Each installment of “The Friendship Files” features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with two friends who were both diagnosed with the same cancer—acute myeloid leukemia—one right after the other. They discuss how this unhappy coincidence shaped their friendship and their faith, and what they’ve learned about the right and wrong ways to support a sick friend.
Doug Kelley, 64, a professor at Arizona State University who lives in Phoenix, Arizona Ted Wueste, 51, a pastor who lives in Phoenix
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Julie Beck: Paint me a portrait of what your friendship was like before your diagnoses.
Doug Kelley: Our friendship was in a growth stage. One day in a sermon, Ted had quoted a couple of people who I was familiar with and who were a little bit out of the box. So I made an appointment to see him, because I wanted to find out if he was the real deal.
Ted Wueste: I probably quoted Henri Nouwen or maybe Richard Rohr. Doug and I both grew up in the more conservative evangelical stream of the Christian faith. Those two authors speak to the search for God in some really deep personal places, in ways that the more traditional [writings] didn’t.
Doug: Both those authors are Catholic. You don’t traditionally hear Catholics quoted in evangelical churches. Those authors lean more to a contemplative side of the faith. They quote freely. They might use a Buddhist or a Native American story.
We sat down and had a long, great conversation. I came home and I told [my wife], this is the real deal. We both had similar takes on our faith, which influences our worldview. And both of us love humor—really dumb humor. Ted loves practical jokes. I was like, “Oh my gosh, I can talk deeply with this guy about what it means to be human or the nature of our spirituality, and we can hang out and just be goofy.” It was so great to find that.
Beck: Ted, what was your first impression of Doug?
Ted: Here’s a kindred spirit. Somebody that is speaking a language that connects deeply with me and my experience. From the beginning there was a resonance. We went really deep really fast. I remember him sharing about his best friend who had died of cancer a few years before. I thought, This is somebody that has depth.
Beck: Ted, you were the first one to get diagnosed with cancer—when was that?
Ted: I was diagnosed in October of 2017. I’d been feeling sick and kept going to the doctor, and they just kept giving me antibiotics. Finally I got an X-ray. Doug and I happened to be together having a beer one afternoon when I got a call that something showed up on the X-ray that didn’t look good.
I was then diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I very quickly had surgery. I went through six months of chemo, and they told me at the end that I was cancer-free. Then it came back. I had a stem-cell transplant, but it didn’t work. It was pretty devastating.
They did another bone-marrow biopsy, and I’d developed acute myeloid leukemia.
Beck: Oh my goodness. Two cancers. That’s too many cancers.
Ted: It’s something else to find out that you have cancer when you have cancer.
I was in the hospital for seven weeks. It almost killed me. I went into heart failure. But the cancer was dealt with, I went home, and successfully went through the stem-cell transplant.
Beck: Did your friendship change as you were going through all that?
Ted: Doug was with me every step of the way. Especially during those seven weeks in the hospital. He would just come in and sit with me. There were times when I couldn’t even talk and he would just hold my hand and be with me, sometimes for hours at a time. That certainly bonded us deeply.
Beck: Doug, what was your memory of that time? Especially since you had already lost a friend to cancer; that must have been hard to watch.
Doug: Yes. I have a distinct memory of talking to my friend—his name was Dick—on the phone one night. I was standing in the swimming pool, and he was telling me that he was going to die from his cancer. It just brings tears to me.
The whole time Ted was talking, I had tears. I thought, You’re just abandoning me. You’re the one guy I have. But I knew immediately: I was going to invest fully in this and not pull away.
Cancer just slows your whole life down, when you’re hospitalized. So in some ways it creates this great space to be together. Ted was reading when he could; we would talk about what we were reading. Now that we’re both healthier, it’s harder to find time to be together. We still do, but it’s harder.
Beck: At some point, you got the same kind of cancer Ted had, isn’t that right Doug?
Doug: That’s correct. Ted went to a stem-cell transplant in April of 2019. They just drip it from a bag, and it looks kind of like a strawberry Icee. There’s no big dramatic surgery. So a number of us were there for that, just hanging out.
Three months later, in July, I was feeling pretty bad. We were on a road trip up the West Coast, and I finally had to go to urgent care. They wanted to hospitalize me immediately. But I talked them into letting me come home.
The cancer had created a little leaking spot in my colon, so E. coli had gotten into my system. They kept poking around, and then they found the cancer—[acute myeloid leukemia].
Ted, I’m not sure what your experience was, but I remember when the doctor told me what it was. I just wanted to say, “No.” My job was to be the healthy one helping Ted. I was thinking I’m not the kind of person that gets cancer.I don’t know what kind of person is, but it’s not me.
Ted: I was in the midst of my recovery, just starting to feel a little better. I’ll never forget the night he called and told me he had the same kind of cancer I do. I must have cried for hours. I thought, I’ll take it back again if that’s what it would take. I don’t want him to have this.
Beck: What did you make of that horrible coincidence? Did you have thoughts that there was some greater meaning to it?
Ted: There’s mysteries to the way that God works and how the universe is put together. Doug got his transplant six months after I got mine. I had that sense of I walked through this, and now it’s my turn to be there for him. He’s going through something, and I can understand it fully. It looks like a coincidence and yet somehow, I think, we were meant to walk through this together.
Doug: I’ve always thought that I got the better end of the deal. I was healthy when I was showing up at the hospital and hanging out with Ted. Then I get diagnosed with this and I have this close brother who has been there that I can now lean on, and ask practical questions of.
Some talk about our spiritual perspective did come into play. Neither of us believes that God does this to you to teach you a lesson. It’s a mystery. It’s brutally difficult, and there’s a lot of uncertainty. But there are so many gifts and beautiful things in the midst of it. Our friendship is one of those.
Ted: I ended up writing a book about the journey called Welcome Everything. It starts off with those words: “Welcome everything. Everything? Well, yes.” The first chapter walks through the idea of welcoming cancer rather than fighting it. Trying to welcome whatever God was doing with us. It’s not something we would ever wish on anyone. But I can say for me, I wouldn’t trade what I walked through these last years for anything.
At this point, both of us are cancer-free. We don’t know how long that will last, if it’ll last. We pray that it does. But we have that perspective of: We can embrace it and know that there are gifts in the middle of it.
Beck: What have you learned about how to support a friend through illness, having each been on both sides of that in your friendship?
Doug: I think we’re both good at initiating with each other. It’s easy to feel like, No, it’s been a rough day. I don’t feel like talking. Then somebody just shows up at your door, and all of a sudden you realize what a gift it is that this person is here. I would’ve told you no, but I’m so glad you’re here.
Ted: One of the most significant—and one of the most difficult—things is to just be present. The hospital is a really scary place for a lot of people. Often people don’t want to enter into that space because it’s just too uncomfortable. When I was in the hospital, there were some people who I had to ask to come visit me. But Doug was never scared. He was always just there.
That’s what people need. They don’t need answers, because most of the time there aren’t any good answers to some of the questions that illness brings up. But the presence of another person is huge, and it can’t be replaced by anything else.
Beck: Did your diagnoses change any of your other friendships? Making them stronger, or some of them falling away? Or were there friends who meant well who didn’t understand what you really needed?
Ted: I experienced almost all the different things that you said. There are people I didn’t hear from. After the fact, they said, “We wanted to give you your space.” And I was like, “Well, I didn’t ask for any space.” But for some people, I think that was their way of dealing with it—withdrawing.
