Mary Grimm has published a novel, Left to Themselves, and a story collection, Stealing Time, both with Random House. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, Redbook, Antioch Review, Mississippi Review, and other places. She teaches fiction writing at Case Western Reserve University.
Under the Hill
Section 1: Going Down
When I got almost to the bottom of the hill, my car died, and no jiggling of the key or pumping of the accelerator would start it up again. I opened the hood and looked inside, but it was pointed away from the sun, what was left of it. The sky was running with bands of clouds, gray and hard, a steel shine on them where the light hit. The engine was in deep shade, but even so, if I hadn’t been drunk, I might have done something. As it was, my hands were too unsteady even to check the oil. I left it with the hood propped up and went the rest of the way down the hill, letting gravity pull me.
I had an address written on half an index card, given me by the bartender at the Greentree where I’d ended up drinking the beers and shots that had taken me over the line. “She don’t like to give it out,” he said, but if you’re kin, that’ll be all right.” He’d given me a look as if he knew for sure what I was and what I wasn’t. “She’ll be glad to see me, believe it,” I said. “ A touch of home, you know? She’ll want to hear about Aunt Ida and the kids.
If I had an aunt Ida, I wouldn’t know a thing about her, or care. And I might, after all. It had been a long time since I’d had family who wanted to know me. Since before I could talk, as far as I knew. And I didn’t want to tell her anything about that, no one’s home or family. I wanted to tell her what the fuck. I wanted to make her tell me a few things. What she had done to me. Why she had left.
“She don’t like strangers, I hear,” the bartender had said, and he laughed. “She has her ways with strangers, I hear.” The old men at the bar had laughed with him, dry and choking, and then had to raise their beers to wash out the dust.
“I know all about that,” I said, as hard as I could make it, because they were getting to me, the old men, half dead and still drinking, and the bartender with his half smile. He leaned on one elbow and looked at me as if he knew just what I’d be getting into, so I left before I got distracted by beating his face against the polished wood of the bar.
Now I was walking in the western reaches of the flats, under the hill some people called it in Cleveland, an old name that people couldn’t get over using. I was walking toward the dark that starts to gather even before sunset, the long reach of shadow from the bluff I was walking away from, the twisting steep road that had claimed my car.
The address was written in a peculiar greenish ink, faded and hard to read, but I’d memorized in the minute after he gave it to me. 135 ½ Grove Street, between W. 23 and W. 26. I had only to walk the way I was going and I’d come across it, no matter how drunk I was. I could always put one foot in front of another, no matter how much I put away. Even when I couldn’t think anymore, when the world started to gray out, I could do that. When I got there, we’d have a talk, she and I. Persis. What kind of name was that? I could ask her when I got there, although that would be a waste of time. I had other things to ask. And if she wasn’t there, I’d wait. Or I’d make them tell me where she was, whoever was there. If there was a man there, I’d hit him I decided. That would be a good thing to do. I clenched my fist to test its readiness. I’d hit him until he told me where she was, or until she came.
I almost walked by it in the end, still thinking about my fist, and of course it was a little darker, the grayness like a mist stealing the light. It wasn’t so much a street, xx, as an alley, a clutch of trees growing across the entrance. I stumbled through, catching a hand on one of the skinny maple trunks. There were no house numbers after the house on the corner, but I could still count. It was the odd-number side of the street, going up by twos, and I made my way along, counting out loud to keep my place. 135 was a tiny yellow house, and I wondered how small will 135 ½ be then? But it was normal size, one of those old houses they built for mill workers, when steel was king of Cleveland, two stories and an attic, a rickety old fire escape clinging to the side.
The yard was full of green, tomato plants tied up to stakes, higher than my head, raggedy clumps of flowers falling across the broken sidewalk. I tripped on a vine that sprouted pumpkins as big as my head, green going to orange, a color that made the gorge rise in my throat.
I went up on the porch, scuffing up peeling paint under my shoes, and almost fell against the door, putting up my hand to brace myself at the last minute. I used it to knock once, and then again, using the side of my fist to make as much noise as I could. I thought to call her name, but I stopped, my lips drawn back from my teeth as if I was about to bite something. I drew in a breath but the air seemed thicker just then, too thick to breathe in easily, and I settled for hammering at the door once more. I took the knob in my hand to shake it, and just like in the movies, it turned under my hand, the door sliding open with a cracking sound, and I fell inside.
