This Is Not a Love Song


By Brendan Mathews

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A debut collection of moving and darkly witty stories from an “admirably fearless” (New York Times Book Review) writer whom critics have compared to Michael Chabon, E.L. Doctorow, and Dennis Lehane

A Massachusetts Book Award “Must Read” Selection

When marriages, friendships, and families come undone, to what lengths do we go to keep it all together? That question lies at the heart of Brendan Mathews’s buoyant and unforgettable debut story collection. A young mother watches as her desperate husband, convinced a hidden poison lurks inside their walls, tears their home apart. Two journalists bruised by romance and revolution, one a survivor of the Bosnian war, trade tales of lost lovers. A father and his sons haggle over the family business during a high-stakes round of golf. And a lovesick circus clown tries to explain the accidents that bound him to a trapeze artist and a witless lion tamer.

If Mathews’s novel The World of Tomorrow was an “outsized” entertainment, a “big, expressive debut” (Wall Street Journal), then This Is Not a Love Song, two stories from which have been included in The Best American Short Stories, is glorious proof that he excels equally as a miniaturist. From rock-star flameouts to church burnings to ordinary people trying not to fall out of love, these stories are packed with vivid detail, emotional precision, and deft, redemptive humor.


Heroes of the Revolution

Is nice!" Vitas said. "Is really very nice!"

"She's awful. A monster." Edina kicked an apple out of the narrow path and into the low-slung branches of a tree. The trees were small and spidery, each one a spray of branches erupting from a knobby trunk.

"Monster?" he said. "No! Kirsten is sweet girl."

"She asks too many questions," Edina said. "'What did you do last night?' 'What kind of music do you listen to?' 'Where did you get those shoes? Are they Bosnian? Do they make shoes in Bosnia?'"

"You are reporter," he said, his voice sly, teasing. "You are all the time asking questions."

"But why does she need to know these things? Am I the president? A general? A war criminal?" Edina and Vitas had been tromping through the orchard for almost an hour. It was late in the season and the ground was littered with fallen apples, their burnt-orange flesh dissolving at the slightest pressure. "There is no reason," she said. "She just wants to know."

"Is making friends," Vitas said. "You know how is making friends? Ask questions, answer questions, talk about somethings."

Edina shook her head. "She doesn't care. She thinks if she listens to me, then I have to listen when it's her turn to talk."

"Is not so wicked," he said. "Is nice, nice girl."

Edina had a catalog of reasons why Kirsten was not, in fact, a nice, nice girl, but before she could cite these for Vitas she squashed an apple with her foot. She was wearing low heels, a long coat, and a black pantsuit; entirely the wrong outfit for apple-picking. Edina blamed Kirsten for all of it: for her cold, sore feet; for the mud on the nicest pair of slacks that she'd brought to the States; for the smell of rotting apples that packed her head like wet wool.

It couldn't have taken her more than half a minute to wipe the apple mush off her shoe, but when she looked up, she was alone. She spoke Vitas's name quietly at first, then called out, unable to suppress the edge in her voice. It was only ten meters to the end of the row, but she stumbled on the stiff tufts of yellowed grass and snagged her coat on the spindly branches. Jerking her arm out of the tree's grip, she lost her balance and leaned into the trees on the other side of the path. All around her, branches raked her face and threatened to pull her down. "Vitas!"

She heard him answer from the end of the lane, his voice rising over the tangle of tree limbs and rotten fruit. "Edina! Where you are?"

She was far from home, in the middle of an orchard, in a lane of stunted trees that grew dense as a hedgerow. Edina focused on his voice, not on the way she lurched into the trees on either side of her. Sliding on the wet grass, her hands batting at the branches, she bolted from the path, emerging into the wide, tire-rutted lane that bisected the orchard.

"There you are," he said, his face blooming into a smile. "Come see." He beckoned her with a tilt of his head, but before she drew closer he opened his cupped palms. "Is Jewish apple."

Edina tried to catch her breath. She ran one hand over her head, checking for the silver clip that gathered her hair at the nape of her neck. She felt a fine haze of stiff, unruly grays rising off her scalp, refusing to be patted back in place. A swath of hair hung limply across her forehead.

"Gravenstein," he said, slowly working the syllables. He pointed to a white sign painted with shaky black letters. Similar signs marked each row in the orchard: JONATHAN, CORTLAND, ENGLISH SWEET, PINK LADY. Vitas plucked another apple, its skin mottled red and yellow, and rotated it in his palm.

"You would like?" he said, extending his hand with a flourish.