A couple of other people tried to give me spiritual advice that I just knew wasn’t true or right. Or [they might] say, “What are you learning from all of this?” That can feel really demeaning. That all this is so that I learn a lesson. When you’re looking back, it’s incredibly valid to ask What did you learn? But in the middle of it, well, I just got punched in the stomach and I’m in pain. I’m not really in a place to think about that. We were holding on deeply to the idea that there was good that would come from it, and even good in the midst of it. But that’s a deep, visceral trust in faith, rather than some glib cliché.
I also have a whole box filled with cards and notes from people. Tons of people showed up. There were some bad examples of people not knowing how to be there. But far more wonderful, beautiful things.
Doug: Everybody has their own way of dealing with your pain. I was surprised that I didn’t hear from some of my friends more—I needed to let go of that early on. I realized they’re on their own journey trying to figure out how to deal with this too. If I need more from them, I need to tell them. I don’t harbor anything against anyone from that time.
I learned to appreciate the smaller things. I got a card once a week from my sister-in-law’s little church in the middle of Missouri saying that their prayer group was praying for me. I’d never met any of them. And you’re like, “Somebody in Missouri is just sitting there praying for you. How beautiful is that?” There were all these little beautiful moments along the way if you chose to see them.
When I was in the hospital for three months, Ted was still coming in for regular treatments, so he could pop in any time.
Ted: I really got to know the nurses on that particular unit. One of them was a bit of a prankster. So one day I said, “Let’s go play a trick on my friend.”
We went in [to Doug’s room], and she said, “I’m here to get your proctology sample.”
Doug: I’m thinking, Okay, they’ve been in pretty much every orifice of my body already anyway.
Ted: Then the nurse looked over at me and said, “Hey, Ted, could you help out with this?”
Doug: That’s when I knew for sure. We’re close, but we don’t do all that.
Beck: Doug, you sent me an article you wrote about having to wear a mask after getting the stem-cell transplant. Ted, you had a similar experience. How did wearing a mask shape your interactions and relationships? Has that changed during the pandemic?
Ted: I had to wear a mask for probably two and a half years before the pandemic. I had so many experiences where everybody’s staring at me. Little kids asking their parents, “What’s wrong with him?” During the pandemic, I wasn’t a weirdo anymore.
Doug: I’d only been wearing a mask since the end of November 2019.
In the hospital I had to intentionally work against adopting a patient mentality. All of a sudden everything is stripped from you. I was Dr. Kelley at Arizona State University, and now I’m in this funky gown, and everybody is doing everything for me. It’s kind of like being a child. You don’t know enough to make decisions.
Once you’re out, it’s easy to fall back into this everybody-does-everything-for-you mode. I found it easy to pull back, and the mask provided a place to continue to hide.
Beck: Did you feel like your instinct in interactions was to make yourself small?
Doug: That’s a great way to put it. There’s centripetal force, and there’s centrifugal force. Centrifugal throws things out and away, and centripetal pulls inward like a whirlpool. My sense of self, if I wasn’t careful, felt like it was spinning and becoming smaller and smaller.
If I was with my wife, they might talk to her about me like I’m not there. I had cancer, but I can still talk. People in wheelchairs experience this, and others with disabilities. If you’re not careful, and you just sort of accept that, you can feel like you’ve become smaller as a person.
That’s part of the importance of our friendship: We were able to engage each other so fully in those times—like we normally did. We were talking about things we were reading, and deep stuff, and we were being funny and inappropriate. That was a critical part of me maintaining a sense of self and not just letting it become diminished.
Beck: You could take up more space when you were with each other.
Doug: Yeah, that’s a nice way to put it.
Ted: The issue of identity is really significant when you’re dealing with life-threatening illness. For me it was really important to say, “I’m not a cancer victim.” Cancer just happens to be a part of my circumstance right now. It wasn’t my identity.
Doug: But neither of us wants to go back to how we were before. This has changed us in significant ways. We want to embrace that and not lose what we gained during those times.
If you or someone you know should be featured in “The Friendship Files,” get in touch at email@example.com, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique
Despite a year of postponement and continuing health and safety concerns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics are now underway. More than 11,500 athletes from some 205 national Olympic committee teams have gathered in Japan to compete in 339 events among 33 different sports. New sports added this year include skateboarding, sport climbing, and surfing. Collected here, images from the first few days of competition in Japan, with more to come, as the games continue through August 8.
“Something Something Alice Munro” is a new short story by Robert McGill. To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, McGill and Oliver Munday, the design director of the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Oliver Munday: Your story “Something Something Alice Munro” brings a Harold Bloom quote to mind: “Influence is influenza.” It’s clear from the opening sentences that the famed author Alice Munro will be a prominent influence on the text, but by the end you manage to take this conceit to unexpected places. The story is a witty look at the anxiety of literary influence, to cite Bloom once more. Did the story always follow from a conceptual premise, or did the characters emerge first?
Robert McGill: I started out wanting to write about Alice Munro: in particular, about the one time I met her, 15 years ago at a literary festival. I’d grown up in a town close to hers, and I’d read all her stories. At the festival, we shared a few minutes of small talk, and I was completely tongue-tied.
Once I started writing the story, I realized that it was going to be less about meeting Munro than about having been a young person in her part of the world and wanting to tell stories of a sort that she hasn’t. From that point, I developed the story’s peculiar sentence-by-sentence constraints (each sentence begins or ends with either Alice Munro or you), which channel a certain contradictory, Bloomian impulse in me: to make the story all about Munro and, at the same time, totally not something she would write.
Munday: In Canada, where you’re from, Alice Munro, the Nobel laureate, presides as one of the country’s foremost literary celebrities. It’s interesting for an American reader to consider this type of fame, because we lack such a singular prose star in our national imagination. How much has Munro shaped Canada’s literature as a result of her status?
McGill: I think of Munro and Margaret Atwood as the big, bright binary system in the Canadian literary firmament. (Together, their initials are “AMMA.” What would Freud say?) Atwood has established one way to gain global fame and influence as a Canadian author: travel the world regularly to speak, tweet prolifically, and appear in hit TV shows based on your novels. Then there’s Munro, just writing story after story while living quietly in the backwoods. It has been good for Canadian writers to have them both as models and know both paths are viable.
There’s also the fact that neither Munro nor Atwood has shied from writing undisguisedly about Canada. That’s still a big deal in a country where generations of writers felt they had to set their stories elsewhere if they wanted to make it.
Munday: Nessa and Hadi, the two characters at the center of “Something Something Alice Munro,” are both writers. Nessa is pursuing a Ph.D. and writing a dissertation on the work of Munro, and Hadi is a poet. You describe them as best friends who sleep together. Would romantic love somehow threaten their respective intellectual pursuits, or are they simply hedging and afraid of commitment?
McGill: I don’t know if they’re afraid of commitment per se. They might just be wary of each other. They’re both still working out some fundamental things—for instance, in their relations to their parents. Maybe it’s an act of care for each other and themselves not to complicate things with one another.
I’m hedging here, aren’t I? They’re my characters, so I should know them inside out. But I sometimes feel that I’ve gotten characters down to the best of my abilities when I’ve brought them to the point where they’re intriguing puzzles to me as well as to others.
Munday: The title of the story, along with the regular invocations of Munro, act as a kind of comic diversion from the drama. The characters use Munro as a distraction from life, but also as a lens through which to interpret it. Fiction writ large functions similarly, inflecting on events, suffusing our perceptions of the world, and often providing a form of escape. In what other ways are the characters, and you as their author, using Alice Munro?
