Exploring the art of prose


“The Lure” by Matthew Lansburgh

A linked short story collection, when done well, can be more satisfying than a novel because of the way in which the stories bounce off one another and provide different entry points into the overarching narrative. Outside Is the Ocean, Matthew Lansburgh’s wonderful linked collection, published by the University of Iowa Press and the winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, does just this. Primarily the story of a mother and son over time, the POV shifts from between the two, as well as to other characters, and by the end of the book, we feel intimately connected to these lives.

“The Lure,” which is the fifth story in the book, takes place in 1988 when Stewart is home in California visiting his mother. He keeps thinking about a man he’s involved with in New York, and the narrative seamlessly moves between his thoughts and the action of the story. What’s pleasing about this is the way in which his two lives—his life in New York and his life with his mother—are so at odds with one another. Lansburgh’s characters are nuanced and complicated and, in this story as well as in the collection as a whole, he so nicely captures the dichotomies which lie within us all.

In a matter of weeks, it seemed, Stewart’s mother had become obsessed with the dog. Despite—or maybe because of—the fact that he, Banjo, didn’t belong to her. Things like that didn’t matter to Heike: who was the rightful owner of something, of a pet or a piece of property. She had no sense of boundaries or decorum. She liked to be in charge, to exercise control. Over pets, renters, people she came across at Vons or Taco Bell, over her husband Gerry, over her twenty-four-year-old son, an adult last time he checked.

Heike lived in California; Stewart lived in New York, where he was in grad school, studying oppression and alienation and identity politics. He loved New York, loved sitting in his room overlooking Amsterdam Avenue, listening to the traffic—the sirens and horns—reading until midnight, then going out to the bars. He took the subway downtown. This was back when going to Avenue C felt dangerous, when you could go to Save the Robots at 3:00 in the morning and not leave until guys in suits were going to work. He went to Boy Bar and Crowbar and Boiler Room.

Recently he’d started going to the Lure. They had a dark room where people hooked up. You could meet someone by the pool table or the pinball machine, chat for a few minutes, then go to the back. You didn’t even have to chat if you didn’t want to. You could just stand in the dark and wait for someone to come up to you. You could suck a stranger’s dick, no questions asked. There were plenty of guys: guys with tattoos and pierced nipples, guys with buckteeth, skinheads. He liked it all.

If it was up to him, he wouldn’t have come home for Christmas. He would have stayed in New York. But it wasn’t up to him. His mother had guilt-tripped him into visiting for ten days, six days more than seemed reasonable, or prudent. His stepfather, Gerry, had been diagnosed with lymphoma seven months earlier and had just finished several rounds of chemotherapy. “Don’t you love me?” Heike asked on the phone. “Don’t you want to see us?”

So here he was, in the passenger seat of her hatchback, driving down the 101 from Gerry’s ranch house toward his mother’s condo, the place he and his mother had lived in together when he was eight, nine, ten years old, after his parents’ divorce, after he and his mother moved from Colorado to Ventana Beach, California to start a new life, to find his mother a decent husband, to find happiness.

Heike’s plan, today—because she always had something in mind, some kind of plan or angle—was to take back a certain set of dishes she’d bought at Pottery Barn, a very expensive and beautiful set of plates and cups and bowls she’d lent Linda Montgomery, his mother’s current renter, out of the goodness of her heart. At least that’s what she’d said. But Stewart wasn’t a fool. He knew his mother wasn’t going to the condo just for the dishes. Odds were that Banjo would figure in somehow.

This morning, before Stewart was awake, Heike had come into his room, the room she called his room, despite the fact that it was full of cuckoo clocks and posters of famous German castles and dolls she’d bought in Munich and carried with her on the plane so they wouldn’t be damaged. His mother was German, and her house was full of reminders of this fact, not just at Christmastime, but year round. “Come on sleepie boopie!” she called out to him. “Time to get up. It’s a nice day outside!” Her voice was like something out of a sitcom. She was the woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer, who was dressed at 7 a.m., wondering why everyone was still in bed.

