Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Company of Men

"The Company of Men" by Jan Ellison is a short story about a trio that spent some time together in Australia and how that relationship and time together impacted one of their lives.

For a few years I had in my possession two rain slickers that smelled of whiskey and cigarettes and aftershave. ... Then when I was about to be married and I wanted to be rid of so many failings, so many unhelpful habits and longings, when I believed the past could no longer inform me, I threw the slickers into the Goodwill pile and lost them forever. Now what was left is a single photo I return to now and then, of two young men in bright red coats hitchhiking under a darkened sky.

During her travels alone after graduating from college, Catherine meets two men in a New Zeeland bar. Ray and Jimmy are backpacking through New Zeeland and Australia, and all three have their personal reasons for their escapes from home after college. They spend a brief evening of drinking before Catherine hops a bus to Sydney for the next part of her trek. While in Sydney, she runs into the two men once again and the trio begin a brief and intense relationship based on alcohol, stories, and their own brand of friendship.

I'd been listening to Ray with my elbows up on the bar and my chin in my hand, with the intensity that can come over you when you've had a lot to drink. His story seemed strange and sad and unforgettable. While Ray talked, Jimmy kept the drinks coming and he let the back of his hand fall against my arm on the bar. He let his thigh rub against my knee beneath it. This seemed to be the arrangement. With the drinks and the roving hands and the sweet eyes and the good looks, Jimmy's role was to draw people to the two of them, and Ray's --- with his stories and his mournful eyes --- was to keep them there.

Catherine reminisces about this time in her life while remembering the loss of her father and also while thinking of her more current life as a wife and mother. The blending of these memories make for an interesting view on Catherine's personal search for love and her place in life.

It was not that I wanted the entrapments that come along with love, or that I would promise to offer it in return. It was that I believed that once a man knew me, he would see how different I was from an everyday girl --- how forthright and clever and secretly kind --- and he would find me indispensable.

Although Catherine feels that the past can no longer inform her as she disposes of the rain slickers, she still reviews that past and sees how it helped shape the person that she has now become.

As I walked, I thought about them hard --- Jimmy and Ray --- going over each episode in my mind, weighing and measuring, considering cause and effect. Not in an effort to shed the loss but to savor it, to shape it, to give it permanence.

I very much enjoyed this short story and found myself caught up in the characters and their time together in Sydney. The friendship between the trio had me thinking about some of the friendships that I have had over my lifetime, especially those in my young adult years. Our journey in life is shaped by many encounters both big and small; but I feel that it is the brief and intense encounters that often bring the most meaning and often the best lessons learned.

"The Company of Men" by Jan Ellison from The O. Henry Prize Stories 2007 edited by Laura Furman

1 comment:

Dan Wickett said...

This is a great story and if you visit Ellison's website, I believe she has a link to another excellent story she published in The Hudson Review.