Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Big Read IV: Shirley Jackson's "Like Mother Used to Make" and "Trial by Combat"

The Lottery: And Other Stories The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson




Like Mother Used to Make

"How much is butter?" David asked cautiously.
"Eighty-nine," the clerk said easily.
"Eighty-nine?" David frowned.
"That's what it is," the clerk said. He looked past David at the next customer.
"Quarter of a pound, please," David said. "And a half-dozen rolls."
Carrying his package home he thought, I really ought not to trade there any more; you'd think they'd know me well enough to be more courteous.
I don't think I'm going to like this guy at this point. As someone who provides customer service, I have no sympathy for someone who expects to be singled out of the crowd at a busy counter.

He proceeds to make dinner, lingering over his self-designed apartment, his painstakingly collected silverware. His neighbor Marcia is invited to dinner. He has her key, but she does not have his, and he likes it that way. Curious.

He leaves a note in her apartment to remind her. Her place is more like mine, with papers scattered, furniture that doesn't quite fit, dirty laundry, randomness. He would not like me.

Yet he does appear to like Marcia. He takes great care to make dinner for her. She breezes in and her liveliness spreads about in the room. He avoids her sprawled feet, but is pleased over her compliments of his food, and of his space. She is slightly abashed over the state of her own apartment, but easily moves on.

Mr. Harris arrives from her workplace, and she offers him coffee and pie, smoothly letting Mr. Harris believe it is her apartment, and her pie.
David's desire to be rid of Mr. Harris had slid imperceptibly into an urgency to be rid of them both; his clean house, his nice silver, were not meant as vehicles for the kind of fatuous banter Marcia and Mr. Harris were playing at together; almost roughly he took the coffee cup away from the arm Marcia stretched across the table, took it out to the kitchenette and came back and put his hand on Mr. Harris' cup.
Marcia pretends she'll do the dishes. Of course David couldn't abide her housekeeping methods: he washes them and put them in their places. The date and the usurper settled in. David backs away from telling him to live, backs away from claiming his home, prepares to leave.
"Lots of work to do," David said, much more genially than he intended, and Marcia smiled at him again as though they were conspirators and went over to the desk and said, "Don't forget your key."
He settles into Marcia's apartment, which makes him miserable, and because it is his nature, begins to clean it up.

Now I feel sorry for him, and now I have to wonder about those folks that create passive aggressive power plays with mere clerks. I wonder how long this pattern with Marcia has been going on. I think poor David missed his chance to claim his birthright.

Trial by Combat
When Emily Johnson came home one evening to her furnished room and found three of her best handkerchiefs missing from the dresser drawer, she was sure who had taken them and what to do.
I am immediately reminded of my first months at college. My roommate was the daughter of a doctor and from California. LA? We seemed to get along alright. She began the year with a fresh-faced purity, but she soon became more worldly and more fully a social butterfly. We both dabbled with smoking of both kinds. One of our first decisions together was to buy some cheap weed. It was harsh cheap stuff. (That's probably the only time in my life I personally bought some.) To support my dabbling, and indulge my pack rat attraction for shiny things, I bought a pack of 5 or 6 lighters. After a week or so, several of them were missing. At that time, I still wore makeup, sometimes. I could only wear hypoallergenic foundation, not all that expensive, but expensive to my wallet. That too disappeared.

I discovered the missing makeup as my ever more absent roommate happened to return home, and I loudly accused her of taking my things. She denied it. Who else could it have been? She insisted I had to be mistaken. No mistake. I was too poor not to know exactly what and how much I owned. Maybe as the daughter of a doctor she couldn't know that. She moved in with someone else. If I remember correctly, I heard of more incidents, that she ran up a tab on someone else's credit card. More emotional problems surfaced. She didn't last the year.

I didn't reflect on what to do. I found a problem, and I immediately addressed it. It took me years to find out such direct confrontation is just not allowed in certain cultures.

Emily Johnson thought carefully about how to deal with her petty thief. It would never occur to me to pretend to seek advice from the very person suspected. Now, years later, I've received the same kind of advice: for example, raise a work issue as though I don't know the answer, but just question, "How could that happen?"

She establishes a friendly connection, chatting about her neighbor's husband, her flowers. She learns to keep cut flowers fresh with aspirin. Now that, I did know. My grandma taught me that. She gets to the real reason for her visit.
... "It's so slight, she said, "but someone has been coming into my room."
Mrs. Allen looked up.
"I've been missing things," Emily went on, "like handkerchiefs and little inexpensive jewelry. Nothing important." ...
"I'm sorry to hear it," Mrs. Allen said.
"You see, I don't like to make trouble," Emily said.
Mrs. Allen informs her all the keys open all the doors in the house. How brazen. So was my roommate. It confused me that she seemed to think I could be mollified by a denial. More items are missing. How funny: cigarettes. You know, my memory is faulty after all these years, but a pack of cigarettes may also have been missing in my room too. Emily decides to fight fire with fire.
She was thinking, I just want to pretend it's my own room, so that if anyone comes I can say I was mistaken about the floor. ...Emily...pulled up the shade. Now that the room was light, she looked around. She had a sudden sense of unbearable intimacy with Mrs. Allen, and thought, This is the way she must feel in my room.
Emily finds her handkerchiefs. She is interrupted by Mrs. Allen. "She felt herself blushing and her hands were trembling." This is interesting. Intimacy. Violation. Blushing. Like David in the previous story, she is about to confront, but backs down. She pretends a headache, and that she was looking for aspirin.

"I'm so sorry," Mrs. Allen said. "But I'm glad you felt you knew me well enough."

Leila says Mrs. Allen wins. I'm not quite sure about that. Does someone win? Is there more like an uneasy understanding? A mutual recognition of intimacy through surreptitious occupation of each other's space? Now there's a thought...in these stories, the home is a reflection or extension of the person living there. Lacking other intimacies, these people gain some closeness to other humans through invasion of their space. When Emily glimpses the sexiness of that invasion, in a way she really has come to know Mrs. Allen well enough. It's hard to say. The story is deliberately short. We don't know where it goes from there. Could they develop a pattern like Marcia and Davie? Jackson seems to be hinting at the intimacy that comes from living close to others that is not spoken of. Is it then as sad as it seems to be, with David ousted from his apartment, Emily losing her unimportant things?

1 comment:

Leila said...

"She had a sudden sense of unbearable intimacy with Mrs. Allen, and thought, This is the way she must feel in my room."

That's such a great line.

But I do still think that Mrs. Allen wins -- the title, of course, was what suggested combat to me, but I do also think that Mrs. Allen will continue her behavior. At this point, they are becoming polite with one another, and Mrs. Allen is even going up to check on Emily's headache -- the more she insinuates herself into Emily's life, the more difficult it will be for Emily to speak up.

It's pretty amazing how much goes on in these short little stories -- and how differently we react to them! I'm glad this is the book we went with.