What I hope to do is, by the use of intricate detail, to make this woman so believable you can’t help but feel for her.
—Lucia Berlin, “Point of View”
In “Point of View,” Lucia Berlin’s most complexly imagined short story, a female writer confides in us, her readers, her intentions in writing a story, which will turn out to be not quite the story she intends to tell us, or, indeed, the story we finally absorb, with a belated pang of emotion at the final line. We are told by Berlin’s fictitious writer that she prefers to emulate “Chekhov’s impartial voice” in order to imbue her (fictional) character with a modicum of dignity; if the character, a “single woman in her late fifties,” were to tell her own story, complete with “all the compulsive, obsessive boring little details of [Henrietta’s] life,” we would be likely to “feel embarrassed, uncomfortable, even bored.”
However, Berlin’s writer assures us, “my story opens with ‘Every Saturday, after the laundromat and the grocery store, she bought the Sunday Chronicle’”—that is, the writer has strategically altered the point of view so that the story appears to be in the third person and not the first. Not the self’s self-pity but a writerly impartiality is the ruse that will draw us into the story of a “dreary creature” for whom otherwise, she thinks, we would feel little sympathy.
Is this writer proud of being so clever, or is such cleverness, so advertised, an oblique form of despair, even rage at the diminished circumstances of her life? Whoever she is, she tells us, somewhat boastfully:
Most writers use props and scenery from their own lives. For example, my Henrietta eats her meager little dinner every night on a blue place mat, using exquisite heavy Italian stainless cutlery. An odd detail, inconsistent, it may seem, with this woman who cuts out coupons for Brawny towels, but it engages the reader’s curiosity. At least I hope it will.
Not surprisingly the writer goes on to tell us that she too eats with such “elegant cutlery”—and also that she once worked for the nephrologist with whom her character Henrietta is hopelessly in love; but the writer herself “certainly wasn’t in love with him.”
Planning her story, the writer recalls working for Dr. B., though she is careful to distinguish between herself and Henrietta, a figure of pathos. We are privy to the writer’s self-doubt: “I’m having a hard time writing about Sunday. Getting the long hollow feeling of Sundays. No mail and faraway lawn mowers, the hopelessness.”
Following (fictitious) Henrietta through her small life, we are moved to pity her: “no matter how nasty [Dr. B] is to her Henrietta believes there is a bond between them.” The nephrologist has a clubfoot, while Henrietta (like Lucia Berlin) has scoliosis, a curvature—“a hunchback, in fact.” In a brilliant and heartrending sleight of hand at the story’s end Berlin the author, the (unnamed) narrator, and Henrietta blur into a single poignant voice of loss:
Henrietta turns off the light, raises the blind by her bed, just a little. The window is steamed. The car radio plays Lester Young…. I lean against the cool windowsill and watch him…. In the steam of the glass I write a word. What? My name? A man’s name? Henrietta? Love? Whatever it is I erase it quickly before anyone can see.
Zestfully written, seemingly artless, drawn from eight previously published collections, the forty-three stories in the posthumous A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (1936–2004) seek to persuade us of their authenticity by this quick, deft, unerring selection of “intricate detail” while making no claim at all for “impartiality.” To seem impartial may be Chekhov’s way, and perhaps it is an ideal (and masculine?) style—but it is not the way of Lucia Berlin, whose voice suggests the taut vernacular of Raymond Carver as well as the engaging warmth and authority of Grace Paley; the seriocomic frankness of Charles Bukowski (like Berlin for much of her publishing career a mainstay of John Martin’s avant-garde Black Sparrow Press of Santa Barbara, California) and a younger contemporary, Denis Johnson (especially the Johnson of Jesus’ Son).
Like these writers, Berlin has a predilection for first-person narrations about those whom life has battered but not defeated; like them she is led to record, in the most minute and unsparing detail, the degradations of alcohol and drug addiction. She is most comfortable at the edge of proper middle-class life, or a little below, like the highly articulate cleaning woman at the center of the title story whose “alcoholic husband just died, leaving me and the four kids” and whose thefts from her employers are petty—sleeping pills, a bottle of Spice Islands sesame seeds.
Despite their gritty lives, Berlin’s protagonists rarely complain: “I like working in Emergency—you meet men there, anyway. Real men, heroes. Firemen and jockeys.” A ride from Oakland to a county jail, which might be an ignominious experience, is given an aura of beauty in the imagination of this hippy-addict: “The avenue is lined with trees and that last morning it was foggy, like an old Chinese painting.”
