelions.  The house itself had been cut up into a labyrinth of incense-soaked rooms where Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Rolling Stones looked down from the walls and dared us to follow them.  In the kitchen, a pot of brown rice always bubbled on the stove.  He’d built himself a loft in the greenhouse, and when I walked in–looking for a place, I said–he was perched on the edge of the platform, eating a slice of cantaloupe.  He looked down, I looked up, and when I picture his face now, forty years past the fear and confusion, the rage and sorrow and regret, why do I remember the startling joy of that moment and how we went tumbling, sliding, flying into a bright maze of love?

When his grandmother heard that we were living together, her blood pressure started to climb.  She might have a stroke, his mother said, she might die, if we didn’t stop living in sin and get married.  Living in sin? we said.  Married?  The words tasted rancid and stale.  Jimi, Janis and Mick had never spoken them.  But the man I loved was her favorite grandchild, and so we went to see his grandmother.  She lived in the country outside of Columbia, South Carolina, in a small white house under a big water oak, on the farm she’d worked with her husband since they’d married at fifteen.

“I feel like I already know you,” I said to her through the screen door that she unlatched to let us into her kitchen.  And that was true.  Every night we lay in his greenhouse loft, under the clear night sky and under the rain, taking in each other’s lives and making them our own.  I’d heard how his grandfather shinnied up a pecan tree one day to shake down the nuts, and on the nex, he fell down dead.  I knew that on hog-killing day every fall, his grandmother led her daughters and nieces behind the barn to boil and scrape the intestines, to spare the men that awful stench.  That detail had stuck to me:   The women scraping hog guts behind the barn so as not to offend.  But that world, like the world of living in sin, was already so far behind us the distance made it harmless.  We could look back at it tenderly, generously, excusing its faults and cruelties as though they had happened in a dream.

“Well, come on in the house,” she said, and unlatched the door. She shook my hand, refused to hug.  In his grandmother’s kitchen that day, my love and I held hands under the table while she peeled apples in continuous spirals and sliced the fruit into a dishpan for the pies she was going to make later.

“We’re promised to one another,” he told her.  “We’re married in our hearts.”  I loved his earnestness then, and remembering it now, I still love it, and that feeling surprises me, the way that remembering the moment we met surprises me.  I thought the memory of love had disappeared.   And of course he didn’t convince her that we were special or exempt from any rules.  When we left, she latched the screen-door behind us, went back to her apples.  That was a bad sign, he said later.  At the end of the visit she usually loaded him down with food, stood on the back stoop and waved and waved while he drove away.   Sure enough, she went on fretting and grieving, grieving and fretting until we gave up and got married.  We were already married in our hearts, we said, what difference did a few words and a piece of paper make?

We got married and moved down to Atlanta, where he went to work on a construction crew, building houses in the ever-expanding suburbs.  Once I watched him carry a whole sheet of plywood across the roof beam of a three-story house, and I was not afraid; he was that sure-footed.  But before long, he was cheating on me and I was cheating on him, to get even.  Cheating was what had sent me to the street in front of Mike and Sally’s house.  The night before that dawning day, he’d gone out the way he did almost every night, and when he wasn’t home by midnight, I walked back across the street to the party I’d left earlier and the host and I finished what we’d started.  At five, when I went home, my husband was waiting in the yard.  If an upstairs neighbor hadn’t heard the shouting and come out to help, who knows what might have happened?  But he did, and I got away and drove to Mike and Sally’s place, and later that week, while I was hiding out, not giving off much heat or light, not sending up any smoke, my husband found the body of a woman who had been stabbed to death and dumped in the kudzu on some vacant land near our house,where he’d gone to walk and think.

