If you have not read it, I cannot recommend Mark Helprin’s short stories “The Pacific and Other Stories” highly enough. Below please enjoy the essay I needed to write for class.
Mark Helprin’s book, The Pacific and Other Stories, contains two short stories, “Monday” and “Perfection” which have as one of their themes suffering and hope. Suffering is something each living person experiences in some fashion at least once in their lifetime. Hope is a different thing. Sometimes it eludes us. Or sometimes, just sometimes, hope comes to us in an unsuspecting way.
“Monday” is a short story about the owner of Fitch Company and his employees being hired by a former customer, Lilly, to do “some work”(45) on her “duplex in Brooklyn Heights” (45). Though Fitch had work booked for two years something compelled him to tell Lilly that he would look over what needed to be done.
Helprin tells us Fitch was a man who had wisdom gained through his experience of suffering the death of his father (51). Thus Fitch’s “nature [was] to read…to listen…and to ponder” (51) over which he “had no choice in the matter” (51). This wisdom showed itself in his statement regarding the removal of dirt and grit from the windows. “And it will have to be done respectfully, because the clouds of dust that floated against these windows were more than merely inanimate” (54). It is at this point we learn from Lilly’s father that her husband was in the South Tower on the fateful morning of September 11th, 2001. Experience is a good, though sometimes harsh, teacher. It made Fitch sensitive to others hurts and needs.
The unique title of this short story takes the reader to the day before 9/11, a wish that I can only imagine Lilly and many, many others have, yet is not possible. Thus the suffering we endure continues, to some extent, and will continue for the remainder of our days. While it will not have the same intensity it did on that horrible day, it will be present like an ache in a once broken bone. It is a vulnerable spot. Fitch discerns this in Lilly. “Fitch had asked about them…skylights were a common means of forcible entry. Had she seemed less vulnerable, he might have gone on…” (52).
When one is familiar with suffering, one does not want to have suffered in vain. One hopes to make use of the experience, the pain, the sorrow towards the good. In some way this seems to redeem the sorrow and turn it into hope. Fitch seems to be committed to this axiom. Fitch determined to turn Lilly’s ugly apartment, the ugly suffering, into one of beauty. “He was calculating [the fees] neither desperately nor greedily, but, rather, casually…underlying his ease…was an inflexible resolution” (55). He could not erase the wounds caused by grief and loss from her soul, but he could provide a beautiful and serene place in which Lilly could grieve and heal. After all, this was the hope found by one who has arrived to the other side of suffering.
Enlisting the aid of his right hand man, Gustavo, was no chore for Fitch. When there is devotion for someone, suffering for their sake is not even a question because through sacrifice and suffering, one gains new life and hope.
“You know,” asked Fitch, “how knights would die for the virgin, would yearn to die? And how everything in the world seemed unimportant next to their peculiar, settled, certain devotion?” “Yes, I know,” Gustavo said, “because that is still very much in the heart of my country.” “Well, then you know. Sometimes you find something that’s truly important, and even though it throws everything into disorder you know you have to do it…and it gives you new life” (57).
Fitch insists that Lilly take the contract home to her lawyer father for review because he wants her to be reassured about the project. Puzzled, she asks him why. “I want you to be happy,” he replies (62). “Moved by this, for many reasons, some of what seemed even to her to be mysterious, Lilly looked away…”(62). It seems, perhaps, a spark of hope is ignited in Lilly.
Nine-eleven was an attack on the United States. The terrorists intended to fracture the country and the people in it. Though they may have succeeded in killing over 2,000 countrymen, what they did not intend, occurred. We wept in horror as we watched towers crumble to dust, knowing people were dying before our eyes, despite that most of us did not know their names. Every citizen of the United States because part of the family of suffering. Tragedy, death, suffering are unique in that that they unite individuals into a family rapidly, unlike many other things. Helprin demonstrates this in this short story.
Upon learning the fate of Lilly’s husband, Gustavo and the men embraced the job wholeheartedly. Even their nuclear families embraced the job. “Without the slightest hesitation, Fitch’s men had refused pay, committed to staying twenty-four-hour days, and started immediately. Wives, mothers, aunts, and cousins would show up to serve meals of rice and beans, fish, chicken, vegetables” (67). Even the children helped as they were able (67). Those who suffer, who understand what it means to struggle and feel powerless over life, often give from the core of their soul because they understand. “These people, who had less power over their own lives than anyone Fitch had ever known, were the most generous he had ever encountered (67).