As a teenager in the 1950s Berlin lived with her affluent family in Santiago, Chile, where her father worked as a mining engineer and her mother became a reclusive alcoholic, eventually a suicide; here, if we are to trust the reminiscences of the unnamed narrator of “Good and Bad”—who attends a Catholic school in Santiago in the early 1950s and falls under the spell of an idealistic Communist lay teacher named Miss Dawson—she first becomes aware of social injustice and its tragic consequences for the poor:
“What if I asked you to give me your Saturdays, for one month, would you do it? See a part of Santiago that you don’t know.”
“Why do you want me?”
“Because, basically, I think you are a good person. I think you could learn from it.” [Miss Dawson] clasped both my hands. “Give it a try.”
Good person. But she had caught me earlier, with the word revolutionary. I did want to meet revolutionaries, because they were bad.
Despite such mixed motives, Berlin’s protagonist comes to sympathize with the impoverished living in a shantytown at the Santiago dump (“they were the color of the dung, their rags just like the refuse they crawled in. No one stood up, they scurried on all fours like wet rats”) and takes up her teacher’s courageous but quixotic cause, until her bullying father intervenes and has the teacher fired. Berlin’s characters understand the class of persons now called the working poor, in these stories both Americans and Mexicans.
The collection’s strongest story is “Mijito,” a devastating account of a young Mexican mother adrift amid drug dealers and petty criminals in an Oakland slum. Well-intentioned Caucasians cannot save her. The author’s writerly eye is unsparing but it is not a cold eye; she casts a glimmering sort of light on even the most sordid of situations, and moves us to identify with her hapless protagonists, virtually all of them women, if not indeed variants of the same, singular woman.
A Manual for Cleaning Women is catchy but not perhaps the most appropriate title for this collection of memoiristic stories and prose pieces about a hard-drinking, hard-living, unsentimental, and unself-pitying woman who is indeed a cleaning woman, but only briefly, in Oakland and Berkeley; more often, Berlin’s main character is a teacher (in a Catholic school), a doctor’s receptionist, an emergency room attendant, a hospital switchboard operator, and, above all, a writer either actively engaged in writing or preparing to write. Even in the throes of advanced alcoholism, in the mordantly narrated “Let Me See You Smile,” the woman manages to write.
Like Lucia Berlin this woman has lived, as young girl, in a mining settlement near Juneau, Alaska, as well as in Santiago; as a girl she had to wear a painful back brace to correct a curvature of the spine. Her parents divorced when she and her sister were young, and her mother was an alcoholic, severely depressed and suicidal, though wickedly funny (at times), mourned belatedly after her death as a woman deeply and mysteriously unhappy with her life, seeking isolation so that she could drink uninterrupted in (as her daughter recalls in a grim inventory) “Deerlodge, Montana; Marion, Kentucky; Patagonia, Arizona; Santiago, Chile; Lima, Peru.”
With this mother, Berlin’s heroine lived as a girl for a while in El Paso, Texas, in the home of her dentist grandfather Dr. H.A. Moynihan, a thoroughly repellent figure hated by virtually everyone who knows him, who places a sign in large gold letters in a window looking onto the street: “Dr. H.A. Moynihan. I Don’t Work for Negroes.” An alcoholic like others in his family, Dr. Moynihan is revealed in a later story as a crude sexual molester of his own granddaughters. Sleeping, he is observed with “teeth bared in a Bela Lugosi grin.”
Like the author, Berlin’s typical heroine has had several failed marriages, one of them to a sculptor who left her with young children, and another with a musician (“Marry me, he said. Give me a reason to live”) who turned out to be a heroin addict. She has had numerous love affairs, some of which are very brief (in “Toda Luna, Toda Año,” the coupling is undersea: “When he left her his sperm drifted up between them like pale octopus ink.”)
She has had four sons with two of these husbands, boys whom she loves very much and who appear to love her despite their disapproval of her alcoholism and carelessly lived life:
Everything was somehow always okay. She was a good teacher and a good mother really…. If they awakened [in the night], her sons would stumble upon her madness which, then, only occasionally spilled over into morning.
Berlin’s strongest stories, verging on the surreal, are those that deal frankly with her alcoholism. Sometimes her tone is comic-grotesque, in the Bukowski mode, as in this glimpse of the physician’s assistant helping the “painfully shy” Dr. B. do a Pap smear of a patient who is “obese, with difficult access”:
He squatted on a stool, his eyes level with their vagina, with a light on his forehead. I handed him the (warmed) speculum and, after a few minutes, with the patient gasping and sweating, the long cotton-tipped stick. He held it, waving it like a baton, as he disappeared beneath the sheet, toward the woman. At last his hand emerged with the stick, now a dizzy metronome aimed at my waiting slide. I still drank in those days, so my hand, holding the slide, shook visibly as it tried to meet his. But in a nervous up-and-down tremble. His was back and forth. Slap, at last. This procedure took so long that he often missed important phone calls…. Once [an associate] knocked on the door and Dr. B was so startled he dropped the stick. We had to start all over.