Apparently, the guy she usually played tennis with on Thursdays had cancelled, and she wanted Stewart to hit backhands to her on the public courts. She wanted him to spend time with her, because she never saw him, and he was her son. Stewart pulled himself together and got dressed and played tennis with his mother. They practiced backhands, then they went to Sears to return a comforter that Heike bought maybe a decade ago, and now here they were in her car, driving south, to the condo to ransack Linda’s apartment—to unlock the front door and go into the poor woman’s kitchen and pack up her dishes and then, in all likelihood, engage in other pernicious activities.

Walking Banjo was the thing that had caused the fight with Linda in the first place, Linda having caught Heike taking Banjo to the beach without permission. Heike had told Stewart the whole story more than once. He knew all about Linda’s outburst and her ungrateful attitude and un-Christian demand that Heike refrain from going into her apartment when she was at work and taking her dog to play in the ocean. “Here I give her this beautiful garden and she keeps the poor thing cooped up in the kitchen,” Heike had said. “It’s ridiculous. The dog goes crazy in there all by himself.”

Now Linda was threatening to move out, despite having signed a two-year lease, despite the fact that Heike had spread out the red carpet for her.

It wasn’t the first time Heike had fought with one of her renters. Before Linda, a guy named Saul, a Christian Scientist from Oxnard, lived in the condo. He and Heike had been arguing about how much hot water he was using. Then one day he came home for lunch and found her lying in the yard, naked, on the chaise longue. She didn’t think it was a big deal, going over there without his permission and taking off all her clothes.

If Stewart were to ask his mother why she insisted on going over to someone else’s apartment when that person, the rightful occupant, was not home, she would, invariably, give him an earful. “It’s my home,” she’d say. “I miss it. Why should he care if I go for a sunbath when he’s gone? We made a deal. I gave him $50 off on the rent.” Then she’d pause and, if she didn’t like her interlocutor’s demeanor, she’d ask, “Whose side are you on anyway?”

“We’re in luck,” Heike said as they pulled into the carport. “She’s not here.”

Heike had promised Stewart they’d be home by 12:30, at the latest, and here it was already 12:56. Stewart wanted to go home and take a shower and start his day. He was hungry, and he had things to do. He needed to write a paper about transgression and repression in Foucault, a fitting topic if you thought about it. He needed to impress his advisor so he could keep his fellowship, so he’d keep getting the $863 check his department had been putting in his mailbox on the first of each month.

“Why do you always have such a long face?” his mother asked after she turned off the engine. “Aren’t you happy to be here?”

“I’m elated.”

“Don’t be such a snob. Come on and meet this little pumpkin.”

“I really don’t think you should keep going into her place.”

“My God. Okay. I go on my own.” She opened the car door and gave him a look. “You know, I’ve been through a lot the last six months. The least you could do is be a little helpful the few days you’re here.”

Stewart waited in the car, seat belt still on, contemplating his mother’s intractable nature, and Gerry’s cancer, and the drag show he’d seen at Boy Bar last week. On the one hand, she was right, she had been through a lot: taking Gerry to the hospital every other week, waking up in the middle of the night to clean up his vomit. On the other hand, she specialized in being a pain in the ass. The night before, she’d insisted on having Stewart sit on the couch with her to watch Gone with the Wind. Then, when he kissed her goodnight, she started crying. “What did I do to make you hate me so much?” she asked.

“I don’t hate you,” he said. She was wearing a nightgown—something not quite sheer, but thin, too thin for the situation at hand—and he felt her breasts pressing against him. He stood there, staring at the fake Christmas tree, the tree his mother stored in the shed with the spiders and mice, looking at the blinking lights and trying not to pull away too quickly. His mother drove him crazy, but he knew that, for the most part, she couldn’t help it.

Before she met Gerry, Heike had dated a string of losers—insurance salesmen whose ex-wives had restraining orders against them, mechanics who were broke and who knocked on the door late at night when they were horny. She and Stewart moved from apartment to apartment, until she finally scraped together enough money to make the down payment on the condo. His dad’s child support and alimony checks were always late, but Heike wanted Stewart to have his own room, so she let him sleep in the bed and she slept on a piece of foam next to the dresser. In the morning, she rolled up the mat and put it in the closet. Gerry was the best of the lot: he worked at a mortgage company, paid his bills on time, didn’t get mad when Heike was having her period.

