Pushcart 2015: David Means, “The Ice Committee” from Zoetrope: All-Story Vol.17 #4

It was late afternoon. It would soon be dusk.
“I don’t think I ever told you the one with Captain Hopewell in it,” the man named Kurt was saying.
“Don’t start. For God’s sake, you’ll jinx us for sure,” the man named Merle said. “Just get me thinking about that one and it’ll jinx us.”
“This one isn’t going to jinx us. If you knew the story, you’d know that,” Kurt said, and then for a few minutes both men sat silently and mulled over everything they’d discussed on the nature of luck over the course of the last few months as they’d wandered up and down Superior Street, shaking a cup for spare change, scraping for odd jobs, whatever it took to gather enough for some booze and a scratch lottery ticket. They’d agreed that to talk too much about good fortune just before you scratched would decrease the odds of it coming, because luck had to bend around the place and time of the scratch, establishing itself in relation to your state of mind at that particular moment…. Best to clear the head of all expectation and settle into a state of not-caring as you look out with silent and blissful longing at the lake.

The first two sentences nearly did me in. Who starts a story that way, besides a seventh grader? But I remembered a couple of things.

The first was a quote by Joyce Cary that I learned about through Charles May: “Every professional artist has met the questioner who asks of some detail: ‘Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it so neatly like this?’” If a writer of David Means’ experience opens his story with dead, limp, passive sentences, there’s a reason for it.

The second was a discussion I had a long time ago with a workshop writer about starting stories with phrases like “There was…” Turns out, he’d just done exactly that, and he did it for a reason: to emphasize the passivity of the character he was introducing.

Kurt and Merle are nothing if not dead, limp, and passive.

The story focuses on the time these two homeless guys spend working themselves up to scratching a lottery ticket, making sure not to “bend the luck” the wrong way. I love that notion, of luck bending depending on what you’re doing. Combined with the idea of depending on lottery tickets, it’s rich enough in thoughts and imagery to keep me going a while.

But the stories they tell each other, the thoughts they have, while they’re waiting, fill in the backstories of Merle, the Vietnam vet who can’t stop telling stories and can no longer remember if the stories are real, made-up, or a composite of fact and fiction, and Kurt, former professor who lost his way. I found it a rather tedious read, to be honest (and I usually like Means’ stories), since I was disoriented much of the time – when is this set, that a Vietnam vet is a “kid”) but there are these moments of exquisite beauty and clarity that kept me reading on.

Every big port like this one had a kid just like Kurt, a kid with sea legs on land and land legs on sea, a kid whose life had ended in country, somewhere in the Highlands, or in Khe Sanh, or in Hue, or in Saigon, as a member of Tiger Force, or as a gunner on a Chinook, depending on which version he decided to tell that day. And there was always an old coot whose life had ended in middle age, beginning with a fight over—over what? he couldn’t really remember—that had resulted in the broken vase (a wedding present), and then another fight and a broken Hitchcock chair (another wedding present), and then another and a broken jaw (Emma, oh my dear sweet Emma!). He felt the deep shame of the memory: the clutch of her long, elegant fingers around her chin and her beautiful, deep, sad, brown brown eyes as he’d glanced back one last time before striking out, moving his feet over the ground day after day, until it seemed he’d walked (and he had, for God’s sake, he had) the upper shore of Superior, across the border into Canada, and then back down, finding his way to the Hope Mission.

I’m still pretty hazy on the significance of the title, though it’s used in the piece. The Ice Committee sounds like an incompetent bureaucracy that stands in the way of sea merchants trying to make a living. I can sense something of that these two guys, who are pretty impotent in how they deal with their lives. In spite of their troubles, there’s a strong connection between the two of them, and I also felt a great connection with the pair, these two guys on a hope mission of their own – and that counts for a lot.

