ASSIGNED READING: William Trevor’s “On the Streets” (Part 2 of 3)
In ASSIGNED READING, we read something together — a story, novel excerpt, essay, play, poem — and talk about how and why it works. This is the second of a three-part look at William Trevor’s 2003 short story “On the Streets.”
Everyone has a moment they can remember with perfect clarity, a time when something turned to shit right in front of your eyes. Maybe you said the wrong thing to the wrong person, or you misjudged your abilities and/or station, or you did the tiniest thing that caused someone else to melt down. But you remember it, and you can call it up anytime in the TiVo of your brain. Arthurs has one of those moments, and it’s both the worst and best thing that ever happened to him.
So what happens in “On the Streets”? On the barest level, almost nothing. An angry man has a bad lunch and shows up when his ex-wife gets out of work. Then later he’s there when she gets out of her second job and they have tea together. Each time he seems to give vague details, hints that he’s done something terrible. End.
Is “On the Streets” a weird story? It is a very weird story. But in order to fully appreciate the weirdness of “On the Streets,” we have to remember what a short story normally does.
A short story is generally about THE time something happened. Either it’s never happened before, or it’s happened before (or has been happening for a while) but not like THIS time. You know this from children’s books, which are our first experience with short stories. We meet our characters, we learn how things generally go for them, and then the author says: AND THEN ONE DAY… and you know the ride has begun. If you think of a story like a roller coaster, all the background/intro stuff is just the time where the coaster is being pulled up the incline of the starter hill. AND THEN ONE DAY… is where the coaster is set loose, or as loose as a thing on a track can be.
That’s when you know you’re in good hands with an author, by the way. On a roller coaster, you’re always aware that you’re on a track, a carefully designed course that’s bent and twisted in specific ways so that everyone gets the same ride and hits the same corners and dips. Yet in the thrill of the ride itself, adrenaline and terror make you forget what you know about the tracks. You buy into what the coaster is selling you, even though your logical brain could just think, “Well, I studied the shape of this while waiting in line, so I know there’s a crazy plummet around the bend, but it’ll be over in a second….” But that’s not how we think while we’re on the coaster. On the coaster, it’s all so real and fast that we just think “OH JESUS I’M GOING TO DIE!”
This is not to imply that every short story, certainly not anything by William Trevor, is a thrillride. What I mean is, there’s a manipulation — of words, of details, of events — that the reader should be fully aware is happening. When you stop noticing the manipulation is when a story starts working.
In the world of “On the Streets,” most of the story — the events, the history — has actually happened outside the bounds of what we’re reading. Right there, that’s you being manipulated. Why would Trevor do this?
Before “On the Streets,” Arthurs was a lunch waiter. After an incident with a couple involving an insolent tone and grimy cuffs, he was busted down to being a breakfast waiter, which means shorter hours and less money. Arthurs has been clinging to this event, going over every detail, every glance. He also has been using it to fuel a fantasy about being a terrifying man, murderer of the woman whose casual indignation (“They’d gone away, not knowing what they left behind”) ruined the one thing he had going for him.
Now — as in, when our story begins — that fantasy is already one of TWO things he has going for him. What’s the other? Look at the scenes with Cheryl. Look at the parts that are from her point of view. This is not strictly a story about a man stalking his wife with stories about killing another woman. Does Cheryl get something out of this, too? And does that, in turn, feed Arthurs’ craving?
They had a shitty marriage. (More backstory.) It happens. Cheryl seems to have loved her first husband, but she does not seem ever to have loved Arthurs. He was creepy and broken. He avoided sex on their wedding night — whether because he’s gay or he’s incapable of intimacy, we don’t know. Theirs is a marriage that simply wouldn’t work, not within normal boundaries.
But they do have an arrangement, and she does get something out of this. It’s never plainly stated, but I think she gets a charge out of his stories, I think she doesn’t mind him showing up on the streets. His appearances are both random and not. He’s dependable. Her first husband, in the end, was not dependable. Arthurs gives a shape to her day, he seems to watch over her, and yet she does not have to go home to him. The reader has to try not to judge her or them for this, as you should probably not judge a couple who you discover has an open relationship or a polyamorous household. Whatever your deal at home, theirs works for them.
As for Arthurs, he gets to confess his “sins” without having actually sinned. There’s an argument to be made that this time he’s really done it, but I don’t think that’s true. I have students who absolutely believe he’s committed a murder and that THIS is the time, but I dispute this for three reasons:
- Arthurs’ running narrative to Cheryl is our sole source of information on “the deed.” But we know from Cheryl that he’s told this one a million times, and that the details, while remarkably specific, vary with each telling (“Cheryl didn’t say anything; she never did.”);
- Even when Arthurs seems to drop hints to the reader (“He knew the address by heart, even in his sleep, in dreams; but who could tell what might happen to memory? Not that it mattered now, of course.”), we have to remember his sections are told in extremely close third person, aka the voice of his head. He can’t be trusted;
- Because William Trevor plays a slightly different game in terms of why you’re reading a story and what revelations are had in the end.
But we’ll talk about that third thing in our final installment. Do, though, look at how the ending changes the way Cheryl’s POV is presented: “He would finish his tea and pour another cup: on the streets again she imagined that.” Isn’t this exactly the kind of thing we’re used to seeing from Arthurs? But this isn’t Arthurs’ POV, with its odd habits of speech. This is Cheryl (via Trevor), letting us see she’s a bigger part of this than we might have thought, that she truly is getting some kind of charge out of this.
Perhaps, in the end, what Arthurs’ murder-stories do is help these two weirdos find some communion. Every relationship depends on the development of a shared language, a kind of couple-brain that both parties don’t necessarily plug into 24/7, but that both have access to. Some people sit down and pick up a conversation they were having a month ago as though nothing had happened in between. These two happen to do that with uncomfortable murder stories.