After Gone with the Wind, after Heike’s tears and the hugging, it took Stewart forever to fall asleep. He kept thinking about a guy he’d met at the Lure, a guy from Yugoslavia who’d invited him back to his place on the Lower East Side and tried to get him to drink his warm piss—directly. He lived in a fifth-floor walk-up with a fire escape overlooking a playground. He had a Prince Albert and wrists as thick as Stewart’s biceps.

He made it clear who was the boss, who was going to do the fucking. “Shut up,” he said at one point when Stewart tried to resist. Stewart must have known what was going to happen, must have sensed that this guy wasn’t going to send him home with a box of homemade cookies. He was hotter than any guy Stewart had ever hooked up with, and Stewart kept wondering whether he’d see him again.

Sure enough, when Heike emerged from the condo, she had the dog in her arms. The dog wasn’t huge, but he was too big to carry, and here he was squirming and yelping and struggling to get free. “Will you please get out of the car?” Heike yelled.

Stewart looked at her through the windshield, with its dead flies and bird crap, then unfastened the seat belt.

“Look how cute this furball is,” she said.

Stewart went over and admired the dog. “Feel his fur,” she insisted. “Touch him.” Heike had been talking about getting a new dog for a while. The dog she adopted when Stewart moved to college—an Australian shepherd with different-colored eyes—now had difficulty moving his bowels.

Banjo was a mutt. He had burrs in his fur. “Do you want to hold him?” she prodded. “Come on—I have to go big.”

Stewart told himself not to get worked up. He told himself he should be loving and caring and grateful for everything his mother had done for him since he was a little boy. He held the dog, then put him down to see if he’d learned how to sit. He looked at the dog’s leather collar. “You have a nice neck,” the guy from Yugoslavia had said. Stewart liked his hands, the way his nails were bitten. The guy had muscles on his stomach and calluses on his palms.

“Banjo!” Heike called out a few minutes later, carrying a shopping bag with the plates and bowls and God knows what else. “Walk time!” Immediately, the dog began to yelp as if someone had put a match to his tail.

His mother went to the back seat of the car and took out a soiled red leash. The dog was jumping up and down, barking like a maniac. Stewart reminded her what Linda had said.

“Have you no heart?” Heike shot back. “Don’t you see how he suffers?”

They walked down the street—Stewart and his mother and Banjo—past dumpsters full of cardboard boxes and bags of trash, past a VW bug with cracked windshields, past the white mobile home that had been parked in the cul-de-sac for as long as he could remember. Banjo strained to sniff things: flowering ice plant, an empty can of Goya beans, a rusted propeller.

“Look how strong he is,” Heike said, bracing herself to stop him from climbing onto the ivy. She was full of admiration.

She reached down to pet him, lowering her face to his, letting him give her a lick. The dog lay on his back, spread-eagle, while she cooed to him, petting his belly. “My goodness. Du bist ein süsses Kind.”

The skin on her hands and arms looked more wrinkled than he remembered. “You need a little loving, right mein Schatz?” she said. The dog was writhing on the pavement, going crazy, his penis shiny and red.

It occurred to Stewart then that the reason he had not come out to his mother probably had very little to do with his fear of rejection but rather with the fear that coming out to her would allow her to insinuate herself more fully into his life. She was the kind of person who would tell you whether her period was late, whether the man she’d just gone on a date with was skilled at making love and, if so, in what ways. Stewart was not interested in having Heike ask him questions about his personal life, about the things people wanted him to do on the roofs of their buildings. He didn’t want her sending him articles about Rock Hudson and Patient Zero.

They took the shortcut to Josten’s, an electronics company built on a hill overlooking the ocean. They cut through some bushes, crossed two more streets, then headed up the winding road, lined with large eucalyptus trees, that led to the parking lot, an expanse of asphalt surrounded by manicured lawns and glass buildings full of people minding their own business. People in button-down shirts who knew what was expected of them.

