"A Piece of News"
I'm fascinated with "A Piece of News." I've read it at least 20 times. How words can be crafted in such a way so as to tell us so much about 2 characters and their lives in just 4 or 5 pages is completely beyond me. I would think that asking one to perform such magic would be like asking Rembrandt to paint with just two colors (wait, bad example. I saw a Rembrandt exhibit in New York one time...he did paint with just two colors - brown and less brown.)
"She must've been lonesome and slow all her life, the way things would take her by surprise."
There's a bag of coffee sitting on the table wrapped in newspaper. Ruby's shocked that "he" wrapped it in paper. Who is "he"? Come to find out he's one of many that she's flagged down up on the road and took to her husband's "whiskey still" and given herself to them, I reckon it was an effort to be some measure of something in her lonely world. After lying on the paper in front of the fireplace where "in her very stillness" she sees that right there in the paper it says "Mrs. Ruby Fisher had the misfortune to be shot in the leg by her husband this week." Panic ensues and we now know who we're dealing with - someone simple enough to see the name "Ruby Fisher" in the newspaper and become frantic because she's been shot in the leg - forget that she doesn't have actually, you know, have a hole in her leg. Panic sets in to the point where she can imagine Clyde finishing the job and what she'll be wearing in the pine box Clyde builds for her.
Clyde returns home (from tending his "whiskey still" in the storm that rages throughout the story.) Ruby's damn near sassy with him, obviously happy that she knows something he doesn't know. I'm sure she's also quite pleased with the fact that something happened in her world that day, even if it was a bad something. Between the bag of coffee and the out of town newspaper Clyde knows that she's been "hitchhiking" again (a very nice way to say she's been rolling in the hay with strangers that she flags down on the road.) There's not a whole lot of scolding - one would have to care about one's spouse, I guess, to get angry over infidelity. The only pain he finds in the coffee is when nerves cause some of it to be spilled on his hand (which brings a threat of violence towards Ruby, but even this seems to be commonplace in their world.) Clyde then points out that it's a Tennessee Ruby Fisher that's been shot and he's innocent and Ruby's in one piece. The sassy side of Ruby calms itself and supper is served first to the man of the house and then to the wife, who eats in solitude. Life goes back to dark and dull, a glimmer of anything interesting snuffed out.
So what do I take away? Again, mostly a fascination that so much can be said about two characters in so few words. In my feeble attempts at writing, the battle I fight the most is using way too many words to say anything. I work hard to not ramble. I remember a course I took on short story writing in college. The very first rule of short story writing, we were told, is that the opening line has to immediately grab. There's no time to develop things in a short story so it has to start immediately. The very first line of "A Piece of News" is "She'd been out in the rain." Though not earth shattering, one does have to stay tuned to find out what she's been doing out in the rain. Imagine the shock that comes when we realize that she's been up to something that's quite more scandalous than anything else we've encountered in a piece of fiction (print or film) produced in 1937. Of course I reckon that what constitutes "scandalous" in the "old days" is open for debate.
I one time watched the Burt Reynolds movie "Sharky's Machine" (one of my all-time favorites, by the way) with my mother. When it was over I asked her what she thought. "Well, it was pretty good...but it's not very original." I asked her what she meant. "It's 'Laura' with cursing..." A little investigation and I learned that "Laura" was a movie filmed in 1944 with Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews and Clifton Webb. It's about a detective who falls in love with the woman whose murder he's investigating. He mainly falls in love with a picture of her hanging in her residence (best I can remember.) Of course then he ultimately meets the murdered damsel and realizes there's been a serious case of mistaken identity. Holy cow, she was right. That IS what happened in "Sharky" I watched the movie with her, to return the favor of her sitting through my movie. In one scene there's a LONG glance (a longING glance perhaps) between the detective and the supposed dead girl. My mother hollered "THERE! RIGHT THERE! DID YOU SEE THAT?? That's sexy! That's seduction! NOT the trash they show in movies today!!!!" So sexy and seduction were mostly implied in movies of that generation?
Remembering that notion confirmed what I'd thought about "A Piece of News" There was nothing implied about what Ruby was doing that was being called "hitchhiking" There was even mention of Ruby being seductive in her manner - "sweet and yet abrupt and tentative, a delicate and vulnerable manner, as though her breasts gave her pain." This isn't someone weaving the romanticism of southern culture (implied or real) into stories in a fashion as smooth as a "sip of honeydew vine water." These aren't simple stories of the grand old south. Yes, her stories take place in those environs but they're sometimes dark, sometimes evocative and sometimes with a hint of scandal. This is a writer, not a "southern" writer or a "lady" writer. Only two stories into this collection I'm glad I've decided to indulge myself.