Connecting with Andre Dubus III’s “Silver”

by Nathan Isaksson  ·  September 27, 2017

My parents managed to stay together after all this time, which I suppose is a blessing. My father has four sisters, all of whom are long divorced, and my mother has four sisters, all divorced as well. I have more cousins than I can count, all children of divorce, and I grew up with all of them. I grew up around each of their fathers—my uncles—but I haven’t seen any of them in the past twenty years and know next to nothing about most of them; each of my cousins, of course, has a distinct, complicated relationship with their fathers that evolved out of watching the dissolution of their parents’ love, the arguing, the heartbreak, the confusing post-divorce visits, and the resigned aftermath. Dubus’ story, entitled Silver and published in Five Points, Vol. 17, No.1, encapsulates the love, melancholy and longing that comes with divorce, and it is done amazingly in five pages.

Silver opens on James, sitting in the parlor of his daughter’s home on her birthday, surrounded by his ex-wife and her husband, his daughter’s soon-to-be husband, and a mix of guests watching as gifts are opened. This year, James has spent more money on Allison’s gift than anything he’s ever bought, aside from a house or car. It is an elaborate, silver coffee service, and as Allison opens his gift and reacts to it, Dubus reveals how James’ marriage budded and withered, shows a succession of idiosyncratic moments of his daughter’s childhood, and laments the lack of luster James’ present existence. Here, in a matter of sentences, James’ sentimentality for his daughter Allison is laid out:

She was everything to him, all he had left, really, other than his history books and his music and this house that seemed so hollow as he moved through it; what he had was this young woman who had passed through him and Olivia, their child, a girl who’d been afraid of loud rain and who loved squirrels, a girl who began reading at three and babysitting at twelve, a girl who once when he had the flu, carried him a tray with a glass of water and an Oreo and a note that read: I wish I was sick not you. This schoolteacher and her chef—he wanted to give them something that would last: gold, silver. That second word pulled him in, and he typed it into his computer. Soon he was led to silversmiths, and within seconds, it seemed, he was staring at what Allison is pulling from the box.

All of this is achieved through the narrator James’ interiority, and later in the story, it is heightened by his poetic comparison between the silver birthday gift and his own marriage, transforming it into a gift both commemorative and cautionary. In this moment, he realizes that the gift he so generously chose is a metaphor for the disintegration of his relationship with Allison’s mother, complete with antagonistic tones.

[H]e glances down at his gift on the low table, this silver service, a wish for the young couple, yes, but those handles do look like swords, curved into points that can stab, curved, too, into quickening wisps of steam, drifting off and vanishing into the air. What he has given her is the story of her mother and father, the verbal stabbing and the drifting, without nearly enough service to one another.

Years ago, when my cousin Ashley and I were still kids, she would dread every birthday that followed her parents’ divorce; her birthday was the day when she had to endure the awkwardness of their competition over her, their veiled jabs at one another. Now that she and I are in our thirties, Ashley has learned to negotiate the obstacles of these divided interactions, and her parents have developed a sturdy cordiality, while recognizing their tenuous reconciliation is built upon the mutual love for their daughter. All the microscopic casualties of a divorce can add up to a picture so byzantine that it’s tough for a fiction writer to tackle. And yet, Dubus accomplishes the task sparingly, with grace, and keeping intact the beauty of familial love.