The Art of Distance No. 29


The Art of Distance

In March, The Paris Review launched The Art of Distance, a newsletter highlighting unlocked archive pieces that resonate with the staff of the magazine, quarantine-appropriate writing on the Daily, resources from our peer organizations, and more. Read Emily Nemens’s introductory letter here, and find the latest unlocked archive selection below.

“This week we continue our serialization of Edward P. Jones’s ‘Marie,’ a timely story from our archive about a tough-minded woman who seeks connection while facing the challenges of aging and bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. If you missed part 1, you can read it here and then scroll down for the next installment of the story. We’ll post parts 3 and 4 in the coming weeks. Don’t forget that subscribers to the print magazine need only link their account for digital access to a treasure trove of stories, poems, landmark interviews, art portfolios, and more. As ever, we wish you a safe and sane week and hope that this story provides focus, calm, and a bit of relief. Read on for part 2 of ‘Marie,’ by Edward P. Jones.” —Craig Morgan Teicher, Digital Director

Photo: © Peter / Adobe Stock.

Nothing fit Marie’s theory about life like the weather in Washington. Two days before, the temperature had been in the forties, and yesterday it had dropped to the low twenties, then warmed up a bit with the afternoon, bringing on snow flurries. Today the weather people on the radio had said it would warm up enough to wear just a sweater, but Marie was wearing her coat. And tomorrow, the weather people said, it would be in the thirties, with maybe an inch or so of snow.

Appointments near twelve o’clock were always risky, because the Social Security people often took off for lunch long before noon and returned sometime after one. And except for a few employees who seemed to work through their lunch hours, the place shut down. Marie had never been interviewed by someone willing to work through the lunch hour. Today, though the appointment was for eleven, she waited until one thirty before the woman at the front of the waiting room told her she would have to come back another day, because the woman who handled her case was not in.

“You put my name down when I came in like everything was all right,” Marie said after she had been called up to the woman’s desk.

“I know,” the woman said, “but I thought that Mrs. Brown was in. They told me she was in. I’m sorry.” The woman began writing in a logbook that rested between her telephone and a triptych of photographs. She handed Marie a slip and told her again she was sorry.

“Why you have me wait so long if she whatn’t here?” She did not want to say too much, appear too upset, for the Social Security people could be unforgiving. And though she was used to waiting three and four hours, she found it especially unfair to wait when there was no one for her at all behind those panels the Social Security people used for offices. “I been here since before eleven.”

“I know,” the woman behind the desk said. “I know. I saw you there, ma’am, but I really didn’t know Mrs. Brown wasn’t here.” There was a nameplate at the front of the woman’s desk and it said Vernelle Wise. The name was surrounded by little hearts, the kind a child might have drawn.

Marie said nothing more and left.

The next appointment was two weeks later, eight thirty, a good hour, and the day before a letter signed by John Smith arrived to remind her. She expected to be out at least by twelve. Three times before eleven o’clock Marie asked Vernelle Wise if the man, Mr. Green, who was handling her case, was in that day, and each time the woman assured her that he was. At twelve, Marie ate one of the two oranges and three of the five slices of cheese she had brought. At one, she asked again if Mr. Green was indeed in that day and politely reminded Vernelle Wise that she had been waiting since about eight that morning. Vernelle was just as polite and told her the wait would soon be over.

At one fifteen, Marie began to watch the clock hands creep around the dial. She had not paid much attention to the people about her, but more and more it seemed that others were being waited on who had arrived long after she had gotten there. After asking about Mr. Green at one, she had taken a seat near the front and, as more time went by, she found herself forced to listen to the conversation that Vernelle was having with the other receptionist next to her.

“I told him … I told him … I said just get your things and leave,” said the other receptionist, who didn’t have a nameplate.

“Did he leave?” Vernelle wanted to know.

“Oh, no,” the other woman said. “Not at first. But I picked up some of his stuff, that Christian Dior jacket he worships. I picked up my cigarette lighter and that jacket, just like I was gonna do something bad to it, and he started movin’ then.”

Vernelle began laughing. “I wish I was there to see that.” She was filing her fingernails. Now and again she would look at her fingernails to inspect her work, and if it was satisfactory, she would blow on the nails and on the file. “He back?” Vernelle asked.

The other receptionist eyed her. “What you think?” and they both laughed.

Along about two o’clock Marie became hungry again, but she did not want to eat the rest of her food because she did not know how much longer she would be there. There was a soda machine in the corner, but all sodas gave her gas.

“You know who gonna call you again?” the other receptionist was asking Vernelle.

“I hope so,” Vernelle said. “He pretty fly. Seemed decent too. It kinda put me off when he said he was a car mechanic. I kinda like kept tryin’ to take a peek at his fingernails and everything the whole evenin’. See if they was dirty or what.”

“Well, that mechanic stuff might be good when you get your car back. My cousin’s boyfriend used to do that kinda work and he made good money, girl. I mean real good money.”

“Hmmmm,” Vernelle said. “Anyway, the kids like him, and you know how peculiar they can be.”

“Tell me ’bout it. They do the job your mother and father used to do, huh? Only on another level.”

“You can say that again,” Vernelle said. Marie went to her and told her how long she had been waiting.

“Listen,” Vernelle said, pointing her fingernail file at Marie. “I told you you’ll be waited on as soon as possible. This is a busy day. So I think you should just go back to your seat until we call your name.” The other receptionist began to giggle.

Marie reached across the desk and slapped Vernelle Wise with all her might. Vernelle dropped the file, which made a cheap, tinny sound when it hit the plastic board her chair was on. But no one heard the file because she had begun to cry right away. She looked at Marie as if, in the moment of her greatest need, Marie had denied her. “Oh, oh,” Vernelle Wise said through the tears. “Oh, my dear God … ”

The other receptionist, in her chair on casters, rolled over to Vernelle and put her arm around her. “Security!” the other receptionist hollered. “We need security here!”

The guard at the front door came quickly around the corner, one hand on his holstered gun and the other pointing accusingly at the people seated in the waiting area. Marie had sat down and was looking at the two women almost sympathetically, as if a stranger had come in, hit Vernelle Wise, and fled.

“She slapped Vernelle!” said the other receptionist.

“Who did it?” the guard said, reaching for the man sitting beside Marie. But when the other receptionist said it was the old lady in the blue coat, the guard held back for the longest time, as if to grab her would be like arresting his own grandmother. He stood blinking and he would have gone on blinking had Marie not stood up.

She was too flustered to wait for the bus and so took a cab home. With both chains, she locked herself in the apartment, refusing to answer the door or the telephone the rest of the day and most of the next. But she knew that if her family or friends received no answer at the door or on the telephone, they would think something had happened to her. So the next afternoon, she began answering the phone and spoke with the chain on, telling Wilamena and others that she had a toothache.


Want to keep reading? Subscribers can unlock the whole story today. Otherwise, tune in next Monday for part 3, and meanwhile, check out Edward P. Jones’s unlocked Art of Fiction interview.