Thursday, April 3, 2014

C is for Cliffs of Fall

The short story collection, Cliffs of Fall, by Shirley Hazzard is a keeper because a) I'm a Shirley Hazzard fan, and b) I enjoy short stories. In my opinion there are not enough stories published these days, and I don't think we're better off for it.

Cliffs of Fall was Hazzard's first book; some of the stories originally appeared in magazines--the kind that used to publish fiction by new writers, but no more. The title is from a Gerard Manly Hopkins poem, and what I particularly love is that I can see in the poem and the stories the themes and character motivation Hazzard worked into her novels.

I don't write short stories for publication (yet), but I have a pretty big collection of freewriting drafts I've produced every two weeks or so with my writer's group. One of the things I love about my group is that we don't critique. Instead, we meet and write from a prompt; sometimes it's an evocative photo, other days we'll use a line from a magazine or a book of writing exercises, often it's a combination of the two. Over the years we've written flash fiction, poetry, personal essay, and even sections of our novels this way.

Here's an example of a flash fiction piece I wrote one afternoon when we were still meeting at the now-defunct Borders Books and Music cafe (more loss!). It's a raw, "first thoughts" piece transcribed straight from my journal, run-on sentences and all. The prompt line was "It was Sunday when it happened" and it was matched with a black-and-white photo of a sunny office stairwell looking over a grassy field.

For as long as I can remember I have loved the hidden backrooms and stairwells of office buildings. The places where you can pause, even hide, from the relentless assembly line of paperwork and ringing telephones. There is a certain feeling of stoppage—the heat pulses warm from the tinted glass and radiators; the place is so quiet. It is where you can gather your thoughts, put your head in order, believe for a moment that you might actually have a real life somewhere outside of the office.

These quiet spaces are even more appealing on the weekends, those rare occurrences when I agree to go into work alone and for extra pay plus expenses to catch up on overflowing filing trays, or to complete the bookwork that was neglected in favor of some other more important deadline. On those weekends I am given a check for lunch, but I always bring one of my own. I’d rather eat my own food anyway, and the money they give me is enough for new shoes if they’re on sale, or simply to store up in my bank account for the proverbial rainy day when I may want to bolt and quit this dull place filled with people who would rather die than smile.

So there I was, eating my cheese and apricots, a flask of latte, and a book to read after I was finished eating, all snug in my favorite back hallway, the one where the windows face the sloping lawn and the lake below. No one ever walks on this lawn or swims in the lake. Instead, it is designed for privacy and a show of power. Acres and acres of grass for no one but the executives to maintain through the largesse of the company’s enormous profits.

I had brought in a comfortable chair and a pillow. My lunch allowance gives me an hour and a half on Sundays, and I was determined to take it. I know some people try to rush through their weekend work so they can get home and forget about it, but I love the solitude and relaxation of having the building all to myself. The security guards don’t check in until five, and even the maintenance staff are gone for the day. The entire block is mine. I could eat my lunch in the boardroom if I wanted and no one would be the wiser.

So there I was, alone, happy, ready to snooze when I saw them down at the edge of the water, obviously having forgotten, or perhaps never been told, that today was my turn to spend the better part of the weekend in their employ. There was only the two of them: Mr. Channing and Miss Hellman. The thing that caught my eye was not so much the surprise of seeing them, but what they were wearing. Usually I passed them once or twice a day and had never seen them dressed like this: in white and like people going to some bizarre party where all the guests were angels or high school graduates.

For a second I wondered if they were wearing choir robes, but there was something too creative and secular about their outfits. “Organdy” was the word that went through my mind. Maybe “prom dress” or “shroud” would have been appropriate, too. I saw them open a bag--the sort you see these days in grocery stores when people want to make some kind of self-conscious snooty statement about global warming or landfills, when what they’re really doing is spreading mites and bacteria. From the bag, a deep egg yolk yellow with a sunflower on its side, they removed something large and unwieldy and threw it into the middle of the lake. Whatever it was, it hit the water like a sack of potatoes and did not resurface as I imagined it might do, if only for a second. They then left as silently as they had appeared, their white gowns floating behind them.

They sold the company the following week, and we were all paid handsomely to leave and find work elsewhere. Perhaps I will investigate diving or pond cleaning for the new owners. Somehow I will make sure I can return to my spot by the window, if only for the chance to sit and stare in quiet, as if the world was made only for me.

1 comment:

Charlotte Fairchild said...

I am so glad you wrote about the yellow thingamagig in this short account!