Jon Hassler: Keepsakes (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 17)

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“The paper will burn, except for a few pieces caught by the wind and carried into someone’s pasture or barnyard. Burned or not, the paper will dissolve into the earth in the first heavy rain. The birdcages and knick-knacks will rust and chip and dissolve, too, after a few seasons.”

In Jon Hassler’s short story “Keepsakes”, Roger’s parents make him help the grumpy old priest, Father Fogarty, clean out his rectory before he is transferred to another parish. Lots of old letters, documents and birdcages make for interesting conversation between the young boy and old man. Based on the dates mentioned in the conversations, I would guess that the story is set somewhere around the early 1940’s. And based on the fact that many of Hassler’s stories and novels are set in Minnesota (per Amazon.com), I would guess that this is where “Keepsakes” is set, also.

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While many in the town are not sad to see Father Fogarty leave, Roger’s family is at least respectful. An unspoken understanding of each other develops during the afternoon Roger spends with the priest. In the depth of the conversations, the reader can glimpse Father Fogarty’s line of questioning to himself, if not to Roger, about whether his years as a priest or even his years as a human being have been worth it.

The final bittersweet paragraph lets the reader know that the priest, at least in one afternoon, made a difference in one boy’s life.

Something about this story reminds me of Robert Penn Warren’s “Christmas Gift”. I think it was the fact that cigarette smoking seemed to play a prominent role in this story as well as in Warren’s. Roger’s father smokes more than he talks. Father Fogarty smokes while he’s talking. Roger reminds himself of when he and a friend attempted to smoke. Smoking gives a sense of sturdiness to the characters even as they may contemplate the fleetingness of life.

This story is included in my copy of The Best American Catholic Short Stories edited by Daniel McVeigh and Patricia Schnapp. I read it when I selected the Eight of Diamonds for Week 17 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be seen here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

 

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Another Anniversary Top Ten List

Today is the Fifth Anniversary of Mirror With Clouds and to celebrate, I’m posting my top ten short stories of 2016 with some of my favorite quotations underneath the title (and then my own comments in red):

10.) Brooklyns Lose – William Heuman

He didn’t put Kluszewski on, neither,” this guy says grinning. “Klu hit it an’ kept goin’.”

This guy jokes, yet. This is a time for jokes when you have a ball game sewed up eight-to-seven in the ninth, and you lose it with a home-run ball.

I look out the window, and the guy says, “So tomorrow’s another day.”

I don’t even look at him. That kind of guy I don’t look at.

I enjoyed the baseball stories I read this year, and while there may have been other stories with more literary merit in this category, I just couldn’t help finding this one my favorite of the bunch – mostly for its fantastic use of Brooklyn dialect.

 

 

9.) Old Red – Caroline Gordon

Ah, a stouthearted one, Mary! She had never given up hope of changing him, of making him over into the man she thought he ought to be. Time and again she almost had him. And there were long periods, of course, during which he had been worn down by the conflict, one spring when he himself said, when she had told all the neighbors, that he was too old now to go fishing anymore….But he had made a comeback. She had had to resort to stratagem. His lips curved in a smile, remembering the trick.

Caroline Gordon and her recurring character Aleck Maury was one of the more pleasant discoveries I made this year.

 

 

8.) Double Birthday – Willa Cather

“…this is the only spot I know in the world that is before-the-war. You’ve got a period shut up in here; the last ten years of one century, and the first ten years of another. Sitting here, I don’t believe in aeroplanes, or jazz, or Cubists. My father is nearly as old as Doctor Englehardt, and we never buy anything new; yet we haven’t kept it out…”

Willa Cather puts another great spin on the early Twentieth Century – a time period that continues to fascinate me.

 

 

7.) Homeland – Barbara Kingsolver

My great-grandmother belonged to the Bird Clan. Hers was one of the fugitive bands of Cherokee who resisted capture in the year that General Winfield Scott was in charge of prodding the forest people from their beds and removing them westward. Those few who escaped his notice moved like wildcat families through the Carolina mountains…

Known (to me) for her novel The Poisonwood Bible, this was the first of Kentucky author Barbara Kingsolver’s work that I’ve read. Another story is included in Deal Me In2017.

 

 

6.) The Life You Save May Be Your Own – Flannery O’Connor

Every now and then her placid expression was changed by a sly isolated little thought like a shoot of green in the desert.

Technically, I didn’t read this story this year. I read it a couple of years ago; however, Jay selected it for a great guest post. I couldn’t let a technicality like that keep me from including a Flannery O’Connor story in my top ten list.

