The Reader As Artist
In the opening sentences of Flannery O'Connor's story, she chose to direct her readers to Mr. Head's fantasy, his hopes. Lowly pillow ticking is like brocade, rich, elaborate. Moonlight turns a wooden floor to silver and "cast[s] a dignifying light" everywhere. His chair, "stiff and attentive," seems to await an order from him. Even his trousers hanging on its back had "a noble air, like the garment some great man had just flung to his servant." So. Mr. Head has strong, perhaps unmanageable, dreams of majesty, of controlling servants to do his bidding, of rightful authority. Even the moon in his shaving mirror pauses "as if it were waiting for his permission to enter." We don't really have to wait (a few sentences on) to see his alarm clock sitting on an "overturned bucket," or to wonder why his shaving mirror is five feet away from his bed, to know a great deal about him—his pretension, his insecurity, his pathetic yearnings—and anticipate his behavior as the story unfolds. In the accuracy of the 'ear' of the story, its shape, its supple economy and sheer knowingness, it seems to me virtually flawless and deliciously demanding. Which is to say, I can read it again and again, step into its world confident that my attentiveness will always yield wonder.
You're on the porch with the broom sweeping the same spot, getting the same sound—dry straw against dry leaf caught in the loose-dirt crevice of the cement tiles. No phone, no footfalls, no welcome variation.
In the prologue to Toni Cade Bambara's novel Those Bones Are Not My Child, a routine, even humble chore signals alarm, which continues to build. The narrator, distracted, sweeps the same spot, helplessly, unable to free dead leaf and straw from cement. She writes "you" but we know she means "I" and we know she means any mother, any parent, anyone. There is no sound, except the sound of the broom. The quiet is eerie.
Your ears strain, stretching down the block, searching through schoolchild chatter for that one voice that will give you ease. Your eyes sting with the effort to see over bushes, look through buildings, cut through everything that separates you from your child's starting point—the junior high school.
I see the woman—no, I invent her: from fingers clenched on a broomstick to the sandals I'm sure she is wearing. Flip-flops, maybe. She wears a skirt—not jeans. The porch is old cement with crevices and cracks where soil gathers and the fall wind is always blowing leaves...she can't get them out; they're stuck, like she is. The street is tree lined, houses hedged, brick ones, pale clapboard with wide yards. A hose is curled on yellowing grass. A pair of skates that should have been put away? Or a bicycle? The silence is not total—there is traffic beyond, birds—but it is nevertheless disturbing because the single voice needed to calm me is not there. I know that fear. Even when I'm told there is no reason for it. Especially then.
The terror is over, the authorities say. The horror is past, they repeat every day.... You want to believe. It's 3:23 on your Mother's Day watch. And your child is nowhere in sight.
I can do this again: read it and be there once more, anytime I like. Sifting, adding, recapturing. Making the work work while it makes me do the same. Just like leaning into the radio; or sitting cross-legged at the feet of grandparents.
Skill is enough, but I prefer the art.