the public triumph & private hell of the american epoch, as told by john cheever in just 4,648 words

John Cheever’s great short story, "The Death of Justina," first appeared in the November 1960 issue of Esquire (along with writing by Norman Mailer and Ian Fleming!). It then appeared a year later in a volume of short stories, Some People, Places & Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel, which was reviewed in the April 28, 1961 issue of Time Magazine, under the headline "One Man’s Hell":
 
About six months ago, Author John (The Wapshot Chronicle) Cheever announced publicly that "life in the U.S. in 1960 is hell." Since hell is a private estate, it might be supposed that he could have been speaking merely for himself. But his scores of short stories and now this book of new ones prove plainly, of course, that he was speaking as well for his not-so-fictional characters. The hell he has staked out for them is by now unmistakably Cheever country (nice house, nice income, nice wife, nice kids, all of it tasting of despair and a thick tongue the morning after). But only rarely is there a true hellion to be found there. There are, rather, middleclass, earthly sufferers whose jobs are as uncertain or as unsatisfying as their moral underpinnings, their visions of goodness constantly clouded by the more intolerable vision of the sad ending that must overtake them and their neighbours…
 
The Death of Justina is a more explicit try at sketching a corner of hell in suburban U.S. His wife’s elderly cousin dies in the narrator’s house, but the town is so carefully zoned that in his neighborhood there are no undertakers and none are permitted to come from outside to pick her up. The only solution, his doctor tells him, is to take her across the zoning line in his car. But Justina’s death is merely the incident that fires the smoldering discontent of a man whose daily stint is to commute to the city and turn out TV commercials. Cheever is almost surely speaking for himself when his frustrated adman says: "There are some Americans who, although their fathers emigrated from the Old World three centuries ago, never seem to have quite completed the voyage, and I am one of these."
Here, in its entirety, is Cheever’s great story, one of the best short stories in all of American literature: 

THE DEATH OF JUSTINA
 
So help me God it gets more and more preposterous, it corresponds less and less to what I remember and what I expect as if the force of life were centrifugal and threw one further and further away from one’s purest memories and ambitions; and I can barely recall the old house where I was raised, where in midwinter Parma violets bloomed in a cold frame near the kitchen door, and down the long corridor, past the seven views of Rome—up two steps and down three—one entered the library, where all the books were in order, the lamps were bright, where there was a fire and a dozen bottles of good bourbon locked in a cabinet with a veneer like tortoise shell whose silver key my father wore on his watch chain. Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing. We admire decency and we despise death but even the mountains seem to shift in the space of a night and perhaps the exhibitionist at the corner of Chestnut and Elm streets is more significant than the lovely woman with a bar of sunlight in her hair, putting a fresh piece of cuttlebone in the nightingale’s cage. Just let me give you one example of chaos and if you disbelieve me look honestly into your own past and see if you can’t find a comparable experience.
 
 
 
