After a political short and then two stories that were depressing as hell (“The Nightingale and the Rose” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find”)—beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but wretched—I decided Day 17 of my short-story reading would be one of the shrewd and humorous New York wit, Dorothy Parker, who is renowned for dropping maxims such as: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me.”
May the comic relief lighten your heart.
“The Standard of Living” by Dorothy Parker
They tendered thanks, icily, to the doorman for ushering them into the shop. It was cool and quiet, a broad, gracious room with paneled walls and soft carpet. But the girls wore expressions of bitter disdain, as if they stood in a sty.
Annabel and Midge are beautiful young women that met in their company’s stenography department and became fast friends. They spend evenings together, and Saturdays, and Sundays, and frequently double date; they dress and move and act similarly, and each paints her nails and lips and wears all the sort of clothes one ought not to wear at the office.
One of Annabel and Midge’s favorite pastimes (apart from being whistled at in the city streets) is strolling along Fifth Avenue and playing an old game called “what-would-you-do-if-you-had-a-million-dollars?”
But the girls are modern, and as such invent new rules. Annabel’s versions supposes that somebody died and left you a round one million along with the stipulation, as it says in the will, that every cent must be spent on yourself, and yourself alone. Midge amended that the one who died was not to be somebody you loved, or even knew, but a total stranger; one who had simply seen you somewhere and thought, ‘That girl ought to have nice things,’ and wrote you into her will; and, only after living a long and fulfilling life, had slipped away peacefully in the night.
One day, shortly after arguing over the virtues of silver-fox vs. mink coats, the girls happen upon a gorgeous string of pearls with an emerald clasp in a shop window. Annabel dares Midge to go in and ask how much they cost. Midge accepts, with the caveat that Annabel join her.
The two enter the exquisite jeweler’s, all ice and disdain as a doorman ushers them in. They are then greeted by well-dressed clerk who bows and looks not in the least surprised to see them. Annabel and Midge continue their haughty charade as he asks if there is something he can help them with. Still haughtily, and attempting to be well-spoken, Midge coolly answers: “My friend and I merely happened to be passing,” and then adds, “My friend here and I merely happened to be wondering how much are those pearls you’ve got in your window.”
The clerk nods; the double rope, he says, (addressing her as Madam) is two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Would she care to look at it?
Here Annabel takes over: “No, thank you.” Midge, recovering, restates that they merely happened to be passing.
They exit the shop, heads still held high, but when they get to some distance the girls squawk in disbelief. A thing like that! Two hundred and fifty thousand? Why, that’s a quarter of a million in itself! Gone, just like that! The nerve.
Dejected, the friends slump and sulk on in silence a while. Then Midge straightens and makes a new proposal: suppose there’s this terribly rich person, and they want to do something for you, and they die in their sleep and leave you ten million dollars…
“Ah, yes,” the clerk said. “The double rope. That is two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, Madam.”
“I see,” Midge said.
A fun story: light, simple, and short. As it was so short and clean, I haven’t much to say about it, except this: the greatest part of the humor, for me, came in the content of the dialogue itself. Annabel and Midge’s pretentiousness (and the manner in which it is so quickly shattered) is funny precisely because it isn’t over-described, but because what they say conveys so much. There are no unnecessary adjectives to obstruct the scene—“she said, haughtily,” or “Midge said, arrogantly”—and yet we hear the effort Midge makes to sound sophisticated when she inquires for the price of the pearls, just as we hear her falter (or imagine the frozen expression on her face) as she rejoins, “I see,” when the clerk tells her.
Lesson learned (and it is one that comes up time and time again in writing): less is more!
wont: (as a noun) one’s customary behavior in a particular situation
stenographer: one who transcribes speech, especially dictation (oh…I knew that. Like in courtrooms!)
dais: a throne, platform, or seat of honor
tumbrel: a farm dumpcart for carrying dung
carom: a shot in billiards where the cue ball strikes another two balls successively; strike and rebound
Tomorrow is another story.