A Conversation with
By Grace Paley
My father is eighty-six years old and in bed. His heart, that bloody motor, is equally old and will not do certain jobs any more. It still floods his head with brainy light. But it won't let his legs carry the weight of his body around the house. Despite my metaphors, this muscle failure is not due to his old heart, he says, but to a potassium shortage. Sitting on one pillow, leaning on three, he offers last-minute advice and makes a request. "I would like you to write a simple story just once more," he says, "the kind de Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write. Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next." I say, "Yes, why not? That's possible." I want to please him, though I don't remember writing that way. I would like to try to tell such a story, if he means the kind that begins: "There was a woman..." followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I've always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life. Finally I thought of a story that had been happening for a couple of years right across the street. I wrote it down, then read it aloud. "Pa," I said, "how about this? Do you mean something like this?"
Once in my time there was a woman and she had a son. They lived nicely, in a small apartment in Manhattan. This boy at about fifteen became a junkie, which is not unusual in our neighborhood. In order to maintain her close friendship with him, she became a junkie too. She said it was part of the youth culture, with which she felt very much at home. After a while, for a number or reasons, the boy gave it all up and left the city and his mother in disgust. Hopeless and alone, she grieved. We all visit her. "O.K., Pa, that's it," I said, "an unadorned and miserable tale." "But that's not what I mean," my father said. "You misunderstood me on purpose. You know there's a lot more to it. You know that. You left everything out. Turgenev wouldn't do that. Chekhov wouldn't do that. There are in fact Russian writers you never heard of, you don't have an inkling of, as good as anyone, who can write a plain ordinary story, who would not leave out what you have left out. I object not to facts but to people sitting in trees talking senselessly, voices from who knows where..." "Forget that one, Pa, what have I left out now? In this one?" "Her looks, for instance."
"Oh. Quite handsome, I think. Yes."
"Dark, with heavy braids, as though she were a girl or a foreigner." "What were her parents like, her stock? That she became such a person. It's interesting, you know." "From out of town. Professional people. The first to be divorced in their county. How's that? Enough?" I asked. "With you, it's all a joke," he said. "What about the boy's father? Why didn't you mention him? Who was he? Or was the boy born out of wedlock?" "Yes," I said. "He was born out of wedlock."
"For Godsakes, doesn't anyone in your stories get married? Doesn't anyone have the time to run down to City Hall before they jump into bed?" "No," I said. "In real life, yes. But in my stories, no." "Why do you answer me like that?"
"Oh, Pa, this is a simple story about a smart woman who came to N.Y. C. full of interest love trust excitement very up to date, and about her son, what a hard time she had in this world. Married or not, it's of small consequence." "It is of great consequence," he said.
"O.K.," I said.
"O.K. O.K. yourself," he said, "but listen. I believe you that she's good-looking, but I don't think she was so smart." "That's true," I said. "Actually that's the trouble with stories. People start out fantastic, you think they're extraordinary, but it turns out as the work goes along, they're just average with a good education. Sometimes the...
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