Jane Bowles – “A Day in the Open”

Jane Bowles is a writer I have always been meaning to read – her novel Two Serious Ladies has been on my list for years. But I began my silly advent reading plan yesterday with a short story of hers, “A Day in the Open” which is about two prostitutes taken out for a picnic by a wealthy man, Señor Ramirez, and his friend. The story is set in an unnamed country, either somewhere in South America, or maybe in Spain. One of the prostitutes is Mexican (and suffering from what seems to be a terminal illness), and the other one—the hard, crafty one who drinks heavily—is from the unnamed country.

It’s an odd little story, and it feels somehow unpolished—but I find that nowadays so many older works do when compared to the “heavy polishing” of contemporary writing. In that sense, I like the rough bits of it, the lack of perfectly smooth surfaces and the way the ending just kind of falls off and trickles away.

I’ve embarked on this reading list as a way to take a breather from my focus on politics right now, to let my brain enjoy fiction once again, but the story, ironically, mirrored some of what’s going on. The character of Señor Ramirez speaks in the voice of the United State’s current President-Elect. While driving away from the whorehouse, the car passes a new building and he tells them it will be a museum, saying:

“When it opens we are all going to have a big dinner there together. Everyone there will be an old friend of mine. That’s nothing. I can have dinner with fifty people every night of my life.”

I continued reading with a wry smile, and the comparisons continued as this larger-than-life wealthy man drove the women and his friend to a secluded spot. It was both hilarious, and awful.

“Since it is so sunny out, ladies,” said Señor Ramirez, “I am going to walk around in my underpants. I hope that my friend will do the same if he wants to.”

A reminder that buffoons of this type have always existed, but also how they beg to be caricatured. Ramirez is nothing more than a child, and a cowardly one.

In any case, the foursome start drinking, play a game throwing acorns into a hat (the smart prostitute making sure, when Ramirez keeps missing his throw, to purposefully throw hers far off its mark), they all get naked and at some point, Ramirez takes the prostitute with the illness on a walk into the woods and then carries her into the river. It’s in these few scenes, up until the end, that the story pivots and becomes quite interesting.

I keep reading and re-reading this page and a half—looking at the dialogue, at the positioning of the different characters with respect to the reader and to each other—and trying to work it out, but I can’t. Bowles holds an interpretation of the ending just out of reach. I suppose a reader could grab for an easy one, if necessary, but it felt more interesting to me to keep the possibilities open and wonder what Bowles was working toward.

I’ll definitely read Two Serious Ladies at some point, and will look at more of her short stories – there is an interesting texture to her writing that I’d like to see more of, experience in a more sustained way. This was a great introduction to her work.