MILO- A Conversation Between Christine Schutt and Diane Williams
(Recorded and transcribed in Maine, July, 2006)
Christine Schutt (CS): She was no taller than a small door. Her hair was entirely one color, no other shades. She was efficient in all the domestic arts, but all she could say in English at this point was: “Glad to meet you,” “Too bad about the weather,” and “No one does it better than a slam dunker”—whatever that meant. She knew no other words of English. All to the better, thought Milo. Think of what he could say to her and this could be a great help in the bedroom and he awaited her arrival with presents.
Diane Williams (DW): The night of her arrival the weather fortunately was beautiful. It was just the kind of weather Milo took pride in as if he had created it himself. His bride arrived with punctuality on the arm of Mr. Schnecken.
CS: Mr. Schnecken kept on asking her: “Slam dunk, slam dunker? What does this mean?“ And the new Chinese bride, for she was quite new, everything about her bespoke newness—she was a little stiff the way a new doll is stiff, might be stiff or a newly made piece of furniture, where the door would stick a little or the drawer would stick a little. She was new and did not know how to respond to Mr. Schnecken when he kept on asking her, “What is this about the slam dunkers? Where did you learn that?” She would say, “Too bad about the weather.” Well, this was a good thing, this expression that she knew, because, of course, when she did meet Milo at long last, when she left Schnecken’s arm and walked forward and said again “Too bad about the weather?” Milo was able to say ‘Too bad about the weather?—‘I made it!’”
DW: What a jolly time. They sat down quickly to the meal Milo had prepared—dumplings, noodles, rice and the strong-juiced vegetables. And since nobody was looking forward to much conversation, it seemed as if this was eaten willingly. Milo looked forward to bedtime.
CS: Bedtime and the things he could say to her with impunity and she would never have an idea as to what it was he said to her—“You fucking bitch! You cunt.” He could say those things. He had never said those things before, but now he could. He could probably do other things, too. She was from one of those poorer countries, wasn’t she? She probably did not know what a tender kiss was or what it was to face a lover. She was certainly a virgin, that was part of the advertisement, that was guaranteed almost—a—a security—so—a surety—so. She was entirely his and open, almost as if he’d ordered from Smith and Hawken or J. Crew or any one of the places, those catalogs that he got tons and tons and tons of. Well, he wasn’t going to let her see any of those things, nor was he ever going to give her any plastic, nor was he ever going to give her any money, or the keys to his car—she couldn’t drive, she couldn’t read English. He would keep her in his house the way he kept a chair, a—a something comfortable to sit in, sit on, sit on—“I’m going to sit on your face—you Cunt! Bitch! Whore! Fucker!” He couldn’t wait to get her up into the bedroom to say all the things he’d never said before, well not entirely. He’d said fuck once and his mother’d yanked him out of the kitchen into the bathroom and stuck a bar of Dove soap of all things—the kind of soap that sort of curls up, so it’s very, very hard on the throat—stuck it into his mouth and said, “Don’t you ever!” Well now she was dead and gone, thank God, and here was this woman who did not speak any English. Well, she spoke a little English, but not this kind of English and he couldn’t wait to try it, to whip her with this language.
DW: So, the bride was a slow eater. Those dumplings he’d gotten from Mrs. Very French Bread’s, well, they weren’t really dumplings—but they were puffed and they each enclosed cut-up pieces. That rice—well—that was the boil in a bag—those noodles, those, those were a well-known Italian dish. However, those vegetables did not represent all the color groups. He could smell his bride’s cauliflower in dried beef cheese sauce and Mr. Schnecken’s buttered-over kohlrabi. When would Mr. Schnecken leave? His bride’s fork and her knife moved awkwardly. Her bites were tiny. Her mouth was inconceivable. Milo wondered when his rudeness could begin.
CS: Some things had to be established such as dinner hour is only that, an hour, so that when the clock tocked past seven, and they had been at the banquet and this crummy bag of rice for over an hour, he had to inform this new woman, this imported woman that “The hour’s up! Dinner’s over! Dinner hour. Dinner hour equals sixty minutes. Schnecken, you fuck! Get the hell out of here!” He was shocked, Mr. Schnecken. Mr. Schnecken couldn’t imagine that Milo would ever use this kind of language. He said, “You’re overwrought. This is a big day. I know. I remember my own. God rest her soul. It was exciting and I couldn’t control myself either. Good luck.” He looked at the new bride again and said, “Slam dunk, Baby, slam dunk!” And then Mr. Schnecken ran out the front door. He knew what an impetuous groom might do and he didn’t want to be there to hear it.
DW: The bride didn’t stand when Milo stood, when Mr. Schnecken shouted, “Too bad about your weather!” from the porch. The bride held her fork, held her knife. The bride showed the prospect of some other world behavior. Milo wondered what she reminded him of, then it came to him. It did change his mood, that memory.
