Pet Milk by Stuart Dybek, 1984
The magic trick:
Using the memory of an El train ride to create a nostalgia mind warp
We close our week of stories from The Coast Of Chicago with one of the collection’s best mind scrambles. Everything with Dybek is about memory, and I can’t think of a better example of the strange, interwoven nostalgia loops he attempts to craft in every story than the one that closes “Pet Milk.”
The narrator is remembering an afternoon in his youth when he made love to his girlfriend on a Chicago El train and he is filtering the memory through his teenaged eyes watching the surprised observers at each platform and wondering if they are as interested in the sight as he is sure he would have been as he reflects on all of the time he had previously spent as a kid passing hours on those very same platforms, bored waiting for trains.
Wrap your mind around that.
And that’s quite a trick on Dybek’s part.
Then he was gone, and I turned from the window, back to Kate, forgetting everything–the passing stations, the glowing late sky, even the sense of missing her–but that arrested wave stayed with me. It was as if I were standing on that platform, with my schoolbooks and a smoke, on one of those endlessly accumulated afternoons after school when I stood almost outside of time simply waiting for a train, and I thought how much I’d have loved seeing someone like us streaming by.