ON SATURDAY the doctor told me to stop smoking and drinking and I did. I won’t go into the commonplace symptoms of withdrawal but I would like to point out that, standing at my window in the evening, watching the brilliant afterlight and the spread of darkness, I felt, through the lack of these humble stimulants, the force of some primitive memory in which the coming of night with its stars and its moon was apocalyptic. I thought suddenly of the neglected graves of my three brothers on the mountainside and that death is a loneliness much crueler than any loneliness hinted at in life. The soul (I thought) does not leave the body but lingers with it through every degrading stage of decomposition and neglect, through heat, through cold, through the long winter nights when no one comes with a wreath or a plant and no one says a prayer. This unpleasant premonition was followed by anxiety. We were going out for dinner and I thought that the oil burner would explode in our absence and burn the house. The cook would get drunk and attack my daughter with a carving knife or my wife and I would be killed in a collision on the main highway, leaving our children bewildered orphans with nothing in life to look forward to but sadness. I was able to observe, along with these foolish and terrifying anxieties, a definite impairment of my discretionary poles. I felt as if I were being lowered by ropes into the atmosphere of my childhood. I told my wife—when she passed through the living room—that I had stopped smoking and drinking but she didn’t seem to care and who would reward me for my privations? Who cared about the bitter taste in my mouth and that my head seemed to be leaving my shoulders? It seemed to me that men had honored one another with medals, statuary, and cups for much less and that abstinence is a social matter. When I abstain from sin it is more often a fear of scandal than a private resolve to improve on the purity of my heart, but here was a call for abstinence without the worldly enforcement of society, and death is not the threat that scandal is. When it was time for us to go out I was so lightheaded that I had to ask my wife to drive the car. On Sunday I sneaked seven cigarettes in various hiding places and drank two Martinis in the downstairs coat closet. At breakfast on Monday my English muffin stared up at me from the plate. I mean I saw a face there in the rough, toasted surface. The moment of recognition was fleeting, but it was deep, and I wondered who it had been. Was it a friend, an aunt, a sailor, a ski instructor, a bartender, or a conductor on a train? The smile faded off the muffin but it had been there for a second—the sense of a person, a life, a pure force of gentleness and censure—and I am convinced that the muffin had contained the presence of some spirit. As you can see, I was nervous.
      On Monday my wife’s old cousin, Justina, came to visit her. Justina was a lively guest although she must have been crowding eighty. On Tuesday my wife gave her a lunch party. The last guest left at three and a few minutes later Cousin Justina, sitting on the living-room sofa with a glass of good brandy, breathed her last. My wife called me at the office and I said that I would be right out. I was clearing my desk when my boss, MacPherson, came in.
      "Spare me a minute," he asked. "I’ve been bird-dogging all over the place, trying to track you down. Pierce had to leave early and I want you to write the last Elixircol commercial."
      "Oh, I can’t, Mac," I said. "My wife just called. Cousin Justina is dead."
      "You write that commercial," he said. His smile was satanic. "Pierce had to leave early because his grandmother fell off a stepladder."
      Now, I don’t like fictional accounts of office life. It seems to me that if you’re going to write fiction you should write about mountain climbing and tempests at sea, and I will go over my predicament with MacPherson briefly, aggravated as it was by his refusal to respect and honor the death of dear old Justina. It was like MacPherson. It was a good example of the way I’ve been treated. He is,I might say, a tall, splendidly groomed man of about sixty who changes his shirt three times a day, romances his secretary every afternoon between two and two-thirty, and makes the habit of continuously chewing gum seem hygienic and elegant. I write his speeches for him and it has not been a happy arrangement for me. If the speeches are successful MacPherson takes all the credit. I can see that his presence, his tailor, and his fine voice are all a part of the performance but it makes me angry never to be given credit for what was said. On the other hand, if the speeches are unsuccessful—if his presence and his voice can’t carry the hour—his threatening and sarcastic manner is surgical and I am obliged to contain myself in the role of a man who can do no good in spite of the piles of congratulatory mail that my eloquence sometimes brings in. I must pretend—I must, like an actor, study and improve on my pretension—to have nothing to do with his triumphs, and I must bow my head gracefully in shame when we have both failed. I am forced to appear grateful for injuries, to lie, to smile falsely, and to play out a role as inane and as unrelated to the facts as a minor prince in an operetta, but if I speak the truth it will be my wife and my children who will pay in hardships for my outspokenness. Now he refused to respect or even to admit the solemn fact of a death in our family and if I couldn’t rebel it seemed as if I could at least hint at it.
      The commercial he wanted me to write was for a tonic called Elixircol and was to be spoken on television by an actress who was neither young nor beautiful but who had an appearance of ready abandon and who was anyhow the mistress of one of the sponsor’s uncles. Are you growing old? I wrote. Are you falling out of love with your image in the looking glass? Does your face in the morning seem rucked and seamed with alcoholic and sexual excesses and does the rest of you appear to be a grayish-pink lump, covered all over with brindle hair? Walking in the autumn woods do you feel that a subtle distance has come between you and the smell of wood smoke? Have you drafted your obituary? Are you easily winded? Do you wear a girdle? Is your sense of smell fading, is your interest in gardening waning, is your fear of heights increasing, and are your sexual drives as ravening and intense as ever and does your wife look more and more to you like a stranger with sunken cheeks who has wandered into your bedroom by mistake? If this or any of this is true you need Elixircol, the true juice of youth. The small economy size (business with the bottle) costs seventy-five dollars and the giant family bottle comes at two hundred and fifty. It’s a lot of scratch, God knows, but these are inflationary times and who can put a price on youth? If you don’t have the cash borrow it from your neighborhood loan shark or hold up the local bank. The odds are three to one that with a ten-cent water pistol and a slip of paper you can shake ten thousand out of any fainthearted teller. Everybody’s doing it. (Music up and out.) I sent this in to MacPherson via Raiphie, the messenger boy, and took the 5:16 home, traveling through a landscape of utter desolation.
