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.”
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.
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.””