Then she looked at me. I thought that she was looking at me for the first time. But then, when she turned around behind the lamp and I kept feeling her slippery and oily look in back of me, over my shoulder, I understood that it was I who was looking at her for the first time. I lit a cigarette. I took a drag on the harsh, strong smoke, before spinning in the chair, balancing on one of the rear legs. After that I saw her there, as if she’d been standing beside the lamp looking at me every night. For a few brief minutes that’s all we did: look at each other. I looked from the chair, balancing on one of the rear legs. She stood, with a long and quiet hand on the lamp, looking at me. I saw her eyelids lighted up as on every night. It was then that I remembered the usual thing, when I said to her: ‘Eyes of a blue dog.’ Without taking her hand off the lamp she said to me: ‘That. We’ll never forget that.’ She left the orbit, sighing: ‘Eyes of a blue dog. I’ve written it everywhere.’
The tiny old lady in the black dress and curious little black bonnet had at first seemed alarmed at the sound made by her feet upon the stone pavements. But later she forgot about it, for she suddenly came into the tempest of the Sixth Avenue shopping district, where from the streams of people and vehicles went up a roar like that from headlong mountain torrents.
She seemed then like a chip that catches, recoils, turns and wheels, a reluctant thing in the clutch of the impetuous river. She hesitated, faltered, debated with herself. Frequently she seemed about to address people; then of a sudden she would evidently lose her courage. Meanwhile the torrent jostled her, swung her this and that way.
At last, however, she saw two young women gazing in at a shop-window. They were well-dressed girls; they wore gowns with enormous sleeves that made them look like full-rigged ships with all sails set. They seemed to have plenty of time; they leisurely scanned the goods in the window. Other people had made the tiny old woman much afraid because obviously they were speeding to keep such tremendously important engagements. She went close to the girls and peered in at the same window. She watched them furtively for a time. Then finally she said—
The girls looked down at this old face with its two large eyes turned towards them.
“Excuse me, can you tell me where I can get any work?”
For an instant the two girls stared. Then they seemed about to exchange a smile, but, at the last moment, they checked it. The tiny old lady’s eyes were upon them. She was quaintly serious, silently expectant. She made one marvel that in that face the wrinkles showed no trace of experience, knowledge; they were simply little, soft, innocent creases. As for her glance, it had the trustfulness of ignorance and the candour of babyhood.
“I want to get something to do, because I need the money,” she continued since, in their astonishment, they had not replied to her first question. “Of course I’m not strong and I couldn’t do very much, but I can sew well; and in a house where there was a good many men folks, I could do all the mending. Do you know any place where they would like me to come?”
The young women did then exchange a smile, but it was a subtle tender smile, the edge of personal grief.
“Well, no, madame,” hesitatingly said one of them at last; “I don’t think I know any one.”
A shade passed over the tiny old lady’s face, a shadow of the wing of disappointment.
“Don’t you?” she said, with a little struggle to be brave, in her voice.
Then the girl hastily continued—”But if you will give me your address, I may find some one, and if I do, I will surely let you know of it.”
The tiny old lady dictated her address, bending over to watch the girl write on a visiting card with a little silver pencil. Then she said—
“I thank you very much.” She bowed to them, smiling, and went on down the avenue.
As for the two girls, they walked to the curb and watched this aged figure, small and frail, in its black gown and curious black bonnet. At last, the crowd, the innumerable wagons, intermingling and changing with uproar and riot, suddenly engulfed it.
