Smoking with Lucia


First Person

Remembering Lucia Berlin.

Lucia Berlin in Albuquerque, 1963. Photo: Buddy Berlin/Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin was not PC. And she was not New Age. She never talked to me about “recovery” or “karma.” We never spoke of the Twelve Steps. It was understood: she was sober now. No need to talk about it. Especially when she could write about it. Her stories, populated with alcoholics and addicts, are rendered with an empathy, disgust, and ruthless wit that echo the devastating circumstances of her own life. She’d moved from isolation to affluence to detox and back again, and Boulder, Colorado—inundated with massage therapists, extreme athletes, and vegans—was an unlikely place for her to end up. Yet she spent much of the last decade of her life there. First in a clapboard Victorian beneath the red rocks of Dakota Ridge; later, when illness nearly bankrupted her, in a trailer park on the outskirts of the pristine town.

News of the trailer depressed me until I managed a visit, finding her at ease amid the shabby metal homes stacked on cinder blocks. It’s likely Lucia would have felt more comfortable watching a bull be gored in a Mexico City arena or huddling among winos on a corner in Oakland than she ever felt at her first place on posh Mapleton Hill. But that was where we spent nearly all of our time together. Usually at her kitchen table.

Before I’d ever met Lucia, she left a message on my answering machine about a story I’d written. Her voice was breathless, sultry, and sweet. It made me fall in love with her a little bit—as in her writing, it’s her voice that pulls you in. When we did meet, I was shocked to discover she was decades older than I’d imagined. Like the protagonist in “B.F. and Me” who says, “Now I have a really nice voice. I’m a strong woman, mean even, but everyone thinks I’m really gentle because of my voice. I sound young even though I’m seventy years old. Guys at the Pottery Barn flirt with me.” Men definitely flirted with her, but Lucia was never mean, although her voice masked a devilish streak.  

Just weeks after we met, the high altitude compromised her already frail respiratory system—one of Lucia’s lungs was crushed by the scoliosis that tormented her as a child—and she was put on oxygen. I never again saw her without an O2 tank, except after she sent me on my bicycle to Lolita’s Deli for cigarettes. Single smokes sold at twenty cents a pop. She always requested the strongest on offer. Lucky Strikes, Marlboro Reds. I’d buy us each a Camel Light and pedal back to her house. She would slip the breathing tube off and we’d light up, indulging in the only addictive substance either of us could allow ourselves. The fact that her oxygen tank loomed, threatening to blow, only made it more fun. The rush that comes with courting danger is always the last one to go. Like the protagonist in the hilarious story “502,” once in a while, Lucia had the “diabolical urge to, well, mess it all up.” But then there was the way, mid-cigarette, she’d grasp the O2, looping the long tube back over her head and under her nose. A glimmer of panic.

Even so, she’d manage a smile, breathlessly.

I look back on those moments with equal measures of searing remorse—how could I have let her smoke?—and delight: there was no place sweeter than in conversation with Lucia. We’d both grown up with the violence of alcoholic parenting, our lives punctuated by loss. To different degrees, we’d each recklessly tested the limits of our own addictions. Several years sober when we met, a furtive cigarette shared was our small rebellion against the self-righteous healthiness of Boulder where, as Lucia wrote, “Even all the runners look like they just got out of the shower.” Plus I could sit at her kitchen table forever just listening to her. Often we spoke of books, but really we talked about everything. She could use the word adore better than anyone I’ve ever known. She simply “adored” Murakami, Lydia Davis, Chekhov. Years later, she wrote lamenting her difficulty finding someone else she was comfortable with talking about “shoes to books to death & gossip.”