"No," she said, gulping the sodden air. The day was spongy and damp—Midwestern autumn hinting at the early arrival of winter. "No more apples." She was bent over, trying to catch her breath, but when she saw Vitas's face—his broad grin warping into puzzlement, even concern—she forced a smile. "Don't you know?" she said. "It's bad luck to pick Jewish apples on the Sabbath."

Vitas laughed his big booming laugh, his head thrown back, the hinge of his jaw springing open. Edina needed to find a word for that kind of laughter in her dictionary: chortle, cackle, guffaw.

"Are afraid you will be striked with lightning bolt?" he said. "Or pillar of fires?"

"If God could start a nice, warm fire, I might start believing in Him." She folded her arms across her chest, one hand clutching the lapels of her coat.

"If God will not save you, then this will." Vitas drew a large flask from inside his coat.

"If there's slivovitz in there I'm going to kiss you on the mouth."

"And where you kiss me if is vodka?"

Vitas was much better at this—this delicate business of sparking interest and feeding it by breath and movement until it took on a blazing life of its own. She wanted to tell herself that she was simply out of practice, but she knew that even when she had been young and eager, the perfect thing to say didn't come to her until hours after it was needed, when she was alone in her apartment, scribbling overheated stanzas in her notebook.

Vitas had caught her off guard; in recent years, she seemed to find herself across the table only from the bookish ones—bespectacled, library-pale, with matted hair and only the most casual acquaintance with hygiene—wondering how much time had to pass before she could say Thanks, oh, don't bother, good night. Vitas was a different type altogether. A big, bushy-headed blond with eyes like frozen lakes and a nose like a hawk's beak, he looked more like a Viking prince than a Slavic monk. She didn't know if there were Vikings in Lithuania, but she was willing to believe that centuries ago a shaggy berserker with horns on his helmet and an absurd sense of humor had crossed the Baltic, retired from pillaging, and put down roots in Vilnius.

The same fellowship that had brought Vitas from Lithuania to Chicago had brought Edina from Bosnia and half a dozen other journalists from India, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa. For two months she had listened to Vitas's laughter echoing in the halls as he cajoled the others into joining him for drinks after work. She had always turned down the offers; she didn't like crowds, she would say, or she had work to do. The journalism fellowship was only three months long, and her agenda didn't include much time for socializing, and certainly none for nurturing a crush on one of the other visiting fellows.

She took the flask, cold to the touch, and tilted it back for a quick nip, then again for a stinging throatful of liquor. The mouth of the flask tasted like cigarettes and something hard and sharp. Slate. Or iron.

"God," she said, her voice hoarse, "that does help."

"Is one thing we can thank Russians for," he said. "Maybe is only thing." He raised the flask in salute, said a quick Sveikata, and took a drink.

She held out her hand for the flask, and as Vitas's eyes blazed with approval, she mentally rifled through the scanty file of Vitas-related facts and observations she had compiled. He was around her age, perhaps a little older, closing in on fifty. He worked for a newspaper in Vilnius and was writing a series of articles on ties between organized crime in Chicago and Lithuania's booming black market. He dressed far better than any reporter she knew; his apple-picking outfit consisted of a buttery suede coat, plush wide-wale corduroys, and Italian-made boots—proof, perhaps, that his interest in black-market goods wasn't purely professional. And now this latest bit of information: he was showing an interest in Edina that she considered far more than collegial.

She wasn't sure what had changed between them, but it had started the moment Vitas had signaled, with a furtive wave, to turn into a lane marked GOLDEN DELICIOUS. Maybe it was because he was handsome, although Edina wanted to believe that it took more than that. Maybe it was because he didn't ask much of her, just joked and offered small observations, and that was enough to make an afternoon in the orchard bearable. Or maybe it was because she was far from home and couldn't resist the urge, like so many others who had come to this country, to shake loose from her past, if only for a few hours.

Edina was getting ahead of herself. He was only being friendly; Vitas was nothing if not friendly. And it was nice, after all, just wandering together in the orchard, even if her ears stung from the cold and her toes felt stiff and frail as matchsticks. Vitas's flask kept the cloying scent at bay and was probably the source of those thoughts about how warm it must be where his arm met his shoulder. She could close her eyes and allow herself to lean into that spot; it was that easy. Except she wasn't sure what he would do next, and was even less sure of what she would do.


"YOO-HOO! YOO-HOO!" Edina and Vitas stopped in a row of Granny Smiths, listening to the looping, birdlike call. They exchanged a brief look before Edina lowered her eyes and sighed.

"She hasn't seen us yet," Edina said. "We still have time to escape."

"Is too late," he said, pointing up the lane. "She sees us."

