Tag Archives: short stories (reads)

There is No ‘I’ in Team

Especially if You Lie About It

Most everybody who participates in organized sports has, at one time or another, exaggerated their skills and accomplishments. The motivations for such exaggerations vary. Some athletes may wish to impress peers, others to impress fans, and yet others may just want to feel a little better about themselves. Whatever the reason for the exaggerations all of the athletes have one thing in common, they participated in the sport. But what about individuals who do more than exaggerate their skills and accomplishments? W.P. Kinsella’s short story “The Eddie Scissons Syndrome” focuses on an individual who lies about playing Major League Baseball and questions the motivations for such a lie.

I mentioned in the July 5 post “Kmart, Ghosts, and Going Home Again” that Kinsella has a talent for writing baseball stories that are about much more than baseball. “The Eddie Scissons Syndrome” is no exception. The story is narrated by Lawrence “Dumpster” Kavanagh, a senior research assistant, who is working for Professor Eugene Willis. Professor Willis is conducting a research study on, “…psychology having to do with sports impostors, people who lie about having played professional sports, lie until they believe their own lies.” Professor Willis’ research brings him into contact with Charles Jefferson Kiley, a man who claims to have played for Comiskey’s White Sox in the spring of 1917. Their interview culminates with Professor Willis accusing Mr. Kiley of lying about playing for the White Sox. Although Willis’ accusation isn’t resolved (the ending of the story is worth an article of its own) the motivations of sports impostors in particular, and impostors in general, are at the heart of the story.

“The Eddie Scissons Syndrome” tells the stories of three impostors. Charles Jefferson Kiley is the third story and is given the greatest amount of attention. Charles Jefferson Kiley is a ninety-four year old man living out his final days in a VA hospital. Kiley seems genuine, his story believable. What is most important is that he does not seek to profit from his lie. The first story of an impostor in the story receives the least amount of attention. Kavanagh relates an experience of sharing a cab with a man who claims to be a famous movie star. Kavanagh is certain that the man is not the star he claims to be but does not question his lie (this is a bit of possible foreshadowing for the end of the story). This man claiming to be a movie star, like Charles Kiley, does not seek to profit from his claim of stardom. The second story of an impostor is told by Professor Willis and given a fair amount of attention. Willis tells the story of a colleague who lies about the importance of his role while serving in the military during WW II. Willis describes him as, “…an impostor who was not a con man.” The colleague, like the other two men, does not seek to profit from his lies. Living in fear of being found out does prompt him to stop lying, but he never admits about lying to his peers. If profit was not the motive for these three men lying, then what was? In the case of Charles Jefferson Kiley, and possibly the other two impostors, it is the desire to belong to something greater than oneself. Kiley wants to be associated with Major League Baseball. If he truly was a catcher for the Chicago White Sox then he becomes a part of history. The desire to belong is a powerful thing and telling what may be considered a harmless lie would seem no worse to the impostor than a professional exaggerating about his/her skills and accomplishments.

Kinsella’s story is a look into the motivations for lying about one’s experiences. One common motive for lying is to profit in some way. Grifters and con men are well aware of their lies and can often be exposed after some detailed fact checking. But what of those people who aren’t looking to profit from their lies? What is their motivation? Kinsella would have us believe that one motivation is the desire to belong. Those of us who have been part of a team (professional or amateur) know that feeling of comradery and belonging to some bigger than oneself. Is it hard to believe that others wouldn’t want that feeling too?

-K-

“The Eddie Scissons Syndrome” Go the Distance Baseball Stories (1995) by W.P. Kinsella

Youth, Talent, Death, and Baseball

Death as Symbol in “Death of the Right Fielder”

One of the great things about baseball is that there was a time when I was good at it. Hell, there was a time when everybody was good at the game. Of course that was when we were all young, and maybe we weren’t so much good as there were just plenty of other kids who were just as bad. As we grow older some of us continue to think of baseball as a game and others, those with talent and skill, begin to view it as a sport. Stuart Dybek’s “Death of the Right Fielder” is symbolic for all of us in the former group who realized the big leagues weren’t in our future.

Dybek’s short story centers around a group of children playing a game of baseball when they realize that the right fielder has died. The children discuss some possible causes for the right fielder’s death, reflect on some philosophical issues regarding life and baseball, and then bury the right fielder in a shallow grave in the outfield. Dybek delivers the story in such a matter of fact manner that one can’t help but believe some magical realism is at play, but I don’t want to focus on that element of the story (which could be an article all by itself) as much as Dybek’s use of death as a symbol for a lack of talent and skill.