I landed on my hands and knees, my face almost on the carpet, which was old and frayed. Clean though, no smell of dust. I shook the hair out of my eyes and looked around, still crouched. The sun was coming in low through the windows on one side, lighting the room in long streamers of light that slid across the old furniture. A couch with lace draped across the back. A table with a lamp that dripped crystals. An upholstered chair with a stack of books beside it. No tv. There was some kind of pen in the corner, beyond the reach of the light. On the old wooden chest in front of the couch, more books, flat and brightly colored. I stood up to look at them. The Cat in the Hat was one, and another with dancing hippos in ballet dresses. I stood there, swaying, trying to put the cat with his striped hat together with the rest of my life and where I was going. He sneered at me, the cocky bastard.
An open door in front of me led to the kitchen – I could see the table and an ancient refrigerator. To the left, a room with more books in it opened off through an arch, Another door led to a hall. The last, to my right was half open. I could see the end of a bed, its wooden headboard, the pillows on it crushed and tossed.
In a rush, I went to the book room. It was darker back there, away from the last of the sun, but I could see right away that no one was there, only books, on shelves and piled on a long table by a window that looked out to the back of the house. A wooden box on the floor held more books. I kicked it, for something to do, and then kicked it again, so that it fell over, the books spilling out.
I went back and pushed the door to the kitchen open. It was as quiet as the bottom of a well, the light dim and greenish. I opened the back door which led out to the yard, and then the cupboards and the refrigerator. Even drunk, I knew that was stupid, as if I’d find anyone or thing among the cereal boxes or the vegetable bin. And I wasn’t as drunk as I’d been when I left the bar. It was wearing off, the sick, blind rush of rage and want that had led me here. I was coming down. I was in someone’s house, a kind of thief, even if I hadn’t broken in. I slammed the refrigerator door, thinking maybe I should go. Or maybe I should stay, but out on the porch, or even the alley. Wait until Persis came back from wherever she’d gone. Watch for her. I slumped against the table, and slid into a chair, wiping my hands down my face, then resting my forehead on my fist.
“Hey,” I heard, and whipped my head up. I’d been so sure no one was here. I put my hands on the table and half stood up, swiveling my head to search out the direction of the voice.
“Hey, you.” Heat rushed my head, as if the blood in me would rise up through the hair on my head. I rose, clenching my fists. Here, I reasoned, was the mystery behind Persis. A man, or rather another man. I could feel the beer and whiskey churning in my gut and filling out my veins again. I pushed through the kitchen door and followed the sound to the room I hadn’t looked into. The room with the bed. It seemed to take a long time to get there, as if again the air were growing thick. I had time to imagine that Persis was there, too, with the man whose voice I’d heard, that they were in the bed together in the aftermath of the passion that tossed the pillows to the floor. I was so angry that I had the taste of it in my mouth, a red, coppery taste, like biting on an old penny, bright and shining. A star of anger that lit me up from inside.
I pushed the door open so that it smacked against the wall and took a step inside that was more like a leap, ending up at the side of the bed, where I stopped. Persis was not in the bed, or in the room. There was a man, and he was in the bed, but something about the way he lay there told me that he’d been there a long time. He had a look of someone who’d been asleep, lids heavy, face creased from the pillow. He had long hair, and it was tangled and knotted. He’d raised himself up on his elbows to look at me. “Who are you?” he said.
“Ray Dacey,” I answered, before I thought to hold back information. “Who the hell are you?”
“Seldon,” he said. He swallowed as if his throat hurt. “Can you get me a drink of water?”
I looked at him as if to say, what the fuck? And he looked back at me as if to say – well, nothing. There was nothing in his look I could take exception to or be angry at. He lay back against the pillows, waiting, and I found myself going back into the kitchen, finding a glass in the cupboard, filling it at the faucet, and bringing it back to hand it to him. It was an old jelly glass, like my grandmother used to have, imprinted with lemons and oranges.
“Where’s Persis?” I said.
He took the glass and drank from it, watching me. When he stopped to take a breath, I thought he’d answer, but he put the glass to his mouth again and drained it to the bottom.
