Wendell Berry: Watch With Me

Of his short stories I’ve read so far, Wendell Berry’s “Watch With Me” is my favorite. It’s included in Berry’s collection That Distant Land. It’s set in 1916 after Thacker “Nightlife” Hample is told he can’t preach at the annual revival. Hample’s nickname “Nightlife” comes from his inability to see very well. Many of the people in town have said that he’s liable to conduct his nightlife during the day. Make of that what you will. Unfortunately, Nightlife also isn’t always in his right mind or again, as the townspeople say, his mind is “out of fix”.

Distant Land

He’s not a preacher and he comes from a family that is on the fringe of Port William’s society. It’s humorous how Berry describes the preachers that turn down Nightlife’s request:

It would have been better if the two preachers had just said all right. But they, who well knew that they knew neither the day nor the hour of the coming of the Son of Man, were in fact not prepared for anything unscheduled.

Berry tends to not paint preachers and organized religion in general in the greatest of light.

As a result of his rejection, the next day, Nightlife shows up at Tol Proudfoot’s shop and takes Tol’s loaded shotgun and walks away. Concerned for Nightlife’s own safety and the safety of anyone Nightlife might encounter, Tol and a few other men from the community set out to keep an eye on Nightlife as he wanders the hills in and around his town.

These neighbors then proceed to follow Nightlife for the next day and a half or 40 pages (this isn’t a short short story). The tension builds as to how this journey might eventually end. As the traveling continues (and it’s mostly in circles), the reader realizes that these men, in their own way, consider Nightlife a part of their community even if he does live in the margins of it. They continue to watch him because deep down they care about him as much as they care about everyone else in their town.

Nightlife ultimately does wander back to Tol’s shop. The men following him are able to get the shotgun away from him.

And Nightlife preaches his sermon.

A sermon taken from Jesus’ parable about the shepherd who leaves his 99 sheep to find the lost one. Only Nightlife touchingly tells the story from the perspective of the lost sheep instead of the shepherd:

“Oh, it’s a dark place, my brethren,” Nightlife said. “It’s a dark place where the lost sheep tries to find his way, and can’t. The slopes is steep and the footing hard. The ground is rough and stumbly and dark, and overgrowed with bushes and briars, a hilly and a hollery place. And the shepherd comes a-looking and a-calling to his lost sheep, and the sheep knows the shepherd’s voice and he wants to go to it, but he can’t find the path, and he can’t make it.”

The men listen and probably get more out of Nightlife’s sermon than the sermons at the revival (that’s just a guess on my part). It’s something they don’t easily forget:

Long afterward, Elton Penn asked Walter Cotman, “Did what he said make sense? I mean, did you feel for him?”

“Me?” Walter said. “Course I felt for him! The son of bitch could preach!”



David Madden: The World’s One Breathing

Deal Me In 2019 – Week 19

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McLain feels now the loss of his own children. He has lost touch with the girl he met and married in Lexington and who divorced him in Huntington. From the girl he married and divorced in Pittsburgh, he gets only a Christmas card each year, with a group picture of her and the boy and the girl McLain sometimes longs to see in the flesh. His father loved the mines. Well, McLain likes his freewheeling life in New York, always on the move.

David Madden’s “The World’s One Breathing” is another short story from the collection Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs. This story, as with many of them in this collection, deals with people who have left their homes – sometimes for bigger and better things – and for varying reasons are headed back, at least temporarily.

home beyond

McLain has left Black Damp, Kentucky (based on a Google search, I think this is a fictional town, but a well-named fictional town) to pursue a career in television journalism and has done well for himself. He finds himself on a bus headed back home because his mother is dying – probably in the same bed in which he was born.

An interesting addition to this story is that McLain happens to be riding this bus back home while astronauts are getting ready to land on the moon for the first time. This juxtaposition of one homecoming on earth while another home-“leaving” occurs beyond earth is enough to make this story fascinating. In fact that’s all it needs for a good story.

However, another addition of a just-out-of-prison fugitive popping up at one of the stops along the bus ride who ends up killing a police officer while he attempts to reunite with his wife and son seems to be just a little much. I understand that this is another story of someone wanting to get “home” back but it just doesn’t seem to fit well.

McLain eventually gets back to Black Damp but not necessarily to the house where his mother is dying.

