Well, I’m a little over three weeks into this new fatherhood thing (our son having arrived auspiciously early last month), so it was rather serendipitous that Ron Rash’s long-nursed Something Rich and Strange short-story collection (seriously, I’ve been working this one for like three years) was in closest reach when I found myself with a short window of respite.
The next story up just happened to be “Badeye” and I don’t know if it was simply the pure joy I found in being able to read something amidst the exhaustion that made me feel the way I felt about it, but, man, it’s got to be my new favorite short story of his. Like an Appalachian set Stand-by-Me where the narrator reaches back to his childhood and tells us, “That summer was the longest of my life…”, Rash’s story is about a little boy who loved snowcones and snakes, his mother’s spiritual and moral battle against both, how he found a way to connect to his previously distant father, how the father comes through in a big way in the boy’s time of need, the mysterious man who delivered the snowcones, the secrets both adults and children keep from each other, and the tales we weave about it all.
It instantly brought to mind one of my favorite short-stories of all time from arguably the greatest short-story writer of all-time, Raymond Carver’s “Bicycles, Muscles, and Cigarets” from his Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (fitting words for this time in my life) collection. Like Rash’s “Badeye”, Carver’s masterpiece is also about a father and son, and the secrets both adults and children keep from each other. Carver’s harried, cluttered, suburbia of 1950’s California seems a far cry from Rash’s brutal yet beautiful Appalachia of the same time period, yet the stories share universal themes, and as a new father with a newborn son, I can appreciate them on an added level above just their brilliant craftmanship.
I’ll leave with you some brief passages from both, and encourage you to seek these stories out to compare and contrast on your own…
The following is from early on in Carver’s “Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarets” when the tired father, who just got home from a long day’s work, is led by a neighbor boy to the house where his son has apparently gotten himself into some trouble over a bike:
“They turned a corner. The boy pushed himself along, keeping just slightly ahead. Hamilton saw an orchard, and then they turned another corner onto a dead-end street. He hadn’t known the existence of this street and was sure he would not recognize any of the people who lived here. He looked around him at the unfamiliar houses and was struck by the range of his son’s personal life.”
The story piercingly renders the chasms that form between children and parents as both get older, and closes with a touching bedside chat between father and son where the father relays one of his favorite childhood memories to his nine year-old boy, and the boy, who like his dad has tried to be tough all day long, says to his father, “Dad? You’ll think I’m pretty crazy, but I wish I’d known you when you were little. I mean, about as old as I am right now. I don’t know how to say it, but I’m lonesome about it. It’s like – it’s like I miss you already if I think about it now. That’s pretty crazy, isn’t it? Anyway, please leave the door open.”
And here’s the poignant closing passage from Rash’s “Badeye”, the narrator expertly summing up the meaning of it all, and the lasting power of the memories that existed on the periphery of the harrowing events (including a poisonous snake bite) of that longest summer…
“I remember my mother staring out the kitchen window that autumn as the dogwood tree began to shed its leaves. It would not be until years later that I would understand how beautiful those falling leaves made her feel, for they signaled summer’s end and the coming of cold weather, the first frost that would banish snakes (including the coral snake we never found), as well as Badeye and his snowcones. But I also remember the first bite of my first snowcone that June evening when Badeye suddenly appeared on our street. Nothing else has ever tasted so good.”
Written by David H. Schleicher