The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 22, No. 2

Laura

by Helen DeWitt

1

An interview is not like an interrogation. It is possible to undergo interrogation in such a way as to provide answers which will put an end to the interrogation. But it is not enough to provide an answer in a single interview, the answer must be provided many many times, as many times as there are interviews to be undergone. The body is put on a plane and taken here and there so that words may come out of the mouth.
     At one point, the body was flown to Amsterdam. Words did come out of the mouth.
     There were gaps in the day.

Laura stood in a room with paintings on the walls. These pieces of board and canvas and paint had been in a small room with a crazy man
     Van Gogh owned every Van Gogh that ever existed.

2

With the passage of time, the body was returned to New York.
     In the days of thoughtless glamour, people took the Staten Island Ferry back and forth without disembarking, lovers, the lovelorn, wastrels, depressives. The project was punctuated now by messy intervals of shuffling off and on, sprints to catch the next boat back, or luckless half hours of heel-kicking.
     In the very early hours of the morning, 2 or 3 a.m., they bring out the small boats. There are only a handful of people. You don’t fight the crowds. It’s not so bad. But they’re dreary little boats, you can only get outside in front or back. The John F. Kennedy is lovely, but they don’t send it out at 2 a.m.
     What’s very nice, though, is if you get up in the middle of the night, taking the dreary little Alice Austen across and the dreary little John A. Noble back, and keep going, until they do at last bring out the JFK.

She sat on the cold rain-whipped bench. The boat juddered beneath her.
     At the far end of the bench sat a man in a dark-blue raincoat.
     It’s pleasant, sharing the solitude.

Presently the raincoat rises, approaches the rail, stands above the churning foam. He turns and walks slowly, hands in pockets, along the slippery deck. As he passes her he barely glances, looks away, then looks again.
     Laura?
     She, too, wore a raincoat, faded, black.
     Laura! he said.

Ralph, she said presently.
     He said, Can I buy you a coffee?

She did not know how to say she did not have enough sentences to talk. He looked crushed and diffident.
     She said, Sure.

They sat on a bench in the noisier inside, each with a coffee.
     How are you? she said.
     I’m okay, he said. I’m okay. One day at a time.
     He talked a while about the bad time.
     It was restful not having to talk.
     He said, How are you? Are you working on something new? Are they looking after you?
     She said, It’s pretty quiet these days.
     She said, People wanted some extra sentences to go with the sentences. So I went to all those countries to give them the extra sentences. I guess, I don’t know, I mean, I know I was supposed to get some money, but when things went wrong for you I guess the publishers were just holding on to it or something. So I went to talk to some other people.
     His luminous eyes were fixed on her sympathetically.
     She said, But see, it’s more complicated than I realized. Van Gogh never made any money, but Van Gogh owned every Van Gogh that ever existed. Picasso owned every Picasso that ever existed. When he wanted to see what Picasso would do next, he just made a new Picasso. He did not use time that could be spent making new Picassos to sell one old Picasso.
     He was laughing and smiling sympathetically.
     She said, So I went to talk to all these agents, and I said, Picasso owned every Picasso that ever existed. But it wasn’t really worth their while to go after the money I was supposed to get unless they were going to sell a new book for a lot of money, and I couldn’t go through that again. So I just dropped it. I never needed a lot of money.
     She did not know how to talk about it without making him feel bad.
     He said. He could not dare to allow himself to believe. He said, So people just, they just sent it all directly to you?
     She said, No. I don’t know what happened.
     The words were bursting from his mouth. Laura, he said, I’m so so sorry. I’m so terribly sorry. I’ll take care of it for you, it’s the least I can do, I’m so terribly terribly sorry.
     It’s all right, Ralph, she said.
     She did not want to talk about it anymore. The years were gone. He could not get them back for her.
     No, he said, it’s not all right. I’m so terribly terribly sorry, Laura. But I’ll get cracking, I’ll chase them down.
     It’s okay, she said.
     No, he said, no, it’s not okay.

To read the rest of this story, and others from the Summer 2018 issue, please purchase a copy from our online store.