“Every so often, that dead dog dreams me up again.” And we’re there, at attention. A bravura opening line, full of pulls, secrets. I get chills reading it. That dead dog dreams me up. We’re going back in time, we’re going to experience everything after that line in a backwards frame dreamed up by a dog. He won’t be the narrator, though – just the spirit guide, if you will.
That’s not the opening line of this collection of short stories, originally published in the early 1990s and recently re-released by Other Press. But it is the single sentence that best captures Stephanie Vaughn’s astonishing, Grace Paley-like facility with the technical construction of the short story, and with the artistic achievement possible when a novel’s worth of emotions and relationships are compressed into brilliant, diamond-like stories. It also shows how she does it without showing off. No big words, no strained punctuation. None of the flailing that all of us, the lesser talents, have to resort to.
Many of the stories are about the often-unwritten world of children growing up on military bases – four of the stories, including “Dog Heaven,” from which the opening quote is taken, are narrated by Gemma; whose father works for the US Army and who travels with him around the country as he takes new posts. The transience of these lives, their brief connections, the way these children are planted and ripped out until they grow thick emotional calluses, are brilliantly explored.
For the last few months, I’ve been traveling – I’m currently studying in Berlin, and over the summer I worked in western Massachusetts. This is the book that I’ve brought with me, wherever I go.
-Ben Miller, Assistant Prose Editor
An Excerpt from “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog,” from Sweet Talk, by Stephanie Vaughn. Copyright 2012, by Stephanie Vaughn. Sweet Talk is in print and available from Other Press.
I went downstairs and put on my hat, coat, boots. I followed his footsteps in the snow, down the front walk, and across the road to the riverbank. He did not seem surprised to see me next to him. We stood side by side, hands in our pockets, breathing frost into the air. The river was filled from shore to shore with white heaps of ice, which cast blue shadows in the moonlight.
“This is the edge of America,” he said, in a tone that seemed to answer a question I had just asked. There was a creak and crunch of ice as two floes below us scraped each other and jammed against the bank.
“You knew all week, didn’t you? Your mother and your grandmother didn’t know, but I knew that you could be counted on to know.”
I hadn’t known until just then, but I guessed the unspeakable thing—that his career was falling apart—and I knew. I nodded. Years later, my mother told me what she had learned about the incident, not from him but from another Army wife. He had called a general a son of a bitch. That was all. I never knew was the issue was or whether he had been right or wrong. Whether the defense of the United States of America had been at stake, or merely the pot in a card game. I didn’t even know whether he had called the general a son of a bitch to his face or simply been overheard in an unguarded moment. I only knew that he had been given a 7 instead of a 9 on his Efficiency Report and then passed over for promotion. But that night I nodded, not knowing the cause but knowing the consequences, as we stood on the riverbank above the moonlit ice. “I am looking at that thin beautiful line of Canada,” he said. “I think I will go for a walk.”
“No,” I said. I said it again. “No.” I wanted to remember later that I had told him not to go.
“How long do you think it would take to go over and back?” he said.
He rocked back and forth in his boots, looked up at the moon, then down at the river. I did not say anything.
He started down the bank, sideways, taking long, graceful sliding steps, which threw little puffs of snow in the air. He took his hands from his pockets and hopped from the bank to the ice. He tested his weight against the weight of the ice, flexing his knees. I watched him walk a few years from the shore and then I saw him rise in the air, his long legs, scissoring the moonlight, as he crossed from the edge of one floe to the next. He turned and waved to me, one hand making a slow arc.
I could have said anything. I could have said “Come back” or “I love you.” Instead, I called after him, “Be sure and write!” The last thing I heard, long after I had lost sight of him far out on the river, was the sound of his laugh splitting the cold air.