‘There’s no copyright on titles,’ he said. ‘It wouldn’t be a good idea, probably, to call something “Death of a Salesman”, but you could do it.’
‘I wanted to see the play, but it was sold out. Tickets were going for $1,500 at the end of the run. I did get to New York and go to the Met, though, and paid my two dollars to get in.’
‘Two dollars is nicer than one dollar,’ he said.
‘Ah! So you do care what people think!’
‘Don’t talk like you’re using exclamation points,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t suit people who are intelligent. You’ve been fighting your intelligence for a long time, but exclaiming is the coward’s way of undercutting yourself.’
‘I wonder why I’ve created so many adversaries,’ he said, then did a good Randy Travis imitation. ‘I got friends in . . . high places . . .’
‘Maker’s Mark interests you more than anyone, every time. We used to come see you and we have a burning desire to talk to you, to pick your brain, find out what to read, make you smile, but by the end of every evening, it’s clear who’s your best friend.’
‘But pity me: I have to pay for that best friend. We don’t have an unlimited calling plan.’
This story makes absolutely no sense for the first page or so; that’s what happens when you start a story in the middle of a phone conversation with nothing but barest hints of dialog tags. It continues to resist making sense for some time, though things gradually come into slightly better focus when the phone conversation ends and some kind of physical setting is evident. But it takes about two-thirds of the story to get enough context and backstory to understand what’s happening; before that, it’s all fragments blowing around in the wind. I was ready to just say, “Who knows,” and throw it away; but that’s why I blog these stories, I’m forced to come up with something to say, and I can’t come up with something unless I at least can nail down why I can’t make heads nor tails of the story.
A funny thing happened while I was trying to document my annoyance at the lack of sense: it started to make sense. Of course, that’s partly because the text itself starts to make more sense as the context and backstory becomes clearer. But a lot of it is just being willing to tolerate confusion, see what happens, and read it again, sentence by sentence.
I started out making a list of the basics (see sidebar) – who are the characters, where and when does it take place, what happens in the story – and kept coming across very interesting little touches. Took me a couple of hours to go through a fairly short (6 page-turns) story. Just figuring out who the main characters were, what their relationship is, took a while. I suspect that’s because they don’t really know what their relationship is, either. In fact, I think that’s the whole story, right there.
“I’d studied him for so long, almost nothing surprised me anymore, however small the gesture. I had a fleeting thought that perhaps part of the reason I’d stopped writing was that I studied him, instead. But now I was also noticing little lapses, which made everything different for both of us.”
It’s a variation and development of the crusty curmudgeon holding the world at arm’s length, while the underachieving protégé comes to terms with the approaching loss of her mentor over a last lunch. Several touches add drama to this to this, one being the reader’s confusion of who’s who reflecting the character’s own confusion. “She was once his student; were they also lovers?” the reader wonders; “Did I love him, do I love him, did he love me, does he love me, do I love my boyfriend?” the character wonders. You don’t typically get into a photobooth with someone you have no personal feeling for, but he repeats several times he was never in love with her. Then again, it’s pretty clear from some of his confabulations that he says things for the shock value.
Then there’s the Magical Waiter, who moves a chair no one could move, plays domestic spy, and, in a wonderfully visual moment, even mimics a magic trick: “…I’d dropped my napkin. As I bent to pick it up, the waiter appeared, unfurling a fresh one like a magician who’d come out of nowhere. I half expected a white bird to fly up.”
“Take a bite of your burrito,” I said, and instantly felt like a mother talking to her child. The expression on his face told me he thought I was worse than that. He said nothing and finished his wine. There was a conspicuous silence.
Beattie explained her first line in a contributor note in Granta: “…dialogue that I hope establishes tone; an allusion to Death of a Salesman that might take on more thematic meaning as the story proceeds. When I invoked that play, I didn’t consciously know that. If it hadn’t become necessary to the story, I would have taken it out.” I have to say, her notes seem as cryptic as the opening of the story, but it is a piece about death. I also see titles running through the piece – Cinderella, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and the title of the story, which was also the title of a 1952 film, a Western, and a 1965 Barthelme story. In the story, the title comes from a remark the cook at the restaurant makes.
I love some of the moments, in addition to the magic trick. The Professor tells an anecdote clearly designed to refer to the subject of a poem he’d published, and is pleased that she picks up on the reference. “Paper is so sad. Every sheet, a thin little tombstone”: that line has particular poignancy when delivered by a writer in poor health, fully aware time is growing short. The change in their relationship is startling; he was the Professor, she the Student, and now, she’s putting his Velcro-fastened shoes (instead of a glass slipper, to begin the magical Lunch instead of a Ball) on his diabetic feet, worrying about how far he can walk.
…[E]ven if I don’t believe there’s a poem in anything anymore, maybe I’ll write a story. A lot of people do that when they can’t seem to figure out who or what they love. It might be an oversimplification, but they seem to write poetry when they do know.
I tried looking at this story in terms of some of the themes I’ve been reading about in Charles May’s book on the short story. A touch of the supernatural (Cinderella and flying reindeer in addition to the Magical Waiter); the conflict between union and separation: perhaps these two people have connected on some sub-level of these events. Did communion happen between checking for the wedding ring on the hand of the woman her ex-husband is with, and her discovery of the blood? Is just the visit enough? “I wasn’t in love with you, but now it seems like I should have been, because where are they now? Who keeps in touch? I never hear, even when a poem is published. It was just a job, apparently.” A wail of loneliness, from the crusty curmudgeon to the former acolyte, both devoted to union and separation in equal measure, both unable to move either forward or back.
That crystallized something for me: it’s the anti-story to “Dancing After Hours,” the Andre Dubus story May cites in his introduction: a couple have a magical moment of connection after hours in a seedy bar. This couple, Professor Chadwick and Maude, maybe wanted to have that magical moment, but they never got there. Where Dubus tells of a successful connection in one evening, this story is of a failed connection, after years of trying.
That clarifies the story for me. I may be completely on the wrong track, but it’s my track. If it doesn’t work for you, find your own, and tell me about it.