I believe these actions cannot come from a soul that is self-serving. Righteousness, righteous acts, would seem to belong to those who have suffered. It is Hope which comes from the Divine, which drives the person to these acts. “Fitch felt the divine presence as he had not since the height of his youth” (68).
Hope is born again in Lilly. The possible spark that was present at the contract negotiations, seems to have gained a little bit of strength. But at least Lilly is now able to catch a small glimmer of light to lead her out of the darkness of her sadness. “She did not know why Fitch had done it, or at least she thought she didn’t know. No matter what, it was too much for her now. Fitch was too much for her now. It was too soon” (71).
In “Perfection” Helprin introduces us to Roger Reveshze, a fourteen year old Hasidic boy (128) who survived the Holocaust, against the odds, but whose parents and many others did not (129). In the face of such a dark time in history, Helprin counters it with America’s favorite pastime, baseball. At first, one seems to be offended by such a connection between a game and the face of such evil as the Holocaust but suffering can be had on different levels and truth can be found in a variety of places. Helprin creatively takes one from laughter, to horror, to tearful truth to show that even in the face of suffering one can laugh, feel joy and find hope.
For Yankees fans there was much suffering and grief in the 1956 baseball season. According to the butcher, “Now they’re dying. Then won’t win this year, even with Mental” (142). Roger, did not understand baseball but he understood dying. He misunderstood the butcher and thought the Yankees would really die without a champion to help them win (143). What Roger could not be for his parents and the millions who died in the Holocaust, he could be for the Yankees; a champion. Like Fitch and his men brought hope to Lilly, so Roger brought hope to the Yankees. Roger’s “…prayer was the hopeful resurrection, in his heart, of those who were gone” (143).
“If you are going to help the needy, help those in most distress, and those in most distress are those who have fallen furthest” (148). Though it was Roger who gave life to this thought, it can also be applied to Fitch and his men. Even out of their own poverty of hope, especially with Roger it would seem, all of these characters are committed to offering what hope they had to those people who have fallen the furthest.
Roger put into words the hope shown by Fitch. “Because of the imperfection I have seen, I live for the hope of restoration. That’s all I live for, even if it be a sin” (186). Suffering, by any other name including imperfection, is still suffering. Similarly to Fitch sharing with his men Lilly’s tragic loss of her husband in the South Tower, Roger shares the story of his suffering in the Holocaust with the Yankees team mates. Like Fitch’s men who were inspired to help Lilly and offer her hope, Roger’s experience and desire to balance the evil with good, inspired the Yankees to “play to perfection and to rush it on, as symbol and sign to speak directly to God, and to face like men the fact of evil and sorrow in the world” (189).
Like Fitch’s sense of the Divine Presence as he and the men worked on Lilly’s apartment, so Roger senses Divine Presence in his life. In his prayers it reveals itself as light. “And I see houses that are lit weakly but brightly, their windows glowing yellow (129). “‘I am blinded,” Roger reported matter-of-factly. By light: white phosphorus, pinwheels, stars on a field of fire” (130).
Roger seeks the light and will bring the light to the Yankees. He told Saromsker Rebbe that he was going “To the House of Ruth, where a miracle will come, a splinter of light, a flicker” (144). Once he gains entrance to the ballpark, he goes “up a ramp in search of June daylight” (147).
Roger feels the light in the form of an angel of the Lord and the angel guides him. “It was then that he felt the arms, fluttering and feathered, golden and shiny, reach from behind him and slowly, viscously, take hold of his hands on the bat. An angel supported him in his arms and gently held the bat, and, with eyes closed, Roger would swing with the angel” (176-177). “Though Roger had not seen the angel, he had felt its embrace and sensed a coolly burning orb” (180).
In the after season seminar, Roger asks the Yankees, and all who they represent, the question on behalf of Fitch, Lilly, the men, and all who have suffered. “How can one suffer all the miseries of this life, and the other know all the glories, if in the end every account is to be reconciled and they come to the same reward? How can God allow it” (183)?
His answer is one full of hope. “…even in this world…perfection will not be broken, for, by definition, the perfection cannot be broken. Only those who have suffered can know the strength of the compensation they acquire. And the reception of His compensation, like the quantity of physics, is the certain though insubstantial thing we call holiness” (184-185).
Our desire, Lilly’s desire, the Yankees’ desire, and Fitch’s desire and that of his men is the same as Roger’s. “…and all I want from the world is some indication or sign that, forward in time, or where time does not exist, there is a justice and a beauty that will leap back to lift the ones I love from the kind of grave they were given” (187).
Witness the glimmer of hope being reborn. “…and when he saw the light change [Fitch] stayed in place” (72).