      Now, my journey is a digression and has no real connection to Justina’s death but what followed could only have happened in my country and in my time and since I was an American traveling across an American landscape the trip may be part of the sum. There are some Americans who, although their fathers emigrated from the Old World three centuries ago, never seem to have quite completed the voyage and I am one of these. I stand, figuratively, with one wet foot on Plymouth Rock, looking with some delicacy, not into a formidable and challenging wilderness but onto a half-finished civilization embracing glass towers, oil derricks, suburban continents, and abandoned movie houses and wondering why, in this most prosperous, equitable, and accomplished world—where even the cleaning women practice the Chopin preludes in their spare time—everyone should seem to be disappointed.
      At Proxmire Manor I was the only passenger to get off the random, meandering, and profitless local that carried its shabby lights off into the dusk like some game-legged watchman or beadle making his appointed rounds. I went around to the front of the station to wait for my wife and to enjoy the traveler’s fine sense of crisis. Above me on the hill were my home and the homes of my friends, all lighted and smelling of fragrant wood smoke like the temples in a sacred grove, dedicated to monogamy, feckless childhood, and domestic bliss but so like a dream that I felt the lack of viscera with much more than poignance—the absence of that inner dynamism we respond to in some European landscapes. In short, I was disappointed. It was my country, my beloved country, and there have been mornings when I could have kissed the earth that covers its many provinces and states. There was a hint of bliss; romantic and domestic bliss. I seemed to hear the jingle bells of the sleigh that would carry me to Grandmother’s house although in fact Grandmother spent the last years of her life working as a hostess on an ocean liner and was lost in the tragic sinking of the S. S. Lorelei and I was responding to a memory that I had not experienced. But the hill of light rose like an answer to some primitive dream of homecoming. On one of the highest lawns I saw the remains of a snowman who still smoked a pipe and wore a scarf and a cap but whose form was wasting away and whose anthracite eyes stared out at the view with terrifying bitterness. I sensed some disappointing greenness of spirit in the scene although I knew in my bones, no less, how like yesterday it was that my father left the Old World to found a new; and I thought of the forces that had brought stamina to the image: the cruel towns of Calabria and their cruel princes, the badlands northwest of Dublin, ghettos, despots, whorehouses, bread lines, the graves of children, intolerable hunger, corruption, persecution, and despair had generated these faint and mellow lights and wasn’t it all a part of the great migration that is the life of man?
      My wife’s cheeks were wet with tears when I kissed her. She was distressed, of course, and really quite sad. She had been attached to Justina. She drove me home, where Justina was still sitting on the sofa. I would like to spare you the unpleasant details but I will say that both her mouth and her eyes were wide open. I went into the pantry to telephone Dr. Hunter. His line was busy. I poured myself a drink—the first since Sunday—and lighted a cigarette. When I called the doctor again he answered and I told him what had happened. "Well, I’m awfully sorry to hear about it, Moses," he said. "I can’t get over until after six and there isn’t much that I can do. This sort of thing has come up before and I’ll tell you all I know. You see, you live in Zone B—two-acre lots, no commercial enterprises and so forth. A couple of years ago some stranger bought the old Plewett mansion and it turned out that he was planning to operate it as a funeral home. We didn’t have any zoning provision at the time that would protect us and one was rushed through the Village Council at midnight and they overdid it. It seems that you not only can’t have a funeral home in Zone B—you can’t bury anything there and you can’t die there. Of course it’s absurd, but we all make mistakes, don’t we? Now there are two things you can do. I’ve had to deal with this before. You can take the old lady and put her into the car and drive her over to Chestnut Street, where Zone C begins. The boundary is just beyond the traffic light by the high school. As soon as you get her over to Zone C, it’s all right. You can just say she died in the car. You can do that or if this seems distasteful you can call the Mayor and ask him to make an exception to the zoning laws. But I can’t write you out a death certificate until you get her out of that neighborhood and of course no undertaker will touch her until you get a death certificate."
      "I don’t understand," I said, and I didn’t, but then the possibility that there was some truth in what he had just told me broke against me or over me like a wave, exciting mostly indignation. "I’ve never heard such a lot of damned foolishness in my life," I said. "Do you mean to tell me that I can’t die in one neighborhood and that I can’t fall in love in another and that I can’t eat..
      "Listen. Calm down, Moses. I’m not telling you anything but the facts and I have a lot of patients waiting. I don’t have the time to listen to you fulminate. If you want to move her, call me as soon as you get her over to the traffic light. Otherwise, I’d advise you to get in touch with the Mayor or someone on the Village Council." He cut the connection. I was outraged but this did not change the fact that Justina was still sitting on the sofa. I poured a fresh drink and lit another cigarette.
      Justina seemed to be waiting for me and to be changing from an inert into a demanding figure. I tried to imagine carrying her out to the station wagon but I couldn’t complete the task in my imagination and I was sure that I couldn’t complete it in fact. I then called the Mayor but this position in our village is mostly honorary and as I might have known he was in his New York law office and was not expected home until seven. I could cover her, I thought, that would be a decent thing to do, and I went up the back stairs to the linen closet and got a sheet. It was getting dark when I came back into the living room but this was no merciful twilight. Dusk seemed to be playing directly into her hands and she gained power and stature with the dark. I covered her with a sheet and turned on a lamp at the other end of the room but the rectitude of the place with its old furniture, flowers, paintings, etc., was demolished by her monumental shape. The next thing to worry about was the children, who would be home in a few minutes. Their knowledge of death, excepting their dreams and intuitions of which I know nothing, is zero and the bold figure in the parlor was bound to be traumatic. When I heard them coming up the walk I went out and told them what had happened and sent them up to their rooms. At seven I drove over to the Mayor’s.
