Anthony Varallo’s “Reunion” with Cheever

Anthony Varallo won the Iowa Short Fiction prize last year for his short story collection, This Day in History, and was also a finalist for the 2006 Paterson Fiction Prize. He is an assistant professor of English at the College of Charleston, and serves as fiction editor for the school’s literary journal, Crazyhorse.

anthony-varallo.jpgMy favorite short stories have several things in common: They all stand just to the left or right of a more anthologized one (my favorite Carver is “Why Don’t You Dance?” not “Cathedral,” my favorite Updike is “The Happiest I’ve Been” not “A&P,” and so on); they are stories I’ve read so many times the collections they inhabit open naturally to their first page (my Complete Short Stories of Bernard Malamud will open to “The Silver Crown” if you hold its spine in your open palm and allow the pages to part); and they are all stories I’d wished I’d written myself—desperately wished, even reading them aloud to my living room, imagining this was so.

John Cheever’s “Reunion” is one of them. The story, one of his shortest, appears in The Stories of John Cheever, a book so important to me that I sometimes scan people’s shelves looking for it, its presence in a strange house making me feel immediately at home. Do you know “Reunion”? I want to ask, but never do. The one about the kid meeting his father for the first time in years, the father taking him on a drunken, whirlwind tour of New York, insulting waiters, newspaper vendors along the way, the narrator gamely going along, wishing to know his unknowable father before he departs for his train?

The story is a minor miracle, clocking in at less than 1,500 words or so. In the opening paragraph, Charlie, the narrator, meets his father at Grand Central Station, feeling that their “reunion” might offer a glimpse of his own future. He hugs his father, wishing someone would photograph them together. His father, drunk, we soon discover—and this is one the main pleasures of the story, how quickly Charlie’s illusions fall, yet the story speeds ahead anyway—takes Charlie to a series of nightclubs, harassing the waiters, until asked to leave. His father speaks poor Italian in an Italian restaurant, affects a British accent in a club where the waiters “wore pink jackets like hunting coats” and insists on leaving when a waiter asks to see Charlie’s ID.

Charlie observes all of this, without comment, occasionally consoling his father by calling him “Daddy.” The word sticks out on the page: Charlie is a teenager. We feel Charlie’s embarrassment, but something else, too: his unwillingness to condemn his father’s behavior. Instead, Charlie watches, wondering, we feel, whether his father will be his “future and doom,” as Charlie wondered in the opening paragraph. Daddy, he wishes to call him, restoring a parent-child order that we know never existed and yet we, like Charlie, yearn for it nonetheless.

The story ends with Charlie telling his father he has to go; he has a train to catch. Charlie’s father tells him he’ll buy him a newspaper to read on the train—then begins hurling insults at the newspaper vendor. “Goodbye, Daddy,” Charlie says, boarding the train, leaving the reader with one of the greatest, impossible, you’d-ruin-it-if-you-tried-it yourself endings in all of American short fiction; a story that ends with the same seven words that opened it. And that was the last time I saw my father.

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12 September 2006 | selling shorts |