Let’s say we have a man and a woman.
Let’s say they’re riding in some old Chevy pickup, windows down, prairie earth wheeling past. Let’s call it Nebraska. No harm to say some old Chevy. No harm to say Nebraska.
Though, to be honest, judging by the cheatgrass spiking the ditches, those four cow skulls nailed down a fence post’s crooked length, and the great bluescape of sky, it might be Wyoming, or Montana, or a Dakota — any of those dun-colored, too-wide-open, go-crazy-you’re-so-lonesome places in the middle of America.
Given my fondness for nontraditional narrative styles, it’s a given I’d love this story (available online, thank you Utne Reader). Not that the narrative is all that non-traditional: it’s very old-fashioned in fact, in the tradition of folk tales and songs: “Now I’m going to tell you a story.” But in this story, the narrator, who in a folk tale might only supply a conduit, is central. The story’s about him.
Oh, on the surface it’s about two people fresh out of luck, heading nowhere on a bleak road. But it’s about the narrator, I’m sure of it. He’s let her down again, and he’s making up this story, willing her to sing. It won’t do for him to be the one to sing; that would just mean he’s making light of his failings. No, it has to come from her. She has to sing.
As I read these stories, I keep looking for a uniting theme, or groups of themelets, in this volume. I started out with a sense of looking back and forward; now I have a distinct sense of “is it good or bad? You choose.” And guess what: this story is about every one of us, at one point or another. How we choose. We can keep seething, we can call it quits – or we can sing.
He’s willing her to sing. The protagonist – and the narrator.
What’s the difference between “say” and “tell”? They come from different roots; interestingly, “tell” has a calculative quality (hey, I never knew that). But I think there’s a more important distinction. We could talk about transitivity and direct vs indirect objects, but here’s the gist: saying can be a solo action, but telling implies an intended tellee, a recipient. To say is to express; to tell is to communicate – or, more accurately, and importantly to the story, to attempt to communicate, since there’s never any guarantee the tellee will listen, or, even then, hear. For more linguistic fun, what’s the difference between “Say” and “I’m saying”? Again, there’s the difference in tense, but here, in the story, the switch between “say” and “tell”, between “Say” “I tell you” and “I’m saying” and I’m telling you”, isn’t about grammar; it’s all about intensification. And boy, does this story intensify.
One of the additional ways it intensifies is by going from “Let’s say” to “I’m telling you.” The first is collaborative, casual, hypothetical – it’s a pipe dream. The second is insistent, authoritative, authorial – desperate; I hear a strong chord of “please!” around the edges, and the reader can’t help but cheer for these two hard-luck cases who have a chance to turn it around.
By the way (and this has nothing to do with the story, it doesn’t fit in this post, but it’s so cool I can’t leave it unsaid): Wilkins was a math teacher. I should’ve known. For half a century, I ran away from math as hard as I could, but for the past few years I’ve been tripping over astonishingly cool math people on a regular basis. All I had to do was sing.
But let’s say — and it could happen, I promise you — she opens her mouth and begins to sing: Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet? Say, down the next dry hill, he can’t help but offer up: Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, / And nothing ain’t worth nothing, but it’s free. Yes, let’s say that, despite it all, they begin to sing. It’s not so hard to imagine, is it? Not so hard to see them barreling down the road, the sun-washed wind in their faces, these getting-by tunes on their lips? Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels, / And a good saloon in every single town.
I love a story that comes with its own sound track – Dylan, Kristofferson, Parsons. But the sound track here is more than just mood music; it’s a conversation in itself, between two people who can’t say, so the songs say for them, ask and answer, offer and accept: a conversation about screwing up, hurting, losing, regret, apology, and the possibility that love can survive all that. The songs say. The songs tell the story. All we have to do is listen.
I’m telling you they sing. Listen. Hear their cracked voices whirl and ring.
The last paragraph, the last line, three sentences – it’s a poem. Wilkins is, after all, a poet as well as a prose writer. It’s all in the rhythm. Meter isn’t my strength, but these lines convince me. Start with “I’m telling you they sing”: three sing-song iambs, and you’re all set up for the fourth da-DUM you just know it’s coming, but: LISTEN. Technically it’s probably a trochee but I hear it as a spondee, almost as – oh, forgive me, Mr. Wilkins, I’m a fool from the TV generation, but it’s the Law & Order “DUN-DUN”. It stops you in your tracks: This is Important. This Means Something (yes, I’m insanely mixing references, but that’s what our psyches are, a big box of mixed references). And the rhythm of the next sentence shifts into trochee: “Hear their cracked voices whirl and sing”, with the perfect little crack in the regularity coming on the word “cracked” (unless you pronounce it in two syllables, but that would be a little too Elizabethan for this story).
I love that last line. It’s the whole story, right there.