Welcome to a brand new feature on TCR’s blog, Then and Now, a series in which writers reveal and dissect the early literary attempts that helped form their current work. This week, David L. Ulin takes a look back at his story, “The Bed.”
by David L. Ulin
Annie’s grandfather died on a Sunday in summer. My vacation had just begun. At work on Friday, his heart became irregular, and he was gone within forty-eight hours. I watched Annie buckle over the phone, saw her face pale and her red hair fall into disarray. She went home to San Diego that night.
And Monday was my grandfather’s birthday. I met my parents, and together we went to pay our respects.
I should say I’d been thinking about Annie since she left, but that’s not really true. More about her grandfather, and mine. In my grandparent’s apartment, he lay in another room, and we sat on a couch, listening through the wall for his snores.
My grandmother offered drinks and asked about my brother.
“He’s okay,” my father said, not looking up from a large paperback book of color photographs.
My mother smiled from her end of the sofa. “His classes just started.”
“So I heard,” her mother said.
My father coughed and lit a cigarette.
“No one comes to visit anymore,” my grandmother said. In the other room, her husband snored.
Just before we left, my grandmother went behind the wall. She had seen my father and I making signs with our eyes. She returned pushing a wheelchair, my grandfather folded into its frame like a sack of loose bones. His eyes were milky, his head unsteady.
“Do you recognize these people?” she asked.
“Mother,” he said.
She pushed the wheelchair near my mother. “It’s your daughter,” she said.
“Hello, Daddy,” my mother said.
“At least he sees the family resemblance,” my father said.
My grandmother passed a hand across her eyes. “It’s like living with a ghost,” she said.
I took the subway home, to an apartment already developing a first layer of mess. A couple of empty beer cans and an overflowing ashtray sat on the coffee table in the front room, and the bathroom sink lay coated in a thin film of short black hairs and soap scum. Annie would be gone three more days.
I had met her grandfather. He had once taken us out to dinner here in New York. After the meal, he and I lit cigarettes while he talked about seeing Joe DiMaggio play in San Francisco, and how everyone knew that was some big league prospect, boy. He kept looking at Annie, eyes softening with each glance; he recognized the same look in me. At the meal’s end, he said, “Take care of my Annie or I’ll be back for you,” but there was a smile across his lips and his eyes. We shook hands.
And at night, when we watched “The Honeymooners” from our mattress, Annie would tell me how she’d watched it every week with him in his study in San Diego, down the street from where her parents lived. And she’d open her smile and tell me how he’d taught her to play casino and scrabble, and she’d say, “I wonder what he’s doing now.” And she would call. I’d hear them talking, and I’d think about my own grandfather, about how he’d taken me to Central Park and pitched to me for hours at a time, and I’d wish I could call and have him recognize my voice. But he was worse than dead, a ghost snoring in a darkened bed.
It bothered Annie that we did not have a real bed. The unsupported mattress lay too close to the floor; it made her feel submerged by the substance of the room. But a frame was an investment we couldn’t afford, although she said I was cheap. The argument formed a constant backdrop to our lives together.
Tuesday morning, I woke up late. Lying on the mattress, bottom sheet half off and top sheet twisted around my ankles, I thought about Annie. The mattress didn’t seem submerged to me, but casual, somehow impermanent. A bed was a big investment.
I went to the corner store and bought some cigarettes. My first puff stirred a fog that came in across the back of my eyes with a rush. Annie’s grandfather was nestled in there somewhere, and mine too. I took another drag.
On Sullivan Street, I ran into Lisa Cuff; a year ago, we had worked together for a few months, and she still looked the same.
“I have a new place,” she said. “On Prince Street. Want to come have some tea?”
Lisa’s apartment was the size of my bedroom, with a small kitchenette along one wall. It was bare but for a mattress and a night table.
“Sit down,” she said.
When the tea brewed, she sat next to me and gave me a cup. “You don’t look so well,” she said.
“My grandfather’s dying.”
“It’s been going on for a long time.” I lay back on the mattress, stared at the cracks in the ceiling. They formed no pattern.
We drank our tea; Lisa lit a cigarette. “You still smoke pot?” she asked. “You still working?”
“Yes, to both.”
“I’ve got some really good stuff,” she said.
