Children playing before.., p.1
Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules, p.1David Sedaris
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2005 by 826NYC
Introduction copyright © 2005 by David Sedaris
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in whole or in part in any form.
First Simon & Schuster paperback edition 2005
SIMON & SCHUSTER PAPERBACKS and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2005042532
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Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired
Interpreter of Maladies
The Garden Party
Half a Grapefruit
I Know What I’m Doing About All the Attention I’ve Been Getting
Where the Door Is Always Open and the
Welcome Mat Is Out
The Best of Betty
Song of the Shirt, 1941
The Girl with the Blackened Eye
Joyce Carol Oates
People Like That Are the Only People Here:
Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk
In the Cemetery Where Al Jolsen Is Buried
Bullet in the Brain
Epilogue: About 826NYC
One afternoon, in the middle of a particularly boring grammar lesson, my seventh-grade English teacher set aside her book and took nominations for the best song on WKIX, our local Top 40 radio station. It was her way of getting the circulation back into our arms, and it worked like a charm. For the first time that year, all hands were in the air, not just at head level but well above it, and waving, as if they held flags. There was no “right answer” to a question of personal taste, or so I thought until she eventually called on me, and I announced that “Indiana Wants Me” was not only the best song in the Top 40 but possibly the best song ever. The phrase “in the history of all time” may have been used, but what I remember is not my recommendation so much as the silence that followed it, an absence of agreement I can only describe as deafening.
The person in front of me, a guy named Teetsil, turned around in his seat. “ ‘Indiana Wants Me’?”
“Now, now,” the teacher said, “to each his own.”
Teetsil said that was fine or whatever. “But ‘Indiana Wants Me’? He’s got to be kidding.”
I wasn’t close friends with Teetsil, no one was, but on hearing his disapproval, I decided that maybe my choice wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I thought I’d enjoyed it as a grim little narrative, the confession of a man who was wanted for murder in the exotic Midwest. The singer’s voice was tinged with regret, more country than pop, and that, too, I liked, or thought I had. At the end of the song, the authorities pulled up, and you could hear them in the background shouting into their megaphones: “This is the police. You are surrounded. Give yourself up.” It was, I thought, a classy touch.
The first time I heard it, I was hooked, and then I bought the 45 and played it over and over again. The song satisfied me on every level, but if nobody else liked it, I guessed that I didn’t, either. “What I meant,” I said, “is that I don’t like ‘Indiana Wants Me.’ My sister does, she plays it all the time, but me, I can’t stand it.”
“Then what do you like?” the teacher asked, and I saw the same expression our cat had when torturing a mole.
I looked at Teetsil, who’d named something by the Rolling Stones, and then at the girl across the aisle who liked the Carpenters.
“Everything,” I announced, “I like everything.”
“Everything but ‘Indiana Wants Me’?”
“Yes,” I said. “Everything but that.”
That evening, alone in my room, I found that I was too ashamed to listen to my record, or even to look at it, really. It reminded me of my wretched eagerness to please, and would now have to be banished, hidden in the closet and then thrown away. This was a loss but not a total one, as at least I had learned a lesson. From this point on, whenever someone asked my opinion, I would turn the question around, and then proceed accordingly. If the person I was with loved game shows and Deep Purple, then so would I, and if I was caught contradicting myself—watching or listening to something I’d sworn to have hated—I would claim to be doing research, or to be enjoying the thing for its very badness. You could do this, I learned, and people would forgive you, consider you interesting, even. The downside was that it led to crummy gifts: Mitch Miller records, heads made from coconuts, campy stuff thought to be “a hoot,” or, if it was extra lame, “a hoot and a half.”
My own tastes I kept to myself, and in time they became hazy. If everyone I knew could agree on the same thing, I might have settled into a particular genre, but my friends were all over the place. And so opinionated! At college in the mountains of North Carolina, I claimed to love bluegrass and The Prophet. Then on weekends, I’d come home to the Andrews Sisters and back issues of wrestling magazines. Another college, a better one in Ohio, and I was all for Huey Newton, vegetarian meat loaf, Muddy Waters.
After dropping out, I fell in with a group of avant-gardists—that’s what we called ourselves, and very seriously. Now came records that sounded as if they had ended, the thup, thup, thup of a needle having run its course. I pretended to like plays with no plots, books in which characters had no names, no faces, no reason to get out of bed.
