Page 1 of 18
A C C L A I M F O R
“A brilliant, captivating writer—one of the best we’ve got.”
“His vision of the way we live now, and the way we wish we did (and pretend to) has a sharp, troubling immediacy.”
“Tobias Wolff has somehow gotten his hands on our shared secrets, and he’s out to tell everything he knows.”
“Wolff’s stories are wonderful; they read like memories or premonitions, and are quietly unforgettable.”
—Jayne Ann Phillips
“Wolff’s range, sometimes within the same story, extends from fastidious realism to the grotesque and lyrical.… [His] stories provoke our amazed appreciation.”
—The New York Times Book Review
ALSO BY Tobias Wolff
The Night in Question
In Pharaoh’s Army
This Boy’s Life
The Barracks Thief
In the Garden of the North American Martyrs
BACK IN THE WORLD
Tobias Wolff’s memoir of Vietnam, In Pharaoh’s Army, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and his childhood memoir, This Boy’s Life, won the Los Angeles Times Book Award in 1989. His other books include three collections of stories, The Night in Question, In the Garden of North American Martyrs, Back in the World, and The Barracks Thief, a short novel for which he received the PEN/Faulkner Award. He lives with his wife, Catherine, and their three children in Syracuse, New York, and teaches at Syracuse University.
FIRST VINTAGE CONTEMPORARIES EDITION,
Copyright © 1985 by Tobias Wolff
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American
Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by
Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York,
and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada
Limited, Toronto. Originally published in the United States
by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, in 1985.
The stories in this book originally appeared in the following
magazines: Antaeus, The Atlantic, Esquire, The Missouri
Review, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, and Vanity Fair.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Wolff, Tobias, 1945–
Back in the world / by Tobias Wolff.—1st Vintage
p. cm.—(Vintage contemporaries)
1. United States—Social life and customs—20th century—
Fiction. I. Title.
The author wishes to thank the
John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation
for its generous support.
Other Books by This Author
About the Author
THE MISSING PERSON
THE POOR ARE ALWAYS WITH US
DESERT BREAKDOWN, 1968
OUR STORY BEGINS
THE RICH BROTHER
Books by Tobias Wolff
Jean was alone in the theater. She had seen the customers out, locked the doors, and zipped up the night’s receipts in the bank deposit bag. Now she was taking a last look around while she waited for her boss to come back and drive her home.
Mr. Munson had left after the first show to go ice skating at the new mall on Buena Vista. He’d been leaving early for almost a month now and at first Jean thought he was committing adultery against his wife, until she saw him on the ice one Saturday afternoon while she was out shoplifting with her girlfriend Kathy. They stopped by the curved window that ran around the rink and watched Mr. Munson crash into the wall several times. “Fat people shouldn’t skate,” Kathy said, and they walked on.
Most nights Mr. Munson came back to the theater around eleven. This was the latest he had ever been. It was almost twelve o’clock.
Someone had left an orange scarf on one of the seats in the back row. Under the same seat lay a partially eaten hambone and a bottle of hot sauce. The hambone still looked like what it was, an animal’s leg, and when she saw it Jean felt weak. She picked up the scarf and left the bone for Mr. Munson to deal with. If he said anything about it she would just play dumb. She put the scarf in the lost-and-found bag and walked toward the front of the theater, glancing from side to side to scan the lengths of the rows.
Halfway down the aisle Jean found a pair of sunglasses. They were Guccis. She dropped them in the bag and tried to forget about them, as if she were a regular honest person who did not steal lost items and everything else that wasn’t bolted down, but Jean knew that she was going to keep the sunglasses and this knowledge made her resistance feel ridiculous. She walked a few rows farther, then gave a helpless shrug as if someone were watching and took the sunglasses out of the bag. They didn’t fit. Her face was too narrow for them, her nose too thin. They made everything dim and kept slipping down, but Jean left them on as she worked her way toward the front of the theater.
In the first row on the right, near the wall, Jean saw a coat draped over one of the seats. She moved along the row to pick it up. Then she stopped and took off the sunglasses, because she had decided to believe that the coat was not a coat, but a dead woman wearing a coat. A dead woman all by herself in a theater at midnight.
Jean closed her eyes and made a soft whimpering noise like a dreaming dog makes. It sounded ridiculous to her, so she stopped doing it; she opened her eyes and walked back along the row and up the aisle toward the lobby.
Jean put the lost-and-found bag away, then stood by the glass entrance doors and watched the traffic. She leaned forward as each new line of cars approached, looking through her own reflected face for Mr. Munson’s Toyota. The glass grew so foggy from her breath that Jean could barely see through it. She became aware of her breathing, how shallow and fast it was. The game with the coat had scared her more than she’d meant it to. Jean watched some more cars go by. Finally she turned away and crossed the lobby to Mr. Munson’s office.
