For our second collaborative feature with Cincinnati’s own online magazine Soapbox, we’re featuring Lili Wright’s short-short story “Handyman” from issue 8.2. Soapbox tells the new Cincinnati story—a narrative of creative people and businesses, new development, cool places to live, and the best places to work and play. And every other month, Cincinnati Review will contribute some of the best lit—poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—in the country. Here, we’ve reprinted Wright’s “Handyman” in full as well as “bonus material” in the form of comments from the writer and our staff, including the editor who accepted the piece for publication—also on the Soapbox website.
I am walking down to the beach in Maine to see if my husband is having sex with our friend Levi. It’s an idea so crazy it makes sense. Sex would be the culmination of what I’ve been feeling all summer: that my husband likes Levi more than he likes me. Daniel slips out of bed at six a.m. so he and Levi can climb twenty-foot ladders and reshingle our house. All day long, the men work shoulder to shoulder, making jokes I can’t hear. Daniel tells Levi about his hemorrhoids. They sing “Penny Lane.”
Levi is like Jesus. A carpenter who builds things and fixes things and never loses his temper. Levi rolls his own cigarettes and never wears sunblock and plays War nicely with our children and sleeps in a tent and grows bean sprouts and is thinner than a cricket. He isn’t gay as far as I know. His partner is a Mexican woman, Ana, but he hasn’t seen her in months, and men being men, needing sex as often as they do, something may have bubbled to the surface.
All summer, Levi has taught Daniel the construction skills he never learned because Robinson men are lawyers, tax lawyers, estate lawyers, loophole lawyers, men in wool suits who call people like Levi to fix whatever is broken. The more cocky Daniel becomes, flexing his biceps, swinging his hammer, the more he expects me to play wife: produce cookies, applaud progress, take photographs documenting each miracle. And I did this for a while until the whole setup got on my nerves. Everything slid into two against one.
Recently, the men started taking a midmorning break to eat peanuts and skinny dip. They call it “refueling.” They walk to the beach, strip down, and dunk themselves in the ocean, which is freezing. You can hear the screams. Later, they come up all doggy grins, hair dripping salt water, ready to shake. Daniel tells me to stay up at the house.
But it occurs to me now that something else is going on. I march past the daisies like the commander-in-chief I’ve felt like ever since I became a mother. I can’t be as nice as Levi, and Daniel knows it. Gravity pulls me to the shore like the moon pulling tide. Things feel weighted, inevitable, a movie I’ve already seen. The wind blows past my ears. The spruce don’t budge. Old trees rarely turn around.
Getting closer, I brace myself to see what I can’t imagine: my husband, the former Catholic choirboy, making out with our houseguest. How will I tell the kids—years later—about this summer, the summer of reconstruction, the summer where their father learned how to cover old siding with fresh shingles, learned to snap a plumb line, learned that male friendship is easier than marriage?
I can see the little changing house now. The bluff above the shore. Compass Island. The view. Everything that happens happily ever after depends on what happens next. But this is always true. Every minute of your life.
Lili Wright is author of the travel memoir, Learning to Float. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Florida Review, Southern Indiana Review, Cream City Review, The Normal School, and other publications. She won the Mary C. Mohr Nonfiction Award in 2008 and the inaugural nonfiction prize given by Wag’s Revue. Her work was noted for distinction in Best American Essays 2010 and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010. A graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program, she teaches writing at DePauw University in Indiana.
Lili Wright: I wrote “Handyman” in one short blast. A friend of mine had recently learned her husband was having an affair, a discovery that reminded me of the precariousness of marriage. We also had a house guest for the summer, a wonderful man who was far more patient and kind than I am. One day, I walked to the beach and had a rush of “what if” thoughts. So I took these elements and told the story in a voice not my own. As I was writing, I felt I was channeling Grace Paley, though the story probably doesn’t sound like her at all.
“Handyman” is essentially a travel piece, though it’s only a walk to the beach. A walk to the beach might change your life. I knew the story had to be short because I wanted to leave the ending ambiguous. The reader’s wondering would mimic the wife’s wondering, her fear about what she might find, her fear that she might deserve it. Most of the editing I did was designed to heighten the drama and select details that carried the greatest metaphoric weight. This is the fun stuff: Compass Island, Penny Lane, the card game War—all there for the taking.