BASS 2013: David Means, “The Chair” from The Paris Review, Spring 2012

Ah, glorious, I thought. Ah, a lovely and perfect fall afternoon. The sublime nature of taking care of my boy on one more bygone day. There was a deep, submerged loneliness in my chest as I stood feeling the wind, which was lifting, growing firmer and stronger from the north, bringing with it the first hints of winter.… Evening would fall, and the lights of the bridge and cross the river would throw themselves onto the surface of the water, appearing one by one as the sky faded, and then, safely inside the house, I’d look out the window and feel the fantastic unleashing of the pure, frank wistfulness that used to come to me at that time of day, and I’d feel, ahead, the future in one form or another, without which I could not endure the task. At some point in the future we’d be alone in the house and Gunner would be off at college, or married, and days like that would be sucked into a vortex – what other way to think of it? – of retrospect, with just a few memories of day-to-day tending: car-seat buckling, food feeding, punctuated by more pointed memories of trauma: stitches in his brow (lacrosse), asthma attack (holding him through the night, his tiny chest heaving against my palm), his separation problems at the preschool (me in the window watching him clutch hold of the old scratched up piano bench, his mouth wide open in a scream, his face bright red and shiny). It was only with that sense that I could survive these moments, I think I thought.

The loneliness – and ambivalence – of the stay-at-home father.

Bob loves his five-year-old son Gunner, he truly does, and he loves having time with him – but he’s never sure he’s doing it right, this parenting thing, and then there’s his wife Sharon (he loves her, too) who’s been getting home later and later, with lamer and lamer excuses, and her eyes glaze over when he tells her about his day. It’s the sort of story women have been telling for decades now. I wonder if it makes it more real to some, more important, when a man tells the story.

It’s beautifully written, with long, lyric sentences floating delicate thoughts about everything that goes on in a family: joy, fear, the tightrope between freedom and safety. The story takes place in just a few minutes, with Bob watching Gunner run towards the retaining wall above the water behind the house; he’s warned him to keep away from it once, but maybe he forgot, so he warns him again that “the chair” awaits, should the little boy continue to disregard his warnings. Oh, but the running feels so good, and the wall is so tempting.

I’m hugely aware, I said, of the weird feeling I have about you and your work in relation to me and my position here as at-home caregiver, and sometimes I have to admit, I sit at the window and follow you to work in my imagination.

Three objects serve as foci for the story: the chair, with its threat of consequences, punishment, and, by the way, safety; the window through which Bob watches the city, or his son, from a protected but separated place; and the retaining wall, the potential danger Gunner is so drawn to. It’s lovely how he weaves these together with a set of complex thoughts and feelings.

The story takes place in three time zones, so to speak. There’s the present of the story, with Gunner running towards the wall; there’s the simple past from that present; and there’s a recollection from the distant future, the vantage point from which Bob tells the story. Means has said this is part of a sequence of stories, and he drops references to the future from the very beginning. In the moment, he thought one thing; after the moment was over, he thought more; and now, much later (Gunner is an adult, which could be any time 15 years hence) he tries to recall both what he thought about the moment, and about the past in that moment. I had some trouble following the details of his evolving thoughts (I’m having trouble even explaining what I mean, but that’s due to my lack of technical expertise in narrative), mostly because the prose is so beautiful I just didn’t want to dissect it. It’s clear that he was in the present both joyful and ridden with fears and doubt, and that his fears at the time never came to pass.

We’re riding on an apex, I thought, standing in the yard that day, I think. We’re on a pivot. On one side is her career and her lively steps out the door, while on the other is this deep solitude…

The dualism, the notion of balance, is nicely played throughout. Everything has tradeoffs, and finding the sweet spot can be tricky, whether you’re a stay-at-home dad, a wife coming home late or a kid playing on a retaining wall: The chair always hovers.

