Rumpus Original Fiction: “Bobcat” by Rebecca Lee

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Who says short stories are going out of style? Sure, editors at the big publishing houses have been saying for years that “short story collections don’t sell.” Sure, it’s harder than ever for debut authors to publish books of short fiction. But at independent publishing houses and innovative journals like One Story, short fiction has been undergoing a renaissance, and here at the Rumpus we’re dedicated to covering work by talented storytellers like Lydia Millet, James Lasdun, Jennine Capó Crucet and many others.

Now we’d like to introduce Madras Press, a new publishing house that publishes individually bound stories and novellas and distributes the proceeds to charities chosen by the authors. Founder Sumanth Prabhaker describes Madras’s titles as “stories that are often arbitrarily ignored by commercial publishing outfits, whether because they’re too long for magazines but not trade-book length, or because they don’t resemble certain other stories. These are clumsy, ill-fitting stories made perfect when read in the simplest possible way.” Among their first offerings is “Bobcat,” a new story by Rebecca Lee. Proceeds from “Bobcat” go to Riverkeeper, an organization committed to protecting the ecological integrity of the Hudson River and to safeguarding the drinking water supply of New York City and the lower Hudson Valley. The Rumpus welcomes Madras Press and proudly offers an excerpt from “Bobcat.”

***

Ding-dong. I took a deep breath. The Donner-Nilsons were here. Kitty Donner came in first, looking pretty in her pale, reserved way. I was ashamed that immediately I compared her to the paralegal, whose looks were almost insanely good. Certainly this was another problem—though secondary—with your husband having an affair like this; everybody would constantly be comparing you to this other woman. Kitty was actually a formidable and special person—she was intelligent and watchful, she had a real empathy about her that made her connect quietly but nearly instantly with people; you could trust her to take your side. At the office, sitting in our sterile conference room, I generally thought of Ray in a somewhat holistic way, as a brilliant legal strategist and funny colleague—a crowd-pleaser, really—an essentially good-hearted man with an unfortunate personal problem on his hands, but now, tonight, walking behind his wife in her strange, boxy, black-and-red kimono dress down our tiny entrance hallway, it became clear that he was simply a cheater; it was just basic and stupid. What felt to him to be a genuine and essential stirring, a deep response to beauty, was really just life having its way with him. If one of the things people do is establish a civilization out of nature, a way out of the chaos, then Ray was failing at being a person, falling back into the glut of the physical world. He’d been fooled by life. It had triumphed over him. I wanted to call it out to him, over his wife’s head, Hey Ray, life has triumphed over you.

I was interpreting each of Kitty’s movements through the lens of what does a woman do who perhaps senses but doesn’t yet know her husband is having an affair. But she was a tentative woman anyway, so it was hard to say what she knew or didn’t know. I had always found her sort of moving, actually, as it was possible to see her perpetually struggling to move past her hesitation. She sat down a little awkwardly since her kimono dress came open both at the neck and the legs. While she was rearranging herself, she looked at me and also put her hand on her stomach. “Oh I forgot about your baby,” she said. “It’s wonderful; there’s so much in store for you.”

John came in from the kitchen with the terrine, which looked, perhaps, not great. A terrine really does need to be great to be not awful—it is meant to evince a perfect melding of disparate entities—the lion lying with the lamb, the sea greeting the land, and so forth. John placed it on the coffee table, and looked at me worriedly. I saw a flicker of alarm cross Kitty’s face. Once John and I had been at a dinner party in Manhattan and the hostess had served us an opening dish of fox meat, so I knew how Kitty felt. (Later that night John had quoted the beautiful Jane Kenyon poem as we drove home along the FDR—Let the fox go back to its sandy den. Let the wind die down. Let the shed go black inside.)

As John began passing out little dishes for the hors d’oeuvres, I turned to Kitty. “We’re not prepared at all. We just found out yesterday at our Lamaze class that we’re supposed to have a theme for our nursery.”

“Theme?” Lizbet said. “What do you mean, theme? Like man vs. nature?”

“How about ‘Alienation in the technological age’?” Ray said.

“Hollywood under McCarthy?” Lizbet said.

“It’s going to be Winnie the Pooh,” John said, which was true. Everybody seemed a bit dejected that John was closing down the joke so early, but he made a recovery. “Winnie the Pooh and the Reconstructed South,” he said. And then suddenly Frances out on the balcony was rapping on the glass door, making big surprised eyes at John, the sort of look that I’ve actually only seen wives make at their own husbands. John went to the door and conferred with her in whispering voices.

And then he returned to our guests, apologizing. “You’ll have to forgive my editor for skipping the appetizers; there is a Salman Rushdie proposal floating around the city today, to various editors, and she is trying to get a copy of it sent here tonight.”

“A novel?” I asked.

“Memoir,” he said. “About the fatwa.”

“No kidding,” said Lizbet. “There’s a book you’d want to read.”

Everybody’s minds filled with it—Salman as a small child along the banks of the Ganges, running, rising as a student at Oxford, his ascension as a literary star in England, and then the terrible fatwa raining down, followed by years in hiding. I had actually seen him give a reading, at an ACLU conference in Atlanta, soon after 9/11. The person introducing him had said, to a very hushed, still shell-shocked crowd, We are all Salman now.

***

Rebecca Lee is the author of the novel The City Is a Rising Tide. She teaches at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.


Andrew Altschul was the founding Books Editor at The Rumpus. He is an O. Henry Prize-winning short story writer and the author of the novels Deus Ex Machina and Lady Lazarus. Currently, he directs the Center for Literary Arts at San Jose State University. More from this author →