Pushcart XL: Edward McPherson, “TelRef” from Gettysburg Review, Spring 2014

Sam and Kat, Kat and Sam, as unassuming as their three-letter names but, to their minds, violent with potential. In the spring of 1998, they met in St. Louis, when they both had to board a bigger bus. Two kids in zipped pullovers smoking and picking at their fingers as they watched the driver fling their bags into the belly of the coach as if they weren’t their only belongings in the world. Sam stretched his legs across two seats; when Kat came down the aisle, he dropped his feet and said, “Been saving a seat.” Both were eastbound, heading away from somewhere they didn’t talk about. Tulsa and Topeka—what was there to say? They weren’t New York City. As the now dank and belchy bus crawled out of the Lincoln Tunnel and wound the ramp into Port Authority, after twenty-three hours and fifty-five minutes of ragged conversation, Kat finally got up the nerve to say, “You know, I’m a good kid from a bad home. I’ve got no place to crash.” Sam handed her his last piece of gum and said, “Me neither.” He cocked his head at a sign that read, “To all points,” with an arrow pointing up. “Welcome to Xanadu,” he said.

~~ Story available online at Gettysburg Review

On the level of just-a-story – a string of charming anecdotes of youth, of New York, strung along a thread of the thinnest of plots – this was so successful, so much fun to read, I hesitate to delve any deeper to figure out how such a hackneyed story could be so engaging. Yet it demands I do so, because it terminates in the darkest of places, on 9/11. And, shame on me, I was so engrossed in the factoids, the vignettes, the mini-portraits, the banter, that I never saw it coming, even though it was telegraphed from the beginning; any story that starts in 1998 New York and announces in paragraph 2 that it’s been three years now, well, I should’ve known. The first time around, the ending felt like a cheap trick. But I choose to believe there’s more to a Pushcart story – or I will create more – so now I think it’s Fragonard: A 21st Century Progress of Love. Isn’t it familiarity with the tropes, the recognizability of the symbols, that made his paintings so successful (even if Mme. du Barry did return them)?

What worked splendidly was the rapid succession of vignettes. The first paragraph is practically a prose working of “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together” (am I really the only one who thought that was an odd choice of song for a campaign ad, given the underlying, and eventually frank, despair of the lyrics? But of course they left out that last verse). Or maybe it’s “When Harry Met Sally” with “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” thrown in.

A writer has an infinity of possibilities to choose from when writing a story. The details selected here are trite, but completely disarming, and so well-rendered, it’s easy to just slip into the world and smile. The neighbors and friends. The glamorous poverty of the young who choose to come to New York (in contrast to the not-nearly-so-glamorous poverty of those who must grow up there). And most prominently, Sam’s job at ASKNYPL – TelRef, the New York Public Library’s telephone reference service, the kind of job some of us dream of:

Every morning Sam walked up Fifth Avenue to mount the sweeping steps of the main branch, flanked by the twin marble lions, Patience and Fortitude, which he first recognized from Ghostbusters. He worked in a mausoleum, the collected bones of Astor, of Lenox, of Carnegie. It fit his sense of living late in his time in a city where everything eventually was plowed under to make room for everything else. In a degenerate culture, nothing could be done to fuck things up further. They were all pretty much off the hook.
Still, Sam appreciated, even felt somewhat entitled to, the library’s grandeur: the illuminated ceiling in the gilded reading room (fifty-two feet up and the size of a football field—a question they got all the time), the burnished pneumatic tubes swishing call slips through the eight floors of dark, dusty stacks stretching below Bryant Park, and the men’s room urinals so grand—massive marble blocks big as beds—that it was like pissing on a Cadillac.
And—against all odds—he truly loved his job. At the end of the day, he would bring facts to Kat like a rat collecting shiny spoons for the nest.

Sam, the answer man. Sometimes the answers he brings home to Kat are legitimately researched facts. Sometimes, they’re phrases he saw on a billboard in Soho (that “even when true, ‘I love you’ is rarely enough”). Sometimes, he just makes them up (“fifty-seven percent of men change their sheets before the first date”).

But when Kat calls ASKNYPL, there’s one question he can’t answer, even after three years:

She said, “What I want is some information on the progress of love.”
“Oh,” he said. “You mean the paintings? By Jean-Honoré Fragonard? I think they’re hanging in the Frick. I believe the cycle goes: The Pursuit, The Meeting, Love Letters, Reverie, The Lover Crowned, Love Pursuing a Dove . . . ”
“Yeah, okay. Sure. So how does it end?”
“No one knows the exact order. Perhaps with Love Triumphant.”
“Or perhaps not. What about A Fool for Love—is that part of the story?”
“Sure—Love the Jester. That’s in there too. Right next to Love the Avenger.”
“How do you know what painting you’re looking at?”
“It’s quite clear by the context.”
There was a long pause. Sam heard her sob twice. Then she said, “Listen, why are we still together?”
Sam couldn’t think of what to say.

Now, the triteness of this could get tiring in a hurry, and if it weren’t so well-paced. But I think there’s a larger purpose to all this banality as well.

I still didn’t realize where the story was going when Kat got her new job at Windows on the World. The breakfast service, of course, because that’s where new waitstaff starts before they move on to more lucrative hours. And of course there’s the obligatory fight, the cruel intent of not waking Kat on time turned fortuitous as being late to work saves her life. Here’s where the kitsch broke down for me. And just when I was completely pissed off at McPherson for being yet another writer to use tragedy as a substitute for innovation, Kat visualizes what her friends and coworkers must’ve gone through, and I forgive him.

Fragonard. The Progress of Love, reinterpreted. Not “The Lover Crowned” with flowers blooming all around, not even “Love Letters” with the two lovers, having gone through he steps of pursuit, passion, and selection, reminiscing together in friendship while the heart is closely held. Instead, this is Sam and Kat’s painting: the two crying together as the black soot falls over the city, and Sam allows a lie. Maybe they will decide it’s all they ever need.

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