SxS: Open, closed, open

by ALLAN REEDER


From Cynthia Ozick’s essay, “A Drugstore in Winter,” published in The New York Times Book Review in 1982:

Through the window, past the lit goldfish, the gray oval sky deepens over our neighborhood wood, where all the dirt paths lead down to seagull-specked water.

We travel a refreshing—or releasing—distance in this balanced sentence, which reflects the movement of a girl’s imagination, or the knowledge of place that resides in it. In the present tense, Ozick remembers being inside the Park View Pharmacy, which her parents ran in Pelham Bay, the Bronx. They are facing the anxiety caused by a rent increase in the middle of the Depression. Ozick the girl is not aware of the worries (“My mother and father are in trouble, and I don’t know it. I am too happy.”).

The more I consider this sentence, the more my admiration (and this post!) grows. From the interior of the drugstore we move so fluidly out over the prized goldfish, which are in a window display—there are bright pyramids of bowls of them—into the vastness of that deepening (darkening) sky that is made more visible by the limited “oval” shape of it; from the street there in the Bronx, that’s all we can get of it. So quickly then we are in that “neighborhood wood” (thickened, I think, by the doubled -ood), seeing the paths through it, and then arriving at another open space, a much more open space, the bay, which Ozick makes particularly visible on the screen in the mind with those many floating seagulls. It’s not a long sentence, but it does a remarkable amount of imaginative work efficiently and vividly, just as the mind does. We move from enclosed spaces (the drugstore, the fishbowls, the wood) to open spaces (the sky, the bay), and at the same time move repeatedly between light and dark. The anxiety of the time is an enclosed (or a closing-in) space, experienced by Ozick’s parents, with their suddenly higher rent to pay. The girl’s ignorance of the economic situation and her easy access (being a child) to the imagination make for the openness that the sentence’s movement demonstrates.

And, of course, we wonder: will they be able to keep the store open or will they have to close it?

Whew. Doesn’t it seem like a rather simple sentence at first? My appreciation deepens further when I consider that this is told in retrospect; Ozick is looking back on this time when her parents ran the drugstore. And so the there’s another distance traveled, between the adult writer remembering and the child she was accessing in her mind the spaces she knows so well, important outdoor spaces that feel at once not far away but not immediately available. That’s how vivid memory feels: simultaneously close and not within grasp.