Complainers

Jeffrey Eugenides

Fresh Complaint

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Jeffrey Eugenides, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the bestselling novels The Marriage Plot (2011), Middlesex (2002), and The Virgin Suicides (1993), now proves himself a masterful writer of short fiction with his first story collection, Fresh Complaint. This long-anticipated book leaves readers “freshly grateful for what literature can do” (NPR). With fluid and gripping prose, Eugenides turns his sharp observations of contemporary American life to a wide range of subjects: a young adventurer’s search for enlightenment, a failed poet’s financial troubles, an artist confronting marriage and fatherhood, and more. The following is an excerpt from the story “Complainers.”


Coming up the drive in the rental car, Cathy sees the sign and has to laugh. “Wyndham Falls. Gracious Retirement Living.”

Not exactly how Della has described it.

The building comes into view next. The main entrance looks nice enough. It’s big and glassy, with white benches outside and an air of medical orderliness. But the garden apartments set back on the property are small and shabby. Tiny porches, like animal pens. The sense, outside the curtained windows and weather-beaten doors, of lonely lives within.

When she gets out of the car, the air feels ten degrees warmer than it did outside the airport that morning, in Detroit. The January sky is a nearly cloudless blue. No sign of the blizzard Clark’s been warning her about, trying to persuade her to stay home and take care of him. “Why don’t you go next week?” he said. “She’ll keep.”

Cathy’s halfway to the front entrance when she remembers Della’s present and doubles back to the car to get it. Taking it out of her suitcase, she’s pleased once again by her gift-wrapping job. The paper is a thick, pulpy, unbleached kind that counterfeits birch bark. (She had to go to three different stationery stores to find something she liked.) Instead of sticking on a gaudy bow Cathy clipped sprigs from her Christmas tree—which they were about to put at the curb—and fashioned a garland. Now the present looks handmade and organic, like an offering in a Native American ceremony, something given not to a person but to the earth.

What’s inside is completely unoriginal. It’s what Cathy always gives Della: a book.

But it’s more than that this time. A kind of medicine.

• • •

Ever since moving down to Connecticut Della has complained that she can’t read anymore. “I just don’t seem to be able to stick with a book lately,” is how she puts it on the phone. She doesn’t say why. They both know why.

“I just don’t seem to be able to stick with a book lately,” is how she puts it on the phone. She doesn’t say why. They both know why.

One afternoon last August, during Cathy’s yearly visit to Contoocook, where Della was still living at the time, Della mentioned that her doctor had been sending her for tests. It was just after five, the sun falling behind the pine trees. To get away from the paint fumes they were having their margaritas on the screened-in porch.

“What kind of tests?”

“All kinds of stupid tests,” Della said, making a face. “For instance, this therapist she’s been sending me to—she calls herself a therapist but she doesn’t look more than twenty-five—she’ll make me draw hands on clocks. Like I’m back in kindergarten. Or she’ll show me a bunch of pictures and tell me to remember them. But then she’ll start talking about other things, see. Trying to distract me. Then later on she’ll ask what was in the pictures.”

Cathy looked at Della’s face in the shadowy light. At eighty-eight Della is still a lively, pretty woman, her white hair cut in a simple style that reminds Cathy of a powdered wig. She talks to herself sometimes, or stares into space, but no more than anyone who spends so much time alone.

“How did you do?”

“Not too swell.”

The day before, driving back from the hardware store, in nearby Concord, Della had fretted about the shade of paint they chose. Was it bright enough? Maybe they should take it back. It didn’t look as cheerful as it had on the paint sample in the store. Oh, what a waste of money! Finally, Cathy said, “Della, you’re getting anxious again.”

That was all it took. Della’s expression eased as if sprinkled with fairy dust. “I know I am,” she said. “You have to tell me when I get like that.”

On the porch, Cathy sipped her drink and said, “I wouldn’t worry about it, Della. Tests like that would make anybody nervous.”

A few days later Cathy went back to Detroit. She didn’t hear any more about the tests. Then, in September, Della called to say that Dr. Sutton had arranged a house call and had asked Bennett, Della’s oldest son, to be in attendance. “If she wants Bennett to drive on up here,” Della said, “it’s probably bad news.”

The day of the meeting—a Monday—Cathy waited for Della to call. When she finally did, her voice sounded excited, almost giddy. Cathy assumed the doctor had granted her a clean bill of health. But Della didn’t mention the test results. Instead, in a mood of almost delirious happiness, she said, “Dr. Sutton couldn’t get over how cute we’ve got my house looking! I told her what a wreck it was when I moved in, and how you and I have a project every time you visit, and she couldn’t believe it. She thought it was just darling!”

Maybe Della couldn’t face the news, or had already forgotten it. Either way, Cathy felt afraid for her.

It was left for Bennett to get on and tell her the medical details. These he delivered in a dry, matter-of-fact tone. Bennett works for an insurance company, in Hartford, calculating the probabilities of illness and death on a daily basis, and this was maybe the reason. “The doctor says my mom can’t drive anymore. Or use the stove. She’s going to put her on some medicine, supposed to stabilize her. For a while. But, basically, the upshot is she can’t live on her own.”

