The Dan Graves Situation

“It was faded,” replied Amy. She had a walkman. The night was cool and the streets just above and below the busy retail thoroughfare were dark and empty. Alan brought Meredith a book about anger by a Buddhist monk. The lids of his eyes looked pale and veined and there were deep purple shadows around his sockets. She had not broken dishes or yelled in critique, but she had taken to committing tiny acts of cruelty against people she could not see or would never see again, people who did not matter, and who she did not believe in — the telephone operator at her bank, the woman who worked the counter at the cupcake store, a stranger who came to buy an old desk she had in storage. Letter by letter, layer by layer, the log cabin began to take shape. Say your house is on fire, the book said. Dear Pal — What are the grocery stores like there? “Those are the magic words,” he said. His eyes were on her, but he had the other look about him. It is this hesitation which Meredith remembers now, with Dan Graves’s small expectant eyes on her. They walked the rest of the way to the bar joking and shoving each other and putting their whole mouths on the bottle and spitting the gin onto the street. There were a thousand ways to fuck a kid up it seemed, and only time would tell your unique, trademark method. She made the collages, nearly one a week, in a desperate, hungry fashion that made her forget to eat for hours and then, starving, eat with the fridge door open, sitting on a milk crate. This is what he did, this was his power. So disaffected! Stop now. It was a good soundtrack: expansive, unexpected, full of grace and rage and resistance and banjos. They drank and played three games of pool in the bar and then they left and walked circles around the small downtown area. Amy’s collection of ceramic fish, gifts from her parents and friends, took up every mantel and surface, and Alex’s closet was crammed with sneakers and skateboards. Can you get a hunting license? “Please, go ahead.”
Dan Graves seemed pleased. The wind farms there are getting bigger. The woman wore a floppy green hat like one might wear to the beach. “It sticks sometimes.”
Dan Graves stood on the porch, his thin body holding the door open. “I’m sorry,” Meredith said. Once, after church, Meredith had opened her father’s Bible and seen that in addition to annotating parts of Genesis, he had underlined a short passage: There is the thief. He handed Dan Graves’s file across the room to Meredith. Remember when we camped there and we tried to push the tent poles into the ground and how they wouldn’t go in more than an inch? A CD in a clear plastic sleeve bearing the inscription To Dan, love Kelsey Sue in orange sharpie sat politely in the passenger seat, and a stadium cup holding a mountain of clean quarters was wedged in the middle console. But in the two months since the new class arrived, Elena had emailed more than her fair share — asking to take a Sociology course instead of the required graduate arts survey or urging Meredith to bring a female tileworker from Nepal as the semester’s visiting artist instead of the male welder that the director had already selected via costly search committee. “Wait. Meredith was halfway down the stone path when she heard the storm door open. Now when I go on my walks, there’s geese carcasses everywhere. I can’t be the one who changes, Meredith thought. In the walkman, she listened to the soundtrack of the movie that had not been made yet about the life she had not yet lived. The pickup wore a single bumper sticker — Say Ya to the UP, eh? Amy’s feet spread then swelled. “Isn’t this the kind of macho-nostalgia that belongs in a place called the Soaring Eagle lodge?”
But Meredith had spoken up, praising the work’s energy and simplicity, and the director backed her up. The driveway was short, and in order to park out of the flow of traffic, it was necessary for Meredith to nudge her Volvo station wagon all the way up nose to ass against the bumper of Dan Graves’s white pickup. When her work was critiqued, the men said her collages were too faithful to life, too descriptive, too pastoral. Camping is nothing alone.”
“You see?” Dan Graves said. She remembered it all now — the heat rising to her ears, the urge to swallow and swallow, the tingly feeling somewhere around the knees, the way the breath refused to come, and the chest, the chest. “Hmm,” he said. It was spring and the girls looked rumpled and damp. Stop today. His eyes were small and set back deeply into his head, which was surprisingly bare for such a young man, the pale skin covered only by a fine translucent fuzz. “You know,” Alan said, when they reached the parking lot of the town’s only all-night convenience store. “Why not?”
“Because I want you,” Alan said. “I’d like to go camping,” Meredith said. “I don’t deny anything,” said Dan Graves. “He wrote to me every day I was away from home until last week when he died. “I know it,” Meredith said. Dan Graves did not come. She was still making her art then — collages of human faces from pieces of chalkboard and scotch tape. “Where were you 10 years ago?” Dan Graves said. “He told me he wanted to die.”
