Room Where the Story Is Told
by Steven Moore
I am sitting on the floor of my parents’ living room. My back is against the couch, legs are stretched out on the gray carpet. I have my computer on my lap. The computer contains just over five hundred pictures of my deployment to Afghanistan, and the pictures are why I came here. My parents want to know what happened. I came here to show them.
Sunlight is coming through the western window, to my right. The large dark television in the corner is not the one I grew up with, but it still gets only six channels so it might as well be. Of the two golden retrievers and two Siamese cats that accompanied my childhood, both of the retrievers and one of the cats have died. The other cat is now eighteen. Mom says he’s still alive because I spoiled him so much; I used to carry him up the stairs and around the house so that he expended so little energy over the course of his life he now has an unlimited reserve. In a way, I feel good about this, keeping him alive, but in another way it sort of implies that I killed the other one by not loving it enough. Currently, except for me, there are no people or animals in the room.
The middle of the room is a large open space that does not contain a coffee table, which, of course, never seemed unusual until now. Centered on the wall behind me is a large colorful portrait of a boy leading a horse through a grassy field. The dark eyes of the animal are excruciatingly sad, but they are also patient, trusting. There are photos from my brother’s wedding, family portraits, a white embroidered cloth with our family name framed over the entryway. There is another large portrait on the western wall, to the left of the window. It depicts a small, unkempt farmhouse with peeling paint and a utility shed. There is a barren tree and long grass and a gray sky. Dad bought the picture for my mom because it reminded her of the farm where she grew up. When Mom describes a severe likeness, she uses the term spitting image. The room is almost quiet.
This is the point of telling—the time and place of the speaker when he or she begins to speak. Begins to tell the story, which I am getting ready to do. I am getting ready to show them. They will be home from work soon, I think, though I don’t know exactly when. In stories, the point of telling is a kind of ruse. It makes the reader believe that somewhere in the physical world there is a storyteller and it is from this time and space where the story is coming from, when of course really, the story is coming from a writer who has written another writer to speak on his behalf. So, for the sake of transparency, I am on the floor of my parents’ living room, but I am also at the breakfast table in my apartment in San Francisco, two full years later, looking out at the darkness of early morning. So there is the person telling the story, and the story of the person telling the story, and then several thousand manipulations and changes before you get to the granules and shrieks of noise and the things people said and did and didn’t do. But it’s for good reason. Having the speaker of the story in the story helps convince the reader there is a purpose for the story being told in the first place, because the speaker is right there telling us why he’s telling us. In this way, the phrase point of telling is dutifully ambiguous: it implies the physical point, the spot on the map where the speaker is sitting and talking and telling, but it also implies the existential point, the reason, the purpose for telling. As in, What is the point? And Where? The what and the where are connected.
I am on the floor of the living room in Iowa in the late summer of 2011. I am getting ready to tell the story because my family wants to know it. They, understandably, do not want to wait for me to write everything down. (Given the two years that have passed between the point of telling in the living room and the point at the table in the apartment, they made a good decision.) I have pictures. They want to know what happened and I want to talk about it and show them and be completely honest. I am waiting for them to come home so we can start. I am here pathologically early. I got that from Mom.
The house is on two acres of property and surrounded by cornfields, even though technically we are inside the city limits. Also technically, the zoning of our property is industrial, not residential, so the existence of the house is a kind of anomaly, and there are no other houses anywhere close to it. Our closest neighbors, aside from the cornfields, are a couple of factories, a warehouse, and the veterinary clinic where Mom worked for most of her adult life. The clinic is just down the gravel road to the west, visible from the living room window. It sits at the intersection with 12th Avenue, which is an access road connecting Highway 92 to County Road G36. G36 serves Highway 218 which is part of the Avenue of the Saints, connecting St. Louis and St. Paul, and which bisects Interstate 80 about thirty miles north of us. Interstate 80—bear with me—has its western terminus at the end of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, about six miles from where I am right now. Right now right now.