Nothing changed until I left North Carolina and moved to Odell, Oregon, where I had no friends and no hopes of making any. There was a small public library in the neighboring town, and on my first visit, I picked up a neglected copy of Ulysses, hoping it might impress the woman behind the checkout desk. She stamped the card, and when I saw that she was not going to react one way or another, I returned to the stacks in search of a second book. It could be anything I wanted, but what was that, exactly? Having spent my life trying to fit the will of others, I was unable to distinguish between what I enjoyed and what I thought I should enjoy.
Like a lot of beginning readers, I wanted a mirror. The story of a twenty-one-year-old apple picker who live
On my next trip to the library, I defined myself as just a guy and picked up something a bit more inviting, Babbitt, I think it was. Sinclair Lewis led to Sherwood Anderson and other names I vaguely recalled from high school: John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, D. H. Lawrence—authors who weren’t so bad as long as you didn’t have to write papers about them. After a bout of Ernest Hemingway, I once again broadened my definition and saw myself as a human being, able to relate to anything as long as there weren’t detectives in it. I had nothing against mysteries, far from it, but because they’re so often published in large type, I decided to save them for my golden years, which began when I turned forty-five.
When apple-picking season ended, I got a job in a packing plant and gravitated toward short stories, which I could read during my break and reflect upon for the remainder of my shift. A good one would take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit. This led to a kind of trance that made the dullest work, the dullest life, bearable.
I was in Oregon only four months, but it was long enough to develop a habit, and with it, a certain confidence in my opinion. It was based on nothing formal or complicated—I just knew when something affected me and caused me to see the world in a different way. Back in Raleigh, I dug in to the public library, which was vast compared to the one in Hood River. The one in Chicago was bigger still, and I staggered around it like a zombie.
As I started to write myself, I began to read stories differently, harder. Margins were marked with comments, and memorable passages were underlined, then copied down. I wanted to sense what it must have been like to write these words for the first time, so I would type them hesitantly, pretending that they had just come to me. Once, before leaving on vacation, I copied an entire page from an Alice Munro story and left it in my typewriter, hoping a burglar might come upon it and mistake her words for my own. That an intruder would spend his valuable time reading, that he might be impressed by the description of a crooked face, was something I did not question, as I believed, and still do, that stories can save you. In my head are memorized passages, suitable for every occasion, and if those don’t work, I’m heartened by the very possibility of writing—the thought that someone could create something as hypnotic to me as “Half a Grapefruit” or “Revelation,” or anything else in this collection. Look what’s possible, I think. Look at what people have managed to do!
In selecting stories for this anthology, I chose things that have stuck with me over the years, and that I turn to again and again. Some of them—the Richard Yates, the Flannery O’Connor, the Tobias Wolff—remind me to be careful, to stop judging people, to be a better person. Others, like “Interpreter of Maladies,” bring me news from a world I never imagined, and others still leave me shaken no matter how often I read them, “The Girl with the Blackened Eye,” for instance, when the narrator claims that her life would not be any different had she not been abducted at the age of fifteen. That’s such a bodacious thing to say.
I don’t purposely seek out humor, but when it falls in my lap and is equal parts funny and tragic, I am delighted, hence the Dorothy Parker, the Amy Hempel, the Jincy Willett, and the short Frank Gannon story I read years ago in Harper’s. Lorrie Moore is somehow beyond humor, off the laugh meter and into an area that has no name. This particular story is from Birds of America, the closest you can get to a perfect book.
While I’m an honest enthusiast, I’m not very good at explaining why I like what I like. Most often I come off sounding like a stoned teenager (“It’s got, like, monkeys in it and everything”). I included the Patricia Highsmith story because it is quiet, built on what I think of as old-fashioned description, and I like “The Garden Party” for much the same reason. I read it in high school, but it didn’t really hit me until I listened to it on a Caedmon audio collection. A lot of people pooh-pooh them as laziness, but I love a good book on tape, the pleasure of being read to. I first heard Akhil Sharma on The Best American Short Stories 1998, and then I went and read his novel, An Obedient Father, which is sublime.