McGill: There’s a quotation from Edward Said that might apply to Nessa: “It seems a common human failing to prefer the schematic authority of a text to the disorientations of direct encounters with the human.” For all that fiction helps you to see the world in new ways, it risks constraining how you see things too. If Nessa’s outlook begins and ends with Munro’s writing, she’s hamstrung herself. One wonders: What’s she really committing herself to when she commits herself to Munro?
For Hadi, the picture of small-town Canada associated with Munro’s fiction—stultifyingly homogenous, astringently Protestant—carries its own limitations. You can see why he might chafe against requests to discuss his writing alongside hers. But then, her picture isn’t quite so reductive as I’ve just suggested. So writers like Hadi—or me—who use Munro as a foil might be not using so much as misusing her. Failing to see her work clearly.
Munday: You begin “Something Something Alice Munro” in third person, remaining close to Nessa, only to switch to the second person to inhabit Hadi’s voice and limn the emotional core of the story—Hadi’s relationship with his father. How did this form of shifting perspectives develop?
McGill: In some vital ways, I identify with Hadi and Nessa. In other ways, the two of them are much more like people of my acquaintance than like me. So writing the story, I experienced this kaleidoscopic effect: the aspects of the characters emerging from what I know of myself kept blurring into what I know and imagine of others. Shifting the perspective between Nessa and Hadi, between third person and second, was a way of acknowledging this unique experience that fiction produces, in which the writer and readers all end up asking of each other and the characters, “Where, in this story, do you end and I begin?” If you come away from a work of fiction not having been unsettled from the point of view you had going in, then somebody hasn’t done their job.
Munday: There’s a sly, meta aspect to the story, an ambiguity around the narration that causes us to wonder who’s actually writing it. The question of authorial authority arises—whether writers should draw from only their lived experience as opposed to imagining the experiences of others. How do you feel about these demarcations, which seem to be hardening in fiction?
McGill: I back the idea that the label “fiction” should never be taken as a license to write without an obligation to the real-life cultures and identities affected by your writing. I think of fiction as a unique space where authors and readers, however partially and provisionally, shed their skins to imaginatively inhabit the lives of others; to learn about the enormous diversity of life. So as a reader, if I discover that an author’s trading in caricatures and stereotypes, I feel they’ve let down the side.
One of the things I like about Alice Munro’s writing in this regard is that she isn’t precious about the status of fiction. Writers in her work are always being told that they’ve gotten things wrong or that they’re trading in cheap tricks. But she still implicitly recognizes that fiction has a unique role in our lives. Nonfiction alone isn’t enough. Maybe it would be if being a good person required only listening to what other people say publicly about their lives. But all the time, we’re called on to imagine how others are feeling and thinking, to infer what they can’t or won’t say out loud. That’s where fiction gains one of its key roles: as a comparatively safe—because veiled—space of self-articulation and as a model for carefully, sensitively imagining how it is to be someone else.
Berrien County, Michigan, is not the kind of place you would expect to be losing residents. Perched on the coast of Lake Michigan, “the Hamptons of the Midwest” is widely known for its sandy beaches and vineyards, which draw plenty of tourists from nearby Chicago and Indianapolis. But the county hasn’t yet persuaded those tourists to stay, and its population has been declining since the 1970s. So last year, Rob Cleveland, the leader of a regional economic-development organization, got creative. If you’re a remote worker from another state who wants to buy a house and resettle in Berrien, you can apply with Cleveland’s group, the Cornerstone Alliance, and get $10,000 to $15,000.
Since September, when the program launched, more than 2,500 people from all over the country have reached out to express interest in the incentives, Cleveland told me. He connected me with one of them, Jill Urbanski, a longtime Chicago resident who heard about the offer on the radio in October. By the end of February, she had moved to St. Joseph, Michigan, and collected her $10,000. “It made perfect sense,” Urbanski told me. “Everything lined up for me.”
There’s just one problem. In the 10 months since the program launched, Urbanski is the only person who’s taken the Cornerstone Alliance up on its offer. Cleveland said that two more families are poised to move to the county soon, but he’s still nowhere near his initial goal of giving out 25 incentives by the end of this year. Now he’s hoping he’ll hit five.
Moving incentives like the ones in Berrien are all the rage right now. More than 40 places in the United States are giving people money to relocate, according to the website MakeMyMove. The Shoals, Alabama, will pay you $10,000. Northwest Arkansas will also give you $10,000—plus a free bike. Topeka, Kansas, offers up to $15,000 and $1,000 worth of Jimmy John’s sandwiches. Morgantown, West Virginia, has received a wave of mediaattention by making what may be the most generous offer: a combination of cash grants, free outdoor-gear rentals, complimentary ski tickets, and other perks collectively valued at $20,000.
These initiatives vary depending on the size of the city and how they’re funded (some, including Berrien’s, are financed entirely with private dollars), but the idea behind them all is the same: By dangling rewards, struggling communities hope to attract new residents—especially remote workers—from wealthier parts of the country. These programs predate the pandemic, but they’ve grown in popularity now that a chunk of companies are permanently embracing remote work. “People may be making that decision to step away from the cramped office in downtown Manhattan,” Craig Armstrong, the architect of the incentives program in Newton, Iowa, told me. “We’re probably well positioned to take advantage.” Even The Wall Street Journal has celebrated moving initiatives, saying they open new avenues for “today’s legions of remote workers, who are itching to bounce from their high-price, high-density confines in cities like San Francisco and New York.”
But the way these programs are playing out is nothing like their initial promise. Instead of something that can fundamentally reorient where Americans live, almost all of these initiatives look like what’s happening in Berrien: They’re bringing in some new residents, but not enough to make any notable difference for the cities’ population problems. For all the hype around remote work, it is clearly doing little to nothing for lots of shrinking cities.
Moving incentives have been around for a while, but they went prime time in 2018. That year, a foundation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, started offering $10,000 to remote workers who moved to the city. The idea—make money by moving!—quickly became a mediasensation that brought Tulsa exactly the attention it was looking for. Over the past three years, roughly 47,000 people have applied to the program, called Tulsa Remote. Between those who were accepted and the families that came with them, more than 1,000 people from all over the country have moved to the city. Tulsa’s success is one of the biggest reasons so many other communities have created their own incentives.
But unlike almost all of the other places offering these programs, Tulsa is a major city, home to hundreds of thousands of residents. (The only bigger city with incentives is Baltimore, which awards just 20 grants a year.) Indeed, given the city’s size, the new residents accounted for only a trivial 0.25 percent increase in population. And because Tulsa kick-started the trend, it got a head start in attracting new residents. “I think Tulsa got a great advantage because it was the first mover, and it made their name,” says Richard Florida, a professor of economic policy and analysis at the University of Toronto.
To try to find out if other programs have replicated the minor success of Tulsa Remote, I reached out to 10 of them, focusing on those with the most generous incentives. I heard back from and interviewed representatives from eight of them. Everyone was excited about what their town had accomplished. But no city came anywhere close to matching Tulsa’s record.
Consider Topeka: The region’s economic-development agency launched an incentives program in December 2019. It has since added just over 65 new residents to a city of more than 125,000 people. The Shoals, home to more than 70,000 people, has settled just 25 new residents through its initiative since June 2019. Cleveland, of Berrien County, is proud of his program, and he attributes the underperformance to the bonkers housing market. But when the Cornerstone Alliance does eventually fill all 25 budgeted spots, the gains will amount to basically nothing. The county is home to 153,000 people, so even if the remaining 24 slots go to four-kid families, the population would increase by just less than 0.1 percent.
