The Laughter Downstairs

On “The Earliest Dreams”

An appreciation by Ann Beattie

Read Nancy Hale’s story “The Earliest Dreams”

Nancy Hale was married to the eminent critic and classics editor Fredson Bowers and living in Albemarle County when I went to the University of Virginia to begin my first job after graduate school (a one-year position). I was twenty-seven. I wore funny T-shirts and often took my dog to class with me. Early on, I met Staige Blackford, the new editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. He saw to it that I was introduced to Nancy and Fredson. Nancy liked me immediately when I wrongly assumed the flashy sports car in the driveway was hers, the more generic car his. I doubt that I wore a T-shirt and jeans to the Bowers’s, but I wouldn’t swear to that. Nancy wore a silk dress. Fredson tapped out a bit of snuff, which he inhaled from the dimple between thumb and first finger. The most amazing moment—not at all funny when it happened—was when my then husband heard wrong, and mistook Fredson’s mention of Bernard DeVoto as a remark about the car, the DeSoto. Some hilarity ensued. Nancy and I realized why they were talking at cross-purposes before they did. How extremely kind she was: I was the new young thing at The New Yorker, where I had published a half dozen short stories within the past year, and would go on to publish more than forty others. But I may never catch Nancy, who had published upwards of seventy in The New Yorker by that time. And would have published more if they’d been willing. But there was little talk of that. Writers don’t talk about their own writing. Also, extra manners were required because it was the South. Tea with lemon, or cream?

*   *   *

There are as many stories about childhood as there are autumn leaves. Sometimes the dryness results in unexceptional colors; other times the rain turns the eaves brilliant. Either way, as Barbra Streisand sings, it’s always autumn. Metaphorically, of course.
Nancy Hale in the 1930s.
(Nancy Hale Papers, Sophia
Smith Collection, Smith College)

Nancy Hale used metaphor as well as any other talented writer. And long before the now-popular, much-overimitated use of second person in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help, she used the direct address in “The Earliest Dreams,” the title story to her 1936 collection. The first sentence seems to set up the story as a fairy tale: “That was long, long ago.” The repetition lets the reader know that the writer knows that what will be told is a Story; also, that the writer doesn’t want us to read this sentence neutrally and straightforwardly. If no echo—a literary wink of the eye—was needed, one “long” would have sufficed. So, in the first sentence, we readers are reassured (which in fiction almost always signals the opposite effect), and then “our” mind is read. The bed you or I slept in isn’t the bed we begin to hear about, but we also know that we’re expected to become the character: providing details reassures us. But since it isn’t, of course, our childhood bed, there are two stories: our personal story (which, once conjured, acts as background) and the tale being told. The storyteller is convincing. Even polite enough—human enough—to admit to a bit of confusion (“What was it you wanted so?”), whereas in real life things proceed on the bizarre assumption that everyone knows, generally, what everyone else thinks, a notion that persists in spite of our lives filled with inevitable rude awakenings, strange revelations, unpredictable behavior. Still, the idea is sacrosanct: we know what our husband is thinking, he more or less knows our attitude toward Jon Stewart and whether Pommard is worth the expense. We know whether a friend prefers cats, dogs, both, or neither. (And just look at the times we’ve been confounded: the great dog lover buying a bird! And didn’t you think Malcolm was allergic to cats?)

This takes me far from the world of this story, but expresses my notion of why readers are so often surprised, and why it’s so easy to pull off. “The Earliest Dreams” is almost like a buzzing in the ear emitted by something that won’t go away. Its adaptive strategies to avoid being slapped at are the seductive rhythms, the way the voice seemingly encompasses and envelops the character being spoken to, the facts that become “real” upon being recounted. The narrator’s in charge because we know this narrator: it’s the storyteller; it’s Mama sitting on our bed. All nice-nice. (Be on guard against buying into that.)
From miles and miles away you heard a late train breathing across the countryside, hurrying distantly through the white winter night to the yellow lights and the little quiet towns. Its whistle blew, so far far away, three times, Ah, Ah, Aaaah.
Aaaah, indeed. Words repeated for emphasis, but also, I think, to point to the conventional method of telling a fairy tale, or even a story: a reminder of artifice. “Miles and miles” is a humming; “white winter”—its sounds are made by puffing out your lips; “little quiet towns” are a little tap dance of t sounds. Then your mouth puckers for the w of “whistle”—you’re blowing again; not just the train, but you yourself. The author has thought carefully about the deliberately lovely phrasing of the story, about the way repetition can not only provide hyperbole, but also make you huff and puff, like the train. It’s only fair: if the train can be personified (“breathing”), you, too, can be converted, imaginatively transforming into an object (the train). By the time we get to the whistle’s “Ah, Ah, Aaaah,” it seems clear we can read the words expelled two ways: as a sigh of relief, or as the last words uttered—the sound of death.

