Stories Selected, Readers Revealed
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.