Stories fail if you only read them once. You’ve got to meet a story again and again, in different moods, at different eras of your life.
This morning I returned to “First Day of Winter,” the final story in one writer’s first, last, and only book: The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. This morning, in California, I went home again to that little kitchen in West Virginia, to that half-mad mother, to that blind old dying father, and to their son Hollis, trying to keep his small, fragile family together even though he knows that the failing farm won’t sustain them for much longer, especially with another long winter coming.
Why Breece Pancake today? I only know I woke up early and looked over my shelves and searched for something that would slow me down and knock me flat. It also might be that I felt I needed, today, “First Day of Winter” because my own father’s hold on this world seems to be loosening. I think of him now, in Chicago, in front of the television, his every hour becoming more and more the same. My father in retreat. So strange for such a restless, curious man, a man who used to get up and look for ways to conquer every day.
I’ve always resisted the idea of fiction as comfort. Instead, I’ve always insisted to myself and to other people, that in order to be good, fiction must be a disruptive force, that the best stories are ones that shake us out of complacency, period. Though this remains a bedrock belief, I have to admit that there have been mornings lately when I have also looked to fiction to provide a kind of solace as well, when reality (whatever this is) is a little more than I can take. When only fiction can help me make sense of things. You know what I mean.
So today I read “First Day of Winter” slow, the sun hardly up, the house quiet. When I finished, I put the book down on the kitchen table and went outside. A cold dawn in Bolinas, and I wished we had snow here like they do in West Virginia, or in Chicago for that matter, but the rising wind in the trees was enough.
I thought about Hollis and his fading parents.
The sun was blackened with snow, and the valley closed in quietly with humming, quietly as an hour of prayer.
Pancake paid close attention to the silence between his characters and also to the silence between sentences, between words. In the last paragraph of the story, Hollis listens to his mother hum as his father weeps himself to sleep. All the pressures closing in on what’s left of this family are—for a few moments, anyway—stayed. “First Day of Winter” is short, at least in terms of pages. It took me less than an hour to read and reread it, and yet it is the sort of story that lives on after the last period. Maybe this and this alone is the true test of any story. Does it remain after it is over?
“First Day of Winter” is about aging, about responsibility. It’s about the people we spend our lives worrying over, only to find that when it comes down to it, we hardly know them at all. Our people become—remain?—mysteries to us. It doesn’t mean we don’t love them. In fact, maybe it’s the mystery that sustains the love. Here Hollis can hardly contain what he feels for his parents, and there’s no outlet for it, no escape.
Breece Pancake shot himself before his twenty-seventh birthday in 1979. He never lived to hold this book in his hands. I wonder if it would have made a difference, if it might have made him pause. I tend to doubt it. Books are only things, in spite of what we want to believe they hold inside. And yet “First Day of Winter” is one of those stories that might have the power to save a person, if not the writer who wrote it.
What’s beautiful and wrenching about this story, and others in this book as well, is that there is no resolution. What will happen to this old mother and father? Will Jake, the more prosperous pastor brother, take them in? We’ll never know. You don’t come to a story like this for answers. Think of “First Day of Winter” as you might an old, trusted friend, the sort of rare friend who offers no glib, false sense of hope, just quiet fortitude in the face of the inevitable.
Read a story like this fast and you’ll miss it. You might shrug: That’s all? Read it slow and you stay up all night with Hollis in the first paragraph, watching his ghost in the glass of the window, as he mulls over uncertainty the farm’s debts, the bank, the slaughter that’s already gone to market, the corn stubble in the fields. And in the morning, you will wearily, slowly, descend the stairs with Hollis to the kitchen for coffee where his mother and father, already awake, are waiting for him.
His mother would not bathe and the warm kitchen smelled of her as she ate oatmeal with his father. The lids of the blind man’s eyes hung half closed and he had not combed his hair; it stuck back out in tufts where he had slept on it.
These lines ache on the page. Writers so often restrain themselves from trying to show what love truly looks like in practice out of justifiable fear that it might get maudlin. But I wonder if our concern about what’s sentimental isn’t actually a manifestation of our sentimentality. We can’t show what love feels like without embarrassment, and so we often avoid the attempt altogether.
But is this truly how it is out here in our lives? In our kitchens? In our beds? Even for the supposed unfoolable cynics among us, a legion of which I like to think I’m a member—don’t we, too, mourn our losses before we even lose them? Tell me that’s not sentimental. Pancake’s depiction of love is fearless. Consider the blind father’s uncombed hair. Hollis can hardly contain himself, and so of course he does what any other loving son would do: he gets the hell out of that little kitchen.
“I’ve got to go work on the car,” Hollis said and went toward the door.
“Car’s been sitting too long,” the old woman yelled. “You be careful of snakes.”
Not long after, as Hollis is outside examining the cracked engine block, the father shuffles outside with his cane to offer Hollis unwanted advice.
“You can tell she’s locking up,” the blind man faced him.
“This ain’t a tractor.” Hollis walked around, looked under the hood, saw the hairline crack along one side of the engine block.
When I think of Pancake’s stories, I think of how little his characters say to each other. Rereading him this morning, I found I was wrong. His people exchange a lot of words. Yet because the dialogue—this word sounds wrong here, call it “talk”—itself is so intrinsic to the landscape of the story, you don’t notice it as a separate entity. Pancake’s characters speak and don’t speak as naturally as they experience the hills, the wind and the rain, the early snow.
In the faded morning the land looked scarred. The first snows had already come, melted, sealed the hills with a heavy frost the sun could not soften. Cold winds had peeled away the last clinging oak leaves, left the hills a quiet gray-brown that sloped into the valley on either side.
He saw the old man’s hair bending in the wind.
“Come on inside, you’ll catch cold.”
“You going hunting like I asked?”
“I’ll go hunting.”
I remember a painting I once saw in a museum. A mother, a father, and a child, are huddled together on a beach, in the wind, their tattered clothes flapping. There’s something so vulnerable about a family of three. Take away one of these people, and what do you have left? I think of this heart-crushing painting now as I think of this story. As I think, yes, of my own father, half asleep in front of Fox News in Chicago.
Because doesn’t a good story have this weird power? To fling our brain all over the map? I’m in California, reading about a family in West Virginia, and at the same time, I’m in Chicago, or rather feeling guilty I’m not in Chicago. The last time I was home, I didn’t go and see my father.
Strange, too, how a story about characters—about nonexistent people—has the capacity to push us back to our own.
“First Day of Winter” ends after Hollis comes home with a game bag full of shot squirrels. Over the meal, he tells his parents that he’s trying to get Jake, the pastor brother, to take the two of them in, that the farm is failing, that they can’t last out another winter. The father objects, breaks down into tears.
The old man was still crying and she went to him, helped him from the chair. He was bent with age, with crying, and he raised himself slowly, strung his flabby arm around the woman’s waist.
After dinner Hollis lies down on the couch and tries, again, to sleep. He listens to the cattle lowing to be fed, to his mother’s soft humming. To his father’s crying breathing.
There are greater losses than the life of one short story writer, even one who in such a brief life gave us so much. And yet these three, Hollis and his parents, will live on—and on—long past our own mistakes, our own deepest regrets. A gift to this reader in need of a story early in the morning.
A small, fragile family endures another day.