Thursday, May 03, 2018

"Daddy Garbage" (1981)

Story by John Edgar Wideman not available online.

John Edgar Wideman's story has a few tricks up its sleeve. It's not clear who the third-person narrator is or what he's up to exactly. He starts with a street scene in hot summer with a woman buying sweet ices for her kids. Then it becomes a kind of reminiscence, which is yet aware of the present. The first trick is Daddy Garbage himself—he's a dog, dead in the story's present, who belonged to Lemuel Strayhorn, the purveyor of ices. In the reminiscence, the dog finds a box in a garbage can. It's the dead of winter. You think this story is going to be about the dog. But inside the box is the corpse of a baby. The story is mostly about what Strayhorn does, which is not that extraordinary. He finds a friend to help him, who analyzes the situation: "If you go to the police they find some reason to put you in jail. Hospital got no room for the sick let alone the dead. Undertaker, he's gon want money from somebody before he touch it. The church. Them church peoples got troubles enough of they own to cry about. And they be asking as many questions as the police." They decide to bury it in a nearby potter's field, and out of respect they decide to bury it six feet deep. With the ground frozen and only a short shovel, it's a lot of work. They spend much of the night at it, and when it's done one of them says some words over the grave. Daddy Garbage hardly figures in the story at all, but perhaps because we know he's dead now he casts a long shadow over these events somehow. I like how simple and straightforward this story seems to be, with its poignant details. I like how so much is supported by these details, such as the dog's name. Or the presumption no one will ever claim the body—that speaks volumes. The lighthearted tone enables enough distance from the events to make them almost bearable. These characters never descend into hysteria, even though we as readers might be tempted to do so because the elements of the story are so painful. In fact, their stoic acceptance of what they encounter almost makes it worse. It conveys what they know, what they live with, and what they do about it in starkest terms. The easygoing banter becomes one of the warmest aspects of the whole thing—a relief. Remarkable story.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

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