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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Shirley Jackson Contest Winner – Pazit Cahlon!
We had scores of submissions, sent in from all over the world. The competition was stiff and all the stories memorable. A huge congratulations—and lots of great prizes—go out to our winner Pazit Cahlon! We also want to extend a hearty shout-out of praise to our first runner-up, Bill Gavula and our second runner-up, Megan Taylor! So, without further ado here is the winning story Let Me Tell You (all of the prose in bold is the original work of Shirley Jackson). Enjoy!
“How discombobulating and pleasurable, to judge a contest in which writers do their best Shirley Jackson impression, as if I’d been invited to a masquerade party, where everyone has come dressed up as Shirley Jackson. (And why has no one every invited me to this kind of party before? Pin the tail on the Shirley Jackson story?)
Of all the finalists (and each of the finalists was, in its own way, a success), the prose here had the kind of particular, wiry energy that animates Jackson’s own work. It introduced the kinds of complication, pricking discomfort, that are part of Jackson’s territory, her landscape. This did not feel like pastiche to me. Not a parlor trick or an impersonation: instead it felt like a genuine engagement with Jackson’s own writing, her rhythms and sensibilities, her liveliness.”
Let me tell you about this girl, she’s prettier than I am, but she’s my best friend. We have fun together. When we go to a party or to the country club dancing or horseback riding─we ride at Becket’s; no one rides at Wilson’s anymore─or ice skating or even just out for a walk, we make jokes together and tell each other everything. She’s got dark hair and dark eyes and she wears black a lot; her mother doesn’t mind. Her name’s Hilda. She’s fourteen, like me, and neither one of us believes in going steady. That’s no fun.
I try to do a lot of the things she does, but of course she’s always better. When I steal something from a store I always get caught and they call my father. Hilda has lots of things like slips and sweaters that she’s stolen from stores, and once she even stole a coat but of course she nevers wears it. We get all our clothes from the fashion shop. Everybody does. You just don’t wear a coat from anywhere else. She’s allowed to drink gin, her father’s a psychiatrist. I’m allowed champagne and a pink lady if my father makes it. My father’s a lawyer. It’s important what your father is. Also it’s important have a swimming pool only not the biggest swimming pool. One family moved into our part of town and right away they built the biggest swimming pool of all and of course no one would dream of going near it. But the most fun Hilda and I have is with the common people. The riffraff. The hoi polloi.
The way we have fun is this: we get a ride into town with someone, usually Hilda’s mother or mine, when they are going into the doctor’s or to a matinee, or on one of their shopping trips. Then we make all kinds of promises about when we will be home, and how, and usually when to meet somewhere to get home. Then we take a streetcar to some part of town where the common people live and go around and eat and talk and all the other things that people without advantages like them do. They drink beer─we’ve watched them do that─and buy clothes in department stores, and they talk to each other a lot. That’s where we have our fun, talking to the common people. They all have bad teeth. They don’t take care of themselves. They bathe, of course─everybody does, after all─but they don’t know how to cook. They eat hamburgers and french fries.
One day we got into town with Hilda’s mother and said we would meet her on the corner of nation and main at five o’clock and I guess she thought we were going to a movie. She said did we have enough money and Hilda said sure, and then she said well, have a good time, and we said sure. She never worries about our meeting bad men or something the way my mother does. My mother always wants to know exactly where we’ve been and whether any dirty men spoke to us, and Hilda and I always have to think of something to tell her, although I don’t remember ever seeing a dirty man in my life. Once we told her a man had spoken to us because Hilda had read about it in a book. She’s allowed to read anything she likes. My mother told my father and for a while they wouldn’t let me go anywhere except with people they knew. Now I’m fourteen, though, my father says it’s time I got used to the idea of the world being the way it is. My mother just says if any men speak to us we must run, unless there is a policeman nearby. Hilda’s mother doesn’t care, Hilda’s allowed to speak to anyone she wants to. This day Hilda’s mother brought us into town. She was annoyed because Hilda was wearing her brown coat, and Hilda couldn’t tell her that where we were going she couldn’t wear her fur. Anyway she let us off and said did we have enough money and then she drove away and Hilda and I stood on the corner for a minute arguing. I wanted to go downtown to some of the stores first, but Hilda had it in her mind that she wanted to go far out on the streetcar to the end of the line. Hilda won, of course; she always does because she says she won’t be friends anymore. We got on the streetcar and Hilda sat down next to a girl about twenty who was really dressed in a most ghastly fashion and I sat down next to an old man who smelled. We never got to the end of the line because Hilda kept looking at the girl next to her out of the corners of her eyes and kind of smiling and when the girl got up to get off Hilda waved her head at me and got up and we followed the girl off the bus. We like to follow people sometimes and this girl had taken Hilda’s fancy. “Did you ever see such clothes?” Hilda whispered to me when she got off the streetcar and I had to admit I never did. She was all kind of cheap perfume and everything too tight. “I think she’s a prostitute,” Hilda said, “and when we follow her we’ll find out where prostitutes go.” She was a very disappointing prostitute if she was one because she didn’t stop anyone or talk to anyone or anything, just went on down the street, and we walked along some distance behind her, talking and trying to pretend we weren’t following. We were in a very common neighborhood; there were little dirty stores and little dirty houses, and everything close up together and dirty in the streets. There were a lot of people, probably because it was a Saturday afternoon and Saturday afternoon is when the common people come out and sit on their front porches and watch ball games on television and drink beer. The girl we were following went right down the street without stopping and then she turned suddenly as though she had just thought of it and went into a little grocery store, so we hurried and came right into the store after her. It was a little store, and dark, and we stopped near the door because there were quite a few people inside and our girl standing waiting her turn.
