Groundhog Day meets a less interesting Gregor Samsa, the “ghoulish, insectile” characters being observed more than incarnated by the narrator. It’s the somewhat hokey but interesting story of a newly divorced woman with too much time on her hand who decides to volunteer for Movin’ On Up, a philanthropic moving company whose name winks, we’re not sure why (irony man, irony!), at the theme song from The Jeffersons. The people for whom furniture is being moved in the story generally have not much further room to go down. The story is interesting because of the insights within those homes, the characterizations of the “clients.” Its hook is less interesting, because unconvincing, unconnected to anything other than a device, a decision to create that “loop” where Bev relives again and again the Saturday when she puts in her volunteer hours, with a college girl who reminds her of her half-estranged daughter. Strange things begin to happen, like the bed frame that disappears, the second futon that appears next to the first, the table a client wants she never knew was in the truck. Things–“flaws,” Lennon calls them–like that. Things that aren’t even explicated by the loop, which is explained toward the end of the story. “The only time Bev felt she had her shit together was every other Saturday.” Turns out the only time she doesn’t have her shit together is every other Saturday, which apparently becomes every day. She wants her boring life back. But “That’s what had been taken from her–the absolute pristine uniqueness of each boring moment of existence.” Her memory loops, then there’s “the acceptance of the superfluity even of memory itself.” Strained words, strained theme, worth the ride in the truck, but unsatisfying: the experiment doesn;t sparkle.
It seems preposterous to be reading the American short story and not include William Maxwell, who in his younger years had that Matthew Broderick-Ferris Bueller look. Error corrected. “A Final Report” is an inventory of a life remembered at the more intimate margins of a probate report. The narrator is remembering. The life remembered is that of Pear M. Donald, who never married, who was a neighbor of the narrator’s family, and who became Aunt Donald and the narrator’s mother best friend until the two women had a mysterious falling out. The story is a look back from her old age: “It took her almost twenty years of not wanting to live anymore,” a line right out of Trevor’s “The General’s Day.” There are memories of the narrator’s childhood from the time she carried him on a pillow when he was sickly, but mostly it’s an account of her decline, her cats, her house, in the elegiac prose of terminal loneliness: “she must have subsisted on air and old memories and fear–the fear of something happening to her cats.” The story ends on what could have been a dry account of the financial settlement of her estate. It isn’t. Each dollar sign is the cremated remains of a long possession, and these final lines: “It would have been a pleasure to go through Aunty Donald’s things, up to a point, and after that probably nauseating. This is the past unillumined by memory or love. The sediment of days, what covered Troy and finally would have covered her if my brother hadn’t come and taken her away.”
Old Man Walks alone in Sommières, France, 2018. (x1klima)
Not a story for Veterans Day. Bad-tempered astrologically tilted General Suffolk, “a leader and a strategist in two great wars,” takes 10 minutes to prepare his breakfast, 10 to consume it, and a day to repeat a ritual of public humiliation and drunkenness he can’t bring himself to end, because it’s not in him to kill himself. “[H]e was to the last a rake, and for this humanity a popular figure. He had cared for women, for money, for alcohol of every sort; but in the end he had found himself with none of these commodities.” He’s 78. He wants this latest of country Saturdays to go his way. He’s looking to pick up a “stout matron” at the Brown Cafe. Mrs. Hinch, his maid, his “fat old bitch,” sends him on his way with wry humor so she can indulge in what’s left of his luxuries. For the general, it’s a string of rejections, starting with young Basil, whose mother is producing babies at a suspiciously faithless clip, like the mother in Carver’s “Father,” or the “buzz off” from a man the general tries to help back on his feet after he falls in front of him. He discovers that those who reject him with excuses are just lying. They just don;t want to be with him. “[S]ome people are like that: so addicted to the lie that to avoid one, when the truth is in order, seems almost a sin.” He has gins with Mrs. Hope-Kingley the divorced widow. He goes too far when his hand wanders. She leaves him. He tries his opening line–his astrological what sign are you–on a man on the bus who also rejects him. “I do not like to offend people. I do not like to be a nuisance. You should have stopped me, sir,” he tells him. It’s always too late. He too lies to the bartender, pretending that he’s been off to see “The Guns of Navarone.” He doesn’t want to let on that he’s been jilted all day. He tries to have drinks with Frobisher a second time, having already been rejected in the morning. Frobisher this time rejects him the way the other general rejects Dimitritch Tcherviakov in “The Death of a Government Clerk”: “Get the hell off my premises, you bloody old fool! Go on, Suffolk, hop it!” The general’s entreaty (“”Look, I’m a little lonely –” gets him nowhere. He doesn’t go home to die, like Tcherviakov. He wishes. But he won’t be so lucky. His wrenching realization, a preface to Donald Hall’s two memoirs: “I could live for twenty years,’ he whispered. ‘My God Almighty, I could live for twenty years.’ Tears spread on his cheeks.” He should have met William Maxwell’s Pearl M. Donald: “It took her almost twenty years of not wanting to live anymore,” or Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Max Flederbush in “A Party in Miami Beach”: “sometimes I think that the real heroes aren’t those who get medals in wartime but the bachelors who live out their years alone.”
