I admit I somewhat enjoy it when a story has a cryptic title. I’ve read at least two this year with strange names that provided no real clue to what the stories might be about, “The Mutants” by Joyce Carol Oates, “Kaleidoscope” by Ray Bradbury. Then, this weekend when I drew the King of Hearts from my short story deck, I was led to the J.D. Salinger story, “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.” What the heck could that be about?
A few years back, I purchased a slim paperback volume, “Nine Stories,” by J.D. Salinger. As of this morning, I’ve still only read five of the nine (this is what I tend to do, “ration” stories in a collection out over time, so as to delay that dreaded “they’re all gone” feeling when the supply has been exhausted). The collection was published in 1953, and features some other famous stories, such as A Perfect Day for Bananafish – which I read a couple years ago (and didn’t like) and “For Esme – with Love and Squalor,” which fellow blogger Dale at Mirror with Clouds posted about. When it came time to pick my 52 short stories for this year’s “Project: Deal Me In,” though, I had to include a couple more Salinger stories. This was one of them.
The story details a visit between two old college friends, Eloise (now married and with an eleven year old daughter, Ramona) and Mary Jane (divorced). A business errand of Mary Jane’s brings her near her old friend’s house so she stops for a visit. Once inside, they “head straight for the liquor cabinet.” Downing highball after highball (over the initial protests of Mary Jane) they begin to commiserate about how their lives have turned out. (Eloise has some harsh things to say about the male of the species too.)
Unhappy in her marriage, Eloise recalls an early love, Walt, a soldier who went off to war and was killed, though not “in action” in the traditional sense. This was a man with the right qualities, the ones that Eloise cherished anyway: a sense of humor and intelligence. It is in Eloise’s relating a story of Walt’s tenderness from their past where we learn the source of the title of this story. Walt comforts an injured Eloise by saying “Poor Uncle Wiggily.”* Eloise describes him: “Ah, God, he was nice. He was either funny or sweet. Not that damn little-boy sweet, either. It was a special kind of sweet.”
This event from the past is somehow linked to Eloise’s dealing with her daughter’s oddness (which includes an imaginary friend and beau, Jimmy Jimmereeno). Early in the story the daughter describes Jimmy to Mary Jane then later goes outside to play. After the adult women have become drunk and the child returns indoors, Eloise asks her, “What happened to Jimmy?” and Ramona replies “He got runned over and killed.”
Eloise sends Ramona to bed after checking her forehead to see if she’s feverish, but is shocked later when she checks on her in bed and finds her lying “way over on one side” of the bed (as she used to do make room for the imaginary Jimmy).
“I thought you told me Jimmy Jimmereeno was run over and. Killed.”
“You heard me,” Eloise said. “Why are you sleeping way over here?”
“Because,” said Ramona.
“Because why? Ramona, I don’t feel like-“
“Because I don’t want to hurt Mickey.”
“Mickey,” said Ramona, rubbing her nose. “Mickey Mickeranno.”
Eloise shrieks at Ramona to get in the center of the bed but then finally softens and feels some sympathy for her poor, disturbed girl, holding her glasses from the nightstand and repeating “Poor Uncle Wiggily.” Somehow she has been transported to another time when she herself was a “nice girl” and capable of feeling sympathy and worthy also of receiving it. A time so distant from the present that she weeps. A sad story, but with a kernel of hope at the end(?)
Have you read this Salinger story? What was your take on it? What is your favorite from his collection,”Nine Stories?”
*I discovered in my “research” that “Uncle Wiggily” was a beloved character from a popular series of children’s books from 1910 to about 1940. He was an elderly rabbit, plagued by rheumatism, who encountered and escaped troubles by either his wits or by coincidental good fortune. I’ll have to see if I can find one of the 76(!) books in which he appears. Have you ever heard of Uncle Wiggily? I hadn’t, but then I wasn’t alive in 1940, or 1950, or 1960, or, well… let’s just say I’m too young to have known about him. 🙂