When the door closed behind Elena, the director clapped his hands together and puffed. The button wobbled in its socket and clicked halfway but the door did not release. There is the liar. It was Monday, the day she liked to meet her wife Amy at the cart for soup and sourdough rolls. Ten years ago, Meredith was 28, and in her last semester as a student in the Department. It was October. There is the man whose wife is not enough for him, who cannot be happy until he possesses every woman who walks the earth. Alex was nearly nine now. “When I asked him to leave, he called me a dyke,” Elena had added, near the end of their interview. But she said nothing. He was triumphant, happy. I’m building you a fire.”
Emma Copley Eisenberg is a writer of fiction and nonfiction based in West Philadelphia. “And you said some things. Dear Pal — You caught the walleye with nothing but your hand and then bashed its head against a stone. Lovelace. “I don’t know why I am the way I am,” he said. “What does one boy need with seven skateboards?”
“Go easy, honey,” Amy said. Meredith felt light, her mouth dry. But she had this face. Even while Amy was on the phone with her, Amy was watching a man walk away. He was a good kid and she felt sorry for him. The cursor disappeared then reappeared. She gathered the letters and their empty envelopes back into the green suitcase, then lifted the suitcase up onto the wooden platform. She could not get over the feeling that she had been wronged in some way. Dan Graves set down the last letter. He had used a metaphor drawn from his years as a river guide on the Colorado. It was a big bottle, glass, but it fit neatly in his hand, which was pale and clean without any dirt under the fingernails. Two? “Brrrrrr,” he said, leaning against the railing of the deck. “That’s what he always called me.” Dan Graves looked up at Meredith to see if she was listening. Meredith sat too, but left enough space for two of herself to sit between them. Dan Graves unscrewed the cap, and poured two fingers of whiskey into the glass. “I’m so cold.”
Meredith felt younger, lighter. But also: Meredith recognized what had been bothering her about this room. Amy was pretty, no doubt about it, but she did not look like these women. “You camp?” Dan Graves said. You really had it together.” One of Dan Graves’s eyelids drooped, then fluttered lightly. The skin of his face was red and raw. the book said. “You can’t be gay,” Alan said. You don’t have to worry about me. “Hey there Amy,” Meredith heard the man say, and she could see Amy raise her right shoulder to take the phone so that she could wave hello to the man — Jacob or Andy or Chance — and smile her plump-cheeked smile. I’ve slept, I feel a world better.”
The wind blew around a few brown leaves that had landed on Dan Graves’s deck. — and a Michigan license plate, which was clean and perfectly flat. Dyke, Meredith typed into the Incident Report Form. The years had rolled by and Meredith had stopped being so angry. Dan Graves read the time stamp, August 17 of the present year. I want to know.”
Meredith thought. The square of light was weak now, had become distorted. “Just because your family worshipped at the church of deny thyself everything you want, doesn’t mean we have to.”
Dan Graves reached for the bottle of whiskey that still sat to the side, on the platform. Meredith walked up the stone path and stepped onto Dan Graves’s porch. Meredith tended to Amy’s cravings and hurts, attended the necessary doctor’s appointments, but she had done so out of a sense of obligation. Meredith remembered him as tall and shy; he had eaten a lot of fried chicken, drank only root beer, and left early. The director had given the Department’s faculty a presentation about when and how to refer students to the University’s psychological services. But also, she wanted to give Dan Graves something, something that would say, you still have people here. Dan Graves filled the doorway, his body backlit by the sun. “Dear Pal,” Dan Graves read. His name and current address were swept across the front in old-timey script. As assistant director of the Department’s graduate arts program, it was basically Meredith’s job to answer emails. He was her advisee after all, but also she liked the work, plain and simple. “I didn’t drink it.”
Meredith smiled and said nothing. In front of the fireplace, a ’50s-era green plaid suitcase with gold clasps lay on its side. When he looked back up at Meredith, his face was neutral again. She was tall for a woman, 5’10 on a good day, but she came up only to the top button of Dan Graves’s shirt. Treat it like a child. On the night Amy gave them to her, Meredith got out of bed to turn on the closet light and hold the shoes in their white tissue paper. “It’s a nice evening.” When he got up and opened the glass doors, and went out to stand on the deck, Meredith followed. “You want to throw them a lifejacket,” the director said. She could not leave now, something again was required. The bottle was more than half empty. Even if he did, who would believe him now, discredited as he was — a drunk, a homophobe? Dan Graves finished what was left in his glass. Pop quiz: What’s the best way to build a fire?”
Meredith turned to look at Dan Graves. “I read that part already.”