The young right fielder’s death is symbolic for that moment when a person realizes he or she doesn’t possess the talent or skill necessary to play baseball in the major leagues. After they discover his body the other teammates wonder how the right fielder may have met his end. One theory is that he may have died of natural causes, but this is quickly dismissed with the following, “Nor could it have been leukemia. He wasn’t a talented enough athlete to die of that.” This is one of our first clues that the right fielder wasn’t that talented of a ball player. There are a couple more points that show the right fielder did not have what it takes to play major league ball. One example, “He was just an ordinary guy, .250 at the plate…” shows that he was not a stand out among his peers. He did not possess the talent or skill necessary to rise above his teammates.  Another example regarding the right fielder’s lack of talent is shown in the final sentences of the story, “It’s sad to admit it ends to soon. Most guys are washed up by seventeen.” The right fielder’s career ends with his symbolic death which is viewed as too soon.

Many of us can remember playing baseball when we were children, and as children we had dreams of playing in the major leagues. Stuart Dybek’s “Death of the Right Fielder” is a symbol for that moment when we realized our dreams of playing in the majors die. Those final sentences really hit home (you know there had to be at least one in this article) for anybody who played the game of baseball but never got to play in the show. How many of us have buried our dreams in right field, second base, or some other position out there on the diamond?

-K-

“Death of the Right Fielder” The Coast of Chicago (1990) by Stuart Dybek

Rain, Passion, and Sex in Kate Chopin’s “The Storm”

Weather and Biology as Natural Phenomenon

Why does rain make an already romantic scene better (fanboys need only think about the kiss scene from the 2002 Spider-Man to know what I’m talking about)? Maybe that’s a bit too big of a topic for the space I have here, but rain and romantic moments do often go together in literature. One of the best examples of this combination can be found in Kate Chopin’s short story “The Storm.” Chopin doesn’t merely use a rain storm as setting or backdrop in her story. Chopin demonstrates how passion, sex, and rain storms can be viewed as natural phenomenon.

A rain storm is one of the central events of Chopin’s story. This storm comes on quick taking the principle characters by surprise. Alcee Laballiere barely escapes the storm by seeking shelter at Calixta’s house. Calixta is so engrossed with sewing she does not notice the approaching storm. Both characters decide to wait out the storm after they shutter the windows and doors. Alcee and Calixta are both married, he to Clarisse she to Bobinot, but they have a shared history from their younger days in Assumption Parrish (I could write a few paragraphs on the possible symbolism there). It is during this storm that their passions from those younger days lead to a sexual encounter. With the passing of the storm and their afternoon of passionate sex it appears as if all is right in the world. It is this natural equilibrium at the end of the story that establishes the connection between biology (sex) and weather (rain).

Chopin is subtle when connecting biology (sex) and weather (rain) as natural phenomenon, but there are a couple of examples to support this. The first is Chopin’s omission of moralizing. Chopin’s imagery of both storm and sexual moment are vivid but moral judgements concerning the events are missing. These events are neither good or bad in Chopin’s view. They are simply presented as natural phenomenon that occur. The second example can be found at the end of the story. Alcee leaves Calixta after the storm and writes a loving letter to his wife, Clarisse. Calixta, Bobinot, and their son Bibi spend the evening sharing a family dinner. After these events are established Chopin ends the story with the line, “So the storm passed and everyone was happy.” The storm has passed without causing any permanent damage. Likewise, Alcee and Calixta’s passionate encounter has also passed without apparently causing any permanent damage. Chopin is implying that human passion and sex (biology) and rain storms (weather) can be viewed in a similar way, as natural phenomenon.

Rain can dress up a romantic scene, but Kate Chopin demonstrates that rain can be used as much more than setting. If moralizing is removed from the ideas of passion and sex then they can be viewed as biological forces that drive humans in much the same way rain storms can be viewed as a natural phenomenon of weather.

-K-

“The Storm” by Kate Chopin

Who Defends Us During the Night?

A Black Cat, Evil Doings, and Neil Gaiman

I’ve always been fascinated with feral cats. I spent a good portion of my childhood on a cattle farm watching a varied collection of Tom and Molly cats prowling about. To be clear these were not indoor cats we put out at night, and they didn’t have proper names (some did acquire nicknames if they hung around long enough). These felines were wild animals. They may not have been lions on the African planes, but they were feral hunters and that is what fascinated me. I used to wonder what kind of lives these wild and free animals led. That question brings us to Neil Gaiman’s “The Price,” eight pages of well crafted, evenly paced fantasy.