“I’m fairly skeptical [that these programs] will make a noticeable blip on the population totals of a city or state,” Brett Theodos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, told me. He compared the incentives to an expensive marketing program with limited benefits. “There’s only going to be so many news articles about this phenomenon,” he said.
The problem isn’t just that most of these incentives receive sporadic media attention. Even programs launched before or alongside Tulsa’s have had minimal success. Armstrong estimated that Newton’s initiative has brought somewhere between 125 and 150 new people to town since it launched in 2014—a 1 percent increase in population spread out over more than seven years. Britt, Iowa, has one of the most effective programs, and its results have still been quite modest. It has given away eight plots of land to families since it began offering them in 2018; once construction is complete and the new residents arrive, the town’s population will increase by 1 to 2 percent.
That doesn’t mean the incentives have no benefits. Newton’s program was partially created to get reluctant construction companies to build in the town, Armstrong said, and in this it has succeeded. The plots Britt has given away were intended to both grow the city’s population and help get rid of vacant land. Ryan Arndorfer, Britt’s mayor, told me that the program has certainly helped with the latter. And any new residents provide some benefit to shrinking towns, especially if they’re professionals with high earnings—which remote workers disproportionately are. Such people generally spend more at local businesses and pay more in taxes. Plus, they are known to form clusters. When enough white-collar residents gather in one place, they attract like-minded people, organically growing the population.
But experts told me it’s unlikely that the programs will cause a critical mass of white-collar workers to relocate to these places. Part of the problem is that while the officials behind these programs dream of pulling from big cosmopolitan cities such as Seattle and Austin, Texas, the incentives really are just stealing from communities similar in size and levels of wealth. Of the eight families that moved to Britt, six came from other parts of Iowa. The two that didn’t—one from New York and another from California—still had ties to rural Iowa.
These programs “are a zero-sum competition,” says Cristobal Young, an economic sociologist at Cornell University who studies how states use taxes to attract residents. When the programs are publicly funded, he told me, it’s “bad policy that just takes money from settled residents and gives it to people who are more mobile.” Even when they’re privately funded, the risk is that the programs put pressure on peer communities to hand out their own incentives, spurring a race to the bottom.
The fundamental tragedy of moving incentives is that these communities desperately need more people and more jobs. In 2006, Newton lost a Fortune 500 employer, Maytag, whose headquarters had helped sustain the local economy for more than a century. When Maytag was acquired by Whirlpool, Newton shed well over 1,000 jobs. Now Whirlpool is headquartered in none other than Berrien County. The cash giveaways, the Cornerstone Alliance’s Cleveland said, are ultimately secondary to his pitch. Whirlpool—and the talent it brings—is a far bigger selling point. “People are not going to move for $15,000,” Cleveland said. “There have to be amenities and opportunities.”
I was surprised by the candor, but he’s right. In the battle to attract remote workers, cities can’t simply pay to win. If they don’t have the types of restaurants and walkable neighborhoods that professionals are looking for, $15,000 just isn’t going to cut it. They might even need to offer attractive, in-person jobs: New residents may work remotely when they arrive, but they could eventually want or need to switch careers.
The victors are likely to be places such as Boise, Idaho; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Nashville, Tennessee—cities that were getting bigger and wealthier before the pandemic. In other words, cities that were already winning. Incentives “could work in a Bozeman[, Montana],” Florida told me. “You could do this maybe in a Traverse City[, Michigan]; a Hudson, New York—all the places where, if you look at the census data, you see that there’s been a migration. But it’s still a small subset of places.”
That moving incentives have had such tepid results doesn’t exactly bode well for the idea that remote work will fundamentally rejigger where Americans live. Sure, some outdoorsy types might move to hip mountain towns. Cost-conscious folks could decamp to cheaper but still cool inland cities. But for all the talk about the hazy future of big cities, remote work doesn’t seem poised to change that much about how those places have pulled away from the rest of the country.
This harsh reality isn’t likely to stop the boom of moving incentives. But cash and gimmicks aren’t a way out of the vicious cycle that struggling communities are stuck in. Urban professionals move to places for high-end opportunities and amenities. And most small cities will struggle to generate those things until they have enough professionals. Ultimately, the only real winners from moving incentives are the literal winners: the recipients. The $10,000 grant was great for Jill Urbanski. But was it a good investment for Berrien County? Urbanski had already been looking to leave Chicago and loved the county from vacationing there. I asked her point-blank if she would have moved even without all the money she got. She didn’t hesitate: “Yes.”
Editor’s Note: Read an interview with Robert McGill about his writing process.
Nessa was sitting in Hadi’s car, letting the AC run with the engine off, thinking that if the battery died, it served him right for taking so long in the pharmacy, and surveying the main street of Bayfield, which was nearly deserted even on a sunny summer morning, when whom did she see approaching the discount rack outside the clothing boutique but Alice Munro? At least, she was pretty sure it was Alice Munro. The past few years, Nessa had developed a habit, no matter where she found herself, whether on the subway in Toronto or strolling along a Venetian canal on vacation with her mother, of seeing strangers in the distance and mistaking them for Alice Munro. Sometimes they weren’t even women, just smallish men, old-timers with silky white hair and a comportment that recalled the hard-bitten grace she associated with Alice Munro. Whenever she reported these sightings to Hadi, he accused her of being obsessed with Alice Munro.
“Alice Munro, always Alice Munro! How long will it be before a day goes by without you mentioning Alice Munro?”
He spoke at least partly in jest, knowing it was hard for Nessa to avoid the topic when she was writing her Ph.D. dissertation on Alice Munro. Or, rather, on the works of Alice Munro. Nessa usually made a face when other academics used the name of the author—who was a real person, after all—to stand in for the author’s writing, saying, for instance, “I work on Alice Munro,” which made it sound as if they weren’t literary scholars but chiropractors, and ones with a poor sense of chiropractor-client privilege, overeager to share the fact that they got to crack some serious celebrity back, including the Nobel Prize–winning vertebrae of one Alice Munro.
The idea of Nessa coming across the living embodiment of her doctoral dissertation in Venice had been a stretch, but Bayfield wasn’t so implausible as the site of an encounter with Alice Munro. It was a sweet little town on Lake Huron, the kind of place that often furnished the setting for stories by Alice Munro. More to the point, Bayfield was a 15-minute drive to Clinton, the town where Munro lived, and if you really burned rubber, it was a half hour to Wingham, where Munro had grown up, back when she was Alice Laidlaw, back when the world had little inkling that unto it had been born the future Alice Munro. (Nessa didn’t know why she entertained fantasies of traveling back to Wingham in the ’40s and finding Alice Laidlaw as a young woman and getting to know her, but she did, and it bothered her, because time-travel stories didn’t really fit with her area of study, being a long way from the kinds of things written by Alice Munro.) Was it so hard to imagine that sometimes, on days such as this one, Bayfield might be a destination of choice for Nessa’s favorite writer, a chance to see if the lake was still there, or just a congenial stop on a drive through lands that, over the past half century, had been transformed from ordinary farms, woodlots, and villages into a place now recognized the world over as the everlasting territory of Alice Munro?
