September 25, 2018
CALEB JOSEPH WARNER
I have been reading a lot of John Cheever stories recently. My short story collection of his has been part of my short story collection stack for a few months now.
And already, though his competitors on my desk are the likes of Clark Ashton Smith and Ernest Hemingway, Cheever is the one I gravitate towards. When I say, “I should read a short story,” it is John Cheever I want to read.
Are his stories the best, the most amazing stories I know about? Certainly not. Quite often I don’t know what the point of his story is, nor does Cheever seem to know.
What I do know is that there is a lightness to his sadness and a hope even to his ambiguous endings. I quite simply enjoy reading him. This, too, though there have been a number of stories that leave me baffled. He does not tie almost anything together. They are not tight and lean like O’Connor short stories.
And yet they still perform the task required by every short story, tight or not. They stick with me. The stories are like an unexpectedly good conversation. You go to have coffee with someone with little hope that the conversation will go well. In fact, you have every expectation that the hour of coffee is going to be awkward, is going to involve being conscious of how much eye contact you are or are not giving. You do not know the person too well, but they treat you like their best friend. And you must go to coffee with them and, you feel, you must have a good time talking to them or else the jig is up. They’ll discover that you have absolutely no idea what makes them tick, what makes them go. In times past, you have failed at gaining any traction with your speech. You feel the words clinically in your mouth. You do not want them to watch you eat because, you fear, they might watch you. No, you know, they will watch you eat and you will be an idiot and apologize and say, “Oh, don’t watch me.” And they will say honestly, “I am not watching you.” Oh, but their eyes—their eyes!
And then the conversation gets traction on some topic neither of you chose. And fifteen minutes later, you find yourself at the end of it realizing that you have been indeed a fool all along. This other person knows you quite well. It’s just that you have failed to know them well. And so afterwards, you ponder the conversation and the conversation for the remainder of your day lifts you. You find yourself when you see them next saying, “Remember the time when we talked about…?” But they do not remember.
And neither will John Cheever ever know that I have read his stories and found that he seems to know me quite well. He feels like a friend now, but perhaps a friend I have not yet become sure of.
I do not feel that I can fully approve of their decisions, but I do know now that should we sit down together, he will have some turn of phrase that catches—and the declaration of this gift of his might embarrass us both. So for now, I continue to go to him a bit giddy and hoping that this time it’s going to be good.
It must be said: it’s not always good. And this fuels some of my apprehension about him. The reason I really came here today was to say this one simple thing: I want to write a story like Cheever does it or how I feel that Cheever does it.
In times past, I have told myself, “I want to write an honest-to-goodness, straight down the middle, solid love story.” But the waters get all muddied by all sorts of extracurricular symbology seeking to tie down the basic sentiment with a weight that threatens to pull the very Titanic of emotion down to the depths of the sea. So the stories fail. They fail because I say, “Ooh, I want to do this, too!”
And this is how I have been writing short stories for years now. I take one element and add another and hope and pray that some nuclear fission might result in the smacking and kissing and humping of the two story premises.
Often enough, the story comes out either all confused or makes a little story baby not yet ready to flee the nest of its own creation. So the real story stays locked behind the bars of the story I have actually written like an infant in a crib. It takes the writing of a story to find a story, I guess, or to make one and throw it in a prison it will never be set free from. Because these babies can never grow up if there is not dramatic and radical growth surrounding.
Anyway, anyway, here it is: I want to write a story about a coupl’a empty nesters who decided that it is their time to get out of the county and go someplace they have never gone like Florence, Italy. And these empty nesters will have their own various human troubles, as they always do, and the reader might expect some dramatic revelation or clear prophecy to take place as they fly over the Atlantic.
No, I say, to dramatic revelations! No! No, no, no! We kick out the revelations. For what they must discover together without their children is a revelation that must dawn over years and we see its dawning only here.
What on earth are they supposed to be doing without their children?
Well the one singular moral of the story is that they must now look elsewhere. Not back to their children, though they live. Not back to their singular relationship, though it matters. No. They must look outwards again to the people they must devote their health to. Strangers. How to help strangers?
I want to give hope to the empty nesters, especially those with good health and living in their second youth. But most of all, I want to discover the actual predicament of their situation because their situation is quite like mine. All this philosophizing about the story might compel me towards some moment of dramatic revelation, so I hereby desist.
Let it be said that in this story, I seek to write a story about travel that is light and airy and youthful. For youth does not belong to the young only, but to those with good health and they are the ones who ought to pray, saying, “Let us rejoice in the days of our youth while they last, so when the dark days come we might not feel that we come to them empty.”
This story will be about the rediscovery of free time and youth spent on delighting in the sights of the eyes and sleeping in and eating good food and knowing that for a time, the story really can end happily.