Smith Henderson: “Number Stations” from One Story #136, May 2010

Goldsmith’s mother took her own pictures of the ostrich. A man had led the bird to her door and kept it on a small chain. A sorry-looking sack of shit, she thought. The man and the bird both.

I’d never heard of number stations before reading this story. Am I the only one? It seems (according to Wikipedia and The Straight Dope, my go-to sources for things I’m not really going to research that carefully because they don’t matter that much but are fun) there are shortwave radio stations that broadcast artificially generated voices reading numbers and letters. They’ve existed since at least WWII (maybe earlier). Speculation is that these are for the use of spies, or possibly in recent years, drug dealers. No one – no government, no station operator, nobody – admits they exist. But they do. I’m perplexed.

I’ll admit, I’m pretty stupid sometimes. When I started this story, I saw “Number Stations” and I saw “ostrich” and I thought, Australia. Because sheep farms are known as stations, at least they were in The Thorn Birds (oh, shut up, you read it, too, it was the chicklit DaVinci Code of its time). So it took a while for me to get oriented. And as you may have noticed, it took me a while to read the damn thing in the first place (hey, they’re small, One Story booklets, they get misplaced).

Goldsmith is a restaurant owner in Montana with a secret. Bill, his employee, is an ex-con with an ostrich. Emily, another employee of the young, attractive, married female variety, has a thing for Goldsmith, whose wife is out of town. Goldsmith’s mother is watching his daughter (a girl who, at seven, “already did not forgive herself her own crooked features and was certain that her destiny was to ride an ostrich or a griffin or a rainbow to her true self, who was beautiful and free”), and she hears the number station on the baby monitor. There’s no way to say much more about the story without retelling it, and that would be complicated. A lot happens. Bill loses his ostrich; it’s Goldsmith’s mother’s fault but he forgives her. The ostrich taps on the window of Emily and Van’s (her husband) home, and they go chasing after it. At an end-of-season party for his employees, Goldsmith gets a little drunk and tells Emily his secret. Bill… well, it’s not pretty, what happens to Bill. In fact, it’s right out of “Incarnations of Burned Children” and that kinda pisses me off. But it’s also very fitting. The whole story works, even with (or because of) the ostrich running around and Goldsmith’s mother obsessing about the number station. We’re all getting messages, all the time, and sometimes we listen. Other times, we don’t. The soundtrack is Neil Young’s Helpless. That’s how I felt in the presence of this story – helpless to stop reading, helplessly lost in this craziness that comes from all sides but makes absolute sense, helpless helpless helpless.

The One Story blog claims this was snagged from the slush pile (uh huh) by an assistant who sent it to the editor with a note: “This is the best story about an ostrich I read today.” How could anyone resist?

ETA: I just read that this story is in the 2012 Pushcart volume (I read it in One Story); congratulations to Smith Henderson – and to all the ostriches.

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2 responses to “Smith Henderson: “Number Stations” from One Story #136, May 2010

  1. Hey, thanks for the kind words. Glad you couldn’t stop reading it.

    I’d read that harrowing DFW story before, but the thing that happens to Bill actually went down where I worked. Not in every particular, but yeah. Effed up.

    Anyway, it was nice to come across your blog and this post.

    Best,
    Smith

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