When I picked up (borrowed from John) "The Portable Dorothy Parker," the first story I read–the first in the book–was "The Lovely Leave." I was dumbstruck by the simple language, the useage that wove it into gold.
The book is divided into several sections according to early stories and poems, later ones, and then reviews and articles. I have just reached the end of the first section, which is about 60% of the book. And in reading the last story in this section, I am once again awed.
Most of the stories are similar in their portrayal of the upper middle class to wealthy lifestyle of the forties and fifties, or follow the theme which barely hides Parker’s disdain of the intricate games and inequities of relationships. But this final story, "Clothe the Naked" stands apart in depth of character that Parker has created, and her real knowledge and caring of society’s low income and black communities.
Briefly, the protagonist, Big Lannie, is a hardworking black woman who has lost husbands and children and is then saddled with caring for her newborn grandson who is unfortunately born blind. She must give up her job in doing laundry for a set of regular wealthy customers to take care of little Raymond, and is helped as much as possible by neighbors.
They get by, but barely. Raymond grows into a loving, trusting child, and Big Lannie must leave him alone when she must take whatever jobs she can get to support them both. Raymond loves the street and being outside the apartment, hearing the children play and calling out to the neighbors and listening to their laughter and cheer. But one winter, when all she has to clothe him in is a dress, she is able to talk him into staying inside by pointing out the dangers of snow and ice.
Come spring, Raymond is anxious to go outside, and Big Lannie begs one of her employers for something to clothe him in. An old suit and shoes is condescendingly given, and she gives these items to a gleeful Raymond, who is unaware of how poorly the much-too-large suit makes him look.
Raymond goes out alone while Big Lannie is at work, and his excitement in preparing for the excursion is barely contained. "As he folded the sleeves back over his thin arms, his heart beat so that the cloth above it fluttered."
He heard the laughter once again, but:
"As quickly as he could, he gained the walk and set forth, guiding himself by the fence. He could not wait; he called out, so that he would hear gay calls in return, he laughed so that laughter would answer him. He heard it. He was so glad that he took his hand from the fence and turned and stretched out his arms and held up his smiling face to welcome it. He stood there, and his smile died on his face, and his welcoming arms stiffened and shook. It was not the laughter he had known; it was not the laughter he had lived on. It was like great flails beating him flat, great prongs tearing his flesh from his bones. It was coming at him, to kill him."
Dear God. We follow him running and falling and tearing his clothes to find his way back home, where Big Lannie finds him whimpering and moaning in a corner of the room.
Did we know, did we suspect what would happen, and is the pain worse because as readers, there was nothing we could do.