I’m a big fan of anthologies, and I count on them to expose me to authors I otherwise might have missed, people like Charles Baxter, Tim Johnston, and Jean Thompson, whom I first read in a book called Matters of Life and Death, edited by Tobias Wolff. Most of these stories have already been collected in one place or another, but I saw that as no reason to exclude them. Books fall in and out of print, and were I to select, say, a less satisfying Richard Yates sample, a newcomer might not realize how magnificent he is, might not be persuaded to read Liars in Love, or his great, sad masterpiece, Revolutionary Road. My hope with this anthology is that you’ll use it as a springboard and seek out everything these authors have written. Then you’ll see how difficult it was to choose one Tobias Wolff story, one Alice Munro story, and so on down the line. It’s the writers who make it hard. Them and their damned excellence.
While corraling my favorite stories was a joy, titling the collection was a pain in the ass. I was searching under rocks, considering puns, when I came across an Adriaen van der Werff at the Alte Pinakothek, an art museum in Munich. As a painting, Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules didn’t do much for me, but I loved the title and realized that in terms of this anthology, it actually made a good deal of sense. The authors in this book are huge to me, and I am a comparative midget, scratching around in their collective shadow. “Pint-sized Fanatic Bowing Before Statues of Hercules” might have been more concise, but people don’t paint things like that, and besides, it doesn’t sound as good.
There are plenty more Herculai where these came from, but there are only so many you can include in a fourteen-dollar book, so a lot of them were left out. Those who are gathered here, though, I would defend to my death. When it comes to music and movies, I’m still the same coward I was in the seventh grade. “You liked that?” someone will say, and I’ll take it all back, just as I did with “Indiana Wants Me.” With stories, though, I feel more self-assured, almost bullyish. I’m ready to pick fights for these writers, step outside, fight dirty, and if I’m beaten down, I’ll be like that knight in the Monty Python movie, armless and legless, a determined stump shouting, “Come back here, you. I’m not finished yet.”
Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired
When Franklin D. Roosevelt was President-elect there must have been sculptors all over America who wanted a chance to model his head from life, but my mother had connections. One of her closest friends and neighbors, in the Greenwich Village courtyard where we lived, was an amiable man named Howard Whitman who had recently lost his job as a reporter on the New York Post. And one of Howard’s former colleagues from the Post was now employed in the press office of Roosevelt’s New York headquarters. That would make it easy for her to get in—or, as she said, to get an entrée—and she was confident she could take it from there. She was confident about everything she did in those days, but it never quite disguised a terrible need for support and approval on every side.
She wasn’t a very good sculptor. She had been working at it for only three years, since breaking up her marriage to my father, and there was still something stiff and amateurish about her pieces. Before the Roosevelt project her specialty had been “garden figures”—a life-size little boy whose legs turned into the legs of a goat at the knees and another who knelt among ferns to play the pipes of Pan; little girls who trailed chains of daisies from their up-raised arms or walked beside a spread-winged goose. These fanciful children, in plaster painted green to simulate weathered bronze, were arranged on homemade wooden pedestals to loom around her studio and to leave a cleared space in the middle for the modeling stand that held whatever she was working on in clay.
Her idea was that a
And, if nothing else, she had a good studio. It was, in fact, the best of all the studios she would have in the rest of her life. There were six or eight old houses facing our side of the courtyard, with their backs to Bedford Street, and ours was probably the showplace of the row because the front room on its ground floor was two stories high. You went down a broad set of brick steps to the tall front windows and the front door; then you were in the high, wide, light-flooded studio. It was big enough to serve as a living room too, and so along with the green garden children it contained all the living-room furniture from the house we’d lived in with my father in the suburban town of Hastings-on-Hudson, where I was born. A second-floor balcony ran along the far end of the studio, with two small bedrooms and a tiny bathroom tucked away upstairs; beneath that, where the ground floor continued through to the Bedford Street side, lay the only part of the apartment that might let you know we didn’t have much money. The ceiling was very low and it was always dark in there; the small windows looked out underneath an iron sidewalk grating, and the bottom of that street cavity was thick with strewn garbage. Our roach-infested kitchen was barely big enough for a stove and sink that were never clean, and for a brown wooden icebox with its dark, ever-melting block of ice; the rest of that area was our dining room, and not even the amplitude of the old Hastings dining-room table could brighten it. But our Majestic radio was in there too, and that made it a cozy place for my sister, Edith, and me: we liked the children’s programs that came on in the late afternoons.
Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules by David Sedaris / Humor / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes