Our cat, the ample one, is asleep on top of the pillow where I lay my head at night, her eyes squeezed tight, her white-glove paws draped over its edge, her ear twittering every now and then, an antenna to the slightest perturbation. I suppose that's fine, and I ponder for a moment whether her life is merely the interstices between naps or the naps are her life. But she doesn't philosophize about such things.
Weighing down one corner of my desk is the hardbound volume of The Complete Stories, by Flannery O'Connor, illustrated by one of her beloved peacocks perched on a tree branch. It looks as if it's been through a fire, its cover smoked. I read (or perhaps re-read) the first story in it yesterday evening, and I have been thinking about it since.
"The Geranium" tells of Old Dudley, a white man from the South who has gone to live with his daughter in New York City, and now regrets it. Everyday Old Dudley watches a man across the way in another apartment building place a potted geranium on the window ledge. He expects it. He waits for it. And today was no exception. Asked by his daughter to retrieve something from a neighbor a few floors below, he goes down. On return he grows winded and collapses on the stairs. A well-dressed Negro helps him up the stairs and to his room, exploding his categories of what was appropriate.
As Old Dudley says, "He hadn't looked at the nigger yet. All the way up the stairs, he hadn't looked at the nigger. 'Well,' the nigger said, 'it's a swell place, once you get used to it.' He patted Old Dudley on the back and went into his own apartment. Old Dudley went into his. The pain in his throat was all over his face now, leaking out his eyes." When Old Dudley sat down by the window, he began to cry. He looked down and saw that the geranium had fallen off the window ledge and lay cracked on the ground below. A man was at the window. "Where is the geranium," Old Dudley quavered. "It ought to be there. Not you."
"The Geranium," the first story that O'Connor wrote, is about racism and exploding categories, about how difficult it can be to change when set in your ways, about the cognitive dissonance that is created when the categories into which we put people don't match the reality we are confronted with. The expected (a geranium on a window sill, a well-dressed Negro renting an apartment across the hall) goes missing, falls and is even cracked open, and we have to reckon with that. We cannot long live with dissonance. At once we face our own dissonance, as we empathize with the aged man forced by his infirmities to live away from his home, while recoiling at his bigotry.
My cat has shifted, now facing away from me. She sinks further into the pillow.
"Would you like to hear another story?" I say. "One about a dog? Or maybe a poem, just a little one?" I pull out Mary Oliver's collection, Red Bird, and choose a poem entitled "Percy and Books (Eight)," which I thought appropriate, and read it aloud to her:
Percy does not like it when I read a book.
He puts his face over the top of it and moans.
He rolls his eyes, sometimes he sneezes.
The sun is up, he says, and the wind is down.
The tide is out and the neighbor's dogs are playing.
But Percy, I say. Ideas! The elegance of language!
The insights, the funniness, the beautiful stories
that rise and fall and turn into strength, or courage.
Books? says Percy. I ate one once, and it was enough.
Now she is on the floor by my feet, her tail rising in a spasm every now and then. She chirps, and turns green eyes toward me, searching. Maybe she does not like it when I read a book.
"Which did you like," I said. "The one about the dog or the one about the geranium?" Is the dog poem a sentimental throwaway, I think, or is there something deeper? Is "The Geranium" one of those "beautiful stories that rise or fall and turn into strength, or courage?
But by now she's back on the cratered pillow, back turned, as if to say, "neither." And I wonder if I too, having been prodded, will now return to sleep or whether the beautiful words will have their way with me.