Dybek’s ‘Pet Milk’ is another meandering story that proceeds by association and only reveals itself to have any kind of narrative through-line towards its end. It begins with the narrator “drinking instant coffee and Pet milk, and watching it snow.” The way the artificial milk swirls in the coffee reminds him of his grandmother, who served it to her friends, and of the radio in her kitchen tuned to the Polish station “at the staticky right end of the dial” along with stations in Greek, Spanish, and Ukrainian, a multicultural medley that reminds him of a little Czech restaurant, the Pilsen, which he and his first serious girlfriend, Kate, used to frequent, where their favourite waiter would prepare a drink called a King Alphonse, in which crème de cacao is blended with heavy cream. And that memory reminds him of their date at the Pilsen for his twenty-second birthday. The couple, fresh out of college and launched into the world, but anticipating futures that won’t involve each other, get drunk and horny on champagne and oysters. In a frenzy of lust, they look for somewhere private—but all efforts are foiled, leaving them no option but to take the express train to Kate’s place in Evanston. On the train, they make their way into an empty conductor’s compartment, where the acceleration of the train mimics their passion.
Yet as befits this meandering and mediated story, the narrator can’t lose himself in the moment—he finds himself caught up in the expressions of the people waiting at the stations the express speeds by, captivated most of all by a high school kid who grins and waves at them. Even now, years later, the narrator remembers how he couldn’t help but imagine himself as that onlooker: “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.”
‘Pet Milk’ is a melancholy, generous story that has something to say—I’ve yet to quite figure out what—about our subjective sense of time passing and the difficulty of inhabiting a moment. I first came to this story when I was looking for something to pair with Guy de Maupassant’s ‘An Idyll,’ another remarkable story about an intimate encounter on a train (seriously, check it out [the story was chosen by Kate Clanchy for her Personal Anthology; read her take here – Ed.]), but I’ve come to love ‘Pet Milk’ for its own merits. It doesn’t hurt that students love it too. Those on the cusp of graduation, in particular, find this story almost unbearably resonant.
First published in The New Yorker August 5, 1984. Collected in The Coast of Chicago, Knopf, 1990). Read the story here
Ned’s wife has left him. He remembers a question she asked him once a couple of years before: “What if I were to vanish?” She says she heard the line in a film, some Kevin Costner western she can’t remember the name of. Thinking the film might contains some clue to why she’s gone, Ned tracks it down: Open Range. A review he reads online mentions something about its “‘defence of the values of a vanishing lifestyle’”, and it’s here that the story within Dybek’s story reveals itself: Ned has embarked on a journey for meaning, but all the leads he follows will turn out to be false.
It’s an exaggeration to say that in the best short stories not a single word is out of place, but it’s true that the words in a short story do tend to be more constantly freighted with meaning. That’s just the way they have to work if you have anything you really want to explore within their constrained length. There is a Vladimir Nabokov story called ‘Signs and Symbols’ (‘Symbols and Signs’ in its original 1948 appearance in the New Yorker; you can and should read it here) that plays a game with how attuned the skilled short story reader is to hidden meaning. An elderly husband and wife return home from an unsuccessful visit to a mental institution, where their son has made another suicide attempt. He suffers from “referential mania”, a condition that means he “imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence…Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him…Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept”. The story ends with three phone calls. The first two are a woman dialling the wrong number, but as the phone rings for a third time both parents and reader are certain it’s the hospital calling to tell them their son is dead. That is the meaning that our experience of stories, our own referential mania, has taught us to anticipate. Point made, Nabokov ends the story with the phone unanswered.
Ned is similarly attuned to his surroundings on the night described in ‘If I Vanished’: a performance of Pictures at an Exhibition playing on the car radio as he ventures into the snowy night to track down a rental copy of Open Range; an encounter at a donut shop where the woman serving him mistakes him for someone else; the film itself, plucked off the shelf and taken home to be analysed. Alongside Ned we are eager for some answer to be found, although all of us – reader, author, character – know that sometimes things just don’t work out that way, not even in stories.
From Paper Lantern, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2014. Read the story in the 9 July 2007 issue of the New Yorker:https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/07/09/if-i-vanished