I read an article once about how the need for revenge is a drive that lights up the brain as brightly as hunger or thirst.  Amen I say to that.  I have not seen or talked to my first husband in close to forty years, and yet, remembering the story of the old woman’s body and how the police had questioned him, I still hope they noticed the gold ring that I’d slipped on his finger in front of his grandmother and her God and asked him where his wife was.  I hope that when he understood why they were asking, his mind went as clear and still and his vision sharpened, as mine had gone on the morning when he could have killed me, and he saw himself as a small frightened creature scheming to survive.  I wish that for him as sincerely as I still sometimes wish him well.  Even now it’s satisfying to imagine the woman’s body at his feet, dead of a dozen wounds, the cops waiting for an answer, and him with no place in his mind where I could be found.

I must have slept for a few minutes in front of Mike and Sally’s house,  because when I opened my eyes again, the night was finished and a fresh day had begun.  I saw the road with fresh eyes, too; I knew why it looked familiar.  It was like the hard-packed dirt road in front of the house where I grew up, the road I used to walk out onto and imagine how far it could take me.  In front of Mike and Sally’s house I told myself that story again.  I could drive away from him and us and this, cross a country’s worth of rivers and mountains and deserts full of bleached bones and scouring wind until I came to a place where the past was lost, even to memory, and we had never met.

         All Hallows Eve

He opened the door to let her in, dressed for the costume party in a pair of wide brown trousers held up with beige suspenders, a white shirt with a pillow stuffed inside. “Who are you?” she said.

“Myself a few years ago,” he said. “This is my largest shirt, a size 20, my biggest pants, size 50.” He’d lost ninety pounds since he’d worn those clothes, and she was glad she hadn’t met him when they fit. Wearing them again made him thoughtful. “When you’re fat,” he said, holding out the waistband of the pants, “people treat you like you’re not human. So who are you?”

She unbuttoned her cloth coat to show him. She was wearing a pink shirtwaist dress with a wide skirt, high-heeled shoes, rhinestone ear clips and a big smile. June Cleaver was the general impression she was going for. They had known each other for six months. “Let’s forget the party,” he said. He took her hand and led her to the bedroom. She was an ambitious woman, but sometimes she liked to forget that and let him boss her. Sometimes he worried that he was too gentle, so bossing her suited him, too. Playing this game, they both felt free, as though they’d crawled out of old skins, left them to crumble away to nothing.

In the bedroom, he took off his fat man’s clothes. “Come sit next to me,” he said. “Don’t take your clothes off yet. I’ll tell you when.” They went on like that until she was naked except for her bra, one strap pulled off of her shoulder and a necklace he liked to touch, a small gold locket that rested in the warm hollow of her throat. “Get up and put on some lipstick,” he said. She did, and when she sat down on the bed again he touched the necklace and pulled her down for a kiss, hard enough to insist but not to hurt–that was their understanding–but suddenly, she was afraid, and when he saw that he stopped playing. “Tell me,” he said.

She was tumbling back forty years, she said. She’d been a young woman then, a marriage in ruins back in the States, sleeping on the floor of a friend’s room over a pub in London and washing dishes in exchange for rent. Every day, she drank too much, and almost every night, she found someone to sleep with, believing that being reckless made her free. Even now, from this distance, that time smelled like mutton fat, she told him, like the scraps of shepherd’s pie that she pushed off the greasy plates and into the slop hole in the kitchen every day.

There was one man in particular, she said. Irish. He came into the pub every afternoon with his morose long-haired friend who jumped up from his chair every time he saw her, stalked over to the jukebox and punched in “American Woman.” One drunken night, the three of them went back to the Irish man’s flat in Camden Town, and he got rough with her while his friend sat in a chair beside the bed and watched. She remembered the gritty sheets against her back, the smell of beer and unwashed clothes, the way his friend watched and laughed. She remembered feeling that she was lying on the bottom of the ocean where no one would think to look for her, staring up at the bright surface and feeling she might never get there again.

She thought she’d lost the locket that night, she said. It came off but she wasn’t going to leave without it, and she’d searched until she found it in the tangled sheets after the Irish man passed out and his friend went home. And then she was outside on the sidewalk in Camden Town, flagging down a taxi, holding the locket tightly in one hand. On the ride back to the West End she’d looked at it from time to time, as though it were her ticket home, proof that she had survived.