Jean locked the office door behind her, but the closed door made her feel trapped. She unlocked the door again and left it open. From Mr. Munson’s desk she could see the Coke machine and a row of posters advertising next week’s movie. The desktop was empty except for the telephone and a picture of Mrs. Munson standing beside a snowdrift back where the Munsons used to live—Minnesota or Wisconsin. Mrs. Munson had on a parka, and she was pointing at the top of the drift to show how tall it was.
The snow made Jean think of her father.
It was quiet in the office. Jean laid her head on her crossed arms and closed her eyes. Almost at once she opened them again. She sat up and pulled the telephone across the desk and dialed her father’s number. It was three hours later there and he was a heavy sleeper, so she let the phone ring for a long time. At first she held the receiver tight against her ear. Then she laid it down on the desk and listened to it until she heard a voice. Jean picked up the receiver again. It was her stepmother, Linda, saying, “Hello? … Hello? … Hello? …” Jean would have hung up on her but she heard the fear in Linda’s voice like an echo of her own, and she couldn’t do it. “Hello,” she said.
Who is this, please?”
“Jean,” Jean murmured.
“Gee-Gee? Is this Gee-Gee?”
“It’s me,” Jean said.
“It’s you,” Linda said. “My God, you gave me a fright.”
“What time is it out there?”
“Twelve. Ten past twelve.”
“It’s three o’clock in the morning here, lambchop. We’re later than you are.”
“I just wondered if maybe you thought we were earlier. Wow, just hang on till I get myself together.” A moment later Linda said, “There. Pulse normal. All systems go. So where are you, anyway?”
“That’s right, your dad told me you had a job. Gee-Gee with a job! You’re just turning into a regular little grown-up, aren’t you?”
“I guess,” Jean said.
“Well, I think that’s just super.”
“I’m big on people doing for themselves,” Linda said. “Fifteen isn’t too young. I started work when I was twelve and I haven’t stopped since.”
“I know,” Jean said.
“Christ almighty, the jobs I’ve had. I could tell you stories.”
Jean smiled politely into the receiver. She caught herself doing it and made a face.
“I guess you want to talk to old grumpy bear,” Linda said.
“If that’s okay.”
“I hope it isn’t bad news. You’re not preggers, are you?”
“How about your brother?”
“Tucker isn’t pregnant either,” Jean said. “He hasn’t started dating yet.”
“I didn’t mean that. I meant how is he?”
“Tucker’s doing fine.”
“And your mom?”
“She’s fine too. We’re all fine.”
“That’s great,” Linda said, “because you know how your dad is about bad news. He’s just not set up for it. He’s more of a good news person.”
Jean gave Linda the finger. She mashed it against the mouthpiece, then said, “Right.” And Linda was right. Jean knew that, knew she wouldn’t have said anything even if her father had come to the telephone except how great she was, and how great Tucker and her mom were, because telling him anything else would be against the rules. “Everyone’s fine,” Jean repeated. “I just had this urge to talk to him, that’s all.”
“Sure you did,” Linda said. “Don’t think he doesn’t get the same urge sometimes.”
“Tell him hi,” Jean said. “Sorry I woke you up.”
“That’s what we’re here for, dumpling. I’ll see if I can get him to write you. He keeps meaning to, but letters are hard for him. He likes to be more hands-on with people. Still, I’ll see what I can do, okay? You take care now.”
Jean smashed the phone down and yelled, “Fool!” She leaned violently back in the chair and crossed her legs. “Stupid hag,” she said. “Vegetable.”
She called her mother’s apartment. Tucker answered the phone. “Tucker, what are you doing up?” Jean asked.
“Nothing,” Tucker said. “You’re supposed to be home. Mom said you’d be home now.”
“And you’re supposed to be in bed,” Jean told him. She heard a woman’s voice shrieking, then two gunshots and a blare of music. “I can’t believe you’re still up,” Jean said. “Let me speak to Mom.”
“Let me speak to Mom.”
“She’s not here,” Tucker said. “Jean, know what?”
Jean closed her eyes.
“There’s a bicycle in the swimming pool,” Tucker said. “In the deep end. Under the diving board. Mrs. Fox told me I could keep it if we get it out. It’s red,” he added.
“Tucker, where’s Mom? I want to talk to her.”
“She went out with Uncle Nick.”
Tucker didn’t answer.
“Where did they go, Tucker?”
Tucker still didn’t answer. Jean heard the sound of police sirens and squealing tires, and knew that he was watching the television again. He’d forgotten all about her. She screamed his name into the receiver. “What?” he said.
“Where are the grownups?”
“I don’t know. Jean, are you coming home now?”
“In a few minutes. Go to bed, Tucker.”
“Okay,” he said. Then he said, “Bye,” and hung up.
