Sunday Short: “Ghosts and Empties” by Lauren Groff

“Ghosts and Empties” is the opening story of Lauren Groff’s Florida. Much of the collection pivots around Florida’s humidity and propensity for hurricanes, and the stories featuring a conflict are strongest. In the opening lines of “Ghosts and Empties,” there’s a small, individual conflict:

I have somehow become a woman who yells, and, because I do not want to be a woman who yells, whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces, I have taken to lacing on my running shoes after dinner and going out into the twilit streets for a walk, leaving the undressing and sluicing and reading and singing and tucking in of the boys to my husband, a man who does not yell.

I gave up on Fates and Furies after the first few chapters. There were too many bad lines and I couldn’t take it seriously. I didn’t plan on reading anything else by Lauren Groff, but a relative recommended Florida because I used to live there. While my memories are fuzzy, the humidity sticks with me along with a sense of impermanence. These sensations are so tidily embodied by Florida and “Ghosts and Empties” that I Googled Lauren Groff to see if she lives in Florida. She does! Being a Floridian isn’t a strict requirement for writing a collection by that name, but it lends a certain legitimacy

While “Ghosts and Empties” is primarily a character study and lacks a full narrative arc, I was struck by the rich descriptions as the unnamed narrator runs nightly to cope with her frustrations. As she runs, she describes the night and the occupations of her neighbors as she spies through their open windows. She chronicles the passage of time, too, which adds to the feeling of her dissatisfaction that she runs night after night after night:

On my nighttime walks the neighbors’ lives reveal themselves, the lit windows domestic aquariums. At times, I’m the silent witness to fights that look like slow-dancing without music. It is astonishing how people live, the messes they sustain, the delicious whiffs of cooking that carry to the street, the holiday decorations that slowly seep into daily décor. All January, I watched a Christmas bouquet of roses on one mantel diminish until the flowers were a blighted shrivel and the water green scum, a huge Santa on a stick still beaming merrily out of the ruins. Window after window nears, freezes with its blue fog of television light or its couple hunched over a supper of pizza, holds as I pass, then slides into the forgotten.

While there’s an implied conflict between her and her husband, it’s left largely unexplored. Maybe if she discussed it with her husband, there’d be less reason to go out nightly. Her sense of grievance expands as she actively feeds it:

During the day, while my sons are in school, I can’t stop reading about the disaster of the world, the glaciers dying like living creatures, the great Pacific trash gyre, the hundreds of unrecorded deaths of species, millennia snuffed out as if they were not precious. I read and savagely mourn, as if reading could somehow sate this hunger for grief, instead of what it does, which is fuel it. (7)

Just about all the main characters in Florida are unlikable, but this narrator feels the most recognizable and least ridiculous of the bunch. It’s not a good thing to terrify her children by being a “woman who yells,” but she’s making an effort. As much as I’m always saying that I like short stories with a full arc, I don’t mind all the openness here. If the narrator were a radically different person at the end, someone who no longer needed to run, this story would be too small. As is, it’s one long, slightly uncomfortable moment that’s beautifully written and paced.

Click here to read “Ghosts and Empties” in the July 20, 2015 issue of The New Yorker. I’m not affiliated with The New Yorker; they’ve just got a lot of good short fiction and a legitimate site.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.