September 13, 2020: “Down in the Dumps” by Donald Harington

Sunday for you, Story366!

The full NFL slate kicks off today after a game or two earlier in the week. That means the Chicago Bears are playing, and as I write this, they’re down 20-6 early in the second half. Maybe they come back, maybe they don’t. That’ll certainly be determined way before I post, but that’s not the point of me mentioning all this.

The Bears were 12-4 two years ago, their first playoff appearance in a while, but then fell to 7-9 last year. There’s all kind of quarterback issues, and overall, the team doesn’t have a lot of talent on the offensive side of the ball. They will probably dawdle their way to a non-playoff, sub-.500 record, but at the same time, not be terrible enough to earn a franchise-changing draft pick. That’s been the Bears for most of the years since they won the Super Bowl in 1986 (with a few exceptions): Not good enough to actually win anything, but not bad enough to change their fortunes in the draft. Thirty-five seasons of middle-of-the-road is frustrating as a fan. At least we have “The Super Bowl Shuffle.”

Why I’m writing about all this is I’ve had to decide, today, whether or not I’m going to pay attention. I’m as busy as ever, Sunday afternoons aren’t good, and the Bears don’t look like they’re going to be great. I know that’s shitty fandom, but right now, I only have so much time to devote to sports-watching, and even less emotion to expend. All of that energy and heart is going to the Cubs right now, who are headed to the playoffs again. Do I have time for both? I’m not sure. I don’t think so. No.

I made this move three or four years ago, the year of the big Cub World Series run. I just decided, with a grim outlook for the Bears, not to get involved for the season. I checked scores, and if I was in front of a TV and the game was on, I would certainly watch, root for my team. But since the Bears aren’t the local team around Springfield, I’d have to go to a bar or other such place to catch the game; that’s more effort, most expense, more juggling of our family’s weekend to accommodate this three to four hours.

Right now, I’m listening to the Bears on the radio as I type this. I like listening to them, like bitching about them, and like cheering for them—they just scored a touchdown! But do I have time to follow them passionately, be a true fanatic? We’ll see.

Today’s book is … oh, crap! The Bears, since I typed that last paragraph, have staged an epic comeback, scoring two more touchdowns after the one I mentioned, beating the Lions 27-23. So, scrap everything I just said?! We’ll see. Go Bears!

Anyway, today’s book is Double Toil and Trouble by Donald Harington, just out from the University of Arkansas Press. Harington passed away in 2009, but was one of the Ozarks most influential and well known writers, most of his published work set in the fictional Arkanas town of Stay More, based on Drakes Creek, the town where he spent his summers as a kid. I’ve come to know of Harington’s work since I’ve moved to the Ozarks, but was not expecting a new release at this point. To note, Double Toil and Trouble is a collection and a new novel (albeit a short one), and I don’t have time to read the novel today, but want to later. Overall, I’m glad to have a chance to read something and cover it here.

The first story (after the novel), “A Second Career,” features Reverend Emory Winstead. Emory’s just 30, but faces a moral and philosophical dilemma: A wealthy member of his congregation comes to him for advice, but with tragic news: His 15-year-old daughter has contracted fatal leukemia and has, at most, a year to live. Having the means, he’s offered to give his daughter anything she wants, be it a sports car, a trip to Europe, or whatever. The girl wants to have a baby, which, of course, is messed up. So Emory spends the rest of the story trying to figure out to tell this man, what the church’s stance might be, and seeks help from some unique sources. He’s also trying a second career as a fiction writer, and struggles to keep himself from making fiction out of his congregation’s woes.

“Telling Time” follows an unnamed graduate student in folklore as he writes a paper about growing up in Stay More, particularly a storytelling rivalry between a man named Lion Judah Stapleton and Henry “Hairy” Tongue. We start with Lion Judah (a Biblical reference meant to mimic “Lyin’ Judah”), who tells his stories in front of a grocery store, sitting on the porch outside, whittling, and chewing tobacco as he regales customers. The proprietor of the story actually pays Lion Judah to sit out there, as people come to hear his tales, and as a result, end up shopping more. Things are thrown askew when a second store opens up down the street and hires Hairy Tongue to spin yarns of his own. Eventually, a story-off happens, and, well, you’ll have to read the story to see what happens.

My favorite of the three I read is “Down in the Dumps,” about Russell Thornhill, a Harvard-educated lawyer who has hit rock bottom. He starts drinking hard, bottles of bourbon at a time, and eventually screws up a case, prompting his suspension. More importantly, his wife kicks him out, sending Russell to a seedy apartment above a noisy plumber’s shop.

Russell, because he’s drunk and desperate, decides to spy on his wife, believing she’s having an affair. Instead of info, he gets really sick, lying out in the wet swamp across from his house, and he’s down for weeks. When he emerges, his crappy apartment is trashed, full of garbage. He takes the garbage down to the dump to get rid of it, there’s so much.

There’s he encounters the garbage man, the guy who lives in a shack at the dump and manages things. Russell gets to talking to him, and before long, tries to recruit the man to his scheme: He’s willing to pay the man to be lookout while he ransacks his house and wife’s car, searching for evidence of indiscretion. The junk man responds with a litany of info on Russell and his wife—he knows everything about everyone because he looks through their trash. He tells Russell what he wants—his wife has been faithful—and Russell gives him a bottle of whiskey in exchange.

Russell eventually weasels his way back into his wife’s graces and moves back home. He even stops drinking. Things goes south once again, however, when he’s terminated from his job, permanently, sending him back to the dump. He wants to recruit the dump man again, this time to dig up dirt on his boss. The garbage man refuses, instead going into a deep conversation about the nature of want, how money isn’t important, and that true happiness can be found in so many other ways—he uses himself and his position as an example. Russell doesn’t want to buy into this philosophy, but the more he listens—the men start hanging out at the dump and drinking whiskey—the more he caves toward the man’s way of thinking.

I won’t go any further into this story, but there’s a couple more plot twists that make it resolve quite well, make it my favorite. On top of the eccentric characters and unpredictability, there’s a real poetry to the prose, the garbage man speaking like a bard, his level of speech well beyond his station (which is kinda his point). It’s a really great short story.

I’m glad to have finally read Donald Harington’s work, though sadly it took me so long to discover it. Double Toil and Trouble isn’t quite a story collection—there’s that titular novel starting things out—but stories are collected here. Two of them, “A Second Career” and “Down in the Dumps,” were published in Esquire in 1967, to give you perspective on when they were written and under what sensibility, but they hold up, fresh as if they were written now. That’s the true tell if someone’s made their mark, and Harington has certainly made his.

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