“In the Red Room”
When I had a house in Sri Lanka, my parents came out one winter to see me. Originally I had felt some qualms about encouraging their visit. Any one of several things–the constant heat, the unaccustomed food and drinking water, even the presence of a leprosy clinic a quarter of a mile from the house might easily have an adverse effect on them in one way or another. But I had underestimated their resilience; they made a greater show of adaptability than I had thought possible, and seemed entirely content with everything. They claimed not to mind the lack of running water in the bathrooms, and regularly praised the curries prepared by Appuhamy, the resident cook. Both of them being in their seventies, they were not tempted by the more distant or inaccessible points of interest. It was enough for them to stay around the house reading, sleeping, taking twilight dips in the ocean, and going on short trips along the coast by hired car. If the driver stopped unexpectedly at a shrine to sacrifice a coconut, they were delighted, and if they came upon a group of elephants lumbering along the road, the car had to be parked some distance up ahead, so that they could watch them approach and file past. They had no interest in taking photographs, and this spared me what is perhaps the most taxing duty of cicerone: the repeated waits while the ritual between man and machine is observed. They were ideal guests.
Colombo, where all the people I knew lives, was less than a hundred miles away. Several times we went up for weekends, which I arranged with friends by telephone beforehand. There we had tea on the wide verandas of certain houses in Cinnamon Gardens, and sat at dinners with professors from the university, Protestant ministers, and assorted members of the government. (Many of the Sinhalese found it strange that I should call my parents by their first names, Dodd and Hannah; several of them inquired if I were actually their son or had been adopted.) These weekends in the city were hot and exhausting, and they were always happy to get back to the house, where they could change into comfortable clothing.
One Sunday not long before they were due to return to America, we decided to take in the horse races at Gintota, where there are also some botanical gardens that Hannah wanted to see. I engaged rooms at the New Oriental in Galle and we had lunch there before setting out.
As usual, the events were late in starting. It was the spectators, in any case, who were the focus of interest. The phalanx of women in their shot-silk saris moved Hannah to cries of delight. The races themselves were something of a disappointment. As we left the grounds, Dodd said with satisfaction: It’ll be good to get back to the hotel and relax.
But we were going to the botanical gardens, Hannan reminded him. I’d like to have just a peek at them. Continue reading “Read “In the Red Room” by Paul Bowles”
“Memoirs of a Madman”
English translation by Claud Field
October 3rd. — A strange occurrence has taken place today. I got up fairly late, and when Mawra brought me my clean boots, I asked her how late it was. When I heard it had long struck ten, I dressed as quickly as possible.
To tell the truth, I would rather not have gone to the office at all today, for I know beforehand that our department-chief will look as sour as vinegar. For some time past he has been in the habit of saying to me, “Look here, my friend; there is something wrong with your head. You often rush about as though you were possessed. Then you make such confused abstracts of the documents that the devil himself cannot make them out; you write the title without any capital letters, and add neither the date nor the docket-number.” The long-legged scoundrel! He is certainly envious of me, because I sit in the director’s work-room, and mend His Excellency’s pens. In a word, I should not have gone to the office if I had not hoped to meet the accountant, and perhaps squeeze a little advance out of this skinflint.
A terrible man, this accountant! As for his advancing one’s salary once in a way — you might sooner expect the skies to fall. You may beg and beseech him, and be on the very verge of ruin — this grey devil won’t budge an inch. At the same time, his own cook at home, as all the world knows, boxes his ears.
I really don’t see what good one gets by serving in our department. There are no plums there. In the fiscal and judicial offices it is quite different. There some ungainly fellow sits in a corner and writes and writes; he has such a shabby coat and such an ugly mug that one would like to spit on both of them. But you should see what a splendid country-house he has rented. He would not condescend to accept a gilt porcelain cup as a present. “You can give that to your family doctor,” he would say. Nothing less than a pair of chestnut horses, a fine carriage, or a beaver-fur coat worth three hundred roubles would be good enough for him. And yet he seems so mild and quiet, and asks so amiably, “Please lend me your penknife; I wish to mend my pen.” Nevertheless, he knows how to scarify a petitioner till he has hardly a whole stitch left on his body. Continue reading ““Memoirs of a Madman” — Nikolai Gogol”
From The Heritage Press collection The Short Stories of Oscar Wilde (1968), featuring paintings by James Hill.
Once upon a time two poor Woodcutters were making their way home through a great pine-forest. It was winter, and a night of bitter cold. The snow lay thick upon the ground, and upon the branches of the trees: the frost kept snapping the little twigs on either side of them, as they passed: and when they came to the Mountain-Torrent she was hanging motionless in air, for the Ice-King had kissed her.