“Look at the ocean,” Heike said when they reached the place with the best view. “Isn’t it beautiful?” It was 1:47 p.m. Stewart was starving.

Here they were, his mother in her white tennis skirt, he in his yellow shorts and tennis shoes that were two sizes too large. His legs were skinny and pale, and the skin on his right knee was ashen, and he was wearing a thick pair of hiking socks so that his feet didn’t bounce around in his dying stepfather’s Tretorns. Stewart told his mother he was hungry; he reminded her that she’d broken her promise to let him work on the outline for the paper he needed to write; he said enough was enough.

“What if Linda comes home and finds out?” he pleaded.

“Ach, it’s not even two. She stays at work until five. Don’t always worry so much. Enjoy the scenery—smell the fresh air. You never know how long we all have.” The sky was clear, and in the distance the ocean seemed to stretch out forever. Something about the ocean was peaceful and reassuring. If nothing else, it was a place he could drown himself.

“Be happy you don’t have cancer,” his mother said. “Dr. Karlow told me there’s a fifty-fifty chance Gerry won’t make it.”

“But he was talking about going skiing.”

“You’re catching him at a good time. You should have been here six weeks ago. He looked like a corpse.” Just this morning Gerry had been up for breakfast and had gone outside, in his lime-green hat—the hat Heike had bought for him for a buck fifty at Goodwill—and worked on trimming the hedges. Stewart watched him, through the sliding door that led to the yard. Stewart saw him moving slowly, as if he were trying to walk along the bottom of a swimming pool. Gerry seemed to be examining the leaves, looking for some kind of fungus or abnormal growth.

Now, here, Banjo was tugging at the leash, a stick in his mouth. “Let’s let him off, so he can run a bit,” Heike said, bending down to unfasten the clasp. Stewart tried to say something, to point out the various No Trespassing signs. He told her they’d already pushed their luck, reminded her that people could see them.

“Come on,” she said. “Just for a minute. He needs exercise.”

Stewart wondered whether he’d let the Yugoslavian go too far, whether he needed to get tested. The guy had told Stewart to get down on all fours. “Like this,” he said, rearranging Stewart’s limbs. His apartment smelled like turpentine, and the wood on the floors was splintering. All he had in his fridge was a jar of pickles and three slices of bread.

The second the dog was free, he made a beeline for a group of seagulls that had settled near one of the picnic tables. The birds exploded into the air, sending Banjo into a spasm of howls. Stewart ran toward him, calling his name. The dog couldn’t care less. He trotted over to the bicycle rack, threw a glance in Stewart’s direction, then proceeded to take a dump.

Look,” Stewart called out to Heike, who was now sitting on one of the benches, putting on lipstick. “Look what he’s doing!”

His mother played dumb, smiling—at him, at Banjo, at the seagulls. Then she closed her purse and stood up. “My goodness. He must have had to go badly.”

“Well, we can’t just leave it there.”

“You always go by the book,” she said, heading over to a garbage can, where she retrieved a paper cup and some newspaper. She walked over to Banjo’s feces. Stewart was a good twenty feet away, but the smell of the dog’s shit still filled his lungs. As his mother struggled to maneuver the droppings with the edge of the cup, her tennis skirt hiked up so that Stewart could see her underwear. He looked away at the grass, tried to see something else, anything, but it was too late; he couldn’t get the flash of his mother’s crotch out of his head, her panties and stray pubic hair.

They spent the next twenty minutes yelling Banjo’s name. The dog liked to run—he wasn’t picky about destination: the flowerbeds along the main building, the area with the petunias and the begonias and the other plants that were meant to be undisturbed, the picnic tables, the trash bins and bicycle rack. Eventually, he ran down the hill, into the wooded area closer to town. Stewart followed his mother, full of despair, listening to her calls. Part of him wanted something terrible to happen to Banjo and to her, to everyone involved. He wanted the guilty to be punished.

“Shit!” Heike shouted halfway down the hill. She was trying to traverse an off-kilter fence. “I hurt myself! Can you please come down here and help me?”

