By Dan Libman and Molly McNett
Both of us are fishing in the same shallow pond for story ideas. When a bachelor neighbor went to a foreign land and came back with a bride thirty years his junior, everyone else on our block clucked their tongues in judgment. Molly and I excitedly tussled with each other for dibs to the material. I won the “rights” (“You’ve got to admit it’s more my kind of story...”) but she went ahead and wrote it anyway while I was still being titillated by the dirty parts. She got her version published and then anthologized. She even gets fan mail on it, swear to God. “I’ll be darned,” I say after she shows one to me. In my last rejection, Glimmer Train checked the box that says I can send them more unsolicited submissions.
The kids got up, Dan got up, and my daughter finally came in our room with my slippers, “for your feet so they can get out of bed.” But I was dreading the day. Last night Dan presented me with today’s schedule: “You’ll take the kids for the morning while I write, then I’ll run, then we’ll eat lunch (he always makes this part funny by saying, “we’ll eat the delicious lunch you’ll prepare for us…” indicating that…what? He knows that expecting me to prepare lunch, too, is over the top?) “and then I’ll take them out for the afternoon. Okay?”
Sigh. What’s wrong with this, you might ask. Indeed, it offers me the afternoon, but the afternoon is the used goods of writing time. Everybody knows it.
But last night I agreed to the schedule, and there is no use in renegotiating. I get up. Dan yells from the den, where I can hear him typing, that I’d better get started on the laundry, “if not it won’t get done today and that will depress you.” He often does laundry himself, of course. We share everything, almost every single chore. But it’s the morning, and he’s writing and I’m doing laundry, and this gives me time, as I load up the washer, to remember that about a week ago, he presented me with what he called his “ideal summer schedule”: He would write in the morning, then he would go for a run. Shower. Then he would sit down with our family and “eat the delicious lunch” that I’ve “prepared” for them. After this, I could have the afternoon.
We were driving in the car; I forget where.
Now and then I am able to bite my tongue. I said something innocuous, like “that might work,” and tried to think about it reasonably. For eight years, since we’ve had children and teaching jobs, we’ve squabbled every summer over morning writing time. Why should this be? There are two of us, and just two children, and more than three months to divide. We have tried switching off the morning time: every other week, every two days, every three days, and at some point it’s just so hot that the afternoon person gives up and we find ourselves on the beach at two-thirty, watching the kids play and wondering if it’s too early to start drinking.
Some writer-friends of mine were divorced last year. When I talked to her on the phone about it, she complained about the difficulty of having children and a mess of a house, and both wanting time to write, and always squabbling over it.
Hmmn, I said. That’s what Dan and I fight about, too.
And do you feel like you’re just sharing responsibilities, and not a marriage? she asked.
No, I said. I was surprised at how easily I had this answer. I was certain about it.
I love Dan, for one thing. I respect his opinion and his writing; and his opinion on my writing. He’s the first one I show anything to, and usually that’s enough. And I just like being around him: He’s funny; It’s a pleasure to talk to him over dinner or even better, beer; I rely on him to recommend books and music and movies; and he is the kind of father any kid would like to have, one who reads the same chapter in Alice or Huck Finn or Pippi three times in a row, and makes pancakes in any shape, including penguins sledding on vending machines.
Also, I guess I don’t usually consider the fact that he loves the city but moved to a farm because of me, because I wanted to live here. After a few years of complaining about it, he bought four chickens, and as I write this there is a swimming pool on the dining room table filled with 25 baby chicks: not my project, but his. So he did something he didn’t want to do and found something (chickens!) that satisfies him, though it’s far from what he might have guessed when he married me.
I know Dan has this impulse toward me; I could always feel it. It’s true generousity: the impulse to want to make me happy, even sometimes at his own expense. So I could say yes, take the morning. I could say it in hopes that he’ll be grateful and offer me the morning next summer. Or better than that, I could do it without expecting anything, which would be best. I’m even dopey enough to think that if the afternoon hours are mine because I’ve accepted them selflessly, they will become better hours in some way, and the time itself will be kinder to me. (Which means…what? I’ll find some sort of “chickens” of my own? Or, at least, I somehow, miraculously, won’t be sluggish or, as Dan describes me, “drag-assy”?)
Human beings are not the only animals who can act generously, but the only ones who can consciously choose to. Some take this as proof that we were made in god’s image. I don’t, but I have to admit it is a mysterious and very marvellous ability, and I wish I made use of it more often.
Still, I haven’t given Dan my answer yet about this summer schedule. Maybe the generous wife who accepts the afternoon gladly is who I want to be and not quite who I am. It would be right and good of me to agree to it; and dangerous if I only plan to seethe, secretly, for as long as I can hold it in.
This morning I lost my writing time getting my daughter’s kindergarten check-up at the doctor. Yesterday it was roto-tilling the garden which had to be done on that day because that was when Ace had a machine for rent, and it had to be done at that time becuase otherwise the heat of the day would have been unbearable. And now that summer is here one waits all week for that moment when the coffee gets poured and the door closes and one can stare down the blank screen getting ready to fill it with shifty dots and squiggles, one realizes shortly that there are still other writers in the house whose work needs encouraging. I’m working on a whimsical, baudy short story set in 17th century Holland (reminder to self: look up “huik”) when the children come in with ideas of their own.
“Can I just type a few lines?” my son asks.
All too eager to be distracted, I let him sit on my lap and bang a few sentences out. When my son was four years old he wrote something called “Indians Making Fires.” Over the course of a summer and countless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches he added sentence after sentence, taking my writing time but leaving me with something better: Indians usually make fires when they’re cold. Indians only make fires when it’s really, really dark. Indians drop two sticks down and then a fire becomes. It could be as big as a tree that reaches up to the sky.
My congenital middle class nature began to assert itself: He should submit this, I started thinking. This is good enough to publish! After all, if my own noble efforts to keep my writing in the hands of undergrad interns and slush-pile rakers all over the country was being lost, at the very least they should get to read his stuff. In fact, the idea that I was depriving the world my sweet boy’s heartfelt writing came in direct conflict with my new found parental urge to protect the boy from the nip of rejection as long as possible. And yet.... Maybe it wouldn’t be rejected. Maybe some sharp reader at the right journal would get it on the right day and bring it to the right editor in the right mood and my son’s genius would be recognized before the age of five! How could I deprive the world of “Indians Making Fires”?
"What's a linked vignette?" he asked me when I read his cover letter out loud to him. We printed it, stamped both envelopes (for literary journals, unsolicited submissions travel free both ways, like shoes from Zappos) and walked hand in hand to the corner mailbox. He's going to be nine in a few months and we're still waiting to hear back.
Molly McNett is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; her stories have appeared in The Best American Non-required Reading 2005, The Missouri Review, The New England Review, Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, and a few other places. She hates coiling garden hoses.
Dan Libman has published stories in Paris Review, Santa Monica Review and Other Voices among others. He is a Pushcart Prize winner and a grant from the Illinois Art Council in prose. He is currently serving as the guest fiction editor for the premier issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal, submissions welcome at www.fifthwednesdayjournal.com. Nothing irritates him more than an uncoiled garden hose.
Their twelfth anniversary is this August.