My grandmother wore long Mexican dresses every day, had nine children in thirteen years, and could smoke cigarettes with her toes. I love telling people about her, though less so the end of the story: she died of lung cancer. Does the fact of her death make her party trick morbid? Probably, but it still makes me smile, and, for reasons I cannot fully explain, it makes her more real to me. If she sounded like a character in a story at first, she might now sound like something more. In fiction as in life, there’s something to be said for embracing the shock value of the terribly funny cracks in our lives.
Few writers dig into the decrepit, comical folds of human experience quite like Lucia Berlin, whose most influential story collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women, was published in 2015, eleven years after her death. Berlin, who enjoyed minimal critical recognition while alive, writes about tough, smart women stuck in many of the places she herself lived: El Paso, Juneau, San Francisco, Santiago, Mexico City, New York. Her characters self-destruct, love hard, and drink way too much. Picture this: a nine-year-old girl sits in a dentist’s filthy office. The dentist, her bigoted, terrifying grandfather, enjoys pulling teeth without anesthetizing his patients. When the old man asks his granddaughter to pull his few remaining molars, whiskey and blood and curses are spewed: “The sound was the sound of roots being ripped out, like trees being torn from winter ground.” It’s hard not to be shaken and disgusted by this account. It’s also hard not to laugh.
In old age, Berlin worked as a nurse, a housemaid, and a switchboard operator, writing when she could. Her unstable employment history perhaps explains her affinity for the short form: she was a working mother of four, always pressed for time. Her lifestyle also provided her with a variety of settings and experiences to defamiliarize and transform in her fiction. The characters in A Manual—Lucia, Maria, Carlotta, and Dolores—are thinly veiled stand-ins for Berlin: foul-mouthed, well-traveled and world-weary. As Berlin’s son Mark wrote on the day of her death (also her birthday), “Ma wrote true stories, not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes. Our family stories and memories have been slowly reshaped, embellished and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.” An example of Berlin’s wicked warping of reality: several stories feature a character named Maggie. Two-hundred-plus pages after she is introduced, another character reveals that Maggie’s real name is Carlotta. Though it shouldn’t matter, the reader can’t help but feel undermined and even a little shocked by this. Carlotta is Maggie, and both are Lucia. Ma wrote true stories, indeed.
In A Manual’s title story, Maggie (Carlotta!), steals trivial things from the homes she cleans: a bottle of sesame seeds, a sleeping pill. “Cleaning women do steal,” she explains:
Not the things the people we work for are so nervous about. It is the superfluity that finally gets to you. . . . Today I stole a bottle of Spice Islands sesame seeds. Mrs. Jessel rarely cooks. When she does she makes Sesame Chicken. . . . Whenever she orders chicken, soy sauce, and sherry she orders another bottle of sesame seeds. She has fifteen bottles of sesame seeds. Fourteen now.
On the bus home the other maids, all black, compare what they have taken. Maggie, an outsider because of her race, education, and age, turns to them: “To get into the conversation I showed them my bottle of sesame seeds. They roared with laughter. ‘Oh, child! Sesame seeds?’” Maggie’s understated delivery notwithstanding, this scene is oddly moving: Berlin’s characters are always trying to thwart loneliness, to belong to something. Berlin is too smart, though, to let this just be sad, and always infuses it with humor.
The narrator of “B.F. and Me” enjoys the company of an old man who stinks of tobacco, sweat, and alcohol. “Bad smells can be nice,” she thinks. How childlike, how earnest this assertion is, and how revelatory anyway. Reading that line, I thought of gasoline, and of the grassy, sour smell after my father mowed the lawn when I was young. More than just relatable, Berlin’s fiction triggers our empathy; it is full of wounds laid bare, of humans who say, “these are the bad things about me.” In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis describes such moments as the genesis of friendship, when one person says to another, “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
Berlin’s stories and the empathy they engender make questions of reality irrelevant. Visiting a nursing home, a Berlin narrator witnesses a double amputee cry out in phantom pain. “Is it real?” she asks. A nurse shrugs: “All pain is real.” A Manual asserts that each of its drunk, rich, poor, lonely, beautiful, wrinkled characters are as real as the pain they suffer, and therefore matter. Berlin herself died at sixty-eight, reportedly with a book in her hands, having lived her last two years in a trailer park and a garage apartment outside Los Angeles. No word on whether she could smoke with her toes, but she had her fair share of both party tricks and pain. Her writing serves to prove that honesty, sometimes, has the most shock value.