So cold was it that even the animals and the birds did not know what to make of it.
‘Ugh!’ snarled the Wolf, as he limped through the brushwood with his tail between his legs, ‘this is perfectly monstrous weather. Why doesn’t the Government look to it?’
‘Weet! weet! weet!’ twittered the green Linnets, ‘the old Earth is dead and they have laid her out in her white shroud.’
‘The Earth is going to be married, and this is her bridal dress,’ whispered the Turtle-doves to each other. Their little pink feet were quite frost-bitten, but they felt that it was their duty to take a romantic view of the situation. Continue reading “Illustration for Oscar Wilde’s “The Star-Child” — James Hill”
“Love on the Bon-Dieu”
Upon the pleasant veranda of Père Antoine’s cottage, that adjoined the church, a young girl had long been seated, awaiting his return. It was the eve of Easter Sunday, and since early afternoon the priest had been engaged in hearing the confessions of those who wished to make their Easters the following day. The girl did not seem impatient at his delay; on the contrary, it was very restful to her to lie back in the big chair she had found there, and peep through the thick curtain of vines at the people who occasionally passed along the village street.
She was slender, with a frailness that indicated lack of wholesome and plentiful nourishment. A pathetic, uneasy look was in her gray eyes, and even faintly stamped her features, which were fine and delicate. In lieu of a hat, a barege veil covered her light brown and abundant hair. She wore a coarse white cotton “josie,” and a blue calico skirt that only half concealed her tattered shoes.
As she sat there, she held carefully in her lap a parcel of eggs securely fastened in a red bandana handkerchief.
Twice already a handsome, stalwart young man in quest of the priest had entered the yard, and penetrated to where she sat. At first they had exchanged the uncompromising “howdy” of strangers, and nothing more. The second time, finding the priest still absent, he hesitated to go at once. Instead, he stood upon the step, and narrowing his brown eyes, gazed beyond the river, off towards the west, where a murky streak of mist was spreading across the sun.
“It look like mo’ rain,” he remarked, slowly and carelessly.
“We done had ’bout ‘nough,” she replied, in much the same tone.
“It’s no chance to thin out the cotton,” he went on.
“An’ the Bon-Dieu,” she resumed, “it’s on’y to-day you can cross him on foot.”
“You live yonda on the Bon-Dieu, donc?” he asked, looking at her for the first time since he had spoken.
“Yas, by Nid d’Hibout, m’sieur.” Continue reading “Read “Love on the Bon-Dieu,” an Easter story by Kate Chopin”
“The Easter of the Soul”
It is hardly likely that a goddess may die. Then Eastre, the old Saxon goddess of spring, must be laughing in her muslin sleeve at people who believe that Easter, her namesake, exists only along certain strips of Fifth Avenue pavement after church service.
Aye! It belongs to the world. The ptarmigan in Chilkoot Pass discards his winter white feathers for brown; the Patagonian Beau Brummell oils his chignon and clubs him another sweetheart to drag to his skull-strewn flat. And down in Chrystie Street—
Mr. “Tiger” McQuirk arose with a feeling of disquiet that he did not understand. With a practised foot he rolled three of his younger brothers like logs out of his way as they lay sleeping on the floor. Before a foot-square looking glass hung by the window he stood and shaved himself. If that may seem to you a task too slight to be thus impressively chronicled, I bear with you; you do not know of the areas to be accomplished in traversing the cheek and chin of Mr. McQuirk.
McQuirk, senior, had gone to work long before. The big son of the house was idle. He was a marble-cutter, and the marble-cutters were out on a strike.
“What ails ye?” asked his mother, looking at him curiously; “are ye not feeling well the morning, maybe now?”
“He’s thinking along of Annie Maria Doyle,” impudently explained younger brother Tim, ten years old.
“Tiger” reached over the hand of a champion and swept the small McQuirk from his chair.
