June 15, 2012

The sadness in the spaces between the words.

There is the apocryphal story in which Hemingway, sitting in a bar somewhere in Key West, is asked by an antagonistic admirer to follow his minimalism to its logical outcome and to tell a story in six words.  As the story goes, Hemingway picks up a napkin and writes out the following words:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

This is a pretty good story. Everything pared away until there’s almost nothing left. The iceberg theory of fiction the genre of micro fiction, or whatever one might want to call it is itself small and little of it is worth reading. But there are exceptions.   

To whit - “Sticks,” by George Saunders.

Every year Thanksgiving night we flocked out behind Dad as he dragged the Santa suit to the road and draped it over a kind of crucifix he'd built out of metal pole in the yard. Super Bowl week the pole was dressed in a jersey and Rod's helmet and Rod had to clear it with Dad if he wanted to take the helmet off. On the Fourth of July the pole was Uncle Sam, on Veteran’s Day a soldier, on Halloween a ghost. The pole was Dad's only concession to glee. We were allowed a single Crayola from the box at a time. One Christmas Eve he shrieked at Kimmie for wasting an apple slice. He hovered over us as we poured ketchup saying: good enough good enough good enough. Birthday parties consisted of cupcakes, no ice cream. The first I brought a date over she said: what's with your dad and that pole? And I sat there blinking.

We left home, married, and had children, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us. Dad began dressing the pole with more complexity and less discernible logic. He draped some kind of fur over it on Groundhog Day and lugged out a floodlight to ensure a shadow. When an earthquake struck Chile he laid the pole on its side and spray painted a rift in the earth. Mom died and he dressed the pole as Death and hung from the crossbar photos of Mom as a baby. We'd stop by and find odd talismans from his youth arranged around the base: army medals, theater tickets, old sweatshirts, tubes of Mom's makeup. One autumn he painted the pole bright yellow. He covered it with cotton swabs that winter for warmth and provided offspring by hammering in six crossed sticks around the yard. He ran lengths of string between the pole and the sticks, and taped to the string letters of apology, admissions of error, pleas for understanding, all written in a frantic hand on index cards. He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE? And then he died in the hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and the sticks and left them by the road on garbage day.

Here then is an entire novel’s worth of intrigue and emotional complexity and back story and difficult familial relationships and unhappiness's and losses and redemption's.  One can’t help but think of all those homes run by inexpressive and angry fathers who know something of love’s austere offices, these homes that suddenly erupt in holiday decorations.  Rudolph's and Santa's and baby Jesus' and lights and holly all over the place.  This phenomenon…the phenomenon of the father who has no creative outlet but finds an avenue in his front yard…an aspect of contemporary life in the U.S., and one that perhaps warrants closer examination.  There are dissertations here.  And Saunders’ story is a fine departure point.

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