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San Antonio Riverwalk photo: Polly Chandler Williams, continued from page 23 the same time, denythis great disconnect. When one character leaves her husband in bed to sleep out by the pool, Williams writes with a scalding clarity that, while amusing, speaks to the disturbing direction in which we seem to be headed: It was long past the hour when people in the neighborhood used the outside. It was a big concern among Francine’s acquaintances, who were always vowing to utilize the outside more, but after a certain hour they stopped worrying about it. To many of Francine’s acquaintances, the outside was the only flagellator their consciences would ever know. What’s especially remarkable about this prose is that Williams’ concerns are essentiallyruthlessly, criticallyAmerican. She is somehow able to both meditate on our mortality at the same time draw careful lines between those existential questions and the increasing vapidity of American culture. This is best achieved in the title story, where we find Lenore, a dying woman, and her teenage daughter Helen living out their daily lives as the imminent event draws nearer. This narrative unfolds like a Lifetime Television movie gone wrong, with all the heartfelt, meaningful conversations, all the conciliatory, sentimental stuff, gone. In the absence of consolation, we’re left with the hours and the minutes and the terrifying, practical matters of dying. In this fiction death does not act as an organizing principle, as it does in many American narratives. Lenore grows frantic, bitchy even, in her attempts to make her own death make sense to her, and to communicate something big to her daughter. Unable to sleep one night, she makes another attempt to come to terms with her dying. She took a pen and wrote on the paper, When I go, the dog goes. Promise me this. She left it out for Helen. Then she thought, That dog is the dumbest one I’ve ever had. I don’t want him with me. She was amazed she could still think this. She tore the piece of paper. “Lenore!” she cried, and wrung her hands. She wanted herself As is typical of Williams’ fiction in general, it is the teenager, Helen, who, near the end of this story, grasps, albeit for a fleeting moment, a sense of meaning in the face of death: “An honored guest,” she said aloud. To live was like being an honored guest. The thought was outside her, large and calm. Then you were no longer an honored guest. The thought turned away from her and faded. Even this thought, however, fades. It’s not something she’s allowed to carry with her. This is not to say that Williams writes nihilistic fiction. In fact, what she achieves here, in the overall worldview these stories seem to profess, is actually the opposite: a desperate call for reason, which, in the end, is a call for humanity. “We are what is missing from the world,” wrote the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. Williams seems to agree. Her eye is trained to the huge, boisterous ways we humans, especially we Americans, try obsessively to deny the fact that we die. In these stories she gets beyond that, and in doing so, proves that we exist. Carrie Fountain is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. She lives in Austin and is working on a book of poetry. 38 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 1/7/05