“I feel fine,” said he, “beyond a touch of the I-don’t-know-what-you-call-its. I feel like there was going to be earthquakes or music or a trifle of chills and fever or maybe a picnic. I don’t know how I feel. I feel like knocking the face off a policeman, or else maybe like playing Coney Island straight across the board from pop-corn to the elephant houdahs.” Continue reading ““The Easter of the Soul,” a short tale by O. Henry”
I KNOW what they said. They said I didn’t run away from home but that I was tolled away by a crazy man who, if I hadn’t killed him first, would have killed me inside another week. But if they had said that the women, the good women in Jefferson had driven Uncle Willy out of town and I followed him and did what I did because I knew that Uncle Willy was on his last go-round and this time when they got him again it would be for good and forever, they would have been right. Because I wasn’t tolled away and Uncle Willy wasn’t crazy, not even after all they had done to him. I didn’t have to go; I didn’t have to go any more than Uncle Willy had to invite me instead of just taking it for granted that I wanted to come. I went because Uncle Willy was the finest man I ever knew, because even women couldn’t beat him, because in spite of them he wound up his life getting fun out of being alive and he died doing the thing that was the most fun of all because I was there to help him. And that’s something that most men and even most women too don’t get to do, not even the women that call meddling with other folks’ lives fun.
He wasn’t anybody’s uncle, but all of us, and grown people too, called him (or thought of him) as Uncle Willy. He didn’t have any kin at all except a sister in Texas married to an oil millionaire. He lived by himself in a little old neat white house where he had been born on the edge of town, he and an old nigger named Job Wylie that was older than he was even, that cooked and kept the house and was the porter at the drugstore which Uncle Willy’s father had established and which Uncle Willy ran without any other help than old Job; and during the twelve or fourteen years (the life of us as children and then boys), while he just used dope, we saw a lot of him. We liked to go to his store because it was always cool and dim and quiet inside because he never washed the windows; he said the reason was that he never had to bother to dress them because nobody could see in anyway, and so the heat couldn’t get in either. And he never had any customers except country people buying patent medicines that were already in bottles, and niggers buying cards and dice, because nobody had let him fill a prescription in forty years I reckon, and he never had any soda fountain trade because it was old Job who washed the glasses and mixed the syrups and made the ice cream ever since Uncle Willy’s father started the business in eighteen-fifty-something and so old Job couldn’t see very well now, though papa said he didn’t think that old Job took dope too, it was from breathing day and night the air which Uncle Willy had just exhaled.
But the ice cream tasted all right to us, especially when we came in hot from the ball games. We had a league of three teams in town and Uncle Willy would give the prize, a ball or a bat or a mask, for each game though he would never come to see us play, so after the game both teams and maybe all three would go to the store to watch the winner get the prize. And we would eat the ice cream and then we would all go behind the prescription case and watch Uncle Willy light the little alcohol stove and fill the needle and roll his sleeve up over the little blue myriad punctures starting at his elbow and going right on up into his shirt. And the next day would be Sunday and we would wait in our yards and fall in with him as he passed from house to house and go on to Sunday school, Uncle Willy with us, in the same class with us, sitting there while we recited. Mr. Barbour from the Sunday school never called on him.
Then we would finish the lesson and we would talk about baseball until the bell rang and Uncle Willy still not saying anything, just sitting there all neat and clean, with his clean collar and no tie and weighing about a hundred and ten pounds and his eyes behind his glasses kind of all run together like broken eggs. Then we would all go to the store and eat the ice cream that was left over from Saturday and then go behind the prescription case and watch him again: the little stove and his Sunday shirt rolled up and the needle going slow into his blue arm and somebody would say, “Don’t it hurt?” and he would say, “No. I like it.”