Hadi didn’t like it when Nessa referred to Bayfield as territory, making it sound as though the town was no more than literary real estate belonging to Alice Munro. He’d grown up in Bayfield, and by his account, the experience hadn’t been easy, so that the only thing he claimed to want from the place at this stage of his life was to feel that it had furnished material for his own writing, because he was a poet, and a very good one, but still, in the few interviews he’d given, most of them conducted by fellow graduate students, whenever the topic of his formative years came up, the interviewer inevitably wanted to know whether he’d been influenced by Alice Munro. Had he read Alice Munro? Had he met Alice Munro? Given this pattern of questioning, it seemed bad luck that he’d ended up housemates, besties, and occasional fuck buddies with someone whose sole scholarly commitment was to the writing of Alice Munro.
“Besties and fuck buddies is fine,” he’d told Nessa, “so long as you don’t expect me to spend the holidays with you and your mother or do anything else that might falsely imply an interest in contracting myself to a secondhand involvement in Alice Munro.”
He was always like this, cool and standoffish, which was strange, because he was a poet, and along with his proclivity for talking about things like boustrophedon and lipograms, Nessa would have expected him to be more forthcoming about matters of the heart, which surely weren’t the exclusive bailiwick of Alice Munro. Instead, he seemed happiest talking shop, even when it involved Nessa’s research, though he expressed nothing but disdain for the short stories of Alice Munro.
“Don’t you feel,” he’d once said, “that all her characters are basically, in the end, versions of Alice Munro?”
“Basically, in the end,” Nessa had replied, “we’re all versions of Alice Munro.”
Despite Hadi’s dislike of Munro, he’d been obliging when it came to giving Nessa rides to Bayfield on weekends, even though his mother and sister had moved away from the town not long after he’d left for university, and even though his sole remaining relative in the place was his father, for whom he betrayed perhaps even less affection than he did for Alice Munro. His father, who owned Bayfield’s only pharmacy, apparently didn’t betray much affection for Hadi, either; at least the way Hadi told it, that was not because the man disapproved of Hadi’s lifestyle, given that he didn’t know about the drugs and alcohol, but because as an undergraduate, Hadi had jumped ship from biochemistry to the slowly leaking dinghy that was English literature, and because he kept company with people who investigated not cures for cancer or compostable plastics but Alice Munro. Nessa had met Hadi’s father only twice, and briefly on each occasion, but now that she thought of it, she was struck that he probably saw her as symbolizing everything distasteful about his son’s life, and she wondered if this might be why Hadi kept bringing her to Bayfield, not just because, as she kept impressing on him, she was jonesing for a meet-cute with Alice Munro.
Over the past two years, various individuals, some of them good friends and some of them people she’d met minutes earlier at parties, had suggested to her that she consider developing an interest in authors other than Alice Munro. The only time she’d taken the suggestion seriously was at a book launch in Toronto the previous fall, when it had been proposed that she take a look at the work of Michael Ondaatje, but the suggestion had been made by Ondaatje, who seemed biased, and also, he was, no matter how many good things one could say about the man and his books, no Alice Munro.
As Nessa stared at the woman checking out dresses that nobody else had wanted to buy all summer, she started to doubt whether it was actually Alice Munro. Exiting the car seemed the way to know for sure, and Nessa needed to move fast if she was going to have a chance, but she hesitated, daunted by the possibility that she was about to meet Alice Munro. What did you say to Alice Munro? Maybe, after all of Nessa’s yearning for this moment, it wasn’t right to meet her, not if Nessa aspired to be a proper literary critic, someone who wouldn’t let her personal feelings about authors impede her assessments of their work, someone who could stay objective and speak the unvarnished truth about literature by anybody, whether some anonymous medieval shepherd or, well, Alice Munro. But what the hell; how often did you sit in a car and see Alice Munro?
She opened the passenger door as quietly as she could, keen not to spook Alice Munro. Jesus, what was she thinking; it wasn’t a deer, it was Alice Munro. And oh my God, it really was Alice Munro. As the woman stood at the discount rack, rubbing the sleeve of a gingham dress between her thumb and forefinger, Nessa could see the piercing blue eyes and cocked eyebrow that she had, some time ago, come to think of as a distinguished combination, because anyone lucky enough to have them thereby looked rather like Alice Munro.
Unsure of what her opening move would be, Nessa decided just to walk up and improvise her first-ever words to Alice Munro. It still seemed unfathomable that Munro could be standing there, bargain-hunting for wardrobe refreshers, living an ordinary life, or at least one as ordinary as life could be if you were Alice Munro.
“Excuse me,” said Nessa, “but are you Alice Munro?”
“Alice Munro?” replied Alice Munro. “Fucksake, do I look like Alice Munro?”
As she said it, she winked, and though her choice of phrasing had been unexpected, her eyes shone exactly like the all-observant eyes of Alice Munro.
“Well yes, a little,” said Nessa, winking back and trying for the same ironic tone that had just been modeled for her by the one true Alice Munro.
“Yeah, I know, I’m fucking with you,” said Alice Munro. “You’re the third tourist this week to tell me I look like Alice Munro.”
“Wait,” said Nessa, “are you saying you aren’t Alice Munro?”
Before there was time for an answer, Hadi called out a greeting that seemed intended less for Nessa than for the woman, who, with each passing second, began to fill out around the middle, and whose hair began ever so slightly to darken, looking less and less like Alice Munro’s.
“Hadi!” said the woman, and suddenly Nessa felt that this person had sure as hell better not be Munro, because Nessa didn’t think that any part of her and Hadi’s relationship—not the friendship, the housemateship, or the fuckbuddyship—could survive the discovery that all this time, he’d been on a first-name basis with Alice Munro.
“Hey, Mrs. Irvine,” said Hadi, going to hug her, and now Nessa didn’t know what she’d been thinking, so little did the woman actually resemble Alice Munro.
“Hadi, you’re so grown up, I barely recognized you,” said the woman who was now very obviously not Alice Munro. “Did you know,” she said, turning to Nessa, “that this young man once wrote the best high-school essay I ever graded—and, the subject, as a matter of fact—”
“Let me guess,” said Nessa with a scowl, “it was Alice Munro.”
“Yes, Alice Munro! Hadi, would you believe that this young woman just mistook me for Alice Munro?”
“Would you believe that she’s writing a Ph.D. dissertation on Alice Munro?” said Hadi, appearing eager to divert attention from what Mrs. Irvine had just revealed about his secret history with Alice Munro.
“A whole dissertation on her,” said Mrs. Irvine in wonder, as if she figured you could get, at most, a chapter from the topic, maybe two if you considered the influence of Shakespeare on Alice Munro. “In my day,” she said, “it wasn’t an option to study Canadian literature, much less Alice Munro.”
“Mrs. Irvine,” said Hadi, “I’d love to chat, and I appreciate, honestly, what you said about my paper on Alice Munro. But, in fact, Nessa here has been keen to meet her, and I’ve just found out from my father that tonight, we’re going to be having drinks at his place with, drumroll please—”
“For Christ’s sake,” said Nessa, “don’t tell me it’s Alice Munro.”
Hadi broke into a grin and nodded, triumphantly mouthing the paired words of confirmation, somehow as startling as they were familiar: Alice Munro.
You’ve been selling drugs to Alice Munro for 40 years. That’s what you say to people when the chance presents itself to you. It’s a violation of the pharmacist’s code for you to tell people she’s a customer, but you say she probably wouldn’t mind, because you don’t identify which drugs have been involved, and anyhow, the joke is one that she herself first made to you.
