The theme for this month—Figuring Out the Good Part—springs from an essay, “The Good Part,” written by Dennis Covington and found in the anthology, The Healing Circle, which I’ve mentioned here before. Covington's essay is funny and sharp. It asks excellent questions. In fact, the entire essay constitutes a kind of question in and of itself—a question that’s terribly relevant, I think, to writing and healing and to the way we try to make sense of the stories of our lives.
The essay begins with a pair of Florsheim Imperial wingtips. These are, apparently, a somewhat expensive line of men’s shoes, but this particular pair was bought on sale for $5.88 by one Bunky Wolaver, a man who loves a bargain and who also happens to be married to Dennis Covington’s sister, Jeannie, a woman confined to a hospital bed with a severe flare of lupus. She’s undergoing a painful procedure—having her blood cleansed—and she passes the time with her brother and his wife, Vicki, by telling stories. So she tells about her husband, Bunky, buying these shoes in a size six, even though he’s a size nine and a half, because he does love a good bargain. He’s been trying for days to find someone to give the shoes to—no luck—and then that morning he calls, Jeannie tells him her doctor’s there making rounds, he asks her if maybe she could just lean over the bed and check and see what size the doctor’s feet are.
The story goes on. Another lupus patient, a woman in Jeannie’s support group, stops by to visit. Both women have advanced disease and Covington relates that the visit is mostly a somber one, but then at one point Jeannie tells the woman about Bunky’s Florsheim Imperial wingtips and the woman starts laughing so hard that the chair she is sitting on collapses.
Jeanie’s stories have always seemed particularly Southern to me, and on the way home from the hospital that night, Vicki and I entered a serious discussion about the nature of Southern storytelling. The good part of Jeanie’s story, I thought, was Bunky asking her to check out the size of her doctor’s feet to see if the shoes he had bought on sale might fit. Vicki thought the good part of the story was the moment when the other lupus patient’s chair collapsed.
We didn’t resolve the issue, but we did conclude that every story, Southern or not, has to have a good part. “Have you gotten to the good part yet?” we often ask each other when one of us is reading a novel the other has recommended.
But what exactly constitutes the good part of a story? And since our lives themselves are stories, where in this sea of misery, this vale of tears, does the good part lie?
Covington proposes then that the answer to this last question can best be found in another story, and he proceeds then to tell a long and winding story which includes, among other things, his father, twelve armadillos, the loss of two of the armadillos (the father left the latch to the cage open and afterwards felt horrible about it), a stint of alcoholism, a marriage, getting sober, two daughters, his father’s death, a trip to Florida with one of his daughters to look at a piece of scrubland his father had left him, a baby armadillo by the side of the road, a decision to take the armadillo in as a pet and name him Joey, then Joey’s illness, Joey's death, his daughter’s tears in the wake of Joey's death.
The good part? At the end of all this, Covington writes how he and his wife disagree a bit on just when exactly the good part of this particular story begins. He thinks the good part may have started on the way to Florida, spotting the armadillo. (The redemptive armadillo?) Or maybe at the moment when his daughter asked him if they could keep it and he decided they would try. His wife, he says, thinks that the good part began at that moment when she asked their daughter why she was crying. And the girl said she was crying for their father.
One of the things that interests me most about this essay is what Dennis Covington doesn’t suggest. He doesn’t suggest that the good part of the story was when they stumbled across a pot of money. Or when one of his daughters got accepted into Yale. Or won a soccer championship. It wasn’t even when he got sober (though being sober, one could argue, allowed him to recognize the good part when it came along). The good part wasn’t when he found out his father wasn’t going to have to die. Nor when Joey, the armadillo, was able to be miraculously cured. His father did die. So did Joey. And yet still there was this something Covington recognized—something that happened between him and his daughter and his wife, something that echoed a moment that had happened once between him and his own father-----
I like the kind of writing that asks more questions than it answers. It gives me that sense that the work—the larger story—is still unfinished and that all of us—every single one of us—might yet have something to contribute---
What does constitute the good part of a story?
And how in the world will we recognize it when we get there?