The writer Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, selected Julie Hayden’s The Lists of the Past to be reissued by Pharos Editions, a small press. This brilliant collection of short stories, originally published in The New Yorker, was published by Viking in 1976. Hayden, the daughter of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Phyllis McGinley, worked at The New Yorker in the 1960s and ’70s as the “News Break” editor. She died at age 42 of cancer and kidney failure.
Strayed writes in the introduction about her discovery of Hayden’s work:
It began as things do these days with a Facebook post. My friend, the poet Cate Marin, wrote of her admiration for a writer I’d never heard of, a woman named Julie Hayden. Cate had assigned one of Hayden’s stories to the students in her college class. When I emailed her and asked her to tell me more, she responded with an urgent tone, imploring me to read Hayden’s work, and included a link to a New Yorker fiction podcast of Lorrie Moore reading Hayden’s story “Day-Old Baby Rats.”
These meticulously-detailed stories are little gems. They are jigsaw puzzles of scenes we slowly put together. The book is divided into two parts, “Brief Lives” and “The Lists of the Past”: the stories in “Brief Lives” are often fragmented and experimental, while “The Lists of the Past,” a group of linked stories, is essentially a realistic novella about a family in Connecticut.
In “Day-Old Baby Rats,” the unnamed heroine, a heavy drinker, sips all day from a flask. From the moment she wakes up, she drinks Scotch for her tremors. She is indignant about air pollution and would like to report some oily black smoke from the stacks, but the Office of Air Resources’ recorded message says it is closed till Monday. She puts on her rabbit coat and oversized sunglasses to go out, but first has a confrontation with the UPS man. She refuses to accept a package, because he has repeatedly nicked bark off the plane tree with his truck. She says she should report him.
Lady.” He stops in mid-trill. “Be nice. I can’t go through this again. Just sign the little slip, I give you the package, and everybody’s happy.”
She is dying to know what’s in the package, but refuses it. Her memory is terrible: at Macy’s, she can’t find her Macy’s charge card, then remembers she doesn’t have a Macy’s charge card. She forgets completely about the package she has bought. She wanders into St. Patrick’s Cathedral to have a drink from her flask, and ends up in a confessional, inventing sins for a German priest. At the end of the story, when we find out she has been waiting to go to a particularly grueling appointment, we have compassion for her forgetfulness, drinking, and desire to report and confess, though they seem to be independent of the appointment.
I am very fond of “The Lists of the Past,” the second part of the book, linked stories which form a very spare novella.. In “The Stories of the House,” we are introduced to the gardening-obsessed father of a tight but dysfunctional family in Connecticut. The story begins with a list:
(1) Cut Grass South Side
(2) Rake Turnaround
The lists are quite beautiful. Details about the work, shared by him and the gardener, Myron, accompany the lists.
We get to know him very well by the tasks. He bought the beloved country house before World War II, and before the suburban developments were built. He loved the house so much that he made a dollhouse, an exact replica of the house. Now the grandchildren love it. But the story takes some strange turns: it ends with a vivid scene of a terrified black man, rescued by the Underground Railroad, hiding in the concealed hole in the basement before being taken to Canada. Then the story briefly flashes back to the father.
Very weird, very beautiful.
In the next five stories, the saga of the family continues. Cornelia, one of his adult daughters, takes care of her mother and the gardens (he has several) and checks items off the list while he is in the hospital with a fatal illness. (The roses are particularly tricky.) Her mother stays in bed and asks for crossword puzzle answers. “What is a five-letter word for ‘lively’?” The tale of gardening, the family’s interactions, and the father’s illness become more intense. Will the items on the lists ever be checked off?
Very, very moving. Yes, I like the second part better than the first. But the whole collection is worth reading.