I woke up and went to work, to school, to teach. The sky was dark still when I caught the bus. It was just past seven in the morning and it was raining. In my office on campus, I read through the last few papers in a stack of my students’ latest assignments for our fiction unit. Admittedly, I went into the classroom without much of a lesson plan – I’d give them back their work, propose some changes to our syllabus schedule, ask how they’re doing with the assignment that’s due next week, and see if anyone had any follow-up thoughts or latent questions about the Amy Hempel story we had discussed in our previous class, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” My students did, in fact, have follow-up thoughts. And questions. They talked throughout our fifty minutes, continuing our conversation from the previous class, examining the different strategies – syntax, detail, extended metaphor, careful dialogue and forceful omission – that Hempel uses to communicate something without saying it forthright, to make the story’s subtext come boiling up to the surface.
Around ten o’clock, I rode the bus home again. The sky was gray. It was still raining. I got off at Main Street and walked past the hospital, the cemetery. I walked past a building that I had noticed yesterday – my fiance and I moved this past weekend after our previous landlord caved to the pressure of gentrification and sold our house in the middle of our lease, and I’m still learning the new surroundings. The building is a large brick house with a garage that sticks out from the back. On top of the garage is a chimney, though it looks more like a smokestack. A huge, white cylinder, like something you’d see on a steam boat. I had noticed the building yesterday because when I walked past it, smoke was pouring out in huge black clouds. If I had been even a little farther away, I would have thought the building was burning down. The smoke had lasted for four or five minutes. The entire sky, stained. After it had dissipated, the clouds moving slow above the chimney were blurred with still-rising heat. When I walked past it on the way to the bus stop this morning, I saw from the sign in the front yard that the building was a crematorium.
I wanted to avoid the internet, tried not to look at my phone while I was walking. When I got home, I picked through my bookshelf, which is a mess, as we are still unpacking from the sudden move. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular – anything to settle my mind, to distract myself. I pulled out Chekhov and read “The Lady with the Little Dog,” which I’ve read a handful of times before, but felt compelled to read again. Perhaps because Chekhov is always a good reminder that human beings are not simple, that we can be mean, bigoted creatures, like Dmitri Gurov, and yet still can have an enormous capacity for love. Gurov is a misogynist and a womanizer, and Chekhov makes clear that the character’s views about women are lecherous. Throughout the story, Gurov is nothing but awful toward his wife. But I still believe that he genuinely loves his mistress, Anna Sergeevna, fraught and misguided as that love may be. The end of the story shows the two of them together, when they are realizing their love for one another, and the scene is frustrating and beautiful and difficult and truthful:
Then they had a long discussion, talked about how to rid themselves of the need for hiding, for deception, for living in different towns and not seeing each other for long periods. How could they free themselves from these unbearable bonds?
“How? How?” he asked, clutching his head. “How?”
I lay on the floor while I read. The room is still mostly unpacked, blank walls and empty shelves. Stacks of boxes, pieces of a desk that we haven’t yet reassembled, garbage bags full of blankets. All of this stuff that we had taken along with us. In our old house, even if we never vacuumed, we had hung collages on the walls and planted vegetables in plastic buckets in the backyard. We kept the things we didn’t need in the basement and we saved money in a jar on top of the dresser. In our old house, everything had its place, and now we were figuring all of that out again.
We had moved as quickly as possible because our previous landlord wanted to turn our security deposit over to the man who was buying our house, the man who was forcing us out, who wanted to tear the place apart and turn it into something akin to the one across the street from it, which had undergone a similar process of sale and renovation, was given a rooftop deck and an enormous two-car garage with gaudy, brightly-stained wooden siding in a neighborhood that’s almost all brick, and which sat vacant for nearly a year before selling, just last week, for $600,000. At some point, laying on the floor, it dawned on me that today is also the day that the buyer was supposed to close, that the sale of our previous house would be finalized.
I ate a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, and then I put my shoes and coat back on and walked to the coffeeshop to sit down and grade more papers. On my way, I plugged in my headphones and continued with the audiobook that I’ve been listening to: Stephen King’s It, read by Steven Weber. King has always had a weird place in my heart – as a child, I was obsessed with monsters, and I read several of his novels throughout middle school. I don’t quite have the patience that I used to have with King’s work, but every few years, I’ll pick up one of his slimmer books, and usually, I’ll enjoy them, despite their lack of subtlety, their occasional heavy-handedness. It just so happened that where I’d left off in It was right in the middle of a scene describing an incident with a chapter of the Klu Klux Klan that had taken shape, far north, beyond their usual territory, in the small town of Derry, Maine. The Klan burns down a jazz bar that was started up by the town’s black residents after they’d been forced out of the white bars.
The character narrating at this point in the novel is a man named Mike Hanlon, one of the only black men who is still living in Derry. The attack on the jazz club took place during Hanlon’s father’s childhood, and Hanlon is re-telling the story as an adult in the 1980’s. Before the scene begins, Hanlon has already mentioned that the Klan burned the club down, that several people died in the fire. The set-up draws attention (as much of the novel does) to the horrors that society forgets, that have been left out of history books, that we forget about too quickly.
Listening, I expected King to dip into that hazy lyrical mode that often comes with those sorts of recollections, to give us the fire as if it were some nightmare only partially remembered upon waking. I expected Hanlon’s narration to rend the scene with the same distance from which his character experiences it – a long ago story that he was told as a boy. But instead, the scene is full action. King, in classic form, gives us all of the gory details. We see the men and women inside of the club, smashing out windows and doors as they fight to escape. We see the Klan members standing outside with their torches, jeering and chanting. We see the bass drums left by the jazz band exploding as the heat inside the club rises. We see skin bubbling on the bodies consumed by flames. We see the windows smashing, smell flesh burning. We are spared nothing. Hanlon even delivers the dialogue between the people inside the club as they scream and shout and argue over the best way out of the building. King gives us the scene with all of the awful brutality of the present tense. The horror is decades old, but not for Mike Hanlon.
Earlier in the week, I had asked my students if they wanted to take today off. I didn’t have the money to travel, but many of my friends are on buses right now, on their way to march in Washington. Others will be reading the news obsessively, all day, trying to make sense of everything that has built up over the past few months. Or rather, over the past few years, the past few decades. I am trying to do the same, I suppose – trying to make sense of it all, sitting here and writing, reminding myself that language is meaningful, if for no other reason than for the ways in which stories can help articulate the feelings and experiences that we don’t know what to do with. Maybe that’s the reminder I needed. Maybe that’s why my subconscious decided to pull Chekhov from the shelf this morning; here are the last lines of his story, after Dmitri Gurov and Anna Sergeevna have finally, fully realized their problem:
…and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far, far off, and that the most complicated and difficult part was just beginning.
Tyler McAndrew grew up in Syracuse, New York and now works as an adjunct instructor in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned his MFA in fiction. His short stories, essays, and poems have appeared in literary journals such as Gulf Coast, Salt Hill, and New South.