I don’t much care for getting up close to people, and I certainly don’t like being close enough for them to touch me, but Hilda doesn’t care about anything, and so I kind of stayed near the doorway while Hilda went a little further in, kind of touching things and looking as though she had something she wanted to buy. Hilda has nerve, and she’s fun, and I wouldn’t do some of the things she does. If my mother ever found out I wouldn’t get a car for my birthday.
Anyway, Hilda was poking at loaves of bread and taking down cans and putting them back and no one was paying any attention to us because they were all talking and even the girl we followed had turned around to listen because one woman was doing most the talking and she was mad.
“No right,” she kept saying, “they hadn’t any right. I never knew the boy myself but his mother and father were decent people and they brought their kids up decent and no one had any right to accuse him without the facts.”
“They go to church, the Andersons,” someone else said, and the girl we followed said, kind of hesitating, “wasn’t it in the paper? They found some of the stuff in his room?”
“He never did a thing,” the woman who talked so much said, “I know for a fact that boy was brought up right, and when he says the other kids gave him those watches I for one believe him.”
Now I’ll show you how Hilda has fun. She kind of stepped up to the woman talking and shook her head and when the woman notices her Hilda said, very little-girl, “please, I couldn’t help hearing what you said and I guess you don’t know everything about it because we used to know the Anderson boy and he stole things all the time.”
“What?” said the woman and then, “I just simply don’t believe it.”
“It’s true,” Hilda said, nodding her head. “When I saw about it in the papers I just said so they caught him finally. He used to steal anything he could find. He stole from other kids. And once he tried to steal his own father’s car but he couldn’t get it started. I was right there and I saw him.”
“I don’t believe it,” the woman said, “I just don’t believe it.” Then she turned to Hilda and said, “What Anderson boy are you talking about? Are you sure you mean Johnny Anderson?”
“I certainly do,” Hilda said. “The one who stole the watches and said the other boys gave them to him and it was all in the paper. I used to know him and he stole things all the time.”
“Hard on his people,” another woman said, and someone else said, “No matter how hard you try to bring kids up right…”
“Well, I just never would have believed it,” the first woman said. She sighed and turned away to look at some things on a shelf. “He was always so polite, too.”
Someone started asking to have oranges measured out and the grocery clerks were putting things into bags and Hilda came over to me. “Come on,” she said, and we sneaked out. No one paid any attention to us, of course, and we went on down the street and Hilda squeezed my arm hard. “How was that?” she said, and I said, “ghastly,” which of course is our word meaning pretty wonderful. “Let’s do some more,” I said and then Hilda said, “well, it’s your turn next,” and I began to get nervous because I can’t do it anywhere near as ghastly as Hilda.
I thought I would try the newsstand on the corner because usually they’re easy, and I cheated by using an old game although of course it’s always fun. Hilda kind of stood back and I went up to the newsstand and the man behind it was selling a paper so I waited till he finished and then when he looked at me I said, “please, we’re lost, my friend and I. We don’t have enough to telephone.”
He looked at Hilda standing a way in back of me and then he looked at me again and finally he said, “Well, where do you live?”
I told him on Manica street which was all right because we had been there once and people lived there, and he looked surprised and said, “well, what are you doing all the way out here?”
