Mary Guterson

Selective Hearing

Sylvia Stamberg, eighty-seven years old, read about Albert’s death in the newspaper and for a moment remembered the soft fur of Albert’s chest, so thick and wild it almost scared her as much as it pleased her and made her laugh. Her own husband, an electrician of German descent—he’d had almost no hair on his body to speak of, just a few wisps in his armpits, a downy glow about his testicles. Albert’s body was a surprise, a fantastic surprise. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that her own body was the surprise, tossed frantically by the ripples her husband had failed to elicit, without her ever knowing. How was she to know about the wave after wave after wave? No one tells you such things when you are Sylvia Stamberg, born Sylvia Smith, wife of an electrician who never showed her the light.

“Albert,” she told him. “I think I love you.”

This was in a motel room on Aurora, the shades drawn, Albert’s car parked three blocks away. Now growing limp inside of her, he was once again amazed at his ability to be here and to later be home with his wife, Alice, and to not feel that he needed to kill himself for such a terrible indiscretion. Instead, he felt more alive than he’d felt in years. It was possible he loved Sylvia Stamberg right back, or if not Sylvia Stamberg, then the possibility of Sylvia Stamberg, combined with the wonderful feeling of lingering in her wetness. Yes, he might love her back, and he told her so.

“But I’ll never leave Alice,” he told her.

Or he thinks he made that clear, somehow, somewhere between her whispers and the way he was growing hard again and his voice saying whatever it was saying into Sylvia Stamberg’s lovely shell-like ear, as he pressed his body once again over hers and she drew him in with her calves pressed to his back.

“Oh, Sylvia,” he said. “I’ll never leave Alice.”

But Sylvia Stamberg heard only the words “I’ll leave Alice,” words that played in a loop over and over inside of her head to the rhythm of Albert’s movements.

Sylvia, who had waited and waited for Albert to come through on his promise, who had left the electrician behind in anticipation, who had gotten old, and then older, and then older still, read the obituary one more time, thinking the name sounded very familiar, before tossing it into the fireplace, over the burning logs.


Mary Guterson is the author of the novels “We Are All Fine Here” (Putnam, 2005), and “Gone to the Dogs” (St. Martin’s, 2009). Her poetry, essays, articles and short stories have appeared in numerous journals, magazines and anthologies, and on public radio.