BASS 2022: Kevin Moffett, “Bears Among the Living” from McSweeney’s #63

When I was a kid the newspaper published a column called Chatterbox, which was full of local gossip, mostly wedding engagements and job promotions and news that readers probably sent in themselves. Every once in a while, though, there’d be a blind item written in a tantalizingly cryptic code, so only those really in the know would be able to identify the subject. Like, H. T. lost his keys but not his sense of humor. Must have been some rehearsal dinner!
I was well into writing a story about the town where I live when I realized I was mimicking the brevity, if not the civic heft, of Chatterbox. More and more, as both a writer and a reader, I’m drawn to short, self-contained pieces, ones that arrive late to the party and leave before they say anything too stupid. Which is surely less reflective of the imperatives of the subject matter than the limitation of this writer’s (and reader’s) attention span. I’ve been trying to finish what I begin in a given day, which often means writing stories that are only a few sentences long.

Kevin Moffet, BASS 2022 Contributor Note

I do see clusters of topics. Oh, it’s about language, I thought. The opening page has some intriguing language and structure, complete with a quote by Wittgenstein on the limits of language. But then his father enters the picture. And his son. And throughout, he describes his town and his interactions within it.

Just a couple of days ago in my Short Story Reading Group, I said I was struggling with a story. “I’m perplexed, so I’m just going to sit here in my perplexity and see if someone else says something that shows me the way.” That led to the leader commenting that maybe the goal isn’t always “to understand” but to ask questions. I also remember a comment in a prior reading group (I’ve become quite a fan of online reading groups) in which someone said something like, “The writer could have written it very clearly, but they didn’t, so we’re being given permission to wonder, to speculate.” Ok. If you’re going to write it this way, I’m going to speculate.

The Wittgenstein quote bothered me. Yes, he did write  “The limits of language are the limits of my world” in his first work, mapping language to reality via logic. But he changed his mind later, inventing the idea of language games in which we communicate by playing by a set of rules; we agree what words mean, and reality has nothing to do with it. Sort of like the cryptic sentences in Chatterbox: if one is playing the same game, they’re not so cryptic, but without the rules, we’re lost. Maybe Moffett is playing a language game in this piece, and I’m confused because I don’t have the rules.

The first paragraph gets us started:

They call our town the City of Trees because of the trees. Along Harrison Avenue, sycamores with their tops sheared to accommodate power lines overhead, massive peeling eucalyptuses. On Mills, prim maidenhairs dropping their rancid berries. Our town is a page, its streets are the lines, houses are the words, and the people: punctuation. Trees are just trees. We hear church bells on Sunday but never see anyone coming out or going in. The Church of Christ has a new sign in front that says HE’S STILL LISTENING, which makes me a little sad. It makes me want to say something worth listening to. Less and less, I’m in control of what I broadcast. At a park the other day I was reading on a bench while my wife pushed her son on the swings. A woman walked up to her and said, just a heads-up: there’s a man reading over there on the bench and he’s not with anybody. We’re all keeping an eye on him. His zipper’s wide open.

Just the first sentence is enough to lend a playful cast to the piece. Yet when he describes the trees, they don’t sound like something a city would be proud of: the sycamores are mowed to fit electric wires, the eucalyptuses are peeling (which is normal, and often seen as pretty, but sounds gross when you call it peeling), the maidenhairs have rancid berries. Wouldn’t you expect the trees in the City  of Trees to be more impressive? Is this irony, or a warning?

Then there’s the sentence, “Our town is a page, its streets are the lines, houses are the words, and people: punctuation.” It’s that colon that does it, separates people from things by means of, wow, punctuation. The story is right there, and we’re just the dots and squiggles.

The town looks more dismal as we read on. Church bells summon no one. Then there’s the intimidation he feels when assured God is listening; that’s supposed to be a comfort, or at least a lifeline, not added pressure to perform adequately.

Then we move into another topic: the misbroadcasting incident at the playground, which is funny, but… why isn’t it in its own paragraph? The language in this paragraph – semantics and structure – has me off-balance, while I’m dealing with a guy who literally can’t keep his fly zipped, not out of lasciviousness but out of absent-mindedness. This has to mean something.

