My Lord You
Today, a new one, James Salter’s 1994 short story My Lord You. The story was originally published in the September, 1994 issue of Esquire Magazine, and then included in Last Night, Mr. Salter’s 2005 short story collection. The title, My Lord You, is a quote from a poem by Ezra Pound (actually his translation of an eighth century Chinese poem) and will figure prominently in the text later on. All the stories gathered in Last Night have to do, I think, with longing and desire—although that’s not always clearly articulated by the protagonists. My Lord You has to do with Ardis, a thirty-ish year-old woman living with her husband on Long Island. The time is not determined but has the feel of the 1980s.
James Salter was of a distinguished generation of writers including John Updike, John Cheever, and Eudora Welty, but didn’t achieve broad acclaim for his work—at least during his lifetime. (He died in 2015). He wrote several novels, including A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years, screen plays, notably Down Hill Racer, and short stories.
One of the first things we can note about My Lord You is that the story is about a woman and written by a man. Well, you say, so what? That’s been done a lot. Men write about women, women about men, straight people write about gay people and vice vera—it’s all fantasy.
That assumes men and women (and others) are different beasties and must imagine each other. Should we aim our diamond-cutter at this distinction in My Lord You or should we take the position that the story is written by a human about a human? That latter view assumes that men can imagine what it’s like to be a woman.
Are men always and only aware of gender? Are women?
Mr. Salter himself said: “I think I write for a certain kind of person—I’m not going to define exactly who, probably a woman—but not for everybody. An intelligent woman…” This is in the context of answering a question about did he have someone in mind when he wrote—a sort of idealized reader who would “get” his creations.
I’m not sure this helps. So Salter wrote a story about a woman’s intimate experience and he was imagining a woman reading it and understanding it.
In any case, can a man write about a woman and display verisimilitude—that quality of believability that a reader requires to keep reading? The answer lies within another question, my friends: Are men and women fundamentally different or are there fundamental human experiences that transcend gender?
No clear answer there, but let’s look at this story for gosh sakes.
My Lord You seems to be about Ardis, the protagonist, searching for something she’s missing—not a concrete thing but a quality like passion or love. Meaning, perhaps. Okay, that’s a fundamental human experience that both men and women share.
She goes to a dinner party with her husband, to a home she’s never been to before. She studies the house and the furnishings, the food, somewhat enviously, as if she feels on the outside of a world. During the dinner, a local appears, a poet named Michael Brennan. He is drunk and disheveled; he behaves badly, flirts in a condescending way with Ardis, and drives off, only to wreck his car.
“Ardis hoped he would not notice her again. His forehead had two gleaming places, like nascent horns. Were men drawn to you when they knew they were frightening you?
She could feel his eyes. There was silence. She could feel him standing there like a menacing beggar.”
Brennan gropes her and is led away and ejected from the party.
Driving home with her husband, “They were going down a long empty stretch where on a corner, half hidden in trees, a small house stood, the gypsy house, Ardis thought of it as, a simple house with a water pump in the yard and occasionally in the daytime a girl in blue shorts, very brief, and high heels, hanging clothes on a line…She was driving with Warren and he was talking.”
When Brennan gropes her, touching her breast, “She was too stunned to move.”
Salter’s style is not to explain much. There is a narrator entity in this story, but it is way in the background. The text is open to meaning making. My reaction to this initial scene is that Ardis is repelled and fascinated by Brennan; who is crude and exciting—both qualities Ardis is not, nor is her husband, Warren. However, the text never says this. We are given impressions. Ardis hopes Brennan will not notice her—this is about half of how she feels. She also wants him to notice her. Then when he touches her breast and makes a drunken sexual proposition, she is too stunned to move. There’s no mention of her slugging him or screaming or feeling angry at the violation.
By the way, does this mean that Salter thinks women like to be groped? That they outwardly protest but inwardly are thrilled?
I don’t think so. This is a story about a particular person, and it makes no attempt at generalization. However, given the way men and women related in the nineteen-eighties, this situation would tend to represent, I think, a woman’s experience of being molested and humiliated. In this case, the experience provokes a particular reaction in Ardis, given who she is at that particular moment. At a time when she feels like she doesn’t fit in to a world she wants to fit into, a romantic world that includes more direct sexual expression than she is accustomed to, a romantic man approaches her sexually. She does not want to accept his offer, but it is intriguing.
The line, Were men drawn to you when they knew they were frightening you? is interesting. It could be taken as a question Brennan is asking Ardis, but it’s not set off in the paragraph by quotes. The paragraph in which it appears shows Ardis’ inner experience, what she notices about Brennan, so the question could be something she asks herself. She may be thinking that Brennan frightens her and that she wonders if he is attracted to her because of that. Someone who lacks power would be afraid of the powerful—maybe for a woman of this time, that is an accurate generalization. But for this particular character, power relations are mixed up with sexuality and desire. Is this true for many women still? Maybe. Is Salter saying this is good?
Don’t think so, but the fact that he wrote a story about this theme means he thought it was significant.
In any case, after the party Ardis drives home with her husband and notices a house she’s apparently noticed before, a house where she’s seen a girl in brief shorts and high heels hanging up laundry—an intriguing contradiction. This is Brennan’s house, although the text mysteriously doesn’t tell us that at this point. Later on, it becomes clear. Here we are shown Ardis, who’s clearly curious about Brennan, noticing a house that carries an erotic association.
I want to be part of your world, I think I do anyway. When you come on to me, even crudely, it’s exciting–maybe not in just a sexual way.
Till next time.