Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 27: "The Boy on the Train" by Arthur Robinson

I'm about a month behind on my Deal Me In reading and reviewing. Summer vacation happened to me (I'm not complaining though). Now it's time to catch up, which I plan to do over the next few days.

This story, originally published in the New Yorker, was chosen by the 6 of hearts -- which led me to The Best American Short Stories 1989. This is fast becoming my favorite of the four BASS volumes this year, probably because Margaret Atwood chose the stories.

At first glance, I thought this was going to be another "significant childhood event" story, and I was a little put off by that since I have had a rash of these kinds of stories lately. It did start out that way, but it quickly blossomed into something much more.

The story opens with little Lewis Fletcher, age 5, traveling by himself on the train all the way from Jacksonville, Florida to Camden, New York. The first his family hears of this, however, is 50 years later, when this factoid is printed as part of a "50 years ago today" feature in the local newspaper. This ignorance on the part of his family turns out to be not such a surprise, however, because we soon learn that Lewis is a no-nonsense, nose-to-the-grindstone kind of person who doesn't know how to relate to his wife and children very well, although the reader gradually realizes that he wants to relate, and he certainly does try.

Perhaps the most telling picture of Lewis as an adult and father comes as his three children -- Howard, Edward, and Sarah -- are discussing this pivotal event in their father's life:

In the evening, when their parents had gone to bed and the children stayed up talking, Sarah might say in a reverential tone, "Can you imagine him traveling alone from Jacksonville to Camden when he was five?" The two others -- Howard, the oldest, and Edward -- would say they could imagine it, that it was the easiest thing in the world to imagine. The picture they'd then conjure up was of a five-year-old old man with white hair, steel-rimmed bifocals, and a hearing aid that he kept turned off to save the flat, half-pint-shaped battery. (Edward and Howard had never thought of him as anything but an old man, even when they were small and he was in his thirties.) He would have dickered, they'd say, with the railroad until it agreed to give him a ticket in exchange for some worn-out toys, and he would have worked a deal in the dining car for his food, perhaps agreeing to polish silver. He would have brought along candy, fruit, and tattered copies of old newspapers to sell on the train. When he wasn't busy selling, or polishing silver, he'd be doing his bookkeeping. At every stop, he'd buy more stuff to sell, and at Jersey City he'd trade some of his inventory for the ferry ride to Manhattan. He'd be too busy to see the Hudson River or the Mohawk Valley, and when there was nothing else to do he'd make notes for the lectures he'd someday give his sons on How to Get Ahead and Be Somebody.

Of course, Howard and Edward's main goal in life is to make their father as miserable as possible, which they do with a series of shenanigans that make the story quite humorous. But later in the story, grown-up and with families of their own, they begin to appreciate the challenges that their father must have encountered with trying to raise them. It's not maudlin at all, but a rather bittersweet conclusion to a very satisfying story.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.