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I adore this story.  I’m not sure how long ago it was—six, seven, eight years?—but there was a day when my friend Tammy and I drove all the way from Ellisville to Oxford talking about how we were going to stage “The Petrified Man.”  Tammy would be Leota.  I would be Mrs. Fletcher.  We didn’t care whether we had any other characters.  We figured we could cover for them.  All we needed was a chair, a beautician’s cape, and some rollers, and we’d be good to go. 

 

The story speaks to us.  It sings to us.  It belts one out.  So much depends upon a Southern beauty shop.  Most of the best gossip I know has come to me in conversations that started with the sentence, “So and so got her hair done today, and…” 

 

I love this story most of all because it lives where I live, or at least somewhere very close by.

 

I particularly love the part where the woman comes into the shop while in labor to have her hair washed and set before going on to the hospital.  I love the particulars of the contents of Leota’s purse.  I love the way Mrs. Pike is a hero for half the story and a villain for the other half, to Leota at any rate.  I love the conflicting (or so they seem) versions of feminism that creep into the beauty shop talk.

Mrs. Fletcher thinks that woman who had her hair done on the way to have her baby needed a husband who would “make her behave.”  Yet Mrs. Fletcher is pregnant, hasn’t told her husband yet, and has contemplated terminating the pregnancy without telling him at all.  When questioned on what she’d do if this made him angry, she just says, “Mr. Fletcher can’t do a thing with me.”

 

Women should not be soft, Mrs. Fletcher says.  They “have to stand up to themselves, or else there’s just no telling.”  That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t seek their husbands’ advice on important matters like she does, like whether or not to get a new permanent in her hair.

 

There’s a certain guilelessness to these characters.  Leota appears to accept without question that the petrified man in the freak show is petrified because his food has turned to stone.  No healthy skepticism there.  Likewise, Mrs. Fletcher shows no self-awareness in her hypocrisy other believing one woman’s husband should take charge of her when she has already stated that her own can do nothing to control her if she doesn’t want him to.

 

But these aren’t weak or ignorant people.  Leota is the major bread winner in her home, and her troubles mainly seem to come from a husband whose primary occupation is to “lay around the house like a rug.”  She’s confident in her skills.  When she’s questioned about whether she may have let a perm set too long, she assures Mrs. Fletcher that it set exactly the time “she had coming.”

 

On the surface , this is a story about the falling out of two new friends (as told to us in a conversation between two old friends).  Mrs. Pike is at first amazing and stylish and all things interesting to Leota, having come from New Orleans and brought with her some variety and sharp thinking.  None of that is enough, however, to withstand petty jealousy and a dispute over money and a strange twist of fate.  We see the pettiness and naiveté of Leota come out over the issue of the petrified man.  Yet we also see that despite her upset, life as she knows it will continue. 

 

Maybe that’s what’s petrified.  No matter how many Mrs. Pikes there are the world, life in the beauty shop will go on exactly the same.  And that’s not so bad.  There the women learn what’s going on in the lives of those around them, make important decisions, and bolster each other’s sense of self worth.  All that and a henna job too.  

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Something about the tone of this story reminds me of Virginia Woolf.   Certainly Welty would have been familiar with Woolf, yet the connection is not so easy to pinpoint.  It has to do with the subtle, and not entirely subtle, ironies.  It also has to do with the fact that through much of “A Piece of News” we are following the thoughts of a woman alone in a room.  There you go.  Woolf did that.  There’s my connection.

 

In this story we meet Ruby Fisher who reads in a newspaper that Ruby Fisher has been shot by her husband.  Though this Ruby has not been shot by her husband or otherwise, she’s fascinated with the idea that he might shoot her.  Honestly, through this part of the story I was hoping for a Twilight Zone twist in which her fantasy of being shot makes it so, but that would not have been Welty.  In her version, there is no shooting at all, only the report thereof from a newspaper that turns out not to even be a local paper.

 

However, there’s much more to it than that.  Ruby doesn’t have the most ideal marriage, and while she has not been shot—something she sees as dramatic enough that her husband would have to be sorry—she has in fact been hit.  Such subtle irony.  Such a beautifully powerful piece of fiction.

 

 

This first story in A Curtain of Green, and my first to read for this blog, reminds me why I love Welty.  I always love to read stories brimming with familiarity of place and character.  Since a large part of Lily Daw revolves around discussion of shipping Lily off to the “Ellisville Institute for the Feeble-Minded of Mississippi,” I certainly have that covered.  I drive past the actual Ellisville State School, as we refer to it these days, every day on my way to work.

 

Yet my recognition of the story goes beyond a mere place-marker.  I feel like I know these people.  I feel like I know this language.  I even speak it.

 

Lily what I think we now call developmentally delayed.  She is capable of living on her own, but she is not entirely competent.  Her mother is dead, and she’s been rescued from her father who once took after her with a butcher knife.  Thus, she’s under the supervision—in a loose, neighborly, busy-body way—of three well-intentioned if misguided women.  The ladies have decided to send her off to Ellisville for her own good.  Lily has other plans.  She wants to get married.  After some back and forth, and a few missteps, they all end up at the train station where Lily only narrowly escapes being sent to Ellisville after all just as her xylophone playing man shows up to claim her as his bride.

 

Unlike O’Connor or others of the Southern Gothic persuasion, Welty’s story contains no real violence, no overt tragedy.  What violence has been done is well in the past.   What tragedy might come appears to have been handily averted.  It is a simple story with a simple, straightforward ending.

 

Or is it?

 

Deceptively simple is probably a more apt description.

 

The reader isn’t overly pressed with the sadness of Lily’s plight, yet who could really miss that the sadness is there.  She’s a motherless girl.  Those who have taken charge of her seem eager to rid themselves of their responsibilities.  She’s offered two choices only—marriage or an institution.  We think she’s won the coin toss on this in ending up with marriage, but what do we really know about the marriage?  Absolutely nothing.  She marries a man she has known only one day.  Her protectors don’t show any genuine concern that they know nothing of him, or that he has a somewhat disreputable occupation as a musician for a travelling show—one that the preacher’s wife who looks after Lily would not even be allowed to attend.

 

In this way, a story that could be sweet, comical, and easy on the senses, leaves us with more questions than answers.  What really happens to Lily?  We have no way of knowing, and that, my friends, is the point.  We know only that she will no longer be the responsibility of the three ladies who consider themselves her saving grace.  What happens to her next is someone else’s worry, though we can hardly imagine this will stop the ladies from continuing to meddle.

November 2018
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