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TheProgressive 100 YEARS 1909.-2009 Texas Observer Readers, You’re Hereby Invited to The Progressive’s 100th Anniversary Conference and Bash in Madison, Wisconsin, May 1-2 Join Robert Redford, Howard Zinn, Amy Goodman, Cindy Sheehan, Jim Hightower, Jesse Jackson, Barbara Ehrenreich, Katha Pollitt, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Joan Claybrook, Sen. Russ Feingold, and former Sen. George McGovern for a once-in-a-century event! To register go to or send $295 to The Progressive, 409 E. Main St. Madison, WI 53703 Ward’s deft, almost aloof treatment is also integral to the success of a sister story, “The Way the Sky Changed,” wherein a man and woman who lost their spouses in the 9-11 attacks begin to date. Like Claude and Nan, their relationship is built on a wordless lie. The two are set up by concerned loved ones, and after a dismal first date decide to visit a hamburger place the protagonist once frequented with her husband. When Jan came to take our order, she looked surprised to see me with a date, then angry, then sad. “What do you recommend?” Kent asked Jan. “Oh, get a cheeseburger,” I said. Paul and I always ordered cheeseburgers. “The tuna steak sandwich is good,” said Jan. She looked Kent up and down … “The cheeseburgers are really the best,” I insisted. “I think I’ll try the tuna steak sandwich,” said Kent. He looked at me with a smile, but he must have seen something in my face. He blinked, and I looked down at my menu. “Wait,” said Kent, reaching out and touching his fingers to Jan’s arm. “I’ve changed my mind.” She wheeled around and raised an eyebrow. “I’ll have the cheeseburger after all,” said Kent. “You might even want to try fried onions on top,” I said. “Oh,” said Kent, “okay.” Ward lets the truth behind their dating dawn on the reader the way it dawns on Kent at that moment, without ever spelling it out. If readers don’t catch it then, they’ll be awfully confused a few pages later when the protagonist “jazzes up” her outfits with Kent’s dead wife’s high heels. Their time together is brief, but to anyone who’s ever found companionship through mutual despair, it’s familiar. Ward is at her best when rendering ambiguous, complex relationships like these. If she has a weakness, it’s evoking a sense of place. Rather than transport the reader to various semiexotic locales through the sensesthe smells, the weight of the air, the slant of light particular to a placeWard relies on local restaurants, street names and landmarks to sketch in her settings. Stories transpiring in Austin, Houston and San Francisco are interchangeable but for the proper names of streets and restaurants. In an interview included with the book, Ward confides that her experience with a dot-com startup took place in Austin and that she transposed it to San Francisco for “Shakespeare. com .” Despite a fleeting mention of Birkenstocks and guacamole, “Should I Be Scared?” would be unplaceable if not for its shout-out to the Austin Chronicle. In “The Stars Are Bright in Texas,” the protagonist and her scientist husband search for a home in The Woodlands, a master-planned community north of Houston, and Ward’s brief description misses an opportunity to evoke the soulsucking homogeneity of that socially engineered sprawl. The one story in which the reader gets to linger on sensory details of place is “Butte as in Beautiful:’ Our Lady of the Rockies, a hundred-foot statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking the historic mining town, is bleached “white as snow” by the arsenic in the air. “Butte bought her and helicoptered her up to the Continental Divide to give the town something to be proud of, when all the copper was gone:’ In the smokestack of the old smelter and the old cars in the sun, the reader feels the thin, bright air and pawnshop sadness of Butte. Of course the statue was installed in 1985, four years after the arsenic-spewing smelter closedbut then again, this is fiction. What Ward’s stories lack in diversity they make up in depth, which she achieves with seemingly effortless prose. Her thoughtful storytelling delivers insightful moments of uncommon tenderness. They linger, unattached to either time or place, less read than experiencedand isn’t that what short stories are for? Contributing writer Emily DePrang lives in Pearland. 25 THE TEXAS OBSERVER APRIL 17, 2009