Love, Lucia

Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin died on 12 November 2004, her 68th birthday. Almost all of her short stories can be found in three volumes published by Black Sparrow Press: ‘Homesick: New and Selected Stories’ (1990), ‘So Long: Stories 1987-92’ (1993) and ‘Where I Live Now: Stories 1993-98’ (1999). The earliest of the stories dates from 1977. She was born in Alaska and raised in military camps in Idaho, Montana and Arizona, but most of her childhood was spent in Chile. As an adult she lived in New Mexico, Mexico, California and Colorado; she taught writing at the University of Colorado between 1994 and 2000. She retired early because of health problems and died in Los Angeles. The letters that follow were written to the poet August Kleinzahler between 1994 and 2002.

Boulder itself getting on my nerves. It’s sickeningly sweet and rich and white and every single resident has a golden lab. I’m rigging up a pit on the corner. Clerks don’t say ‘enjoy’ anymore they say ‘thrive.’ My masseuse has really helped my back but she’s pregnant, which is great, except that she claims she knew the kid in another incarnation. The receptionist there is going through the change of life and while she talks on the phone she’s rubbing a sweet potato (oestrogen source) on her stomach, for hot flashes. Plus both of them [put] crystals up their private parts just like when the ladies in Candide used to hide their jewels.

You really should start to think of settling down. Serious. For later … Sometimes I wish that I lived with someone I had loved for a long time, had comfort with. Wake up with his hand on my ass etc.

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I’m sorry your bartender is dying. This sounds rude to wonder about but [it] must make it difficult to just go have a drink . . .

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I actually know fenestration. Not personally, but the first time I looked it up was reading a 19th-century English architect’s review of another architect, ‘Balsley has a particularly witty way with fenestration.’

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Reason I don’t like teaching is same problem I had with marriage – I lose myself.

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Where are you? I get disoriented when you go to Germany or Australia. I’m sad that you don’t go to New Jersey any more. Did acacia & plum trees bloom already? We haven’t had winter yet. Deer are confused. Six young bucks hang out in my backyard – scuffing the dead grass, slouching, smoking – sneering at labradors & joggers disaffected deer . . .

I have no news. I am boring old lady. Have to stop myself from talking to grocery clerks about my grandchildren or my cat.

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One of my classes gave me a fabulous gift. It is a cup, with Denver skyline & a moon – When you pour hot coffee in it the pope appears in the sky!

So dear heart – my new address as of May 20 – will be . . .

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Cioran & Hazlitt have lots to say about envy, writers’. It’s pretty scary. What makes it scarier is that often ‘They’ put you down & haven’t even read your work. Like Gide with little Marcel. Didn’t even open the ms. I think women are the worst.

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His ex-girlfriend got millions of $ in palimony because she ‘gave him the best years of her life’. Hey, how about me – I gave him the worst of mine!

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OK, so here I am in these terrifying schools and my daddy is in the war, my mother, grandpa and uncle drunk, my mother and grandpa abusing me, sexually and physically (not at the same time, they weren’t sickos or anything). My grandma knew about grandpa but instead of protecting me she decided I was a sinner too and was mean to me, meaner than the others really. I felt bad because she took care of my sister and wouldn’t even let me in the kitchen with them. I was in constant terror of mother and grandpa and awful school torments too. I was expelled from two schools and ran away from one in first year. However in El Paso I met my first and dearest friend, Hope … and was semi-adopted by the Abrahams, was hugged for the first time in my life, kissed and combed and hollered at, part of a family that saved my life, I think. I also became a religious fanatic at Catholic school and worshipped the Virgin Mary, who took care of me … Fight with Hope devastating. Only person I had then was Uncle John who was rarely there or sober. The disillusion when he hit the kid and dog was Awful for me. The year or so left was lonely hell. Only reason i’m telling you this is that i know i have dealt with these few years ad nauseum. Problem is everytime I am scared, hurt, miserable, lonely or in trouble I go straight back to El Paso.

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Now it turns out that the flu is carried by wild ducks.

I thought ‘the flu’ didn’t really exist at all, & was just a euphemism alcoholics used when they called in sick.

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My first cigarette really was lit by the Prince Ali Khan.

My new computer not only points out in red misspelled words it highlights in green ungrammatical sentences. Everything I write is Greened. I’d check it out but I’d find out what it is I do Wrong and I’d stop. So here is the key for your article. I can’t write a proper sentence! Either verbs or nouns or those helping words are missing, or who knows what I do? And all this time I thought it was Style!

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Miles Davis: ‘Those dark Arkansas roads. That is the sound I’m after.’

Turner and Caravaggio are the painters that please me, but Bacon and Alice Neal’s portraits speak to me as a writer. I read their portraits like novels or poems.

More than anyone though is Rothko. Again as much for the effect his work had on me in the 50s as the work itself. Blizzard in NY, no cars! Walked, pulling kids on a sled, to Moma for a Rothko retrospective. Few people, the light from the skylights dazzling, his colours pulsated from the walls, pure, as, well, Arkansas roads.

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I can’t wait to hear about your love life at Brown.

It’s hard to get used to the Atlantic Ocean though because the sun doesn’t set in it. But that won’t be an immediate problem … Boots for the snow and you need a truly long great scarf.

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Good to hear from you. I laughed, remembered how feverishly I prepared for my classes the first semester. I suppose I still do but without the sense of being an impostor. You’ve probably realised by now that we have a jump on our more seasoned colleagues because we still love literature . . .