Like most great storytellers, Lucia was a first-rate gossip. But her gossip was never banal. The best of it was always connected to her life. It could be risky, though, to think you’d understood her biography, to believe you knew which son or husband a particular story was about. Much less to conflate the affairs, abortions, and suicides of her stories with what actually happened. She had lived all over the world, spoke several languages, married and divorced three times by age thirty-two. She raised four sons, spent time in the New York jazz scene, hung out with the Beats and Black Mountain poets, packed her children into a private plane to go live in a thatch-roofed hut with a sand floor on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. She moved, albeit not quite seamlessly, between lives, between worlds. Reading everything. Meeting everybody. If you wanted the inside scoop on, say, Ava Gardner’s dalliances with those cabana boys—both on and off the Puerto Vallarta set of John Huston’s adaptation of Night of the Iguana—Lucia had been there. She knew things like how one of them swindled a fishing boat out of Ava.

But she never name-dropped for the sake of; her life was really like that. Did it influence her fiction? Of course it did. She could have chosen memoir, but I think she knew she was called to a higher art. To read her is to get lost in her voice. Her stories make you feel like you’re gossiping with her at her table. The moves she makes in her fiction shadow the peripatetic nature of intimate conversation, and in turn, her peripatetic life. She can transport you from the alcoholics of El Paso to the inmates of Oakland as easily as she can make you believe she was capable of loading a lethal dose into her addict husband’s syringe before going to the hospital to deliver his child. Each of her stories unfolds in such unexpected ways you nearly forget where the tale has begun. Then she suddenly brings you back and knocks the wind out of you with one of her singular last lines.

The comparisons of her work to Raymond Carver and Richard Yates are inevitable, but I don’t see it. Yes, she wrote about the down-and-out, but her scope is more literary, her prose a descendant of Proust, of Chekhov. Where Carver’s work is overly constructed—continually reminding you that you are reading a short story written by Raymond Carver—Lucia’s style is more organic, more surprising. Where Yates’s stories are so stiff as to be unyielding, Lucia’s are fluid, and unfailingly feminine. Her protagonists are almost exclusively female. She admired both writers, but she never emulated either. Nor did she fall back on easy irony; instead, her stories lull you into a false sense of security, distracting you with humor, then glancing the knife-edge over your skin, abandoning you in a destination you likely never wanted to visit.

I have often wondered why it has taken so long for Lucia’s fiction to get the attention it deserves. I think I know why. And I think she did, too. But I didn’t see it until now. She once told me a story about winning an NEA grant. She’d used it to travel to Paris, blowing all of the cash and never writing a word. Later, she sent the NEA a thank-you letter recounting all she had done with the money: everything but write. Of course, she made a joke about never winning another prize. It’s true, Lucia and I may not have spoken about getting sober, but if you read her stories, you know how miserable things were. Pregnant and running drugs over the border. Waking up in detox. Worse. But that was the stuff of fiction infused with a savage humor, a humor that’s only possible when recounting the past. The real-life events were hardly funny. Any amount of fame or success might have sent Lucia reeling. With all she’d managed to survive, something suddenly going so right could have also meant certain ruin. And she was never going back there—not even at the cost of her career.

Looking back, I see that despite all the ways Boulder’s preciousness may have gotten to her, it also provided her with material and enough stability to produce a new collection. The proximity to several very dear friends also quelled her lifelong search for home. But Lucia had long stalked death in her stories, and now it seemed to be stalking her. She eventually moved near her sons and grandsons in California. I needed to see her one last time and flew there from Rome. She met me at the garden gate, oxygen tube trailing. Blue eyes as startling as ever. Her voice just as I remembered. Only now she really was continually short of breath, and her illness had made her shy. She loathed the idea of anyone worrying or feeling sorry for her. By then, she was too sick to smoke, but we sat together at her kitchen table, where so many of her stories were written and told, talking as we always had.

When I got home to Italy, I received a final letter from Lucia. It was extremely short, the handwriting messy and rushed. Reading it, I could hear her marvelous voice as she confessed an urgency to get any final stories she could onto the page even as she joked about the “pitiful” state of her literary output. She closed the letter as she closed all of her writing—with a killer last line. “Message on my tombstone: Breathless.

Berlin’s letter to the author.

Elizabeth Geoghegan is the author of Natural Disasters: Stories and the The Marco Chronicles. She lives in Rome.

Lucia Berlin’s story “B.F. and Me” appears in our Summer issue, out now. Her collection A Manual for Cleaning Women publishes today.