“Coming!” Stewart yelled back, hurrying to help her navigate the barbed wire.

“If this dog gets hit by a car, I never forgive myself.”

“Don’t worry so much. He needs exercise.”

“Don’t be so fresh. Now go down there to the road to make sure he’s not there. I’ll go around the other side.”

“He probably already went back to Linda’s. We should see if he’s there.”

“That’s ridiculous. He’s a young dog. He’s out having fun.”

“So you want me to go where?”

“To the road,” she said, pointing. “There’s traffic down there.”

Stewart walked down the hill to the side of the road, holding the leash, the image of his mother’s panties still lodged in his brain. Here he was, again, on full display, for everyone to see. He looked like a complete dork.

Up the street, a blond guy was barreling down the hill on a skateboard. He was wearing flip-flops and looked like he’d just finished doing a Calvin Klein underwear shoot. Stewart fixed his eyes on the asphalt, hoping to make himself smaller and less conspicuous. He heard the sound of the skateboard’s wheels on the macadam and the whoosh as the surfer whizzed past. Because clearly this guy surfed. Clearly this guy went to the beach every day, with his wetsuit and his surfboard and his girlfriend.

Stewart stared at his legs—tan, muscular, flexed—then allowed himself to imagine the surfer above him, straddling him, giving him orders. Stewart watched him disappear around the bend. He wondered whether maybe, on his way to the beach, he was going to stop at the Baskin-Robbins down the road. Stewart knew the place was still there. He’d liked going there when he was a child. He and his mother would go to the beach together, and, sometimes, if he pleaded enough, she’d buy him a scoop on the way home. She’d let him choose the flavor, but, invariably, she ended up asking for bites.

It was now 2:41. His stomach was churning with acid and bile, and there was really no point in standing on the road, in the sun, looking like a moron, so he walked down to the store and ordered a sundae with pecans on top. He’d warned his mother sufficiently. There was nothing left for him to do but see how things played out.

He still had the leash in his hand, and he was fingering the metal clasp. He was leaning against the glass case, watching the girl scoop Rocky Road. She was meticulous, which he liked, and for some reason what he thought about then was his father, his real father, and how he used to make his mother cry, about the way Heike looked when she was standing in the kitchen of the condo, calling Raymond on the phone, pleading with him to send money. Stewart remembered her sitting on the Formica countertop, twisting clumps of her hair—long and naturally red then—remembered having to get on a plane to visit his father, crying all the way down to LAX, his mother stroking his head, telling him everything was going to be okay. “The summer won’t be that long. Soon you’ll come home, and we’ll be together again.”

He remembered how, after school, she picked him up near the playground and they went to Kmart together, where they walked up and down the aisles and she tried on outfits she couldn’t afford. He remembered her telling him stories about her life in Germany during the war—about having to sneak out to the field with a burlap sack to steal grass for the rabbits, about the man with the limp who patrolled the perimeter, looking for thieves—the way her reflection looked in the mirror of their bathroom while she was doing her hair. She’d stand in front of the sink, in her underwear, putting in her curlers, and he’d kneel on the pink toilet seat, looking at her, telling her what his life was going to be like when he was an adult. He was going to be rich and powerful, and they were going to live in a castle together, surrounded by a moat with a drawbridge.

Stewart was just starting to eat the sundae when he saw his mother stumbling down the street, pulling Banjo by the collar, glaring at him as he came out the front door. “What on earth are you doing?” she shouted. “Are you crazy? Don’t you know we have a crisis on our hands!”

“Sorry. I was trying to find you. I didn’t know where you were.”

“Trying to find me! In the ice cream parlor?”

By then everyone was staring and he’d begun to smell something—something caustic, like ammonia or sulfur.

“This dog has gotten in trouble!” she yelled. “He got sprayed by a skunk! Now give me the leash before he gets away one more time.”

His mother’s hair had come out of its ponytail and was frizzier than ever. She looked wild.

“His entire body is covered!” she screamed. “We have to hose him off quickly!”

The dog’s eyes were watering and swollen, and he kept rubbing his snout with his paws. Heike yanked the leash out of Stewart’s hands and attached the clasp to Banjo’s collar. “Böser Hund. Here I try to do something nice, and God spits down on me!”

