Eastward, she had known her clientele chattily and had often been offered a drink or a cigarette in the buyer’s office after business was concluded. But she soon found that in her new district things were different. Not only was she never asked if she would like to smoke but several times her own inquiry as to whether anyone would mind was answered half apologetically with “It’s not that I mind, but it has a bad influence on the employees.”
I liked this story more than most people, it seems, but I have to admit, it’s probably because of my own personal intersection of church and smoking, as well as the story-behind-the-story. Most people, including TNY fiction editor Deborah Treisman, seem to think it’s a light piece, an extended pun. It’s not extended by much – just under 1200 words.
It’s available online. (No, it isn’t… oopsie)
It was written in 1936, which means “the war” referred to as being the common experience of men under 50 was World War I. It’s also the Depression era, which, oddly, doesn’t seem to enter into things at all for Mrs. Hansen, travelling corset saleswoman. I guess even in hard times, women want to look firm and trim.
The story follows Mrs. Hansen on her rounds in Missouri, a new territory for her that was earned via promotion. The problem is: no one allows her to smoke. And she does enjoy a smoke now and then. If you’ve ever smoked – I did, for 20 years, quit 3 years ago – you’ll understand the urge, as well as the difficulty in finding a place where it’s ok to smoke.
Mrs. Hansen is finishing up her day, and desperately wants a smoke. Etiquette was different back then (and still is now, if you read Miss Manners); smoking on the street was simply Not Done. So she ducks into a church, sees the votive candles burning (she has no matches), and talks away her misgivings:
How could the Good Lord care if a tired woman took a few puffs in the vestibule?
Nevertheless, though she was not a Catholic, the thought offended her. Was it so important that she have her cigarette, when it might offend a lot of other people, too?
Still. He wouldn’t mind, she thought persistently. In His days, they hadn’t even discovered tobacco. . .
However, the sexton is in the process of dousing the candles as well as her last hope. So she slips into a pew and nods off while gazing at a statue of the Virgin Mary. Shortly, she is wakened by burning of her fingers; her cigarette is now lit.
Still too drowsy to think, she took a puff to keep the flame alive. Then she looked up at the Madonna’s vague niche in the half-darkness.
“Thank you for the light,” she said.
That didn’t seem quite enough, so she got down on her knees, the smoke twisting up from the cigarette between her fingers.
“Thank you very much for the light,” she said.
Yes, it’s a joke. But I think there’s something more. Fitzgerald was ill at this point with a variety of problems, including alcoholism. I wonder if he was hoping for some kind of mercy in a judgmental world – or just a ray of hope in the darkness, that comfort was available somewhere. There’s something that touches me deeply in this notion that God not only allowed Mrs. Hansen to smoke in His house when no one else would, but facilitated it; it’s a kind of generosity I would like to imagine God possesses.
I’ll admit I’m probably overreaching here. But I imagine Fitzgerald, tired of all the exhortations to stop drinking (and still remembering the Prohibition years), endorsing a heaven with an open bar. I wonder if he found it.
Still, even if the story itself is all about the final lines, the story behind it is interesting, in more ways than one. You can listen to a TNY Out Loud podcast in which Curtis Fox talks with Deborah Treisman (the 1:35 to 4:55 minute marks) about the circumstances of printing the story. Seems it was submitted back in the 30s, and rejected, with the following comment to his agent:
We’re afraid that this Fitzgerald story is altogether out of the question. It seems to us so curious and so unlike the kind of thing we associate with him, and really too fantastic. We would give a lot, of course, to have a Scott Fitzgerald story and I hope that you will send us something that seems more suitable. Thank you, anyhow, for letting us see this.
I’m not sure if it’s that the implication of the Virgin Mary lighting a cigarette would’ve been considered outrageous, or if the magical realism in the cigarette lighting itself was just too “out there” at the time; perhaps both, with the former being “unlike the kind of thing we associate with him” and the latter being “really too fantastic”. There’s no mention that it isn’t a strong enough story, or that it’s too light, or reads like a joke. In a curious happenstance of metafiction, the history of the story nicely parallels its theme: forbidding overcome by grace.
The other thing that interested me – and has Zin in a state of apoplexy – is a comment in the podcast:
Curtis: We seldom see fiction that short in the magazine, is that because writers don’t write it anymore or does the magazine not take it?
Deborah: Now they’d call it flash fiction…but I don’t think Fitzgerald did.
Curtis: Flash fiction? Really? I’d never heard of that.
Deborah: We’ve run short pieces before…
Curtis: Very rarely.
Now, Curtis Fox is not an editor or a writer or a literary critic; he’s a radio producer. If it had been Deborah Treisman who’d never heard the term “flash fiction,” I would be outraged. As it is, I’m a bit surprised, because he’s been producing this podcast for years, and knows enough to ask solid questions about a wide variety of literature in many segments; so yes, it’s a little sad the term is unknown to him (he does know “magical realism”). Poor Zin. Zin sent an email. Zin does that sometimes. Zin never learns.
I was happy to come across this story; I just said I wanted to re-read Gatsby, and look who crops up. And I’d like to think that the next time I’m desperate, and someone’s doused the candles on me, whatever god there is just might have that kind of mercy on me.
Addendum 3/10/16: Every once in a while, I see this post come up on my stats list, and that makes me happy. I wonder who’s reading it, and why. It’s still one of my favorite stories, nearly four years later. Maybe because Those in the Know think it’s dopey. Maybe because it still speaks to me: when the church starts dousing candles, when the Learned Men say No, when the Divine cuts off heat and light, there’s still Mary, who knew about both the human and the divine, about gifts and loss, about willingness and burdens, who has more compassion than all of them.