“Persis,” I said.
He handed the glass to me, and like an idiot, I took it. If he’d been standing up, I could have taken him by the shirtfront and shaken him a little, but he was in bed, and it would have been silly. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, for that matter. His skin was almost as white as the sheets, and I thought he might be sick. You couldn’t hit a sick man, or at least not without any provocation.
“No one’s here.” He lay back against the pillows. He turned his head toward the window. “Is it night?”
“But you know who I mean, right?” He didn’t turn his head to look at me, and I went on. “Persis? Hot, curly hair.” I made a twirly motion with my finger. “Thinks she’s the shit.”
“Did she do you an injury?” he asked, still looking away.
I didn’t know how to answer him. I looked around the room. It was full of furniture, the bed, a chair beside it, a dresser, a wardrobe so big the house must have been built around it. But it felt bare, stripped. No rug or carpet, no curtains at the window, no mirror over the dresser. The bed had only sheets on it and one thin blanket, pushed down to the foot, lacy with moth holes. The wardrobe doors were open a bit and I couldn’t see anything at all inside.
“If she did,” he said, “she’ll deal with it. She knows there are consequences.”
“So you know who she is?”
Selden had turned back to me and was looking at me steadily, his eyes pinned on mine in a way that I found uncomfortable. I looked down at the scarred wood floor and then to the window he’d been so fascinated by a minute ago. It wasn’t dark outside yet. I could see more plants outside, green and shadowy, pressed against the screen, whispering as the air moved
“I know her,” he said.
“She lives here,” I said.
He shook his head.
I didn’t believe him. I didn’t think he lived here by himself. He looked as insubstantial as bath water, unable to take care of himself.
“She comes by when she feels the need. And to visit. She comes to see Mayliss in bed some nights.”
“See to him?” I said, my anger starting to rise.
“See,” he said. “Only see.” His voice was growing fainter, and he closed his eyes. “I saw when I was sleeping the bowl of the Flats, spilling the river into the lake. The people coming one by one, specks among the throng of the trees. They didn’t know to live high and they sickened and died. It was a hard place then. The river went where it would, leaving a swamp behind. Children died then, by the score.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I said. It was growing darker outside, and the room becoming dim, the white sheets the only bright spot, that and the brilliant slits of Seldon’s eyes. “They ought to be back soon,” he said.
His eyes closed all the way, and I saw that he’d fallen asleep or unconscious. Or dead, a voice in my head intoned. Alone in this creepy house with a dead guy, the giant tomato plants rustling outside, the empty rooms filled with craziness and want. I backed away from the bed. In the front room, I moved until I couldn’t see Selden or the bed. It was almost full dark. The furniture looked lumpish and misshapen. The light seemed to flit, gleaming on the surface of a mug, touching the frame of a picture on the wall. I could hear a sound outside, a rhythmic squeaking or wheezing, getting gradually louder. I’d been hearing it for some time, I thought. It ought to have been an ordinary noise, but I couldn’t pin it down, which made me uneasy, as if it might be some giant machine, something leftover from when steel was king in the flats, one of the immense rollers from the mill somehow coming down the street, rounding down the uneven bricks of the alley, the ghost of steel come to find me in this godforsaken house.
I was almost sober. I put my shoulders back and moved to the front door, even as the sound came closer, down the front walk, seemingly, going to meet it.
I opened the door, holding it between my body and the outside. It was almost full dark. No streetlights in the alley, although I could see the shine of them through the trees on the street. Someone was coming up the walk. I knew it wasn’t Persis. Although I’d only been with her twice, I thought I knew the way she moved. And this someone was monstrous, misshapen, too short but also too broad. The wheezing squeak was louder. I fumbled on the wall for the porch light, but there was none, or I couldn’t find it. I opened my mouth, but before I could say anything, the thing coming toward me spoke.
“Who’s there?” it said. “Who’s there, I say.”
As it came nearer, it moved into one of the stray beams of light from W. xxx. A round head, furred with gray hair, covered with a patterned scarf. Knobby fingers. A face seamed and furrowed, lips pursed tight. A fucking old woman. I’d been spooked out of my mind by an old woman. “Who’re you?” I said.
