“The Girls,” by Joy Williams, was first published in the Idaho Review VI in 2004 and later reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 2005, edited by Michael Chabon. Williams, who began publishing fiction in the 1960s, is often compared to Flannery O’Connor, an American writer known for her Southern gothic stories. Although Williams is not a southern writer, she does use the gothic and grotesque to great effect in her work. Williams has also been compared to American writer Raymond Carver. Devoted to the short story form, Carver is known as a minimalist—a style reflected in Williams’s own stories, which critics have sometimes described as cool and terse. Her style is a unique blend of the weird and the grim. Williams does not flinch from the harsh realities of life or bury her characters in fantasy, but her fiction always has a flavor of the fantastical or hyper-realistic.
“The Girls” is a story about cruelty and family dysfunction, featuring two sisters who are closer than twins and behave as if they are evil incarnate. The girls occupy themselves with tormenting their parents’ houseguests—until one guest turns the tables on them. This story, as with many of Williams’s other works of fiction, selects death as an available escape from life’s travails.
“The Girls” opens with two sisters going through the personal belongings of their parents’ houseguest, Arleen, while she is in the shower. They are looking for her journal. They find the book, but Arleen finishes her shower before they can read anything so they flee downstairs. Arleen appears later and asks if the cat litter pan can be taken out of the bathroom because it smells. The girls are shocked at this request because they believe their cats can do no wrong. They dislike Arleen and wish she would leave so they ask her about her home. Arleen tells them it has very steep stairs which sometimes discourages her from going out because then she has to climb the stairs to return home. They also ask her how her birthday was, but their question is sneering because they feel that “The Birthday was more or less an idiotic American institution.” A few days earlier, on the evening of Arleen’s birthday, Arleen and Father Snow gave their house gift to the girls’ parents. It was a cocktail shaker, and the girls embarrassed everyone by showing off the other ten cocktail shakers their parents have already received as gifts.
Arleen leaves the girls to join Father Snow in the garden. The girls think about Father Snow, whom they feel is too indulgent in his grief. Holding their two cats, the sisters watch Arleen and Father Snow from a window and are convinced that she is in love with the sad man. The girls retire to the enclosed porch where they work on collages using found and stolen objects. The girls love the old house they live in with their parents but resent the fact that their parents have houseguests coming and going all summer long. The girls have never been interested in any of the houseguests except for one young woman who was an artist. None of the guests ever returns for a second stay—except for Father Snow, who is on his third visit. When Arleen first arrived, they did not think much of her, but now they dislike her.
Mommy calls her daughters to her and tells them Arleen saw their cats maim a mockingbird in the garden. The girls tell Mommy that their cats would never do that because they are nice house cats, even though they know the cats have already killed a dozen songbirds so far this summer. The sisters then leave for the beach where they lay in the sun, nude and admired, talking about their parents. They are worried that their parents are aging badly. When they return home, the house is quiet. Mommy has left a note telling them they are napping, and...
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