Berlin’s protagonists are unflinching in self-castigation, which is not to be confused with self-loathing; as the narrator forgives others, with a readiness that may surprise the reader at times, so she forgives herself for her chronic bad behavior. (It is related more than once how, in a drunken state, a character forgets to secure her car on a steep street in Oakland, causing the car to detach itself from the curb, roll downhill with gathering momentum, and crash into a parked vehicle.)
Despite the harsh nature of her subject matter the tone of her writing is often uplifting, even ebullient; here is a writer, again like Bukowski, who can write about being a drunk, about the very poetry of drunkenness, with something like a surprised pleasure in the unexpected camaraderie of alcoholics. In “Her First Detox,” a woman wakes in a county detox ward remembering only “handcuffs, a straitjacket.” She learns that she’d wrecked her car against a wall and been violent when apprehended, but police officers had brought her to detox “instead of to jail when they found out she was a teacher, had four kids, no husband.”
Carlotta had a good time in the detox ward. The men were awkwardly gallant toward her. She was the only woman, she was pretty, didn’t “look like a lush.” …Most of the men were street winos.
A later story, “Unmanageable,” begins: “In the deep dark night of the soul the liquor stores and bars are closed. She reached under the mattress; the pint bottle of vodka was empty.” The focus of this very short story is a simple one: how to get through the night until the liquor stores open, in Oakland at 6:00 AM, in Berkeley not until 7:00 AM.
She was panting and faint by the time she got to the Uptown [liquor store] on Shattuck. It wasn’t open yet. Seven black men, all old except for one young boy, stood outside on the curb…. On the sidewalk two men were sharing a bottle of NyQuil cough syrup. Blue death, you could buy that all night long.
An old man they called Champ smiled at her. “Say, mama, you be sick? Your hair hurt?” She nodded. That’s how it felt, your hair, your eyeballs, your bones.
It is not surprising to be told by one of Berlin’s narrators: “I don’t like Diane Arbus”—meaning that she has a deep sympathy for the freaks and outcasts who populate her stories, and she is slow to judge even unconscionable behavior:
I tried to hide when Grandpa was drunk because he would catch me and rock me. He was doing it once in the big rocker, holding me tight, the chair bouncing off the ground inches from the red-hot stove, his thing jabbing jabbing my behind. He was singing, “Old Tin Pan with a Hole in the Bottom.” Loud. Panting and grunting. Only a few feet away Mamie [grandmother] sat, reading the Bible while I screamed, “Mamie! Help me!”
The sexually abused child does nothing to prevent the grandfather from abusing her younger sister Sally: “I had watched with a mixture of feelings: fear, sex, jealousy, anger.” When she is older, she will say of her abuser, “Everybody hated Grandpa but Mamie, and me, I guess.” In a grotesquely protracted, blood-splattered scene in “Dr. H.A. Moynihan,” the granddaughter helps the old man pull out his rotted teeth so that he can fit himself with a set of false ones:
“Pull them!” he gasped. I was afraid, wondered quickly if it would be murder if I pulled them and he died.
“Pull them!” He spat a thin red waterfall down his chin.
I pumped the chair way back. He was limp, did not seem to feel me twist the back top teeth sideways and out. He fainted, his lips closing like gray clamshells. I opened his mouth and shoved a paper towel into one side so I could get the three back teeth that remained.
The teeth were all out. I tried to bring the chair down with the foot pedal, but hit the wrong lever, spinning him around, spattering circles of blood on the floor.
When the new teeth are finally fitted into the grandfather’s mouth: “‘A masterpiece, Grandpa!’ I laughed too, kissed his sweaty head.”
Estranged by their dysfunctional childhood and by the toxic presence of their unstable, alcoholic mother, Berlin’s abused heroine and her sister Sally are reconciled as adults. In a number of overlapping stories, which read, at times, somewhat summarily, like passages in a memoir, this woman joins her sister in Santiago, where Sally is stricken with terminal cancer. These accounts of sisters establishing a close, intimate relationship in middle age contain the most tender of Berlin’s stories, recalled in set pieces in which the sisters reminisce. Their favorite subject, of course, is their impossible mother, who continues to haunt them years after her death:
When our father died Sally had flown from Mexico City to California. She went to Mama’s house and knocked on the door. Mama looked at her through the window but she wouldn’t let her in. She had disowned Sally years and years before.
