Alice McDermott’s short story “These Short, Dark Days”

For week 35 of Deal Me In 2015, I drew the two of clubs. This year, my clubs suit is dedicated to stories from The New Yorker magazine, and “deuces are wild” so I had the entire history of that publication to choose from (excluding the twelve stories I’m already reading this year). What did I do? I read the fiction piece in the most recently published issue, Alice McDermott’s “These Short, Dark Days,” my first encounter with this author. Now in its fifth year, Deal Me In is an annual short story reading challenge (explained here). My list of stories I’m reading this year, with links to those I’ve posted about, may be found here.


I had to use the playing card image (found at http://omegalpha.deviantart.com/art/The-Two-of-Clubs-313682433 ) below since it features a book. 🙂

****SPOILERS FOLLOW**** (you may, however, read the story for free online at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/24/these-short-dark-days as The New Yorker allows a limited number of free reads per month – use them wisely 🙂 )

(Photo of Alice McDermott by Jamie Schoeneger from The New Yorker)

This is the story of a suicide and its aftermath. It didn’t take me long to read between the lines in the opening paragraphs of the story and realize what “Jim” was planning. The details of his intentional demise are not as important as the story of the wake that trails behind his act, though. It is along this wake that we meet “Sister St. Savior,” a “Little Sister of the Sick Poor,’ who helps Jim’s young widow deal with the tragedy and is, for my money, the real main character of the story.

Of Jim, McDermott writes:

His trouble was with time. Bad luck for a trainman, even on the B.R.T. His trouble was that he liked to refuse time. He delighted in refusing it. He would come to the end of a long night, to the inevitability of 5 A.M., and, while other men, poor sheep, gave in every morning, turning from the pleasures of sleep or drink or talk or love to the duties of the day, he would continue as he willed. ’I’m not going,’ he’d murmur. ’I won’t be constrained.’”

Then, as he makes his preparations:

He remembered his mother, the picture book spread out on her wide lap. Within this very hour he would put his head on her shoulder once again. Or would he? Would this effort to prove himself his own man—to prove that the hours of his life belonged to himself alone—bar him from Heaven? Did he believe in Heaven? There were moments when his faith fell out from under him like a trapdoor.”

Upon hearing whispers that the death was no accident, Sister St. Savior’s “trainee,” Sister Jeanne, who joins her in her visit to do what she can for the survivors, asks her mentor, “Is it true?” she asked. Sister St. Savior laughed. “True enough.” Her smile was as smooth as paint. “The Devil loves these short, dark days.” And thus we get the title for the story. We learn a lot about Sister St. savior through her efforts to keep the fact that the death is a suicide quiet so that Jim may still be buried in the churchyard (burials of suicides were not permitted on the church’s “hallowed” ground). Her efforts are unsuccessful, however, when the news leaks out officially and the New York Times plans to report it factually. When notified of this fact, Sister St. Savior delivers my favorite line from the story: “The New York Times,” she said, “has a big mouth.”

Sister St. Savior muses during the story:

“All the moments of how many days when her compassion failed, her patience failed, when her love for God’s people could not outrun the girlish alacrity of her scorn for their stupidity, their petty sins.”

A powerful story and a good introduction to this author for me. I also read an interview with her regarding this story (link below) and found the following quotation particularly fitting:

McDermott: “I think a misconception among many non-religious people is that anyone with a strong faith is, in all ways and at all times, blindly consistent, unwavering, unquestioning. That has never been my experience of the (now four generations of) practicing Catholics I have observed.”

Author interview : http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/fiction-this-week-alice-mcdermott-2015-08-24

Have you read anything by this author? Are you a reader of The New Yorker magazine? I have a digital subscription but am embarrassed today I often let whole issues go unread. I should at least read the fiction, right? I’m the host of the famous Deal Me a In Challenge after all! 🙂

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