Jean got the telephone book out of the desk, but she could not remember Nick’s last name. His number was probably lying around the apartment somewhere; in fact, she knew it was, she had seen it, on her mom’s bedside table or stuck to the refrigerator with a magnet. But if she asked Tucker to look for it he would get all confused and start crying.
Jean stood and went to the doorway. A jogger wearing phosphorescent stripes ran past the lobby window. The Coke machine gave a long rattling shudder, then went off with a sigh. Jean felt hungry. She got herself a package of Milk Duds from the refreshment counter and carried them back to Mr. Munson’s office, where she chewed mouthful after mouthful until her jaws were tired. Jean put the rest of the Milk Duds in her purse with the sunglasses. Then she took out the telephone book and looked for the name of her English teacher, Mr. Hopkins. Mr. Hopkins also taught Driver’s Ed and Kathy said that he had practically climbed on top of her when they were doing parallel parking. Jean hated him for that. How could someone recite poetry the way Mr. Hopkins did and still want Kathy?
His number wasn’t in the book. Jean kept flipping through the pages. She chose a name and dialed the number and a man answered right away. In a soft voice he said, “Yes.” Not “Yes?” but “Yes,” as if he’d been expecting this call.
“Mr. Love,” Jean said, “have I got news for you.”
“Who is this?” he asked. “Do you know what time it is?”
“The news just came in. We thought you’d want to hear it right away. But if you wish to refuse the call all you have to do is say so.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Mr. Love said.
“Do you wish to refuse the call, Mr. Love?”
He did not answer right away. Then he said, “Don’t tell me I won something.”
“Won something? Mr. Love, that is the understatement of the century.”
“Just a minute,” he said. “I have to get my glasses.”
“This is Mr. Love, I assume,” Jean asked when he returned to the telephone.
“Yes, ma’am. One and the same.”
“We can’t be too careful,” Jean told him. “We’re not talking about a bunch of steak knives here.”
“I’ve never won anything before,” Mr. Love said. “Just spelling bees. When I was a kid I could spell the paint off the walls.”
“I guess I’ve got you on the edge of your seat,” Jean said.
Mr. Love laughed.
“You sound like a nice person,” Jean said. “Where are you from?”
“You’re deliberately tying me up in knots.”
Jean said, “We have a few standard questions we like to ask.” She took the sunglasses from her purse and slipped them on. She leaned back and looked up at the ceiling. “We like to get acquainted with our winners.”
“You’ve got me in a state,” Mr. Love said. “All right, here goes. Born and raised in Detroit. Joined the navy after Pearl Harbor. Got my discharge papers in San Diego, June ’forty-six, and moved up here a couple weeks later. Been here ever since. That’s about it.”
“Good. So far so good. Age, Mr. Love?”
“No status at all. I’m a single man.”
“Do you mean to say, Mr. Love, that you have lived more than half a century and never entered into holy matrimony?”
Mr. Love was silent for a moment. Then he said, “Come on now—what’s all this about?”
“One more question, Mr. Love. Then we’ll talk prizes.”
. Love said nothing, but Jean could hear him breathe.
She picked up the photograph of Mrs. Munson and laid it face down on the desk. “Here’s the question, Mr. Love. I lie and steal and sleep around. What do you think about that?”
“Ah,” Mr. Love said. “So I didn’t win anything.”
“Well, sir, no. I have to say no.”
He cleared his throat and said, “I don’t follow.”
“It’s a prank,” Jean told him. “I’m a prankster.”
“I understand that. I just don’t see the point. What’s the point?”
Jean let the question pass.
“Well, you’re not the first to make a fool out of me,” Mr. Love said, “and I suppose you won’t be the last.”
“I don’t actually sleep around,” Jean said.
He said, “You need to learn some concern for other people. Do you go to church?”
“No, sir. Sometimes back home we used to, but not here. Only once on Easter. The priest didn’t even give a sermon. All he did was play a tape of a baby being born, with whale songs in the background.” Jean waited for Mr. Love’s reaction. He didn’t seem to have one. “I don’t actually sleep around,” Jean repeated. “Just with one of my teachers. He’s married,” she added.
“Married!” Mr. Love said. “That’s terrible. How old are you?”
“He thinks I’m brilliant,” Jean said. “Brilliant and seductive. He kept staring at me in class. The next thing I knew he was writing poems on the back of my essays, and that’s how it started. He’s hopelessly in love with me but I could care less. I’m just playing him along.”
“God in heaven,” Mr. Love said.
“I’m awful to him. Absolutely heartless. I make fun of him in front of my friends. I do imitations of him. I even do imitations of him in bed, all the sounds he makes and everything. I guess you could say I’m just totally out of control. Don’t ask me to tell you where it is, but I have this tattoo that says X-RATED. It’s my motto. That and ‘Live fast, die young.’ Whenever I’m doing something really depraved I always say ‘Live fast, die young.’ I probably will, too.”
“I’m at a loss,” Mr. Love said. “I wish I knew what to say here.”