This was where Hilda was always better. She would tell him something like we were trailing her father’s divorced wife, or we had seen a man kill someone and we were following him, and maybe he wouldn’t believe her but he’d kind of laugh and give in. I never had that kind of luck because I’m not as good as Hilda. All I could think of to say was, “we got on the wrong streetcar and kept thinking it would be time to get off at the right corner it was going the wrong way.”
You could tell he thought I was kind of foolish at my age to get on the wrong street car and come so far away from home but there was no real reason for him not to believe me so at last he said, “what do you want me to do?”
“We don’t have enough to telephone,” I said.
He looked at Hilda again and then at me and finally he reached into the moneybox under the stand. “Well,” he said, “I guess your folks will be worrying.” He took out two quarters. “Think you can find your way home without getting lost again?” He asked me, and I could tell he was still a little doubtful because I had done it so badly. I took the quarters and said, “oh, thank you, mister. We can get home now.”
“See that you go straight home, too,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said, and Hilda said “thank you,” and we went off toward the streetcar stop because he was still looking at us. “How did I do?” I said and Hilda said, “ghastly,” but we both knew it really wasn’t because no matter how I try I can never think of things the way Hilda can.
“I’m going to do a house,” Hilda said all of a sudden, and that really scared me because in all the time we had been having fun we had never tried a house before, but then I saw the house she was going for and I could kind of see what she had in mind. This was a little house, and it was unusual because instead of being right on the street with a little fence and all it was set far back and it had almost a garden and on one side of it was house that was clearly empty with no one living there and no curtains and the steps falling down, and on the other side was just a vacant lot.
Hilda went right up to the door and I followed. There was no doorbell and the door was light blue with its paint peeling off, but Hilda knocked on the door and we waited. While we stood there, I could see that no one had really taken care of the garden because there were cabbages that had gone all flat and weeds growing up all over the place.
We didn’t hear anything in the house, so Hilda knocked again, and louder. That’s when we heard a kind of bang, like something falling in the house and then some creaking sounds and someone coming towards the door. Hilda gave me a look and her eyes were excited, but then she turned back to face the door perfectly composed.
The door opened a little, and a woman looked out at us with an angry expression, but then I guess she saw we were both girls, and nice looking, and so she opened the door a little more. She was older than our mothers, but not quite as old as our grandmothers. She was wearing a house dress with a stain on the pocket and an apron and slippers. Her hair had grey streaks and it was not very neatly brushed. She stared at Hilda and said “Yes?” and Hilda said, “Hello, we’d like to come in and talk to you, my friend Patsy and I, about something important to—” and before I got to hear what Hilda was going to say, the woman said, “Matilda, isn’t it? Matilda or Tilda? Did your father send you? I wasn’t expecting you. Did you send a letter?”
She said it in a way that made it seem like she had really recognized Hilda, and I could see that Hilda was startled, even though she hid it well. Seeing Hilda nervous made me nervous too and I would have run away right then, but Hilda just nodded and said, “Yes, it’s me, but we came on our own.” The woman said that she hadn’t received any letter or warning, and Hilda told her that the post must have lost it.
“Well, come in. After all these years, it’s nice to get a visit from someone over there. No one ever answered any of my letters.” The woman let us in. The entry smelled like food that had been heated up out of tins, like you get at clambakes sometimes. “Your father’s a busy man, but it wasn’t the correct thing to do.”
We followed her as she walked into a dreadfully old-fashioned parlour. It was dim and the wallpaper had big ugly brown flowers on it. “I’m sorry I won’t take your coats, my arthritis is acting up, but if you sit down, I’ll make some tea.” Hilda said we only came to talk, but the woman said, well if you’ve come all this way, I insist on tea, which was funny, as we really had come a long way but she couldn’t have known that. She left for the kitchen, and we sat down on an old looking settee, and little clouds of dust sprang up when we did.
We looked around and the room was drab except for the cushions and the knick-knacks, but you could tell they weren’t good ones. There was even a figurine of a woman holding a basket of apples that looked just like the kind that Hilda’s mother collected, but you could tell it was a fake. Hilda and I took turns pointing at things in the room and making faces.
Then we heard the kettle shriek and a little bit later the woman came in with a mismatched tea set. Hilda took the tray from her and set it on the table, and the woman said thank you and excuse me and stepped out into the hallway.
Then we heard a couple of bangs, and the woman yelling “Eddie! Eddie!” and we realized she’d been banging on the ceiling with a cane or a broom or something. I thought she was calling a dog or a cat, but when she came back in she eased herself down on the big chair and gestured to Hilda to pour the tea. I was starting to be less nervous because of course, I know how to behave at tea, and Hilda would do all the talking. Also, it was amusing to see Hilda pour tea, because at her house, Hilda hardly ever served herself anything.