“That’s information I don’t give out light.” She came up the steps, dragging something, and put her hand on a switch, flicking it on. At once, mosquitoes flew into the cone of gold around us. She gave a yank, and I saw that part of what I’d thought was her monster shape was a baby carriage, complete with baby. It looked at me with what seemed like a suspicious look.
“I ain’t letting you in unless you name yourself,” the old bat said.
“I’ve been in,” I said. “I had a talk with your boy.” I waved my hand back toward the bedroom.
“Have you?” She looked at the baby, as if about to ask it something. “With Seldon.” She laughed, a witchy raspy cackle. “Come in then, if the damage is done. Come in, and I’ll find you something to eat and drink.”
She pushed past me into the house, pulling the carriage after her. Besides the baby it had other stuff in it, two loaves of bread, a bag of apples, and something wrapped in a newspaper. “Come in, boy. Do you think I’m going to hex you?”
“Course not,” I said, feeling foolish. Every drop of alcohol had gone through me now, and wherever it was in my body, was doing me no good at all.
“Not that I can’t,” she said. “but so far you’re a guest, ain’t you. Take him out and put him on the rug.” She gestured toward the baby. “Go on, he won’t hex you either.” She laughed again.
The baby was looking at me again, waiting for me to come and take hold of it. It had the look in its eye of an animal, not a wild animal, but one that knows what humans are like and doesn’t think much of them. I put my hands down to grasp it and it made a sound, a sucked in breath, and I froze. But it didn’t do anything else, nor make another sound, so I took it, holding it away from my body. I didn’t like holding babies. It was always as if they might fall or scream or fall apart. They were too soft. I was always afraid I’d do something, squeeze too hard, maybe. I didn’t like the way their heads flopped around. The baby continued to look at me as I set it on the floor. It sat there looking at me, which made me nervous, so I gave it the Cat in the Hat book, pushing it over with my foot.
“He likes you,” she said. She’d brought a plate with some kolachy on it, snowy with powdered sugar, and a glass of something.
“How can you tell?” I said.
“Sit,” she said. “Is that the question you want to ask? I ain’t going to answer a great line of them. Don’t waste your questions on him. He is what he is and no business of yours.”
That was true. I sat down on the couch. “What about him” — I jerked my head toward Seldon. “Doesn’t he want anything?”
“He’s sleeping, ain’t he? Did he say anything to you?” The old woman sat in the rocking chair and began to rock it, short arcs of movement.
“He said some things,” I said. “Crazy stuff.” I paused. There was no place comfortable to look — not at the old woman rocking, nor at the baby. “I gave him a glass of water.”
“Did you?” She nodded her head as if this proved something important.
“What I want to know,” I said–
“Ah, the question, at last.” She looked at the baby as if they knew a secret.
“Where is Persis?” I’d started to lose my conviction that being here would help in any way, or even that Persis had ever been here, in spite of what Selden had said. I felt as if I’d been in the house for hours, or as if I’d been there once long ago, and never forgotten it. I thought I knew what the rooms upstairs looked like, the feel of the curtains at the dark windows, the thump of the pillows, the torturing drip of the leaking faucet. The house felt like it was pushing my ribs against my heart and my lungs, filling up the rooms with syrup and smoke. The lights the old woman had turned on seemed to be dimming, or my eyes failing.
“Is that all?” she said. “What kind of question is that?” She looked at the baby and shook her head. “That ain’t worth our time, is it. Come back when you’ve got something important to ask, if you please.”
“What the fuck is this shit?” I said. I looked at the baby, and it was watching my mouth, as if memorizing how to say these new bad words. I started to say I was sorry, but then didn’t. Too bad, I thought. “All I want to know is where Persis is.”
“You could’ve asked any of the neighbors,” she said. “They’re perfectly capable of answering a question like that.”
“I’m asking you.” I leaned forward, wanting to scare her a little, but I angled away from the baby. No need to scare the both of them.
The old woman sighed. She took the scarf from her head, folded it and offered it to the baby to play with. “Oh, well,” she said. “We’ll say it’s conversation, is it.” She pointed to the kolachy and the glass. “If it’s to be conversation, take a bite and a sip.”
I picked up the glass and sniffed it.
“Only tea,” she said. “Now where did you say you’re from? And your parents—from the Irish, are they?”
