You all right today?"
That's the question a man in a straw hat seated at the counter of a diner in downtown Memphis puts to the woman waiting on him.
"It was customary in Memphis to put it like this," we're told of the question the man asks. "[I]t was a rough equivalent to 'how are you?' except that it was also infused with a friendly concern quite absent from the other expression. She [that waitress] had always loved it. You didn't encounter it anywhere else ... except Memphis. 'You all right today?' As though the questioner and the person being asked were in an ongoing conversation about something through which both were struggling. It was part of the charm of where she lived."
And yes, Elaine Woodson, that waitress, is doing all right — today. She's made a single life for herself after her divorce from an unfaithful man, a man with a drug habit, a man people wondered what Elaine was doing married to in the first place. So, what is Elaine doing calling that man in the straw hat from her mother's house in Arkansas? Is she ready to engage in an ongoing conversation about something through which she's struggling? And what are the characters in any of the 11 stories (five of them set in Memphis) doing in Something Is Out There (Knopf), the eighth and latest volume of short stories by Richard Bausch, holder of the Moss Chair of Excellence in the writers' workshop of the University of Memphis?
In the book's opening story, "The Harp Department in Love," Josephine Stanislowski is trying to make sense of the announcement from her husband, professor emeritus at the Memphis School of the Arts, that their marriage is through — and trying, over the course of one afternoon, to put off the advances of her married friend and neighbor, Andrew. (Andrew's wife, Ruthie, to Josephine, over the phone: "You all right?")
In the book's longest and best story, "Blood," a man, Walker Clayfield, who's fallen in love with his brother's wife, Jenny, gets drunk on one too many beers at the bar of the Beauty Shop in Cooper-Young and attacks the man he's convinced Jenny's having an affair with. After Max, Walker's brother, lays into Walker once he drunkenly delivers the news of Jenny's supposed infidelity, Max comes to with the question: "Is everyone all right?"
The answer is they are not in "Blood," or in the case of the unfaithful wife in "Reverend Thornhill's Wife," or the 27-year-old slacker who retreats under his bed in the house of his unhappy parents (after a drug deal gone very wrong) in "Son and Heir," or the woman waiting for something possibly terrible to happen to her and her children inside her snow-covered house in the book's title story, or the warring couples at a Toronto cafe in "One Hour in the History of Love," or the doubting priest in "Sixty-five Million Years," or the young wife in "Immigration," who asks herself, "Oh, how did people do it? ... [F]ind some way to be happy?"
Perhaps you've read Robert Stone's Damascus Gate. "Perhaps you know Malraux's Anti-memoirs," Stone writes in that novel, and Bausch lifts that quote from Stone as an epigraph to Something Is Out There. The quote continues: "His priest tells us that people are much more unhappy than one might think ... and that there is no such thing as a grownup."
But there is such a thing as pitch-perfect hearing. Josephine Stanislowski has it for music. The same can be said of Richard Bausch's way with dialogue, whether it's displaying the disconnect between men and women, the sad note to a relationship between one man and another (in "Byron the Lyron"), or the subsurface tension between two men during a golf game (in "Trophy").
And what of the aged characters in these stories? Some — divorced; widowed — have made their peace; some, still married, are still squabbling; and more than a few are as wanting as their adult children in the happiness department. More reason to repeat, Stone quoting Malraux, in the guiding quote to Something Is Out There. A grownup: "[T]here is no such thing."