Kirsten was striding toward them, waving and yoo-hooing the whole way. She had graduated the previous spring with a degree in something called American Studies and was working at the university while she applied to graduate school. One of her duties was showing the visiting journalists what she called "the real America." In the first two months, they had roasted in the sun-scorched bleachers at a Cubs game, been packed into a blues bar next to a table full of screeching bachelorette-party-goers, and had endured a lurching boat tour of the city's skyline. Today's outing was supposed to be a walking tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Oak Park, but at some point during Friday night's after-work happy hour—which Edina had not attended—Kirsten had decided that a day in the orchard would be more fun. As American as apple pie, she had said, and although the plan had changed, no one informed Edina until the next morning, after she had folded herself into the tiny backseat of Kirsten's sports coupe.

Kirsten, however, had dressed for the occasion. She wore a puffy orange vest that reminded Edina of a life jacket; a snug, cabled turtleneck; blue jeans that fit like a second skin; and a fleecy muffler and matching cap that Edina suspected cost more than her entire fellowship stipend. Kirsten's outfit, so perfect for a day in the country, brought the frigid sting back to Edina's feet. She burrowed her hands deeper into the tatty satin lining of her pockets, wishing she had something she could throw at Kirsten.

"There you are!" Kirsten said as Vitas and Edina drew closer. "I was going to organize a search party!" Kirsten explained that the rest of the visiting fellows had left the orchard half an hour ago—news that made Edina regret, in some way, the time spent walking with Vitas.

"Where are all your apples?" Kirsten said, looking from Vitas to Edina. Edina shrugged.

"You guys!" Kirsten said, her voice mixing delight and disapproval. "Apple-picking is about picking apples." Her bag bulged at the sides; apples were piled precariously over the lip.

"Is why we have none," Vitas said. "You pick them all."

"You're going to make me wonder what you two were up to out there," Kirsten said. "All that time alone and you didn't pick any apples?"

"I pick one," Vitas said, holding up the Gravenstein.

"That still leaves a lot of time—"

"So, we are finished?" Edina said. She didn't want Kirsten insinuating anything. What she wanted from Kirsten was silence and a ride. Over the tops of the trees she could see the roof of the barn that stood next to the parking lot. If they left now, they could be back in Evanston by five; time enough for a hot shower before dinner with Vitas—assuming he was free, assuming he was interested.

"We're done with the apple-picking," Kirsten said, "but now comes the best part."

"Better than this?" Vitas said. He spread his arms wide, as if to embrace every tree in the orchard. "Is not possible!"

"Vitas, you are so mean." Kirsten gave one of his hands a playful shove, and like a mechanical toy, Vitas windmilled his arm, snatched the hat from her head, and ran down the lane, the hat held high. Kirsten shrieked and chased him, leaving Edina alone with the bag of apples. Up the lane, Vitas stopped and held the hat above Kirsten, daring her to jump up and grab it. Kirsten raised her hands like a ballerina, her sweater riding up to expose a swath of her taut golden belly. Kirsten's body advertised the nation's technological superiority in gymnasium equipment, and her hair flowed glossy and viscous as an oil spill. Edina could see the smile erupt on Vitas's face from thirty feet away. After a few more feints, he returned the hat to her and they walked side by side toward the barn. Kirsten lurched into Vitas as if trying to knock him down. As she thudded harmlessly against his side, he wrapped his arm across her shoulders and pulled her closer. Their laughter sparkled in the leaden air.


THE OLD BARN had been converted into a gift shop and a café, where families in flannel shirts and cartoon-bright synthetic pullovers huddled around tables dense with cups of coffee and cider. The walls were decorated with daguerreotypes of stunned-looking men with stiff beards and stern, pinch-faced women in black dresses—pioneers who had settled the American Midwest but seemed uncertain about whether the years of plowing, rail-splitting, and Indian-killing had been worth the effort. When Edina entered, Kirsten and Vitas were in line at the bakery counter, still laughing over some shared joke. Edina blew into her hands and staggered, as if the floor were also shivering, toward the potbellied stove in one corner.

She intercepted Vitas as he ferried cups of cider to a booth in the back of the room. "So, you and Kirsten," she said. "You are bosom buddies?"

"I tell you: is nice girl." He raised his hands in protest, or mock surrender, nearly spilling the cider. "Is true!"

"Oh, she's very nice. She has many fine…attributes," Edina said, her hands cupped in front of her chest. She had meant it to sound lighthearted, but the words left a bitter taste in her mouth.

Vitas winced and then mimicked Kirsten's heady squeal: "You are so mean!"