A month or so after the wedding, Jessica and I piled all of our things into the car and we drove two thousand miles across the interstate to get here. This is the same interstate that directly serves the college town where Jessica and I first met, plus Des Moines where she grew up, plus Chicago where we took our first road trip. I-80 is a kind of timeline, though the events are incomplete and spaced disproportionately and out of order. So it’s not a very conventional timeline. But still it is out there. It is never too far away. Two rights and a left.
The house and the veterinary clinic are less than a quarter mile apart but lie on different routes for newspaper delivery. The clinic receives its newspaper on the correct day—the one printed on the front page in the masthead—while our house receives it a day later. Growing up, I always thought of the newspaper as a completely irrelevant project. The newspaper came in the mailbox talking about stuff I had already watched on television the day prior. Things that Peter Jennings and I had already discussed. So sometimes I asked Dad why they couldn’t just deliver us a newspaper on the proper day, the way most people received them. “So you want to pay the salary of another mail boy to deliver the paper especially for us?” he countered. But I didn’t. I just wanted our same mailperson to deliver our same mail, just one day faster. Like they did for everyone who lived in town. Like for the clinic that was visible out the window. I wanted to shorten the amount of time between the television saying what happened and that same thing existing in print that I could read. It seemed important.
Every year, the two biggest trees in the backyard were hacked into smaller versions of themselves by men with chainsaws so that the power lines that passed nearby wouldn’t get entangled or obstructed by the seasonal growth. Every year it seemed like the men who were dispatched by the city for this job took more and more liberty in how much of the trees they cut off. First, they were just trimming the nearest pieces; then they were cutting off whole systems of branches, until finally one year Dad observed the work and said to Mom, “Have you seen it? They butchered ’em.”
The power lines, in memory, glisten in the sunlight like a spider’s silk in dew; that’s what memory does to everything, a certain amount of editing. And this worries me. In fact, it’s why I came here. I came here to tell Mom and Dad what happened while my memory of it is still reasonably authentic, still adolescent with outrage and disgust. Before it starts to seem like everything had glistened. I want to tell them what happened before it changes.
For my photography class in high school, I liked to go out to the backyard and take pictures of the two huge trees near the power lines. I thought they photographed well, the different kinds of harsh contours cutting past each other, leaving fragmented pools of blue sky and clouds. And I was scoring points like you wouldn’t believe for the commentary on industry and nature: harsh, linear power cables and jagged branches. If I was smarter, though, I would’ve gone out while the guys were in their raised buckets amputating the trees with chainsaws. I would’ve asked them to keep working until dusk so I could photograph their silhouettes, because silhouettes make everything easier to understand. For example, silhouettes of soldiers.
In the corner of the living room among some old children’s books there is a toy horse. The horse is made of a green plastic head attached to a straight wooden pole that represents the horse’s body. The side of the head features the design of a revolver, like the horse belongs to a cowboy. The butt of the revolver protrudes from the head so that the gun is a way of holding on.
The teddy bear collection that used to dominate so much of the living room has dwindled. Mom has been donating the collection to assorted charities. She used to have them all over the house, sitting along the floorboards and on the blue carpeted staircase, and on bookshelves. So many teddy bears that when my friends came over they thought our house was a little creepy, like a museum of some gratuitous childhood, but really it was just a collection she had. I’m not sure why she kept the stuffed bears around for so long then chose to stop, but in any case their ranks have slowly declined. Some of the charities, even, can no longer accept any more. Their capacity for teddy bear donations has been reached. They are full. Which is comforting: the number of children in southeast Iowa who require their toys from charity is not unlimited.
