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A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
432 pp., 49.76
Rachel Marie Stone
"She Gave Me a Key and I Took It"
Lucia Berlin's short stories take you by the hand and speak directly to you, the way a slightly kooky woman on the train might, and even as you're feeling awkward and uncomfortable, you're fascinated, and you listen until you arrive at your stop. The slightly kooky woman stops her story then, too, and you leave feeling simultaneously that her story was unfinished and that it ended in the perfect place—and for the next several hours, you are haunted by the truthfulness of what you have been told, and see little reminders of the story everywhere you look.
Berlin died in 2004 on her sixty-eighth birthday; by all accounts, including her own—her fiction, according to her friends and editors, and in the words of her son, consisted of "family stories and memories … slowly reshaped, embellished and edited"—hers was a painful life. Afflicted with chronic alcoholism and serious, lifelong scoliosis ("let's face it, a hunchback," she wrote), she moved among mining towns in the American West, spent her teenage years living a glamorous expatriate life in Santiago, Chile, and much of her adulthood raising four sons while supporting them and herself by working decidedly unglamorous jobs.
In "Homing," the final story in A Manual for Cleaning Women, the narrator, by now a woman resembling Berlin in her later years (an oxygen tank is her constant companion) notices, one evening, that the crows that leave the maple tree in her front yard in the morning return every evening:
What bothers me is that I only accidentally noticed them. What else have I missed? How many times in my life have I been, so to speak, on the back porch, not the front porch? What would have been said to me that I failed to hear? What love might there have been that I didn't feel?
It is plausible that this narrator—this person so keen not to miss a moment of her life, to be alive to this and every possible world—might turn ...