You were surprised the first time she turned up at the store, because she doesn’t live in Bayfield and there’s a perfectly serviceable pharmacy in Clinton. You aren’t a fan of that place yourself, because its inventory doesn’t match yours, and because the owner always calls you Mr. Nazem, knowing very well that’s your first name, not your last, and knowing well enough, too, that the nickname annoys the hell out of you. In fact, you wonder whether it was the man’s assholery that brought Munro’s business to you. It wasn’t, however, her stated reason, the first time she approached you. Just back from a trip to Australia, voice gravelly from strep throat, she explained that she’d found herself saddled by a certain renown because of writing books, an outcome that was fine and lucky in its way but sometimes inconvenient, and although she knew that pharmacists were supposed to be discreet, she thought it best, to safeguard her privacy, if she were to fill prescriptions outside of Clinton, in Bayfield, with you.
You swore never to betray her.
You must have promised something similar to Mama on your wedding day. You once told me that she and you exchanged no vows, just repeated three times that you accepted each other, but I bet the imam at least wrangled a promise to be faithful out of you. You must have done some thinking on the promise, if not that day, then later. You must have felt like shit about yourself.
How many times did you cheat on Mama before she caught you? You made it seem like you were the virtuous one by agreeing to couples counseling. Mama didn’t want Nabila and me to know that the two of you were going, but you went ahead and told us anyhow, as if expecting us to praise you. I wonder, though: Did anything the counselor say get through to you? I guess there was that one time, after I walked in on Mama in the kitchen, shouting at you. After she’d gone upstairs, you explained to me how, according to the counselor, when you’re fighting with your spouse, they’re liable to fly into a rage if they hear themselves being described by you.
“You should always start your sentences with ‘I,’ not ‘You,’” you told me, in a tone apparently intended to suggest hard-earned wisdom, though to me you just sounded smug. “Explain your feelings and how things seem to you.” You gave me this advice like it was the secret to a happy marriage, like you and Mama weren’t in the process of drafting a separation agreement.
Now there you are, still living in that rinky-dink house, the guardian of a family history that I doubt anybody treasures, except maybe you. It breaks my heart a little, the thought that after everything we went through there, the house and its memories, its trove of knickknacks that never became heirlooms, might mean something to you. Maybe they don’t, though, and you just can’t be bothered to move, because it would inconvenience you. You certainly haven’t done anything to maintain the property. As Nessa and I approach the front door, the paving stones are cracked, the lawn’s grown shaggy, and the shingles are so curled that a decent storm could bring the roof down on you. The one time I commented on the state of the place, you joked about me eyeing my inheritance, and I said that wasn’t very funny of you.
You open the door even before we reach the porch, and I don’t want to think that you’ve been standing there awhile, waiting to greet us, nothing better to do. Your bald head shines in the evening light, the wound on the crown exposed in order to heal. You’re following the doctor’s orders, leaving it uncovered, though it must embarrass you. I try to avoid staring, not just because it hurts to think of you undergoing an operation, but because you’ve told me a few times lately that a susceptibility to melanoma is something I might get from you. You’ve said it out of care, I know, but each time, I’ve heard you laying down a curse. It’s a relief that I’m not expected to ask about the wound or show concern for you. You’ve downplayed it, so I’ve downplayed it. You’ve just called it a growth, so I’ve done the same.
Once Nessa and I are inside, Nessa hugs you, even though she barely knows you.
“You’ve arrived before our guest of honor,” you say. “Let’s sit in the living room, and I’ll get something to drink for you.”
You look surprised when Nessa hands you the box of caramels she insisted on bringing. She seemed so pleased with herself when she told me they were halal that I didn’t have the heart to say it doesn’t matter with you. You take them and thank her. You don’t mention your diabetes. You do say she can keep her shoes on inside the house, which was never once, in 18 years of my living here, an option you presented to me.
In the living room, Nessa and I sit on the sofa across from you. You’ve changed something about the room, but I can’t put my finger on it. Your eyes flit nervously between us and the window, keeping an eye out, I guess, for Alice Munro. You’ve already forgotten about our drinks.
“You want to dig into the caramels?” Nessa says, hinting to you how hospitality is supposed to work. You shake your head and say you’d rather save them for later.
Could the idea of hosting a Nobel laureate be unsettling you? You seemed so happy when I asked you for the favor. I knew agreeing was a big deal for you, since you and Munro aren’t exactly chums, but the request didn’t appear to bother you. You looked pleased to do something for me, as happy as I was to do something for Nessa, easy with the idea of making the call and issuing the invitation, especially when I said it could just be drinks.
You aren’t usually one to be nervous. I used to wish that your self-confidence was something I’d learn from you. You were so impatient with my lack of eye contact, my stuttering speech. You, who were always so sure of yourself, knowing everything and everyone, claiming to possess more local secrets than Bayfield’s three doctors combined, because they each served a mere third of the town, while you served all of it, and plenty of folks clammed up around their physicians, holding them in too high regard to be forthcoming, while you were just a guy from Iran with a charming smile and the good business sense to put on a sympathetic face when people started unburdening themselves. You had the sense, too, to keep things to yourself, letting details slip out only at dinner years later, once the person had died or moved out of town and, as far as you were concerned, released you of your obligation. You never told us anything about Alice Munro.
Your anxiety must be obvious even to Nessa, because when she addresses you, she does so in a soothing way that I wouldn’t expect from her right now, not when her own nerves must be fraying.
“You don’t know how much it means to me that you arranged this,” she says. “I hope it’s not an inconvenience to you.”
“No, not at all,” you reply, “I’m very happy to do it for you.”
“I didn’t realize,” says Nessa, “that Munro was a friend of yours.”
You give a little smile. “You know, I wouldn’t quite say we’re friends. When someone does business with you for a few decades, though, they get to know you. You maybe feel a closeness to them.”
“You feel close to Alice Munro?” I say. There’s an unintended harshness in my voice, and I cringe at how easily the old knee-jerk teen contempt returns, but it has never much fazed you. You seem to accept such moods as the price of having a son.
“You think that’s a strange thing to say?” you ask, still smiling. “I suppose it’s not the closeness of friends—not like the two of you.” You look at me as if you have me all figured out, as if you know about the on-again-off-again mess of my life, not only with Nessa but in all things, and then you turn to her, apparently happy to leave me aside. You have more to say about your closeness to Munro, I can tell, but I don’t want to listen.
“Sorry,” I say, rising, “but I get this uncontrollable need to use the little boys’ room whenever the talk turns to Alice Munro.”
“It’s true,” says Nessa with a laugh, “tonight’s going to be hard on you.”
You laugh, too, as if you find nothing more hilarious than the thought of my manic incontinence.
Upstairs, your bedroom door is closed, which is unlike you. I don’t know what compels me to open it and walk in, but I do, and right away I’m hit by the scent of aftershave, work sweat, the smell of you. I keep on going, inspecting the room for traces of you. Your laundry hamper’s full, the bed’s unmade, and a thin film of dust covers the surfaces. Still sitting atop your dresser, after all these years, are the mortar and pestle I made from clay in grade three for you.
You must be getting sloppy as you near retirement, because you spent years hectoring us not to waste electricity, and now the light in the en suite bathroom has been left on. As I go to turn it off, I glimpse myself in the mirror, and for a second, I can’t help it, I picture my head gone bald and my eyes pinched by crow’s-feet as pronounced as yours. You were 45 when I was born, and I hope I have a long time yet before I turn into you, but already I can see how it will work, like something you orchestrated a long time ago.
Then I spot the second toothbrush in the cup, nestled next to yours.
The anger that swells in me would frighten you. I tell myself to relax, to act like you. You wouldn’t like what I do next, though: I reach down to press my thumb against the bristles of each brush in turn, and I find they’re both wet. Not a usual one and a spare, then, but two people’s—his and yours.
