In our continuing First Words series, we select works from First Words, a collection of early writings by famous authors edited by Paul Mandelbaum. Our previous posts have highlighted the work of Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and Margaret Atwood. Today’s installment features a short story written by Allan Gurganus at age 18:
from Just The Idea of Being in Georgia (1965, age 18)
Luther Smythe dreamed he and his family were sitting, quite naked, on a very white beach. How peaceful and rediculous our life is here, he thought, smiling at his wife, Millie. Her eyes flirted over the green husk of coconut she seemed to be drinking from. Earlier, the children had been kicking sand at one another and wading at the edge of the azure water but they had now settled down nearby. Dennis, their son, sat smoothing sand over a second green coconut. His blonde hair sunbleacheed blonder shone oddly ing the tropical light. Some slight distance from them, facing inland, their daughter, Cora, sat, stripped of everything but her perpetual expression, pouting even here in paradise. Her chest, so recently like her brother’s, was changed, Luther saw. Her faint nipples seemed to be pouting, too. Millie saw Luther watching Cora. She dropped her coconut on the sand and crawled over to her husband on all fours, her own breasts framed, pendulous between her stiff, moving arms. Sand flew as she scrambled toward him. Luther noticed abruptly that only he was clothed, wearing the paint-splattered khakis he used for working in their little garden back in Cambridge. Millie crawled up, knelt beside him and whispered into his ear, over the sound of the surf which he’d not noticed until now, “Cora bores me, Luther. She is our daughter, certainly, but can children be bores? I think Cora’s one.”
Luther woke with the conviction that they should all go to the tropics, the sooner the better. Four weeks later, at sixty miles an hour, they were returning from a compromised fulfillment of his dream, two weeks camping in Florida.
A long dent in the radiator grill gave the snoutish front of the Citroen the look of a squint or grimace. Two years earlier, the left rear door snapped open while turning a corner. It refused afterwards to shit and had since been tied closed with the cord of a broken Venetian blind. Headed due north on US 301, Luther Smythe drove the Citroen wagon he’d bought new eleven years ago with money his parents gave him when he finally got his Master’s from Harvard. An aluminum canoe, longer than the car, was overturned on top of it, held there by a network of twine and ropes. The car wore it like a helmet with numerous chinstraps. Millie’s red bandanna, so recently her halter, had been tied to the back end of the boat and now swam straight out behind it. Provisions packed under the overturned canoe had been wrapped in a clear plastic tarpulin. Most of this covering was unfastened after two hundred miles of wind, and it now whipped and billowed up out of the canoe, smothering, then releasing the red bandanna. The tarpaulin fanned out feet behind the car like some theatrical equivalent of water.
Inside the car was quieter. After a last Florida breakfast, all slept but Luther who sat, contentedly, hands around the wheel, feeling in control of more somehow than just the car. Autonomous, he thought; I feel distinctly autonomous. The white shirt he wore was half-buttoned and some tanned ribs showed. The khaki pants were splattered with yellow housepaint and flecks of red clay from a ceramics class he’d taken. The road came in to him through smudged tortoiseshell glasses, mended at the nosebridge with a grimy loop of adhesive tape.
Just across the state line, Luther felt a sudden pleasurable contempt for all the sleeping residents of Georgia, and then, an equally irrational pity for them. The night before, he’d explained to the children while they roasted marshmallows how, until Northern people like their father had come down to demonstrate how wrong it was, there had been public bathrooms marked “White Ladies”, and others marked “Colored Women”. Over their speared marshmallows, the children had eyed him suspiciously. It pleased him that they could not conceive of this sort of cruelty.
He now scanned the landscape for what he’d always imagined as the essential meanness of Georgia, a quality so real to him he’d assumed the vegetation would reflect it by being, as he pictured the residents, all scrubby and gnarled. Maybe I’ve mis-imagined a few details, Luther conceded as he eyed suspiciously the passing farmland; the foliage may be lush, but the meanness is not gone. This early on a Sunday morning, it is still stretched out somewhere, snoring.
For a moment, a delicate fear like stagefright came over him, and he wished the other were awake to help him watch for whatever it was he was expecting, but he had dismissed this, finally, as ridiculous and let himself be soothed by the sound of his automobile moving himself and his sleepers straight through and out of Georgia. Having just spent seventy dollars in preventive repairs to the aging car, Luther felt the Citroen now repaying all his trust in it.
Savoring the lack of traffic, he felt exempt from all the usual daytime irritations. The children had slept, then woke and bickered inventively for an hour, and now, after breakfast, they had fallen back to sleep again. The car moved through thin strands of mist still stretched across the highway at this hour and, gazing through the dampness these left on the windshield, Luther felt refreshed, a new man ready to forget what had annoyed him on the trip down: the dashboard ashtray full of Millie’s cigarette butts, missing their usual lipstick stains since vacation began, the silver casing and dangling wires of a stereo cassette tape player that had been yanked, semi-professionally, out of the car in the guarded parking lot of Bonwit Teller in Boston which apologized but would not assume responsibility. Nor did he see the few remaining tape cartridges, left behind as if in judgement on the Smythe’s musical taste: a Segovia one, for instance, just to the left of his sleeping wife’s red polished toenails. Luther, rather, drove on, as far as the car would go with the gas depressed as fast as his blue deck shoe could press it.
Haiku had been his hobby since undergraduate days. And now slightly exceeding the georgia speed limit as a matter of principle, the bow of his overturned canoe forming a cozy eave, a widow’s peak over the landscape, with his small, planned family, so recently well-fed, simplified by sleep all around him, Luther fiddled happily with words, stress, syllables, all bent on praising aspects of an almost overripe papaya he had enjoyed at breakfast. Occasionally, he muttered a line aloud to himself, sometimes slowly repeating it a different way. “The juice’s route down chin…The spilled pink juice lives now in the napkin…briefly tinting a man’s mouth…tinting pink briefly.” Fifteen minutes passed quietly like this, one twenty fourth of Georgia.
War and Peace slipped off his wife’s lap and fell face down onto the sandy floor, trapping an orange peel. Luther looked over at Millie. She stirred slightly, reached up, still asleep, and using her index finger, scratched, with delightful accuracy, the very tip of her sunburned nose. Her arm fell back to her lap. The soundness of her sleep had always seemed to him, at better moments, her attempt to compensate for his insomnia. He silently admired her, head back, brown neck taut. He looked quickly to the uneventful highway and back at Millie and back and forth. She was as tanned now as when he met her at a party in Bermuda fifteen years ago. She had been seated, in her white dress, on a white rattan lawn chair and he’d assumed she was French until, finally introduced, she lifted her hand to him and spoke forth in the very voice of Radcliffe College, a glib, opinionated girl, interested, she said that night, in “everything and nothing”. Over the miles, her skirt had inched its way up her brown thighs, slightly glossed, as if polished. One of her sandaled feet was twisted at a poignant angle, resting on its side, and her opened legs, crammed voluptuously into the space under the dashboard, pleased him to look down at.