The Day We Got Drunk on Cake and Other Stories (Bodley Head, 1967)
Taut, tense, past tipsy, Barry is on a business trip back from New York to his old grounds in Ohio, where he’s not been in 11 years. “That building was new, and that one.” He decides to look up old flame Judy Hayes, now Mrs. Nelson, married to Karl, who hates Barry, two children, like Barry and his own wife. Karl is out when he calls Judy. She agrees to have dinner with him, holding his hand as they drive to a restaurant, reminiscing about their times a decade earlier when she was 21 and lighter and he was 24. It’s a fling in time that would have completed the required laps toward a screw but for not just one but two improbable encounters at the restaurant. First, Judy’s brother in law, who’s there with a woman not his wife, then the brother in law telling the first illicit couple that Karl was on his way with a band of colleagues from work. The brother in law agrees to become Judy’s date, while Barry takes the other woman. They all make their getaway. Barry and Judy are back in her car, ambling past a particular spot of road “a mile back,” to Judy, “eleven years back,” to Barry, near where her tears reveal that she loves Karl but he doesn’t love her. We’re left to decide whether they do screw. The vantage point, the story’s broad brushstrokes and vivid contrasts, has a lot of Erbsloh’s painting above.
An old man, Mo-Sae, a Korean War survivor (he was 10 when it started) and dementia victim, left home alone his wife Young-ja who’s “coming up with errands that were really excuses to leave,” though she doesn’t need to: shes’s ill, too. He’s losing his memory, and she’d rather not always be near him to witness it. A young boy at his stoop, “appearing also in Mo-Sae’s cognition.” Not a very good sign, this Cognition. The boy is his grandson, Jonathan. Young-Ja has atrial fibrillation. Her husband was at that stage where he would come up “with likely versions of the past that became fixed in his memory.” But the story loses itself in memories of Young-ja, her violence toward her sister, “her need to connect again and again with something solid, resistant, and alive—shoulder, cheekbone, the open mouth that housed the teeth,” an image As convincing, poetic or otherwise, as a closed-mouthed metaphor. It’s about filling in the past in Korea, before hands-off America, where there was no hitting. Then back to facing a hisband’s dementia. Sundowning. And the bullshit of doctors’ advice: “She had been told to expect increased confusion, even agitation. She had been told that the only way to respond was with patience and kindness. Patience. Kindness. What did they really mean between husband and wife? Sometimes she felt that patience and kindness could be stretched so far in a marriage as to become their opposites.”
And this, of course:
Did he know?
She could never directly ask him, never actually say the word Alzheimer’s, chimae, in English or Korean. She would rather pacify, indulge, work around his nonsense. Perhaps this was patience and kindness. Or perhaps it was the worst possible way to be unkind.
Sometimes she wondered. Was it all an act? Would nothing really remain? In the middle of the night, did a dawning horror sometimes spread over his soul? Or did he really think, as it seemed when his defenses were up, that all the world was in error and he was its lone sentinel of truth and fact?
Those thoughts we’ve always had caring (if caring it was) for an Alzheimer’s torture victim. But now the church is asking his wife whether he’d consider returning to the church choir for a Messiah
Reformable after quitting out if dissatisfaction with the previous conductor. His wife would rather he not be found out. But he accepts. And makes a spectacle of himself, sidling up to the soloist’s part during the performance. The secret was out. “Thus she was free from the burden of his reputation.” But not the burden of responsibility. Her children broach the inevitable: “Something had to be done about Dad… but what?”
But this: the twist is that it’s young-ja whose illness collapses everything, herself included. Mo-Sae can only make sense of fragments, and not of her absence as he watches the boy, remembering memories near and far, keeping vigil over the sleeping boy, waiting for his wife to return, as she will not. It’s a searingly true story, calmly told, its tragedy a surprise, but not a surprise, unless you read it cynically, though no less realistically, if not justifiably: Young-Ja’s illness was not unwilled.
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.