CS: This was a benevolent memory, kindly, one he had inexplicably shunned, said every time it knocked on the door for entry—“You are not coming in. I am not thinking of you! No, I’ve done that one too many times and I have been disappointed.” But now here it was back again knocking, not even knocking—opening up the door and saying, “Look, look at me. Don’t you remember?” And he did. He remembered as a boy being taken to his best friend’s birthday. He was probably excited—that part he doesn’t remember, but what he does remember is that when he did get to this birthday he was out of sorts. Perhaps, and these are things he thought later after all that had happened, perhaps he had been understandably envious. His best friend was there at a large table with a cake, opening presents, and was, of course, quite happy, and Milo was again out of sorts and he was on the brink of doing something very terrible, very cruel. He knew he could go up to the table with the cake and take the cake and throw it anywhere. He could break any one of those presents. He knew he had that kind of power and that his friend would let him do that because his friend had already let him braid his hair once upstairs in the bedroom. That was an odd thing to do, but his friend said, “Okay, want to try it? Try it!” He could have done all those things. But here is the nice thing, what makes this memory good, but also makes it one that he doesn’t or hasn’t wanted to remember. His friend, his best friend turned on him with all the grace Milo detected in this new bride. “You open the gifts. You are a much better opener than I am. I make a mess of things.” And again this was the good part, but the part that made him not want to remember—He said, “No, this is your birthday! This is your occasion. This is your special day. You open them.” And he turned all of the rage and the discontent into kindliness and love for his best friend and this was not, was not in his nature and this was not something he wanted to do in the future. He knew, even as he said, “No this is your day, your special day, you open the presents!” that this was not a way to proceed in the world, particularly if you wanted to make enough money to retire with an enormous parachute fluttering behind you—one of the golden things they talk about, or maybe it’s silver by the age of fifty. You do not say, “No, this is your day—this is your special day, you open the gifts!” You say, “You get out of the way, goddamnit.” You don’t even say anything. You just barge up as he could have, to the table, take the gifts, take the cake, and wreak havoc.
DW: The bride held the fork. The bride held the knife. The bride looked at Milo. He noticed that her blouse had no wrinkles. Perhaps it was one of those cheap no-iron variety blouses. Perhaps she was cheap. He thought she was pretty. She was pretty the way cheap things can be pretty. He remembered his devotion to another cheap object.
CS: He remembered the Easter lady saying to him, “You are a cheapskate! You are a cheap man.” “Look,” he’d said, “it’s Lent—I gave up going out for dinner. I gave up steak. I gave up drinking. So you are going to have to come up with something for us to do and it better not be bowling!”
DW: He felt what he would not describe as lust, but this was lust, and he felt that no matter what confusion there was in this particular time, it was the time to take advantage. He stood up, because he had rejoined her at the table, and he went to his bride’s side, and he put his hand upon the region over her pubic bone.
CS: It would be just around this time that Diane Williams thought to visit and shake things up a little. She had this way about her. She made appearances suddenly in all kinds of places—at fancy dress balls, at small boutiques, at underrepresented charity causes. At odd junctures in stories she sometimes knocked on the door, expected admittance, knew she would be admitted, and that her entrance would mark a very decisive turn in the story.
DW: “Jeez!” Diane Williams said, “Christine Schutt’s been here already. Why, look how drastically and impeccably the table is set! And, who are these imperial, red-faced people? Why, I think I am just as angry as they are!”
CS: So she, Diane, she did just as you would expect her to. She shook things up. She offered to make a new kind of pie. Pies were a specialty. She said, “You usually expect pies to be made out of things fruity, but my pies are made out of green and leafy things. You wouldn’t expect them to be very good, but in fact several people have asked me for these recipes.” She made, well, it’s very hard to explain a kale pie. Kale is very pretty to look at, but boiled, it is not pretty. Nevertheless, her real specialty was in the crust and fortunately the crust was over the kale, so this limp green stuff—it did not look in any way appetizing—was covered, with a kind of lattice work of crust that Diane was very proud of, as well she might be, since so many people often said, “I am not coming to your dinner party unless Diane Williams is there and she is making a pie!” So she did shake things up. She made the kale pie. She certainly surprised everybody. She shut the bedroom door. She shut all the other doors except the door from the kitchen to the dining room. “This is it guys! You have not had pie, until you’ve had my kale. It’s a smash.”
DW: Well, that was a good act, but not good enough. These people—Milo, the Chinese bride, Mr. Schnecken had done their work so well that Diane Williams and her pie were of no avail—in fact, hardly noticed. She was in there pinching and rattling, and taking in deep whiffs of practically worthwhile kale, but the drama dramatically starlit by Christine Schutt proceeded in the dining room apace. Milo, by now, a resolute brute, would have his way. Of course, this was not easy and he bruised the bride and he was extremely interested in his brutality and there was not going to be a living soul to stop him.
CS: Not a living soul to stop him. These were new terms in the story—souls being stopped—by which a reader might wisely infer Death had arrived at this party and why not?—in the midst of all this wanting, this eagerness, this anger, this hunger, this rageful activity without gift of tongue, without knowing what any of the words meant—he, Milo, in her language, and she, the Chinese bride, newly made, in his language, new terms had come into the story. Why is it that whenever there is the prospect of congress and conjugal delight, there’s the knock at the door?—and it’s not the pie-making wizard one was expecting—but rather her emissary, her calling card, her black-edged calling card—Death, for Milo, for the Chinese bride, for Mr. Schnecken, for Diane Williams making her pie, for Christine Schutt running amuck somewhere. There is no way the door can be bolted against this, STOP SHREDDER FROST! STONE MAKER!
DW: Now, Christine! I am awfully sorry about it, Christine.
Diane Williams is the author of six books of fiction and founding editor of NOON.Christine Schutt
Christine Schutt is the author of two short story collections and three novels. Her most recent novel, Prosperous Friends, is now available in paperback,
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