The pot kicked the fog into full haze. Several long gulps of air did nothing to dissolve it. I pinched the bridge of my nose and closed my eyes; when I opened them again, Lisa was looking at me.
“What have you been doing?” I asked.
“Working on my portfolio, taking a couple of photo classes. Want to see?”
She returned a moment later with a manila folder. The ceiling cracks still wouldn’t coalesce.
“Self-portraits,” she said. “Look.”
The first showed her in an empty warehouse doorway, her slender form dwarfed by a locked iron gate. She gazed off, out of the frame. In the second, she sat folded into an old shipping crate, head on her upraised knees. Again, she did not look at the camera. And the third …
I should have left when I saw it; my tea was finished, and I was just biding time. But then, so was she, playing out a hunch perhaps, and I can’t blame her; she didn’t know about Annie.
The third was her naked, standing with arms and legs spread against an open window. And the fourth, and the fifth …
“You like them?” she asked.
Yes, I should have left, but you never know about a situation until you’ve been there.
I had another cup of tea, pondered intention. But the fog kept me down. I could have gone to sleep right there, but I couldn’t. And I couldn’t get up either, but I had to decide.
“I have to go,” I said.
She handed me a piece of paper. “My number,” she said. “If you want to get together.”
Wednesday. No fog in my head, just Lisa’s number and what I should do about it. I should have left. Before she gave it to me, before I had to decide. I lay on the floor and thought about her mattress, and then about Annie, and I remembered that today was the funeral.
I don’t know what set me off down Houston Street, but Lisa’s number waited in my pocket for an answer, and my apartment reminded me of hers. Near the Bowery, I came to a carpenter’s shop. It had once been a garage and still had the sliding doors, but now the space was filled with handmade furniture and the sound of an electric lathe. Annie and I had been here in a halfhearted search for a bed, and, looking around, I saw the one she had liked: a heavy wood frame fastened with bolts of burnished copper.
The carpenter came out from behind the lathe, his tee shirt half run through with sweat.
“Come about the bed?” he asked. “It’s on clearance. Hundred and fifty bucks.”
His shoulders stooped inward like stunted wings; his hair was gray and thin on top. I thought about his family, and what they’d do when his will ran out.
“You must be one of the last independents around,” I said.
“There’s always a need for a good craftsman.”
I nodded and remembered the bed I’d seen at Conran’s and the salesman with the soft hands who had promised to order it for us. And I thought about Annie and the mattress on the floor.
That night I called San Diego. Through the phone, a clatter of voices, and Annie’s so small it was almost swallowed up.
“How are you?” I asked.
“And your father?”
“Not great,” she said. “I miss you; it’s been bad.”
“I went to see my grandfather on Monday,” I said. “I miss you, too.”
“I can’t really talk,” she said.
“I love you.”
“I love you, Annie.”
Later, I took Lisa’s number from my pocket. I didn’t look at it, didn’t want the numbers to catch in my memory. Instead, I bounced the paper up and down in my palm: another ghost. I had thought about Lisa when we worked together, before Annie; if only I could have the past back. But Annie was probably thinking that, too, in San Diego, wishing she could learn casino again and watch “The Honeymooners”.
I balled that piece of paper up and touched a match to it, watched it flame in my hand.
Thursday morning, the sky was unfurrowed behind the window; a drill whined from the street. I dressed, grabbed my checkbook, and went downstairs.
On the sidewalk out front of his place, the carpenter sat in a lawn chair, reading the Post.
“Hundred and fifty dollars?” I asked.
He put down the paper and squinted in the sun. “I knew you’d be back,” he said.
He assembled the bed in my apartment and put the mattress in place. After he left, I smoothed the sheets and plumped the pillows, and checked it out from the door. Annie was on a plane now, probably over Iowa or Kansas, looking at swatched fields spread across the earth like a quilt. I wondered if she was sitting alone or talking to someone, and which friends she’d seen at the funeral. I wondered if we’d ever watch “The Honeymooners”now. I cleaned the living room and washed out the bathroom sink.
When her key hit the lock, I was smoking a cigarette with the window open. Her eyes were latticed with red.
“I missed you,” I said.
“I missed you.”
“Are you okay?”
She brought her things inside and closed the door. “I’m tired.”
The bedroom door was closed; I positioned Annie in front of it. “Close your eyes,” I said.
