The Giant's House (Elizabeth McCracken)

book cover
  Passage OnePassages From The Giant's House

I am not a person who likes to be touched casually, which means of course that I like it a great deal. Every little touch takes on great meaning--oh, I could catalog them all for you: the bus driver who offered his hand as I stepped down from his bus, his other hand hovering near but not touching the small of my back. My flirtatious college friend who could not keep her hands off of anyone, who flicked one restless finger on the back of my wrist, on my forearm. Handshakes. Because I am short, certain tall people cannot resist palming my head; one college boyfriend stroked my hair so often in the early days of our courtship that, crackling with static, I could have clung to the wall like a child's balloon.

My list could go on forever, and still it would be shorter than other people's, because those tentative friendly fingers make me stiffen, and by the time I realize I've done it and try to relax, the hands are gone. People get the idea. The better they know me, the less they touch me.

pages 40-41

I did think of love sometimes, for months at a time, to the exclusion of everything else. If I had love, I could concentrate on other things. If I had love, then my entire life would open up. Late at night I wouldn't have to dream of who would love me, and how; nor while shelving books; nor moments when I found myself not paying attention to what people were saying to me. Ordinary people, I thought--loved people--could devote themselves to good works, or other sins, or benign undemanding hobbies.

And then the feeling would pass. I would realize that I hadn't thought of such things for ages, that such hopeless dreams of romance were like a language I had made up to communicate with a childhood friend and, losing that friend, the verbs and nouns curdled to gobbledygook, evidence of a passion and belief I could not believe I'd ever taken seriously.

pages 71-72

In my life I have spent hours constructing questions from just the right person, in just the right tone of voice: Have you ever known anyone who's committed suicide? What celebrity would you marry if you could? Who was the first boy you ever kissed, and what do you remember about that boy?

And then the best part, the part where I answer, carefully, at length, because there's someone who wants to know.

Truthfully, this is the fabric of all my fantasies: love shown not by a kiss or a wild look or a careful hand but by a willingness for research. I don't dream of someone who understands me immediately, who seems to have known me my whole life, who says, I know, me too. I want someone keen to learn my own strange organization, amazed at what's revealed; someone who asks, and then what, and then what?

But you can't spend your life hoping that people will ask you the right questions. You must learn to love and answer the questions they already ask. Otherwise you're dreaming of visiting Venice by driving to Boise, Idaho.

page 85

James loved public spaces. I did, too, of course; it was one of the reasons I became a librarian. But we liked them for different reasons. I loved buildings where anyone was welcome, where no one could throw you out, wonder whether you belonged. And while I was not an admirer of people in the specific, I liked them in the abstract. It is only the execution of the idea that disappoints. I have always loved strangers a good deal more than my own family, will be politer and friendlier on a bus or in an airport than I am at a dinner table. You have nothing to lose with strangers: they will like you or not and most likely never think of you again, and conversation becomes that much easier. Love and hate are not on the menu.

page 189

You might think, living alone so long, so seldom touched, I wouldn't know what to do. But I did. Alone in my bed, I'd sometimes tested on myself. I ran a tentative hand along my collarbone; then a confident hand; then somewhere between. There wasn't an inch of skin I hadn't skimmed my fingers along, wondering would someone else like this? I thumbed my ears, traced the outer trough with just a fingernail; strummed my belly; outlined my nose, mouth, as if they were places on a map I longed to visit, a homeland I had not seen since childhood.

Some lonely untouched people might get used to it, decide they could do without. Not me. I learned to touch myself tenderly to give myself what I could not ask others for. I stroked my own cheek; late at night, I brushed the hair off my own tired, worried forehead.

I knew in what order to caress a face, a back. I knew what would be expected, and what surprising. I remembered: there is bone, and there is skin, and muscle, and other things. You must always remember this, encountering a body, the same way you must remember when you walk around Cape Cod that there are trees, and also dunes so vast that while walking in them you cannot see the ocean or road; there are roads, and the ocean, and the bay, scrubby forests full of things that scratch, and bogs. It may seem impossible to dress in readiness for all these things, but you can as long as you are mindful.

page 247

"I liked...I liked the idea of taking care of things. I like order, good manners, and--because I'm basically a stingy person--I like being able to counteract that stinginess by giving people free things all day long. I like knowing things other people don't. You know my favorite part of the library? Our little local history section. Nobody in our town ever goes into it--you never have, have you? It's small. There's the voting records, and the census, and one book a man wrote twenty years ago, called Brewsterville, My Home. Boxes of posters for summer fairs, tickets to concerts. And it's all necessary, it's all things you can't find anywhere else, and I'm the one who owns it. The genealogists come in, wanting information, and I give it to them, the desiderata, the ephemera, everything."

"The what?"

"Ephemera," I said. "Stuff that doesn't seem to be useful, that you think will only be around for one use, like a ticket, but ends up being collected."

"And the other word?"

"Desiderata?" I let the word knock at my front teeth. That word was like toffee to me--I never thought of or missed it, but once tasted it became unspeakably delicious. "That word, it's the best thing I learned in library school. It means--well, it's sort like, what's desired and required."

"Desired and required? Which?"

"Both," I told him. "Some things are both."

page 183
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Excerpted from The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken. Copyright © 1996 Elizabeth McCracken. Excerpted by permission of the Dial Press, Dell Publishing, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.