Death is the undercurrent of the story. In the first long paragraph, after the single-sentence paragraph that introduces the story, there seems to be so much understanding, so much empathy, yet the vagueness of “You longed for something” points to an almost Beckettian absence. (Or think of Joseph Heller’s brilliant novel Something Happened.) Something can bring us up short, every time. The line concludes: “You longed for something, lying still between two smooth slices of sheet, but you could not think what it was, and now you will never know what it was.” The narrator reads the other person’s mind, can’t find the exact information (true, this might be because the other person can’t), settles for the vague but ominous (or ominous because it is vague) “something,” and gives us a series of words with the letter s that start us hissing. Notice also the contrast between the words “smooth slices”—a nicely cut bit of cheese is one thing; a “sliced” sheet is frightening.

In the story, there are people downstairs, in the other world. It can’t be known, especially to a child, exactly what they do or say. And since we, too, have been put in the place of a child, through the second person, then we, too, shiver when “all the laughter came upstairs suddenly in a gust.” When car lights illuminate the bedroom, they are frightening to us as well: “the lights scraped along the other wall.” Throughout the story, the uncomprehending child is aware of (or at least the narrator states that the child is aware—a distinction worth making) lights, sounds, and the images the sounds occasion: “the important clatter of plates” that are described as “fragile, impossible, fairy plates.” They are expensive plates, they have socially ascribed importance, nevertheless they are “fragile” and might be in danger; they are “impossible”—I would assume impossible in terms of the child being served from them, eating from them carefully. As with the adults, the plates are to be both revered and feared; “fairy” reinforces the idea that began the story, of its being a kind of fairy tale, but the idea of “fairy plates” suggests that fairies are other, that there might be a magic realm inhabited by fairies, who eat from their special plates. The world of the imagination, holding open tantalizing prospects in one way, simultaneously excludes the child from participation.
Jacket of Hale's debut story collection,
The Earliest Dreams (1936).

All that laughter from downstairs, the mysterious laughter emanating from the adults, is also the Cosmic Laugh, the big joke on all of us. We’re all in our little beds, vulnerable, uncomprehending. (And if we might not be in bed, that’s usually where we return to die.) I think of the voice that addresses the child as a version of the information we’ve all internalized: a voice that—at different times in our lives—narrates a story we can’t not hear. The voice is silent only at the end. At the end of the story. At the end of life. The story is not a parable, but it’s an enticement—a paradox of an enticement, really, since we might choose to avoid it if we could, but alas, we cannot. On the last page of the second section, we read: “You thought of the silent woods, where there were no lights and no sound, with perhaps the infinitely small track of an animal running momentarily under the trees in the dark.” “Momentarily” almost makes me jump out of my chair. And in case any doubt remains about what’s really being narrated in the haunting capacitance of this story, we are told that “you alone were alive in this still, unbelievable world, in your own room with its long window.” Yes, we are all alone; yet we are the only ones who have our particular private moments.

The narrator conflates personal childhood memories with the memories of the person addressed. There is an adult’s sense of what the distant music means, a sense of schadenfreude about its being conjured up: “You felt so sad, so happy and so sad, because something that was all the beauty and the tears in the world was over, because something lovely was lost and could only be remembered, and still you knew that for you the thing had not yet started.” Clearly this is projection—or, at the very least, not the terms in which the child would truly think. Perhaps the thing that “had not yet started” was adult life: a rather sad one, by this narrator’s perceptions. Also, if we go along with the fiction that the child might really be listening to this narrative, what salutary effect would this pronouncement have? There’s been a change, or a gradual revelation, and now the narrator is speaking to herself on the subject of sadness. Internal is conflated with external as “the quiet snow and the sky beat like a pulse.” The echo occurs in our own heads, our adult heads, where we’ve integrated the symbolism of the snow and the moon, where we understand that the seemingly ordinary yet evocative words are hugely charged.

The stunning last paragraph repeats what has by now become not only the sound track, but (I think) the status quo; the quintessentially ordinary laughter from downstairs transforms itself from being larger than life until it becomes demystified, inflated to symbolism, deflated to what we understand to be its understandable qualities. We nod in weary, grown-up acceptance of the metaphor the author has invoked, only to be undercut by the last sentence: “You never knew what things they laughed at when they laughed so long in the evenings, and now you will never know.” As one moves away from childhood, forgetting becomes a form of understanding—but why the flat pronouncement tinged with bitterness? It’s more a taunt than a revelation; it sounds like the way one nasty child would speak to another, though a bit more eloquent.

The child addressed is the narrator’s younger self, which explains the intimacy, the sporadically still-questioning mind, the necessity of remembering precisely, vividly, because in those sounds and images of the past, some clue might be found about the meaning of the present. If the “you” will never know, it’s because life, like a story, moves on, and in spite of a narrator’s capacity for stunningly acute description and viscerally remembered moments interspersed with poetic descriptions of the imagined world, finally beauty becomes secondary to the quotidian: the search for meaning comes to a cryptic end, as evenings devolve into night. Literary and metaphorical night. Finis.

The author of eleven story collections and ten novels, Ann Beattie has been the recipient of the 1992 American Academy of Arts and Letters award for excellence, the 2000 PEN/Malamud Award, and the 2005 Rea Award for the Short Story, as well as five O. Henry Awards.

Originally published in Ecotone, Spring 2011. Copyright © 2011 by Ann Beattie. Reprinted with permission of the author.