David Means: “The Junction”
11/15/2011 § Leave a comment
Originally published in Ecotone, Spring 2010. Part of the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories (2011).
Means is a very rustic, detail-oriented writer, and I’ve been hung up in the past by an inability to connect with anything more than the environment of stories like “Tree Line, Kansas, 1934” and “El Morro.” What works here, then, is the fact that the environment is a part of the character, a Greek chorus of hobos (who respond in the first-person plural to the particular story of the Lockjaw Kid) who are often defined by their surroundings. The only addled part is the framing device itself, for the hobos comment that they fear Lockjaw’ll “circle all the way back to the beginning of his tale” — some couple of years ago — but then do exactly that himself, making it hard to distinguish what’s being told now, what was told by Lockjaw several months ago, and what they are now retelling (to us). I’m given to understand from the story that a part of the hobo culture involves the retelling of amalgamated woes, so that may be Means’s aim, but it’s one layer of storytelling too far in this work — it’s downright dissociative.
Everywhere else, however, this sort of long-suffering, annotated storytelling works, with Lockjaw somewhat earnestly speaking of a time when he thought he’d found home again, and his fellow hobos squashing his dreams in a commiserating, communal way. They’re afraid yet eager, and envious yet dismissive, for the pact between these hobos huddled around the fire only holds up so long as they are all suffering together. They want to hear of redemption and happiness, but it must be for the group, and so all the warmth of Lockjaw’s tale is carefully dissected by his audience, digested, and spit out (ironically) for that bitter, bitter strength that comes with resentment.
Unsurprisingly, Means has also filled his period piece (radios and boxcars are still commonplace) with lots of interesting details about hobos and the art of storytelling, noting that raw, lurid, and unusual facts serve to suck the reader in: “You feel them in on crash lore, the hotbox burnouts–overheated wheel-journal accidents of yore; crown-sheet failures–a swooooosh of superheated steam producing massive disembowelments, mounds and mounds of superheater tubes bursting out of the belly of enormous engines, spilling out like so much spaghetti.” The “technique,” as Means describes it, involves “boilerplate beg-tales of woe,” coupled with “the ability to cry on command,” and standing two steps below the lady of the house: “Always look as short and stubby and nonthreatening as possible.” Once inside the house, you’ve got to “spin out a yarn and keep spinning until the food was in your belly and you were out the door,” for you don’t want them to consider the generality of hobos: “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.” (This is, Means suggests, the real reason why the men chase out the hobos: envy. “The cold, steely eyes of the man of the house bore the kind of furtive, secret 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.”) And never say that you believe in Christ too quickly: “Gotta let them see you think. If they don’t see you thinking, you ain’t thinking.”
In any case, the use of asides and running commentary serve to flesh out the hobo life in the same way that Means generally reserves for discussing the environment and setting; it’s a shift in focus that serves him well here. It allows both for humor (“For the sake of decorum, most of us would’ve stayed in the house until the gun appeared”) and wistfulness (“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 curtains with his tiny fingers”). And all of this builds nicely to the ending, in which the hobos — frustrated by the thought that Lockjaw actually found a home, even if only for one night, and that he remembers this fondly (they attempt to drown memories of heavy-handed fathers in drink) — abandon their companion: “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.” This is a harsh life, indeed, when it’s the succor that threatens to do you in, when it’s only the hardened shell that keeps you alive.