The dog trailed her up the hill, ears hugging his skull, while Stewart hurried to keep up, eating his sundae as quickly as possible.

“Put that down and make sure this dog doesn’t move,” she said when they reached Linda’s place. She handed him the leash, then disappeared inside the condo.

The stench coming from the dog was terrible. Stewart tried to hold his breath as long as he could. He wondered whether this was what mustard gas smelled like, whether this was what soldiers in the trenches had been forced to endure. He wondered what would become of his mother and of Gerry and of himself. They would all die, eventually, but what would happen before that, before their respective deaths?

How would he, for example, get from point A to point B? Would Gerry die first and leave his mother distraught? He’d played out the various permutations again and again in his head: Heike showing up on his doorstep in New York, unhinged, trying to move in with him. Heike forcing him to move home to Ventana Beach and comfort her, insisting that he sit with her on the couch that had begun to reek and watch TV together, sit with her at the dining room table, bathe her when she was too old to care for herself. Perhaps the situation would be reversed and she would end up caring for him. He thought of the covers of Time and Newsweek, the photos of emaciated men with sunken cheeks, like Holocaust victims, in hospital beds.

Eventually, his mother emerged from the condo with a bottle of shampoo and a pink towel. “Guide him over to the hose now! We don’t have much time.”

“This is why I hate coming home,” Stewart yelled back.

“Do you think I wished for this outcome? I still have to cook my rouladen and make the red cabbage.” Then she turned on the hose. The water made the dog jump, at which point she insisted that Stewart hold Banjo’s collar. The dog locked his legs, trying to pull away.

“Come on, you,” she shouted, kneeing him in the side. He yelped, then moved forward. “Wet him down now,” she said, handing Stewart the hose as she squeezed green gel onto the dog’s fur. Stewart wondered whether an angel might come down from the Heavens and grant them, each of them, forgiveness and succor.

It was a beautiful day, and, as Heike was working the shampoo into Banjo’s coat, the sun lit up her hair. Stewart saw the gray roots and the patches of gray near her ear. He knew that she colored her hair at home, using a cheap product purchased at Sav-On, and he wondered whether, if one day he was responsible for her care, she would ask him to dye her hair for her. Something was wrong with the skin under her neck, near her ears—it looked splotchy and scarred, undoubtedly from the facelift she’d gotten. Sometimes scar tissue tingled in the night and caused pain. He wondered whether he would be asked to knead this skin with his hands should it become too painful for her to endure. Would there be a time when he would end up being, as she’d always claimed, all she had?

After she finished drying the dog, his mother stood up. She had mud on her legs, and the dog still reeked. “Blach,” she said. “You are a very bad dog causing all these problems for me.”

Banjo looked at her and tried to lie down in the mud.

“No!” she screamed, jerking him toward the pavement. “I’ve had it with you!” She gave him a smack on the rear, then used the towel to wipe the mud off his belly. “Go inside and get me some of this nice perfume she keeps in the bathroom. Make sure you take off your shoes.”

“Sure. Great. Let’s all trespass wherever we want.”

“Fine, be this way,” his mother said. She pulled the dog toward the yard. “Get in there!” she yelled, shoving him and closing the gate.

Then she spotted the dish of melted ice cream on the hood of her car. “Are you finished with this now?” she asked, picking up what was left of the sundae. She stood there, next to her car, spooning the chocolate into her mouth. In the background, Banjo whined and scratched at the fence.

Stewart wondered if the guy from the Lure had meant what he said. He told Stewart he’d been a good boy. He made Stewart coffee and toast. Afterwards, when Stewart was walking to the subway, he smelled the guy on his clothes—his sweat and his semen. He had a musky scent that Stewart wished were his own. For days, he wore the same shirt, refusing to wash it. He sat in the library, studying particles of dust float up and then down, dancing in the light that came in through the windows.

