How's your summer so far? Mine is going pretty good, thank you. Did you look at the calendar and think: last week of August? How did that happen? I sure did. I hope you got something done. Me ... I ... well ... not much in the way of fixing anything around our old house. The tomato garden was a total flop. I'm starting to suspect the ground is poisoned, that I need to dig up the earth and start again with fresh soil.
Only one story made an impression on my enough for me to remember its title: "The Dependents." In the story, an impoverished peasant owns a skeletal horse and a gaunt dog—the "dependents" in the title. As the tale begins, the animals are hungry and our poor old man is cursing at them — he doesn't have bread for himself, never mind parasites! He goes to the neighbor, they drink tea, he asks the neighbor to borrow a bucket of oats. The neighbor says, sure, he'll give him oats. But, you're a poor man: how can you keep animals? You should bring them to the slaughterer. Otherwise, there's no end to it. The poor man makes a spot decision, decides to go to his niece's farm and live off her charity. He leaves the animals behind, with the gate open. They can fend for themselves. But a few miles into his trek, he hears footsteps, turns and sees the faithful horse and dog trudging after him.
At this point I paused, to ask myself "You're a writer, Neil. What would you do in the story?" Why of course, I'd have the poor man lead the animals back to his hovel. Feed them off his neighbor's charity. Life continues as it is.
A Chekhovian ending, and not what Chekhov does. Not at all. The poor man leads the animals to the slaughterer. The horse is promptly killed, the dog, snarling and leaping to his friend's defense, is killed too. The poor man sets his own head on the stunning block, in remorse the reader assumes, and the story ends. I cried.
Which is why we're still reading Chekhov more than a century after his death.
I'm more familiar with the plays, and toss lines around, "It's been a long time since we had noodles" when appropriate and sometimes when not. Only one sentence of the short stories burrowed into my consciousness, though its a good and apt one for this week, as the legal system draws attention to the criminality and corruption of our president. It's in a story called "Panic Fears," and the sentence, though six words, could be the heading in our chapter of American history: "Cowardice is stronger than common sense."
Every farmer I talked to along I-55 from Chicago to Granite City said the same thing: "He's a businessman; I trust him." To which it took all my professional deportment not to grab them by the shoulders, give them a hard shake, and shriek, "Are you insane?"
Agrarian types, judging by Chekhov, are known for their baseless folk beliefs. Still, at some point, by now, you'd think that some Republican leaders would begin cringing away. And the only reason I can explain their not doing so is fear—fear that his base will defeat them in a primary. Fear that Trump will tweet mean things to them, or the corporations that write fat checks to their campaign funds will pull back, hungry for the increased profits that Trump's environmental and business deregulation bring.
People must know what is right, and just be too afraid to do it. "Cowardice is stronger than common sense."
Or am I being too optimistic? Perhaps they don't even know anymore, can't differentiate right from wrong, true from false. That, alas, is also a possibility.