by Alice McDermott
Issue #280 • August 26th, 2021•Buy Now!
“Maybe brimstone,” Mira said. “Smokey, cloying. Tincture of something rotten. Flesh, maybe.”
Adam paused. Pulled down his mask, sniffed the air. He had a lovely nose. Small and neat, slightly pinched. Pale, even delicate, above the black face mask and the auburn indications of his patchy beard. She had told him this once, that she loved his nose. He’d said, “Only cartilage.”
He readjusted the mask. His eyes were smiling. His eyes were now all she had to go on.
“It smells like pot,” he said. “Same as ever.”
She had brought him to this corner of the park as if to share a new, as yet undiscovered view. But it was all familiar to them both: the yellowed grass of the softball field, its ring of pathways and benches and scattered trees, the motley apartment buildings all round the periphery, made to seem distant by the open space. It was March, and although the air still held its winter chill, a wan sun had brought people outside. Runners and bicyclists—she could hear them struggling for breath as they passed, everyone grown heavier, out of shape—small, hellbent children on scooters, and couples with strollers: sleeping pandemic babies or tentative toddlers holding out their little hands, feeling the cold breeze on their palms—their first encounter with the wind, no doubt. A revelation after a life-thus-far all indoors.
Alice McDermott is the author of several novels, including The Ninth Hour, Someone, After This, Child of My Heart, Charming Billy, winner of the 1998 National Book Award; and At Weddings and Wakes—all published by FSG. That Night, At Weddings and Wakes, and After This were all finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and elsewhere. For more than two decades she was the Richard A. Macksey Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the faculty at the Sewanee Writers Conference. McDermott lives with her family outside Washington, D.C.
Patrick Ryan on Post
Near the beginning of the lockdown in New York City, I thought about all the lonely people who suddenly were having to confront a whole new kind of loneliness. I also thought about all the couples living in all those apartments who were having to redefine their notions of cohabitating. Perhaps most often—and this might sound strange, but it was a pretty strange time—I thought about those cohabitating couples who’d been on the verge of breaking up when the lockdown began, and how any plans to break up had to be shelved (along with all the rest of one’s plans), and what that must have looked like when added to the other stress, worry, and general discontent that comes with a pandemic. Ticking time bombs! I thought. Huge fights! Murders! I could foresee the day Netflix would run dry and was, perhaps, pre-seeding my desire for other people’s drama.
Leave it to Alice McDermott to imagine a lockdown scenario of compassion—of love, even—between two people who have already drifted apart yet have chosen to lock down together. Mira and Adam are recent exes living in Brooklyn when the pandemic turns life on its head. While social distancing, by necessity, is driving so many people apart, they manage, temporarily, to come back together—not as a couple, not as anything romantic, but as a kind of two-person care unit. One of the many things I love about this story is that it’s about a pair of exes, yet it contains not a single argument about their shared past, not a single zinger, not even a single regret. It’s a love story about ex-lovers who are not attempting to reconcile. In the canon of great stories about exes, “Post” deserves an honored position. One Story is proud to present to you this brilliant new piece of fiction by the one and only Alice McDermott.
Q&A by Patrick Ryan
But to answer the question (sorry): I wrote this story fairly quickly—over the course of a few months, which is quick for me.
Also—a bias of my own—present tense often indicates to me a bit of writerly self-consciousness. I love it when it works, but I’m always wary. The last thing I wanted for this very topical story was a self-aware litterateur getting in the way of the characters themselves.