I go to the closet next, where, sure enough, I find clothes that don’t belong to you. You’ve let him, whoever he is, use Mama’s side.
This time, then, it’s not just a fling with a cottager or a bachelor farmer who hit it off with you. It’s been almost six years since we left you here, and I guess the statutory waiting period has ended, so that the house can finally be given over to whoever’s with you.
Downstairs, there’s still no sign of Alice Munro.
“Has she come over here before?” Nessa asks you.
You say she hasn’t, and then, for some reason, you admit to inviting her today only because I asked you. After this confession, I expect Nessa to say that I never should have made such a request, but instead she just frowns at you.
“You think maybe we should call her?” she says. “You know, to make sure she’s all right?”
You reply that you don’t have Munro’s number here at home.
“You have it at the store, though?” Nessa says. “We could go in with you.”
You seem to consider it but shake your head.
“You might wonder how I’ve suddenly gained compunctions,” you say, “but I worry she’d think me too persistent—”
“Oh, yes, of course,” says Nessa, “that’s very right of you.”
“You know she’s not really coming,” I hear myself declare.
You and Nessa turn to me with a shared look of bemusement.
“You never actually invited her, did you?” I go on. “You just said you did so you could get us over here. You’re always complaining that I never come by.”
You look at me like I’m crazy, and it’s true, I don’t have a shred of evidence to back me up, at least not beyond the indisputable absence of Alice Munro.
“She could be sick,” says Nessa, sounding uneasy, “or she might have a flat tire, or she could have forgotten where you—”
“You don’t have to make excuses for him,” I say. “You see what you’ve done, Baba? You think it’s funny, playing with Nessa’s feelings?”
Your eyebrows arch. “What’s gotten into you?”
My breathing comes fast, and it only gets worse when I consider the likelihood that at any second, the doorbell will ring, and standing on the porch with a modestly priced but thoughtfully chosen bottle of wine will be Alice Munro.
“I think I’ll go outside to keep watch,” says Nessa, getting up and heading for the door, “and you two can talk among yourselves.”
You stand, too, and start to apologize for me, but Nessa says it’s fine and leaves. My eyes travel over everything in the room but you. You’re starting to say something when I finally realize what’s different about the place: The framed photographs of our family that used to sit on the bookshelves and mantelpiece have disappeared.
“You got rid of our photos?” I exclaim.
Your expression turns sheepish, which makes it worse. I would have preferred a front, a lie, something to let me stay furious with you.
“You shouldn’t take it the wrong way,” you tell me. “Every day, I think about Nabila and you.”
“You don’t think about Mama, though,” I say, pouncing. “Your family doesn’t include her anymore.”
You grimace, and I glance at my watch.
“It’s after eight,” I say, “and no Alice Munro. If you want to stick with your story about inviting her, fine, but you don’t really think she’s coming, do you?”
You shrug. “Why would I lie to you?”
“Baba, I can’t read that mind of yours. You’re an enigma.”
I wait in vain for a protest from you.
“Anyhow, Nessa and I should go,” I say, “so your new boyfriend can come back to you.”
My eyes meet yours. You don’t look surprised by what I’ve said, and I wonder whether you could hear me checking out your room.
“You send him down the street or what?” I say. “Is he waiting for a call from you?”
“You can stop this now,” you say. “I’m not hiding him from you. I just thought that tonight, with the fuss about Alice Munro—”
“You figured you could cover things up like in the good old days.”
You stiffen, and I know I shouldn’t have said it. Those times were hard on you. They weren’t fair to you. You must sometimes speculate, as I do, about how much better your life could have been, how much easier it would have been for you and Mama both, if you’d been born 20 years later, maybe even 10.
“You’re right,” I say, “I’m sorry. It’s not my business; it’s yours.”
If I were a different son and you a different father, this would be the moment when I’d hug you. I have this thought, and then a second later, I’m being wrapped up in those long arms of yours. You feel thinner than I remember, and at least for the time you hold me, you’re not the figure who inhabits half of my mental real estate; you’re just a fragile fellow human creature. You squeeze me, and I swear, I should be living better in this moment, trying to make sense of it, but all I find myself thinking is what would happen if the door were to open and we were to be found in this position by Alice Munro.
Finally, I detach myself from you.
“You think I should see if Nessa’s all right?” I say.
You nod. “Tell her I feel bad about Alice Munro.”
“I’ll tell her, Baba,” I reply, “but honestly, I don’t even know if she really wanted to meet Alice Munro. Don’t they say it’s better to keep your heroes at a distance from you?”
You wave me toward the door.
“You’re a good friend to her,” you say. “You really think she’ll be all right?”
You look relieved when I say I do, and then you lapse into contemplation.
“You’ll be all right too, habibi,” you say at last.
I don’t know how to reply, so I just stare at you. You and Mama always seemed so miserable that for years, I made it a priority to seem fine in your vicinity. I don’t want to know that the fact of me not being fine is, after all this time, so visible to you.
“You’ll be okay,” you repeat. “You’ll write about this.”
You take in my reaction and grin, knowing you’re right.
“You think writing about it will make me okay?” I ask.
As I say it, I begin to realize the implication in that statement of yours. You, who were always so proud of my poems until they started being about our family, are granting me permission to write about you. Or maybe not granting it, exactly, so much as accepting that I can’t help writing about you, if not always wanting to be right there with you, sharing your space, then at least wanting to be one door over, next to you.
The sun had set, and Nessa had mostly given up hope of meeting Alice Munro. Every time a car turned down the street, she still felt a shot of adrenaline, but each one continued on by, its windows changed to mirrors under the yellow streetlights, so that Nessa couldn’t even try to see whether any of the vehicles carried Alice Munro. It would be funny, in a way, if one of them did, and Munro had just written out the wrong address, or maybe she’d gotten cold feet at the last second and driven right past the house, feeling as anxious as Nessa did about the idea of an evening devoted to awkward conversation between one of the world’s great writers and, as Nessa would proudly admit to being on any other occasion, one of the all-time fangirls of Alice Munro.
The truth was, though, that her mind was only half-committed to Alice Munro. Her thoughts kept returning to Hadi and his father, and maybe it wasn’t her beeswax, why Hadi had acted like that, or what the two of them were talking about now, but by coming here with him, she’d become part of it somehow, and if she couldn’t stop thinking about them, well, this could be what people meant when they said you dance with the one who brung ya.
Given that Nessa had never corresponded with Munro, it was pretty much impossible that the woman could have her number, but still, when her phone vibrated as she stood there on the porch, her first reaction was to think it was Alice Munro. Turned out it was her mother, texting to ask how things were going, as if she had her eye on the clock, sitting there alone in her Toronto townhouse, carefully imagining, step by step, how the night might progress for her only child as she rubbed elbows with Alice Munro. Nessa never should have told her about the evening, but she’d been so excited that she’d texted the news without really thinking, and she’d done it with pleasure, delighted, not for the first time, that she had merely to press a single letter for her phone to autofill the words “Alice Munro.” Now, faced with her mother’s text, she decided not to reply, because if she confessed that Munro hadn’t turned up, there’d be a barrage of messages, maybe an offer by her mother to drive to Bayfield, and, quite possibly by the end of the night, an all-points bulletin out for Alice Munro. Nessa slipped her phone into her pocket and returned her eyes to the street, trying to see it as Munro would see it, but she found her mind wandering back to herself and Hadi rather than Alice Munro.
