PEN/O.Henry 2012: Alice Mattison, “The Vandercook” from Ecotone, Spring 2011

Ecotone photo: Sax

Ecotone photo: Sax

I thought of something else my father had said when he said that Gil had secrets: that he himself had secrets, and that I did, and Molly didn’t. Molly held the secret of her unpredictable self, but did she have no secrets of the conventional sort? Some of my secrets had to do with Molly. I had not kept secret from her how I felt about the incidents in which I felt she’d been unfair in the past – far from it – but I’d kept secret how I counted and reconsidered them.

As I read this story, I thought of something Roger Ebert wrote once about the car in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday: “how much the movie’s opening scenes benefited from the character of his automobile…” The Vandercook – an old-fashioned letterpress printing press – has a similar function in this story, as an exquisite symbol of an abstract concept: the past, which stalks the narrator throughout. I call it exquisite because the printing press, in addition to conveying the image of something from days of yore, perfectly embodies the function of the Past-as-Character, which is: to record, inform, remind.

As you may have guessed, I really liked this story. It’s available online at Ecotone – a journal whose motto is “Reimagining Place.” For them, place goes way beyond the city, the latitude and longitude, and in this story, encompasses the entire situation. As in the psychobabble phrase: Lorenzo’s in a bad place. Which he is.

Lorenzo, his wife Molly, and his two sons are living in California when his dad decides to retire from his New Haven print shop after suffering a heart attack. Molly, who’s just had a fight with her boss, decides to take over the family business. Lorenzo’s ok with that, even though he thought her boss was in the right, so they move back East.

Enter Past-as-Character.

Lorenzo isn’t totally inexperienced with the Vandercook: his grandfather introduced him to it, and he’s been doing some work with a local printer though he’s not really talented. Gil started working at the shop when he was a stupid teenager, and now, in his 50s, has managed the place for years.

Along the way, Lorenzo starts dealing with his own recollections. You know how you overlook some things, especially early in a relationship, because you aren’t sure if they’re character flaws or fleeting errors in judgment? Well, these are beginning to pile up – “When several events in my life with Molly might have made me take heed, I did not take heed” – and he’s seeing Molly in a new light, remembering things such as her fight with her boss, and this post-coital session:

I was easing into sleep at last when Molly said, “There are people I could kill if I had to, and people I couldn’t kill, no matter what.”
“Where do I fit?” I said. I was used to being startled by what she said, but she still regularly startled me.
“I think I could kill you,” she said. “I mean if I had to – say, to save the life of one of the children. I could shoot you or stab you.”

What Molly had said seemed funny, but it wasn’t simply funny. The next morning, working on my big job at the back of the store, I was still thinking about her cool assessment as to whether she could kill me. I knew she wasn’t a murderer and wouldn’t become one: what interested me – and, okay, scared me – was her freedom of thought.

Past-as-Character is fully realized when the block is turned into a movie set from the 30s. And things come to a head when the shop is vandalized, and Molly makes some ugly racist assumptions about Gil and plans to fire him.

The primary conflict is between Lorenzo and himself. What do you do when you realize the person you’re married to is, well, not up-to-snuff, morally? When you know what the right thing is, but you can’t face the consequences of doing it? When you realize the moral failing is actually your own: “I needed to become someone I was not, someone who’d know what to say. It was too late.”

I’m interested in some sentence-level elements. There’s a lot of word-phrase repetition – “Molly was restless – she did not rest”, and “take heed” above. This stood out to me, and not all that pleasantly, though I can see the contextual reason for it in most cases – “she did not rest” is very different from being “restless”. In spite of those minor and infrequent hiccups, the story was highly readable, with smooth narrative flow and a satisfying, if ambiguous, ending. As Laura Furman says in her Introduction: “The beauty of the story lies in its sense of the continuity of the lives narrated.” I can see several ways this story could go on, each equally plausible. I like that. And I like that I’m interested enough to imagine the scenarios, but not frustrated that the author didn’t tell me which one – if any – will come to pass.

Lots of universal issues here. We’ve all struggled with things we shouldn’t have overlooked, and wondered later why we didn’t take heed. When to speak up, when to let things pass, how much leeway we give someone we love. And with how much responsibility we actually bear when we feel victimized.

On a more personal (and less profound) level, I lived on Beacon Hill in Boston back in the 70s when a brief scene from a (truly terrible) 50s movie was shot – and I saw all that goes into transforming a street, from blocking traffic to bringing in antique cars (hah, 50s cars weren’t antique back then, just old) to spraying the sidewalks with foam to simulate snow; it took all day to get 10 seconds on the screen. As well, I have an enjoyment of all things paper, including printing – I browse office-supply and stationery stores for fun, the way most women browse shoe boutiques. I have a perfectly good pair of shoes, why would I browse for more? Pens, inks, papers of different weights and finishes, end papers – now that’s stuff worth browsing.

And the god of Coincidence made sure the library copy of Just My Type: a book about fonts, which I requested back in February when it was acquired, came in just as I was reading this story. I swear, it really did – I have the email to prove it.

So it might be that this was the Perfect Storm of stories for me. No, not Perfect. Not even Great. That’s ok, Very Good will do just fine.

2 responses to “PEN/O.Henry 2012: Alice Mattison, “The Vandercook” from Ecotone, Spring 2011

  1. Pingback: Alice Mattison: “The Vandercook” « Fail Better

  2. Pingback: PEN/O.Henry 2102: Wrap-up « A Just Recompense

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