Then some additional scenery, and we’ve got:

Asleep at night, I plot and replot my jogging circuit. Seventh to Mountain, Mountain to Baseline, Baseline to Mills, Mills to Bonita… I wake up exhausted.

I love this, because… I do something similar. I frequently dream about trying to figure out a math problem, or a geographic location, or a Spanish sentence, or something in whatever mooc I’m taking, and I drive myself nuts trying to get it right. I can’t, of course, because what I’m working with, be it math or a map or a language, is nonsense in the dream. When I wake up it’s a relief. I used to tell my husband, “I have to take a break from sleeping.” So I can sympathize with Kevin.

When we move into father material, I feel slightly more secure; this is the stuff of stories. Kevin’s father died when he was eleven; we see some of his flaws. But we no sooner get introduced than we’re back to this terrifying town with coyotes and snakes, before another church sign assures us, GOD ISN’T ANGRY. He’s just disappointed, Kevin decides.

New scene. Kevin’s waiting for his son, chatting idly with parents to pass the time. One says he misses maps that fold, or rather, that can never be refolded correctly. Why you’d miss that I’m not sure, but I get missing paper maps. There’s a flurry of nostalgia – one misses thinking Columbus discovered America, another ant farms, etc.  Kevin makes his contribution.

I miss when my future was more interesting to me than my past, I thought. The other parents paused and looked at me, which meant I’d set it out loud as well. They waited for an explanation. The least I could do was tell them how I used to dream of being a landscape architect, as opposed to dreaming of when I used to dream of being a landscape architect. Dreaming ahead instead of dreaming behind. I kept my eyes on the sidewalk and finally said I also miss scratch and sniff stickers. Sighs of relief from the other parents, robust communal nodding. It felt good to think about things you hadn’t thought about in a while. Harmless, nearly forgotten things. Some of the stickers smelled like what they were supposed to smell like and some didn’t, and every time you scratched them the smell grew fainter. Remember that? You had to make sure to ration it out because the stickers wouldn’t last long. It was an object lesson. Remember? Scratching and knowing that every time you scratched erasing the very thing you were savoring.

Been there. Funny how even scratch-n-sniff can be depressing. But don’t bring it up with people who are just killing time.

So many little anecdotes packed in here, all of them poignant, hinting at deeper meaning. I was fond of the comment about Kevin, as a boy, seeing a couple of books on the one bookshelf in the house: When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and The Good Earth. As a seven-year-old, I remember seeing The Hinge of Fate and The Carpetbaggers on my parents’ sole bookshelf. And I was horrified to read an object lesson in the Law of Unintended Consequences:

Another friend came to the house during the funeral and took away all my father’s clothes, donated them to the Salvation Army. She thought she was doing us a favor, scrubbing our closet of unwanted reminders. Years later, we’d still see his golf shirts all around town. On a man pumping gas into a motorcycle. On a supermarket bag boy.

I wrote, “Oh God” in the margin.

The story – I feel strange calling it that, it’s still more of a loose collection of thoughts, almost a diary – seems to focus more and more on Kevin as a son, and as a father. His son has shining moments of sweetness, surely edited for heartwarmingness. Aren’t all our memories?

Then we come to what might be considered a climax, only because it contains the title:

We are bears among the living, agile and fearsome. We range and rut. We hunt. We return to our dens to sleep and let torpid winters seal our wounds. When we die our pelts are stripped from our bones, draped over plausible likenesses, nailed to pedestals in telltale poses. Children still flinch at the sight of us, though our eyes are flat and lifeless. For now death seems to have perfectly arrested our essence. One day we’re moved to the garage, replaced by a Christmas tree, and we stay there, surviving, yes, but shrinking. Time declaws us, softens our contours and our blood matted fur, and it gives us a bow tie, and one day, where a life-size bear once stood, there’s a cute little plush toy stuffed with foam and air, a harmless abbreviation consigned to spend a third life in the land of make believe.