“Remember Briery Knob? “My dad is dead now.” When he said dad and dead, they came out sounding the same; dead, dead. Tell me how much and I’ll send you the money. Meredith smiled. There was no art of any kind in this room, and no sign that art was being made in it. “What was wrong with the old lampshade?” Meredith asked one night after they’d turned the lights out, her heart beat rising in her ears. But something in the room tugged at her. Now that he was crying, Meredith wished he wouldn’t. Alan, as she had called him before he became the director, was the only one who spoke up for her work. He strode to the platform, gently nudged the bottle and glass to the side, then sat down on the platform with his back to the fireplace. He was even thinner than Meredith remembered, and stood with his bare feet close together. DECEMBER 23, 2017

This short story   appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. “It was hard at times, but also good, and I lived with my wife, but we weren’t married yet.”
“The girl you loved then, 10 years ago. The white carpet continued in every direction. Like her soundtrack that year, Meredith too had been full of rage. “No,” Meredith said. Dan Graves’s dad’s it seemed, was being good and then dying. These men, her chest moaned as they gestured with their hands, are killing me. A car was idling, waiting to pull out of the parking lot onto the slick street and the wind was still, as if inhaling, and right then, something in Meredith sort of flowed toward Alan, and when he leaned his face into her neck, she didn’t push him away. “She said you told her you wanted to die.”
Dan Graves looked down at his thighs. A minute? Standing in front of parking meters on campus, Meredith was always rummaging in her pockets, only to turn up dimes, nickels, pennies, and the occasional earring of Amy’s. Real, but not true. She could go now, Meredith knew. I look at every person and I just think, you, and you, and you, none of you matter.”
Stop, Meredith could have said. She and Amy had reached the decision mutually that Amy would carry the baby, on a walk through a park near campus where the bodies of thousands of unknown black people — domestic workers for the university — would later be discovered. If you did that, all your stuff would burn. They were in a silly mood, amped up. The sound rattled the glass, but didn’t penetrate. She waited. “Just knock on his door and see if he’s alive,” he said. “Elena said you called her a dyke. With his eyes looking down, everything about his face changed. He laughed. These people, she had begun that year to think, looking around the seminar room at the faces of the other graduate students — all men — in her cohort in the Department. She had made sure to meet him. Inside were white envelopes, torn open. Soon. Alan emerged with a blue bottle of gin, and they opened it on the street over a curbside drain. 16,   Art
To receive the LARB Quarterly   Journal, become a member   or   donate here. They were all conventionally attractive; thin with big breasts and long hair. His job was the napkins. She tried again, pulling harder, and when it still didn’t open, knocked lightly on the storm door with her knuckles. He held the bridge of his nose between his index finger and thumb. But she said nothing. The chill came through her cotton sweater. You’re married to her now?”
“I am,” Meredith said. Let’s hope this goes the other way.”
Dan Graves lived in an un-hip part of the college town, a residential neighborhood near the woods, in a small, stucco house painted mint green. Meredith turned and went inside the house. So bourgeois! “Yawn,” said one of Meredith’s colleagues, a water colorist. “I’m so cold,” Dan Graves said again. Nothing happened — the wind picked up again, the car pulled out of the parking lot onto the street, and Alan only ran his lips along Meredith’s neck, then apologized for being “in his cups” the next day in an email. She had 20 minutes if she wanted to catch Amy. She stood, removed the fire screen, and balanced the rolled letter between the andirons. Dear Pal — At your Aunt’s place you built sculptures out of the driftwood that came down the St. She listened to it. It really does get better. A small square of sun hovered on the near wall. “You’re so talented.”
But in the background, Meredith heard a male coworker of Amy’s walking by Amy’s desk. He liked soccer and drawing animals at the museum. “I’m very sorry to hear that.”
Dan Graves lifted his shoulders to his ears and dropped them. To Amy, filling a house with love was equivalent to filling a house with things. Meredith checked her watch. “I would,” Meredith said. He lifted the glass and drank from it. Elena claimed Dan Graves had showed up on the steps of her apartment the night before — blotto, talking suicide, and toting a suitcase of letters from his dead dad. Dan Graves read letter after letter aloud to Meredith, pausing sometimes after each letter, sometimes in the middle of a long one, to drink from the glass or refill it. He plucked a letter from the suitcase, then held it up for Meredith like a game show host. He smelled of a sporty masculine deodorant, the one that Meredith also wore. At her house, when she asked you to leave.”
Dan Graves blinked his blond eyelashes, which were long but perfectly straight like the bristles of a broom. He nestled the bottle in the hole his legs made, then set the glass on the platform behind him. Alan went inside, while Meredith called Amy at her office. After that critique, Meredith and Alan stopped at a liquor store on their way to the dive bar. “Don’t you believe me? “He loved me.”