“Miss Furr and Miss Keene”
Helen Furr had quite a pleasant home. Mrs. Furr was quite a pleasant woman. Mr. Furr was quite a pleasant man. Helen Furr had quite a pleasant voice a voice quite worth cultivating. She did not mind working. She worked to cultivate her voice. She did not find it gay living in the same place where she had always been living. She went to a place where some were cultivating something, voices and other things needing cultivating. She met Georgine Skeene there who was cultivating her voice which some thought was quite a pleasant one. Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene lived together then. Georgine Skeene liked travelling. Helen Furr did not care about travelling, she liked to stay in one place and be gay there. They were together then and travelled to another place and stayed there and were gay there.
They stayed there and were gay there, not very gay there, just gay there. They were both gay there, they were regularly working there both of them cultivating their voices there, they were both gay there. Georgine Skeene was gay there and she was regular, regular in being gay, regular in not being gay, regular in being a gay one who was one not being gay longer than was needed to be one being quite a gay one. They were both gay then there and both working there then.
They were in a way both gay there where there were many cultivating something. They were both regular in being gay there. Helen Furr was gay there, she was gayer and gayer there and really she was just gay there, she was gayer and gayer there, that is to say she found ways of being gay there that she was using in being gay there. She was gay there, not gayer and gayer, just gay there, that is to say she was not gayer by using the things she found there that were gay things, she was gay there, always she was gay there.
They were quite regularly gay there, Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene, they were regularly gay there where they were gay. They were very regularly gay. Continue reading “Read Gertrude Stein’s prose poem “Miss Furr and Miss Keene””
I be dog if hit don’t look like sometimes that when a fellow sets out to play a joke, hit ain’t another fellow he’s playing that joke on; hit’s a kind of big power laying still somewhere in the dark that he sets out to prank with without knowing hit, and hit all depends on whether that ere power is in the notion to take a joke or not, whether or not hit blows up right in his face like this one did in mine.
I just read William Faulkner’s “A Bear Hunt” for the first time in years…like most of Faulkner’s stuff, there’s a second narrative (or even third or fourth) going on under the surface tale. In the case of “A Bear Hunt,” the surface tale is about a man whose unrelenting hiccups are ruining a hunting party. The underlying plot revolves around race and revenge and human dignity. I love the citation above, which suggests that pranking one’s fellows is in some ways a gesture of cosmic impotence. The story is pretty easy to find online.
THIS GIRL, this Susan Reed, was an orphan. She lived with a family named Burchett, that had some more children, two or three more. Some said that Susan was a niece or a cousin or something; others cast the usual aspersions on the character of Burchett and even of Mrs. Burchett: you know.
Women mostly, these were.
She was about five when Hawkshaw first came to town.
It was his first summer behind that chair in Maxey’s barber shop that Mrs Burchett brought Susan in for the first time.
Maxey told me about how him and the other barbers watched Mrs Burchett trying for three days to get Susan (she was a thin little girl then, with big scared eyes and this straight, soft hair not blonde and not brunette) into the shop. And Maxey told how at last it was Hawkshaw that went out into the street and worked with the girl for about fifteen minutes until he got her into the shop and into his chair: him that hadn’t never said more than Yes or No to any man or woman in the town that anybody ever saw. “Be durn if it didn’t look like Hawkshaw had been waiting for her to come along,” Maxey told me.
That was her first haircut. Hawkshaw gave it to her, and her sitting there under the cloth like a little scared rabbit.
But six months after that she was coming to the shop by herself and letting Hawkshaw cut her hair, still looking like a little old rabbit, with her scared face and those big eyes and that hair without any special name showing above the cloth. If Hawkshaw was busy, Maxey said she would come in and sit on the waiting bench close to his chair with her legs sticking straight out in front of her until Hawkshaw got done. Maxey says they considered her Hawkshaw’s client the same as if she had been a Saturday night shaving customer. He says that one time the other barber, Matt Fox, offered to wait on her, Hawkshaw being busy, and that Hawkshaw looked up like a flash. “I’ll be done in a minute,” he says. “I’ll tend to her.” Maxey told me that Hawkshaw had been working for him for almost a year then, but that was the first time he ever heard him speak positive about anything.
