Reaching Out: Endings of Joy Williams
By Elizabeth Mayer •
Death and loss and decay pervade the stories of Joy Williams’s collection Escapes. If a character is not facing the immediacy of their own death, often they are mourning the loss of someone close to them. Yet despite this preoccupation with mortality, the stories are far from gloomy, and instead exude a sort of vivacious exuberance. Death is there, omnipresent, just around the corner, no one will escape it, but there, too—everywhere—is the weird beauty of life. Two stories in particular, “The Skater” and “The Last Generation,” revolve around characters in states of grief. In both of these stories, I found myself struck by the beauty of the endings. Not only do both of these endings seem to draw the story together and create a sense of conclusion, but they also create the feeling of opening up, as if the ending has split the story apart and scattered it, broadened its entire scope. How does Williams achieve this? What are the parts of these endings? How do they work?
In “The Skater,” Molly and her parents, Tom and Annie, are touring boarding schools in New England. After the death of Molly’s older sister a year prior, Annie has decided it would be best for Molly to move away so that she can be “free” and not afraid as Annie herself feels. At the close of the story, the family arrives at a mountain inn on a lake. It is the beginning of winter, and the lake has frozen. When Tom leaves the room to search for glasses for their Scotch, the final scene of the story begins:
Tom goes down into the cellar for glasses. The skates, their runners bright, are jumbled upon the shelves. The frozen lake glitters in the window. He pushes open the door and there it is, the ice. He steps out onto it. Annie, in their room, waits without taking off her coat, without looking at the bottle. Tom takes a few quick steps and then slides. He is wearing a suit and tie, his good shoes. It is a windy night and the trees clatter with the wind and the old inn’s sign creaks on its chains. Tom slides across the ice, his hands pushed out, then he holds his hands behind his back, going back and forth in the space where the light is cast. There is no skill without the skates, he knows, and probably no grace without them either, but it is enough to be here under the black sky, cold and light and moving. He wants to be out here. He wants to be out here with Annie.
From a window, Molly sees her father on the ice. After a moment, she sees her mother moving toward him, not skating, but slipping forward, making her way. She sees their heavy awkward shapes embrace.
Molly sees them, already remembering it.
The scene is at once dazzling, not only with the “bright” runners of the skates and the “glitter[ing]” lake, but also with the sparkling sibilance of the language itself—“the cellar for glasses,” “the skates,” “the ice.” The language, the sound of the words, seems to reflect the whispering glitz of the scene. Until this point, the family has been confined to small spaces—the halls of the boarding schools, the rental car, the rooms of their hotels—but now Tom leaves these close quarters; he exits the cellar and “steps out into it.” It is interesting to note, that at this point Annie, his wife, is still “in their room.” With just this brief mention of Annie’s location, a gap which seeks bridging has been created.
Tom, at first, is out of place on the ice, out in the open. He is improperly dressed and is still wearing “his good shoes.” The scene is heightened by the active descriptions of the night: it is “windy,” “the trees clatter,” the “sign creaks.” The descriptions are not gentle or pleasant—there is a harshness here. Despite its glitter, there is nothing easy or warm about the night. Still, Tom ventures onto the ice. He is clumsy at first, sliding with “his hands pushed out,” but he soon grows more comfortable, and “holds his hands behind his back.” The night is cold and dark and harsh, but Tom stays “in the space where the light is cast.” He realizes “there is no skill without the skates…and probably no grace,” but he embraces the moment anyway: “it is enough to be here under the black sky, cold and light and moving.” Here, we sense that he is, after an extended period of grief, beginning to feel alive again. The scene does not go so far as to admit enjoyment or pleasure—there is “probably no grace”—but “it is enough.” Tom “wants to be out here.” He wants to be alive, to feel alive. And he wants Annie, “to be out here with Annie.” Again, the gap between them is waiting to be filled.
Here, the story could have ended, and we could have been left without the satisfaction of knowing whether or not the space between Tom and Annie was ever bridged, but instead, the story shifts perspective, and we join the point of view of Molly, the living daughter. With Molly, we watch her father from the window. And then we see, “after a moment,” Molly’s mother “moving toward him, not skating, but slipping forward, making her way.” With the insertion of this “moment,” we have just the hint of suspense, unsure of what is about to happen, unsure if anything will be resolved. But then, with Molly, we are given the relief of seeing Tom and Annie come together. It is not easy—Annie struggles, “slipping forward, making her way,” but she does reach her husband, and “their heavy awkward shapes embrace.” They are still “heavy” and “awkward” in their grief, but in coming together, out on the ice, in the open, they seem to have cleared some hurdle. We understand the significance of this action because it is a moment in time that their daughter immediately commits to memory. Without sentimentality or any momentous epiphany, without an easy fix or a firm resolution, the ending knits together the characters of the story in such a way that we are hopeful for their future. We are given reason to believe, here, in their struggle to skate on the open ice, that they will not surrender to their fear and grief; they will not be destroyed by it.