“Of course,” Meredith said. “That’s what we did with Ronda last year. They carpooled to town and then she told Amy to take the car. “What?” Alan said, turning toward her. Dear Pal — Pop quiz: How long does it take to bleed a deer and when should you do it? He looked like a grasshopper when he sat down; all knees. How much does one cost? To the right of the front door, a faded American flag hung from two nails. Mary and I sat on the porch and forgot you were there. Walking around their house on Saturdays, Meredith would notice new things that had appeared during the week — a clock in the shape of a cat maybe, or a deep purple lampshade. “I don’t remember,” he said. But I’m okay now, Ms. I can tell. It occurred to Meredith that Dan Graves was very drunk — still, perhaps, or again. She wore brown Carhartt overalls almost every day. After critique, Meredith often went to a dive bar with him to complain about their colleagues. “We absolutely hear you,” the director said. “It’s okay,” Meredith said again. The square of light moved slowly across the wall. Then Amy spoke. “Where were you, actually, 10 years ago? How long was sufficient? Then her best collage of all had been critiqued: a 6-inch-by-6-inch portrait of a woman she found sitting cross-legged in the periodicals room. Forget the arsonist, all arsonists have their reasons. Care for your anger, the book suggested. Dan Graves let the storm door slam. Meredith inspected the truck carefully for signs of an accident, but it was showroom-shiny, possibly brand new, with a clean black bed-liner. How willing she was to be undermined, to believe, to sell Amy and their not yet born son down the river on the word of a man. “I’m not properly dressed,” Dan Graves said, his feet pink and huge. How could I forget? “Go right ahead and cry. Meredith thought she might. He wore a red-and-white-checked dress shirt that bore the faint creases of being professionally pressed and folded, and expensive-looking black corduroy pants. It was a feeling of anticipation, of story. “Hey,” Dan Graves said. She hesitated. When he saw she was, he reached for the bottle and refilled his glass. Meredith had ogled the shoes from outside the window of the downtown store for a month. In her former life, Meredith had grown up in the city, and it comforted her to sit and drink and play pool among people who cursed and swore and did not wear the polo shirts or cotton jersey dresses that were the university people’s uniform. “There’s nothing else.”
Dan Graves drank from his glass. Meredith did not nod back. He helped Amy set the table before dinner. He slid to the carpet and crossed his legs Indian style. “We could go outside,” Dan Graves said. Dan Graves rubbed his hands together like he was cold, and looked over at the wooden platform, where there was a bottle of Old Crow and a squat, squarish glass. “I don’t get it. When Meredith and Elena passed each other in the cinderblock stairwells of the Department, Elena would smile warmly, then nudge the tip of her chin quickly upward in a kind of micro-nod. Meredith was able to locate it somewhere in the region behind her sternum. She said, “I can’t be the one who watches.”
Amy cleared out a drawer in their bureau for the new, strange items she brought home in plastic bags — bright indigo jeans with black stretchy waistbands that folded over, long yellow cotton tunics with slits up the sides. “You don’t, not really.”
“Why not?”
“You’re a city girl. “If I could cry, I would cry and I would not stop crying.”
“Go ahead,” Meredith said. “I was a student too,” Meredith told to Dan Graves. It seemed that at any moment the fish’s eye might blink, and the fish’s bronze blood, even in the half-lighting and bad quality of the pictures, seemed to ooze slow and thick. The mountains were just starting to turn. “That’s good. She is the author of The Third Rainbow Girl, forthcoming from Hachette Books. “He told me he wanted to get in his car and crash it,” Elena had said earlier that morning while whipping tissues from the dispenser in Meredith’s office. “Dan, do you know why I’m here?”
“I think so,” he said. “I said what I said and I probably meant it at the time. Things the Department is required to take very seriously.”
“Damn it.” He said it with a pronounced Midwestern accent so that the words came out through his nose, dee-yam it. The square of sun was gone. His car was here, after all. Amy would take out a pair of leggings and close the drawer quick before shaking them out, like a secret. “See?” Dan Graves said. And still, the men had critiqued “Woman In Floppy Hat” with the same tone — good, but not excellent. When Dan Graves was done, he put his open palm to his eyes, gathered the fingers into a duckbill and shook the tears onto the white carpet. Run toward the house to save what you value most. They were ridiculous shoes, Meredith saw now, looking at them on Dan Graves’s white carpet. “But if Elena says I did, then I did. Amy had picked Meredith up from the convenience store and driven her home and held her and said nothing. So pretentious! Also, that was the year Alex was born. “I got drunk and scared Elena.”
