The Art of Distance No. 31


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.

“Below, we offer the fourth and final installment of ‘Marie,’ by Edward P. Jones, originally published in the Review in 1992. Over the past month, we’ve read along as Jones explores the frustrations of government bureaucracy, the balm of friendship, and the consequences of a strong, open-palmed slap. The story examines what happens when society overlooks and underappreciates the elderly, and what can come to pass when those same elders are acknowledged and embraced. I will hold on to the lines that closed last week’s installment of ‘Marie’ for a long time: ‘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.’ So many have felt a sense of loss this year; that grief can take on a more visceral sensation, an emptiness or need. But I will also remember Jones’s recollection of what inspired him to write ‘Marie’ and the other stories of his first collection, Lost in the City. In his Art of Fiction interview, he explains that after grad school, he moved to Northern Virginia and all but stopped writing. ‘I just went back to living my life, you know, but I was thinking about the stories. I felt, partly, that I wasn’t really ready or able to do them. Then, in the late eighties, two guys died whom I had worked with … They had both wanted to be writers. And I thought, Here I am, still alive, in good health … It seemed a shame to continue like that, so I started working on the stories.’ I don’t posit that every loss can encourage someone to take up a torch—life’s correlation is nowhere near that neat. But I don’t want to forget that the two can exist alongside one another, loss and inspiration, the missed opportunity and the realized one. With that, enjoy the conclusion of ‘Marie,’ and have a safe week.” —EN

P.S. If you haven’t already, be sure to read part 1, part 2, and part 3 of “Marie.”

Photo: Ben Franske. CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Two days later, the Social Security people sent her a letter, again signed by John Smith, telling her to come to them one week hence. There was nothing in the letter about the slap, no threat to cut off her SSI payments because of what she had done. Indeed, it was the same sort of letter John Smith usually sent. She called the number at the top of the letter, and the woman who handled her case told her that Mr. White would be expecting her on the day and time stated in the letter. Still, she suspected the Social Security people were planning something for her, something at the very least that would be humiliating. And, right up until the day before the appointment, she continued calling to confirm that it was okay to come in. Often, the person she spoke to after the switchboard woman and before the woman handling her case was Vernelle. “Social Security Administration. This is Vernelle Wise. May I help you?” And each time Marie heard the receptionist identify herself she wanted to apologize. “I whatn’t raised that way,” she wanted to tell the woman.

George Carter came the day she got the letter to present her with a cassette machine and copies of the tapes they had made about her life. It took quite some time for him to teach her how to use the machine, and after he was gone, she was certain it took so long because she really did not want to know how to use it. That evening, after her dinner, she steeled herself and put a tape marked “Parents/Early Childhood” in the machine.

… My mother had this idea that everything could be done in Washington, that a human bein’ could take all they troubles to Washington and things would be set right. I think that was all wrapped up with her notion of the gov’ment, the Supreme Court and the president and the like. “Up there,” she would say, “things can be made right.” “Up there” was her only words for Washington. All them other cities had names, but Washington didn’t need a name. It was just called “up there.” I was real small and didn’t know any better, so somehow I got to thinkin’ since things were on the perfect side in Washington, that maybe God lived there. God and his people … When I went back home to visit that first time and told my mother all about my livin’ in Washington, she fell into such a cry, like maybe I had managed to make it to heaven without dyin’. Thas how people was back in those days …

The next morning she looked for Vernelle Wise’s name in the telephone book. And for several evenings she would call the number and hang up before the phone had rung three times. Finally, on a Sunday, two days before the appointment, she let it ring and what may have been a little boy answered. She could tell he was very young because he said hello in a too loud voice, as if he was not used to talking on the telephone.

“Hello,” he said. “Hello, who this? Granddaddy, that you? Hello. Hello. I can see you.”

Marie heard Vernelle tell him to put down the telephone, then another child, perhaps a girl somewhat older than the boy, came on the line. “Hello. Hello. Who is this?” she said with authority. The boy began to cry, apparently because he did not want the girl to talk if he couldn’t. “Don’t touch it,” the girl said. “Leave it alone.” The boy cried louder and only stopped when Vernelle came to the telephone.

“Yes?” Vernelle said. “Yes.” Then she went off the line to calm the boy who had begun to cry again.

“Loretta,” she said, “go get his bottle … Well, look for it. What you got eyes for?”

There seemed to be a second boy, because Vernelle told him to help Loretta look for the bottle. “He always losin’ things,” Marie heard the second boy say. “You should tie everything to his arms.” “Don’t tell me what to do,” Vernelle said. “Just look for that damn bottle.”

“I don’t lose noffin’. I don’t,” the first boy said. “You got snot in your nose.”

“Don’t say that,” Vernelle said before she came back on the line. “I’m sorry,” she said to Marie. “Who is this? … Don’t you dare touch it if you know what’s good for you!” she said. “I wanna talk to grandaddy,” the first boy said. “Loretta, get me that bottle!”

Marie hung up. She washed her dinner dishes. She called Wilamena because she had not seen her all day, and Wilamena told her that she would be up later. The cassette tapes were on the coffee table beside the machine, and she began picking them up, one by one. She read the labels: Husband No. 1, Working, Husband No. 2, Children, Race Relations, Early D.C. Experiences, Husband No. 3. She had not played another tape since the one about her mother’s idea of what Washington was like, but she could still hear the voice, her voice. Without reading its label, she put a tape in the machine.

… I never planned to live in Washington, had no idea I would ever even step one foot in this city. This white family my mother worked for, they had a son married and gone to live in Baltimore. He wanted a maid, somebody to take care of his children. So he wrote to his mother and she asked my mother and my mother asked me about goin’ to live in Baltimore. Well, I was young. I guess I wanted to see the world, and Baltimore was as good a place to start as anywhere. This man sent me a train ticket and I went off to Baltimore. Hadn’t ever been kissed, hadn’t ever been anything, but here I was goin’ farther from home than my mother and father put together … Well, sir, the train stopped in Washington, and I thought I heard the conductor say we would be stoppin’ a bit there, so I got off. I knew I probably wouldn’t see no more than that Union Station, but I wanted to be able to say I’d done that, that I step foot in the capital of the United States. I walked down to the end of the platform and looked around, then I peeked into the station. Then I went in. And when I got back, the train and my suitcase was gone. Everything I had in the world on the way to Baltimore …

… I couldn’t calm myself down enough to listen to when the redcap said another train would be leavin’ for Baltimore, I was just that upset. I had a buncha addresses of people we knew all the way from home up to Boston, and I used one precious nickel to call a woman I hadn’t seen in years, cause I didn’t have the white people in Baltimore number. This woman come and got me, took me to her place. I ’member like it was yesterday that we got on this streetcar marked 13TH AND ONE. The more I rode, the more brighter things got. You ain’t lived till you been on a streetcar. The further we went on that streetcar—dead down in the middle of the street—the more I knowed I could never go live in Baltimore. I knowed I could never live in a place that didn’t have that streetcar and them clackety-clack tracks.

She wrapped the tapes in two plastic bags and put them in the dresser drawer that contained all that was valuable to her: birth and death certificates, silver dollars, life insurance policies, pictures of her husbands and the children they had given each other and the grandchildren those children had given her and the great-grands whose names she had trouble remembering. She set the tapes in a back corner of the drawer, away from the things she needed to get her hands on regularly. She knew that however long she lived, she would not ever again listen to them, for in the end, despite all that was on the tapes, she could not stand the sound of her own voice.


Read Edward P. Jones’s Art of Fiction interview, which is free for a limited time. And don’t forget that as a subscriber, you can unlock “Marie” in its entirety today, along with many, many more stories.