Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). David Gilbert’s “Here’s the Story” was originally published in the Jun 9 & 16, 2014 issue of The New Yorker. This is the Summer Fiction edition, so you can click here to see the other stories in this issue.
David Gilbert’s “Here’s the Story” is one of four “love lost” stories in the June 9 issue. There’s a flat reportorial tone to the opening: it’s 1967, the Monday before Thanksgiving, a plane is coming in for a landing, and a man on the plane is holding a woman’s hand, “gripping” it.
Then the story drops back seven weeks.
Ted Martin has two extra tickets to a Dodgers game. He had wanted to take his daughters, but what with one thing and another, he ends up taking Renshaw, somebody from the office. Renshaw brings his son.
The villains in this story are banal. There’s no evil general, no corporate greed, no corruption that we can see, no racism, no prejudice, no mugging, no murder. But there is this. Renshaw, a walk-on, treats his son with contempt. “Hopeless,” he comments when the boy cannot catch the ball Ted tosses to him.
Renshaw hears Ted explain to the boy that he’s keeping a box score on the game. Ted says: “I have that information right here, the whole story. It’s like I’m a necessary witness.”
Renshaw “snorts” at that, at the respect Ted is showing the boy, and there is an exchange of conversation between Ted and Renshaw in which Renshaw is snide and contemptuous: “Ted heard a hint of his wife in the tone, an impatience that bordered on outright scorn [. . .].”
The contempt is the engine in the story. Renshaw is so openly contemptuous of his son that Ted feels these excursions from Renshaw as “humiliations.” At the same time, we hear Ted wondering about things at home, the way Carol treated him, the way she treated him in front of their daughters. He wonders if he is “pedantic and sentimental.” We wonder if he can really hear the way Carol is treating him. One thinks of the “necessary witness” that Ted talks about to the boy — a legal term describing what kind of facts a lawyer can testify to regarding his client — and the reader wonders if Ted needs to be a “necessary witness” to his own marriage.
Across the way in Elysian Park, a woman and her son are attending a hippie love-in. What we notice is that they are there without the rest of the family, as Ted is at the ballgame without his girls, for whom he had bought tickets. We also notice that Ted had apparently not bought a ticket for his wife. We notice that Emma, the woman, thinks of how her husband can give her “that look.”
Emma was unsure how many more of those looks she could survive.
In John Gottman’s research on marriage, he says he can predict which marriages will not survive. His research is based on interviews he conducts with couples. The ones in which there is no hope are the ones where one partner is openly contemptuous of the other.
Both Ted and Emma are trapped in marriages where they are the object of their spouse’s casual contempt.
Emma and Ted happen into each other at Elysian Park and spend a happy carefree half hour together. They return home — but things have changed. They are “sick of the everyday complaints,” they realize “they were trapped.”
I liked the story immensely for the non-judgmental way Gilbert brings Ted and Emma together, the way a half hour together is so golden that it lights them up. I’m no fan of fooling around on a spouse, but I’m even more no fan of casual contempt being a companion in a marriage.
That Gilbert makes such a point of the “necessary witness” is like a statement about a writer’s responsibility: to state the things, under a kind of oath, that should be obvious, but often are not. He is able to persuade us that Ted and Emma’s few hours together make them a kind of modern Romeo and Juliet — right and true and golden. And I liked seeing what was wrong and what was right, if even for just a half an hour. I liked this story immensely, as I have also liked others by him. This one turns on a narrative gimmick, but one I think Gilbert pulls off to good effect. I enjoyed the story’s structure and turns.
Of course, what if the doomed lovers had been able to shed their miserable spouses to marry each other? What then? What of their children? Then we’re in Updike territory. But Gilbert leaves that to Updike. The structure of “Here’s the Story” leaves the reader to be the necessary witness on the children’s behalf, regardless of contempt or true love or the everyday pressures of everyday life. I liked it a lot.