PEN/O.Henry 2011: David Means, “The Junction”, from Ecotone

Photo: "Mozart and Cherry Pie" by Jamie Heiden

The lady of the house might – if you stopped talking, or said something off the mark – turn away and begin thinking in a general way about hoboes: the scum of the world, leaving behind civility not because of some personal anguish but rather out of a desire – wanderlust would be the word that came to her mind – to let one minute simply vanish behind another. You had to spin out a yarn and keep spinning until the food was in your belly and you were out the door.

Hello, I am Zin! I loved this story, once I was able to read it, because boy was it hard to get into! But it worked!

This story is the final story in The Spot, his 2010 collection of short stories each with a particular spot that is, as I understand from reading reviews, the focus of something important. The spot of this particular story is home, and Lockjaw finds it in the farmhouse where a piece of cherry pie is on the windowsill waiting for him. Lockjaw is a Depression-era hobo, and his buddies know the syndrome: “…each of us had at one point or another seen some resemblance of home in the structure of a house, or a water silo, or a water-pump handle, or the smell of juniper bushes in combination with brook water, or the way plaster flaked, up near the ceiling, from the lathe. Even men reared in orphanages had wandered upon a particular part of their past. All of us had stood on some lonely street – nothing but summer-afternoon chaff in the air, the crickets murmuring drily off in the brush – and stared at the windows of a house to see a little boy staring back, parting the curtain with his tiny fingers.” Lockjaw (named such because of a story he has told, maybe it is true and maybe not, about having had lockjaw and getting a shot just in time) talks his way into supper and is telling “boiler-plate” tales when the husband comes to the table and starts asking detailed questions. When the man excuses himself from the table Lockjaw knows he is in trouble! The man is going to either get a gun or call the Sheriff! Lockjaw knows how the narrative works. Even if the wife pleads for him: “Put that gun away. Even if his story was a bit far-fetched, he’s just hungry, and so on and so forth, while the cold steely eyes of the man of the house bore the kind of furtive secretive message that could be passed only between a wandering man – a man of the road – and a man nailed to the cross of his domestic life.” Wow! The envy is on the other foot! Or Lockjaw is at least imagining it is, like he imagines this woman is his mother but just does not recognize him any more, and a year later the pie is on the windowsill just for him. His hobo buddies understand, they do not ridicule him” “…we’ll make up for our kindness by leaving him behind tomorrow morning, letting him sleep the sleep of the pie, just a snoring mound up in the weeds.”

I really struggled to get into this story! I had to restart four times! I actually gave up at one point, I thought, I read every single BASS story, I have read every PEN/O.Henry story so far, I have read every New Yorker and Tin House and One Story story so far since I started reading them, I can skip this one that has a first paragraph six pages long and has a “we” narrator and is very hard to follow, something about pie and hobos and trains and lockjaw and who is speaking, there is an “I” and “he” and “we” and who is who, what the hell is going on here, I can skip this, but no, I can not, if I do I will skip the next story I do not like or struggle with and that will be the end, I must read it, I can read it, I am not stupid, I can read a goddamn story! So I just sat with it and reread then read ahead when I did not understand and went back and reread again until it made sense, and I got through the first six-page paragraph. I have now learned how powerful paragraph breaks are! I remember reading The Unconsoled and encountering paragraphs this long, things that made no sense, so I can read these things, I just was not that interested in railroad hoboes I think.

But I am so glad I read it, because I ended up in tears. The idea of home, how Lockjaw is drawn to it, the narratives we construct that may or may not be true, even the husband who gets his gun because maybe he does not like to be faced with the idea that his lovely family and nightly meal is paid for with his freedom, though I think there are people who do not think that, there are people who do, too. Maybe Lockjaw was inventing that part, to make himself feel superior to this man with the home and family. But I think there is some truth.

So how did he bring me in? First, I was determined! I think I deserve 80% of the credit! But then, he hit me with images that I could understand – home, loneliness, this amazing image of a slice of pie on the window sill waiting for him (the author admits in the contributor notes that this was a motivating image for him), mother, and the whole thing about homelessness and the stories Lockjaw spun – I run into street people (they are not the homeless, they have clean clothes and haircuts and sometimes cell phones and jewelry) who can tell some amazing stories! But The Depression was different, though the economic times now echo the desperation as people are losing their jobs and homes. So the time setting was wise too. Very evocative. Many evocative images and words.

All these things worked together to make me feel compassion for Lockjaw even though he probably did not know what he was saying, if it was a lie or the truth, but I think when he left home in the first place his mamma told him she would always leave a slice of pie waiting on the window sill for him.

3 responses to “PEN/O.Henry 2011: David Means, “The Junction”, from Ecotone

  1. These O. Henry stories are really like watching the NBA finals. They are just so darn good.

    I read you review and got so excited that I read the story myself.

    First and foremost, there is tremendous tone and mood in this story.

    Also I laughed out loud when the “man of the house,” asked Lockjaw whether he was saved or not, and then his fellow hobos respond, “I knew it … Could’ve set a clock to know that was coming. Can’t go no where without being asked that one.”

    Now usually with these O. Henry stories there’s a crushing twist at the end. And this story was no exception. I almost thought it wasn’t coming, but then I got to the line, “He seemed to have an instinct for finding a lady willing to give in to his stories.”

    Looking back, I should have seen that coming, LOL!, but I didn’t. Just too much fun.

    I think it’s pretty clear that Means may have also read Saramago (the long sentences, and the dialogue only being offset by a comma and a capital letter.) But Means is Saramago times 10. The fact that he told a story inside another story, from the point of view of a plural first person narrator, was like, man, somebody injected some serious caffeine into this story. LOL!

    I had trouble, however, with that last line: “We’ll make up for our kindness by leaving him behind tomorrow morning, letting him sleep the sleep of the pie, just a snoring mound up in the weeds.”

    Now, Zin, I know you read this one way. But, could another possibility be that the other hobos were jealous? Because they said, “… in Lincoln and in Carson and Mill City and from one shitting crop town to the next he had come back from whatever meal he had scrounged up …” I figured the other hobos were jealous because he was having luck getting food and maybe they weren’t – because while Lockjaw told his story, all the hobos seemed hungry.

    I also wonder what the story was trying to say? Maybe, you never forget where you home is?

    Overall, great story.

    • Hello, DP! I thought about the last line for a while. Is he dead? No, he is snoring. But is he really snoring? Are they just pretending he is alive? Is the cherry pie – which would be red – blood, and he was shot? And they leave him, a “mound in the woods” because he is dead? I thought about it for a while. But I think it is just as he wrote it, and yes, I think the others are jealous, he was talking about pie when they were hungry. But I like thinking about it the other way. But I have always been accused of over-reading!

      I have to admit – do not take this personally – the phrase “what is the author trying to say” sets my teeth on edge! It is used in nearly every literature class anywhere and I only had one teacher who ever banned the phrase! The author is saying the text, the words on the page. He is not “trying” to say anything, he is saying something. Maybe we get it and maybe we do not, but as Yoda said, there is no try, only do!

      I do think home is a strong theme here, and the pull between wanderlust and domestic tranquility. I remember a theory about the Garden of Eden and the expulsion being about humans going from hunter-gatherers (Wandering) to civilization (being tied down by property, crops, herds). Everything has a price. But that might not have anything to do with the story, it is just something I like to consider.

  2. Pingback: BASS 2011: Beginning « A Just Recompense

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