“You did,” Meredith said. “Alright,” Dan Graves said. Elena’s not a liar.”
Dan Graves hugged himself with his huge hands. He brought the glass to his lips, slurped a few sips, then drained the rest. The images he submitted with his application the previous spring had stuck in Meredith’s brain: a deer antler that had grown swollen and infected (in bronze), a large-as-life elk that cowered on its back feet (in bronze) and, Meredith’s favorite, a walleye that lay split open and bleeding against a rock (in bronze). What a bleeder! To the right, there was a narrow hallway which led presumably to his bedroom, but Dan Graves led Meredith in the other direction, left into the living room. The foot wells had been vacuumed so recently that Meredith could still see the overlapping lines of the nozzle. “Would you like to hear a letter from my dad?” Dan Graves said. He retreated into the foyer of the house as Meredith advanced, but kept his hand pushing against the storm door so it stayed open. Meredith had graduated from the Department and then six months later, their son had been born. “If you don’t mind. The walls were gray and bare. It’s okay.”
“I want to.” Dan Graves made a sound in his mouth like a gun cocking. She was familiar with alcoholics — her father, who else — and wasn’t about to fight with this one. She and Amy lived in a small cottage near the Appalachian trail, where they’d met, and far from campus. Meredith watched the women but did not approach them. Dan Graves would not remember anything tomorrow. “You don’t want to swim out to the drowning point after them.”
“How about you don’t drink any more while I’m here?” Meredith said. You’re such a pretty girl.” He licked his lips, lightly, as if looking for crumbs. “Do you hear what I’m saying?” Elena said. “But will you come in?”
To cross the threshold, Meredith had to pass very close to Dan Graves. No! Meredith walked everywhere, stopping at coffee shops and parking lots and bars around the town to watch people she might want to make into art. She felt unfree, put upon. That’s 57 letters.” He scrunched his eyes and made breath-sucking noises. I can’t camp without you. The entryway was carpeted in a thick white shag. The woods, which belonged to Dan Graves and his dead dad, were dark beyond the deck. “Elena said you indicated you might be a danger to yourself,” Meredith said. Would you run down the street after the arsonist demanding to know why he set the blaze? You’re so pretty.”
Meredith laughed. He jiggled his knee, then tapped his bare feet against the carpet. I don’t know. She had a chain that connected a stud in the top cartilage of her left ear to a regular stud in the lobe. Meredith pushed the button on the storm door with her thumb and pulled the plexiglass toward her. These people, these people, these people. “I haven’t made anything since I’ve been here. A sensible, admirable thing, that cup. He was an attractive man, Meredith observed. “Don’t worry,” Amy said. With a snap of his big thumb and middle finger, he released the two gold-plated fasteners so that the two halves of the suitcase jumped away from each other. She opened a letter so that it lay flat on the platform, then rolled it the long way into a thin tube. Where does anger live in the body? The book wanted to know. The living room was empty of furniture, just the white carpet and a raised platform of hardwood that supported a fireplace. On the far side of the room were sliding glass doors that opened out onto a small wooden deck, and beyond that, a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She had the strange feeling that comes when two people are in a room and something significant is happening, but only one mind is recording it. He had seemed plodding and straight-laced, not a guy given to dramatics. It’s hard work to keep a white carpet clean.”
Meredith bent down and unlaced the men’s blue suede Oxfords that Amy had bought her for their wedding anniversary. Most women would think so. “Of course he did.”
Dan Graves looked down at the letter in his hands. “No,” Dan Graves said. It was not exactly that Meredith thought Elena was lying about the Dan Graves situation. It was the kind of nod that lays a claim. “That’s fair.” He leaned down to the suitcase and touched it. “Unless there’s something else.”
There was something else. “Will you take your shoes off?” he said. I think it was because of the light, how it didn’t get dark until very late, 11 maybe, because then the news would come on. ¤
Meredith Lovelace was hoping to resolve the Dan Graves situation before lunch. It was moaning, again. It hung long and shimmering as a stalactite, and shook in the air against her shaved head when she spoke. Meredith often saw women — at the bar, on the bus, in the coffee shop — who she wanted to have sex with. “We can sit on this,” Dan Graves said. “Dear Pal,” he read. Meredith had met Dan Graves only once before, at the director’s annual lawn party to welcome the new class. The situation concerned two newly admitted graduate students to the Department — both sculptors, both Meredith’s advisees. Here’s the thing, she could have said.