14 September, 2009

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

All day the city baked, and by evening its bricks and roads and metal fixtures had amassed such a surplus of heat and light that they were able to sustain the afternoon long past its natural span. Tall buildings seemed to rise like stone fingers from beneath the desert’s radiant surface, enclosing those souls unlucky enough to find themselves still in town after the hours of business, and pressing them into an involuntary embrace of body heat and blinding, stinking sweat. It felt as though the air had been flooded with hot blood, pulsating to the beat of some great, unseen organ, hidden deep underfoot.

The main street was busy with people trying in vain to keep each other at a distance, but it was still possible to identify the real strangers: a group of six—a middle-aged couple and their four children—dressed cheaply and carrying a collection of hymn books and a portable organ. They made their way slowly through the throng, the adults leading with obvious purpose but held back by their less eager offspring, until they reached a large intersection; here they halted, and the mother, whose status as chief authority was obvious at the most cursory inspection, began to coordinate. She took the portable organ from her husband and handed it to the eldest child, a girl of about fifteen. Then she lined up the others and distributed the battered hymn books; there were three between the five of them: one for the father, one for the mother and her youngest—a boy of seven—and one for the remaining two children. “Shall we begin with ‘Were You There?’” she enquired, addressing her husband meekly. He smiled and nodded his assent.

The sound of the small choir was frail and rough, but it captured the attention of many a passer-by. This was partially due to the inherent qualities of massed human voices, and partially to the sheer pathos of the spectacle: the poor, malnourished-looking family, arranged like some public exhibit, provoked all manner of reactions, from sympathy to disgust. For those inclined to stop and observe for a while, it also presented an engrossing psychological study: the father, tired and battered in appearance, his singing hoarse and tuneless; the mother, equally ragged in dress but tidier somehow, more composed, her voice shrill but strong. The children seemed mostly vacant, their minds idling while their bodies worked over-familiar routines, with the exception of the second eldest, a boy of twelve; he alone seemed acutely uncomfortable, hunched over, his eyes always on the music in front of him, and his free arm wrapped around his waist. Most of the voices were weak, but his was the only one that was completely inaudible. “Were you there when He rose up from the dead?” intoned the chorus, and though the boy's lips moved in correspondence with the words, there could be no doubt that his thoughts and feelings observed some different rhythm, at once private and universal. The watchers recognised it at once, it was the rhythm of a silent, desperate prayer.


Alun Richards said...

Forgot to make this one funny. Instead it's just a straightforward 19th century pastiche. Ah well, teething pains and all!

Roland said...

I tried to make mine funny, sort of, but it isn't really.

I like yours though, third paragraph feels weaker somehow but the first two are very intense and i like them alot.

Alun Richards said...

I'd lost interest by then...actually considered just stopping halfway through.