Paul Griner: “Open Season” from One Story #159, 1/14/12

The morning headline said that the season had just opened, which of course we knew; I’d paid for my permit and stored my clothes overnight in a dry-cleaning bag filled with sweaty t-shirts, a box of doughnuts and some bus exhaust, not easy to come by but absolutely crucial if I didn’t want to spook my prey.

Hello, I am Zin! And I get to talk about this story because it is the Zinnest story ever! Here is my advice: buy this issue of One Story. It costs $2.50. Because this story is so wonderful to experience! You should not have to be spoiled by my clumsy comments, which can not do it justice unless I copied the whole story here (and I thought about it… but that would be wrong).

I took my copy of One Story with me on the bus to the supermarket; the first paragraphs set the scene as a hunting story, and I thought, ok, that is fine, some hunting stories are good. Truth is, I do not understand the whole thing about hunting, but I have read stories where it is turned into a religious experience, and there is a great respect for wildlife and the “rules” and traditions and it becomes a struggle against nature which turns into a metaphor for life itself and often becomes a pretty good story, so I trusted One Story and read the first page, and the beginning of the second. The narrator and his friend Juan are having breakfast at Hopping John’s Diner on the first day of hunting season, before they get started.

And then something strange happens!

Yankees, [Juan] said, though he said it with the wrong accent – Yahn-keys rather than Yank-ease – so he didn’t get the word.
Pretty cheap way to bag your first one of the season, but he’d started it, drawing out the word and failing to capture it, so I said Yankees the correct way and when the word floated free, expanding to full size in midair, I grabbed it. What a word, I thought, balancing its heavy weight in my palm, sniffing it, finding it as fragrant as a ripe melon. Automatically I began field-dressing the little bugger, slitting it from anus to breastbone while taking care not to pierce the stomach – not wanting to lose my own breakfast from the smell – and finally reaching two fingers up into the chest cavity to grab hold of the windpipe and yank it loose. My game bag was in the car so I asked the waitress for some wax paper and foil….
I made a neat packet of the foil around both, careful not to bend the Y or get pricked by the pointed ends of the K. Captured, and without its entrails, the word made a nice small package.

Do you see what I mean, that this is the Zinnest story ever? I am so jealous that I did not write it! Or at least try; I do not think I could do it as well as this. But I remember the flash I wrote about Max and the Amazing Notes and I think I need to pull that out and start working on it, now that I see where I need to go with it!

But back to this story (I am not a narcissist, I just sound like one sometimes, and after all I started writing about stories to improve my own writing way back when I was still writing).

Look at how this is done, just the short paragraph quoted above. It is the perfect hunting story. It reads exactly like a scene in a story about he-men hunting! A hunter might treat a game bird this way; I am drawing on my limited experience with hunting stories, but it is very much like when Danny got a snowshoe rabbit or a partridge in Big Red. Except… the game is a word! And it reads with a straight face, the smell, the feel, the procedure of dressing it, we could be reading about rabbits and birds again, until it swings back to bring in the Y and the K again! It is amazing!

The story is like that. I thought, oh, that is nice, but he can not keep this up. I mean, how many words can gut? But this is a story by someone who knows what he is doing! It is not just a list of words he eviscerates! We learn about a field of lavender (when his wife divorced him because he was only interested in hunting words – “If I was a word, maybe you’d pay half as much attention to me. I didn’t think it would be good form to tell her she was right.” – she got the house and he got the field), and the bet he has with Juan is that whoever bags the most words on this opening day will win the field! A field of lavender! “After all, what color word could be better than lavender? Three syllables, even.” Aha, a new element – the number of syllables is something like the weight of a fish or the points on a buck or whatever hunters use to measure how valuable their catch is. And the field of lavender is like a wheat field, it is a crop. A crop of words.

See? This is not just a silly metaphor. This is carefully thought out!

The story continues with new elements, like the rumored shortage of words, which might lead to a shorter season or fewer licenses. There is a wonderful scene where Juan pulls ahead in their competition: he takes them to the Rotary Lodge where a Kentucky Wildcat flag flies proudly in the flag, and he coaxes blue, Wildcat, and Kentucky from the flag in a matter of moments:

Three words all at once, and a rare one, two, three-syllable trifecta at that; it was so good I couldn’t even feel jealous…. He let me have the first dibs smelling Kentucky. Is fawn a scent? It seemed so. Next came tobacco, rich and ruddy, followed by mint and fresh-cut grass and something swampy…

The detail is so precise and specific! But there is more to this story than accounts of each word bagged. After all, that would get tired fast. No, this is a better story than that! Someone who thinks of a way to bring hunters and word nerds together has more than a few smarts, so we discover more elements to morph the reverence most hunters feel for their sport into that which most writers feel for words:

Years ago, [Juan] replaced four molars with type keys from the city’s afternoon papers after they shut down. We’d gone to check out the press’s former site, son to be a sponge factory, the buildings long since demolished….
His hands shook as he handed me three letters, H, T, R. Think of it, he said, and closed my fingers around them. Each of these help stamp out thousands of words. He was so intense that his reverence was catching, and I keep the type keys now in my bedside table, fingering them blindly nights I can’t sleep.

I want some typewriter keys for my bedside table! I want to make shirt buttons out of them! Or jewelry!

In a further plot twist (or else it would be just toying with a metaphor instead of a story), our narrator (it is a first person story and his name is never given) has a problem this season. He has trouble speaking words. And this problem comes to the fore when, on the bus, he sees a prime word:

Yet the truth was I was stalling, because I’d frozen. It doesn’t happen often, maybe once every three or four years, but I’m staring at a word and can’t say it. Some kind of mechanical breakdown, I think….
The word was right there in front of me, tucked into a woman’s cleavage, trying to blend in with a crescent of tiny freckles and the sheen of sweat. Natural habitat, and all that; very smart, as multis usually are. When I glanced away to read some advertising placards about elocution lessons it came to me. Silicone, I said, and it was mine.

Again, I am awed at how good this is, how he talks about natural habitat and slips in the slang “multis” and attributes will and mind to the words, just like hunters do with their prey! And of course at the same time it is funny as hell! The word silicone hiding between the breasts of a woman? How could anyone not love this?

The story reaches its climax when they find a couple of agents clearing out a mailbox. This is why words are in short supply, of course; Special Ops agents take the words from mailboxes and telephone booths under cover of darkness. They catch a pair in the act, and the narrator knows what to do: he says, “Special Operations!” and just like that, words come spilling out of the mailbox, tumbling all over, like a slot machine paying off big time. And what does he see there? A special word – if you have been following closely you probably know what it is! And it leads to a change in him, because this is not just a goofy metaphor, it is a complete story.

Now you have to read it, yes, to find out what happens? You do!

I was so impressed by this story, I went looking for his website and found several other stories scattered all over the Web on cool online litmags like Dogzplot and Right Hand Pointing! Stay tuned, one of those will turn up on my Online Fiction etc. to Read and Love page the next time I update! He also talks about his story on the One-Story Q&A, and he has published two novels and a story collection. I think I will be reading more of this writer!

2 responses to “Paul Griner: “Open Season” from One Story #159, 1/14/12

  1. Pingback: Additions to Pages « A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: BASS 2012: Getting Started | A Just Recompense

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