A story of coldness without and within. Jason and Sara Morton, a couple, only 50 years old, farmers, are in bed at night freezing, silent, all words and warmth having fled from their marriage, on a night when the whistle blows to alert farmers of a freeze. They get up, cover the tomatoes with their own clothes, return to the house, then start burning their last logs, a chair, the kitchen table that had sat there thirty years. It’s all gone, the night isn;t over and the whistle is still blowing. A terribly existential story from the first line: “The darkness was thin, like some sleazy dress that had been worn and worn for many winters and always lets the cold through to the bones.” The coldness, the whiteness of the moon’s light, drenching everything indifferently without hint of warmth, amplifies the existential condition of the couple and their isolated farm, as alone as could be.
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)
Steve and Max, white men in Mississippi, are improbably walking and talking together toward Little Lee Roy’s house as Steve tells Max of the not-too distant days when he (Steve) was a circus caller and Little Lee Roy a clubfooted black man who’d be dressed up as an Indian girl called Keela, made to eat live chickens, growl and act as beastly and freakishly as possible for circus-goers’ enjoyment. The freak show is an old, deplorable American tradition that long predates Trump rallies and NRA conventions.) Max is a saloon-keeper. It’s not clear what Steve is doing, if anything. Little Le Roy is on his porch, surrounded by chickens, when the two men appear and continue conversing as if he weren’t there except for a couple of asides by Max. Steve still calls Little Lee Roy “it.” And who calls him Little Lee Roy, itself an abusive, demeaning term for a grown man and father of an unknown number of children? We don’t need to be told: in Welty, white society’s presumptions don’t have to be explained.
Steve speaks as if he were regretful of his days as the caller outside “Keela”‘s tent, though “I reckon I seen it a thousand times,” he says of the freak show: more than enough times to known that he loved it, and even now, to retell with a touch of relish every detail of the atrocity Lee Roy, once kidnapped into slavery at the circus, was made to endure: Welty devotes a full page to the recounting, which–anachronism aside–reads, at least in its raw, pornographic expository nature, almost like reports from Sabra and Shatila after the massacre, but limited to one man: the revelry of atrocity at the expense of human lives is the same. Yet Steve is trying to atone: “It’s all me, see,” said Steve. “I know that I was the cause for it goin’ on an’ on an’ not bein’ found out–such an awful thing. It was me, what I said out front through the megaphone.” Or through Monday morning’s quarterbacking: his guilt is hollow, as is his claim that “none of us knowed it could talk.” None of them asked, none of them had a conversation with him, none of them is willing to have a conversation with him even now. A physician uncovers the truth, saves Lee Roy, and has the real circus freaks, the only circus freaks–its managers–arrested. Steve and Max talk about responsibility: “You wouldn’t of knowed it either!” Max has already staked out his role. He listens to his jukebox. He doesn’t listen to anything else. He’s the complicitly dis-informed Southerner, wearing his ignorance like a shield to a reality he’d rather not confront, let alone contend with. It was the South of Welty’s surroundings.
I came across this undated, un-authored but worthy analysis from someone at Owensboro College:
The circumstances in ‘Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden’ strain credibility, and the device of having a conscience-tormented young man force his story upon a cynical tavern-operator while the object of the tale looks on does not seem very plausible. Yet the basic story was true; Welty heard it from a man who was building a booth at a county fair during her WPA travels. As she told an interviewer in 1942, `I guess if you read it you must have known that it was true and not made up – it was too horrible to make up’. ‘Keela’ was her attempt to explore `how people could put up with such a thing and how they would react to it’ (CNVRS, pp. 5, 157). At the same time she was very subtly commenting upon the symbolic place of women and racial minorities in Southern life.