“I miss Daddy,” Sally called to her through the glass. “I am dying of cancer. I need you now, Mama!” Our mother just closed the venetian blinds and ignored the banging banging on her door.
Of the many characters in Berlin’s stories it is Sally who emerges as the most appealing, even saintly. It is Sally whom the narrator most mourns, among the dead who have gradually accumulated in the beautiful and stoically rendered stories of A Manual for Cleaning Women:
It has been seven years since you died. Of course what I’ll say next is that time has flown by. I got old. All of a sudden, de repente. I walk with difficulty. I even drool. I leave the door unlocked in case I die in my sleep….
But there’s never enough time. “Real time,” like the prisoners I used to teach would say, explaining how it just seemed that they had all the time in the world. The time wasn’t ever theirs….
A lazy illumination, like a Mexican afternoon in your room. I could see the sun in your face.
Lucia Berlin published seventy-six stories during her lifetime, in such publications as Saul Bellow’s The Noble Savage, The Atlantic Monthly, and New American Writing; most of these were collected in three volumes from Black Sparrow Press: Homesick (1991), So Long (1993), and Where I Live Now (1999). A Manual for Cleaning Women includes a little more than half these stories but in an indeterminate order—it isn’t clear if the editor’s principle of organization is chronological, or thematic; indeed, if there is any principle of organization at all. In his breezy introduction Stephen Emerson remarks that Berlin’s short, sketchy story “B.F. and Me” is the last story she wrote, but it is not the last story in the collection.
This is “Homing,” a meandering meditation on mortality and the passing of time: “A weird thing happened to me this week. I could see these small quick crows flying just past my left eye. I’d turn but they would be gone.” As a memoir “Homing” is poignant and essential, but it is not a fully realized work of short fiction that could stand alone, apart from preceding memoirs in A Manual for Cleaning Women; you would have to already know a good deal about Berlin’s writer persona to make emotional sense of it.
In her enthusiastic and generous foreword to this volume, Lydia Davis singles out Berlin’s gift for sharply observed metaphors and arresting sentences but does not seem to acknowledge, or perhaps to have noticed, that very few of Berlin’s stories are works of fiction that might be included in anthologies beside work by her accomplished contemporaries (among them Cynthia Ozick, Alice Adams, Alice Munro, John Cheever, Donald Barthelme, Grace Paley, John Updike, Joy Williams, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, and Thom Jones). Brevity isn’t the issue, for Carver’s stories, some of them severely minimalist, are yet successful as imaginative fictions, requiring no setting to complete them.
It is never the case that writers toss stories together haphazardly, and it is unlikely that a writer would arrange his stories merely in chronological order of writing or of publication. We can assume that Berlin gave some thought to the order in which her stories appeared in the Black Sparrow volumes Homesick, So Long, and Where I Live Now and that, if she had lived to oversee her Selected Stories, surely she would have made clear which stories were taken from which books, and there would have been, very likely, a grouping of stories that had not yet appeared in any hardcover publication.
Stephen Emerson has indicated nothing in the table of contents to suggest how the stories are arranged—the forty-three titles are simply lumped together with no identification at all, not even dates of publication. Consequently we have no way of knowing if the first story in the volume, “Angel’s Laundromat,” is placed in this crucial position because it was Berlin’s first-published story, or whether its positioning is thematically significant. (Though evocatively and engagingly written the story is far from being one of Berlin’s stronger works; like “Sex Appeal,” “My Jockey,” “Teenage Punk,” and others, it is essentially a character sketch, in this case of a terminally alcoholic Jicarilla Apache who frequents the same laundromat as the unnamed narrator.)
The title story, “A Manual for Cleaning Women,” like “Emergency Room Notebook, 1977,” seems to be comprised of sharp-eyed journal entries tenuously attached to a story of loss; a “young cowboy, from Nebraska” named Terry has died, but we know very little of Terry, other than the narrator’s grief over him. Nor is it clear why Berlin’s Selected Stories has been titled A Manual for Cleaning Women, out of other possible titles.
Thanks are due to Emerson, however, who speaks in his introduction of Lucia Berlin as “as close a friend as I’ve ever had,” and who has assembled this collection of Berlin’s work for a new generation of readers. Those unfamiliar with Berlin’s fiction are advised to read A Manual for Cleaning Women at least twice, for essentially this is a memoir of the author’s life related in installments and fragments that fit together upon a second reading and generate a considerable emotional power. It is an achievement greater than the sum of its heterogeneous parts.