 

5.) Christmas Gift – Robert Penn Warren

The live cigarette, burned almost to the very end, hung at the corner of the boy’s lips, glowing fitfully and faintly with his speech. It hung there, untouched by his hands, which were thrust under the rug. He no longer drew the smoke in; it seemed to seep in without conscious effort on his part, drifting from his nostrils thinly with his breath.

A great author who happens to be from Kentucky brings tobacco and cigarette smoking to new literary heights.

 

 

4.) The Turkey Season – Alice Munro

There was the Turkey Barn, on the edge of a white field, with a row of big pine trees behind it, and always, no matter how cold and still it was, these trees were lifting their branches and sighing and straining. It seems unlikely that on my way to the Turkey Barn, for an hour of gutting turkeys, I should have experienced such a sense of promise and at the same time of perfect, impenetrable mystery in the universe, but I did.

This is the only story that wasn’t included in my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. I read an Alice Munro story each month this year and “The Turkey Season” (I read it for April) jumped out as a favorite early on. An older female protagonist looks back at a time when she was younger. While this concept appears to be a staple of Munro’s stories, this story has a slightly more positive tone than others.

 

 

3.) A Father’s Story – Andre Dubus

And He says: I am a Father too.

Yes, I say, as You are a Son Whom this morning I will receive; unless You kill me on the way to church, then I trust You will receive me. And as a Son You made Your plea.

Yes, He says, but I would not lift the cup.

I had not heard of Andre Dubus prior to putting this story on my list for 2016, but the raw spirituality made it a favorite.

 

 

2.) The Whore’s Child – Richard Russo

“Are we ever going to meet the father?” one student wanted to know. “I mean, she yearns for him and he gets compared to Christ, but we never see him directly. We’re, like, told how to feel about him. If he doesn’t ever show up, I’m going to feel cheated.”

Sister Ursula dutifully noted this criticism, but you had only to look at the old woman to know that the father was not going to show up. Anybody who felt cheated by this could just join the club.

I rediscovered Richard Russo with this story. The structure is both unique and perfect. I want to read more of his short stories in 2017.

 

 

1.) The Diary of Adam and Eve – Mark Twain

Wheresoever she was, there was Eden.

I admit that there is very little separating my top 4 stories, but I was so surprised at Mark Twain’s ability to combine satire and sentiment in this story that it’s remained my favorite since I read it back in February.

Robert Penn Warren: Christmas Gift (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 14)

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The live cigarette, burned almost to the very end, hung at the corner of the boy’s lips, glowing fitfully and faintly with his speech. It hung there, untouched by his hands, which were thrust under the rug. He no longer drew the smoke in; it seemed to seep in without conscious effort on his part, drifting from his nostrils thinly with his breath.

It’s Christmas in April here at Mirror with Clouds! After reading Alice Munro’s “The Turkey Season” which I had a feeling would have something of a holiday theme (and it did), I selected the Ace of Spades for Week 14 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project which corresponds to Robert Penn Warren’s “Christmas Gift”. Each year, I purposely include a story that has a Christmas sounding title just to see when it might show up and Warren’s story is the one I included this year. While Christmas is never directly mentioned in the story, some of the details (not least of which is the title) give the impression  that the setting is sometime around December.

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At the beginning of the story, Sill Lancaster, a boy who I would say is about ten years old, has hitched a ride (on a horse drawn wagon) into town to find a doctor for his pregnant sister. The locals at a store give him directions to the doctor and some red and white peppermint sticks.

He finds the doctor who hitches up his horse to his wagon and takes Sill back to his sister. The bulk of the story is Sill’s ride back home with the doctor. In fact, the story ends before they get to the Lancaster house. From the short pieces of conversation between the doctor and Sill, we find out that Sill’s sister is from his mom’s side of the family, not his dad’s. It appears that the sister is not married – at least a husband is not mentioned. The doctor knows of Sill’s father and understands that most people don’t like him.

The doctor rolls his own cigarette and drops the tobacco bag into Sill’s lap. In a powerful scene, Sill, not sure of what the doctor will think, eventually opens the bag and rolls his own cigarette, too. In exchange, the boy gives the doctor one of his peppermint sticks.

Given the approximate age of the boy, these two gifts say more about the givers than about Sill. The locals at the store think of him as a child. The doctor understands the unspoken circumstances of Sill’s family life and knows he’s more of a man. Maybe more of one than he should have to be.

My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis. This story is included in my copy of The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike.