Wednesday

Sep. 11, 2013

A Monday in May

by Ted Kooser

It rained all weekend,
but today the peaked roofs
are as dusty and warm
as the backs of old donkeys
tied in the sun.
So much alike are our houses,
our lives. Under every eave—
leaf, cobweb, and feather;
and for each front yard
one sentimental maple,
who after a shower has passed,
weeps into her shadow
for hours.

"A Monday in May" by Ted Kooser, from Flying at Night. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of fiction writer William Sydney Porter (books by this author), better known by his pen name, O. Henry, born in Greensboro, North Carolina (1862). As a young man living in Texas, he was convicted of embezzlement and sent to federal prison. While he was there, he began to write and publish short stories, which a friend in New Orleans would forward to publishers, so that no one would know the author was writing from prison. When he got out after three years, he told his young daughter he had been away on business and resumed a respectable life. It wasn't until after his death that the public learned that O. Henry, the famous author of more than 300 short stories, had gotten his start in prison.

"The Ransom of Red Chief" is the story of two small-time crooks — Bill and Sam — who kidnap a wealthy young boy from Alabama. They plan to raise $2,000 in ransom money and continue on the road to their next scheme. Unfortunately, red-haired young Johnny is not what they expect. He refers to himself as Red Chief and considers his kidnapping a fabulous wilderness adventure, far superior to attending school and having to interact with girls. He threatens to scalp Bill and burn Sam at the stake, forces Bill to act like a horse so he can ride him, and generally makes their lives miserable. The crooks revise their ransom down to $1,500. Johnny's father responds that he will not pay the ransom fee; furthermore, he will only take Johnny back if the men pay him $250 and bring the boy in the dead of night so that the neighbors won't be disappointed to see the youngster return home. The desperate men take Johnny straight to his father. The boy throws a fit at having to leave his captors, while they drive away as fast as they can, heading toward Canada.

"The Gift of the Magi" is the story of a young married couple, Jim and Della. Della's pride and joy is her beautiful long hair, while Jim's prized possession is his grandfather's gold watch. They don't have much money, but each is determined to get the other a meaningful Christmas gift. Jim ends up selling his watch to buy his wife combs for her hair; at the same time, Della sells her hair for enough money to buy her husband a fob chain for his watch.

"The Furnished Room" is the story of a nameless young man who rents a dingy but furnished room in a boarding house in Lower Manhattan. He has spent months searching for a beautiful girl he loves and who has disappeared. He questions the housekeeper about whether she has ever seen the girl, giving a detailed physical description that includes a mole on the left eyebrow, but the housekeeper says no. The young man is not convinced — he keeps getting a whiff of a floral scent that reminds him of his sweetheart, and he is sure she has been there. He tears the room apart searching for any sign of her, and he questions the housekeeper again, who once again denies having rented the room to any girl that matches his description. The young man goes back to the room, and when he finds the scent gone, he seals off the room with strips of bed sheets, lies down, and kills himself by turning the gaslight on high. The story ends with the housekeeper explaining to a friend that she rented a room to a young man that day, but because she didn't want to deter him from renting, she didn't tell him that a young girl killed herself with the gaslight in that room a week earlier — a girl with a mole on her left eyebrow.

It was on this day in 1914 that W.C. Handy published his "St. Louis Blues," his most famous song. Handy grew up in a cabin in Florence, Alabama. As a child, he could identify the notes and intervals of birdsongs and ferry whistles he heard from the Tennessee River. He eventually moved to Memphis, setting up his headquarters on Beale Street, where he studied popular music and became the first person to write down the music that would become known as "the blues." Handy was not the first person to play the blues, but he was the first person to write sheet music for it and make it accessible for mass consumption.

Handy said the lyrics to "St. Louis Blues" had been inspired by a woman he met on the streets of St. Louis who was upset after her husband took off. She reportedly said, "Ma man's got a heart like a rock cast in de sea." The song was a big success and earned Handy $25,000 annually.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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