Note From the Author:
These essays have yet to be published anywhere but here, so take them for what they're worth.
If you ever happen to cite them in a paper or something, I'd love to hear about it, so drop me an email at: js @ jonathanstephens . com.
Masculinity, Purpose, and Just Being Remembered in David Gates's "The Mail Lady"
Publishers Weekly describes the typical Gatesian narrator as one who indulges himself in the illicit pleasures of life, a pleasure hunt which takes his wife and kids down with him. Both Peter Jernigan of Jernigan and Doug Willis of Preston Falls are dissatisfied with their work, wives, and children, and perhaps even more so with themselves. This sketch carries its way into the characters of The Wonders of the Invisible World , splitting off into a few atypical directions. Gates's short story, "The Mail Lady," cuts its main character, Lewis Coley, from one of those atypical molds but then decorates him with the same frosting and sprinkles that make Gates's readers remember the taste of his other characters.
It is not as easy as just pulling the loose string and watching him unwind. Unraveling a man's life to the point that his core desires and issues are laid bare takes persistence, for inevitably his problems become knotted together in ways that are difficult to unwind. A new faith in God and his sovereign plan, the gripping desire for usefulness and purpose, the confidence in joy, the toiling over lost time, and the desire to be remembered - these are the things that complicate the mind of Lewis Coley. These thoughts may plague him, as they do many men, but it is his post-stroke physical condition that exacerbates his condition, leaving him unable to communicate with those people he loves most.
Lewis's faith in a higher power is suggested in the first paragraph when he thinks, "May I use [this day] to Thy greater glory," but the complexity of his faith is not discovered until he reaches the point at which he "can see no spiritual significance whatever in [his] ruin." How can true faith have such peaks and valleys? The path into Lewis's faith leads us across the stepping stones of his thoughts, as the only external comment about his spiritual life comes from his wife Alice (albeit still passed through Lewis's mental filter): "'I'll tell you, June,' she was saying, 'I don't get it quite, but I don't look a gift horse in the mouth.'" She appears to be thankful for whatever outward change has shown itself in Lewis's life, but she obviously does not understand its source.
At times, Lewis appears confident in God's plan for him and his life, content to let "things happen as they were meant to, and in the Lord's good time." Even though he feels that his conversion has made him the "odd man out" for much of his life, he does not seem to abandon his inner spiritual self. When, on most days, "it hardly seems worth the struggle," he battles against his inner dialogue and forces himself to filter his thoughts. He seems certain that, if he just looks hard enough, evidence of God's abundant blessings can be found scattered throughout past events and his present situation. These blessings, his stroke included, he believes, are "part of what the Lord means to tell [him]" in the midst of their ongoing conversation. He seems to hold to the belief that God causes bad things to happen in the lives of people in order to communicate with them, speaking to the age-old question, "Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?"
Different from the majority of Gates's characters, the converted Lewis could be considered a good person, a man with a self-indulgent past but a transformed present. We get the sense that before his stroke he was a faithful husband and provider, a man who took the responsibilities of manhood seriously. His pre-conversion self may have occasionally let his temper get the best of him, but his life is different now. He and Alice have expectations for their future, expectations that they will probably not be able to accomplish together if his condition does not improve. Further evidence of his decent character is shown when the research chemist company at which he worked moved out to Route 128 and he chose to take the moral high road of conversation, deciding instead to "live peaceably with all men." His confidence in God's plan for his life dominates his thinking. When he speaks ill of the speech tendencies of "those people on the local news programs," he chastises himself and understands his tendency to judge people as the reason for his "own ruined speech" and a result of his stroke. His "eye for an eye" understanding of God's spiritual transactions leads him to believe that his familial pride cost him and Alice the joy of fatherhood, that God somehow had him "singled out for chastisement."
Consequently, this strange version of faith does not seem to be enough for him. His (con)version seems to be a sort of spiritual pinnacle that, once acquired, can only lead to what Gates refers to as "the downward spiral" fascinated with self-destruction (Vintage 1). During those days when his mind is hopeful, he believes that the Lord would never allow him to die without some assurance that his faith is grounded in truth. But on other days, he bemoans the fact that he is the last of the Coley line, that his family name will die with him unless he has a son. It is something which troubles many men, this desire to keep their blood line going.
While waiting outside in the car, which is stuck in the snow, he doubts the sovereignty of God's plan for his life and questions the nuts-and-bolts reality of his faith. In what could be considered a throw-away conflict, his faith is shattered by the simple realization that the announcer on the radio says the time is 10:08 and the dashboard clock says 10:07, and just like that, he does not know what to believe anymore. After all, if time cannot be trusted, then what can? This instance of doubt, which may merely highlight an ongoing disbelief, leads him to compare himself with those "trapped and godless men going out to the garage with the hose from the vacuum" to end their lives.
