There’s a story many women tell, about that time they dated a musician. Sometimes he’s an artist or a poet, but usually it’s a musician in this story. Our heroine is responsible and hard-working (if only in comparison), while he’s aimless, entitled, or lazy. It falls on the shoulders of the girl, likely for the only time in her life, to support this man entirely. In “Wings,” Lorrie Moore supposes that the relationship lasts almost to a girl’s 40s, when she’s not so girlish anymore. “She'd been given something perfect – youth! – and done imperfect things with it.”
In the landmark 200th issue of The Paris Review, Bret Easton Ellis says Lorrie Moore is "maybe the best short-story writer of my generation."* “Wings” is in that same issue, and is illustrative of this pronouncement. It is the story of KC and Dench, lovers and bandmates. They've come to a significant roadblock in their lives, unable to make a living from music, unable to do much of anything else. They've come to a small town to sublet a house from a friend in a neighbourhood better than they're used to; here they try to regroup. One morning, on her usual walk with the dog (to get Dench's coffee), KC meets the resident of a large house she admires. Reluctantly, KC is drawn into old-man-Milt's lonely world of microwaved store-bought muffins, and unheated rooms. As time goes on she helps him with his doctor's appointments and errands, like a dutiful daughter or younger wife.
Part of Moore's skill is being able to economically write a novel's worth of backstory into many fewer pages. We learn how KC and Dench met, how their parents died, how Milt married for the fist time at 60. The character of Dench emerges as one of those men that will always have a woman around to pick up his life (or coffee) for him. Early on, KC wonders:
How did Dench pay his bills?Dench, probably unconsciously, preys on the soft spot women seem to have for the mysterious bad boy (though he's also smart and funny; there is much to love in Dench but he's difficult to live with because he's essentially lazy and unbothered by that). KC is the driver behind most decisions in the relationship. By the time they arrive in the sublet town, the pattern is completely entrenched.
"It's one big magic trick," he said.
She loved Dench. She was helpless before the whole emotional project of him. ... Romantic hope: From where did women get it? Certainly not from men, who were walking caveat emptors. No, women got it from other women, because in the end women would rather be rid of one another than have to endure themselves on a daily basis. So they urged each other into relationships. "He loves you! You can see it in his eyes!" they lied.However, her relationship with Milt begins to make Dench’s inability to fend for himself more clear, and more annoying. Dench whines that he had to spend all day alone with their dog, while KC was out all day with Milt. Further, Dench asks KC to get as close to Milt as possible, in order to be put into his will. It's the only time the drive to not work seems conscious and planned. He suggests to KC that if she was nice to the old man "then the end result might be, well.. .we'd all be a little happier." "He's probably loaded. And gonna keel soon. And..." It’s enough to make KC want turn her back on Milt, though (initially) not Dench.
It’s worth nothing that Milt, too, is something of a Dench. The big house he lives in was his wife’s originally, and he was a bachelor for many, many years before. "Wings" begins with an epigraph by Henry James from The Wings of the Dove: “Should he find he couldn't work it there would still be time enough.” Time, in this case, to find another woman to pick up the pieces. It’s as if he too moved from woman to woman and the last left standing – in this case KC – would be the one to get the reward: namely, the house. KC is later accused of being a gold-digger by one of Milt's stepdaughters. This hits particularly hard, as Milt has just changed his will to leave KC the house. But the truth is that it's really the men in "Wings" who need the women to prop them up.
The day KC met Dench, he auditioned for her band.
But she remembered she had wondered whether it would be good to love him, and then she had gone broodingly to the window to look out at the street while he was singing and she had seen a very young woman waiting for him in his beat-up car. ... The young woman had clearly driven him there--would she be tossed away? bequeathed?It's the question KC has to turn on herself, but she realises that it doesn't matter if she sticks around to be replaced, or if she cuts lose. Dench, like Milt, will always have "time." KC chooses a more solitary path.
In “Wings,” KC winds up without the man, but still in the position of helping others. She turns the house into a hostel for the families of sick children being treated in a nearby hospital. She is tethered by the house and the narrative that her position in life is to be relied upon. We assume Dench has flown to yet another sturdy female who could fix him.
*Though he also goes on to say that "The Corrections and Freedom are the two best novels that came out of my generation, so man up and deal with it, guys." So, perhaps his opinion is slightly suspect.