The Art of Distance No. 30


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.

“We are halfway through October and halfway through Edward P. Jones’s ‘Marie.’ (If you haven’t already, be sure to read part 1 and part 2 of the story.) In this week’s installment, Marie worries about the consequences of her outburst at the Social Security office and meets a surprise visitor who has come to hear the story of her life. Marie also pays a visit of her own to an ailing acquaintance as Jones offers community as an antidote to bureaucracy. Don’t forget that subscribers to the print magazine need only link their account for digital access to this whole story right now, in addition to a treasure trove of other stories, poems, landmark interviews, art portfolios, and more. May this week’s The Art of Distance offer you a brief respite from the intensities of election season and the anxieties of the pandemic.” —Craig Morgan Teicher, Digital Director

Photo courtesy of Evan-Amos / Wikimedia Commons.

For days and days after the incident she ate very little and asked God to forgive her. She was haunted by the way Vernelle’s cheek had felt, by what it was like to invade and actually touch the flesh of another person. And when she thought too hard, she imagined that she was slicing through the woman’s cheek, the way she had sliced through the young man’s hand. But as time went on she began to remember the man’s curses and the purplish color of Vernelle’s fingernails, and all remorse would momentarily take flight. Finally, one morning nearly two weeks after she slapped the woman, she woke with a phrase she had not used or heard since her children were small: You whatn’t raised that way.

It was the next morning that the thin young man in the suit knocked and asked through the door chains if he could speak with her. She thought that he was a Social Security man come to tear up her card and papers and tell her that they would send her no more checks. Even when he pulled out an identification card showing that he was a Howard University student, she did not believe.

In the end, she told him she didn’t want to buy anything, not magazines, not candy, not anything.

“No, no,” he said. “I just want to talk to you for a bit. About your life and everything. It’s for a project for my folklore course. I’m talking to everyone in the building who’ll let me. Please … I won’t be a bother. Just a little bit of your time.”

“I don’t have anything worth talkin’ about,” she said. “And I don’t keep well these days.”

“Oh, ma’am, I’m sorry. But we all got something to say. I promise I won’t be a bother.”

After fifteen minutes of his pleas, she opened the door to him because of his suit and his tie and his tie clip with a bird in flight, and because his long, dark brown fingers reminded her of delicate twigs. But had he turned out to be death with a gun or a knife or fingers to crush her neck, she would not have been surprised. “My name’s George. George Carter. Like the president.” He had the kind of voice that old people in her young days would have called womanish. “But I was born right here in D.C. Born, bred, and buttered, my mother used to say.”

He stayed the rest of the day and she fixed him dinner. It scared her to be able to talk so freely with him, and at first she thought that at long last, as she had always feared, senility had taken hold of her. A few hours after he left, she looked his name up in the telephone book, and when a man who sounded like him answered, she hung up immediately. And the next day she did the same thing. He came back at least twice a week for many weeks and would set his cassette recorder on her coffee table. “He’s takin’ down my whole life,” she told Wilamena, almost the way a woman might speak in awe of a new boyfriend.

One day he played back for the first time some of what she told the recorder:

… My father would be sitting there readin’ the paper. He’d say whenever they put in a new president, “Look like he got the chair for four years.” And it got so that’s what I saw—this poor man sitting in that chair for four long years while the rest of the world went on about its business. I don’t know if I thought he ever did anything, the president. I just knew that he had to sit in that chair for four years. Maybe I thought that by his sitting in that chair and doin’ nothin’ else for four years he made the country what it was and that without him sitting there the country wouldn’t be what it was. Maybe thas what I got from listenin’ to father readin’ and to my mother askin’ him questions ’bout what he was readin’. They was like that, you see …

George stopped the tape and was about to put the other side in when she touched his hand.

“No more, George,” she said. “I can’t listen to no more. Please … please, no more.” She had never in her whole life heard her own voice. Nothing had been so stunning in a long, long while, and for a few moments before she found herself, her world turned upside down. There, rising from a machine no bigger than her Bible, was a voice frighteningly familiar and yet unfamiliar, talking about a man whom she knew as well as her husbands and her sons, a man dead and buried sixty years. She reached across to George and he handed her the tape. She turned it over and over, as if the mystery of everything could be discerned if she turned it enough times. She began to cry, and with her other hand she lightly touched the buttons of the machine.

Between the time Marie slapped the woman in the Social Security office and the day she heard her voice for the first time, Calhoun Lambeth, Wilamena’s boyfriend, had been in and out of the hospital three times. Most evenings when Calhoun’s son stayed the night with him, Wilamena would come up to Marie’s and spend most of the evening sitting on the couch that was catty corner to the easy chair facing the big window. She said very little, which was unlike her, a woman with more friends than hairs on her head and who, at sixty-eight, loved a good party. The most attractive woman Marie knew would only curl her legs up under herself and sip whatever Marie put in her hand. She looked out at the city until she took herself to her apartment or went back down to Calhoun’s place. In the beginning, after he returned from the hospital the first time, there was the desire in Marie to remind her friend that she wasn’t married to Calhoun, that she should just get up and walk away, something Marie had seen her do with other men she had grown tired of.

Late one night, Wilamena called and asked her to come down to the man’s apartment, for the man’s son had had to work that night and she was there alone with him and she did not want to be alone with him. “Sit with me a spell,” Wilamena said. Marie did not protest, even though she had not said more than ten words to the man in all the time she knew him. She threw on her bathrobe, picked up her keys and serrated knife and went down to the second floor.

He was propped up on the bed, surprisingly alert, and spoke to Marie with an unforced friendliness. She had seen this in other dying people—a kindness and gentleness came over them that was often embarrassing for those around them. Wilamena sat on the side of the bed. Calhoun asked Marie to sit in a chair beside the bed and then he took her hand and held it for the rest of the night. He talked on throughout the night, not always understandable. Wilamena, exhausted, eventually lay across the foot of the bed. Almost everything the man had to say was about a time when he was young and was married for a year or so to a woman in Nicodemus, Kansas, a town where there were only black people. Whether the woman had died or whether he had left her, Marie could not make out. She only knew that the woman and Nicodemus seemed to have marked him for life.

“You should go to Nicodemus,” he said at one point, as if the town was only around the corner. “I stumbled into the place by accident. But you should go on purpose. There ain’t much to see, but you should go there and spend some time there.”

Toward four o’clock that morning, he stopped talking and moments later he went home to his God. Marie continued holding the dead man’s hand and she said the Lord’s Prayer over and over until it no longer made sense to her. She did not wake Wilamena. Eventually the sun came through the man’s Venetian blinds, and she heard the croaking of the pigeons congregating on the window ledge. When she finally placed his hand on his chest, the dead man expelled a burst of air that sounded to Marie like a sigh. It occurred to her that she, a complete stranger, was the last thing he had known in the world and that now that he was no longer in the world. All she knew of him was that Nicodemus place and a lovesick woman asleep at the foot of his bed. She thought that she was hungry and thirsty, but the more she looked at the dead man and the sleeping woman, the more she realized that what she felt was a sense of loss.


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