“I was just out there last month and your mom seemed fine,” Cathy said. “She just gets anxious, that’s all.”

There was a pause before Bennett said, “Yeah, well. Anxiety’s part of the whole deal.”

There was a pause before Bennett said, “Yeah, well. Anxiety’s part of the whole deal.”

• • •

What could Cathy do from her position? She was not only out in the Midwest but a kind of oddity or interloper in Della’s life. Cathy and Della have known each other for forty years. They met when they both worked at the College of Nursing. Cathy was thirty at the time, recently divorced. She’d moved back in with her parents so that her mother could look after Mike and John while she was at work. Della was in her fifties, a suburban mother who lived in a fancy house near the lake. She’d gone back to work not because she was desperate for money—like Cathy—but because she had nothing to do. Her two oldest boys had already left home. The youngest, Robbie, was in high school.

Normally they wouldn’t have come in contact at the college. Cathy worked downstairs, in the bursar’s office, while Della was the executive secretary to the dean. But one day in the cafeteria Cathy overheard Della talking about Weight Watchers, raving about how easy the program was to stick to, how you didn’t have to starve.

Cathy had just begun to date again. Another way of putting it was she was sleeping around. In the wake of her divorce she’d been seized by a desperation to make up for lost time. She was as reckless as a teenager, doing it with men she barely knew, in the backseats of cars, or on the floors of carpeted vans, while parked on city streets outside houses where good Christian families lay peacefully sleeping. In addition to the sporadic pleasures she took from these men, Cathy was seeking some kind of self-correction, as if the men’s butting and thrusting might knock some sense into her, enough to keep her from marrying anyone like her ex-husband ever again.

Coming home after midnight from one of these encounters, Cathy took a shower. After getting out, she stood before the bathroom mirror, appraising herself with the same objective eye she later brought to renovating houses. What could be fixed? What camouflaged? What did you have to live with and ignore?

She started going to Weight Watchers. Della drove her to the meetings. Small and pert, with frosted hair, large glasses with translucent pinkish frames, and a shiny rayon blouse, Della sat on a pillow to see over the wheel of her Cadillac. She wore corny pins in the shape of bumblebees or dachshunds, and drenched herself in perfume. It was some department-store brand, floral and cloying, engineered to mask a woman’s natural smell rather than accentuate it like the body oils Cathy dabbed on her pressure points. She pictured Della spritzing perfume from an atomizer and then prancing around in the mist.

After they’d both lost a few pounds, they splurged, once a week, on drinks and dinner. Della brought her calorie counter in her purse to make sure they didn’t go too wild. That was how they discovered margaritas. “Hey, you know what’s lo-cal?” Della said. “Tequila. Only eighty-five calories an ounce.” They tried not to think about the sugar in the mix.

Della was only five years younger than Cathy’s mom. They shared many opinions about sex and marriage, but it was easier to listen to these outdated edicts coming from the mouth of someone who didn’t presume ownership over your body. Also, the ways Della differed from Cathy’s mother made it clear that her mom wasn’t the moral arbiter she’d always been in Cathy’s head, but just a personality.

It turned out that Cathy and Della had a lot in common. They both liked crafts: decoupage, basket weaving, antiquing—whatever. And they loved to read. They lent library books to each other and after a while took out the same books so they could read and discuss them simultaneously. They didn’t consider themselves intellectuals but they knew good writing from bad. Most of all, they liked a good story. They remembered the plots of books more often than their titles or authors.

They didn’t consider themselves intellectuals but they knew good writing from bad. Most of all, they liked a good story.

Cathy avoided going to Della’s house, in Grosse Pointe. She didn’t want to subject herself to the shag carpeting or pastel drapes, or run into Della’s Republican husband. She never invited Della over to her parents’ house, either. It was better if they met on neutral ground, where no one could remind them of their incongruity.

One night, two years after they met, Cathy took Della to a party some women friends were having. One of them had attended a talk by Krishnamurti, and everyone sat on the floor, on throw pillows, listening to her report. A joint started going around.

Uh-oh, Cathy thought, when it reached Della. But to her surprise Della inhaled, and passed the joint on.

“Well, if that doesn’t beat all,” Della said, afterward. “Now you got me smoking pot.”

“Sorry,” Cathy said, laughing. “But—did you get a buzz?”

“No, I did not. And I’m glad I didn’t. If Dick knew I was smoking marijuana, he’d hit the roof.”

She was smiling, though. Happy to have a secret.

They had others. A few years after Cathy married Clark, she got fed up and moved out. Checked into a motel, on Eight Mile. “If Clark calls, don’t tell him where I am,” she told Della. And Della didn’t. She just brought Cathy food every night for a week and listened to her rail until she got it out of her system. Enough, at least, to reconcile.
 

Jeffrey Eugenides was born in Detroit and attended Brown and Stanford Universities. His first novel, The Virgin Suicides, was published by FSG to great acclaim in 1993, and he has received numerous awards for his work. In 2003, he received the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Middlesex (FSG, 2002), which was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and France’s Prix Médicis. The Marriage Plot (FSG, 2011) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and won both the Prix Fitzgerald and the Madame Figaro Literary Prize. Eugenides is a professor of creative writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton.

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