“And here you are,” he said, and he touched the necklace lightly.

“Here I am,” she said. She moved her hands over his belly, which was all that was left of the fat man he’d been, and thought of how they’d both come to this bed accompanied, hoping for welcome.


Little Bone

             Now it is a cold bright January day, and she sits at her dining room table, eating a bowl of minestrone soup and watching the birds come and go at the feeder that the man she is in love with has hung outside the window there. She is a long way past the dirt street, past London and the slow collapse of another marriage, then more years devoted to the conservation of resources and expectations. Years in which she sometimes covered three different casseroles with the same sheet of tin-foil, rinsed and dried the same plastic bag to take her ham and cheese sandwich to work all week. Now this, she says to herself. Now this. Meaning the soup, the birds, the sun coming through the dining room window that warms her face the way the man warms her body with his hands and his mouth, as though happiness were a single sheet of some beautiful substance that you broke smaller pieces of happiness from. She is enjoying herself like that when she bites down on something hard.

Who put a stick in the soup? she thinks, but what she pulls out of her mouth is a small, thick, gray femur, the kind of bone a witch might pull from her mouth when she was done with the little man she’d been feasting on. The sight of the bone is shocking at first, an insult in a pleasant conversation, a sudden famine in a rich land. And then, after the shock at the fact of the thing has passed, comes the thought that she could have choked on this bone. She could have choked to death. Choking to death while eating alone is one of her most stubborn fears. Before she met the man who hung the bird-feeder, the idea of choking to death had come to stand for the danger of living alone, without love.

Next morning, she finds the bone on the cutting board beside the sink where she left it. Dry now, it has turned an ancient white, like a relic, so light it feels almost harmless. Though of course it is not harmless, and she knows that, too. She can as easily choke to death on a dry bone as a wet one; she can choke now when she feels rich as easily as when she felt poor, and how is that fair is what she’d like to know. With love or without it, everyone sleeps alone sometimes or drives or eats or walks or breathes alone. Your heart, of course, always beats alone. The dangers and the possibilities for harm multiply as endlessly as the chances for happiness. Multiply and sprawl and mix until they look like the same big chance, the only chance you’re given, your life.

Later, as they sit outside her house together, watching the night come down, she tells him about the bone in the soup and about her fear of choking to death. For this fear, as for others she has confided in him, he has a cure; he can teach her to do the Heimlich maneuver on herself against the back of a chair. “What if you’re choking in an empty room?” she says. “What if you’re choking outside without a chair in sight?”

She sees by the dismay that crosses his face that she’s let him down again; in spite of his tenderness, his efforts to heal her of pessimism and wariness, she’s imagined the worst again. “Why do you say things like that?” he says, and she says she’s sorry, she’s not being flippant, but she doesn’t know. Maybe they have come to the place in their story where they are soup and bone to one another. “I can live with that,” he says, and she says she can, too.



16 Responses to Three Little Love Stories

  1. William Cotter says:

    I have been trying to read, without much success, a much- praised short story collection by a writer with credits in THE NEW YORKER, HARPER’S, ESQUIRE, REDBOOK, et al. To get the bad taste out of my mouth, I turned to SHENENDOAH on-line. Stories by Pam Durban and Moira Crone resuscitated me. Thanks for your appreciation that serious writing appeals also to organs other than just the brain, for example, the heart. Regarding your brave new trail into the internet, I submitted last week via e-mail and on-line submission managers to THE EVERGREEN REVIEW, CARVE MAGAZINE, and THE BARCELONA REVIEW. No wonder the U.S. Post Office is going broke.

