Toward the end of the story Aileen, the young protagonist college girl reluctantly spending her vacation with her mother and her mother’s homebreaking lover Prue in a Colombian jungle, Aileen is walking by the huts of poor natives. A young man beckons her over through a mesh fence, then spits a mouthful of water at her face and dress. Westerners are not liked in the jungle, because they presume too much: “if Luz could only learn a little more about what white people like to eat an how they like it served,” Aileen’s mother writes her in the three-page letter that opens the story as Aileen is flying in through the white clouds she wants to step on, like a comic book character. The letter hints at the way Prue broke up the marriage between Aileen’s father and mother. The tension between Aileen and Prue is obvious from the letter. Prue to Aileen is “ungracious, ugly and something of an interloper.” Tension builds: it’s the story’s most appealing strength, that build-up. It explodes in a physical pummeling, by Aileen of Prue, after Prue flicks water from her glass at Aileen the morning of Aileen’s early departure, after her mother essentially threw her out for not getting along with Prue. A sense of the primeval recurs down to that primeval fight and the scream Aileen lets out at the end, when she is reduced to something primal, bashing the woman who’s taken possession of her mother. There’s nothing appealing in Prue, but Aileen is not much more so, and the intrusive sense Bowles builds up, of Aileen’s visit, is secondary to how obliviously intrusive all three of these characters are on the jungle around them. None of them belongs, not just Aileen.
The Lexington Candy Shop on the corner of 83rd Street and Lexington Avenue, opened in 1925. (Untapped Cities)
Tommy is one of Malamud’s Sisyphean characters, married to the sort of woman who goes so far as to change his name. He was once Tony. He did not stop her from changing it to Tommy. That was his first mistake. He runs a candy store with her, working from eight in the morning to midnight six days a week, going to the movies by himself on the seventh day. “No matter how hard you tried you made mistakes and couldn’t get past them. You could never see the sky outside or the ocean because you were in a prison, except nobody called it a prison, and if you did they didn’t know what you were talking about, or they said they didn’t.”
A 10-year-old girl is in the habit of buying two rolls of colored tissue paper every Monday, and, as Tommy discovers after his wife installed a surveillance mirror (she trusts no one), stealing two candy bars. The story is a study in the psychology of discipline: Tommy’s own as he tries to control himself before confronting the girl, and the notion of disciplining a 10-year-old thief: how do you do it? How far do you take it? Tommy ponders. He doesn’t want to frighten her. His compassion gets the better of him. Week after week his plans to confront her fail him. He finally decides to put an anonymous note in one of the bars. But she doesn’t appear the Monday he wanted to try the note. Somehow he ends up at home upstairs for a nap and when he goes back down, his wife has caught the girl and is thrashing her, as is the girl’s mother. The girl runs off, and “at the door she managed to turn her white face and thrust out at him her red tongue.”
“You could never see the sky outside or the ocean because you were in a prison, except nobody called it a prison.”
Commentary, September 1950, “The Magic Barrel,” 1958
One of the classic foreboding Chekhov openings, the themes personified in the sense of place, a house that looks like a hunchback straining to hide:
Madame Tchikamassoff and her family, including her daughter, live there, receive “avec inquietude” the young narrator, whose purpose is unclear. The house business is to fill Manechka’s trousseau. But she has no prospects. Just her mother’s double-edged hopes. Her mother is the reason she has no suitor, and the trousseau is a red herring. There’s also General Tchikamassoff who lives in the past and is at the story’s periphery, and Gregory, who’s got some condition maybe related to his service in war. The narrator visits three times. The third time Madame Tchikamassoff is in mourning. Her daughter is gone. Where was she? The narrator asks himself. There is no answer. Maybe she’s married. Maybe she’s dead. Maybe she killed herself. The last line: “Tout etait clair et j’avais le coeur lourd.”
Gold Hill Post Office, in the Virginia City Historic District, Nevada. (Brent Cooper) From the page: “Gold Hill is a community in Storey County, Nevada, located just south and downhill of Virginia City. Incorporated December 17, 1862, in order to prevent its annexation by its larger neighbor, the town at one point was home to at least 8,000 residents. Prosperity was sustained for a period of 20 years between 1868 and 1888 by mining the Comstock Lode, a major deposit of silver ore. Mines such as the Yellow Jacket, Crown Point, and Belcher brought in over $10 million each in dividends. The Gold Hill post office remained in operation until 1943. Today Gold Hill exists as a shell of its former self; its population in 2005 was 191. It is part of the Reno–Sparks Metropolitan Statistical Area. Historical remnants of the town can still be seen, including the Gold Hill Hotel, promoted as Nevada’s oldest hotel, in existence since some time prior to 1862; the former Bank of California building; the train depot; and remains of several of the mines.”