That fall the girl started to school. She would pass the barber shop each morning and afternoon. She was still shy, walking fast like little girls do, with that yellow-brown head of hers passing the window level and fast like she was on skates. She was always by herself at first, but pretty soon her head would be one of a clump of other heads, all talking, not looking toward the window at all, and Hawkshaw standing there in the window, looking out. Maxey said him and Matt would not have to look at the clock at all to tell when five minutes to eight and to three o’clock came, because they could tell by Hawkshaw. It was like he would kind of drift up to the window without watching himself do it, and be looking out about the time for the school children to begin to pass. When she would come to the shop for a haircut, Hawkshaw would give her two or three of those peppermints where he would give the other children just one, Maxey told me.
No; it was Matt Fox, the other barber, told me that. He was the one who told me about the doll Hawkshaw gave her on Christmas. I don’t know how he found it out. Hawkshaw never told him. But he knew some way; he knew more about Hawkshaw than Maxey did. He was a married man himself, Matt was. A kind of fat, flabby fellow, with a pasty face and eyes that looked tired or sad something. A funny fellow, and almost as good a barber as Hawkshaw. He never talked much either, and I don’t know how he could have known so much about Hawkshaw when a talking man couldn’t get much out of him. I guess maybe a talking man hasn’t got the time to ever learn much about anything except words.
Anyway, Matt told me about how Hawkshaw gave her a present every Christmas, even after she got to be a big girl. Continue reading “Read William Faulkner’s short story “Hair””
“The Difficulty of Crossing a Field”
One morning in July, 1854, a planter named Williamson, living six miles from Selma, Alabama, was sitting with his wife and a child on the veranda of his dwelling. Immediately in front of the house was a lawn, perhaps fifty yards in extent between the house and public road, or, as it was called, the “pike.” Beyond this road lay a close-cropped pasture of some ten acres, level and without a tree, rock, or any natural or artificial object on its surface. At the time there was not even a domestic animal in the field. In another field, beyond the pasture, a dozen slaves were at work under an overseer.
Throwing away the stump of a cigar, the planter rose, saying: “I forgot to tell Andrew about those horses.” Andrew was the overseer.
Williamson strolled leisurely down the gravel walk, plucking a flower as he went, passed across the road and into the pasture, pausing a moment as he closed the gate leading into it, to greet a passing neighbor, Armour Wren, who lived on an adjoining plantation. Mr. Wren was in an open carriage with his son James, a lad of thirteen. When he had driven some two hundred yards from the point of meeting, Mr. Wren said to his son: “I forgot to tell Mr. Williamson about those horses.”
Mr. Wren had sold to Mr. Williamson some horses, which were to have been sent for that day, but for some reason not now remembered it would be inconvenient to deliver them until the morrow. The coachman was directed to drive back, and as the vehicle turned Williamson was seen by all three, walking leisurely across the pasture. At that moment one of the coach horses stumbled and came near falling. It had no more than fairly recovered itself when James Wren cried: “Why, father, what has become of Mr. Williamson?”
It is not the purpose of this narrative to answer that question.
Mr. Wren’s strange account of the matter, given under oath in the course of legal proceedings relating to the Williamson estate, here follows:
“My son’s exclamation caused me to look toward the spot where I had seen the deceased [sic] an instant before, but he was not there, nor was he anywhere visible. I cannot say that at the moment I was greatly startled, or realized the gravity of the occurrence, though I thought it singular. My son, however, was greatly astonished and kept repeating his question in different forms until we arrived at the gate. My black boy Sam was similarly affected, even in a greater degree, but I reckon more by my son’s manner than by anything he had himself observed. [This sentence in the testimony was stricken out.] As we got out of the carriage at the gate of the field, and while Sam was hanging [sic] the team to the fence, Mrs. Williamson, with her child in her arms and followed by several servants, came running down the walk in great excitement, crying: ‘He is gone, he is gone! O God! what an awful thing!’ and many other such exclamations, which I do not distinctly recollect. I got from them the impression that they related to something more – than the mere disappearance of her husband, even if that had occurred before her eyes. Her manner was wild, but not more so, I think, than was natural under the circumstances. I have no reason to think she had at that time lost her mind. I have never since seen nor heard of Mr. Williamson.”
