‘The Ballad of the Sad Café’ by Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1917.
In many ways, Carson McCullers’ ‘The Ballad of the Sad Café’ reads as a revision of Faulkner’s most-anthologized tale, ‘A Rose for Emily.’ We have a brooding protagonist, a one-time scion alienated from her community. We have an outsider coming to town, disrupting the order of things.
In either case, we’re back at the freak show. Miss Amelia Evans was a rich girl. Now she’s a tall lady. Preferring a sexless life, she kicks her lusty husband Marvin Macy out of her shabby mansion, sending him on a crime spree. Miss Amelia’s a shrewd one, part medicine lady, part bootlegger, possessing secret knowledge of potions and the like—a witchy woman. A trickster comes to town, an odd hunchbacked dwarf who claims to be long-lost Cousin Lymon. Miss Amelia falls for his story and then, to the shock of the nosy townsfolk, falls in love with him. Soon, she opens a café, and it’s a happy place–but not for long. Marvin Macy returns after a stint in the penitentiary. Cousin Lymon falls deeply in love with him. Tragic chaos ensues. ‘The Ballad of the Sad Café’ is a twisted fairy tale, a parable that resists a clear object lesson. Or maybe the lesson is clear: love is hard.

First published in The Ballad of the Sad Café, Houghton Mifflin, 1951

‘A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud’ by Carson McCullers

A story about growing up and cutting things down to shape, this is McCullers at her coffee-bitter best. Maybe we all enjoy stories where we learn things – not in terms of trivia or pop quizzes, but when we’re allowed to see thoughts and corollaries of actions played out. The characters’ conversation here seemed a true picture of how questions and learning and keeping alert can be part of innocence, and how that can be treasured, without feeling cloying. Never cloying, McCullers: revelation.

The man leaned his head down and tapped his forehead on the counter. For a few seconds he stayed bowed over in this position, the back of his stringy neck covered with orange furze, his hands with their long warped fingers held palm to palm in an attitude of prayer.

First published November 1942 in Harper’s Bazaar, and collected in Ballad of the Sad Café. available to read online here