Welty returned to the story years later in December 1964 when she delivered a large public lecture at Millsaps as part of her contract with the college. The previous summer had seen the murders of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the firebombing of forty black churches, and the white Citizens’ Councils’ intimidation of whites known to have “moderate” sensibilities, intimidation that had not ceased. In her lecture, entitled “The Southern Writer Today: An Interior Affair,” Welty delivered comments that she would later publish as “Must the Novelist Crusade:” Here, she rejected an ostensible political purpose for fiction, arguing that “there is absolutely everything in great fiction but a clear answer,” that fiction is concerned more with the complexities of human experience than with proposing solutions to human difficulties. But she also asserted, “What matters is that a writer is committed to his own moral principles. If he is, when we read him we cannot help but be aware of what these are. Certainly the characters of his novel and the plot they move in are their ultimate reflections. But these convictions are implicit; they are deep down; they are the rock on which the whole structure of more than the novel rests.” The great novel, she argued, is grounded on the bedrock of principle, the very principle for which the crusader speaks. What a lesser novelist’s harangues would have buried by now, the great novelist”s imagination still reveals, and revelation of even the strongest forces is delicate work. Welty followed this address with a reading of “Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden,” which, appropriately, examines the complexities of human relationships. The story, written in 1938, describes a crippled black man who was once kidnapped into carnival work as a geek called Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden, and who, notwithstanding the horror of his past, feels nostalgic about the carnival experience in which he was noticed as now within his own family he is not. The story further deals with the guilt felt by Steve, the carnival barker, and with his inability, nevertheless, to overcome the separation of race, and finally, the story depicts a bystander’s courting of detachment from the horror and guilt Keela represents.
Steve punches Max for being doubted, insulting his sexuality and his intelligence–“I could tell a man from a woman and an Indian from a nigger though–and Max doesn’t take it badly: he offers Lee Roy some alms and Steve him free food back at his joint. Lee Roy tells his children of the encounter, but they tell him to hush. It’s open to interpretation: they may not want to hear about their father’s humiliating days again. They may not be listening to their father any more than those two men were. He is marginal, even in his own house.
In the August 16, 2019 New Yorker, Ian Frazier writes: “About a forty-minute walk away is the Bronx Zoo. In 1912, it was called the New York Zoological Park, and it was run by a patrician named Madison Grant from an old New York family. Though he and Du Bois lived and worked within a few miles of each other for decades, I don’t know if the two ever met. As much as anyone on the planet, Grant was Du Bois’s natural enemy. Grant favored a certain type of white man over all other kinds of humans, on a graded scale of disapproval, and he reserved his vilest ill wishes and contempt for blacks.
As Du Bois would have remembered, in 1906 the zoo put an African man named Ota Benga on display in the primate cages. Ota Benga belonged to a tribe of Pygmies whom the Belgians had slaughtered in the Congo. A traveller had brought him to New York and to the zoo, where huge crowds came to stare and jeer. A group of black Baptist ministers went to the mayor and demanded that the travesty be stopped. The mayor’s office referred them to Grant, who put them off. He later said that it was important for the zoo not to give even the appearance of having yielded to the ministers’ demand. Eventually, Ota Benga was moved to the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, in Brooklyn, and he ended up in Virginia, where he shot himself.”
Ellie and Albert Morgan are a simple minded deaf and dumb couple from Yellow Leaf, Mississippi, in a train-station waiting room, on their way to Niagara Falls, a trip intended to possibly rekindle, if not merely kindle, their love for each other. A wanting love: Albert is hopeful. She seems less so. A red-haired man is playing with a metal key that falls to the ground in a rattle and drifts to Albert’s feet. He picks it up. He doesn’t return it. It becomes a symbol of everything that may happen between him and Ellie, cause of what may be wrong between him an Ellie. They speak on their fingers, in sign language, perhaps a detail intended to suggest isolation. The disrupting element is the red-haired man, whose presence is arrogant, presuming and ultimately insulting: he drops another key in Ellie’s hand, to a hotel room, and walks out.
I found the story a bit contrived, heavy on the symbolism. Funny what role Niagara Falls keeps playing in fiction. Or keys.