For the past couple of years, just before the holiday break, I have read Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" aloud with my students. As we give voice to the story, passing the reading around the room, I ask my students to note with a pen any of Capote's sentences that they admire and find particularly effective (beautiful, memorable). We finish the story, sigh, and then go around the room again, this time reading out loud only the sentences that drew special attention. To hear the constructions gather in the air — these selected bests, free of their narrative context but reactivating in the imagination moments in Capote's story — is a special pleasure. Why? I suppose the discrete sentences make me feel closer to the making; I hear the pieces rather than thinking of the whole.
This year, as I drove home from class, I was considering the design and operation of the sentence that delivers the unforgettably affecting loss in the story. Buddy is recalling, in continued present tense, when he learned that his friend had died, on a "leafless birdless" November morning:
A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string.
The effect of the sentence-ending simile draws my attention first. It may not be the freshest image, but contextually, it carries great meaning. Buddy and his friend have a long history of making kites for each other for Christmas and, in a pasture below their house, flying them together — "feeling them twitching at the string like sky fish as they swim into the wind" (read that aloud, and feel the satisfyingly erratic tension on the line!).
Then I pan back to appreciate the complete sentence. The first half presents an arrival, a reception and confirmation. But the phrasing is nonspecific: "a piece of news" and "some secret vein." We don't see or hear about the message itself. It comes in whatever words, somehow expected.
And then, immediately, something — also vague — goes, something ineffable: "an irreplaceable part of myself." There is no defining this loss. How can you possibly put words to what's now not there, not anywhere, this deeply personal, private connection and history, this fundamental sense of stability and home in another person?
So we have an image. The closing simile works against the nonspecific language, or emerges from it. We see the picture, as simple as it is, and by seeing it, we feel it. The kite is pushed this way and that, "loose," upward and away in the wind, trailing its broken string. What we feel is the irretrievability. It will never be back. We hold the other end of that piece of string as Buddy holds the "piece of news." Every moment, the part of himself that is no longer part of himself moves farther away.
Not until I had spent a while feeling this irretrievability and beginning to write about it did I realize that Buddy — or Capote — never gives the friend's name. Buddy is seven in the story. She is "sixty-something." "We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember," Buddy tells us near the start. "We are each other's best friend." Every reference in the story is to "we" or "us" or "she" or "my friend." Had I forgotten this absence of a name? Or this avoidance? Reading through again, I see my friend, my friend, my friend, my friend.... The discovery compounds the loss.