      He had not come home but hewas expected at any minute and I talked with his wife. She gave me a drink. By this time I was chainsmoking. When the Mayor came in we went into a little office or library, where he took up a position behind a desk, putting me in the low chair of a supplicant. "Of course I sympathize with you, Moses," he said, "it’s an awful thing to have happened, but the trouble is that we can’t give you a zoning exception without a majority vote of the Village Council and all the members of the Council happen to be out of town. Pete’s in California and Jack’s in Paris and Larry won’t be back from Stowe until the end of the week."
      I was sarcastic. "Then I suppose Cousin Justina will have to gracefully decompose in my parlor until Jack comes back from Paris."
      "Oh no," he said, "oh no. Jack won’t be back from Paris for another month but I think you might wait until Larry comes from Stowe. Then we’d have a majority, assuming of course that they would agree to your appeal."
      "For Christ’s sake," I snarled.
      "Yes, yes," he said, "it is difficult, but after all you must realize that this is the world you live in and the importance of zoning can’t be overestimated. Why, if a single member of the Council could give out zoning exceptions, I could give you permission right now to open a saloon in your garage, put up neon lights, hire an orchestra, and destroy the neighborhood and all the human and commercial values we’ve worked so hard to protect."
      "I don’t want to open a saloon in my garage," I howled. "I don’t want to hire an orchestra. I just want to bury Justina."
      "I know, Moses, I know," he said. "I understand that. But it’s just that it happened in the wrong zone and if I make an exception for you I’ll have to make an exception for everyone and this kind of morbidity, when it gets out of hand, can be very depressing. People don’t like to live in a neighborhood where this sort of thing goes on all the time.
      "Listen to me," I said. "You give me an exception and you give it to me now or I’m going home and dig a hole in my garden and bury Justina myself."
      "But you can’t do that, Moses. You can’t bury anything in Zone B. You can’t even bury a cat."
      "You’re mistaken," I said. "I can and I will. I can’t function as a doctor and I can’t function as an undertaker, but I can dig a hole in the ground and if you don’t give me my exception, that’s what I’m going to do."
      "Come back, Moses, come back," he said. "Please come back. Look, I’ll give you an exception if you’ll promise not to tell anyone. It’s breaking the law, it’s a forgery but I’ll do it if you promise to keep it a secret."
      I promised to keep it a secret, he gave me the documents, and I used his telephone to make the arrangements. Justina was removed a few minutes after I got home but that night I had the strangest dream. I dreamed that I was in a crowded supermarket. It must have been night because the windows were dark. The ceiling was paved with fluorescent light—brilliant, cheerful but, considering our prehistoric memories, a harsh link in the chain of light that binds us to the past. Music was playing and there must have been at least a thousand shoppers pushing their wagons among the long corridors of comestibles and victuals. Now is there—or isn’t there—something about the posture we assume when we push a wagon that unsexes us? Can it be done with gallantry? I bring this up because the multitude of shoppers seemed that evening, as they pushed their wagons, penitential and unsexed. There were all kinds, this being my beloved country. There were Italians, Finns, Jews, Negroes, Shropshiremen, Cubans—anyone who had heeded the voice of liberty—and they were dressed with that sumptuary abandon that European caricaturists record with such bitter disgust. Yes, there were grandmothers in shorts, big-butted women in knitted pants, and men wearing such an assortment of clothing that it looked as if they had dressed hurriedly in a burning building. But this, as I say, is my own country and in my opinion the caricaturist who vilifies the old lady in shorts vilifies himself. I am a native and I was wearing buckskin jump boots, chino pants cut so tight that my sexual organs were discernible, and a rayon-acetate pajama top printed with representations of the Pinta, the Nina, and the Santa Maria in full sail. The scene was strange—the strangeness of a dream where we see familiar objects in an unfamiliar light—but as I looked more closely I saw that there were some irregularities. Nothing was labeled. Nothing was identified or known. The cans and boxes were all bare. The frozen-food bins were full of brown parcels but they were such odd shapes that you couldn’t tell if they contained a frozen turkey or a Chinese dinner. All the goods at the vegetable and the bakery counters were concealed in brown bags and even the books for sale had no titles. In spite of the fact that the contents of nothing was known, my companions of the dreamy thousands of bizarrely dressed compatriots—were deliberating gravely over these mysterious containers as if the choices they made were critical. Like any dreamer, I was omniscient, I was with them and I was withdrawn, and stepping above the scene for a minute I noticed the men at the check-out counters. They were brutes. Now, sometimes in a crowd, in a bar or a street, you will see a face so full-blown in its obdurate resistance to the appeals of love, reason, and decency, so lewd,so brutish and unregenerate, that you turn away. Men like these were stationed at the only way out and as the shoppers approached them they tore their packages open—I still couldn’t see what they contained—but in every case the customer, at the sight of what he had chosen, showed all the symptoms of the deepest guilt; that force that brings us to our knees. Once their choice had been opened to their shame they were pushed—in some cases kicked—toward the door and beyond the door I saw dark water and heard a terrible noise of moaning and crying in the air. They waited at the door in groups to be taken away in some conveyance that I couldn’t see. As I watched, thousands and thousands pushed their wagons through the market, made their careful and mysterious choices, and were reviled and taken away. What could be the meaning of this?
 