“I called Eddie down,” the old lady said. “I guess he’s what you’re here to talk about. I hoped that someday someone would come to talk to us.” I looked at Hilda and then at my teacup and tried to see if it was clean enough around the rim.
We heard a noise on the stairs, and it sounded like an old man or a small child taking each step slowly with both feet before moving on to the next. But then we could hear him reach our floor, and then it sounded like he was doing a funny shuffling dance and the woman leaned back in her chair, and said, “There you are, nice and easy, Eddie,” but she didn’t get up.
When Eddie came into the room, it turned out he was our age, or maybe a little older. He stopped and stared at us and his head shook, but he wasn’t saying no, he was just shaking. The woman waved him over and he shuffled further into the room. There was something wrong with him, I mean, it wasn’t just the way he was dressed, like his shirt was a little too long and his trousers were a little too short, but it was also the way he moved and the way he looked at us. My uncle and aunt who live in the country, they keep rabbits and Eddie’s eyes looked the way a rabbit’s eyes do, like he wasn’t blinking enough. It was hard to tell what he was thinking. I could see that Hilda’s face was frozen, which meant that even she was having trouble thinking up what to say.
Eddie sat down on a cane chair on my side of the settee, and I said “how do you do,” because I didn’t know what else to say to him, but I didn’t lift my eyes from my tea cup.
The woman rubbed her knees with her hands and said, “Eddie, this is Matilda and Patsy,” and then she turned to Hilda and said, “Did your father send you with any news? I try to read papers now and then, to keep up with the latest, but I haven’t heard anything about your father or his research lately.”
This was strange too, because once Hilda’s father had been mentioned in the newspaper when a visiting psychiatrist had come to town and again when there was a big conference held at the Lodge.
“Well, he does keep to himself,” Hilda said.
“I wouldn’t imagine that he could with all his patients,” the woman said. “He hasn’t closed the clinic, has he?” Eddie’s leg bounced and it startled me. “But now, maybe he is taking less on.” She sipped her tea, and her eyebrows furrowed. “I can’t say that the treatment did nothing, but I think it did too much, honestly, and I don’t know why he won’t see Eddie again. Even if we can’t pay now, he should have some interest, at least for his records, even if there’s nothing he can do now. You never know what the future holds. I even called the Catholic hospital, but they said because Dr. Holloway treated him, he is the one that should follow up.”
Hilda’s face flushed and she almost dropped her teacup on the saucer, and put them both loudly down on the tray. Dr. Holloway really is Hilda’s father. Her full name is Hilda Margaret Kemp Holloway.
The woman nodded, as if Hilda had just said the right thing.
“See, I know that he explained the procedure to me, and it’s true that Eddie hasn’t been at all violent since, and he’s much calmer, but I think something went wrong. Because he’s really like a child now, you see, and then the pills that they gave him, they make him shuffle like this. You see how he can’t stop moving? So he can’t hold down a job, or go to the technical school. Beforehand, at least he could help Arnold move boxes at the store, but now, Arnold’s afraid he’ll break things, and to tell you the truth, I’m afraid he’ll get hurt. I’m not sure which direction to go in, and what with my husband gone—” She stopped and stared at the carpet and composed herself and then looked at us again, with a face begging for help. “If something went wrong, then other doctors should learn from it, shouldn’t they? Maybe this procedure is not something they should do until they find out what happened to Eddie. I think he might have been better with the sleeping treatment instead, but of course, I’m not a doctor…”
Hilda nodded, and the woman went on to say, “You can ask him what you like if you need to take notes. I have a diary where I kept a record of his progress for a while.” Then she lowered her voice and said, “When his father left, I just couldn’t manage to take notes every day and he’s mostly been the same.” No woman we knew ever said something like that to us before–especially about her husband leaving–and it was the most ghastly thing that had ever happened to us.
“I’ll go get it,” the woman said, and then she said to the boy, “Eddie, they might ask you some questions. You answer them.” Then she left us alone in that dim room with the blotchy wallpaper, with Eddie, who was smiling at us the way a baby does, where you don’t know why they’re smiling.
Hilda looked at me and whispered that we should go, and I’d never seen her so out of sorts.
