For those new here, my summer reading project is reading or re-reading all thirty-six of the stories listed on One Story Magazine’s Favorite Short Story List. They published their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.”
A.M. Homes short story, Do Not Disturb, is one of the best of the fifteen stories I’ve read so far. From the opening lines, this brutal story about a loveless marriage is filled with palpable tension.
My wife, the doctor, is not well. In the end she could be dead.
The story is narrated by the husband who is unsettled by tense situations. Their marriage has gone sour, and now his wife, who unrepentantly refers to herself as “a bitch,” becomes sick. When he first suggests the hospital, she replies, “I don’t want to be the doctor who goes to the ER with gas.”
The wife doctor is cold and calculating. When she discovers she has cancer, she declares, “I want a number,” she says. “A survival rate.” And then she tells her husband, “You don’t have to stay with me now that I have cancer. I don’t need you. I don’t need anyone. I don’t need anything.”
She undergoes a hysterectomy, and it’s as though her capability to love has been surgically removed as well. After starting chemo and her hair falls out, she continues working. Over time, it appears their roles have been reversed. The wife has become the cold one while the husband seeks tenderness.
The husband asks, “How do you feel?”
“I feel nothing.”
“How can you feel nothing.”
“I am made of steel and wood,” she says happily.
She has shut down and rejects the husband’s attempts not just to comfort her, but to comfort himself as well. He asks her for a hug and she scoffs, “I have no interest in being human.”
The prose throughout is clean and sharp. The story moves quickly, jumping from one fraught scene to another. A.M. Home adds in moments of humor to keep the story moving and balance the horribleness of it all. The husband tries one last ditch effort to find tenderness by taking his sick wife to Paris. Once there, he realizes there is no chance to save their marriage. I won’t spoil the ending here.
What’s really interesting here is how brutal the wife is, she’s not likeable at all. The reader empathizes with the husband more, or at least I did. But at the same time, the cruelty of the wife is totally believable. We all have the capacity to shut down our humanity, which is the frightening aspect of this tale.
This short story appears in Things You Should Know by A.M. Homes. I definitely plan on returning and reading more of her stories.