He set the cups on a table fashioned from heavily varnished pine planks. Years of apple-pickers had gouged the surface with names, dates, and declarations of love. Edina and Vitas slid into opposite sides of the booth, and amid the unzippings and unbuttonings that came with getting settled, Kirsten appeared.

"Ta-da!" she said, maneuvering an aluminum dish to the center of the table. "I couldn't let you go home without having a slice of apple pie." Edina stared at the lattice of sugared pastry laid like fingers over the congealed pie filling. She had been ravenous when they entered the café, but when she saw the pie, hunger gave way to nausea.

"You have got to try this," Kirsten said, pushing a paper plate toward Edina. "You'll love it." Whatever smell of cinnamon or caramelized sugar had emanated from the pie when it was fresh from the oven had long since dissipated. Edina pictured the bakers combing the orchard for apples, finding a few that were barely ripe, then rounding out the recipe with whatever they could find on the ground. Kirsten drew a line through the center with a short plastic knife and began sawing at the scalloped crust.

"Perhaps later." Edina swallowed hard. She saw Kirsten steal a look at Vitas.

"Come on," she said, her voice the singsong lilt that adults used with reluctant children. "You'll love it."

Edina extracted a pea-size morsel from the crust—more a biopsy than a bite. She examined it, noting the grit of the sugar, before popping it into her mouth. Kirsten's eyes were wide, expectant.

"It's good," Edina said. She knew that she was being too sour, too obviously displeased with the whole idea of sitting across from Kirsten eating a pie that made her stomach turn, so she pasted on a smile—more for Vitas's benefit than Kirsten's. She didn't know which depressed her more: that she was a forty-eight-year-old woman competing for the attentions of a man or that she was doing so against an Olympic-caliber flirt like Kirsten.

"Are sure is good?" Vitas said to Edina. "Look like is eating something poison." There it was: sumzing. It was charming—Vitas's brutal pronunciations, his tight-fisted grip on Slavic grammar—although Edina was disappointed in herself for thinking so. She took pride in her English, her fluent control of its ridiculous rules and inexplicable pronunciations, and before meeting Vitas had considered the headlong abuse of any language to be a failure of self-discipline or a sign of sloppiness.

"Everybody eat up," Kirsten said when each of them had a paper plate of mangled pie. Edina blew into her hands and rubbed them together, her pale fingers ashen, her nails purple.

Vitas drew out the flask and held it poised over the table. "Edina," he said, "this put feeling back in fingers, toes, ears, hair—everywhere." He poured a splash into her cider, then topped off his cup and Kirsten's.

Kirsten bolted her drink in a single swallow. Vitas roared with laughter and refilled her cup while Edina pushed the fragments of pie around her plate and sipped the cocktail of cider and vodka. In the far corner of the room she spotted some kind of outdated farm machinery—a scooped metal seat perched above crabbed fingers of bent steel. Edina could only guess how the contraption worked: Pulled behind a tractor? Dragged by a mule or ox? Her father and grandfather were doctors; she was at home with stainless steel and sterile surfaces but not with the rust-furred implements of farming. These were causes of injury and infection. These were the reasons why people came to see doctors.

Edina turned her head and sniffed at her shoulder. She could still smell the orchard, and she wanted to know if the scent hung in the air, or only in memory, or if it had penetrated the fabric of her coat.

"Does something smell funny?" Kirsten said.

"No, it's nothing," Edina said, quietly cursing Kirsten for noticing and cursing herself for giving Kirsten something to notice. Kirsten's eyes were trained on her, as harsh as bare bulbs. "It's just that smell in the orchard. It…lingers."

"You mean that sticky apple smell?" Kirsten's face lit up. "I totally know what you mean. It's so, I don't know—memorable. I took this psych class in college, and we talked about how smell is the sense that's most closely linked to memory, how certain smells can bring back these super-intense feelings in a way that hearing a voice or seeing a picture never can." She sipped her vodka, her eyes darting from Vitas to Edina over the rim of the cup. Kirsten had eyes like a china doll's: bright, almost luminous, and shot through with radiant splinters of brown glass. "This is going to sound crazy," she said, leaning into the table, "but I swear that smell always makes me think of the first time I had sex."

Edina almost dropped her cup. It was just as she had told Vitas: She's always looking for an excuse to talk. And the girl will say anything! While Edina stiffened in her seat, Vitas slapped the table and let loose another bark of laughter. At the next table, a man and a woman were parceling out doughnut halves to three red-cheeked boys. In the warmth of the café, snot ran freely from their noses. The children flinched, their hands frozen in mid-grasp at the sound of Vitas's laugh. Unaware and undeterred, Vitas clapped his hands like cymbals. "First love!" he said.

