Katherine Shonk’s Vision of “The Incredible Appearing Man”

I believe Katherine Shonk may be the first guest in our “Selling Shorts” series to select a short story by an author who hasn’t had his or her work collected—though, if I’m wrong about that, I’d welcome the correction! Instead, she recalls a story she read once, a decade ago, that has lingered in her memory ever since. Shonk’s own debut, The Red Passport, was first published in hardcover back in 2003; the trade paperback came out earlier this year.

katherine-shonk.jpgI have a terrible memory, so I don’t remember exactly where or when I read Deborah Galyan’s short story “The Incredible Appearing Man.” But since it was published in Best American Short Stories 1996, it’s likely that I read it in 1997, after buying the book that fall or getting it for Christmas. I remembered Galyan’s story fondly (if fuzzily) for the next ten years, and can only assume that it gave me an hour or two of pleasure in the midst of what I remember as a terrible year.

In 1997, I was back in Chicago after a year in Moscow. I had followed someone there, and now we were breaking up long distance, in tortured, unnecessary phone calls that were scheduled in advance (if I recall correctly), like dates. I went back to my old secretarial job and rented a studio apartment, where mushrooms grew in a corner of the bathtub. I took in Emily, the family cat—21 years old, deaf, and either incontinent or passive aggressive. I began pining obsessively for the kitten I had left behind in Moscow with my ex. My hometown was boring, everyone seemed spoiled. At a loss, I applied to grad school. By the end of summer, under circumstances I’d rather not get into, Emily was dead, Mishka the kitten had journeyed across the ocean, and she and I were moving to Austin.

None of this has anything to do with “The Incredible Appearing Man,” but in a round-about, not-very-literal way it might explain why the story has stayed with me. The story, I think, is about the stupidity and obstinacy of youth, of the chaos we invite upon ourselves, of the difficulty some of us have growing up. It is a story that would have comforted a young Midwestern woman who was feeling like a loser after her adventure abroad. And, ten years later, it reassures me that I am not the only person to feel like a late bloomer to adulthood.

More literally, Galyan’s story, which originally appeared in the Missouri Review, is about a woman in her thirties who has settled down in Cleveland with a “blond and temperate” husband. They have a new baby boy; she teaches part-time at a local women’s college. This tidy, peaceful life is interrupted by a knock on the door: a man claiming to be a plumber, only she hasn’t called a plumber, and he doesn’t have any tools. “He smells delicious,” the narrator tells us, “like lemongrass and eucalyptus bark, fresh from California. I breathe him in.” It is the great love of her twenties, the Incredible Appearing Man, back again like a bad penny. He returns another day with a machine and a hose, on the lookout for radon gas.

Seventeen years earlier, the narrator fell for the “the Man” (as he’s called for short), a golden-eyed, New Age hippie, just before her college graduation. Abandoning all reason, she ran off with him to a ramshackle cabin in the California woods. The Man is a goof, but he has his charms, including a grin “rife with the stuff with which a young man’s grin should be rife: bravado and sexual innuendo and courage or stupidity, depending on your view. Maybe it also contained cruelty, but I missed that at the time.” When the narrator worries that they’ll starve, alone in the woods, he chides, “I can’t participate in your anxiety. I’m already beyond it.”

Catching a glimpse of herself in a restroom mirror at the end of that first year in the woods, the narrator is taken aback: “I was someone new and strange, a tall girl with a wild mop of hair in a pair of worn jeans and a man’s shirt, living hand to mouth in a mostly chopped-down redwood forest.”

Only after she catches the Man in bed with another woman is she able to leave him and their ridiculous life. Yet a few yeas later he shows up at her wedding reception, delivering a cake, which she hurriedly stuffs in the trash. He appears again and again over the years, trailing the narrator and her husband across the country, taunting her with his charm and their undeniable chemistry. To her shame, she succumbs to an affair. She breaks loose, only to start up again.

Galyan herself described the story as “my shrine to the lost continent of my twenties.” As for the narrator, deep into her thirties, she finally feels capable of abandoning her twenties after reaching an epiphany about Mitch, her husband, that she knows the Man would have scorned: “I loved Mitch because we could go months without arguing. I loved Mitch because we could argue without making up in bed. I loved him because we could do our laundry on Friday night and call it a date.”

It is a simple realization, yet one that took almost two decades to reach. Some people have challenging years. Some of us have challenging decades. But I would like to think that for most of us there is a time—and this is a victory, not a defeat—when we surrender to comfort, to peace.

18 August 2007 | selling shorts |