Thursday, May 11, 2006

A New God

The first story in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2006 is "Old Boys, Old Girls," by Edward P. Jones. This story was also included in BASS 2005. Stories that win both honors are not as common as you might think; it's worth paying attention when this happens.

"Old Boys, Old Girls" is the story of Caesar Matthews, a two-time murderer who is sentenced to seven years in Lorton Prison. The sentence is for the second crime; in the first murder, Caesar was never identified as the killer. "It was almost as if, at least on the books the law kept, Caesar had got away with a free killing."

The story begins with this description of his capricious interaction with the court system. This pattern, of a man in a world dominated by institutions and chance-- enormous forces that he cannot understand or control--repeats again and again throughout the story. Caesar is not a victim, however; we are told immediately that "[t]he world had done things to Caesar... but he had done far more to himself."

Nine of the story's twenty-three pages describe Caesar's time in prison. The events of prison life are familiar; they are the stuff of movies and HBO series. Turf wars, homosexuality, homemade tattoos that go bad, prisoners who will kill (literally) for a cigarette, and so on. But the rich metaphorical texture goes farther. Religious imagery and references dominate prison life, the most obvious being the name of one of the most powerful prisoners: Tony Cathedral. Like Charles D'Ambrosio, Jones does not shy from using character and place names as large, visible signposts. This might be most obvious in this sentence:
In another time, Cathedral and Caesar would have had enough of everything—from muscle to influence—to demand that someone give up the killers, but the prison was filling up with younger men who did not care what those two had been once upon a time.
Reading "Cathedral and Caesar" as "church and state" is unavoidable, and apt. The intimation in that quote that the old order is collapsing is later echoed when Caesar visits Cathedral in his cell:
Cathedral looked over at him with a devastatingly serious gaze and said, “What we need is a new God. Somebody who knows what the fuck he’s doing.”
Eventually, Caesar is released from prison and finds work as a busboy in a Chinese restaurant. He also takes a room in a squalid apartment building,
a building that, in the days when white people lived there, had had two apartments of eight rooms or so on each floor. Now the first-floor apartments were uninhabitable and had been padlocked for years. On the two other floors, each large apartment had been divided into five rented rooms, which went for twenty to thirty dollars a week, depending on the size and the view. Caesar’s was small, twenty dollars, and had half the space of his cell at Lorton. The word that came to him for the butchered, once luxurious apartments was “warren.”
Yet another example of a once-grand structure that has been destroyed, broken apart, "butchered."

Also living in the building is Yvonne Miller, the only woman Caesar ever loved. Another resident, Simon the money lender, tells Caesar
"Now, our sweet Yvonny, she ain't nothin but an old girl." Old girls were whores, young or old, who had been battered so much by the world that they had only the faintest wisp of life left; not many of them had hearts of gold.
Caesar is eventually found by his estranged brother (a corporate lawyer) and sister (who lives "in an area of well-to-do black people some called the Gold Coast"). He has not seen them in years. Caesar resists his brother's invitation to a family dinner, but is eventually persuaded to attend. The reunion seems to be going well; his nephew and niece sit in his lap, eager for his attention. The wine flows. As Caesar is leaving, his brother says:
Even if you go away not wanting to see us again, know that Daddy loves you. It is the one giant truth in the world. He’s a different man, Caesar. I think he loves you more than us because he never knew what happened to you. That may be why he never remarried.
Caesar feels that the evening has gone well until his sister misinterprets his affectionate, and innocent, gesture toward his young niece:
He said to his niece, “Good night, young lady,” and she said no, that she was not a lady but a little girl. Again, he reached unsuccessfully for her feet. When he turned back, his sister had a look of such horror and disgust that he felt he had been stabbed. He knew right away what she was thinking, that he was out to cop a feel on a child.
Once again, Caesar is betrayed by an institution: the institution of family.

When he returns to his apartment buildng, he finds Yvonne dead, apparently of alcohol poisoning or choked by aspirated vomit. In a tender and ritualistic scene, he cleans her body and her apartment, rending his own clothes for cleaning rags. He dresses her, brushes her hair, pins a cameo on her dress, and arranges her body atop the bed for whoever will find her the next day.

He leaves the apartment building, knowing only that "he was not a young man anymore" and "that he did not want to wash dishes and bus tables anymore." He wants only to find some honest way to pay for Yvonne's funeral. He has in his hand a quarter.
It was a rather old one, 1967, but shiny enough. Life had been kind to it. He went carefully down the steps in front of the building and stood on the sidewalk. The world was going about its business, and it came to him, as it might to a man who had been momentarily knocked senseless after a punch to the face, that he was of that world. To the left was Ninth Street and all the rest of N Street, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church at Eighth, the bank at the corner of Seventh. He flipped the coin. To his right was Tenth Street, and down Tenth were stores and the house where Abraham Lincoln had died and all the white people’s precious monuments. Up Tenth and a block to Eleventh and Q Streets was once a High’s store where, when Caesar was a boy, a pint of cherry-vanilla ice cream cost twenty-five cents, and farther down Tenth was French Street, with a two-story house with his mother’s doilies and a foot-long porcelain black puppy just inside the front door. A puppy his mother had bought for his father in the third year of their marriage. A puppy that for thirty-five years had been patiently waiting each working day for Caesar’s father to return from work. The one giant truth . . . Just one minute more. He caught the quarter and slapped it on the back of his hand. He had already decided that George Washington’s profile would mean going toward Tenth Street, and that was what he did once he uncovered the coin.
He stops at the intersection of Tenth and N streets. One way lies "Lincoln's death house"; the other way leads to Caesar's father. He sees a little girl, putting playing cards in the spokes of her bike's wheel. She watches him. He flips the coin but is dissatisfied with the result and flips it again. The story ends:
Caesar flipped the quarter. The girl's heart paused. The man's heart paused. The coin reached its apex and then it fell.
He is in a landscape dominated by a church, a bank, "white people's precious monuments," but it's also a landscape in which lies his father's house. And, as the little girl with her deck of cards looks on, he lets a coin toss decide his path.

It's a powerful story, and a fitting opener for this year's O. Henry.