I took a sip of the tea, as sweet as maple syrup, and hot. “What’s that have to do with anything?”
“And what did you think of the garden? Nice, ain’t it. I don’t do it all myself, of course, not any more.”
I tensed my arms on the couch arm, ready to get up and leave, but she pointed to the kolachy with a stern look, and I found myself sinking back and picking one up. A cloud of sugar clogged my throat and I started to cough.
“Powerful lungs, he’s got,” she said, seeming to speak to the baby, who was scrubbing at the carpet with her scarf.
I coughed the last of it out and swiped at my mouth with my sleeve.
“Persis,” she said, just as I lost the last of my patience. “She ain’t an inhabitant.”
I began to speak, but she held up one finger. “She comes by now and then, works in the garden a bit. She does for Mayliss,” she nodded to the baby, “to give me a little time to myself. She comes to see Selden, too, of course.”
“Him?” I said, looking toward the bedroom. “What for?” It made me sweat a little to think of Persis in that bedroom.
“They have a spiritual bond,” she said. “Like being married, but on the other plane.”
“Only in a sense,” she said. “It ain’t important though. If you want to see her, she’ll be at the Silence Bar three nights from now. No point in looking before that. She ain’t around.”
I stood up. The baby had crept across the carpet so that it was almost under my feet, and I edged away from it. I had started to sweat, the alcohol I’d drunk coming out through my skin. The room was brightly lit, and the light seemed to fill every inch of it, pressing against the windows to keep out the dark. Selden’s room was silent, but I thought somehow that he was awake in there, lying in his bed and listening. I opened the screen door and went out onto the porch.
“When you come back,” the old woman called after me, “bring a little something. Something for the baby, or a bit of money to buy him shoes or a toy.”
“I’m not coming back,” I said, and let the door slam. The baby looked up and fixed its eyes on me, and after a moment, it smiled right at me. I could see the spaces between its little teeth. “I’m not,” I said.
A Brief Interview With Mary Grimm
BLIP: How do you see your work fitting into the current literary landscape?
MARY GRIMM: I always have trouble with this question, and I guess the answer is that I don’t know. The last novel I wrote (not yet published) is a sort of ghost story. The one I’m working on now is related sort of sketchily to urban fantasy (which I recently developed a passion for).
BLIP: What are your thoughts on the rise in fiction that is heavily research-based?
MARY GRIMM: I love research-based fiction – one of the things I look for when I’m standing in front of the library shelves (or browsing through Amazon) is a door to a different experience, something I don’t know much about. I sometimes tell people that a lot of what I know comes from reading fiction – embarrassing, but true. I don’t like it so much if the research is laid on with a trowel – slabs of exposition. I’m not a fan of Tom Clancy for this reason: too much technology. But a book like Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days, the writing of which, I expect, involved a lot of research on Whitman and the period – I love that, love entering that world and feeling the details of the author’s research settling in around me.
BLIP: Please discuss your view on the conflation of fiction and nonfiction?
MARY GRIMM: The fiction/nonfiction conflation doesn’t bother me too much, if you’re talking about the borrowing back and forth of technique between fiction and nonfiction. And I don’t mind that CNF writers might make up a bit here and there for verisimilitude – I recognize that no one can remember conversations from 15 or 20 years past, and if the writer makes up words to convey the feeling of what he or she remembers – I don’t mind that. Matters of fact are a different story. If you say it’s nonfiction, that should mean that it’s as true as you can make it. Here is the place where someone should be saying, “let’s define our terms,” and this is the place that I lose hold of my certitude. We can define “true” all day long, and never get nearer a good answer, which I guess has to be OK with me.
BLIP: Who do you read for pleasure and who do you read for “business”, and what separates the two?
MARY GRIMM: Business and pleasure are inextricably mixed as far as my writing life is concerned. The answer might be a little different if “business” means the teaching business. I teach creative writing, contemporary literature, science fiction, and graphic novel, and there is reading that I do specifically for those courses. But I’m lucky enough to have been able to choose what I teach, and of course I choose to teach work that I like. I have my longtime favorites: the great Russian novelists (Tolstoy especially), Virginia Woolf, Updike (even if he was a sexist), Margaret Atwood, Charles Johnson, Alice Munro, Orhan Pamuk, Muriel Spark. I’ve loved the business‑y reading I’ve done for my graphic novel courses: Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, the classic Maus (Spiegelman), Fun Home (Bechdel), Black Hole (Charles Burns). As I said in question 1, I’ve recently started reading urban fantasy and have a new list of favorites that I’m constantly trying to get people to read: Mike Carey’s Felix Castor series, for instance, or the Joe Pitt series by Charlie Huston. I’m an omnivorous and catholic reader – there’s almost nothing I won’t try.