 
 
WE BURIED JUSTINA in the rain the next afternoon. The dead are not, God knows, a minority, but in Proxmire Manor their unexalted kingdom is on the outskirts, rather like a dump, where they are transported furtively as knaves and scoundrels and where they lie in an atmosphere of perfect neglect. Justina’s life had been exemplary, but by ending it she seemed to have disgraced us all. The priest was a friend and a cheerful sight, but the undertaker and his helpers, hiding behind their limousines, were not; and aren’t they at the root of most of our troubles, with their claim that death is a violet-flavored kiss? How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the alarm?
      I went from the cemetery back to my office. The commercial was on my desk and MacPherson had written across it in grease pencil: Very funny, you broken-down bore. Do again. I was tired but unrepentant and didn’t seem able to force myself into a practical posture of usefulness and obedience. I did another commercial. Don’t lose your loved ones, I wrote, because of excessive radioactivity. Don’t be a wallflower at the dance because of strontium 90 in your bones. Don’t be a victim of fallout. When the tart on Thirty-sixth Street gives you the big eye does your body stride off in one direction and your imagination in another? Does your mind follow her up the stairs and taste her wares in revolting detail while your flesh goes off to Brooks Brothers or the foreign exchange desk of the Chase Manhattan Bank? Haven’t you noticed the size of the ferns, the lushness of the grass, the bitterness of the string beans, and the brilliant markings on the new breeds of butterflies? You have been inhaling lethal atomic waste for the last twenty-five years and only Elixircol can save you. I gave this to Raiphie and waited perhaps ten minutes, when it was returned, marked again with grease pencil. Do, he wrote, or you’ll be dead. I felt very tired. I put another piece of paper into the machine and wrote: The Lord is my shepherd; therefore can I lack nothing. He shall feed me in a green pasture and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort. He shall convert my soul and bring me forth in the paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff comfort me. Thou shalt prepare a table before me in the presence of them that trouble me; thou hast anointed my head with oil and my cup shall be full. Surely thy loving kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.I gave this to Ralphie and went home.

book cover of 

Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel 

by

John Cheever       Bookseller Photo

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