"I wouldn't call it love," Kirsten said. "I mean, at the time, sure—I was crazy about him. But I think I was just crazy, you know, the way you are when you're seventeen."

"Seventeen." Vitas rolled the word around in his mouth like hard candy, his eyes scanning the rafters high above. "Is crazy, crazy time."

Edina hoped that Kirsten's story would end there, with each of them silently contemplating the conjunction of sex and seventeen. Edina raised her cup to her lips. At seventeen, she had just started university. She was finally away from home and eager for the life she had always imagined was awaiting her in Sarajevo. But as the vodka slid down Edina's throat, Kirsten broke the silence.

"It was around this time of year," she said, "but up in Wisconsin. That's where I'm from. It's the state above Illinois. There's a lot of trees and hills up there; it's not flat like it is around here." She sipped once from her cup, then finished it off with a gulp.

"So anyway, there was this big Halloween party that my high school threw at one of the orchards outside Madison. There was music, hayrides, a big bonfire. Wait—" Kirsten swiveled her head from Vitas to Edina. "Do you guys know what Halloween is?"

They nodded.

"Just stop me if I say something that doesn't make sense," Kirsten said. Edina wanted to catch Vitas's eye, but she saw that he was already looking straight at her, one eyebrow raised, warning her: Don't be so mean. He twisted the top off the flask and poured a shot into Kirsten's cup. "I'm never sure how much you know about American culture," Kirsten said, "and I don't want to presume that of course you know what Halloween is or where Wisconsin is. Okay?" Kirsten's cheeks were flushed, her eyes glowing. She scanned their faces, ready for questions about local customs and Midwestern geography. Then she raised her cup, winked at Vitas, and downed the contents.

"So there was this big Halloween party, and there must have been two or three hundred kids there. I was a junior—that means third year of high school—and I was hanging out with this guy Todd, who was a senior and on the football team. He wasn't the quarterback or anything—"

She looked again from Edina to Vitas. "The quarterback is the big star on the football team. He's the one who throws the ball." She cocked her arm as if about to throw a perfect spiral. "Todd wasn't even that good, but he was cute and nice and whatever. It was high school." Vitas sipped from his cup and nodded, apparently satisfied with this explanation of her attraction to Todd.

"He had swiped a bottle of peppermint schnapps from his parents' liquor cabinet, and we were doing shots straight from the bottle. We'd hooked up a bunch of times, but we hadn't done it. I could tell he wanted to, but I think he was a virgin too so he wasn't too smooth."

"Poor Todd," Vitas said, shaking his head. "Is all the time wondering, When, Kirsten? When?"

"Hold your horses," she said, "I'm getting to that part. So anyway, the party was supposed to end at eleven, and by ten o'clock couples were disappearing into the orchard. Todd said we should go for a walk, look at the stars, that sort of thing, and I was like, Sure. The moon was out and it was a pretty warm night for October—we call it Indian summer, I don't know why. Anyway, it was hard to find a spot with a little privacy because every time you went to sit down under a tree there'd be two people totally going at it, and you'd be like, Whoops, sorry."

Kirsten was speaking more quickly, her words starting to slur. Edina had counted three shots from the vodka bottle since they sat down in the café, plus whatever Kirsten had had during the walk from the orchard—her lips where Edina's had been, tasting the sharp metal before the rush of vodka. As if reading Edina's mind, Kirsten nudged her cup closer to the flask, asking for a refill.

"So Todd and I are making out and blah-blah-blah and when he unbuttons my jeans I just think, Why not? I mean, there was more going through my head than that, but I liked him a lot and I did want to do it. I don't know. I'm sure the schnapps helped.

"So anyway, that smell. Todd's on top of me, and there's nowhere I can go that I don't have about a dozen apples poking me in the back. And that smell—rotten, but also kinda sweet—is everywhere. So I'm squirming around like crazy, which Todd probably thinks is because he's such a superstud, but really I was just trying to find a spot that was halfway comfortable." At the next table, the mother loudly gathered cups and shot acid-laced glances at Kirsten's back while the father pulled mittens over his sons' sugar-coated fingers.


On Sale
Feb 5, 2019
Page Count
224 pages

Brendan Mathews

About the Author

Brendan Mathews, a Fulbright Scholar to Ireland, has published stories in Glimmer Train, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and the Cincinnati Review, among other publications, and his fiction has twice appeared in The Best American Short Stories. He lives with his wife and four children in Lenox, Massachusetts, and teaches at Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

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