Stewart watched his mother devour the remains of his lunch. In one minute, it would be four o’clock. He had to go to the bathroom, but he kept his mouth shut. He wasn’t going to use Linda’s toilet. He told his mother that he was feeling sick, that he needed to get home right away, that if she didn’t get in the car immediately, he’d go down to the corner and call a taxi. “I don’t give a fuck about the towels,” he was saying when he saw a pickup truck speeding toward them.

Before she’d even turned off the engine, Linda was screaming at the top of her lungs. “Heike! So help me God, if you’ve been walking Banjo again, you’re going to regret it!”

“Hello, Linda,” Heike said brightly, wiping a drop of chocolate from her top. “Merry Christmas!”

“Don’t Merry Christmas me. Ellen Jiménez told me she saw you out with my dog!” Linda was a squat woman, pit bull-like, her cheeks covered with pockmarks. She stormed over to Banjo—who was barking nonstop—gave him a quick look, then headed for Stewart and his mother. She was carrying a large bag of candy canes.

“I’ve done nothing at all,” Heike said. “I simply come here to water the plants. You know very well how little rain we’ve had this past month.”

“Don’t fucking lie to me, Heike.” Linda was just a few feet away now, and Stewart wondered whether she might slug his mother.

“How dare you use this kind of language with me,” Heike said, taking a step back and opening the car door. “I am your landlady. I have no interest in this dog of yours.”

“That’s right. Banjo is my dog. Mine.

“Then maybe you should take him out for a walk once in a while!”

“It’s none of your business,” Linda shouted, lunging forward and hurling the candy canes against the trunk of their car. Heike jumped back.

“You really have balls, you know that. I’m having the locks changed. I’m having the locks changed, and I’m calling the police. I’m going to get a restraining order against you. Next time you come over here without my permission, I’m going to have you arrested.”

And that was it. Linda didn’t slug his mother or yank her hair. She didn’t pull out a gun or a chainsaw. She simply went into her apartment and slammed the door.

“Are you okay?” Stewart asked, once they were both in the car.

He wanted to say something else, felt he ought to say more. There was so much he could have said to her then, so much he could have told her. Not just about the Yugoslavian guy, but about the Puerto Rican guys who called him papi and the guy with dreadlocks from the Bronx who took him to Coney Island to ride the Cyclone. About the fact that sometimes, after he talked to his mother on the phone, he sat on his bed and cried. Because part of him did miss her, and because he often wondered whether she was right, whether he was a bad son.

“Okay? My husband’s dying of cancer. My son despises me. Why should I be okay?”

Stewart wasn’t sure what to say. He allowed himself to look at his mother then, not her face exactly but her mouth and the mole on her chin. She was wearing a necklace—a thin gold necklace that she’d had for decades. It wasn’t valuable, but she’d always been careful with it. When he was a child, she’d asked him to help her with the clasp when she was putting it on, and she bent down so that his fingers could pull the tiny lever and attach the two interlocking pieces, right there, on the back of his mother’s neck. If she’d sprayed Aqua Net in her hair, that smell would fill his lungs and leave him light-headed.

He knew what his mother wanted to hear, but, instead of comforting her, he sat in the car next to her, unable, unwilling to respond. He put on his seat belt and looked out the window. He stared at the condo’s orange door and the ivy on the hill and, above the hill, the cloudless sky. By this point, Heike was crying. She told him that she knew all the neighbors there hated her and that Ellen Jiménez had always been jealous of her and that no matter what she did she never got a break. She asked Stewart whether he thought she’d done anything wrong, whether it was wrong of her to want to help Banjo.

Then she turned on the engine, and backed the car up, and, before they headed down the street, she put her hand on his leg. “You’re all I have, Stewart. We’re family. One day you’ll understand what that means.”

The car was hot, and he felt her skin on his skin, both of them still smelling of skunk and dog and Linda’s shampoo. Those smells of ammonia and sulfur and apple, and of the cloying green air freshener that hung from her rearview mirror—something that didn’t smell like pine trees or evergreen or anything natural—stayed with him, and he rolled down the window, craving fresh air.

“The Lure” was originally published in The Florida Review, Volume 40 Number 1 and was the winner of its 2015 fiction contest. “The Lure” is also included in Outside Is the Ocean, published by the University of Iowa Press and the winner of the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award.

