An unpublished story by an underappreciated master of American fiction.

Stephen Dixon
February 25, 2020
Photo: Annie Spratt

Introduced by Dixon’s authorized biographer, Matthew Petti

When Stephen Dixon died late last year, American literature lost an underappreciated master. Dixon—who passed away at the age of 83 on November 6th, 2019 after a brief illness related to Parkinson’s disease—was among the most innovative fiction writers of his generation. He was also one of the most prolific. In his six-decade career, he published well over 600 short stories. The last two of his 35 books (18 novels and 17 short story collections) appeared last year, and he continued writing until his last weeks, hammering away on his manual typewriter with, as he wrote in a letter to longtime friend and literary critic Jerome Klinkowitz, “the two good fingers Parkinson’s has left me.”

Dixon’s work was not only formally adventurous, but also deeply personal, drawing heavily from his own experiences and often dealing with life’s least palatable aspects. The critic Michael Silverblatt once said that Dixon “attempts to render reports of unbearable experience.” Indeed, Dixon spent the last decade of his life writing about the illness and eventual death of his beloved wife—the translator, Russian scholar, and poet Anne Frydman, who lived with multiple sclerosis for over 25 years—and then about his own struggles living with Parkinson’s disease. Dixon’s work achieves its particular visceral effects by dispensing with traditional narrative structure. His protagonists don’t simply move through a story from discreet beginning to resolved end; instead, they tend to pace back and forth, in and around and over their troubles—picking off scabs, licking wounds to see how they taste.

The following story, left unpublished at the time of Dixon’s death, has been reproduced here exactly as he wrote it.

(Read the rest of Matthew Petti’s obituary of Stephen Dixon here.)

