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child. In a display of confused possessiveness, grief, and drugged fragility, the teenagers turn on her. In “Charity” a woman likes the idea of giving money to a family of panhandlers while traveling in the New Mexico desert. Her gesture, however, is complicated by the family’s outrageous demands, and what begins as a flash of charity finds her in a motel bed with the whole family, exhausted, nauseated, having lost husband, car, and money within the course of a few short hours. In “Hammer” a girl comes home from boarding school with a chatty vagrant in tight leather pants \(which, due to an “unfortunate erotic man acts as a kind of buffer between the girl and her mother while showing his general disapproval of every nook and cranny in the house. In “The Other Week,” a woman tries to fire her obsessive gardener, encouraging him to pursue his dream of raising “security cactus.” In “Anodyne” a young diabetic follows her mother as she drops yoga to take gun classes at a place called “the Pistol Institute.” The very real tension these seemingly ridiculous circumstances create is substantial. This happens because Williams’ characters, while certainly ridiculous at times, are, for the most part, anything but absurd. What makes these stories so affecting is the author’s penchant for paring down her characters to a kind of single-minded obsessiveness that rings true both in the world of the story and in the gut of its reader. And what sends her characters into that state of hyper-brooding is most often an unshakable awareness of their own mortality. We die, they seem to be saying, right?even as the facts of our reality become more and more abstracted, and death becomes a negligible threshold, with dead actors on TV digitally re-introduced into scenes and wild animals found to be much more believable when stuffed and mounted. Williams is intent on turning the tables, showing us that what looks like absurd human behavior on an individual basis might actually be a normal response to a world gone mad. All allegory aside, Williams has a tremendous empathy for her characters. They are conscious beings living in a peculiarly disengaged world, and they seem to senseand, at continued on page 38 From “Anodyne,” by Joy Williams The Marksman told horrible stories about individuals and their unexpected fates. He told stories about doors that were opened a crack when they had been closed before. He told stories about tailgating vehicles. He told a story about the mini-van mugger, the man who hid under cars and slashed women’s Achilles tendons so they couldn’t run away. He said that the attitude you have toward others is important. Do not give them the benefit of the doubt. Give them the benefit of the doubt and you could already be dead or dying. The distinction between dead and dying was an awful one and I often went into the bathroom, the one marked Does, and washed my hands and dried them, holding and turning them for a long time under the hot-air dryer. The Marksman told the story about the barefoot, bare-chested madman with the machete on the steps of the capitol in Phoenix. This was his favorite story, illustrating as it did the difference between killing power and stopping power. The madman strode forward for sixteen seconds after he had been warned and his chest blown out. You could see daylight through his chest. You could see the gum wrappers on the marble steps behind him right through his chest. But for sixteen seconds he kept coming, wielding his machete, and in those sixteen seconds he annihilated four individuals. My mother kept taking the classes, so I heard this story more than once. My mother decided that she wanted to know the Marksman socially and invited him to dinner along with the others in the class. We decided on a buffet-style arrangement, the plates and silverware stacked off to the side. This way, if no one came, we wouldn’t feel humiliated. The table had not been set. No one came except the Marksman. Not the fat lady who had her own pistol and a purple holster for it, not the bald man or the two college girls, not the other man with the tattoo of a toucan on his arm. The Marksman was a thin man in tight clothes and he wore a gold chain and had a small moustache. Sometimes he favored bloused shirts but that night he was wearing a jacket. I sat with him in the living room while my mother was in the kitchen. The dogs came in and looked at him. Then they jumped up onto the sofa and curled up and looked at him. “You allow those dogs every license, I see,” he said. I wanted to say something but had no idea what it was. He asked me if I’d been to Disneyland. “No;’ I said. “How about the other one, the one in Florida?” I said that I hadn’t. “Where are you from?” he asked me. “Here,” I said. “I’m from San Antonio,” he said. “Have you ever been to San Antonio?” “No,” I said. “There’s a big river there, a big attraction, that runs right past all the shops and restaurants and that’s all lit up with fairy lights,” the Marksman said. “Tourists take cruises on it and stroll beside it. They promenade,” he said in a careful voice. “Once a year, they pump the whole thing out, the whole damn river, and clean it and then put the water back in again. They scrub the bottom like it was a bathtub and fill it up again. What do you think of that? My hands were damp. I was beginning to worry about this, but my mother always said there was nothing more useless than dreading something you weren’t understanding. “People have lost their interest in reality,” the Marksman said. 1/7/05 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23