Monday, January 30, 2006

The Deposition

When I went to the New Yorker's web site this morning, I found a treat: a new short story by Tobias Wolff, titled "The Deposition."

I've read this story twice, but I'm not sure what I think of it just yet. It seems to be a fairly straightforward story about a lawyer who is conducting a difficult deposition. He believes that the witness is holding back, telling less than he knows about a medical malpractice claim in which the lawyer represents the plaintiff.

The parties take a break from the deposition and the lawyer goes for a walk. The setting reminds him of the town where he grew up, and of a girl whose house he had frequented in high school "to glory in her boldness for a mad hour before her mother got home from work." He begins to wax poetic about the days of his youth, and stops:
But what crap!—wallowing in nostalgia for a place he’d come to despise, and dreamed of escaping.
In this case, Wolff is not having the character apologize for a burst of sentimentality; rather, he is drawing attention to the distortion and coloration of memory.

The lawyer continues his walk through a dilapidated business district, becoming more and more disheartened about the state of decay in the town and in the country. He sees two women as he walks, an old woman in a coat and a "bespectacled" woman at a Chinese restaurant. He pays them no mind.

But then a girl gets off a bus, far enough ahead that she doesn't notice him, but close enough that he can observe her in detail. She is long limbed and limber; he takes in the curve of her neck, her hair, her walk, a spot on her calf that may be either a mole or a speck of mud. His observations are so detailed you can feel his nostrils dilating. Suddenly he catches up to her, surprises her. She sees him, and is frightened by something in his face. She runs.
He continued on his way, deliberately keeping himself to a dignified pace, even stopping for a moment to put on his suit jacket—shoot the cuffs, shrug into the shoulders, give a tug at the lapels. He did not allow himself to look back. As the tightness in his throat eased, he found himself hungry for air, almost panting, and realized that he had hardly taken a breath while walking behind the girl. How frightened she had been! What was that all about, anyway? He put this question to himself with a bravado that he did not feel. He knew; he knew what had been in his face.

He continues walking until a police car pulls alongside. The girl and an older woman are in the car, and the lawyer is accused of stalking the girl.

Of course, he has done nothing criminal. The policeman questions him, and he calmly tells the truth, leaving out, of course, how fascinated he had been by the girl. The policeman lets him go, but the older woman shocks him with a fierce slap to the face and calls him a liar. And he knows that she is right. Just as he is right about the witness in the deposition.