Cheever: Life is for some an exquisite privilege

Today is, Allen Gurganus reminds us, John Cheever's 100th birthday. In celebration, here's the last couple of graphs from his story The Lowboy, which is about how some people turn life into a battle over stupid possessions.

No one (in my experience) has ever dramatized this all-too-common meanness so eloquently: 

CheeverAt some point — perhaps when he purchased the silver pitcher —
[my brother] Richard committed himself to the horrors of the past, and his life, like so much else in nature, took the form of an arc. There must have been some felicity, some clearness in his feeling for [his wife] Wilma, but once the lowboy took a commanding position in his house, he seemed driven back upon his wretched childhood. We went there for dinner — it must have been Thanksgiving. The lowboy stood in the dining room, on its carpet of mysterious symbols, and the silver pitches was full of chrysanthemums. Richard spoke to his wife and children in a tone of vexation that I had forgotten. He quarreled with everyone; he even quarreled with my children. Oh, why is it that life is for some an exquisite privilege and others must pay for their seats at the play with a ransom of cholers, infections, and nightmares? We got away as soon as we could. 

When we got home, I took the green glass epergne that belonged to Aunt Mildred off the sideboard and smashed it with a hammer. Then I dumped Grandmother's sewing box into the ash can, burned a big hole in her lace tablecloth, and buried her pewter in the garden. Out they go — the Roman coins, the sea horse from Venice, and the Chinese fan. We can cherish nothing less than our random understanding of death and the earth-shaking love that draws us to one another. Down with the stuffed owl in the upstairs hall and the state of Hermes on the newel post! Hock the ruby necklace, throw away the invitation to Buckingham Palace, jump and down on the perfume atomizer from Murano and the Canton fish plates. Dismiss whatever molests us and challenges our purpose, sleeping or waking. Cleanliness and valor will be our watchwords. Nothing less will get us pass the armed sentry and over the mountainous border. 

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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