“Where are you going?” Eddie said. He reached out to the tray to get a biscuit and almost touched my leg. I moved my legs and my knees hit Hilda’s and she moved away from me. Eddie held the biscuit out to me, but I shook my head. He ate it and his eating sounded very loud. “I don’t remember a lot before the operation,” he said. “I remember a picture of you on the wall,” he said to Hilda. “With a hat on. With flowers.”
That’s when we saw that they really did know who Hilda was, even if they got her name wrong, because there is a large portrait in oil paint done of Hilda in her Easter bonnet in her father’s psychiatry office, and people always comment on how beautiful she is.
“Are you sisters?” he asked me. “I’m an only child. You sure are pretty.” And then he reached out and touched my hair and I couldn’t move, even though I wanted to. He pet my hair slowly, the way you’d pet a cat, and I closed my eyes tightly, until finally Hilda stood up and yelled “Stop that! Stop touching her!” Eddie looked upset for a just a moment, but then he smiled again like a baby.
I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and then I heard him say again, “You sure are pretty.” I looked at him and then at Hilda, and then I realized he really meant me. I look just like my Aunt Dot and no one thinks she’s pretty, and no one ever said I was pretty, especially not when Hilda was around. Hilda looked at me angrily, as if I’d done something, and said, “We’re going” but just as I put my teacup down, Eddie’s mother came back with a small leather book and asked what happened, and said that if Eddie had said something he didn’t mean anything by it and he didn’t always realize what he’d said.
“I thought it might be nice for him to see you, young people his age. He has only me, you see,” she said. “What did you ask him?”
“We’ll come back another time,” Hilda said. “My mother will be waiting.” It was strange to hear Hilda telling the truth, because she never did to parents or teachers. That was no fun.
The woman held out the little book with an expression I’d never seen before on a grown woman, like she was gambling or guessing, but not like mother’s friends at bridge.
“Matilda, please, your father can read it. I don’t know about medicine, but I wrote my…observations, I guess you call them. He could have a look, and you could bring it back after. This one is just after we brought Eddie home from the clinic.” Hilda’s face had turned stony and she stuffed her hands in the pocket of the brown coat so the woman couldn’t give her the book.
“You’ll have to call the office for an appointment,” Hilda said, and she sounded just like her mother. “Excuse us.” Hilda walked on ahead of me towards the door and I heard her fumble with the doorknob.
The woman turned to me and said, “Why’d you come then? Isn’t it what you came for? To help us?” She held the book out to me and at first I shook my head no, but then I took it and put it in my pocket. I pushed it down under my handkerchief and ran out to where Hilda was waiting on the street.
“My father shouldn’t take those charity cases. It’s a very generous thing he does. Did she give you the book?”
I shook my head. I don’t know what made me do it, but I knew if I gave it to her, I’d never get to read it.
“It’s all too ghastly,” Hilda said and I could see she meant that it wasn’t fun at all. She didn’t say anything else or even make any faces about anyone the whole ride back on the streetcar. I felt like the afternoon had cracked open like a seed, and I wanted to have a fountain drink and think all about it, but when we met Hilda’s mom, Hilda claimed she had a headache and so I sat up in the passenger seat and Hilda lay down in the back. I haven’t told her yet about taking book, but I read it now and then. If you only read the last sentence on each page of it you can almost see Eddie’s scars heal and his hair grow in. I like reading it, just to remember how other people live because we don’t go to the common parts of town so much anymore.
Considered one of the most brilliant and influential authors of the twentieth century, Shirley Jackson (1916–1965) wrote more than one hundred novels, short stories, and plays, including the iconic “The Lottery.” In her works she often explored themes of psychological turmoil, isolation, prejudice, and the inequity of fate. Many of Jackson’s works take place in the small, xenophobic towns of New England, where she and her husband, Professor Stanley Edgar Hyman, wrote and taught. When “The Lottery” was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, it engendered huge controversy and has since become one of the most anthologized short stories in literature. Her other major works include the novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House, now regarded as “the quintessential haunted house tale.” Dorothy Parker called Jackson “unparalleled as a leader in the field of beautifully written, quiet, cumulative shudders.” The Library of America recently honored Jackson by publishing an anthology of her literary works, edited by Joyce Carol Oates.
Pazit Cahlon is a writer and producer living in Toronto. After six years building puppets, production coordinating, and screenwriting for children’s television, she shifted her focus to study the craft of writing fiction. In 2009 she received the Eloise Klein Healey scholarship to attend Antioch University Los Angeles, where she earned an MFA in Creative Writing. Pazit is a co-founder and the “word” half of Together: Words and Pictures for Art & Culture, an animated content creation team.