The Lonely Voice #27: William Trevor, What Haunts Us Is Us


[This piece originally ran on January 1, 2014. We are running it again today in light of William Trevor’s passing, and in honor of his life and work. –Ed.]


For years now I’ve had a recurring nightmare. I’m driving along a dark road, tall pines on both sides; it may be the northern Wisconsin of my twenties. I recognize the road itself. It is red. Up there in the North Woods, in Douglas County, just south of Lake Superior, the roads are red because of the clay they used to build them. There are more small lakes than people, so many lakes nobody bothers to count like they do across the border in more orderly Minnesota. We used to go swimming at night and I imagined that the little girl in white had just come from swimming in some murky backwoods pond when she ran into County Road F and into my headlights. I’ve got no time to swerve. There’s a thump, not very loud.

In the rearview, in the reddish dim of the brake lights, I see a white dress sprawled on the pavement. I keep driving into the dark. I’ve got to get to the Long Branch in Minong to meet friends, or wherever I’m headed. (Could be Mac’s or Bridge’s. Could be The Cove.) Beloved Long Branch in Minong where the giant moose lords over the pool table and the Birch Trail girls in their dark sunglasses and cut-off shorts stand around dangling longnecks from their fingers, taunting us with their exposed flesh… The North Woods, I dream of them often, and I just figured the little girl in white was a fragment of something that could have happened but didn’t. Wouldn’t I know if it happened?

Sometimes I’ll wake up and not remember and then, late in the afternoon, I’ll be at a stop sign, say at 25th and Cap, and there will be that little girl in the white dress and I’ll know that it happened again last night. And then all the rest of the day and into the night, it will gnaw at me. What if sometime, back in my life of driving (I’ve always loved to drive and have had a car since I was fourteen. I think in the car, philosophize—to myself—in the car, read in the car, write in the car—those few times I write—have a sandwich in the car) I actually hit a little girl and kept driving? It has become another guilt I lug, a vague one to add to all the concrete crimes I’m certain I have committed. Once, in the night, on my way to drool over the Birch Trail girls1, I didn’t stop… I’ve never told anybody. I’ve kept this to myself, and some nights, true, I’ve been afraid to fall asleep.

A month ago, reading a William Trevor story, I became overcome by an unnerving feeling, a sensation that morphed, two or three pages in, to one of absolute recognition. I must have read the story in 2007 when the book first came out, or maybe even earlier in a magazine. I didn’t finish “The Dressmaker’s Child” for a second time. Nor will I finish it. Why the need to read it again when, in my own way, I’ve been living it, re-reading it, for years now? This is how deep Trevor cuts. He messes with your memory and creates experiences that compete for your brain’s attention with the real stuff. You’d think knowing the source of my dream, confirming that it’s only a short story (only a short story!) that leaked into my sleep, would bring some relief. It hasn’t. The fact that it’s a piece of fiction hasn’t absolved me of a hit and run I didn’t commit in Douglas County, Wisconsin in the mid-1990’s. No, I’m still not free of it. I dreamed the dream again—last night.

Right now it is just after five in the morning, a cold new year’s dawn in Bolinas, California. Not hungover, still a little drunk, I took the dog for a walk by the ocean—I could barely see it out there, couldn’t differentiate the vast expanse from the darkness all around me—and have come back to this kitchen table to scrawl out a few words before I try and go back to sleep. The dog’s already snoozing. The sun is finally beginning to crawl over Sally’s barn, a swash of blood orange beyond the Eucalyptus trees. The donkey, Sweet Pea, is groaning her death groans while Fellah stands in his stall with his back to the new day. And so, that’s it. I’m stuck with this and can’t stop the image of the little girl from imploding in my sleep. I never see her face, just her white dress flap.

And this is the majesty of William Trevor. He creates—and at the same time affirms—the dark we’ve all got inside us. He gives our nightmares flesh. It comes down, I believe, to how alone his people are, to how alone we are. He finds such terrible beauty in this essential condition of ours that it circles around, by some miracle, to being, if not hopeful, if not life affirming, glorious nonetheless. What haunts us makes us.


“The Dressmaker’s Child” itself, you won’t be surprised to hear, is a hell of a lot more vivid and creepy than my dream, and like my dream has a not so latent sexual element. I was driving to the Birch Trail girls in their cut-offs. In the “Dressmaker’s Child,” a mechanic named Cahal is driving a couple of tourists from Spain to see a statue called something like, “The Weeping Virgin of the Wayside.” Like I said, I’m not going to read it again. Do I need this story more drilled into my head than it already is? The Weeping Virgin is one of those statues that people have come to believe weeps real tears. As an aside, let me confess that I’m a Jew with a lot of affection for the Virgin Mary, and I’ve always thought that there’s got to be some truth in these stories of inanimate statues grieving. The willingness—call it a need—to be fooled. Doesn’t this ultimately make these frauds true? And isn’t this, when you think about it, the nature of fiction itself?