David Means – “El Morro” in The New Yorker 8/29/11

A typo carved in stone at El Morro

Kimberly told one dervish story after another that afternoon in Griffith Park, reciting them until they both drifted asleep, only to awaken, later, to bright sun and blue sky and the hard clomp of hooves. Above them, on a string of horses led by a guide, was a group of Japanese tourists taking snapshots of a vista that included Hollywood buried in a bowl of haze, the desert landscape, and two homeless girls, pale and gaunt, huddled on a sheet of cardboard.

I was looking forward to this, since I enjoyed David Means’ “The Junction” from PEN/O.Henry 2011 so much – the storytelling hoboes, cherry pie, and home. But I read Zin’s post about “The Junction”: “I really struggled to get into this story! I had to restart four times! I actually gave up at one point…. this one that has a first paragraph six pages long… and who is speaking, there is an “I” and “he” and “we” and who is who, what the hell is going on here…” and I think, oh, yeah, that one was like that, wasn’t it? How quickly we forget! Because it was worth it, in the end.

And this story was like that, too. The first sentence is almost 100 words, longer than some micros. The POV is constantly shifting. There’s a parenthetical (containing a memory of a friend who told a story about a dervish that told a story – the end is quoted above) that goes on for about a column and a half, three or four paragraphs. And there’s a complete shift of POV at the end. Huh?

But, like “The Junction,” it drew me in.

The main character is a runaway teenage girl whose name we never learn. Meth-head Lenny picked her up a couple of days ago, and now they’re driving all over the western United States, it seems. He talks non-stop. She does everything she can not to listen. He has four topics: drugs, Native American culture, birds, and the story he made up for her, because she only told him her father kicked her off the farm back home in Illinois and he’s not interested in knowing more facts, he wants to make up his own version of her story. They encounter a woman directing traffic; he makes up a story about her and her brothers, and she ends up in the front seat and the girl moves to the back. They go to El Morro, a natural monument of sandstone where all manner of travellers have carved their names for centuries until the Park Service protected it. Lenny abandons the girl there, and Russell, the guard at the visitor center, takes her to some kind of halfway house. Then he tells his wife all about it that night.

Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Add to that the voice of a meth addict relating some of it, a mute runaway thinking the rest, all the technical tricks mentioned above, and why bother? Because it’s about story-telling. Everyone has to tell their story. Stories embedded in stories. Dervish stories. Lenny robbing the girl of her story and making one up for her. Russell telling his good-deed story to his wife. El Morro, a monument to stories – The National Park Service website tells us: “Ancestral Puebloans and Spanish and American travelers carved over 2,000 signatures, dates, messages, and petroglyphs for hundreds of years” (ouch to the wording). And, in a twist of fate that will amuse copy editors everywhere: “The first English inscription at El Morro, carved into the rock by Lt. J. H. Simpson and R. H. Kern in 1849, has a spelling error: “inscriptions” was spelled “insciptions” with the “r” inserted afterwards.”

I’m not beginning to understand this story; it’s way too complex for me. The number 4 keeps coming up. There are four characters. Lenny has four topics. Russell has four cameras by which he views the park. I’m not sure what the significance of the number 4 is – maybe just coincidence. Lenny takes the girl and tells her to shut up (he steals her voice, doesn’t let her tell her story, he will make up her story for himself) while Russell possibly starts her on the path to recovering her voice. There’s something godlike about Russell: seeing all through his four cameras, understanding the girl, rescuing her, protecting the mark she made on El Morro. Something redemptive, restorative. I’m just groping in the dark here. Still, like “The Junction,” it worked for me. And I was interested in the decision to shift POVs at the end, so someone else could tell what now became his story.

David Means loves stories. Storytelling was at the heart of “The Junction” as well. In an interview with The Paris Review, he explains why he writes stories, not novels, and ends with: “And it’s not fear of bad reviews, or not making something that isn’t coherent or good that holds me back, but rather a fear of wasting time—and in doing so not being able to tell the stories that want to be told. If a story wants to be told and you don’t tell it, you’d better stand back because something’s going to explode.”

I’ll listen to his stories. Even if they are over my head.

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.