I read “The World’s One Breathing” when I selected the Three of Hearts for Week 19 of my Deal Me In 2019 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be seen here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Wendell Berry: A Consent

It was an angel food cake with an icing as white and light and swirly as a summer cloud. It was as white as a bride. The sight of it fairly took his breath away – it was the most delicate and wondrous thing that he had ever seen. It looked so beautiful and vulnerable there all alone among the others that he wanted to defend it with his life. It was lucky, he thought, that nobody said anything bad about it – and he just wished somebody would. He took a position in the corner in the front of the room as near the cake as he dared to be, and watched over it defensively, angry at the thought of the possibility that somebody might say something bad about it.

In Wendell Berry’s “A Consent”, readers encounter the earliest appearance of Ptolemy Proudfoot (known as Tol to most) when he manages enough nerve to go to the local school’s Harvest Festival where Miss Minnie, his future wife, teaches. He shells out a lot of money for a local farmer in 1908 in order to win Miss Minnie’s angel food cake at a baked good auction. He then asks Miss Minnie if he could see her home. She says “yes”.

Distant Land

A certain quaintness does exist in this story but I felt like it stopped just short of being hokey. The above quotation gave Tol a sweetness and a warmth of heart without crossing the line into sentimentality.

Tol and Miss Minnie provide some comic relief to the stories of Port William that are set in the very beginning of the twentieth century. And speaking of comic relief, in this story, a young Burley Coulter recites a poem at the Harvest Festival. It’s James Whitcomb Riley’s “When the Frost is on the Punkin'” and the back and forth between Burley and Miss Minnie as Burley struggles to remember the lines is one of the highlights.

“A Consent” is found in Wendell Berry’s collection That Distant Land.


Wendell Berry: Fly Away, Breath

And Andy, a hundred years later, can hear their laughter. He hears also the silence in which they laugh: the ancient silence filling the dark river valley on that night, uninterrupted in his imagination still by the noise of engines, the great quiet into which they all have gone.

Wendell Berry’s short story “Fly Away, Breath” is set in 1907 while Maxie Dawe is on her death bed surrounded by her granddaughters. In her troubled breathing, she suddenly lets out a “Hoo!” which I took to sound something like an owl. At first, taken by surprise, her granddaughters attempt to suppress laughter but eventually they all end up laughing until it hurts while their grandmother goes back to struggling to breath.

That’s basically the story. In the Rabbit Room podcast I listened to, they refer to this story as a “moment”. Just like in “The Girl in the Window”, Rebecca Dawe’s “moment” comes when she stares down a soldier.

place time

Berry gives some background into Maxie’s life by letting the reader know she lost a son during the Civil War, her husband died after the war, and she ran her farm by herself. Born in 1814, she has lived a long 93 years. On her deathbed, she isn’t conscious enough to react to her granddaughters’ laughter but I had to ask myself the question: If she had been able to react to the laughter, would she have been horrified or would she have laughed along with them? In my mind, I’m thinking it would be the latter; however, I’m not sure there is actual evidence in the story to support which one.

It’s also interesting to note that Rebecca Dawe is Maxie’s daughter; however, she is not in the room with the granddaughters of which one is Margaret Feltner, Rebecca’s daughter. Rebecca would still be alive during 1907 since she is in the story (as Rebecca Finley) “Pray Without Ceasing” set in 1912. Given that this story is simply a “moment”, maybe Rebecca simply has had to step out. Or maybe I’m getting too detailed with Wendell Berry’s history. But while I’m getting this detailed, I might as well mention that Maxie is Andy Catlett’s great-great grandmother.

Eudora Welty: The Hitch-Hikers

Deal Me In 2019 – Week 18

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Of course it was by the guitar that he had known at once they were not mere hitch-hikers, they were tramps. They were full-blown, abandoned to this. Both of them were – but when he touched it he knew obscurely that it was the yellow guitar, that bold and gay burden in the tramp’s arms, that had caused him to stop his car and pick them up.

There’s something interesting about Eudora Welty’s short story “The Hitch-Hikers” that I can’t really put my finger on.

Tom Harris is a traveling salesman of office supplies who picks up a couple of men on his way to Memphis. Prior to his destination, he and his traveling companions stop at a small town in which many of the residents are at least familiar with Tom.

Parties and murder ensue.

Perhaps what is interesting is that in one sense, Tom and the hitch-hikers are drastically different – Tom has a job. On the other hand, they have more in common than one might think. In their own ways, they are all transient – physically, socially, mentally, spiritually.

