by Adam Reger
It is a foggy morning in Pittsburgh. As is always the case when fog is general across the city, I am reminded of one of my favorite short stories, Tobias Wolff’s “Our Story Begins.” The story’s setting is San Francisco, and the fog is a bit more aggressive than it is here this morning, but what lovely descriptions:
“The fog blew in early again. This was the tenth straight day of it. The waiters and waitresses gathered along the window to watch, and Charlie pushed his cart across the dining room so that he could watch with them as he filled the water glasses. Boats were beating in ahead of the fog, which loomed behind them like a tall, rolling breaker. Gulls glided from the sky to the pylons along the wharf, where they shook out their feathers and rocked from side to side and glared at the tourists passing by.
“The fog covered the stanchions of the bridge. The bridge appeared to be floating free as the fog billowed into the harbor and began to overtake the boats. One by one they were swallowed up in it.”
. . .
“Charlie started home the long way, up Columbus Avenue, because Columbus Avenue had the brightest streetlights. But in this fog the lights were only a presence, a milky blotch here and there in the vapor above. Charlie walked slowly and kept to the walls. He met no one on his way; but once, as he paused to wipe the dampness from his face, he heard strange ticking steps behind him and turned to see a three-legged dog appear out of the mist. It moved past in a series of lurches and was gone. ‘Christ,’ Charlie said. Then he laughed to himself, but the sound was unconvincing and he decided to get off the street for a while.”
Copying out these passages, I was struck first that these aren’t actually flamboyantly beautiful descriptions of fog; second, that they’re sneakier and more effective than that, because what they conjure up is the sensation you get when you’re trapped or enveloped in fog: in the first two paragraphs, Wolff describes a bus boy inside a tourist-trap restaurant as the fog closes in, strangling business for the evening; in the last, the bus boy walks home alone, late, through the fog and the empty streets. The three-legged dog is not Wolff’s usual thing—he’s a more realistic, generally unsentimental writer, not given to quirks or humor other than the dry sort—but here it makes sense: strange things come out of the fog, and everything looks a bit stranger when its context is wiped away. You can read metaphorical significance into the fog, isolating the main character, Charlie, forcing him to confront his own life—but you don’t really need to; it’s fog, it’s San Francisco.
I can remember reading “Our Story Begins” for the first time and getting chills. It was the summer and I was sitting in a laundromat in Philadelphia, waiting for my load of wash to be done. Walking around the city I had picked up a book called Graywolf Annual for some year, maybe 1989 or ’90, in a box of books put out on the curb with a placard reading “Free Books!” There were a number of fantastic stories in that collection—Andre Dubus and Richard Ford were represented, along with Annie Proulx’s “The Half-Skinned Steer”—but “Our Story Begins” was the one that made me put the book down, look around, and feel obscurely that I had been taught something important and at just the right time. I was older than the main character—23 or 24 at that time—but in not so different a place in terms of life and career. In the story, Charlie is revealed to be an aspiring writer who has moved to San Francisco with thoughts of Kerouac, of Allen Ginsberg or Gregory Corso popping into the cafe where he goes to escape the fog; his novel, we’re told, has been returned without comment by all the publishers he’s sent it to—except for one, who’s written “Are you kidding?” across the title page. Without encouragement, friendless, with San Francisco’s long, cold summer wearing him down, Charlie is just on the point of giving up. His encounter in the cafe, listening in on an ambiguous conversation between a married couple and the choir director the wife is having an affair with, sustains Charlie, convincing him to push on a little further by conveying a sense of possibility, of wonder at what the world will turn up next. It was an immensely encouraging idea to read in a story; whether or not any of this happened to Tobias Wolff, it seemed impossible he hadn’t lived some version of this pivotal moment, deciding whether to go on.
I’ve already sort of spoiled the story for you, but below the jump is its conclusion—a big part of why I’ve remembered this story so fondly for so long:
“Charlie turned and started up the hill, picking his way past lampposts that glistened with running beads of water, past sweating walls and dim windows. A Chinese woman appeared beside him. She held before her a lobster that was waving its pincers back and forth as if conducting music. The woman hurried past and vanished. The hill had begun to steepen under Charlie’s feet. He stopped to catch his breath, and listened again to the foghorn. He knew that somewhere out there a boat was making its way home in spite of the solemn warning, and as he walked on Charlie imagined himself kneeling in the prow of that boat, lamp in hand, intent on the light shining just before him. All distraction gone. Too watchful to be afraid. Tongue wetting the lips and eyes wide open, ready to call out in this shifting fog where at any moment anything might be revealed.”