“Why?” she asked, but closed them.
The door pushed open without a squeak.
“You can look now,” I said.
When her eyes opened, her smile broke, and she wrapped her arms around me in a clench. The bed stood framed in the door, spotlighted by an overhead bulb.
“You like it?”
Annie’s grip tightened. When she released me to move into the bedroom, the future had already begun.
I’ve long had a soft spot for “The Bed.” Long? Always, more like it—from the moment I finished the first draft of the story in September 1985. I was 24, about three weeks away from moving into the apartment where the narrative is set. I had seen the space, had put down first and last month’s rent, a security deposit, so I knew enough to extrapolate. I was also extrapolating, or imagining, what it might be like to share that particular space with my girlfriend, with whom I’d been living, on and off, for three years. The catalyst for my writing was the death of her grandfather, whom I had met, and she adored. I wrote the story in twenty-four hours, on the day she left New York to fly to Chicago for his funeral. When she returned, I presented the manuscript to her as a condolence gift. Story as signifier, story as signpost, story as something that connects us, a binding element. Do I need to say I still think of stories this way? “The Bed” was important to me for all these reasons, but also because it was the first experience I’d had of getting fiction, narrative, to do some semblance of what I wanted. I was several drafts into a novel I would later abandon, and I understood already I had bitten off more than I could chew. For me, then, “The Bed” was a necessary tonic, short and streamlined, a couple of moments strung together, a series of slices of life. The key to it—then and now, I think I’d argue—was that it didn’t try to do too much.
The story also introduced what was for me a new set of parameters. I had spent my teens and early twenties under the sway of what let’s call the jazzy writers: Kerouac, Burroughs, Faulkner. “[S]ong-and dance men, the strutting dandies of literature,” E.L. Doctorow would later elaborate, “those writers who make their language visible, who draw attention to it in the act of writing and don’t let us forget it.” Here, my outlook—or influences—shifted to what Granta had begun referring to as Dirty Realists. Richard Ford, Joy Williams, Tobias Wolff, and, most important, Raymond Carver, whose literary fingerprints are all over “The Bed.” I was enthralled by his short paragraphs, short sentences, the sense that the emotional action of the narrative might happen in the interstices, in the space between the words. I have long believed that learning the craft of writing requires a kind of apprenticeship: 20 years, ten thousand hours, a million words. And yet, to whom do we apprentice ourselves? There is no one … except, perhaps, to the writers we admire. I chose to write this story in the style of Carver because I wanted to get inside that style, see what it had to teach me, see what I could learn. I wanted to try to write in a voice that was both mine and someone else’s, to expand what I was trying to do. I wanted to express homage (yes, certainly), but I also wanted to step into those shoes. Influence, ambition, the ongoing line of language and of stories—I am still trying to understand and place myself within that lineage.
Despite its imaginative liberties, the story is highly autobiographical, and most of the scenes, in one way or another, occurred. My grandfather was dying of Alzheimer’s Disease, and my grandmother was his caretaker, and the scene in their living room was one I lived through more than once. The character of Lisa was based on a former girlfriend who did show me nude self-portraits—whether for seduction or aesthetics I do not know. I moved the timing around, conflated details; it was a story, not an essay, after all. Most important is the figure of Annie, who represents a pretty unfiltered portrait of the girlfriend who became my wife. I have written about her a lot since then, written about our lives together and our family. I am glad to have this early portrait of us as we were before we grew into ourselves. The story is too simplistic, too straightforward, too on the nose. It is too much under the influence of another writer’s work. But it is an example of what I want to call my youthful aspiration—both in terms of its content and its form. I still have a soft spot for it as a kind of starting point. In some sense, I still write underneath its thrall.
David L. Ulin is the author or editor of ten books, including Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay; The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time; and the Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a Tom and Mary Gallagher Fellowship from Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship. The former book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times, he has written for AGNI, The Atlantic Monthly, Black Clock, Columbia Journalism Review, The Nation, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Zyzzyva, and National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.
Want to be part of ‘Then and Now?’ Send your early stories, essays, poems or one-act plays—and a short craft essay discussing your piece—to TCR’s Blog editor Diana Love at firstname.lastname@example.org. Open to all writers with at least two books out from recognized presses.