Swim Back to Me
“Dwell Time” is from Ann Packer’s story collection, Swim Back to Me (Knopf). Packer attended Yale University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has received fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and the National Endowment for the Arts. She is the author of two national bestsellers, the novels Songs Without Words (2007) and The Dive from Clausen’s Pier (2002), and an early story collection, Mendocino and Other Stories (1994). Her stories have been published in The New Yorker and have been featured in the annual O. Henry Awards prize stories anthology.
Packer said this about her story: An interviewer once told me that in his opinion, I write horror stories. Given that my fiction generally falls into the category of psychological realism, it took me a moment to understand what he was saying. “Dwell Time” is a horror story of a kind, in which dread and uncertainty are replaced not by dripping blood but by terrible knowledge.
It began with an image, of a woman and some children not her own waiting for a man to come home. This man—the woman’s husband, the children’s father—was late, and none of them knew where he was. The woman’s anxiety was compounded by her awareness that her presence was distorting, perhaps even worsening the children’s anxiety. That was all I knew when I began writing.
It’s a densely populated piece, and so one question I faced as the story came together was how to keep the characters distinct. Another was how to handle back story. In the end, it’s with her own children that the woman is first waiting for her husband, but anxiety remains a constant, and the overlap and interplay of partial families and step-parents and step-children are central to the story’s concerns.