In the style of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” and “Good Country People,” but with humor coating Sister’s every act and utterance like a shield. She cannot bear to say anything with a straight face. Humor is her defense and her blinders. It’s July 4. The fireworks are Sister’s family: Pappa-Daddy, his name as comical as his claim that he’s not cut his beard since he was 15 and reacts with a Hasidim’s angry panic when Stella-Rondo, Sister’s sister, falsely (purposefully) claims Sister wants to cut off the beard. Stella-Rondo has just been dumped by Mr. Whitaker, Sister’s ex-flame, stolen by Stella-Rondo, who has a two-year-old child by him, Shirley-T (named after Shirley Temple). Stella-Rondo absolutely refuses to acknowledge it’s her biological child. It’s adopted, in her invention. Uncle Rondo is the drug addict, the shock survivor (or PTSD as we’d have it these days), the veteran of World War I who ingests a bottle of a prescription narcotic every July 4 so he can knock himself out, and who wears a kimono, suggesting different treads in his sexuality. Fat Mama favors Stella-Rondo and slaps Sister around. And Sister: well, she seems to be the only employed one of the bunch, at the minuscule post office in China Grove, Mississippi, a job secured by her grandfather, and a refuge. She decides, as the story devolves into an endless series of alienating offenses, real or perceived, to pack up mounds of belongings, hers or not–if she’s paid a cent for anything, she claims it–and move to the post office, using a “Nigger girl” to haul the stuff–a sharp, brutal reference to a girl Sister has no regard for: “Took her none trips in her express wagon.” Even when she thanks her grandfather for the job, she wounds: “I says, “Oh, Papa-Daddy,” I says, “I didn’t say any such of a thing, I never dreamed it was a bird’s nest, I have always been grateful though this is the next to smallest P.O. in the state of Mississippi, and I do not enjoy being referred to as a hussy by my own grandfather.” So she’s no innocent. The story is written in dialect and takes a lot in style and perhaps aim from Twain. “One can find numerous topics for scholarly reflection in “Why I Live at the P.O.”—and in any other Welty story, for that matter,” Danny Heitman writes in a piece for Humanities, “—but my professor’s advice is a nice reminder that beyond the moral and aesthetic instruction contained within Welty’s fiction, she was, in essence, a great giver of pleasure.”
Atlantic Monthly, April 1941, A Curtain of Green (1941)
A collection of fragments of interest to Kafka purists. We’re still in “Description of a Struggle” territory (won’t we always be?), with tantalizing hints of things to come. Eduard Raban’s anticipatory echo of The Metamorphosis: “As I lie in bed I assume the shape of a big beetle, a stag beetle or a cockchafer, I think.”
“Raban was traveling to his fiancée, to Betty, an oldish pretty girl.” He’s on his way to get married. It’s as laborious a journey as there is, his thoughts not once on the girl he’s about to spend the rest of his life with, the preparations alluded to in the title not once made material in the narrative. Raban is himself in preparation, poor soul. Poor Betty. He’s all nerves, raw nerves exposed to elements he senses too intensely. Every detail is a jangle. The journey is the thing, fragmented, physically uncomfortable, punctuated by encounters that evoke Raban’s anxieties. He doesn’t quite know what to make of these encounters anymore than he does of the journey. “I can be weak and quiet and let everything happen to me, and yet everything must turn out well, through the sheer fact of the passing of the days.” The missing pages, as if become part of the narrative of Raban’s disjointed temperament, can seem like a device all their own, a symptom of his anxiety. Puddles. Rain. Mud. More rain. It’s a grim journey, a fish out of water, amid so much water and those enigmatic lines: “I’ve never found eyes beautiful.” To us from the perspective of years and geographic distance we see the grime of that European muck when skies never get past gray and rain spits cold and clammy even in summer. But it wasn’t uncommon then anymore than it is now.
