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The Stories of John Cheever

Field-Tested by Jay Hathaway

in New York City, New York

“What are you reading?” she asks.

I lift my head and sheepishly hand over a too-crisp copy of The Stories of John Cheever. I am in New York City, and New York City is where Cheever’s powers are strongest. You would think, from the way women in this bar have been asking me about him, that he were a living rock star, not a dead author.

“It’s been a while,” she says, indicating her superior experience in Cheever and...other things. I half-smile as she slides the book back to me, and signal for another beer. I am going to need it.

The next afternoon is cold and bright. It is still October and I am still in my clothes from the night before. This is my one good outfit, but it is not very good at all. Near Central Park, I walk around the block twice before I work up the guts to walk into a hotel I have read about in a magazine.

I pass by the staff in the lobby. They are all dressed in the ceremonial uniforms of Buckingham Palace guards. Or, at least, that is how I will remember them. “Just going to the lounge,” I say, although what they probably hear is, “One night in this place costs more than my rent.”

The lounge occupies the 35th floor. It overlooks Central Park. The hostess takes a look at me and seats me far from the windows. I ask for an Old Fashioned, and pay for it with what I have left of a credit limit. The drink hits the table before I have time to open my volume of Cheever; my ward, my charm, my talisman against the imagined judgment of people from a city much larger and more sophisticated than my own. I am not quick enough. I feel very midwestern. I feel very drunk.

The book opens to “The Pot of Gold.” It begins, in part, with this blunt assessment of its characters: “They were always at the threshold of fortune; they always seemed to have something in the fire.” As my expensive Old Fashioned sinks lower in its glass, Cheever unfurls the story of a grasping, scheming couple who lose sleep over the deal that will finally make their fortune. Laura, the wife, passes her days in “the sorry and touching countryside” of Central Park, trading stories about future riches that we already know she will never see.

I put the paperback away, pleased with the way the spine has worn out a bit since the night before, and get up to take a look out the windows. My last five dollars stays on the table, and I wonder whether one of the benches I can see, 35 floors down, is the same bench where Laura gave her own last five dollars to a friend, just to keep up appearances.

Jay Hathaway interviews celebrities for SuicideGirls and blogs about software for Download Squad. His work can also be found in Geek Monthly and at his website.

Buy The Stories of John Cheever