This testimony, as might have been expected, was corroborated in almost every particular by the only other eye-witness (if that is a proper term) – the lad James. Mrs. Williamson had lost her reason and the servants were, of course, not competent to testify. The boy James Wren had declared at first that he saw the disappearance, but there is nothing of this in his testimony given in court. None of the field hands working in the field to which Williamson was going had seen him at all, and the most rigorous search of the entire plantation and adjoining country failed to supply a clew. The most monstrous and grotesque fictions, originating with the blacks, were current in that part of the State for many years, and probably are to this day; but what has been here related is all that is certainly known of the matter. The courts decided that Williamson was dead, and his estate was distributed according to law.
English translation by
“PAVEL VASSILITCH!” cries Pelageya Ivanovna, waking her husband. “Pavel Vassilitch! You might go and help Styopa with his lessons, he is sitting crying over his book. He can’t understand something again!”
Pavel Vassilitch gets up, makes the sign of the cross over his mouth as he yawns, and says softly: “In a minute, my love!”
The cat who has been asleep beside him gets up too, straightens out its tail, arches its spine, and half-shuts its eyes. There is stillness. . . . Mice can be heard scurrying behind the wall-paper. Putting on his boots and his dressing-gown, Pavel Vassilitch, crumpled and frowning from sleepiness, comes out of his bedroom into the dining-room; on his entrance another cat, engaged in sniffing a marinade of fish in the window, jumps down to the floor, and hides behind the cupboard.
“Who asked you to sniff that!” he says angrily, covering the fish with a sheet of newspaper. “You are a pig to do that, not a cat. . . .”
From the dining-room there is a door leading into the nursery. There, at a table covered with stains and deep scratches, sits Styopa, a high-school boy in the second class, with a peevish expression of face and tear-stained eyes. With his knees raised almost to his chin, and his hands clasped round them, he is swaying to and fro like a Chinese idol and looking crossly at a sum book. Continue reading ““Shrove Tuesday,” a tale by Anton Chekhov”
“WELL, Corporal Westerburg,” Doctor Henry Harris said gently, “just why do you think you’re a plant?”
As he spoke, Harris glanced down again at the card on his desk. It was from the Base Commander himself, made out in Cox’s heavy scrawl: Doc, this is the lad I told you about. Talk to him and try to find out how he got this delusion. He’s from the new Garrison, the new check-station on Asteroid Y-3, and we don’t want anything to go wrong there. Especially a silly damn thing like this!
Harris pushed the card aside and stared back up at the youth across the desk from him. The young man seemed ill at ease and appeared to be avoiding answering the question Harris had put to him. Harris frowned. Westerburg was a good-looking chap, actually handsome in his Patrol uniform, a shock of blond hair over one eye. He was tall, almost six feet, a fine healthy lad, just two years out of Training, according to the card. Born in Detroit. Had measles when he was nine. Interested in jet engines, tennis, and girls. Twenty-six years old.
“Well, Corporal Westerburg,” Doctor Harris said again. “Why do you think you’re a plant?”
The Corporal looked up shyly. He cleared his throat. “Sir, I am a plant, I don’t just think so. I’ve been a plant for several days, now.”
“I see.” The Doctor nodded. “You mean that you weren’t always a plant?”
“No, sir. I just became a plant recently.”
“And what were you before you became a plant?”
“Well, sir, I was just like the rest of you.”
There was silence. Doctor Harris took up his pen and scratched a few lines, but nothing of importance came. A plant? And such a healthy-looking lad! Harris removed his steel-rimmed glasses and polished them with his handkerchief. He put them on again and leaned back in his chair. “Care for a cigarette, Corporal?”
The Doctor lit one himself, resting his arm on the edge of the chair. “Corporal, you must realize that there are very few men who become plants, especially on such short notice. I have to admit you are the first person who has ever told me such a thing.”
“Yes, sir, I realize it’s quite rare.”
