Tag: death

Maria Anderson, “Cougar” (2017)

maria anderson cougarThe 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

O’Hara: “The Cold House”

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.

Of course it’s more powerful than that:

The New Yorker, April 2, 1938

Hemingway, “Indian Camp” (1924)

Hemingway’s passport photo, a year before the publication of ‘Indian Camp.’ (Wikimedia Commons)

In “The Hartleys” and “River” tradition of shocking endings, the dead one in this case not being a child, but the father of a child being born: a very small difference, as the man’s suicide, so willfully orphaning the child, is a form of murder.

Nick and his father board a boat that an Indian rows to an Indian camp, with Nick’s Uncle George on board as well. A woman is in a difficult labor. Nick’s father will perform a cesarean. On the way to camp, Nick’s father has his arm around the boy. Nick admires his father, deifies him, though his father will shatter his ability to withstand so much admiration when the gore of the operation overtakes the scene. The father of the baby is in a bunk above the scene, turning to face the wall. The woman has been screaming. His quiet is telling. The doctor celebrates the birth:

As they row out, Nick asks his daddy if dying is hard. “”No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.” And that final, searingly beautiful image in spite and still: “In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.” The arm stretched around him at the beginning of the story.

The Indian’s terror may have been Hemingway’s: his wife Hadley went into labor with their first child while he was away. He was terrorized at the thought of anything going wrong and of getting there too late. He transferred the fear, and took it beyond its human limits: a literary leap that serves other purposes in the story but that still seems, in and of itself, a touch gratuitous. But then, in light of Hemingway’s suicide, was it not merely premature projection? “He couldn’t stand things, I guess.” The woman meanwhile has no name, no face, no presence but those screams.


Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Key” (1969)

Bessie Popkin isn’t the only one confused in the story. Isaac Singer is a bit confused to. He sets up his widow heroine in the opening paragraphs as a woman paranoid of dybbuks and evils all around her in descriptions that make her seem more like a woman in the creeping stages of dementia. She lives on Broadway, she despises New York, especially its colorful people. She seldom ventures past her blocks. One day returning from the market she breaks her key. She never gave a spare to the superintendent, thinking he steals. She wanders the streets, giving us a few of the city as it was around 1967, when Singer wrote the story (the picture above was by David Attie of Getty Images, taken in 1968):

She notices an accident, firefighters cleaning the street of the victim. The reader thinks she’s seeing herself, dead. As she wanders about, she thinks, passing by a church and huddling in its doorway, where she sleeps, unmolested, of making reckoning. She has an epiphany. The animals she had always despised, she now loves, embodied in a cat that purred by her. It’s night, but “the fear of death was gone, along with her fear of being homeless.” She returns home. The superintendent helps her get back in her house. She is amazed by his kindness. A neighbor had placed the milk and butter she’d left at the door in her own fridge. Again, Bessie is amazed by th kindness. She goes into her room, lies down, feels something strange rise from her feet to her breast and as if dreams of her husband telling her, “You don’t need no key here. Just enter—and mazel too.” Is she dead?

Th confusion I referred to has to do with that first page: the details Singer sets out don’t relate to anything else in the story, at least not those that imply she is forgetful or delusional.

Here’s how The New Yorker summarizes the story, which ran in the Dec. 6, 1969 issue: “Bessie Popkin, a widow for over 20 years, lives alone in her apartment near Broadway. She has become slatternly and suspicious, feeling tormented by Evil Powers. Returning from a shopping trip, she tries to open her door, but the key breaks in the lock. Leaving her groceries in the hall, she goes in search of a locksmith. Exhausted from wandering in the darkness, Bessie dozes off on a church step. Awaking late at night, she sees the moon for the first time in years and thinks of her husband Sam. In a renascence, she decides to start a new life. Reaching home in the morning, she finds that a neighbor has taken care of her groceries and that the superintendent does have a key to the apartment. She lies down on her bed, feeling a heaviness and vibrations in her body, and dreams that Sam comes. Together they walk through a corridor which leads to two mountains meeting, with sunrise or sunset between them. In the voice of the hotel owner who had led them to their bridal suite, she hears the words, “You don’t need no key here. Just enter–and mazel tov.””

The New Yorker, December 6, 1969

Malamud, “Steady Customer”

Four waitresses in a restaurant are crying. Their 28-year-old colleague Eileen had just died during a gallbladder operation. None of them wants to take over her lucrative section. The owner, Mr. Mollendorf, recruits a new waitress, Rose, from the agency, and the four girls agree to give her the section—except for one table: that of the steady customer who’d been Eileen’s for two years. The two were’t yet going together, but the waitresses were under the impression that they were going to start. Ant least that’s what they tell Rose. One of the waitresses decides to keep that table. The customer comes in, orders his usual. Doesn’t ask about Eileen. The girls are furious. The witness decides to tell him outright. All he says is: “I—I see,” his voice “curiously uncontrolled. ‘I’m sorry.’” The girls are still more furious. “They’re all alike,” one of them says. They stare at him. Customers begin starring at him:

The girls don’t know if he left because he was overcome by the news or because he was upset at the way he’d become an object of their scorn. “I’m convinced he really and truly loved her,” one of them says, closing the story.

New Threshold, August 1943.

Cheever, “The Hartleys”

john cheever

Jesus. Mr. and Mrs. Hartley travel to a ski resort with their young daughter Anne, age unknown. Anne is closest to her father when the family travels to the mountains. She refuses to learn to ski on her own. “Mr. and Mrs. Hartley spoke oftener to Anne than to each other, as if they had come to a point in their marriage where there was nothing to say.” Cheever mirrors the bleakness of the marriage in the landscape, in premonitory ways: “Its only colors were the colors of spent fire, and this impressed itself upon one–as if the desolation were something more than winter, as if it were the work of a great conflagration.” There are two conflagration. The first, a chambermaid hears through the transom as she approaches the Hartleys’ room–while Anne is playing elsewhere–and she hears Mrs. Hartley bemoan these trips in search of lost love:

cheever excerpt, The Hartleys

The second is that cruel, out-of-nowhere way of Cheever’s to spring a catastrophe on the austere bucolic setting: Anne is mangled and killed by the ski lift’s motor after she gets caught in the rope. From 1948.

Hemingway, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936)

EH 7018P Ernest Hemingway on safari, Africa. January, 1934. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Too pretentious for my taste. A man on safari with his boring rich wife dying of gangrene and regret, a subtextual alliteration throughout the longish story. Regret for all the stories he did not write, but not as much regret for all the lies he tells, better and better with age. He wishes he had better company than this wife. Stupidest line: “So this was how you died, in whispers that you did not hear.” A lot of stream of consciousness reminiscences that sound too much like an intellectual, name-dropping safari of geographic glamor.

August 1936, Esquire.

Image credit: unattributed – Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Ernest Hemingway on safari, Africa. January, 1934. Wikimedia Commons.