  2. Zoe Yarborough says:

    I was immediately drawn to this story by the title, but soon found that each story did not quite fit the “love story” formula that typically comes to mind. There is much more complexity in this trio of tales than its simple title suggests. I found each story to be poignant in its own way and mostly pessimistic about the potential for love. Durban’s language and attention to detail evoke tension, decay, and sometimes violence. The glances of dead musicians, the spiral peel of an apple, the scraping of hog guts, the touch of gritty sheets, the overused sheet of tinfoil all show the fictive creation of three accounts of botched or stifled love that are teeming with negative details. While the ending attempts to accept that good and bad can exist in love, I took away that the baggage carried from one’s romantic past is convoluted, sticky, and inescapable.

  3. Lauren Starnes says:

    This is one of the best short stories that I have read in a long time. I completely agree with Zoe’s comment on the amount of decaying and violent diction in this piece. However, amidst the these stories of failed relationships, Durban also develops the all important theme of love. The characters in each of these three tales have found one another despite their emotional baggage. Falling in love is one of the bravest things that humans do. The pain brought on by rejection or falling out of love is almost unbearable, but the magical feeling of being in love makes the possibility of that pain worth it. Along the same lines, Durban took a risk writing a “love” story, and it was clearly worth the risk! Great story!

  4. Dory Blackey says:

    I agree with both of my classmates above. This is truly a great short story. Its quality is not the only thing that makes this piece not your average love story. The subtleness of the tendencies of the protagonist through these love stories is what makes the story seem so believable. Although most readers would not strive for repetitive failure at love, it is the failure, the feelings of trial and error, that an audience can relate to.

  5. Mary Olive Keller says:

    Durban gets it. In “Riddle Me This” she captures the fervor, emotion, and lack of reason that love imposes upon us. When her husband starts cheating on her, the female narrator attributes her own sexual indiscretions to “getting even.” Blinded by love, the repercussions of adultery aren’t even considered. All that matters is hurting him as much as he has hurt her. The relationship in the second story seems less recognizable, yet this creative portrayal of memory and finding someone when you least expect it is not only encouraging, but real. In the last, she manages to effectively liken a bone to a fear of being alone. Her ability to mask all-too familiar issues with originality is truly impressive.

  6. Caitlin Doyle says:

    I’ve read that in Hindi there are different words for the kinds of love that humans experience–the language recognizes the difference between youthful, lustful love, the love between an elderly married couple, the love between parent and child, etc.. I feel like Durban has artfully rendered this subtle distinction in this story. Each vignette is a love story in its own right, despite not fulfilling our imagined definition of love. Each deals with both the universal desire for companionship and the inevitable impediments that we all face.

    I interpreted the “message” of the story differently than previous commentors. While the final episode “Little Bone” does not tell of a perfect relationship, the couple’s mutual understanding that they can “live with that” expresses a much more mature understanding of what love really is than that of the first two vignettes. The speaker is still wary and pessimistic but she has found someone who understands and accepts that. This relationship may not be that which we imagine when we hear the phrase “love story” but Durban has rendered a very real experience of love; namely, a product that is built on mistakes and pain but survives regardless.

    The last thing I’d like to mention about this story is Durban’s writing style. She has a very poetic approach and is very enviable in her ability to render huge, complicated, universal human feelings in a sentence or less. She doesn’t drown the reader in lengthy descriptions but instead trusts that the few words she has put down will be enough to communicate her experiences.

  7. Catherine Skitsko says:

    I was also drawn to this story because of the title. But these stories could not have been farther away from the typical love story. I thought these stories were interesting because they were real. They all rang true with the times that we are in. The divorce rate in America is 50%, so falling in love is more of a risk than ever. I think that these stories perfectly capture that hesitancy to risk love again following a bad experience and shows the value love retains even after a fall.

