When you’re seventeen and you’re the gay son of a Baptist preacher from Dallas Texas and you have a lisp and a drawl and a musical gift and you were named Oral because an angel told your daddy to do so in a dream, then New York City can seem like it’s saving your life. But when you’re twenty-four and an epidemic has claimed all your friends and all your friends’ friends including your one-true-love who you abandoned after a final ultimatum seven months before he died because he was drinking two bottles of red wine a day and not communicating and only finding out later that he had been HIV positive, and being shunned at the funeral by his hip political activist mom as well as the very last of the mutual friends in favor of his new lover who was only there at the end, and your tests keep coming up negative and your ruddy good health looks back at you from the mirror like a screaming miracle, then, when that happens, New York City can seem small and exhausted.
This paragraph is exquisite! It covers a short lifetime of exposition that is more interesting than some stories! Dave Eggers, who picked this story as his favorite for the 2002 O.Henry Prize (pre-PEN), describes it: “The story takes off in a sprint, in a roaring lyrical sentence that travels sixteen lines without a period. On the first page, there are maybe three periods. In the entire story, about eleven.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it is a really great single-breath-spit-it-all-out opening. And we know a lot about this guy before he drives off, “looking for a good cliff to sail off but feeling sure God would find a way to fuck with you, like He’d catch you halfway down and make you say that you love Him” and finally you “stuff a suitcase full of sheet music and a pair of organ shoes and head for home. It’s what anybody might do, including you.” I can not name all the ways of awesome this is – because, well, some come back later in the story and I would not want to spoil it (though I probably will, eventually).
This story was recommended to me by Jim Miller (hello, Jim!) as another second person story to add to my Study, and I am very glad, it is a wonderful story!
A little background: it helps to know a little music. “Scordatura” is a term I never heard before, but I googled around and I found it means an alternate tuning of a stringed instrument. I have seen articles on how it relates to Bach and Scottish fiddle playing, among other things, but the most interesting definition I found, in terms of this story, was from wordreference.com: “the technique of altering the normal tuning of a stringed instrument to produce particular effects.” The story echoes of music, and God, and I think these things come together in this. Also, as an aside, organ shoes – someone asked me if they were made out of a particular organ, as in a stomach, and I thought that was hilarious! No, organists play pedals with their feet so they often have special shoes which make it easier for them to reach and feel the pedals, decrease the sound of the shoe sole striking the pedals, and, in the case of women, do not have high heels that could easily get stuck in between the pedals. I know one organist who plays barefoot, and she is always caught by surprise when she is called out from behind the organ!
Back to the story. It is second person. True second person. Except for… well, we will get to that later. A review of the plot does not do it justice, since the magic is in this voice, this sad outsider looking for the comfort of home. He plays the organ for Easter Sunday service. He remembers a Christmas service from early adolescence, when he and another boy wore pantyhose under their choir robes. He visits his grandfather, a beekeeper who finds bee stings help his arthritis and pot helps everything else. Grandfather is also a Preacher’s Kid: apparently it skips a generation. Oral remembers a Youth Sunday from his past, when he was to give the Youth Sermon but bailed at the last minute. The climactic event has him carrying beehives, collapsing in fatigue, and imagining what that service could have been like, had he come out from the pulpit:
At first they would probably cheer, thinking you were acting out some live drama. They would chuckle at your squeaky, impeded voice. Then everyone would become embarrassed and ashamed…..Your dad would be the first to walk out the back door without turning to salt. Deacons would come forward, shaking their heads, disappointed and shy. They’d gently escort you off stage as Bob Sullivan led the remaining members of the congregation in some quiet hymn of mercy, something whiny like “There is a Fountain.”
Later everyone would smile and wince and treat you like a misfortunate stranger, like a cripple. Someone would hand you the testimony of an ex-gay. Then they’d wait it out until you buckled and the orderlies came to take you away. Only a matter of time.
The scene including this is tremendous. He is carrying beehives for his grandfather, he is overcome with fatigue, and what is imagined and what is real is never clear (there is a wonderful interest in his name, in knowing his name), there is tearing off of a veil, and his grandfather lifts him from the river with “big, hairy-knuckled hands and strong Texas arms.” Oh, find the story, and read it, it is glorious! It is Beethoven (not Bach, that would be Robert Coover) on the page.
I will not reveal the one-page coda, which in some ways goes back to the beginning and in some ways closes the door and moves on.
Now, I did some googling around looking for comments on this story, and I found a doozie by artist Paul Richmond (used with permission):
I like to think at its best, art can challenge people to think and see the world differently. Shortly after graduating from college, when I was still in denial about being gay, I happened to read a short story called “Scordatura” by Mark Ray Lewis. It was about a gay man and was written in second person, so instead of using pronouns like “he” or “I,” it said “you.” After reading about this man and hearing the author say “you” over and over again, I realized that yes, it really was “me.” Years of guilt, fear, and shame were eclipsed by one literary piece, and the next day I came out to my friend Melissa.
Remember what Brian Richardson had to say about the instability of second person? No? That is all right, I will remind you:
…one of the more unsettling features of this mode of narration is that this distinction can be collapsed whenever the “you” could refer to the reader as well as the protagonist.
Most authors employing this mode play with this boundary…. A continuous dialectic of identification and distancing ensues, as the reader is alternately drawn closer to and further away from the protagonist. This you is inherently unstable, constantly threatening to merge with the narratee, a character, the reader, or even another grammatical person.
In the case of Paul, he identified so much with the character, he recognized something previously undiscovered, or at least unacknowledged, in him! I think this is quite remarkable! As I told Paul when I contacted him for permission to use his comments, it is not usually the destiny of the short story to change lives – that is what philosophers and stockbrokers are for! But here we have second person as a mirror. I believe it might work the other way as well. There could be some readers who might be distressed by the identification aspect of second person with this character. I was not, however, able to find any by googling around.
I wish I could find the email address for Mark Ray Lewis (he seems like a very interesting guy, writer, musician, landscape designer) and ask him what he thinks of all this. I also would like to ask him, as Jim Miller commented, just why he switched to third person for that last sentence. I am thinking it shifts the whole thing back, distances from the story, like a close-up to a wide-shot in a movie, one of those things where they zoom out from someone to the crowd to the planet, reverse GoogleEarth. Maybe it makes the entire story one of God talking to Oral – making it a person-and-a-half story all along but without the “I”! Would that not be something! But most likely there is a wonderful literary explanation that I am just not clever enough to perceive or explain. I hope I will find out, some day.