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Time to read

`A WONDERFUL book for you,'' My friend Mary Edsall thrusts a volume through the door. ``No time now -- my students arrive in an hour -- ''

``That gives you one hour.''

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``But I must look over their manuscripts, and scrape carrots for snacks, and make six phone calls -- I'm desperate for a mortgage to keep this house. Excuse the paint splatters -- I'm about to repaint Alexander's bedroom -- a visiting Argentine pediatrician arrives tonight to rent it -- Alexander flew back to college yesterday but just phoned me to wash and ship him the clothes he forgot -- but Great-Aunt Jenny's afghans are soaking. I'd planned to drive to the nursing home to visit my father -- takes exactly one hour. And I must prioritize these bills -- tomorrow's the deadline on an economics translation which would pay some. And my anthology of poems on whales and dolphins needs acknowledgments, and our new poetry books by Ann Darr and Barbara Lef-cowitz need mailing, and tomorrow I close our beloved summer house in Eel Country forever . . . and a story's nagging me to be written -- ''

``All in one hour?''

``More or less.''

``But this book -- ''

``You're so kind, but here's three days' worth of three different newspapers plus a leaning tower of books I promised to read. ''

``These stories you can read quickly,'' Mary argues. ``And I've brought rosemary tea. I'd never heard of it, but your exotic tastes -- ''

``I'm sure it's delicious, but -- ''

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``They're short short stories.''

Mary sets my kettle on. I can't find a carrot scraper although I own two. Arrange a platter of broccoli. . . . Mary leafs the book describing stories she insists I'll love.

I decide to get away with merely washing the walls.

``These stories won some competition,'' Mary says.

Solipsistically, I think of all the stories I'm too busy to write or submit to competitions, the million more stories I'm too busy to read. Yet what joy, 18 years ago, to read all Anton Chekhov in one week in the Canadian wilds. And 10 years ago, while camping in the Malaysian jungles, I devoured Somerset Maugham's stories. In the intervening years, however, it's been catch-as-catch-can: Catch me if you can to read someone's manuscript.

The postman. Nonreading material. Junk mail -- into the wastebasket. . . . Save applications from banks queried about mortgages. Which deserves my business? Forms indecipherable. Blanks question my gross income, overtime, bonuses, commissions, dividends, interest, and other. It's the other that's interesting. Also spaces for equities, escrows, taxes, insurance. ``Hazard Insurance.''

``Have you any outstanding judgements?'' The form inquires.

Mine is surely outstanding. Is ``judgment'' generally spelled with an ``e''?

``In the last seven years, have you been declared bankrupt?''

There's likely to be a first time soon.

Mary pours rosemary tea while I transform Alexander's room. I've never before washed walls. . . . Amazing patterns my rag makes. . . .

``Authors known and unknown, some really marvelous.'' Mary begins to enumerate 83 names, plus titles. . . .

Wall-washing should have hazard insurance. Should ask Paddy the moonlighting firefighter to paint. Should finish that translation to justify paying someone to paint.

Students will be here soon. Better whip up rosemary mayonnaise to go with the broccoli -- one egg left.

Mary plows on through the table of contents. I recognize my old friends Myra Sklarew and Richard Harteis. . . . Joseph Bruchac, Roger Pfingston, David Ray, and Lewis Turco all contributed poems to my anthology. . . . I've heard Louise Erdrich, Patricia McConnel, Cynthia MacDonald, and Maura Staunton read their stories and poems. . . .

Dabs of rosemary mayonnaise splotch one mortgage application.

Into the wastebasket. I'll choose another company. . . . They insist that before one applies for mortgages, one figures this year's income taxes. That will take days. Trash.

Mary is beginning to read a story aloud.

My students better like rosemary. I'd better get their manuscripts out of the kitchen. . . .

Mary has a beautiful reading voice. My mother loved to read aloud.

One mortgage broker returns my call: ``Sorry. If you were just employed full-time, even at some fast-food -- ''

I pause to sew up Alexander's jeans before mailing them. Generally I save mending for sometime when I have time to watch television. The pile of mending remains enormous.

Gradually Mary's voice reading catches me up. . . . The stories are good. Varied, tight. But in the middle of a sentence, Mary gets some quite unrelated idea for her own novel-in-progress and soars home to her typewriter.

I glance at the volume: ``The Available Press/PEN Short Story Collection.'' Stories selected by the PEN Syndicated Fiction Project competition, published in several newspapers, anthologized here. I know about this! I sit, begin to read. . . .

Between stories, I decide to move to some beach hut. No mortgage, no income, no students, no friends, but time to write, and read.

Stories are like peanuts: can't stop.

Fortunately my students arrive late.

``I have this wonderful collection for you -- ''

``How can we read when -- ''

``We have our own writing -- ''

``Everything else pressing in -- ''

``I'm too blocked even to think -- ''

Within a few lines they'll get hooked, or inspired to find corners to scribble their own stories. Rosemary tea is bound to launch Proustian memoirs. I begin to read aloud. . . .

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