Lawrence Dunning’s short stories poignantly reveal the complex emotional lives of his characters. The personal dramas are intertwined with sharply realized settings that range from New York City to Okinawa. Evocations of different kinds of music–the country western ballads of “Texas Two-Step,” the jazz of “Coda,” and the classical idiom of the exceptionally rich title story–highlight this remarkable collection. Dunning is a distinctive master of a demanding fictional form.
author of Winegold: Short Stories
and The Book of Fabulous Beasts
These stories by Lawrence Dunning are about human dilemma and the humanly satisfying resolutions they meet. His work brings to mind stories by Katherine Mansfield–“The Fly” and “Miss Brill” perhaps–where the needs of the heart are met with outcomes that reside also in that place. There is anguish and loss, as we see in “Looking for Madeline”–we understand that was its driving necessity. These stories give us the experiences of character we may have known, and in these narrations have come to understand. Such might be the case in “Eclipse,” an allegory more concerned with cosmic mystery than with individual, human pain. The delicately ironic tone of the piece implies far more than the specifics of the story’s activity. Finally, what can be said for these stories is what can best be said for fine stories always–they are entertaining and engaging, and we leave each with a satisfying sense of emotional resonance.
author of The Edge of Things
Lawrence Dunning knows about breakups, country and classical music, love and loss, New York and Santa Fe and small Texas towns, and weird circumstances like a solar eclipse that doesn’t end. In “Vows,” a divorced man at his daughter’s wedding knows he’s in for more trouble with his current girlfriend than he had with his wife, and in “Looking for Madeline,” an inebriated man at 2 a.m. knows “the enticingly voluptuous, all-things-are-possible part of the evening has somehow eluded him, slipped through his fingers in the fogged loneliness, and now the little terrors are beginning to grip his mind.” In the title story, two concert-pianist brothers, whose lives are receding, examine and ignore the petty disputes around them and with each other. Dunning writes with clean, clear prose, and draws the reader in with good dialogue and compelling circumstances that require reading to the end. These are solid, down-to-earth stories about what it means to be human.
author of Land That Moves, Land That Stands Still
and The Touching That Lasts
The small cardboard sign the manager put up outside read simply “Friday night–Betty Lou Springer.” No photo, which is all right with her. She’s no beauty, never has been, always the last one to be asked to dance back in high school in Waco, that’s for sure. And she’s aware, in some distant corner of her mind, that the years on the road have not been kind to her. Thirty-nine next February, whether that seems possible or not. The voice is a little raspy, but why wouldn’t it be with all the years of cigarettes and shots of bad whiskey bought by strangers who expected something in return. Always the same thing in return.
What really bothers her is that the pukey little sign outside doesn’t even say what she does on this Friday night, whether she sings or plays an instrument or maybe does some kind of acrobatic half-nude dance while balancing a plate of apples on her head. Scumbags, most of them, these old drunks who manage run-down dives like this one all across Texas and Oklahoma and New Mexico and Kansas. Jonesy’s Bar & Grill, though why anyone added the “grill” part is a mystery since she hasn’t seen anyone eating anything except the free peanuts. Earlier she ate a gristly hamburger at the bar–“On the house,” Jonesy told her magnanimously–but now she wishes she hadn’t because her stomach is acting up. Too bad, because her ten-minute break–“in case you have to pee,” Jonesy said, looking at her hard as though he expected her to shoot up in the restroom–is over and she’s on stage again. She slings the guitar strap over her shoulder and smiles through the floor spotlights in front of her, but it’s not a smile that means anything at all.
“S’pose she ever gets any?” Cal Rider says to his buddy Larkin. They’re into their fourth round of Pabst Blue Ribbons at a table off in a corner of the room.
Larkin shakes his head. “What I wonder is why anybody’d want to. She looks like ten miles of bad road to me. And look at the way she’s dressed. God a’mighty.”
Apparently she doesn’t pay much attention to her clothes. She’s wearing a shapeless two-piece black outfit that shows a tiny roll of fat between her skirt and blouse, and she’s got on open-toed sandals that are little more than flip-flops. “You know, I’d say you’re right,” Cal says, “except there’s guys that’d put their long john into anything that ain’t dead.”
Larkin laughs. “Yeah, cowboy, and you’re one of ’em.”
They continue to stare at the little stage while they drink their beers. Betty Lou, if that’s her name, is singing and playing an old country western tune from way back, maybe Hank Williams. “Is that what it sounds like to you?” Cal says to Larkin.
“How the hell would I know? She ain’t got much of a voice, though–she’s damn sure no Shania Twain.”
“They’re not in the same universe, man.”
They order two more PBRs. “I wonder what her story is,” Cal says after a while.
“Everybody’s got a story. Tell you what–next time she takes a break I’m gonna ask her to come over and sit with us.”
“You’re crazy,” Larkin says. “There’s got to be at least five, six women over at the bar that’s better looking than her.”
“Then how come you’re sittin’ here with me? Because you know you don’t have a chance with those bar babes, and neither do I. We’re not exactly prime, if you get my meaning. We got shit on our boots, you’re wearing the same shirt you’ve been wearing for a week, we both got sweat stains on our hats, and I ain’t shaved or even combed my hair good since last Tuesday. We are some dumb cowboys, that’s a fact.”
Larkin looks around and spits on the floor. “I had me a piece of Maybelle over at the Dairy Queen last week.”
“Then she must’ve been drunk out of her mind.”
