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Authors: Richard Yates

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A Special Providence

Acclaim for Richard Yates

“[Yates] is an expert.”


Time

“Every phrase reflects to the highest degree integrity and stylistic mastery.… A genuine artist.”


The New Republic

“What’s exhilarating about Yates is not his grasp of The Truth, but the purity of his vision and the perfection of his craft.”


Newsday

“Yates’s own distinctive virtues as a writer—his plain-spoken prose, his feel for contemporary alienation, his ability to make the reader both empathize with his characters and understand the depth of their self-deception—created a potent legacy, providing a bridge from the naturalism of Dreiser to the latter day realism practiced by writers like Raymond Carver.”

—Michiko Kakutani,
The New York Times

“Richard Yates is a writer of commanding gifts. His prose is urbane yet sensitive, with passion and irony held deftly in balance. And he provides unexpected pleasures in a flood of freshly minted phrases and in the thrust of sudden insight, precise notation of feeling, and mordant unsentimental perceptions.”


Saturday Review

“To me and to many other writers of my generation, the work of Richard Yates came as a liberating force.… He was one of the most important writers of the second half of the century.”

—Robert Stone

“It is Yates’s relentless, unflinching investigation of our secret hearts, and his speaking to us in language as clear and honest and unadorned and unsentimental and uncompromising as his vision, that makes him such a great writer.”

—Richard Russo

“Mr. Yates’s eye and ear are, I believe, unsurpassed; I know of no writer whose senses are in more admirable condition. It is they that make his characters live, make these stories move and beat—they, and possibly another asset, the sure perfection of his writing.”

—Dorothy Parker,
Esquire

“If more is needed to make a masterpiece in modern American fiction [
Revolutionary Road
], I am sure I don’t know what it is.”

—Tennessee Williams

Richard Yates

A Special Providence

Richard Yates was born in 1926. The author of several acclaimed works of fiction, including
Revolutionary Road, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, Disturbing the Peace
, and
The Easter Parade
, he was lauded during his lifetime as the foremost novelist of the postwar “age of anxiety.” He died in 1992.

Books by Richard Yates

Revolutionary Road
Eleven Kinds of Loneliness
A Special Providence
Disturbing the Peace
The Easter Parade
A Good School
Liars in Love
Young Hearts Crying
Cold Spring Harbor
The Collected Stories of Richard Yates

FIRST VINTAGE CONTEMPORARIES EDITION, MARCH 2009

Copyright © 1965, 1969 by Richard Yates

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., in 1969.

Vintage and colophon are registered trademarks and Vintage Contemporaries is a trademark of Random House, Inc.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Two excerpts from
A Special Providence
first appeared in the
Saturday Evening Post
.

The Library of Congress has catalogued the Knopf edition as follows:
Yates, Richard, 1926–1992.
A special providence/Richard Yates.
New York, Knopf, 1969.
p. cm.
PZ4.Y335 Sp PS3575.A83
813’.54
74088750

eISBN: 978-0-307-79376-8

www.vintagebooks.com

v3.1

To Martha

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand
.

– W.H. Auden

Contents
Prologue: 1944

On Saturdays, when inspection was over and passes were issued in the Orderly Rooms, there was a stampede of escape down every company street in Camp Pickett, Virginia. You could go to Lynchburg or Richmond or Washington, D.C., and if you were willing to travel for nine hours – five on the bus and four on the train – you could get to New York.

Private Robert J. Prentice made the long trip alone one windy afternoon in the fall of 1944. He was a rifle trainee, eighteen years old, and this seemed an important thing to do because it might well be the last pass he would get before going overseas.

In the echoing swarm of Penn Station that night, feeling lost and cramped and lightheaded, he shouldered his way through acres of embracing couples: men whose uniforms looked somehow more authoritative than his own, girls whose ardor was a terrible reproach to his own callowness. Once he found himself walking straight toward a girl who stood facing him in the crowd, a slender, delicate girl with long brown hair, and as he came closer her uplifted face took on the most beautiful look of welcome he had ever seen. She didn’t move, but her eyes filled with tears and her lips parted in a way that stopped his heart – God, to be looked at that way by a girl, just once! – so
that he felt as stunned as a jilted lover when a Marine corporal came jostling past him and took her in his arms.

Prentice didn’t want to stare, but he couldn’t take his eyes off their greeting: their long kiss, the girl nestling to weep in the Marine’s shoulder as her hands gripped his back, the Marine lifting her off her feet to swing her around in an exultant whirl, the two of them laughing and talking and then moving away, scarcely able to walk because of their need to clasp and hold each other.

He was weak with envy as he turned toward the subway, and he tried to make up for it by squaring his wrinkled overseas cap down into one eyebrow and hoping that the tension in his face and the hurry in his walk might suggest, to other observers, that he was bound for a welcome as romantic as the Marine’s.

But the subway only swallowed him into the dirty, intricate bowels of a city he would never understand. He was as hesitant as a tourist about getting on the right train; he peered with fascinated distaste at the pallid nighttime faces that hung and swayed around him in the car, and when he came up into the windswept darkness of Columbus Circle he had to walk a few steps one way and a few steps another, craning his head, before he got his bearings.

He had spent most of his life in New York, or near it, but no section or street of it had ever felt like his neighborhood: he had never lived in one house for more than a year. The address now shown on his service record as his home was a walkup apartment in the West Fifties, on a dark block beyond Eighth Avenue, and as he made his way there he tried to conjure a sense of homecoming among the blown newspapers and the flickering bar signs. He pressed the bell marked “Prentice” and heard the joyous answering bleat of the buzzer that let him in; then he was loping upstairs through smells of vegetables and garbage
and perfume, and then he was staggering in the clutch of his mother’s hug.

“Oh, Bobby,” she said. The top of her frizzled gray head scarcely came up to his breast-pocket flaps and she was as frail as a sparrow, but the force of her love was so great that he had to brace himself in a kind of boxer’s stance to absorb it. “You look wonderful,” she said. “Oh, let me look at you.” And he allowed himself, uneasily, to be held and inspected at arm’s length. “My soldier,” she said. “My big, wonderful soldier.”

And then came the questions: Had he eaten anything? Was he terribly tired? Was he glad to be home?

“Oh, I’ve been so happy today, just knowing you were coming. Old Herman said to me this morning – you know, the ugly little
foreman
I’ve told you about? At my horrible
job
? I was singing this morning, or kind of humming under my breath, and he said ‘What’ve
you
got to sing about?’ And oh-ho, I looked him right in the eye – this dreadful, smelly little man, you know, in his awful old undershirt, with all these awful factory noises going on – and I said, ‘I’ve got plenty to sing about.’ I said, ‘My
son
is coming home tonight on
leave.’ 
” And she moved away across the room, fragile and awkward in her runover heels and her black rayon dress with its side vent held together by a safety pin, laughing at the memory of her exchange with the foreman. “ ‘My
son,’
” she said again, “ ‘is coming home tonight on
leave.’ 

“Well,” he said, “It isn’t really a ‘leave,’ you know; it’s just a pass.”

“A pass; I know.
Oh
, it’s so good to see you. Tell you what. How about a hot cup of coffee, and you sit down and rest. Then I’ll get ready and we’ll go out for dinner. How would that be?”

While she bustled in and out of her bedroom, still talking, he sipped at the bitter, warmed-over coffee she’d brought him and strolled around the carpet. The unkempt coziness of the place,
full of cigarette ash and sagging, rickety furniture under weak lamps, was very strange after the scrubbed symmetry of the barracks. So was the privacy of it, and the fact that it held, on one wall, a narrow full-length mirror in which he was surprised to find his own naked-looking face above the brass-buttoned torso of olive drab. He pulled himself dramatically to attention, and then, after glancing away to make sure she was safely in the bedroom, he went through a series of drill turns, whispering the commands to himself. Right face; left face; about face; hand salute; parade rest. In the parade-rest position he discovered that she’d left a smear of lipstick on his uniform.

“There,” she said. “Now I’m ready. Do I look all right? Do I look nice enough to go out on a date with a handsome soldier?”

“Fine,” he told her. “You look fine.” And she did look better, despite a sprinkling of face powder down her bodice. She had managed to close the vent in her dress more securely, and she’d carefully fixed her hair.

When they left the apartment he noticed how she crouched and squinted to make her way downstairs – her eyes were getting worse – and out on the street, where she clung to his arm for walking, she seemed very old and slow. At the first intersection she hunched and hurried in fright, gripping his arm tighter, until they were safely on the opposite curb. She had never understood automobiles and always tended to exaggerate their menace: she seemed to feel that any or all of the waiting, throbbing cars might bolt forward against the light with murder in their hearts.

They went to the Childs on Columbus Circle. “Isn’t it funny?” she said. “I always used to think Childs restaurants were dreadful, but this really is the only decent place around here – all the others are so horribly expensive – and I think it’s kind of nice, don’t you?”

They each had a Manhattan to start with, because she insisted
it was to be a real celebration; and then, after studying the menu to make sure they could afford it if they held the cost of the dinner down to chicken croquettes, they each had another. He didn’t really want the second one – the heavy sweetness of it threatened to make him sick – but he sipped it anyway and tried to relax in his chair.

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