In the train, conversations, motion, seizing an unpalatable reality: “But if one has held a spool of thread in one’s hand so often and handed it to one’s customer so often, then one knows the price and can talk about it, while villages come toward us and flash past, while at the same time they turn away into the depths of the country, where for us they must disappear. And yet these villages are inhabited, and there perhaps travelers go from shop to shop.”
“Raban’s lips were very pale, not much less so than the very faded red of his tie, which had a once striking Moorish pattern.”
These are not the impressions of a man about to get married so much as one navigating between gas chambers.
The story immediately announces its writerly intent: “Our trailer sat on cinder blocks in a half-acre lot a four-cigarette drive outside of town,” town being Bonner. The writerliness is muted but for a self-consciously spare style that reflects the spareness, almost barrenness, of the narrator’s life, the starkness of his surroundings, the laconic energy of his own drive.
The narrator called Cal, an 18-year-old man, lived in a trailer with his unemployed-logger dad, burrowed his hands deep in slaughtered elk and deer and, in the same breath, felt safe. The title of the story refers to a cougar that’d been wandering about, terrorizing domesticated animals, and that he at times may have spied to kill. Cal’s father disappears in the narrator’s senior year in high school. “Search and rescue never found a body.” Narrator washes dishes in a Korean-owned Chinese restaurant whose owners prefer to illegally dump their garbage than pay dumping fees. (“We had a Korean restaurant but no one came. People here only want shit Chinese food.“) The landlord, an Indian, is called Jenny but is a man who fishes for girls on the internet, chases after them naked, dispenses the occasional puff of wisdom. He turns Philip Noiret’s Salvatore in “Cinema Paradiso” telling Alfredo to leave and not “come back. Don’t think about us. Don’t look back. Don’t write,” but to Cal, with the same absence of poetry or emotion that had him tell Cal he needed to get his dick wet: “Cal, I’m serious,” he said. “You got to get out of Bonner. You got to start figuring out what you want to do next.”
Cal’s only friend is Koda the dog, who is killed by the cougar, that recurring predator that manages to have the most agency in the story: it’s the only doer. A friend of Cal’s keeps urging him to join him on a lucrative oil-rigging job. He takes the test, passes, but seems to lack the money, or something, to push him to the job, even as a year passes and he gets fired from the restaurant. “I wondered if my trailer was shit, if my way of living was shit. If Dad’s life had been shit.” He loses it, shoots the place up, seemingly, improbably, with no consequences: if he’s able to do something that reckless, able to get his hands in a carcass’ guts, what’s keeping him from getting his hands dirty elsewhere? It doesn’t quite add up. The outburst at the restaurant is not any kind of marker. He might as well have been having another cigarette. Somehow he goes on, unable to pay rent. Jenny seems to be dying and wants Cal to take care of the cougar in his absence, feed him. The irony.
So the story circles, like that cougar, its preys the narrator and his diminishing entourage, an angel of death with motives Jenny wants to make justifiable and earthy: hunger. There’s not much realism here, least in Cal’s arrested motivation: it’s never clear, like everything else—Cal’s father’s disappearance, Jenny, Cal himself. The story’s coherence doesn’t match with its captivating pacing, which weakens as Cal’s infuriating inaction marks the days. I don’t think Anderson intends her readers to lose interest in proportion to Cal’s drift.
[The image of Maria Anderson is from Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art, where her biography reads: “Maria Anderson is a Montana-born writer with a degree in literary arts from Brown University. She wins her bread working for various publications. She also writes for Curbs & Stoops, a Brooklyn-based art accessibility think-tank, where she does featured artists and interviews. Much of her fiction and nonfiction work takes inspiration from the outdoors and from the fine arts world.”]
Iowa Review, Fall 2017, Best American Short Stories 2018
The story was titled “Cold House” when it ran in The New Yorker, which summarized it this way: “Mrs. Carnavon drove several miles to visit her summer home in the middle of the winter. When she arrived she didn’t know why she had come. She climbed the stairs to her son’s room; she had thought of leaving that room the way it was. Looking at the objects that had belonged to her son; a diamond-shaped plaque, with the clasped hands and the Greek letters; a photograph of a baseball team, a magazine that he may have read, she realized how little she had known her son and that by keeping his things, she would end by hating a memory that she only knew how to love.”
We don’t know how he died. He was 24. Nor do we know how her husband died, though her husband died a long time before. The war seems too long ago or not yet (there’s an allusion to fascism in Europe). Maybe he died in Spain.