Thursday, August 19, 2010

Work in Progress: "Pet Milk," A Perfect Story?

Summer’s over (sort of), or over enough that I had to steer my computer into the files where I keep my “teaching at the low-residency MFA at Converse College” life, and I found this short piece that I shared in June, as part of a panel where the faculty talked about their favorite piece of writing.

I think I would call this story "perfect":

"Pet Milk" by Stuart Dybek

“Today I've been drinking instant coffee and Pet milk, and watching it snow. It's not that I enjoy the taste especially, but I like the way Pet milk swirls in the coffee. Actually, my favorite thing about Pet milk is what the can opener does to the top of the can. The can is unmistakable — compact, seamless looking, its very shape suggesting that it could condense milk without any trouble. The can opener bites in neatly, and the thick liquid spills from the triangular gouge with a different look and viscosity than milk. Pet milk isn't real milk. The color's off, to start with. My grandmother always drank it in her coffee. When friends dropped over and sat around the kitchen table, my grandma would ask, "Do you take cream and sugar?" Pet milk was the cream.

"There was a yellow plastic radio on her kitchen table, usually tuned to the polka station, though sometimes she'd miss it by half a notch and get the Greek station instead, or the Spanish, or the Ukrainian. In Chicago, where we lived, all the incompatible states of Europe were pressed together down at the staticky right end of the dial. She didn't seem to notice, as long as she wasn't hearing English. The radio, turned low, played constantly. Its top was warped and turning amber on the side where the tubes were. I remember the sound of it on winter afternoons after school, as I sat by her table watching the Pet milk swirl and cloud in the steaming coffee, and noticing, outside her window, the sky doing the same thing above the railroad yard across the street."

“Pet Milk” by Stuart Dybek is probably my most favorite short story ever. I first read it in The New Yorker, way back when, and I actually still have those precious, torn-out pages. In a book, the story is only five-ish pages with a negligible “plot” in the traditional sense. But the scope of its effect never fails to leave me breathless, especially with the way food and memory mingle and are intertwined.

We start in the present with the male narrator drinking his coffee the way his Polish grandmother always took her coffee, and lost in the drift of the “cream” in the coffee and the drift of his thoughts and the drift of the snow outside the window, he’s reminded of the past, of his first girlfriend Kate and their first adult jobs out of college, and these swirls of the past collect into a magical brew as ultimately, he remembers the passionate evening when he and Kate were making love on an el train streaking to Evanston and out the window, as the express train slowed while passing through a station, he sees a 16-year-old boy catching sight of them, grinning.

The last line of the story is of the narrator thinking: “It was as if I were standing on that platform, with my schoolbooks and a smoke, on one of those endlessly accumulated afternoons after school when I stood almost outside of time simply waiting for a train, and I thought how much I’d have loved seeing someone like us streaming by.”

Interestingly, I have a vivid and clear and very specific memory of reading this story in The New Yorker in April, just as I was about to graduate from my college in Evanston and head out into the world, hoping my boyfriend was going to stick around with me. I remember the couch where I was curled up, the yellowish light cast by my roommate’s lamp, the rug on the floor that no one vacuumed. And yet when I looked up this story online to prepare for this talk, I realized that the story was published in August—not even a school month—a full year and a half after I left college, my boyfriend long gone—and so my memory is wrong and yet, I have to say, also absolutely right, and that experience, more than anything, is what this story so perfectly captures.

[Note: The story can be found in Stuart Dybek’s collection, The Coast of Chicago. You can find a reductive and silly abstract of the story on The New Yorker's site, but, alas, not the full story.]


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.