HE ONCE DID something crazy. Oh, he’s done plenty of crazy or half crazy things in his adult life, but this is one that out of nowhere, far as he can tell, came to him today. It was late afternoon. When it came to him. He’d been to the Y for his daily hour-long workout there, did a quick shop after, though he didn’t really have to—he had enough food at home for a few days—drove home, put away the things he bought and lay down on his back on his bed to rest and possibly nap for a half hour or so. He likes afternoon naps. Does one a few times a week and usually around mid-afternoon. They energize him for the rest of the day. They often help him get right back to his writing after having one. And he almost always has good dreams in them. In yesterday’s, or maybe it was the day or even two days before, he was playing with the cat before the cat he has now with that feathery bird attached to a string at the end of a wand and the cat was doing all sorts of what would seem to be leaps and somersaults and tricks. So that’s the setting. Bed, on his back, mid-afternoon, feeling a bit listless, when it came into his head. What happened. This—well, not crazy as he said but certainly unusual for him—about a dozen years ago, two to three years before his wife died. They’d gone to Towsontown Mall to have her fitted for orthopedic shoes, ones with Velcro straps, not shoelaces. But her first pair of orthopedic shoes. She had long given up trying to tie her shoes—her fingers—and thought Velcro would make it easier for her to get the shoes on and off her feet or at least make it easier for him to get the shoes on her swollen and twisted feet. The shoes would be ready in about three weeks, the saleswoman said, or maybe it was a man. He forgets. He tries to picture the salesperson who took care of them, but can’t. Not important. He was just trying out his memory. He does picture the area in the store they were in and even the chairs they sat in. Or he sat in; she was in her wheelchair. They each also at the mall after they finished their business with the shoes, had a bowl of miso soup and shared a plate of soba noodles at the Japanese fast food place in the food court in the mall. They’d had the same things there several times before. That was the last time they went to the mall together. So. She was seated next to him in her wheelchair in their handicapped-accessible van. She was very happy she was getting these shoes. She had hoped they’d be ready sooner, but they’re worth waiting for, she said, for the good they’ll do her. She’s sorry they cost so much, but they’re practically hand-made. That he definitely remembers her saying, maybe in the exact same words. And this: “My last pair of shoes, I’m sure. And they’ll almost be like new, for all the use I’ll make of them.” Forgets what he said to that. Well of course he forgot; how could he remember? He knows what he said, he means she said, shook him, so it would have been something like “What are you talking? Don’t talk like that. You’re not through walking. You’ll have plenty of time and chances to wear them down till they’ll need a repair. A cure’s coming. Believe me.” Location. They were driving down a hill on North Charles, about a mile from the turn-off on the right to their street, when he saw up ahead the sign for roses and a little past it the pushcart with the roses. Had seen them in the same place on the grass maybe a hundred times in the past ten years or so. Seemed to be there every nice day and especially Sundays and holidays once the weather warmed and it wasn’t raining, or at least rain wasn’t predicted all day. He thinks he’s got that right. The large sign, held to the ground by stakes, said in letters and numbers and the dollar symbol “15 RED ROSES $15.” It wasn’t always $15. Years back it was $10. Alongside the cart a man, though in the past and after this incident, which as he said wasn’t crazy but at the time, and a little after it, he thought it was and he thinks she did a little bit too, it’s been a teenage boy and once or twice a young woman in shorts, sitting in a canvas director’s chair under a huge umbrella, one bigger than a beach umbrella and taller too. More like a patio umbrella or even a larger one over a four-table in the outdoor part of a restaurant. And it had to be the Kenilworth Mall where she was fitted for her orthopedic shoes, not Towsontown Mall. That’s why they were headed south on North Charles. No, it had to be Towsontown Mall. The Kenilworth Mall doesn’t have a Japanese fast food place in it and never has. Just an Italian restaurant and a sandwich place, and he knows they stopped in a Japanese place after the fitting. For some reason that sticks in his head. He even remembers something she said there. She patted his hand at the table they sat at and said, “Well, we got that over with. Because I know how much you hate long fittings like that.” He pulled over on the grass about twenty feet past the cart. He thinks if he saw that the man was taking care of a customer as they approached the cart, he wouldn’t have stopped. It had been a long day for them—or for him, anyway; no, for both—and he wouldn’t have wanted to wait till the man or woman buying roses was done. Is that what he thought? He doesn’t know. How could he? It was so long ago. But it’d be like him. Is he right? He hates to wait. Not “hates.” Just doesn’t like to. Gets very impatient. Been like that all of his life, or as far back as he can remember. That so? Yes. Just about all his life. Annoyed her lots of times by being that way, and he’s still like that though maybe a little less so. He should try to think why. Might be interesting to think about. He wishes he hadn’t been that way, but he was. If there was one thing that annoyed his wife, and his daughter too about him, it was that. “I’ll be right back,” he said, unlocking his door or getting out of the van. “Why? What are you doing?” “You’ll see.” “We should get home,” she said. “I’ll need to use the potty soon.” “Won’t take a minute. And you’ll like what I’m doing.” So why were they driving south on North Charles, which would put them further away from their house, he thinks, than if they had taken the shortest route home that they always did from Towsontown Mall if they didn’t have any other place to go to after the mall. And they didn’t, did they? But he’s sure, even if he can’t explain what they were doing driving south on North Charles, that what he’s getting at—the roses—happened less than an hour after she was fitted for orthopedic shoes and that they each had a bowl of miso soup, or he now thinks it was a mug, which he had to hold for her as she drank, at the Japanese fast food place in the food court at the mall. She also ordered a bowl of white rice—she first asked for brown rice, which the restaurant didn’t have—with a spoonful of stir-fried vegetables on top of it, which she saw being cooked on the grill, because she was hungry and also needed to take food with the pills or else her stomach could get upset. To help her swallow the pills, one of which was quite large and the instructions on the pill container said to swallow it whole and not dissolved, she asked for a glass of water. The man or woman behind the counter didn’t know what to charge them for the spoonful of vegetables on the rice, so only charged them for the rice. Dollar twenty-five, he remembers, which he thought was a bit high at the time for a small bowl of white rice, the equivalent of about two-fifty today. Would he pay it if he was charged that much for it today? If he was with her, he would. Meaning: if she asked for a small bowl of white rice he would, no matter how high the price, though how much would be the limit as to how much he’d pay for it? He knows she wouldn’t object to whatever they’d be charged for it, but again, how high a price could that be, even at a regular Japanese restaurant, not a fast food place? And as she’s said, she needs to eat something right after she takes a certain pill or her stomach will get upset. But get on with it. He went over to the pushcart. The man sat up straight, seemed to have been napping, didn’t immediately get out of his chair. “Excuse me, but how much for a half dozen of your freshest long-stemmed roses?” “Just what the sign says,” the man said. “Fifteen dollars.” “It doesn’t say for how many roses.” “Then that’s a mistake. And all the roses here are long stems and were cut this morning and are the freshest.” “All right. I don’t want to haggle over something like roses. Could you wrap six of them in paper so that it looks like a bouquet? And put in a couple of those ferns you have there to fill it out,” indicating some ferns laid out flat one on top of the other in the pushcart. But get on. Paid. The van. Got in the driver’s seat and put the bouquet on her lap. “For me?” “No one else.” “That’s so sweet of you. What’s the occasion?” “Nothing. Just spur of the moment, we were passing a flower stand, thought it’d be nice getting some for you.” “What are they?” “Look inside. Roses. Your favorite.” “Peonies are my favorite. Not that I don’t also love roses. But you’ve never given me flowers, so I’m still interested in why today.” “I’ve given you flowers.” “Oh, maybe a few times before we were married and you’d come up to my apartment with the flowers behind your back and present them to me.” “I’m sure I have since then. I know I have. Anniversaries. Not all, but some. Your birthday. Probably even Mother’s Day. And a couple of times when we had a fight and I thought I was the one to blame and I’d give you them as a peace offering. Because I knew how much you loved flowers, that’s why.” “Really, you haven’t. I would have remembered. And what I remember is the opposite.” “No, I know I’m right, and for you to think I didn’t is awful. But let’s not get into an argument over it. That’d be ridiculous. Anyway, smell them. And after you, me. The guy who sold them to me said they were cut just a few hours ago.” He took the bouquet off her lap, held the open part of it up to her nose and she sniffed hard. “I don’t smell anything,” she said. “You sure these are roses? I’m only kidding. And look, my lap’s soaked from them.” “Oh damn. Nothing goes right, right?” “That’s not so.” “Well, it could have been worse. I don’t know how, but leave it to me and I’ll find something.” He dropped the bouquet on her side of the floor, started up the van and pulled out into the road. A car gave a long honk as it passed him after nearly clipping him from behind. “I’m sorry. That was my fault. I wasn’t looking.” “You also didn’t have your directional signal on. You have to be more careful. We could have been killed.” “I know. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”

Stephen Dixon (1936–2019) was the author of 35 books, the last of which appeared last year. His accolades included multiple O’Henry Awards, Pushcart Prizes, and appearances in the Best American Short Stories anthologies, as well as nominations for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award.