richard yates shows how the child is father to the man


Richard Yates, "A Glutton For Punishment"

For a littlewhile when Walter Henderson was nine years old he thought falling dead was the very zenith of romance, and so did a number of his friends. Having found that the only truly rewarding part of any cops-and-robbers game was the moment when you pretended to be shot, clutched your heart, dropped your pistol and crumpled to the earth, they soon dispensed with the rest of it — the tiresome business of choosing up sides and sneaking around — and refined the game to its essence. It became a matter of individual performance, almost an art. One of them at a time would run dramatically along the crest of a hill, and at a given point the ambush would occur: a simultaneous jerking of aimed toy pistols and a chorus of those staccato throaty sounds — a kind of hoarse-whispered “Pk-k-ew! Pk-k-ew!” with which little boys simulate the noise of gunfire. Then the performer would stop, turn, stand poised for a moment in graceful agony, pitch over and fall down the hill in a whirl of arms and legs and a splendid cloud of dust, and finally sprawl flat at the bottom, a rumpled corpse. When he got up and brushed off his clothes, the others would criticize his form (”Pretty good,” or “Too stiff,” or “Didn’t look natural”), and then it would be the next player’s turn. That was all there was to the game, but Walter Henderson loved it. He was a slight, poorly coordinated boy, and this was the only thing even faintly like a sport at which he excelled. Nobody could match the abandon with which he flung his limp body down the hill, and he revelled in the small acclaim it won him. Eventually the others grew bored with the game, after some older boys had laughed at them. Walter turned reluctantly to more wholesome forms of play, and soon he had forgotten about it.

But he had occasion to remember it, vividly, one May afternoon nearly twenty-five years later in a Lexington Avenue office building, while he sat at his desk pretending to work and waiting to be fired. He had become a sober, keen-looking young man now, with clothes that showed the influence of an Eastern university and neat brown hair that was just beginning to thin out on top. Years of good health had made him less slight, and though he still had trouble with his coordination it showed up mainly in minor things nowadays, like an inability to coordinate his hat, his wallet, his theater tickets and his change without making his wife stop and wait for him, or a tendency to push heavily against doors marked "Pull." He looked, at any rate, the picture of sanity and competence as he sat there in the office. No one could have told that the cool sweat of anxiety was sliding under his shirt, or that the fingers of his left hand, concealed in his pocket, were slowly grinding and tearing a book of matches into a moist cardboard pulp. He had seen it coming for weeks, and this morning, from the minute he got off the elevator, he had sensed that this was the day it would happen. When several of his superiors said, "Morning, Walt," he had seen the faintest suggestion of concern behind their smiles; then once this afternoon, glancing out over the gate of the cubicle where he worked, he’d happened to catch the eye of George Crowell, the department manager, who was hesitating in the door of his private office with some papers in his hand. Crowell turned away quickly, but Walter knew he had been watching him, troubled but determined. In a matter of minutes, he felt sure, Crowell would call him in and break the news — with difficulty, of course, since Crowell was the kind of boss who took pride in being a regular guy. There was nothing to do now but let the thing happen and try to take it as gracefully as possible.

 

That was when the childhood memory began to prey on his mind, for it suddenly struck him — and the force of it sent his thumbnail biting deep into the secret matchbook — that letting things happen and taking them gracefully had been, in a way, the pattern of his life. There was certainly no denying that the role of good loser had always held an inordinate appeal for him. All through adolescence he had specialized in it, gamely losing fights with stronger boys, playing football badly in the secret hope of being injured and carried dramatically off the field ("You got to hand it to old Henderson for one thing, anyway," the high-school coach had said with a chuckle, "he’s a real little glutton for punishment"). College had offered a wider scope to his talent — there were exams to be flunked and elections to be lost — and later the Air Force had made it possible for him to wash out, honorably, as a Bight cadet. And now, inevitably, it seemed, he was running true to form once more. The several jobs he’d held before this had been the beginner’s kind at which it isn’t easy to fail; when the opportunity for this one first arose it had been, in Crowell’s phrase, "a real challenge."

 

"Good," Walter had said. "That’s what I’m looking for." When he related that part of the conversation to his wife she had said, "Oh, wonderful!" and they’d moved to an expensive apartment in the East Sixties on the strength of it. And lately, when he started coming home with a beaten look and announcing darkly that he doubted if he could hold on much longer, she would enjoin the children not to bother him ("Daddy’s very tired tonight"), bring him a drink and soothe him with careful, wifely reassurance, doing her best to conceal her fear, never guessing, or at least never showing, that she was dealing with a chronic, compulsive failure, a strange little boy in love with the attitudes of collapse. And the amazing himself had never looked at it that way before.