The interactions between the three main characters and the townspeople and even Mike, the collie dog, all display a community of sorts, but one that doesn’t have all the connections we might like to think a community should have.

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I read this story when I selected the King of Spades for Week 18 of my Deal Me In 2019 short story project. It’s included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. My Deal Me In list can be seen here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.


Wendell Berry: The Girl in the Window

Relieved, she now looked only at the line of riders as one by one they straggled by. Their horses were fairly fit and of fairly good stock. The men in general rode them well enough, with an evident sense of their power, even maybe of pomp, and yet still she felt their strangeness, the strangeness of their ability now, in their bunch, to do as they pleased. They were like biting dogs. Emboldened by the fear they had caused, they longed for pursuit, but they had found as yet nobody to pursue.

It looks like 2019 is turning into “A Year With Wendell Berry”. I hadn’t planned this but I happened upon a podcast that is discussing Wendell Berry’s fiction (short stories and novels) in chronological order of when they are set – which is significantly different from chronological order of when they were written. My guess is that they won’t get through all of them in 2019 but for now I’m catching up with them and then I plan to follow along with them. Check it out yourself, if you would like, at The Rabbit Room podcasts.

place time

Of all Berry’s stories about Port William, Kentucky, “The Girl in the Window” reaches back the farthest to 1864. Sitting close to the Ohio River but on the Kentucky side, Port William is in an odd position during the American Civil War. I find it fascinating the way 16 year-old Rebecca Dawe sees soldiers coming through town sometimes in “bunches” of gray and sometimes in “bunches” of blue. Port William is not immune to the strife, divisiveness and violence found in many parts of the country during this time. Rebecca goes over in her mind some of the events occurring during these years including the death of her brother Galen. Ultimately, both sides of the war feed off of the Port William residents to the point that they see both sides as equally dangerous.

The focal point comes at the end of the story when Rebecca looks out of a window at a line of soldiers. When one of them sees her, she refuses to stop looking at him. Instead of recoiling in fear, she holds her ground with courage as the soldier makes an offensive comment to her.

It seems a small occurrence compared to other happenings in Port William during the war but Berry sets the event on the same level as the more typical battles and conflicts. He puts a hidden strength in Rebecca’s refusal to turn away.

And to put this in perspective, Rebecca Dawe is the great grandmother of Andy Catlett, who most Berry fans and experts consider to be a fictional version of Berry, himself. Andy becomes the memory keeper of Port William, a position he inherits from his grandparents Mat and Margaret Feltner – Margaret being the daughter of Rebecca Dawe.

The story gives an interesting aside as to what Rebecca’s future holds:

She would not be wedded, she could hardly bear to be looked at, by the young men of her own place, every one of whom seemed to her to bear the taint of what she called ever after “that awfulness.” She married instead an Irish immigrant who, to escape the bunch-violence that ruled his own land, had come to America and, hearing that a “shoe cobbler” was needed, finally to Port William.

I’m hoping this Irish immigrant makes it in to more of Berry’s stories.


Joe Donnelly: Bonus Baby (A Baseball Short Story Extra)

I tug on my brim. I tug on it, caress it, and tug on it some more. I take the cap off and slap it against my thigh. I hold it to my chest while I wipe my brow. I pat it, brush it, shape it, and put it back on my head. Then I tug on the brim again.

Baseball season is well under way so here’s a baseball story I read recently. It’s Joe Donnelly’s “Bonus Baby” and was recommended to me by Jay at Bibliophilopolis. It’s  included in the O. Henry Prize Stories of 2016.

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Many baseball stories have a father and son relationship and many of them present life and struggle and wonder along with the game. “Bonus Baby” has all this.  Even without baseball, it would be a favorite. Baseball just makes it that much better.

As the narrator pitches, he remembers back to his days growing up in the Midwest where baseball helped him escape his dysfunctional father. Each successful game only gives him more to worry about with his next one. While the reader doesn’t know exactly how old he is, it’s a given that he’s played for a while. The pitcher reminds me in some ways of Dencombe in Henry James’ “The Middle Years”. Past successes don’t outweigh the possibility of future failures:

Baseball had things I could rely on – rules, physics, statistics. It is the world’s most quantifiable sport. Yet it still baffles us. The best hitters still miss two-thirds of the time and the best pitchers still lose a hundred times or more before they’re done. The game was an enigma I couldn’t resist: something I wanted to try to solve even as I knew how far from solving it I might always be.

It’s another story in which I just want to say “Go read it!”