They weren’t a couple, and Nessa always told people that this fact could be blamed on him, but in truth, he wasn’t the only standoffish one, and maybe their casual approach suited her as much as him, in the same way that maybe it suited her to be so obsessed with Alice Munro. If she said as much to Hadi, though, he’d ask why it suited her to be that way, and she didn’t have an answer, except to say that she probably needed therapy, but instead of getting it, she’d likely just go back to looking for answers where she’d been finding them most reliably until that point, which was in the stories of Alice Munro.
Alice Munro wouldn’t take in the houses lining the far side of the street and see just houses. Alice Munro wouldn’t stand there and think only of herself. Alice Munro would look beyond the facades of the gimcrack Tudors and postwar bungalows, beyond the garden sprinklers and the dog walkers. She’d escape the straits of her own tiding ego, and somehow she’d find a way to link everything together, interfolding the objective and the subjective, irradiating the material with the ethereal, until people, places, and happenings that had once seemed separate were revealed as inextricably, inexhaustibly connected, so that joining her in figuring out how you were the same as someone else, how you differed, and how you affected each other could turn out to be a whole life for you.
Nessa had this thought, and then the thought that she needed to stop measuring herself against Alice Munro.
Behind her, the front door opened and Hadi came out to stand beside her, looking toward the street in the way you do when there’s no real hope in it for you. He asked if she’d seen any sign, and when she said she hadn’t, he seemed authentically bummed out, though she knew his disappointment had to be on her behalf, not because he held high expectations of Alice Munro.
“Listen,” he said, leaning against the porch rail, “I’m sorry for accusing him like that, right in front of you. I don’t know why I said it, and I don’t know why she hasn’t turned up, but I hope it’s not too hard on you. I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe we should start asking emergency rooms if they’ve admitted any Alice Munros.”
She smiled but didn’t say anything, because for the first time in as long as she could remember, she found herself not wanting to talk about Alice Munro.
“You know, I think your father’s a pretty nice guy,” she said instead. “You’ve been a little hard on him, maybe, the way you talk about him with me.”
“He’s okay,” said Hadi, “but keep in mind that he was putting on his best face for you.”
“Was it for me,” she said, “or was it a warm-up for Alice Munro?”
He laughed in the way you do when you know a friend’s trying to make you laugh and you want to oblige them, to reassure them that things will be all right for the two of you.
“You have any idea what’s going on with that scab on his head?” Nessa asked. She’d been alarmed to see it, because Hadi hadn’t mentioned it before, and it looked serious, bad enough for her to wonder whether the man should be hosting drinks for anybody, never mind Alice Munro.
“Sorry,” said Hadi, “I should have warned you. It’s nothing; he just had a growth removed, but that meant taking off a bunch of skin and what have you.”
Nessa said she hoped he’d be okay, and that if she was being honest, the sight of it had been strangely comforting, giving her something to worry about other than Alice Munro.
As soon as she said it, Hadi glanced at his watch, as if that had become a reflex whenever someone said “Alice Munro.”
“You’ll be thrilled to hear she’s an hour late,” he said, “so it’s pretty safe to say she isn’t coming. You up for finding her house in Clinton and setting it on fire?”
Nessa said that sounded fine, as long as they made sure the place had been vacated by Alice Munro. They were just bantering, but as she spoke, she realized that without her being aware, in the span of the past hour, something had turned for her, something she couldn’t put a finger on, but something that meant the next few years of her life had become a road gone dark, a derelict house with the shutters blown open, because suddenly she doubted her commitment to working on Alice Munro. All at once, her life seemed to have fallen away, like a booster rocket plummeting to Earth, and around her was the weightlessness of space, without sound or atmosphere, only a cold void that cares for no one and makes no acknowledgment of you.
“You okay?” said Hadi, breaking her train of thought.
“Yeah, sure,” she replied, “why wouldn’t I be fine, when I just had the honor of being stood up by Alice Munro?”
She told him she was ready to leave, but she didn’t want to go without saying thank you. As they turned to head back inside, she considered telling him that she was thinking of writing her dissertation on somebody other than Alice Munro. And also, she’d say, I think it’s time we had a conversation about me and you. Besties are forever, and buddy-fucking is fine, but what are we doing here, what do you want from me, and what, all this time, have I been wanting from you? You never knew how such conversations would go, but she thought the two of them might be able to handle it, with the stress of waiting now over and the dark country roads to soothe them on the drive ahead.
She’d just stepped into the house with Hadi behind her, and she was looking ahead to the kitchen where his father stood in a rectangle of light, taking glasses from the cupboard, when a voice called to them from the driveway and she froze, a tingle shooting down her back, though she knew the voice wasn’t Alice Munro’s. It was a man’s, and when she turned to look, it was, in fact, a man who stood there, gray-haired and lavishly love-handled with a sweet smile, the smile of a sensitive stranger who needs to ask something but is reluctant to bother you.
“You must be Hadi,” he said, climbing the porch stairs and reaching out his hand.
Hadi stood there as though unable to process the fact that this wasn’t Alice Munro.
“Did my father text you?” When the man said he had, Hadi smiled and shook his hand, adding, “You really were just around the corner, weren’t you? You’d better come in.”
“You’re Nessa?” the man asked, shaking her hand too. “The one who works on Alice Munro? I’ve heard a lot about both of you.”
“You have?” said Hadi. “Because I haven’t heard so much about you.”
“Well, maybe we can change that,” the man said, “although I worry I’m going to be a letdown after you were expecting Alice Munro.”
As they went into the house together, Nessa held back from saying that she no longer worked on Alice Munro. Later, there’d be time for her to ask Hadi who this guy was, and what the hell she’d write her dissertation on now, so she just went with them into the kitchen, where Hadi’s father had already poured the drinks, and still she felt that someone was missing from the scene, that it was the kind of situation you’d understand better if it was described to you by Alice Munro.
Nessa got out her phone and saw she’d received a dozen texts from her mother, the last one ending “Where are you?” Her mother, who always wrote texts as though they were letters, with capitalization and apostrophes, and who expected you, in turn, to spell out every word when you wrote “I love you.”
“It’s all good,” Nessa texted her, “but there was no Alice Munro. Heading home soon, turning off the phone—telling you now so I don’t worry you.”
She switched the phone off, and when she gave her attention back to her companions in the kitchen, she discovered that the man from the driveway was talking about his and Nazem’s attempts at jogging together on a Couch to 5K program, which promised nine weeks to a new you. Nessa wished that someone had told her his name, especially when he knew hers, which meant she couldn’t say, “My name’s Nessa, by the way, what’s yours?”
You could probably spend your entire life trying to figure out a way of being good to both other people and yourself, adding a bit of loyalty here, a touch of betrayal there, never getting the balance right. At least for the next few minutes, she might try just listening and watching, hoping for an acuity of vision that she seldom felt she had, except when sitting alone with a story by Alice Munro. You slipped out of yourself, then, and got partway into the head of someone else. She thought she might try it in real life, listening to the man from the driveway talk, observing how Hadi nodded with his arms crossed, seeing how his father edged almost imperceptibly closer to the man from the driveway as he spoke—and for a time, it seemed to work; she felt herself both there and absent from the scene, but then the man from the driveway turned to her, and she realized that plans never panned out the way you hoped when they depended on others’ actions, not only yours. You never knew what people were going to say or do next. You never knew when they were going to call on you.
“So,” the man from the driveway said, “why don’t you tell us about yourself?”