Big problem here. The zopilotes, turkey buzzards, pass through here in August on their way to Culiacan or Tijuana. Hundreds and hundreds of them in one old tree … But right about the time they usually head south there occurred a plague that began killing off prairie dogs, and since there are so many of them there are fresh corpses every day. Leaves turning yellow, snow in the mountains and the buzzards are still here. The magpie tree in my backyard has been taken over by stellar jays. Apparently the enormous racket is being made by fledglings who don’t want to feed themselves.

As my mama used to say … life is fraught with peril.

Hope you have some good snow boots.

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How can I get you settled down if you don’t do right … So I don’t think you’re hopeless – please make me worry less in my old age about you in yours – find yourself a nice girl and stick around, so to speak.

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Now see here you whippersnapper. I don’t want you pestering me any more with all your fol-de-rols & hullabaloos.

You know how sad it is to get no attention? Well, I do want attention. But all these things I said or wrote sound goofy – I don’t even know if they are true. Do I love Chekhov’s work? Yes, no that’s not the problem – Problem is I have never never given any thought to my writing. I get started, & then it’s just like writing this to you, only more legible . . .

Yes I love Raymond Carver’s work – before he sobered up & sweetened his endings – (& before that bitch pimped his work to Short Cutsawful thing to do). I wrote like him before I ever read him. He liked my work, too – we had good talk. Recognised one another immediately. Our ‘styles’ came from our (similar in a way) backgrounds. Don’t show your feelings. Don’t cry. Don’t let anyone know you … more than exquisite control blahblahblah.

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Fine short story in this month’s Harper’s. By Mehta. An old fashioned love story, such a sweet surprise. I loved the Narib Magoub piece in Grand Street, bought some of his books which were not as beautiful, maybe got the wrong ones.

Postman is in sight. He put that Grecian formula on his hair and moustache, now looks diabolical and decadent, which is a vast improvement. I don’t mind him now when he says ‘Enjoy your mail.’

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A million New Yorkers at Garth Brooks concert in Central Park. Wow. New York is where I’d live if I could.

Naropa is a scam, really. They give students little soundbites of ‘classes’ every week … Allen [Ginsberg] gave the place a humour and warmth in the summer. He could chant and carry on because he wasn’t taking himself seriously but ______. At a certain age we women are supposed to stop wearing blue jeans or long hair. In her case it’s time she stopped howling around the stage and stamping her feet. It’s like Gravel Gertie having a tantrum. And she’s old enough to know who Gravel Gertie is, if you aren’t.

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But the classes are going great, and the thesis students very good. Except this one guy with a book about baseball and magic realism. Why do men think these two are a good combination. Baseball should remain uncontaminated and magic realism … god that solution for no real content reached its nadir when President Salinas on national TV announced that he was going on a hunger strike and it lasted only an hour.

Latin men are so fun in movies. They cry and sigh and say ‘Que Lindo!’ out loud, punch you in the shoulder etc.

Hope you find a lady before the snow sets in.

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I was once in Storm Lake, Iowa, for a week. Very in love with a wonderful anthropologist who was divorced. We went there for me to meet his three children, who were living with his parents in Storm Lake. (His wife, an ex Miss Iowa, had run away from home.) I was so happy in Storm Lake. His parents, children and I all got along great. We decided there to do it, get married, combine our seven children. Incredible drive home to Albuquerque, reading aloud a Uruguayan poet, Herrera Y Reisseg, making love by those praying mantis old derricks, big old stars. The day after we got back he didn’t call, and didn’t call again and so I didn’t need to hear anything to realise he had thought better of the whole idea. I was so heartbroken I never even wrote about it, except for one line in some story. ‘And that cad, Harrison.’ Sorry, I digress. All I meant to say about Iowa was that I never saw so many basketball hoops in my life.

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Seems to me the kids are just too darn healthy nowadays … get the same pleasure from flossing their teeth, jogging five miles or fucking and a shower. I mean, doesn’t anybody muffle sobs in pillows anymore? Get dizzy with desire in phone booths?

I wrote about sex in the 40s in the story ‘Sex Appeal’ … ‘Sex itself seemed to have something to do with being mad. Cats acted pretty mad about the whole thing and all the movie stars seemed mad. Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck were downright mean. Bella Lynn and her friends would slouch in the Court Café, blowing smoke from their nostrils like petulant dragons . . .’

In my day it was dangerous and wicked. Father Haley, a Jesuit in Chile (in fact the first hard-on I ever saw was in a cassock. But I digress . . .), he told us that a kiss on the mouth was a venial sin, but a kiss on the neck was a mortal sin. It took Freddy Greenwell, an alto sax player, to convince of the latter, later.

Only you can possibly understand this sad story … I’d never tell a woman friend, they are so bitchy. Well, I’ve been very sick. Collapsed lung, near death, 12 blood clots in lungs, ICU etc. Now hobbling around with a cane, on 24-hour oxygen, for rest of life, ugh . . .

I mean was way depressing but the worst moment was one day when I unhooked the damn hose for a minute while I was combing my hair and suddenly remembered this dear lover, Terry. Hmm, I said to my reflection … how come I’m thinking about him? Because the air from the oxygen was breathing on my neck, like a kiss.

Hope this reaches you before you go east. Please don’t take a job. It breaks up the week.