BASS 2016: Smith Henderson, “Treasure State” from Tin House #64

People being the way they are, few realized that their dead had been robbed. They returned from the funeral and set out the cold cuts on the silver trays, the faceted glasses, and the punch. They stocked bottles of beer and cans of Coke in buckets of ice, smoked a quick cigarette out back, and met the grief-stricken, the condolers, and the well-wishers at the door. The furniture smelled of the person they’d just praised to heaven and commended to the dirt. The mourners assembled along the walls in grim or conversant clusters, depending on their affinity with the dead and the yet living. Then they stole away to the upstairs bedroom or the chest in the basement or the desk in the study, only to discover the particular heirloom missing. And the surprise turned hot, and they tiptoed out of the room, slowly pinched closed the door, went up or down the stairs, and took their spot along the wall. They glowered at their kin, wondering which one had got there first.

Some people find they can’t go home again. Others discover they can never leave.

Brothers John and Daniel find out their abusive father is getting out of prison – he had a life sentence, but his terminal cancer has earned him some kind of compassionate release – and they head for the hills. Or, Montana, actually. They’ve never been there, but they like the name, they don’t like cities, and it’s got to be better than Gnaw Bone, Indiana. They’ve got a point there. Funny, I wanted to go to Montana when I was a kid, because of the Hoyt Axton song “Somebody Turned on the Light.” Funny what grabs us. But for John and Daniel, what they don’t want is for their father to grab them.

How do a couple of teenagers, even those who’ve been on their own for a while, survive a long road trip without much in the way of resources or skills? They rob houses during funerals, of course. Henderson tells us in his Contributor Note that the story came to him, nearly complete, when he read about this practice in a newspaper. On one heist, they pick up a girl who’s trying to run away. On another, John discovers more than he can handle. Then it turns out… no, that would be a spoiler.

It’s a very readable story, lots of forward motion, quirky characters and interesting, often amusing, events. Still, it’s not pure plot, for a lot of reasons, including John’s memory of smashing pumpkins with a hammer (I was a bit alarmed by the plethora of images I found just by googling pumpkin hammer to use as header art, until I remembered the rock band) then seeing Daniel take the beating for it, and how a hammer plays oh so subtly into the end. The final scene is ambiguous in a pleasant way, allowing for speculation and imagination of what happens next. And the kids are sympathetic as all get-out, making a story about death, abuse, poverty, and emotional need a fun read somehow.

This is the second Smith Henderson story I’ve run into. Like Thomas McGuane, he focuses on the rural West, which makes them stand out in a field of city and suburb stories. But that’s just where they put the stories; what they write about is universal.

Smith Henderson: “Number Stations” from One Story #136, May 2010

Goldsmith’s mother took her own pictures of the ostrich. A man had led the bird to her door and kept it on a small chain. A sorry-looking sack of shit, she thought. The man and the bird both.

I’d never heard of number stations before reading this story. Am I the only one? It seems (according to Wikipedia and The Straight Dope, my go-to sources for things I’m not really going to research that carefully because they don’t matter that much but are fun) there are shortwave radio stations that broadcast artificially generated voices reading numbers and letters. They’ve existed since at least WWII (maybe earlier). Speculation is that these are for the use of spies, or possibly in recent years, drug dealers. No one – no government, no station operator, nobody – admits they exist. But they do. I’m perplexed.

I’ll admit, I’m pretty stupid sometimes. When I started this story, I saw “Number Stations” and I saw “ostrich” and I thought, Australia. Because sheep farms are known as stations, at least they were in The Thorn Birds (oh, shut up, you read it, too, it was the chicklit DaVinci Code of its time). So it took a while for me to get oriented. And as you may have noticed, it took me a while to read the damn thing in the first place (hey, they’re small, One Story booklets, they get misplaced).

Goldsmith is a restaurant owner in Montana with a secret. Bill, his employee, is an ex-con with an ostrich. Emily, another employee of the young, attractive, married female variety, has a thing for Goldsmith, whose wife is out of town. Goldsmith’s mother is watching his daughter (a girl who, at seven, “already did not forgive herself her own crooked features and was certain that her destiny was to ride an ostrich or a griffin or a rainbow to her true self, who was beautiful and free”), and she hears the number station on the baby monitor. There’s no way to say much more about the story without retelling it, and that would be complicated. A lot happens. Bill loses his ostrich; it’s Goldsmith’s mother’s fault but he forgives her. The ostrich taps on the window of Emily and Van’s (her husband) home, and they go chasing after it. At an end-of-season party for his employees, Goldsmith gets a little drunk and tells Emily his secret. Bill… well, it’s not pretty, what happens to Bill. In fact, it’s right out of “Incarnations of Burned Children” and that kinda pisses me off. But it’s also very fitting. The whole story works, even with (or because of) the ostrich running around and Goldsmith’s mother obsessing about the number station. We’re all getting messages, all the time, and sometimes we listen. Other times, we don’t. The soundtrack is Neil Young’s Helpless. That’s how I felt in the presence of this story – helpless to stop reading, helplessly lost in this craziness that comes from all sides but makes absolute sense, helpless helpless helpless.

The One Story blog claims this was snagged from the slush pile (uh huh) by an assistant who sent it to the editor with a note: “This is the best story about an ostrich I read today.” How could anyone resist?

ETA: I just read that this story is in the 2012 Pushcart volume (I read it in One Story); congratulations to Smith Henderson – and to all the ostriches.