It seems safe to assume that Lewis is more conflicted than he first appears. As the fissures of doubt begin to creep across the surface of his thin-ice faith, his manhood seems in danger of taking the deepest plunge. Why would God ruin his life in an effort to communicate with him? Was there not another way? Gates appears to be digging right to the core needs of humanity, or at the very least, masculinity. When Lewis overhears Alice "quietly making plans for afterwards," he wants to know the details but is afraid of what knowing might mean. The last thing he wants to hear is the point-for-point explanation of why she does not need him around anymore and how she could survive without him. This fear and subsequent shame reveals a man who, at his deepest core, feels he has failed his family, that somehow the stroke was his fault and that if he was a man he could have done something to prevent it and shielded his family from hardships like this.
In a book review of Gates's Preston Falls , Brooke Allen asks a few poignant questions: "What is the primary human need? Is it food, sex, love?" (1). That question could just as well have been asked regarding Lewis Coley. He is not worried about food or sex. But love? Perhaps. Perhaps that is why he dreams that love can fix his increasingly dysfunctional home. Perhaps that is why he ponders the words he and Alice repeated back on their wedding day, in sickness and in health , and wonders how she can stand to look at him like this, "unless she looks with the eyes of love?" After all, love is a choice that, if she were to continue making, would fix everything. "Unless, [he fears,] she no longer truly looks" at him the way she used to. When Lewis attempts to see his life through her eyes, he sees the things he fears most.
Brooke Allen continues, "None of these...It is recognition, 'the need to make a mark in the world'" (1). If anything should happen to him, then what? Then nothing? Would life really go on without skipping a beat? Would Alice be happier, more joyful? Upon overhearing her conversation with her friend June, Lewis's greatest fear is brought to life: being useless. What is a man worth if he is physically crippled, if he cannot accomplish significant work, or if he cannot love his wife the way he used to? His mind his only nearly-pure gift, Lewis feels worthless not being able to do the things he used to be capable of. In his article "Voices for Vices," Michael Coffey sees Lewis's stroke as "the great disjunction between his outer self and his inner self, which is fluent" (2). His intellectual gears still rotating, Lewis desires to talk conversationally again with Alice without her misunderstanding his slurred speech. Further, he wishes he could pack for trips, something Alice has always done, in addition to his simple task of loading the car. He voices his longing to prune the little cherry tree out in their yard. Instead, the only thing he seems able to do is open the telephone bill, and even that he sees as only ceremonial.
He has resigned himself almost entirely to uselessness, thinking, "If I am of use at all anymore, it can only be as an example of patient endurance." However, beneath such submissive thoughts lie hopes of being remembered after he dies. "At least remember me," he thinks, holding onto hope that God has a home prepared for him and is waiting to present him with a new, incorruptible body. He wants to linger in people's memories like their Wylie ancestor who "had been at the first Constitutional Convention, Karen Carpenter (whose name he had trouble recalling), Aretha Franklin and her "turnpike of love," John Milliken with his Ph.D., and C.S. Lewis, who has "so often been a help to [him]." He represents the desire most men have to overcome the crux of Mark Twain's famous words:
A myriad of men are born. They labor and sweat and struggle. They squabble and scold and fight. They scramble for little mean advantages over each other. Age creeps up on them. Infirmities follow. Those they love are taken from them, and the joy of life is turned to aching grief. [Death] comes at last -- the only unpoisoned gift earth ever had for them -- and they vanish from a world where they were of no consequence, a world which will lament them a day and forget them forever (Twain 24).
Perhaps the most depressing thing about Lewis is the joy he thinks he has. In spite of all his hardships, he sees "cheer [as] still the only adequate response - but true cheer, not this life-of-Riley business." He feels he is "of more value than [his] pleasures," that "the aim is to keep [him] looking forward," away from the struggles, away from the pain. His apparently peaceful willingness to go on an airplane if the need arises shows that his hope in the afterlife has stripped his mind of his former rationality. Of course terrorists are still dangerous! However, his faith allows him to believe otherwise because what can anyone do to him without God's permission? Answer: nothing.
However joyful he may appear on the surface, deep down Lewis fears the pieces of his life will never fit together again, that he will remain as he is, stymied by his stroke, useless and helpless. After all, sometimes "hell is not down there. It [is] not even out there. It is in our own psyches...and the demons are restless" (Scarff 1). Lewis's demons seem too many to handle, but our hearts still want him to rise from the miry pit because he is just like us, crippled in life, searching for purpose, and longing just to be remembered. Perhaps the release cord to his escape hatch lies hidden beneath the understanding that the inner voice treading water in his soul is the key to his salvation, no matter how monstrous the ocean appears and what damage it has inflicted on the rest of his life thus far (Coffey 2).
Allen, Brooke. "Remnants of Love." New Leader 80 (1998).
Coffey, Michael. "David Gates: Voices for Vices." Publishers Weekly (1999): 42-43.
Scarff, Michelle. "Spiritual Chapter 11." "Salon Books | Spiritual Chapter 11." 22 Feb. 2006. <http://www.salon.com/books/int/1999/08/27/gates/>.
Twain, Mark. Mark Twain's Autobiography . Ed. Don Lainson. 2002. Mark Twain's Autobiography . 1924. "Mark Twain's Autobiography." Project Gutenberg. 23 Feb. 2006. <http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200561h.html>.
"Vintage Books." 22 Feb. 2006. <http://www.randomhouse.com/vintage/gates.html>.
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