In “The Last Generation,” Tommy, a young boy whose mother has died, is befriended by his older brother’s ex-girlfriend Audrey. While Tommy’s father stalks zombie-like in his grief through the house, Tommy and Audrey sit on the porch and Audrey imparts her wisdom. In the final scene, Tommy learns from his father, who has begun to come out of his fog, that Audrey, who had a habit of stealing, has been taken away somewhere. At this news, Tommy responds to his father in defense: “‘Who wants you,’ Tommy said. ‘Nobody.’” As in “The Skater,” the ending takes place at night:
In the night, Tommy heard his father moving around, bumping into things, moaning. A glass fell. He heard it breaking for what seemed like a long time. The air in the house felt close, sour. He pushed open his bedroom window and felt the air fluttering warmly against his skin. Down along the river, the water popped and smacked against the muddy bank. It was close to the season when he and Audrey could go to the tower where all the birds were. He could feel it in the air. Audrey would come for him from wherever she was, from wherever they had made her go, and they would go to the tower and find the little warbler bird. Then they would know it existed because they had found it dead there. He and Audrey would be the ones who would find it. They were the last generation, the ones who would see everything for the last time. That’s what the last generation does.
We see the effects of Tommy’s comment to his father indirectly from what Tommy hears happening outside of his bedroom. His father is “bumping into things, moaning.” A glass breaks, and Tommy hears “it breaking for what seem[s] like a long time.” We can assume from these details that Tommy’s father has been drinking again, spurred, of course, by his young son’s remark. Though there is no blatant admission of Tommy’s guilt, the sound of breaking glass that seems to last “a long time” hints at some feeling of remorse, or responsibility, perhaps, on Tommy’s part. With the broken glass, too, we see the fragility of the father’s emotional state. Though he had finally reached a more stable place, Tommy’s words quickly shatter him. We, the reader, feel for both the father and the son—the father who is still broken, and the son who has lost his mother and now his friend.
Again, as in “The Skater,” the character reaches outward. When “the air in the house” feels “close, sour,” Tommy “push[es] open his bedroom window.” By opening the window, Tommy is pushing out of the confines of his house and bedroom, reaching out into the world. From outside, come the pleasures of the natural world: “the air fluttering warmly against his skin,” “the water popp[ing] and smack[ing] against the muddy bank.” These are soothing, vibrant sensations, connecting Tommy to the earth. From these sensations, his imagination is sparked, and he pictures himself with Audrey, going “to the tower where all the birds were” and finding “the little warbler bird.” Though he has not physically left his bedroom, in his mind he has gone into the future, to the tower.
We are left with a sense of Tommy’s childlike hope, but without the confidence to share that hope with him. He wants to find the little warbler bird among the other dead birds at the tower, so that they will know for certain that it has not gone extinct: “They would know that it still existed because they had found it dead there.” Here, we have a strange combination of hope and doom. It is only by finding the bird dead, killed by the manmade tower, that they will know its species remains. However, there is something false in this notion. What if the dead bird were, like Tommy and Audrey, the last generation? What if no others exist after its death? The space between what the reader knows or thinks and what Tommy imagines is powerful. We, unlike Tommy, are not sure if the bird still exists. We doubt Audrey will rescue him. We fear for the lonely life Tommy and his father will share.
The final two sentences of the story carry a sort of resounding power: “They were the last generation, the ones who would see everything for the last time. That’s what the last generation does.” Here, too, we have the combination of two opposing sentiments. They are the last generation because man is killing the natural world. But they exist. They are. They will still get to “see everything.” The balm of nature is still within their grasp. They are still able to witness the beauty of the world. The final, simple, declarative sentence, like the final blow of a hammer to sink the head of a nail, seals the story and marks its completion.
In both of these endings, Williams digs into the complicated nature of grief. There is sadness, but there is also the reaching out toward freedom. There is relief in the openness of the outside world. There is still beauty, as long as we are alive. This beauty is reflected, I think, in the beauty of the language. These are complex emotions to grapple with, but Williams does it with clear, exact, graceful language. The sound and rhythm create a sort of aching joy. Here, in these stories, is some of the beauty that exists in the face of death. Here is a little breath of pleasure to assuage the pain.
ELIZABETH MAYER is currently a student in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. She lives and works in Charlottesville, VA. Her previous work has appeared in Anomalous Press, Kansas City Voices, Whurk Magazine, and elsewhere.