TO pick your favorite short story is to put on display a piece of yourself. So many wonderful stories line the library shelves that to narrow it down to one is to find something uniquely your own.
One cool summer evening at my wife's grandparents' beach cottage, family and friends settled down in the large living room to read aloud our favorite short stories. We curled up on the comfortable old couches and armchairs that littered the room, pulling cotton blankets over our bare legs. The large picture windows that encircled us looked out onto a dark stretch of deserted beach, dunes overflowed with beach grass, rose-hip bushes moved gently to an offshore breeze, Ninigret pond shone with frosted ligh t every time the moon broke through the glowering cloud cover. A few miles beyond sparkled the necklace of lights from Point Judith, Rhode Island.
A few lamps lit portions of the large room. Each of us sat, book in hand, pondering whether our selection would be well received.
I began with a longtime favorite by Somerset Maugham, "The Three Fat Women of Antibes." It was not until I was already deep into the story, beyond tantalizing descriptions of heavy creams, melting butter, and suet puddings, that I thought to look up at my audience. Maugham is hilarious, but a little unsympathetic in his description of these heavy women's obsession with food. Fortunately, none of my listeners was offended. I felt relieved.
As I read on, I realized that Maugham's treatment of these women would probably be seen as sexist by many in the room. I hoped they would not read this into the reader, although my insensitivity to it was becoming obvious even to me. By the time I'd finished the story and Maugham had finished making complete fools of these women, I saw more clearly my own tendency to make fun of those I considered less fortunate than myself.
One of my old college friends read next. With his muscular build he is more easily mistaken for a jock than a bookworm. But his searching pale blue eyes and his hesitant, Spartan conversation reveal his introspective nature. His selection, "If Grant were Drunk at Appomattox" by James Thurber, came as a surprise to those in the audience who didn't know Dirk well.
Dirk was a star football linebacker in college. He grew up with an outdoorsman for a father who took him camping, canoeing, and exploring all the wilderness left near their St. Louis home. Dirk is used to high adventure. Only now, he works in an office 40 hours a week writing computer programs and trying to stay ahead of his mortgage payments. Last year he went on a five-day Outward Bound rafting trip in Colorado. When he returned he seriously contemplated tossing his career in the nearest wastebasket an d becoming an Outward Bound instructor or roaming the country in a van.
Dirk read of the disheveled Grant wanting to sleep through his appointment with Lee, of the Union commander in chief stumbling about the room, dropping off-the-cuff comments, and confusing not only the names of poems and people but also the very purpose of their meeting. The story ends by General Grant finally offering his sword in surrender to the astonished General Lee. Dirk's constant snickering made reading this piece somewhat difficult for him. I finally realized he was reveling in the way Grant tre ated such a solemn occasion with such irreverence. It wasn't that Dirk wanted to get drunk; it was more that Dirk, the staid computer programmer, secretly wanted to have a rubber band fight at a company board meeting and get away with it.
We paused after these stories for a brief intermission. The smell of hot buttered popcorn filled the small house. We washed it down with lemonade. Blake, my wife, cleared her throat, pulled a long wisp of brown hair from her face and began to read the next selection, a piece from "Teaching a Stone to Talk" by Annie Dillard, entitled "Eclipse."
Annie Dillard's essay on experiencing a total eclipse in Washington brought in so much more than a mere celestial event that I couldn't help but think of the reader. Blake's mind does not often work like an orderly machine, but more often darts from topic to topic like a hummingbird. Listening to her and her mother, Pat, converse is like getting a purview of an entire freshman curriculum in about an hour. I have heard one discussion start on a recent play, shift into human psychology, sidle over to colon ial history, and end with a bit of horticulture. It makes my head spin.
In her story, Dillard marvels at the commuters stuck in morning traffic, oblivious to the fact that a total solar eclipse is about to take place above them. My wife has also been known to comment on the mundanity and lack of wonder pervading the mass of men, especially those who must commute to work. (She, by the way, is a commuter herself.) But she refuses to conform to her Fortune 500 corporation's ways. She grows her hair long when the style is short; she wears flowing, colorful skirts to work, when t he room is gray business suits; and she dreams of one day buying a place in the country and leaving it all behind. She would rather be on the hill viewing the eclipse, like Annie Dillard, than stuck in traffic.
David, Blake's younger brother, read the title and author of his selection as if none of us had ever heard of it. (Only by some fortuitous act could you get through high school or college English classes without ever having to read the "Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry.) I saw a few fleeting expressions of despair.
It was obvious, though, when I thought about who was reading it, that it hadn't been picked merely because it was a popular story David knew. After all, this was being read by a person who, as a small boy, wrapped his pennies up as gifts for Christmas morning so he would have something to put under the tree for everyone.
Even now, as an impoverished athlete training for the Olympics, he refused to cut back the family's Christmas giving to just one selected person, as we had suggested. And it wasn't that he wanted more presents.
He told us he didn't care if we gave him anything. He just wanted to be able to give all of us something, much like the characters in the "Gift of the Magi." This stream of generosity, in the story and the reader, overpowered me and for the first time allayed my longstanding skepticism of these characters. I saw this too-often-told story in a fresh light, in the face of the reader's verifiable, untainted ability to give selflessly. I finally believed that such characters could exist.
There were still several stories to go when we realized that it was too late to continue. The moon had dipped behind the horizon. The clouds had dispersed, leaving the pond sparkling in star light.
I felt refreshed rather than enervated after our marathon of short pieces. I had traveled far in time and space, been exposed to humor, tragedy, acerbic wit, cynicism, and hope. I had seen life through four different author's eyes and by their telling had also learned more about those around me. I felt pleasantly satiated, filled to just the right level with new experiences, information, and ideas. As I tucked myself in for the night I forgot about tomorrow's tennis, hot sand between my toes, and dips in
the ocean, but looked forward instead to the next evening of favorite short stories.