The Golden Gift of Grey is set in the midwestern United States – a far cry from the first two stories in this volume, both about small town fishing and mining families in Cape Breton. However, there are many similarities between this, The Boat, and The Vastness of the Dark, some of which are identified in Marcie’s review of The Golden Gift of Grey.
The story is about 18-year-old Jesse who gets drawn into the whole-different-world of a pool hall.
Over everything and all of them the odour hung and covered and pressed like the roof of a gigantic invisible tent from which there could be no escape. It smelled of work clothes, soaked and dried in sweat and seldom washed, and of spilled beer and of the sour rags used to mop it up, and of the damp and decaying wood that lay beneath the floor, and of the reek that issued forth from the constantly swinging doors of the men’s washroom…
Each night he watches the men play pool until he is offered a turn to play himself. After that, nothing can stop him – not even his little brother at the door begging him to come home so his parents can stop worrying. Jesse imagines all will be well when he brings his winnings home to his parents.
The story is also about the complex relationship between Jesse and his parents. There is love for his parents, but also shame. Both parents are “barely literate” and “looked upon ‘studyen’ and whatever it might entail with a deep respect not far removed from fear.”
Yet while they were sometimes angry and tried to be contemptuous of “book learnen” and people who were just “book smart” they encouraged both as much as they could, seeing there a light that had never visited their darkness, but realizing that even as they fanned the flame they were losing a grip on almost all they had of life. And feeling themselves as if washed by a flood down the side of a shale-covered Kentucky mountain, clutching grasping at twigs and roots with their hopeful fingers bloodied raw.
And when their parents’ music could be heard through the windows of their house, it “branded their parents indelibly as hillbillies and they themselves as well, as extensions of those parents.”
But when Jesse was on his way home with his pocket full of money (“the first worthwhile gift that he would give to those from whom he had always taken”), he was “filled with a great love for the strange people that were his parents” and he was “ashamed now of the times he had been ashamed of them.” And when he arrived home and heard about how worried they had been about him, he “filled with love because of their concern.”
And they would all squirm and his mother would dry glasses that were already dry, and Mary and Donny would glance furtively at one another, while the heavy-set man, now fully awake and puffing on his pipe, would walk from one window to the next, shielding his eyes against the glass while trying to catch a glimpse of his eldest son approaching beneath the street lights. He would walk ceaselessly back and forth with the long, loping outdoor stride which he had brought to the northern Indiana city from eastern Kentucky and which he could not or would not change and he would mutter: “Where is that fella?” or more strongly, “Where’n hell’s that boy at and it goen on past twelve midnight?” And his wife would watch too, as intently but secretly, so that her husband would not see and become more agitated because of her awareness.
This last passage shows, beneath the concern for Jesse, the fear in the house garnered by the violent potential of the father, pacing and muttering. “He thought then of the awful violence that was within his father; a something that rumbled deep below like some subterranean mountain stream of roaring white water, splashing and pounding dark rocks within deep unseen caves.” And his wife, like so many wives before her (and after), trying to hold in her own emotions so as not to make her husband’s worse. This is something new; something I don’t remember seeing in the first two stories. I wonder if we will see it again.
This post is part of Buried in Print’s short story project for which she plans to re-read all of Alistair MacLeod’s short stories.