When I was about eight years old, I had this plan to give my Barbie doll a perm. I’m guessing that this was probably the only Barbie I had left with a reasonable amount of hair since all the others were unfortunately suffering from my poor attempts at haircuts. (This terrible skill at cutting hair would follow me into adulthood. Can you just trim my bangs, my younger daughter has asked. To which I must answer a horrified, No!) Looking for something that would help the perm set, I came upon my mother’s bottle of patchouli on a tiny shelf in the bathroom. There were many bottles on that shelf, but this one was unfamiliar to me. The strong smell of it was so shocking I couldn’t imagine it as anything but medicinal. I was sure it would do the trick.
Some hours later this would result in my mother yelling at me for using practically an entire bottle of her very expensive oil on a doll's hair. For what reason? she demanded. I thought my explanation made perfect sense, but apparently she did not. In fact, she just could not believe what I had done. I should point out that in all my life I had never known my mother to wear patchouli and the three-quarters-full bottle of it remained in the bathroom for years until one day it was just simply gone. My Barbie’s perm, unfortunately, never took.
But meanwhile. That faint smell of patchouli that never really went away worked its way into my sense memory, winding its way through the various food co-ops of my life, until one day many years later I found that I did, in fact, like it. Which is maybe the way anyone comes to like patchouli when they didn’t plan on liking it, you know, gradually and unexpectedly. I’m not saying that I would ever wear it or anything (I mean, really now), but I have been known to burn patchouli incense and thus both horrify and confuse my children. What is that smell? asks my older daughter, horrified and confused. Oh, don’t you like this? I answer, knowing that of course she doesn’t, but also knowing that as she heads down the winding path of food co-ops in her own life she will at least be familiar with it.
You think I’m going somewhere with this? Well, now, let’s just see. A couple weeks ago my friend Kate told me how she had just finished writing a novel. And I reacted the way I always do at the thought of something like that: utter astonishment. I could never write like that, I always tell people who think that I am actually planning to write a novel someday, though I’m not. I could not keep going on one story like that. And Kate surprised me by saying simply, Well, of course, you read a lot of short stories, don’t you? I think writers who like short stories the most write short stories. And there it was, the best explanation I’d ever heard. It’s true. I love short stories. I read books and books of them, even though everyone wants to talk about and read novels. I read novels, too, of course, but I think I might actually like short stories better. Is that possible?
What I like best actually are books of short stories in which the same characters show up in different stories, and I consider Alice Mattison and Edward P. Jones the masters of this. Right now I’m reading books of Amy Bloom’s short stories and I feel like I’m wolfing them down like a bag of potato chips that you don’t even remember opening and I end up having to go back and reread most of them. And the story “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter, which I read twice in a row recently because I liked it so much. The thing about stories is that half the time with a really good one it feels like it’s over too soon. But isn’t that kind of the best thing about them? It’s like leaving the party when it’s still going strong, or, you know, like The Jam breaking up at the height of their success. The best kind of short story invites you into a world and then ends with a snap and you are left longing, but only in the very best of ways. This is why I always keep reading them and also why I keep trying to write them.
So now I need to tie this back to patchouli, right? Well, let’s just say that short stories have also worked their way into my sense memory throughout my life and now I can finally admit a kind of preference for them. And I will keep on reading and reading them. And, oh yeah, writing them too.