The first time I read Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.,” (you know, the story you read in high school to learn about unreliable narrators), I took everything the narrator said for gospel. I followed carefully along, point by point, as she mounted her case against her family and justified her every move, completely unaware of the irony, obvious to everyone with any literary sensitivity or a copy of the Sparknotes, that with every piece of evidence Sister recites, she is exposing herself as a vindictive, score-keeping bitch. I only knew one way to listen to someone, and that was to gather the facts as she laid them down.
So for me, “Why I Live at the P.O.” read like a slam dunk prosecutor’s case in a courtroom drama, and as a fan of “Law and Order” I wanted more. Imagine my confusion when I sat down to read “Keela the Outcast Indian Maiden,” the tale of a retired chicken-head-eating carnival geek who receives a visit from a feckless former colleague, accompanied by a local shopkeeper who wants to have nothing to do with either of them.
In this story, too, there is something like a trial, only here, the prosecution rested its case ages ago, and the verdict passed not guilty, but the defense continues pleading in the most inept style. Nobody seems to be listening to anyone and there are always at least two conversations going on at once. In short, the first time I read “Keela” I felt disoriented and confused and did not want to read any more Welty.
This week I read the story again, but this time I paid attention to the physical details, instead of rushing past them to get to the action and dialog (as TV has trained me to do). Now here is another way to listen to someone, that you have to learn if you’re going to understand Eudora Welty. When people talk about body language, usually they mean that the position of a person’s body expresses a feeling the person has. But whose feelings are expressed in a tableau like this: “The little man at the head of the steps where the chickens sat, one on each step, and the two men facing each other below made a pyramid.” Here, “body language” would mean that bodies in the physical world speak by way of their relations to each other, and that human beings take responsibility for the saying of things when they step in among these relations. And in some way the saying is the thing itself. Here, three unimportant men are responsible for justice. A higher justice, in which the defendant pays homage to the plaintiff, and the witness for the prosecution faces judgment together with the defendant as his brother.
Yes, I am still talking about a short story about a sideshow barker, a geek, and some other third guy who just wants to go home. Read it if you don’t believe me.