By the time the mysterious man was done berating the narrator over the phone about his garlic chicken and side salad that would never be delivered, I felt like I had already missed the onramp to Rivka Galchen’s “The Lost Order.” That I could never quite understand why the narrator didn’t simply say, “You have the wrong number,” and hang the hell up was probably my definitive sign that I just didn’t understand her.
That isn’t an indictment of her depth and complexity as a fictional character, but rather a reflection on my inability to comprehend round-a-bout conversation. The story opens with a frustrated man dialing the wrong number for take-out, and the narrator – for reasons that weren’t immediately clear – doesn’t inform him these digits don’t lead to a place that brings you food. She has recently quit (or been fired, depending on whom you believe) a job as an environmental lawyer and now spends her days striving to eat less and do nothing else.
She seems apathetic and absent, the latter of which is true in some mental capacity. I don’t believe the former. The narrator actively thinks about not doing things, and she’s a deep examiner of the life that hums along around her. She considers the hindrances in her own life, which she relates mostly with being a woman, and thinks about her life without them. That doesn’t smell like apathy to me, but again, I do not understand this fictional woman who plays along on the phone with misguided take-out orders.
The narrator’s husband calls from work and explains to her that he was walking Monkey, the couples’ dog, and it was cold, so his fingers shrunk and his wedding ring slipped off. It’s somewhere in a public courtyard, he says, and he wants her to go look for it. She declines, saying she is busy, but really she thinks about the absurdity of that image and how it would make her look. Like a sucker, like a fool, like the powerless ornament of a puppeteer in a dishonest union. She wasn’t casting guilt, but she also wasn’t having that.
I should tell you that she did end up going to search for the ring, but only after the garlic-chicken man called back and lashed into an ugly stream of insults – ranging from “ten-dollar blow job” to a word that rhymes with “punt” – and I should also tell you that I didn’t understand this sequence of events in the slightest sense. However, it did connect to what I found to be the most interesting part of the story: the examination of socioeconomic gender roles.
The narrator repeatedly expresses the desire to be a man – not because she is overtly unhappy with her being a woman, but because she seeks simplicity (that’s what she says anyway). She doesn’t like the effort it takes to dress the kind of woman she appears to be. She doesn’t embrace the role of housewife. And in the final scene, we see that she doesn’t want to be a man in appearance and outward expression, necessarily, but that she feels like one emotionally (which is to say, she is less emotional than her husband).
But there is an interesting contradiction to her desire to be a Man in this contemporary world. When she goes out to look for her husband’s ring, she notices something about her neighborhood. Those making deliveries are men. Those tending to children and homes are women. The puzzle fits together cleanly until she comes across two women in UPS uniforms.
She finds herself examining them – their “asses,” to be specific – and it’s a bit jarring. She doesn’t feel discomfort, but she does feel something foreign, something unsettling. She struggles to break through the role restrictions.
The narrator admits to finding something resembling comfort in this structured society, even as she searches for her departure from it. She isn’t completely happy with her world, but she’s familiar with it.
And maybe that’s the diving current of her life, the way in which she finds control of her circumstances. With her husband, with her work, with her misplaced emotions, she possesses the ability to lose herself and slink away into a dream of something better.
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