BLIP: As a teacher of writing, have you come across any new writers who are not getting sufficient attention?
MARY GRIMM: Here I’d like to say a word for genre writers, who often get less than they deserve because they are writing in what some still see as a kind of literary ghetto. Just because something has a rousing good plot doesn’t mean it can’t also have quality writing and sensitively written characters. I’ve taught a fair amount of genre writing, and I never have to look far for good stuff to put on my course list. Last semester in a class called “Vamps and Werewolves in the City” I taught Bulgakov and Auster alongside urban fantasy writers like Ilona Andrews and Charlie Huston – it was fascinating, illuminating, and pretty fun.
BLIP: Are you comfortable with the self-promotion that seems to have become essential to new literary writers?
MARY GRIMM: I’m not uncomfortable with the idea of self promotion in general, and in fact admire writers who can do it effectively. I’m not so good at it myself – I can’t even write a good synopsis, let alone an intriguing cover letter. But I certainly don’t despise it. Maybe it was in some ways nicer to be a writer in the days when all that was necessary was to sit at your writing table and then, when enough pages had accumulated, go to the post office, followed by a period of waiting to be rejected or accepted, and then another period of waiting for publication and reviews. (Maybe I’m oversimplifying? Probably.) I was good at the waiting! I like reading other writers’ blogs and following them on Facebook and Twitter – I’m an unabashed fan, frankly.
BLIP: How do you feel about publishing on the web vs. publishing in print?
MARY GRIMM: I don’t have a problem with publishing on the web, if that’s what you mean. I’d hate to see print journals done away with altogether (see question 8), but I can see that it might happen, because of the questions of cost and accessibility. There are some very good online journals – I think that at one time there was an elitist tendency to look down on online journals as being less selective, with lower quality writing, but this is certainly not true anymore.
BLIP: Do you have an interest in e‑books?
MARY GRIMM: I like e‑books as a reader. I wouldn’t want that to be the only way I read books – I’m still in love with ink on paper, with the feel of the book in my hand, the ineffable smell of paper, the crisp turning of a page under my fingers. But since I love reading so much, I’m happy to have more ways to do it. I must admit that it’s terribly seductive and wonderful to be able to browse on Amazon, come across a likely book, order its Kindle version, and start reading in a matter of seconds. Instant drugs for the reading-addicted. There are some things I don’t like about e‑books. The lack of page numbers, for one; and also it’s annoying that sometimes formatting is changed or lost altogether. Also, there is the problem of color (at least with Kindle, which is the format I’m most familiar with). I teach a course in comics and graphic novels, so color is important to me.
BLIP: What question do you not get in interviews that you would like to get?
MARY GRIMM: A question I want to answer: has my relationship with my writing changed since the (long-ago) time I began?
MARY GRIMM: I hope so! I tried my hand at writing first when I was 7 or 8, trying to emulate a library book that I really liked. (I don’t remember the name of it, but it was about a family of five children who lived in a house in the country. My 3‑chapter homage was about a family of six children who lived in a house in the country.) When I started writing I had only an idea that books were good, and I wanted to be more involved with them than I could if I was just a reader. I wanted to get my hands into them somehow (the image I have here is making bread by hand – something messy and heated and pummeling). When I started writing in a more serious way, around age 32, I was trying to make sense of my life. I was a mother by then, and someone very close to me had died. Over the years since then, I’ve had some success and more failure, and the one thing I know now about writing is that I won’t stop. The relationship is maybe less personal and I hope less naïve, but more urgent. It’s become a way for me to relate to the world as well as myself, my interface with what goes on around me. If something thrills me or saddens me or angers me, I want to put it in a story or a book. It’s a kind of disease or addiction, maybe, but I’ve become comfortable with it.