 

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short fiction from richard yates

11 Kinds of Loneliness - Original
 

Richard Yates, "Fun with a Stranger"

 

All that summer the children who were due to start third grade under Miss Snell had been warned about her. "Boy, you’re gonna get it," the older children would say, distorting their faces with a wicked pleasure. "You’re really gonna get it. Mrs. Clearys all right" (Mrs. Cleary taught the other, luck­ier half of third grade) "—shes fine, but boy, that Snell—you better watch out." So it happened that the morale of Miss Snell’s class was low even before school opened in September, and she did little in the first few weeks to improve it.

 

She was probably sixty, a big rawboned woman with a man’s face, and her clothes, if not her very pores, seemed always to exude that dry essence of pencil shavings and chalk dust that is the smell of school. She was strict and humorless, preoccupied with rooting out the things she held intolerable: mumbling, slumping, daydreaming, frequent trips to the bathroom, and, the worst of all, "coming to school without proper supplies." Her small eyes were sharp, and when somebody sent out a stealthy alarm of whispers and nudges to try to borrow a pencil from somebody else, it almost never worked. "What’s the trouble back there?" she would demand. "I mean you, John Gerhardt." And John Gerhardt—or Howard White or whoever it hap­pened to be—caught in the middle of a whisper, could only turn red and say, "Nothing."

 

"Don’t mumble. Is it a pencil? Have you come to school without a pencil again? Stand up when you’re spoken to."

 

And there would follow a long lecture on Proper Supplies that ended only after the offender had come forward to receive a pencil from the small hoard on her desk, had been made to say, "Thank you, Miss Snell," and to repeat, until he said it loud enough for everyone to hear, a promise that he wouldnt chew it or break its point.

 

With erasers it was even worse because they were more often in short supply, owing to a general tendency to chew them off the ends of pencils. Miss Snell kept a big, shapeless old eraser on her desk, and she seemed very proud of it. "This is my eraser," she would say, shaking it at the class. "Ive had this eraser for five years. Five years." (And this was not hard to believe, for the eraser looked as old and gray and worn-down as the hand that brandished it.) "I’ve never played with it because its not a toy. Ive never chewed it because it’s not good to eat. And Ive never lost it because Im not foolish and Im not careless. I need this eraser for my work and I’ve taken good care of it. Now, why cant you do the same with your erasers? I don’t know whats the matter with this class. I’ve never had a class that was so foolish and so careless and so childish about its supplies."

 

She never seemed to lose her temper, but it would almost have been better if she did, for it was the flat, dry, passionless redundance of her scolding that got everybody down. When Miss Snell singled someone out for a special upbraiding it was an ordeal by talk. She would come up to within a foot of her victims face, her eyes would stare unblinking into his, and the wrinkled gray flesh of her mouth would labor to pronounce his guilt, grimly and deliberately, until all the color faded from the day. She seemed tohave no favorites; once she even picked on Alice Johnson, who always had plenty of supplies and did nearly everything right. Alice was mumbling while reading aloud, and when she continued to mumble after several warn­ings Miss Snell went over and took her book away and lectured her for several minutes running. Alice looked stunned at first; then her eyes filled up, her mouth twitched into terrible shapes, and she gave in to the ultimate humiliation of cry­ing in class.

 

It was not uncommon to cry in Miss Snell’s class, even among the boys. And ironically, it always seemed to be during the lull after one of these sceneswhen the only sound in the room was somebody’s slow, half-stifled sobbing, and the rest of the class stared straight ahead in an agony of embarrassment­ that the noise of group laughter would float in from Mrs. Cleary’s class across the hall.

 

Still, they could not hate Miss Snell, for children’s villains must be all black, and there was no denying that Miss Snell was sometimes nice in an awkward, groping way of her own. "When we learn a new word it’s like making a friend," she said once. "And we all like to make friends, dont we? Now, for instance, when school began this year you were all strangers to me, but I wanted very much to learn your names and remember your faces, and so I made the effort. It was confusing at first, but before long I’d made friends with all of you. And later on well have some good times togetheroh, perhaps a little party at Christmastime, or something like thatand then I know I’d be very sorry if I hadnt made that effort, because you can’t very well have fun with a stranger, can you?" She gave them a comely, shy smile. "And that’s just the way it is with words."

 

When she said something like that it was more embarrassing than anything else, but it did leave the children with a certain vague sense of responsibility toward her, and often prompted them into a loyal reticence when children from other classes demanded to know how bad she really was. "Well, not too bad," they would say uncomfortably, and try to change the sub­ject
 

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