“L’on allait là, chaque soir, vers onze heures, comme au café, simplement.“ a house of prostitution, unremarquable, beloved, in the country. Five women and Madame, the widow and her “intarissable bonne humeur.” The house is busy. Madam runs it like Cheers: everyone knows your name with complete discretion, so the bourgeois can keep coming. One night the house is shuttered. Man after man encounter each other, wander about town, their numbers and disappointment increasing proportionately. They bicker, just as a bunch of equally disappointed sailors make noise. French and British sailors brawl. The six bourgeois eventually split. “Seul, un homme errait toujours, M. Tournevau, le saleur, désolé d’attendre au prochain samedi ; et il espérait on ne sait quel hasard, ne comprenant pas, s’exaspérant que la police laissât fermer ainsi un établissement d’utilité publique qu’elle surveille et tient sous sa garde.” The ostensible cause of the closure? A first communion.
No joke. Madame takes her entire brood to her brother’s place for her 12-year-old niece’s the ceremony. In the train, it’s a whole ménage with a jarretières salesman. Joy. He wants them to try them on. One by one they do, letting him up their legs. (Maupassant was up on his porn-acteress names even then: Flora Balançoire). Others on the train are incensed, blaming “ce satané Paris.’” At Oissel Joseph Rivet the carpenter picks up the jarretièred brood in a carriage.at The Rivets’, it’s a feast: whores or not, everyone is family. Or so it seems. When they all take a stroll through the village of ten homesteads, “chacun suivait longtemps du regard toutes les belles dames de la ville qui étaient venues de si loin pour la première communion de la petite à Joseph Rivet.” no one knows they’re whores. A superb detail: “Lorsque rentra la petite fille, ce fut sur elle une pluie de baisers ; toutes les femmes la voulaient caresser, avec ce besoin d’expansion tendre, cette habitude professionnelle de chatteries…” they pet the girl with abandon.
Then the quiet of the country night: “Les filles, accoutumées aux soirées tumultueuses du logis public, se sentaient émues par ce muet repos de la campagne endormie. Elles avaient des frissons sur la peau, non de froid, mais des frissons de solitude venus du cœur inquiet et troublé.” And a daring detail: Rosa is alone. She can’t sleep. She’s not used to sleeping alone. She hears Constance, the girl also unused to sleeping out of her room, crying. She takes her in her bed: a substitute trick. “Et jusqu’au jour la communiante reposa son front sur le sein nu de la prostituée.”
The next day, the great ceremony, the carpenter’s pride, the girl’s entourage on its way to the “house of God,” all of them beautiful Magdalens not quite yet washing Christ’s feet. The train of ironies. The village is breathless at the sight of the beauties surrounding the little girl. In church, Rosa cries, remembering her own first communion. (Isn’t it always so?) it’s contagious. Louise and Flora turn into Florida storms. Then Madame. Then the entire church. The comic of the scene is moving. “ Hommes, femmes, vieillards, jeunes gars en blouse neuve, tous bientôt sanglotèrent, et sur leur tête semblait planer quelque chose de surhumain, une âme épandue, le souffle prodigieux d’un être invisible et tout-puissant.” The sacrament is delirium. The priest turns to the congregation, calls it a miracle: “le Saint-Esprit, l’oiseau céleste, le souffle de Dieu, s’est abattu sur vous, s’est emparé de vous, vous a saisis, courbés comme des roseaux sous la brise.” No doubt. The power of women: he thanks his “sisters” (the whores), “qui êtes venues de si loin, et dont la présence parmi nous, dont la foi visible, dont la piété si vive ont été pour tous un salutaire exemple. Vous êtes l’édification de ma paroisse;” (my underline of course.)
The brood must return to work. Madame atelier and her sister have a conversation about a Constance, but nothing is settled. Were they negotiating the girlks graduation to whoredom? And really, in repressive, sexist late 19th century France, what other emancipating business was there for women?
Rivet is drunk. He tries to have his way with Rosa, who laughs him off as Raphaële and Fernande hold him back. “Salope, tu ne veux pas ?” Évidemment, nonm you don’t ask a doctor at a party to treat your bunions, nor do you ask a whore to tend to your repressed desires. Madame is incensed. They throw him out. He cools off with water, and the whole brood trundles back out to the train in joyous song, Rivet at the reins, “cette carriole enragée et hurlante emportée dans la poussière.” They make it home, home to the whorehouse that Madame Tellier missed, “et la petite lanterne allumée, la petite lanterne de madone, indiquait aux passants que dans la bergerie le troupeau était revenu.“ It’s another delirium in town. A judge, a former mayor, many others are horny for the women. Tourneveau can’t wait. It’s a debauch of a feast: whores and clients had missed each other like old and passionate lovers.
Contrasts, memories, ironies. Superb. And that unforgettable line: Fermé pour cause de première communion.”