Why did no one ever tell me about Edward P. Jones?
On Washingtonian short stories and neighbors down the hall
When M. brings me instant coffee-in-bed and pulls the duvet comforter out from over me the first question I ask, sleep still in my eyes, is whether he’s ever read anything by Edward P. Jones. He says “of course,” as if I’d just asked him about Goodnight Moon or Green Eggs and Ham. (Was I the last one left thinking all Washingtonian literature had to offer is Murder on K Street?)
“Jones is a spectacular writer,” he adds.
I’m still hungover from “Old Boys, Old Girls” — the Jones story I turned to at random in an edition of 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories that sits atop our bedside table when caffeine refused to quit my bloodstream at 3 AM. One of the central characters, Yvonne, reminds me of our neighbor — an old girl “beaten down by the world” with “only the faintest wisp of life left.” A moneylender who lives down the hall from Yvonne in a three-story group home in Northwest DC reckons a man could “have her for free.”
M. read All Aunt Hagar’s Children years ago. What sticks out in his mind are the scenes in the chow hall alongside Multrey Wilson and Tony Cathedral — how they insist Caesar fight his new cellie for the bottom bunk.
Yvonne, M. insists, comes later.
If you believe The Paris Review, our differences in recollection are normal. Jones, an interviewer remarks, is known for the compression of time. Junot Diaz once said of Lost in the City that it has a novel’s arc. Jones’ story collections contain a kind of symmetry. He starts with the youngest character and ends on the oldest and stories in his second collection align sequentially with those in the first.
Either way, I tell M., everything in “Old Boys, Old Girls” leads up to The Moment. The violence of Lorton, the drudgery of back-of-the-house industry work. There’s the clamor and chaos of it all but what remains seared in my mind is that moment of quiet — after the little girl giggles in the backseat? IMHO maybe the most evocative depiction of shame in modern literature written by an author I’d never heard of 24 hours ago but now that I have, this is a hill I will die on.
M. still thinks The Moment appears in a different story but that’s almost beside the point.
What I’m trying to say is Yvonne reminds me of our neighbor.
“So you’re saying Caesar done gone to prison, got out—”
What makes me think of Yvonne is that night M. and I stepped off the elevator. Grocery bags lined all four of our arms and our real life Yvonny appeared in the hallway to greet us, glossy-eyed. She looked us up and down, then stretched her arms and legs from wall-to-wall in the narrow corridor to block our passage. When she lost that battle, she followed at our heels down the hallway and tugged at the back of M.’s shirt. “I need you to call my son’s father,” she begged. Over and over. “I need you to call my son’s father.”
M. engaged her calmly right until we reached our apartment door. “I will,” he said. “Tomorrow, I will.”
He said it in a way that I was almost inclined to believe him — a tone almost reminiscent of that scene where Caesar stays up till the break of dawn and cleans every corner of Yvonne’s room.
“I thought we were talking about one short story?” M. says.
I’m learning that to read Jones in a DC household is to dredge up memories from street corners. That three-story group home on the 900 Block of N Street Northwest can’t be two blocks from where I found myself three Christmas Eves ago, a pair of new jeans in one hand and styrofoam coffee spilling from the other, in search of some guy named Nick. Franklin Park at 14th and K, where the protagonist bides time upon his own re-entry, is where I once snapped a picture of five differently colored squirrels circling a tree trunk that M. still insists belongs in National Geographic. And Yvonne reminds me of our neighbor.
“Doesn’t she though?” I ask.
“Dude be writing long ass stories,” M says.
There should be rules for these kinds of things.
Related Reads: The New York Times on “Edward P. Jones’s Quantified Literary World.” From the Guardian: “The two dollars a day literary sensation.”
Alicia, I still remember Jones's story "A Rich Man" that I read in The New Yorker and also used it to teach: took it right to the classroom. Here's a link: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/08/04/a-rich-man You may have to subscribe to read.
I’m so happy Edward Jones’ work is in your life now! He is an all-time all-star.