“You can understand why I’m interested, then. When you say you’re a plant, you mean you’re not capable of mobility? Or do you mean you’re a vegetable, as opposed to an animal? Or just what?”
The Corporal looked away. “I can’t tell you any more,” he murmured. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“Well, would you mind telling me how you became a plant?”
Corporal Westerburg hesitated. He stared down at the floor, then out the window at the spaceport, then at a fly on the desk. At last he stood up, getting slowly to his feet. “I can’t even tell you that, sir,” he said.
“You can’t? Why not?”
“Because—because I promised not to.”
While the staff members think in terms of good or bad codes – how well everyone did what they were supposed to do, whether the patient responded or not – I think in terms of good or bad deaths.
Bad deaths are ones with the manager of a hotel as next of kin, or the cleaning woman who found the stroke victim two weeks later, dying of dehydration. Really bad deaths are when there are several children and in-laws I have called in from somewhere inconvenient and none of them seem to know each other or the dying parent at all. There is nothing to say. They keep talking about arrangements, about having to make arrangements, about who will make arrangements.
Gypsies are good deaths. I think so. . . the nurses don’t and security guards don’t. There are always dozens of them demanding to be with the dying person, to kiss them and hug them, unplugging and screwing up the TVs and monitors and assorted apparatus. The best thing about gypsy deaths is they never make their kids keep quiet. The adults wail and cry and sob but all the children continue to run around, playing and laughing, without being told they should be sad or respectful.
Good deaths seem to be coincidentally good Codes – the patient responds miraculously to all the life-giving treatment and then just quietly passes away.
From Lucia Berlin’s short story “Emergency Room Notebook, 1977.”
They got into our car at a stoplight. It was cold. We never lock the doors in back. There were two of them. At the apartment they terrorized us. It took all day, most of the night. There was beating and thrashing and scorn and damage and fear. Sounds I didn’t know could come out of us. Above all it was boring. In the sense that it was all actions and all bad; there is no life of the mind available amid beating and thrashing and scorn and damage and fear, no space at the back of oneself to go to and think anything else. Long stretches of boredom that fill up with something like thinking but there is nothing to think except what it is, what it is to be in this, and what it is to be in this is simply and utterly nothing but what it is, no volume around it, no beach, no reverie. At one point Washington raised his arms to me and blood ran down both arms to the floor. I watched it hit the tiles, it would have been something to think about, cleaning blood off tiles. Sometimes it’s better to just replace them. Eventually in fact that’s what we would do, replace the white ones. We kept the black ones, which were sort of speckled anyway. But “eventually” is not a concept of mind that exists amid beating and thrashing and scorn and damage and fear. Even when they had Washington dance in the red-hot shoes, I wasn’t imagining analogies, Snow White, I was soaked into Washington’s dread, it had no edge. That is what boredom is, the moment with no edge.
To survive you need an edge.
Read the rest of “We’ve Only Just Begun” at Harper’s.
She visits others. Before they’re up, dawn, she walks to the lake, listening to Bach, the first clavichord exercise, which she plans to have played at her funeral someday, has had this plan since she first heard the music and, thinking of it, she weeps lightly. The lake is whipped by wind and tides (big lake) doing what tides do, she never knows in or out. There is a man standing on shore and a big dog swimming back to him with stick in mouth. This repeats. The dog does not tire. She peels a swim cap onto her head, goggles, enters the water, which is cold but not shocking. Swims. High waves in one direction. The dog is gone. Now she is alone. There is a pressure to swim well and to use this water correctly. People think swimming is carefree and effortless. A bath! In fact, it is full of anxieties. Every water has its own rules and offering. Misuse is hard to explain. Perhaps involved is that commonplace struggle to know beauty, to know beauty exactly, to put oneself right in its path, to be in the perfect place to hear the nightingale sing, see the groom kiss the bride, clock the comet. Every water has a right place to be, but that place is in motion. You have to keep finding it, keep having it find you. Your movement sinks into and out of it with each stroke. You can fail it with each stroke. What does that mean, fail it.