The first person narrator of “The Price” is an author who relays a series of events that occur over a period of a few weeks after his family takes in and cares for feral cat known simply as Black Cat. During the brief time Black Cat stays with the narrator’s family it receives several wounds from fighting with some unknown animal. The narrator is determined to capture this animal in an attempt to protect Black Cat from any further harm. It is during the climactic moment of the story that we learn what the unknown animal is and the importance of this Black Cat to the narrator and his family. Gaiman’s resolution is a punch in the gut, which is what makes it great short story.  But a closer look at a couple of points of this story shows Gaiman inverting some common conventions of fantasy literature and folklore.

The first convention Gaiman inverts is that of the black cat as a familiar of witches and others disposed to evil at night. Black Cat is described as, “patch of night.” This a common description of the witch’s familiar, but in this story Black Cat is portrayed as protector, willing to stand against a stronger foe to defend others it doesn’t know. The other convention is that of the black cat as an omen of bad luck and ill tidings. Quite the opposite plays out in this story. Black Cat not only defends this family but it appears to somehow carry the burdens of the family which may explain why it is, “surprisingly heavy.” Black Cat’s presence is a stroke of luck for this family.  Gaiman’s inversions of these common conventions help establish depth for both the story as a whole and the Black Cat in particular.

Gaiman’s story “The Price” took me back to a time when I would wonder what the feral Tom and Molly cats were doing when I wasn’t watching. Of course there was no Black Cat on the farm, and I never did see anything like what the narrator of this story sees. But maybe that’s what makes the story all the better.  Just because I didn’t see doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

-K-

“The Price” by Neil Gaiman from Smoke and Mirrors (1998).

When You Don’t Know If ‘You Were Perfectly Fine’

Drinking a little too much alcohol at one time has been known to induce amnesia in those who imbibe.  Those of us who have been known to drink a bit too much on occasion can attest to this. Those of you who haven’t made this mistake please trust those of us who have.  If you don’t want to trust us then I suggest “You Were Perfectly Fine” by Dorothy Parker. This short story presents the danger of a little too much drink (without the soapbox condescension).

Parker’s story is primarily of a dialogue between Peter, a “pale young man” and a “clear-eyed girl” the morning after a night of drinking and with friends. She helps him piece together the events of the previous evening. She assures him that his drunken behavior was not that bad and that, in fact, he was “perfectly fine” throughout most of the evening. The key event of the story worth noting is when she tells the man that he revealed romantic feelings for her, and that she has similar feelings for him. The man’s reaction to this turn (as shown in the last sentence) can be viewed as a warning to monitor both the amount of alcohol you drink and what you say when drinking.

dorothy parker and hamm's“Dorothy Parker and Hamm’s”

If you take the dialogue between the woman and Peter at face value it is a humorous tale of a little too much alcohol being the root cause of some foolish actions and brash statements. But there are a few points that are worth a closer analysis. These points don’t necessarily change the outcome of the story, but they do provide a different view concerning the motivation of the female character. Peter relies on this female companion to remind him of the events and his actions of the previous night. An argument can be made that the female is making light of Peter’s actions because she has feelings for him and doesn’t want Peter to feel bad. Another interpretation could argue that she is deftly manipulating Peter. The story begins at about four in the afternoon when Peter finally gets out of bed with quite a hangover. The female character doesn’t seem to be suffering any ill effects of the previous evening. She obviously has not had as much to drink as Peter, and she is better prepared to discuss the previous night than Peter. Another point worth considering concerns the title of the story. Throughout the course of their conversation she tells Peter, “You were perfectly fine,” on two occasions along with two more variations of this statement. Minimizing Peter’s actions can be viewed as something other than making apologies for a romantic interest. These statements can be seen as a means to convince Peter that his actions were acceptable, and by extension so is his supposed admission of feelings for the female character. The final point for analysis is Peter’s romantic declaration.   According to the female Peter’s actions throughout the night had a collection of witnesses, yet their conversation was private. If Peter has a history of blacking out while drinking, which seems to be the case, the female could easily manipulate Peter into thinking he said something he did not. The fact that she suggests they keep their romantic exchange a secret may not be proof of manipulation but does give one a reason to question her motivation.

If alcohol has ever put you in a situation where you felt like a third person character in your first person life then “You Were perfectly Fine” is worth a read as a cautionary tale. If alcohol hasn’t struck you with a bit of amnesia this is an interesting a study of character motivation. Parker’s ability to create characters that conceal more than they reveal is just one of many reasons why her work should be on your shelf.

-K-

“You Were Perfectly Fine” from The Portable Dorothy Parker (1944)