Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

The Basics:
About Emdashes | Email us

Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


Polansky's Story Has Leg

Filed under: The Katharine Wheel: On Fiction   Tagged: , , ,

Benjamin Chambers writes:

A couple of weeks ago, I used the random number generator to find a 2004 story from The New Yorker that I’d never read before by Yoko Ogawa, “The Cafeteria in the Evening and the Pool in the Rain.” This week, it took me to to the January 24, 1994 issue of TNY and Steven Polansky’s story, “Leg.”

In the story (and yeah, there are spoilers coming), Dave Long is a forty-four-year-old whose main trouble appears to be his thirteen-year-old son Randy’s new and implacable anger, a by-product of adolescence, which he spews at Dave every chance he gets. Even Dave’s liking for reading is a target:

If Dave sent Randy to his room or otherwise disciplined him … Randy would say, in his cruelest, most hateful voice, “Why don’t you just go read a book, Mr. Reading Man, Mr. Vocabulary. Go pray, you praying mantis.”

Sliding into third in a church softball game, Dave skins his leg from knee to ankle. Except for basic First Aid, he neglects the injury. It gets infected, leaks pus all over his pants, and he spends much of the story lying on the kitchen floor or on the couch with his foot elevated until the pain is so bad he can no longer stand. Four people tell him to go see the doctor (including the doctor himself, who warns of gangrene, sepsis, and amputation); Dave cheerfully deflects each request. He finally capitulates when his son asks him to go—too late, however, to save his leg.

It’s hard to understand why this apparently normal, well-meaning man would allow a minor injury to fester and keep him home from work, why he’d lie to others in order to avoid going to the doctor. But we get our first clue shortly after he gets home the night of the softball game, hours after he’s hurt himself.

We already understand that the scrape on his leg isn’t ordinary. He’s tried staunching the blood first with a whole roll of toilet paper, then gauze. He’s even applied a dish towel fresh from boiling water to the wound.

Then he sat down on the kitchen floor, his left leg stretched out before him, and prayed.

His praying was rarely premeditated or formal. Most often it was a phototropic sort of turn, a moment in which he gave thanks or stilled himself to listen for guidance. He shied from petitionary prayer. With all he had, it felt scurvy—scriptural commendation notwithstanding—to ask for more. This night, his leg hurting to the bone, he permitted himself a request.

“Father” he said quietly, “please help me to see what I can do for Randy. He is in great pain. I love him. If it is your will, show me what I might do to bring him peace.”

His request is surprising, and gives us a sense of the line he’s going to take: his injury is of no importance, except, perhaps, as a means to healing his relationship with his son and with God.

I can’t prove it, but I suspect Dave’s relationship with God matters more to him than Randy does, though the author, like Dave himself, keeps this fact low-key. For example, I had to re-read the story to catch a second meaning when the left fielder, a pastor, calls to Dave as he’s caught between bases, “You’re dead, man.” Dave smiles at this, and then reflects, “But Pastor Jeff had the straight truth here: Dave was dead. To rights. Dave had been fast, but he was forty-four now, and he was too slow to pull this sort of stunt.”

The awkward syncopation of “Dave was dead. To rights,” is meant (clumsily I think), to call attention to Dave’s real problem. It’s not Randy: it’s the fact that he is in some way, spiritually, or perhaps in the afterlife, dead.

And then there’s the pun wrapped up in the “straight” (or strait) truth. For the very morning of the softball game, Dave and his own pastor had discussed Matthew 7:13-14, a passage that

… Dave had lately found compelling and vexing. “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Dave, pressed by his pastor, defines the “narrow gate” variously as severe, pinched, straitened, exclusive, simple, severe. Hence the extra oomph when the left fielder is described as having the “straight [strait] truth.”

Later, when Dave’s suppurating wound has confined him to the couch, he tells his pastor that he thinks that some of the faithful (meaning himself) need a prescriptive theology: “We’re sloppy. We’re slack. We’re smug. We’re just flat-out disappointing. You got to whip us into shape, or we embarrass ourselves. And each other.”

In this context, it’s possible that Dave sees his son Randy’s constant insults as a kind of necessary “straitening,” a scarifying test. By testing himself in even harsher terms and allowing his infected wound to inflict him with unrelenting pain, Dave is pushing himself through the “narrow gate” into a new life.

Which explains why Dave does not spend his time moaning or complaining. Instead, his wife describes him as “calm and reasonable and in amazingly good spirits.” When his family joins him in the living room to eat dinner and watch television, we are told that “Dave, who was light-headed and running a low-grade fever, was happy.” He has the serenity of the saved.

Dave relies on his faith to resolve his tension with Randy, yet without taking any direct action himself, a device that definitely sets the story apart. After all, it’s not everyone who would address the storms of his child’s adolescence with a strict and self-lacerating commitment to avoiding medical care, completely certain that rapprochement will result.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, it may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Thanks for waiting.)

2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree