Can't and Won't: Stories

Can't and Won't: Stories by Lydia Davis

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Authors: Lydia Davis
    Yesterday, in the deep snow, I went to an exhibition of savages that had come here from Le Havre. They were Kaffirs. The poor Negroes, and their manager too, looked as if they were dying of hunger.
    You paid a few pennies to get into the exhibition. It was in a miserable smoke-filled room up several flights of stairs. It was not well attended—seven or eight fellows in work clothes sat here and there in the rows of chairs. We waited for some time. Then a sort of wild beast appeared wearing a tiger skin on his back and uttering harsh cries. A few more followed him into the room—there were four altogether. They got up on a platform and crouched around a stew pot. Hideous and splendid at the same time, they were covered with amulets and tattoos, as thin as skeletons, their skin the color of my well-seasoned old pipe; their faces were flat, their teeth white, their eyes large, their expressions desperately sad, astonished, and brutalized. The twilight outside the windows, and the snow whitening the rooftops across the street, cast a gray pall over them. I felt as though I were seeing the first men on earth—as though they had just come into existence and were creeping about with the toads and the crocodiles.
    Then one of them, an old woman, noticed me and came into the audience where I was sitting—she had, it seems, taken a sudden liking to me. She said some things to me—affectionate things, as far as I could tell. Then she tried to kiss me. The audience watched in surprise. For a quarter of an hour I stayed there in my seat listening to her long declaration of love. I asked the manager several times what she was saying, but he couldn’t translate any of it.
    Though he claimed they knew a little English, they didn’t seem to understand a word, because after the show at last came to an end—to my relief—I asked them a few questions and they couldn’t answer. I was glad to leave that dismal place and go back out into the snow, though I had lost my boots somewhere.
    What is it that makes me so attractive to cretins, madmen, idiots, and savages? Do those poor creatures sense a kind of sympathy in me? Do they feel some sort of bond between us? It is infallible. It happened with the cretins of Valais, the madmen of Cairo, the monks of Upper Egypt—they all persecuted me with their declarations of love!
    Later, I heard that after this exhibition of savages, their manager abandoned them. They had been in Rouen for nearly two months by then, first on the boulevard Beauvoisin, then in the Grande-Rue, where I saw them. When he left, they were living in a shabby little hotel in the rue de la Vicomté. Their only recourse was to take their case to the English consul—I don’t know how they made themselves understood. But the consul paid their debts—400 francs to the hotel—and then put them on the train for Paris. They had an engagement there—it was to be their Paris debut.

Letter to a Peppermint Candy Company
    Dear Manufacturer of “Old Fashioned Chewy Peps,”
    Last Christmas when my husband and I stopped in at an upscale country store that caters to weekenders as well as locals and has a lunchroom off to the side, and which is run by a couple who bicker constantly and snap at their help, after we had had lunch and were browsing, before we left, among the displays of packaged and freshly prepared gourmet foods, we were attracted to the festive bright red canister (what you call the “tin”) of your “Old Fashioned Chewy Peps” peppermints. I love peppermints, and when I read the ingredients list on your can and saw that these were made without preservatives or artificial flavors or colors, I decided to buy the peppermints, since it is hard to find pure candies. I did not ask the price of the can, because although I realized that in that particular store it would be expensive, I was willing to be a bit extravagant since Christmas was coming. When I went to pay, though, I was shocked at the

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