Water: Nine Stories
by Alyce Miller
publication date: 2008/01/15
trim: 9 x 6
price (paper): $15.95
ISBN (paper): 0
ISBN 13 (paper): 978-1-932511-56-7
In this startling new collection by prize-winning author Alyce Miller, changing images of water as a force both destructive and healing are woven throughout. Miller moves masterfully through the psychological currents of her complex characters at their telling moments of chaos and resolution. In "Swimming," Helen swims religiously to cope with her inability to bear a child. In "Hawaii," Tajiri, an eight-year-old boy, takes a violent turn in his need to connect to an absent father. Whether giving voice to the nameless wife from a tale by Chekhov or illustrating the fears driving apart black and white communities in small-town Ohio, Miller makes vivid the heart of human interaction. These stories told from different perspectives of age, race, and gender, acknowledge a common rhythm in each of us—unsettled desire.
Water was a way of forgetting. The very blueness cast its spell, drawing her away from remembering. Helen wasn't much of a swimmer but it didn't matter because swimming wasn't the point. As soon as she had stretched out into the irresistible length of pool, the water, warmed by summer heat, took on the quality of skin. Sometimes she just floated.
In the water it was easy to forgot she even had a body, the way the space opened up between her neck and head and then her arms and torso—soon she was the water itself. From underwater, the world above vanished. She squinted into the hazy depths, faintly tinted with yellow and green scales like the belly of a fish, and considered how color was just a trick of light. Below the surface thrummed the steady pulse of the pool's own mechanical heartbeat, which assumed the rhythm of her own. She exhaled in slow bursts as if breathing life back into the water. Now she was joining herself to the sea, and sending her breath beyond until there was no breath left in her lungs. When she came up empty and gasping, urgent panic gave way to relief with the first inhale of air. Her vision was blurred by the sting of chlorine and the heavy water drops clinging to her lashes. Blinking, she saw just enough to know that the world above remained unchanged, and so she'd sink down again like an arrow, until she was stopped by the rough and slippery texture of the bottom against the smooth soles of her feet.
She used to live by the ocean, but she never swam in the whitecaps that pounded the shore, dark green and fierce. Instead, she walked the beach and stared out at water too cold for swimming. Locals who surfed wore wet suits most of the year.
Mostly it was tourists braving the glacial swells, except for those few days a year during Indian summer when the fog held itself back off the coast at night and the air warmed to an uncharacteristic desert heat. Then half of San Francisco, it seemed, congregated on the beaches near the Bridge.
But still, you had to be cautious. The ocean is capricious, and its unpredictability reminded her of a cat at play, soft paws concealing claws. The little waves lapping against the shore hid strong undertows and riptides. People who ignored the posted warnings had been swept off the cliffs and dashed on the rocks. If you hiked down to a seductive little cove along the shore you had to be certain you'd calculated high tide.
Now, more than two thousand miles east, across half a dozen states, in a place that had once been only part of the unending blur of what West Coasters contemptuously referred to as "the Midwest," she swam in an outdoor Olympic-size pool at the university where she taught art history. The azure water was the color of her first husband's eyes, though she didn't think of him that way much because she had loved her first husband before she really understood what love meant. She unfolded herself in the surreal blue of pool, trying to deafen herself against the dull din of other swimmers, and the constant chorus of splashes and spills echoing off the sides.
Sometimes she stayed in the water for several hours, even if it meant floating almost lifelessly at the end of the pool, shoulders and neck gently supported against the rim. It was summertime and she was through with classes and students, through with an exhausting year that had taken its toll. Sam, her husband (the second one), was at home working on the old brick house they'd bought just on the edge of town. He was, among other things, a skilled carpenter, and while the results of her efforts seemed to evaporate into thin air at semester's end, his manifested themselves in new window frames, kitchen cabinets, a new dining room floor, a cherry armoire for their bedroom. There was something so substantive about what he did, and something so ephemeral about what she did (the artful dissemination of ideas, she jokingly told someone once at a dinner party who'd asked) that she found it ironic when those well-meaning sorts pursued the perennial question that plagued newcomers, "So what does your spouse do?" And she fought the urge to snap back, "Much more than I."
Winner of the 2006 Mary McCarthy Prize, selected by Norman Rush"Alyce Miller has the eye and the skills for getting the short story right. . . . Miller gives us solidly-crafted neorealist studies in contemporary American unhappiness and dislocation. She writes vividly about people in various degrees of emotional extremis, and she avoids the temptation to invent resolutions for the dilemmas they're in. She deftly captures individual psychologies."
—From the Introduction by Norman Rush"With Water, Alyce Miller gives us deeply felt stories of characters so diverse you come away amazed that one writer has brilliantly conjured all of them. Miller explores all kinds of water here—the water we yearn to vanish into, the water we use to clean up our mistakes, and the water that freezes over in the heart, then melts again. These stories are moving, packed with energy, and reflect Alyce Miller's particularly generous and unsentimental embrace of the world."