“So what? Pussy’s pussy.”
Shaking his head at his friend’s uncool ways, Cal turns his attention to the stage. It seems to him that Betty Lou Springer has a kind of sweet face if nothing else. What does Larkin know anyway.
She adjusts the guitar strap more comfortably across her left shoulder, fingers a couple of minor key chords, and begins to sing a Reba McEntire oldie because that’s what most people like, though no one here is paying any attention to her at all, except that one cowboy back in the corner. But because it’s the last set of the evening she decides to fill it out with her own songs, things she’s been working on for a while, songs about lost love and heartbreak and how nobody cares about anything real or true. And it’s obvious to her, if not to anyone else, that playing and singing her own sad songs makes her happy.
The guitar is barely okay, a Fender Sonoran with the funky bent Stratocaster head stock and a scratched sound box, like the ones Malibu beach bums played back in the late sixties. She bought it used last year for three hundred dollars from a guy who probably also got it used and was about to pawn it, and the good thing about it is, nobody would bother to steal it. Before that, and it makes her sick to think about it even now, she saved up three thousand dollars–virtually every cent from four or five months of terrible gigs in places like Garden City, Kansas, and Enid, Oklahoma–and put it all on a gorgeous Gibson J-45 Custom acoustic with the sweetest tone this side of heaven. On a late-night bus from somewhere in Oklahoma to somewhere in Texas she fell asleep from exhaustion, the Gibson in its case beside her because she didn’t trust the baggage hold, and woke to find that some miserable son of a bitch had walked off with it. She cried for weeks after, but what good does crying do? That’s what her songs are about–the unfairness of it all, people who don’t deserve to be kicked in the face when all they’ve tried to do is bring a little honest music into the world.
It is times like this, singing her own songs, that everything around her fades into nonbeing–the room, the people jabbering and laughing but not listening, even this flat, dusty west Texas town of Plainview–all of it disappears and there are only the words from deep in her gut, her words, and her fingers curling over the frets, making the music. The fact that the tip jar beside her is empty except for the three one-dollar bills she herself seeded it with, the fact that she’ll only be paid a promised fifty dollars for the whole night’s work is, at this moment, irrelevant.
Her voice is getting tired now and even more raspy. Someone suggested not long ago that she should see a doctor about it, but she has no insurance and no time for doctors anyway. She glances at the Timex on her wrist and is relieved to see that she’s inching up on that magic moment when she can quit playing and say goodnight to the brain-dead audience and collect her fifty from Jonesy.
She plays the last sad chord on the guitar and sings the last sad note, holding it for what seems a long time. And a strange thing is happening. One of the cowboys she noticed earlier steps up to the tip jar and puts what looks like a ten dollar bill into it, then stands there waiting for her to finish the song. When she does, he says, “That it?”
She looks at him. “You mean am I through for the evening? Yes I am, thank God.”
“Then would you like to join me and my friend for a drink?”
He’s rough around the edges, no doubt about that. But not bad looking, and he has a kind of half-smile that appeals to her. Ordinarily she’d say no thanks out of habit, but this time, whether because she’s dead tired or whatever, she nods. “Okay. Maybe just one.”
“Me, I’ve never been able to stop at just one,” he says, and the smile gets bigger.
“I’ve got to go to the ladies and then I’ve got to get paid, but I’ll be over shortly. And thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” he says. “I knew you’d have nice manners. Not like some.”
She doesn’t have any lipstick in her purse but she almost wishes she did. In the restroom mirror she sees the dark circles under her eyes and wonders why any man would bother to look at her a second time. Why did the cowboy bother? Maybe he thinks I’m an easy lay. Maybe the two of them plan to rape me. She fingers the sharp-pointed letter opener she keeps in her purse and knows she’ll use it if she has to. A time or two in the past she’s had to.
Jonesy gives her some trouble about singing her own songs. “Nobody gives a shit about your own stuff,” he tells her, holding onto the check. “You were hired to sing straight country that everybody likes.”
“Nobody was listening,” she says, “so what difference does it make?”
“It makes a difference to me,” he says, “and I’m the one you have to keep happy. I was thinking about asking you to stay over for tomorrow night–the guy I had is sick–but not on your life, not after tonight’s crappy performance.”
“Thanks for nothing,” she says, snatching the check from his hand. She walks over to the cowboys’ table and the one who tipped her pulls over a chair from another table. “Bastard,” she says under her breath, setting the guitar down beside her.
“Who you talkin’ to?” Larkin asks her, frowning.
“This here is my friend Larkin,” the other one says. “Don’t pay him no mind. I’m Cal Rider. And I guess you’re Betty Lou Springer. Where you from, Betty Lou?”
“All over,” she says.
“But you must’ve grown up somewhere.”
“All over,” she repeats. “How about that drink now?”
“You gonna get one of them pink vodka things?” Larkin asks her. “I’ll bet she’s gonna get one of them pink vodka things,” he says to Cal
“No, that’d put me right to sleep,” she says. “I’ll just have a beer, whatever you boys are drinking.”
Cal motions to a waitress and orders another round of PBRs. “Texas’ own,” Larkin says, holding up one of the bottles when they come.
“Not really,” Cal says. “Used to be a headquarters in San Antone but they’re out in California somewhere now. Lone Star, that was the real Texas beer. You agree, Betty Lou?”
If you would like to read more of Rondo and Fugue for Two Pianos by Lawrence Dunning, order your copy today.