Posted in Short Stories

Paul Bowles: A Distant Episode

Deal Me In 2019 –  Week 21

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The tiny ink marks of which a symphony consists may have been made long ago, but when they are fulfilled in sound they become imminent and mighty. So a kind of music of feeling began to play in the Professor’s head, increasing in volume as he looked at the mud wall, and he had the feeling that he was performing what had been written for him long ago.

Because of the physical and geographical descriptions in Paul Bowles’ short story “A Distant Episode”, I’m guessing it is set in Morocco as the film Casablanca kept popping into my imagination; however, the setting is never specifically mentioned.

oxford short stories

The protagonist, known as The Professor, searches out an old acquaintance only to discover he is dead. During his search, he insults a cafe worker who takes The Professor into an ultimate nightmare of captivity.

There is an arrogance about The Professor resulting from simply how he is called “The Professor”. No other name is given. But this arrogance is almost naive in nature. He is pleasant and mild-mannered as he talks with those of a different culture but still manages to offend them. But as a reader, we understand that no matter hour much he smiles, he’s saying the wrong thing.

Bowles then switches seemlessly from The Professor’s perspective to the perspective of his captives for an even darker plot turn.

The ending is by no means happy; however, the reader gets the sense that The Professor does escape but his captivity, itself, is the focus of the story. And escaping doesn’t make his captivity any less harrowing.

This story is included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. I read it when I selected the Eight of Clubs for Week 21 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.

Posted in Short Stories

Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Minister’s Black Veil

Deal Me In 2019 – Week 20

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Dying sinners cried aloud for Mr. Hooper, and would not yield their breath till he appeared; though ever, as he stooped to whisper consolation, they shuddered at the veiled face so near their own. Such were the terrors of the black veil, even when Death had bared his visage! Strangers came long distances to attend service at his church, with the mere idle purpose of gazing at his figure, because it was forbidden them to behold his face. But many were made to quake ere they departed! Once, during Governor Belcher’s administration, Mr. Hooper was appointed to preach the election sermon. Covered with his black veil, he stood before the chief magistrate, the council, and the representatives, and wrought so deep an impression, that the legislative measures of that year were characterized by all the gloom and piety of our earliest ancestral sway.

The elements of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Minister’s Veil” are not unfamiliar to anyone who has read much of Hawthorne’s work. It has a mysterious, sometimes even sinister, tone with a slightly didactic approach. I’m not sure, though, whether this teachy aspect is Hawthorne himself or simply the title character’s attempts to teach a lesson to his congregation and those outside his church – even if this “lesson” goes on for the rest of the minister’s life.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Reverend Mr. Hooper appears one day at his Meeting-House wearing a black veil around his head blocking from view his face except for his mouth and chin. Just this description alone can give the reader a few chills. The reaction of Mr. Hooper’s parishioners are mixed in that some can’t look away even though they want to and others begin to think he is trying to teach an important lesson.

Nobody really knows what the minister is trying to do and Hawthorne, himself, never really gives any specifics as to what the black veil might represent. This lack of information actually helps the story steer away from being too preachy on Hawthorne’s part. It’s still fictionally preachy on the part of the preacher.

If I had to guess what the black veil means, I would say that it gives the impression of the evil that can exist in humanity both collectively and individually.  Evil that can be seen outright and evil that can be hidden. In some ways, the minister is trying to point out that humankind is “fallen” or “sinful” even if many of his congregation don’t want to see that theological concept lived out in such a vivid manner.

“The Minister’s Black Veil” is included in the Hawthorne collection The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories.  I read it when I selected the Queen of Diamonds for Week 20 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.

Posted in Short Stories

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!”



Posted in Short Stories

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.

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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.

Posted in Short Stories

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.


Posted in Short Stories

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.

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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.

Posted in Short Stories

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.