Recently, I’ve fallen in love with the short form. I am not a poet but this is the closest I can come. Moments like this one bubble up, unannounced, usually when I am traveling, when I’ve left my heart ajar.
Becky Adnot-Haynes: Lili Wright’s “Handyman” encapsulates a moment both small and large: small, because it is one afternoon in a woman’s life; large, because it may be the moment that changes everything. It accomplishes what flash fiction does at its best: captures something on the cusp—a brief but important point in time, a moment which may or may not transform the course of her marriage. It’s a statement on the precarious state of our happiness, on how close we may be to the beginning of our worst-case scenarios—or how far.
The story’s sentences are both economical and incisive, describing richly the narrator’s feelings toward her husband’s newly developed bond with their handyman without rendering the subject matter sentimental. The narrator tells us that “Levi isn’t gay, as far as I know,” but that “men being men, needing sex as often as they do, something may have bubbled to the surface.” These are the facts as she sees them; these are the facts as she delivers them to us. Levi is the man who may or may not be sleeping with her husband, but he is also a man who plays war nicely with her children and who never loses his temper. The story doesn’t attempt to incite anger or pity on behalf of the narrator—there are no villains, no martyrs, only people—and it is all the more emotionally resonant for that.
Nicola Mason: The short-short, as it’s known, has really taken off in recent years. There are even e-zines and print mags devoted to exclusively to this compressed mode of storytelling. The fun thing about the short form is its surprising versatility. It’s often unclear whether a given piece is poetry (a “prose poem”) or fiction—and even when the category is clear, the work can go in any number of directions. The most successful short-shorts are often ones that present an intriguing, offbeat idea and then elaborate on it, building a meaningful context for the idea to inhabit. Thomas Israel Hopkins’s three short-shorts in our Winter 2012 issue are delightful examples of surreal scenarios that are grounded in real emotion. For Soapbox’s feature, however, we chose to highlight Lili Wright’s “Handyman” (from the same issue), in large part because it is the hardest kind of short-short to pull off. Often such submissions feel like half-baked entrees, missing a crucial ingredient, cold in the center. Wright’s offering, however—though only a page and a quarter in the journal—manages to complete an arc of story that could well spool out in a dozen pages, but is even more fulfilling as a swift dive into a charged moment.
One of the accomplishments of the piece is how efficiently it settles us into the physical and emotional landscape using recognizable tropes: the “cocky” lawyer proud to conquer new territory, the bromance, the wife-become-mother who, in her role as commander-in-chief, feels she “can’t be nice.” Wright smoothly joins the physical and psychological, imbuing concrete details with a shrewd significance: “How will I tell the kids—years later—about . . . the summer when their father learned how to cover old siding with fresh shingles, learned to snap a plumb line, learned that male friendship is easier than marriage.” The story ends inconclusively by design, the moment’s potent uncertainty exemplified by the “changing-house” near the water as well as the view of “Compass Island.” In the last line we, like the speaker, are poised at the brink, not knowing which way the needle will swing.
Michael Griffith: What I love about “Handyman”: the bracing directness of our entry into the story; the way it establishes immediately that its length does not doom it to simplicity or lack of range (by the end of the second paragraph, we’ve encountered Jesus, the Beatles, hemorrhoids, bean sprouts, a Mexican woman, male lust, sunburn, and feats of carpentry); the easy self-assurance that lets the reader know straight off, “I am in good hands. I trust this writer.” But best of all, from my point of view, is the sense of rich, complex uncertainty Wright conveys here. Is there an affair? Consider the evidence. Pop duets and bathroom confidences? Hmm. “Refueling” with peanuts and a skinny-dip together? Uh-oh. But what her suspicion proceeds from is not facts, but rather the sense that what’s gone wrong with their marriage has to have a name, a proximate cause, lest it be just a slow, inexorable, terrifying slide toward unintimacy and indifference. Does she hope to catch them making out? At least a little . . . because that’s a narrative she knows, “a movie I’ve already seen.” What she fears most, it seems, is not so much that she’s lost her husband to this other person (which would be awful, but she can deal with it) as that she’s doomed now, for the rest of her life, to keep losing him minute by minute, day by day.