  8. sisoa15 says:

    Achieving resonance with a story entitled “Three Little Love Stories” is a tremendously difficult task, yet Durban artlessly does so. I felt that her voice pushed forth the impact of this piece; it became personal, intimate, and raw. With each vignette, Durban conveys an evolution in experience and maturity that furthers the protagonist to an elevated understanding of love. In “Riddle Me This,” love’s passion is soiled with seeds of selfishness that sprout vengeance. This love is thus short-lived; the protagonist was not accepted for her true self, and was forced to uphold a marriage she did not fully believe in. In “All Hallow’s Eve,” lust is confused for love, and love is considered an avenue of escape from weighty emotional baggage. The protagonist and her lover share this core motive for seeking each other out, and thus attain an uneasy understanding that is better than the previous story’s love.
    Lastly, in “Little Bone,” the protagonist reflects upon her long chain of experiences that have led her to cloud her view of life with pessimism. She fears a little bone because of all the negative potential it has, thus demonstrating the occupation of her mind with the consideration of fatalistic possibility. She finds comfort with her lover, who understands the way she is, and thus attempts to ease her. And, ultimately, through a mutual comprehension of one another, they are able to accept themselves and each other, and thus achieve a lasting, mature love.
    Durban intimately communicates the values of the many degrees of love, and allows us to understand that the strongest love is based upon acceptance and understanding–dealing with issues rather than escaping from them, or ignoring them in favor of vengeance.

  9. Annie says:

    I am inadvertently responsible for the bone, in that the soup was a Christmas present. Seeing what good literary purpose it served, I feel I should offer tiny chicken bones to all those who find love late in life. Every love story has its bone, but if you chew it, the marrow will make you strong. Pam Durban is a gorgeous writer — a supple, delicate thinker. More love stories, please.

  10. Pam Durban says:

    Thanks to everyone who read and responded to my little love stories. There’s nothing more heartening for a writer to hear than that people “got” what she was trying to do. I’m grateful to you all.

  11. Grace Haynes says:

    Pam Durban exposes the darker side of love in this story. Each section captivated me, and I wanted to keep reading and know more about the women and their relationships. The separation of stories gave the piece momentum and kept the reader yearning for more. The love stories are relatable and illuminate the ugly, messy elements of relationships. Durban’s writing is exceptional–her vivid descriptions and expression of human emotion bring the story to life in the mind of the reader.

  12. hammerm16 says:

    I really enjoyed the dimensions of this story; showing this woman at different stages of her life and with different experiences under her belt. I loved taking in the wisdom that she gained from her experiences and her reflections on them as she grows up. I loved seeing her relationships with men and how they developed as she learned from them over the years and how they influenced her later relationships.
    I also loved her ability to retain relevance to the time in which she was referring, mentioning Joplin in the first section. The subtitles were witty. And, I loved the symbol of the locket.

  13. Stephanie Rice says:

    I enjoyed a few small moments the most – ones that felt brutal, especially for love stories, but true. For example, the phrase “we gave up and got married” in the first story particularly struck me. That signals the end of the love in their relationship, as both start cheating on each other soon after. The pair had ceded to the man’s grandmother’s wishes in getting married. They don’t just give up on their belief that they don’t need marriage; they give up on their love as well. In all three of her stories the author doesn’t romanticize love, and that makes them feel refreshing and real.

  14. Elise Petracca says:

    Few writers succeed in capturing the pain that accompanies love. But Durban does. This writer conveys the nuances of love and loneliness so brilliantly that it accomplishes what all good fiction should do: read true.

  15. hewittc15 says:

    Stubborn fears: it never occurred to me to think of them this way, but of course it’s exactly right. There are so many moments like this, little flashes of insight or turns of phrase, that made connections with me. It must have something to do with how very honest and plainspoken these three little love stories are. Every line carries its own weight and then something more beyond that. Nothing is in excess. Nothing is a throwaway. No matter who you are, you can come away from this story having learned something.

  16. Ryan Scott says:

    Dysfunctional love stories tend to veer into either pessimism or a sickly-bittersweet sentimentality, yet these three pieces somehow manage to avoid all the pitfalls and offer three emotionally-real insights into the ways love can go wrong. I was particularly struck by the language of passivity that recurred in all three stories. I loved that the first narrator describes her meeting her future husband as their “enter[ing] each other’s orbits”; the language here is both portentous and foreshadows the pair’s inability to healthily disengage from each other.

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