MATTHEW LANSBURGH’s collection of linked stories, Outside Is the Ocean, won the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer TrainEcotoneElectric LiteratureStoryQuarterlyColumbia Journal (2014 Fiction Contest Winner), GuernicaMichigan Quarterly ReviewThe Florida Review (2015 Editors’ Award), Joyland, and SLICE. In 2015, Matthew attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference as a Tennessee Williams Scholar, and he holds an MFA in Fiction from NYU, where he received a Veterans Writing Fellowship. Outside Is the Ocean has received praise from Andre Dubus III (“mesmerizing”), Kirkus (“arresting and pointed”), Booklist (“captivating”), Paul Yoon (“an exceptional debut”), and The Portland Press Herald (a “graceful and empathetic chronicle of fractured family life.”)

Author’s Note

“The Lure” is about an errand gone awry. It’s also about boundaries and transgression: Stewart is home for the holidays, visiting his domineering mother; Heike cajoles him into going with her to pick up some dishes from Linda Montgomery’s apartment; in the process, Heike walks Linda’s dog, Banjo, who escapes and is sprayed by a skunk. The rising tension in the story stems largely from Heike’s increasing disregard for the boundaries of people around her (opening her son’s door while he’s still asleep; forcing him to run errands with her; going into Linda’s apartment without her permission; taking Banjo on a walk, despite Linda’s prohibition; letting the dog off the leash, despite Stewart’s protestations; using guilt to hold her son hostage throughout these shenanigans.)

As the events unfold, Stewart spends more and more time in his head, thinking about his various sexual exploits, especially a recent hookup with a hot Yugoslavian whom he met at The Lure. These memories, which serve as a counterpoint to the primary story about Heike and Banjo, are meant to deepen the reader’s understanding of, and connection to, the primary drama. MFA students often learn to refer to these two kinds of complementary narratives as the “A Story” and the “B Story.” When I was a student at NYU, Darin Strauss depicted the A Story as an arc moving from low-to-high-to-low and the B Story as an arc moving the opposite direction.

In “The Lure,” how does the B Story—the story about the Yugoslavian—function from a craft perspective? Some of the elements in the B Story echo elements in the A Story: in both cases, Stewart is being acted upon by forces beyond his control; like Heike, the Yugoslavian doesn’t seem to care what Stewart wants. In both stories, the perpetrator is cast in erotic light: the Yugoslavian is hot (washboard abs + other gay catnip); Heike, by contrast, is . . . well, she’s Stewart’s mother; she’s an elderly woman who dresses as if she were still in her prime; Stewart wants to keep his distance from her, but she tells him about the intimate details of her life, and she hugs him when she’s wearing just a thin nightgown, and when she’s picking up Banjo’s shit, Stewart glimpses her stray pubic hairs. In this respect, Heike is the opposite of the Yugoslavian: Stewart is repulsed by the former and attracted to the latter, attracted enough to let the guy with muscles on his stomach and calluses on his palms do whatever he wants—no questions asked—even if might put Stewart’s life at risk.

In the B Story, Stewart doesn’t mind being told what to do; indeed, he relishes it. The juxtaposition of the two storylines is meant to encourage the reader to think about the complicated nature of boundaries and transgression and desire. Did it work?

MATTHEW LANSBURGH’s collection of linked stories, Outside Is the Ocean, won the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer TrainEcotoneElectric LiteratureStoryQuarterlyColumbia Journal (2014 Fiction Contest Winner), GuernicaMichigan Quarterly ReviewThe Florida Review (2015 Editors’ Award), Joyland, and SLICE. In 2015, Matthew attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference as a Tennessee Williams Scholar, and he holds an MFA in Fiction from NYU, where he received a Veterans Writing Fellowship. Outside Is the Ocean has received praise from Andre Dubus III (“mesmerizing”), Kirkus (“arresting and pointed”), Booklist (“captivating”), Paul Yoon (“an exceptional debut”), and The Portland Press Herald (a “graceful and empathetic chronicle of fractured family life.”)