So Cahal is driving the Spanish couple back from their visit with the Weeping Virgin of the Wayside. The Spanish couple is young; the girl is very pretty. Cahal watches her in the rearview mirror. A girl like that, if I could only have a girl like that. He compares the Spanish girl unfavorably to his own girlfriend whose name, if I remember, is Mindy something. He watches the Spanish couple kiss. They are either newlyweds, or just about to get married—some wag in Dublin told them they must make a trip out to the countryside to see the weeping virgin, that she would bless their union. And Cahal, even though he knows the tears of the virgin are created by the rainwater above the statue, has taken them there for fifty euros, a decent haul for such a short drive. And on the way back to town, he is watching them kiss in the mirror when a little girl in a white dress dashes out into the road. He’s got no time to swerve. Thump. Now this is horror enough but because we’re in a Trevor story and not the flat-footed dream of a displaced and homesick Midwesterner in California, it gets worse—and weirder.

As Cahal drives on, after seeing the white dress sprawled on the road in the rearview, he remembers having heard abut this little girl, the dressmaker’s daughter. She’s known to run into the road and fling herself at passing cars. This alarming practice has apparently been allowed to continue, and somehow, up to that particular evening anyway, this little girl has never been seriously hurt. Why does she fling herself into cars? Cahal has no idea, and the narrator whoever it is, never tells us. We only know that her home life isn’t good and that her mother, the dressmaker, is a drunk and often leaves her daughter alone at night to go to the bar. There are nasty rumors around the little town that the child’s father is also the dressmaker’s father, adding a grotesque detail to a story that becomes increasingly twisted. Yet never gratuitously so. “The Dressmaker’s Child” is so unsettling because it’s so honest. This stuff happens, God knows it happens, every minute, every day. Think of all that goes on behind closed doors. Trevor is watching those doors, and he wants to know, and will imagine, all that goes on behind them.

Read it yourself and take a sleeping pill to knock yourself out after so that you don’t remember your dreams. And maybe the next day and the next day. I’ll only add this one last detail. The girl’s mother, the dressmaker, knows—somehow she knows—that Cahal, the mechanic, a guy she’s never spoken to, hit her daughter and kept going. Instead of going to the police, she stalks Cahal. In Trevor, so often, it is the confrontation between strangers that makes the story. Nothing is odder—and more beautiful—in this world than the way human beings interact with each other.

A friend of mine once told me that Trevor spends part of every year traveling alone. I like to think of him lurking in the shadows of train station waiting rooms or half-empty restaurants, eavesdropping on all our secrets, all the secrets we think we can hold on to forever. Sooner or later, William Trevor will expose them2. And don’t kid yourself, whether you are guilty or not, you’re guilty. Knowing the source of my dream doesn’t absolve me, it only compounds my responsibility. Look around, Trevor quietly implores us in story after story, look around. These are your people. And her, see her over there, walking down the street trying to be anonymous, smiling a smile that’s not quite a smile, that might even be you.


1. For the record, they were counselors at a girl’s camp in another county but in my memory they loom so large and so far away.

2. For a lot of people, myself included, it seems as though Trevor has always been among us. He was here before, and he’ll be here after. All the stories. All the novels. Off the top of my head: “Lovers of Their Time,” Reading Turgenev, “Honeymoon in Traymore,” “Kinkies,” Autumn Sunshine,” “Cheating at Canasta,” “Folie à Deux,” (read this one and lose more sleep and don’t go near it if you love dogs), “Rose Wept,” “Gilbert’s Mother,” “After Rain,” “The Piano Tuner’s Wives,” Nights at the Alexandra, Story of Lucy Gault, Felicia’s Journey… It goes on and on and on. In the margin of my mammoth paperback of his Collected Stories which isn’t his collected stories since he’s written four or five collections since, I wrote a little note to myself, “The way he takes responsibility for strangers.” Maybe this says it better than I’ve tried to above. What I’m getting at is obvious. The man won’t be with us forever and some day his gaze will cease. Nobody knows this better than Trevor, of course. I would think he might believe his own death inconsequential in the scheme of things. I’ll only respond, think of all the characters—all the people, all the souls—we won’t come to know.


Featured image credit.

Peter Orner is the author of two novels, two story collections (Little, Brown), and the editor of two oral histories (Voice of Witness/ McSweeney's/ Verso). His latest book is Am I Alone Here?, an essay collection published in November, 2016 by Catapult with illustrations by Eric Orner. A new book of oral history set in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and co-edited with Dr. Evan Lyon, will be published by Voice of Witness/ Verso, in January, 2017. Peter Orner currently teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers as well as at San Francisco State University where he is currently chair of the Creative Writing Department. More from this author →