“Call Me Ishmael,” an Early Story by Shirley Jackson


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“Yes,” she said. “It’s incredible.”

It was quite stupid of people, she thought, to make everything, even conversation, so interrelated and dependent that she could not say merely that it was incredible but must be referring to something preceding or obvious; nothing exists, she thought, unless it depends upon something previous; people are incapable of realizing anything that does not bear upon that interrelation. In this case, it was the number of warm days that was incredible (warm days being a factor in anyone’s understanding), instead of anything more important, and there seem to be so few important things, she thought desperately, besides the weather.

“I like it, though,” said her mother.

There. Her mother liked it. In the pattern which existed around and in and was a part of her mother, there was a place for liking the weather.

“Look,” said her mother. “She’s there again.”

Thus, something outside the pattern was only a subject for comment, never as real as the weather, never as permanent. Only a subject for “Look. She’s there again.”

“I thought she had moved.”

“And a good thing, too,” said her mother. “No better than she should be. Decent people expected to live with a woman who . . . with a woman like that. More than a person should be expected to put up with. I suggested to the landlord that he put her out.”

Again, it was not the concreteness of the act of forcing a woman out of a house that was important; it was the fact of mentioning it to the landlord.

“What a queer interpretation you put on things, Mother.”

“Queer?” said her mother. “Queer to refuse to live in the same house with that woman? And now she comes and stands on the corner. On the corner!”

The corner was important, more important than the woman; the woman derived her actuality from the place where she lived, her landlord, the people she lived with, the corner she stood on; there was no woman, there was a corner, and a corner was no place for a woman to stand, any more than a decent house was any place for her to live.

“She seems to be drunk. . . .”

“There,” said her mother, “don’t blame the poor creature; you don’t really know, and, anyway, she’s to be forgiven.”

The woman, then, existed to be forgiven, not blamed; not understood, forgiven.

“She’s probably tired,” said her mother. “But I can’t understand why she comes back here; the landlord says she lives so far away now.” She paused. “And not in the nicest part of town,” she added reflectively.

“I believe I’ll speak to her.”

“We should,” said her mother, making the decision, by the use of the “should,” one of nothing; thus, the woman lost the momentary personality and became again the object of a verb.

“My good woman,” said her mother (and again the woman regained personality for a moment, by the confusion resulting from the use of “good”), “aren’t you lost?”

The woman, gathering reality from the people in the house, from the corner, from being the object of a verb and the subject of an adjective, raised her eyes and looked levelly.

“Yes, thank you,” she said flatly. “Very well lost, thank you.”

And there was the confusion of a non-related thought scattering for a moment all of the pattern; her mother stared, the corner vanished; and then the pattern was reëstablished.

“I’m sure I don’t know what to make of it,” said her mother. “I’m sure I don’t understand it at all.” ♦

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