Again, I try to understand the language. Who is we? Who are the living? Are we not the living? For a moment I had a brilliant idea, a way to solve the puzzle: Kevin is dead, remembering his life. But, no, that doesn’t work, because he dies early in the paragraph and becomes something else, a taxidermied image. And over time, that image becomes less and less present, until it becomes less painful, less threatening.

Who is we? Fathers, perhaps? Because there’s a follow-up:

Sometimes I think I can still summon the sound of his voice. A thin, distant rasp. My childhood is a song I’ve heard so many times I’ve stopped listening to the words. Probably half the things my father said to me he never said to me.

The final paragraph takes on the voice of the father, in words he probably never said – words Kevin wishes he’d said?

You are the man of the house now…. Is it my voice you’re hearing right now or someone else’s? And how old are you now? Old enough to watch over yourself? Old enough to watch over someone else? Children, and I quote, are the living messages we send to a time we will not see. Something along those lines. So what are you trying to say and why are you still trying to say it? Do you think this is a game, Kevin? Do you think you are winning?

Is Kevin’s father challenging him, or is Kevin talking to himself?

That quote line sounded like something someone must’ve said, so I went hunting. Indeed, it is a genuine quote, not the almost-quote from Wittgenstein tailored to the needs of the story, but the genuine first line from The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman, listed as a professor of media ecology (hey, I’m just reporting here), who sounds a lot like Marshall McLuhan and has the same distrust of media and mass entertainment. The Childhood book proposes that infancy is a given, but childhood is a social construct that began with literacy, when education became necessary instead of learning by doing, and that childhood will again disappear once literacy is replaced with imagery in the form of television.

I’m still not sure what’s going on here, but again I see this melting of past, present, and future into a pool of time, the motif that’s been so prominent in this volume. Kevin, his son, his father: messages going back and forth, reconstructed memories, a father fading from a bear to a toy over time. That somewhat ignores the rest of the story, which maybe is setting:  this City of Miserable Trees where the word of God is displayed on signage and memorabilia is confined to the cheerfully pleasant, unless your dead dad’s shirts end up on strangers unaware of the effect they’re having on you.

I’d read Moffet before, in my first BASS read, in fact, back in 2010. “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events.” I didn’t clearly remember the story, though I did remember the name and that I’d liked the story. Like I keep saying, this is why I blog, so I can remember. I re-read the older story after reading this one; it’s what set me on the track of the fathers-and-sons theme, because it’s about an angst-ridden writer (is there any other kind?) frustrated by his lack of success, who discovers his father is writing thinly-disguised stories about their family life.

I’ll end as I began: admitting I have no idea what’s going on here. But I’m choosing to believe that, if Moffett had wanted it to be clear and easy, he would have written it that way, so groping for meaning is the task. So I’ll just sit here in my perplexity, hoping someday I’ll have the wisdom to see.  

 * * *  

  • Jake Weber loved this story; he does  much better job of parsing it than I did in his post at Workshop Heretic.
  • For those so inclined, David Auerbach has written a brief explanation of Wittgenstein at Slate.
  • For those so inclined, Frank Elwell has written a brief summary of Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood.
  • For those so inclined, I wrote about Moffet’s beautifully sweet 2010 story “Further Interpretations of Real Life Events”  back in 2011.

4 responses to “BASS 2022: Kevin Moffett, “Bears Among the Living” from McSweeney’s #63

    • I doubt either is universally well-defined enough to really distinguish them. I used the terms that the groups used to describe themselves.

      In both of the cases that I mentioned, the groups looked at one book, an anthology of short stories, over several months, rather than reading a book a month, so possibly that’s a difference. And, of course, they were online, so that could be a factor.

      To me, a book club has something of a social element (the word ‘club’) but that isn’t necessarily something that others would agree with.

  1. I’m so happy with your reading. I’ve been feeling lately like I don’t know your likes and dislikes as well as I thought I did, but when I read this story, I thought, “Karen’s going to go in deep with that Wittgenstein quote.” And you did.

    • Wittgenstein is catnip.
      I couldn’t quite give this one the “Holy balls” rating you did (and that will forever be my standard for best-of-the-best; now I want to put together my own personal Holy balls anthology) since I couldn’t fit it together but the individual pieces were lovely.

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