Another recent change is that my parents finally bought an air conditioner. It’s the kind that bulges from a window and it basically only cools that one room. In this case, the living room. We didn’t have air conditioning when I was growing up because Mom and Dad said that the floor plan of our house made it especially difficult to cool, and it would be expensive to try. The design of our house didn’t seem any different to me than the design of my friends’ houses and they all had air conditioning, but the matter was never successfully argued. I remember in summers turning on the living room ceiling fan to its most aggressive setting, where the fan spun so violently that it shook, and just lying on the carpet, belly up, sweating. (Though I know I can’t rely on this moment to be fully true. It is probably edited.) The excuse my parents have now for installing the air conditioner is that my brother’s daughter comes to the house sometimes, and such an extremely hot environment would be bad for the child’s health. My brother and I agree that this excuse is obviously ridiculous because we also both used to be children. Which leaves us to conclude that the heat is affecting Mom and Dad more than it used to. The machinery in the window looks so strange not just because it’s new, but because it reminds me that my parents are aging, which seems somehow inappropriate or irresponsible of them. This leads to the reminder that my brother is aging, and I am aging, and everyone is aging, which induces the cliché of mortal urgency. But really, if there is anything to say, we should say it as soon as we can.
There is a painting that is oft-parodied now of a farmer and his daughter standing in front of a small white house with a Gothic-style window. This painting is the most commonly known depiction of my home state that has ever been produced; I have little doubt about it. There are so many parodies that they are probably more famous than the painting itself. You don’t know the painting as a thing, but as a canvas that has been changed and which you can change if you would like to, a re-paint by numbers. You can take away the farmer’s pitchfork and give him a giant toothbrush or a pitching wedge or a string of dead fish. You can give the daughter a funny hat.
Another famous depiction of the state is in the movie Field of Dreams. My family took a day trip to visit the field in Dyersville when I was a kid. It looked almost exactly as it did in the movie. I learned later that the baseball field was built on the farms of two different families, so that for many years after the filming was completed there were disputes between the families about whether to maintain the baseball field as a tourist attraction or rip it out so that the land could be replanted and an actual farm could exist there again. This dispute—over the practicality and purpose of a certain kind of field—was documented in both local and national newspapers. It is almost exactly the same dispute that occurred in the movie. In the movie the baseball field stayed. So too in reality.
“Almost exactly,” here, suggests awareness of a difference between the two things, but a failure to say what the difference is.
One more depiction is in the movie Saving Private Ryan. The character of Private Ryan is from Iowa, and there is a scene where we witness his mother inside their farmhouse. She is in the kitchen. A beautiful golden field is visible out the window. A car arrives and she goes to the porch, where she receives the news that all but one of her sons are dead. Again visible are the trademark Iowa fields. But they are quite obviously not corn or soy fields. This scene was filmed in Wiltshire, England.
Similarly, the farmer in the painting was modeled by a dentist, and the daughter was modeled by the painter’s sister and is usually mistaken for depicting the farmer’s wife, which causes people to interpret the painting as a commentary on romantic love, which it is not, and the farmhouse was not really a farmhouse in the first place.
As a kid I broke my left wrist on two different occasions. The first time was in junior high, in gym class, playing kickball indoors, where the home plate was marked by the padding on the wall beneath the basketball hoop that was supposed to soften the impact for players after a really intense layup. I was running to the pseudo-home plate as fast as I could and reached out to touch it and score and the impact was too fast or awkward and there was a terrible pain and I said FUCK in the presence of an authority figure for the first time. At the hospital, I had to inform the doctor, rather embarrassingly, that the impact happened against a surface specifically designed and installed to prevent these injuries. But in my defense, the game had required us to sprint as hard as possible toward a wall. And I had scored. The doctor jammed the x-ray into its light box and traced a line in the chalky glow with the tip of his ballpoint pen. “Riiiiiiight here is where it is,” he said. “But the important thing to remember is that it’s only a hairline fracture, which is good.” So later, when I wore the red cast to school, and people asked if my arm was broken, I said no. I said it was only a fracture. Teachers and fellow students both sought to inform me that this was the same thing. I refused to believe them because of how small it looked on the screen.
The second time I broke my wrist I was a sophomore in high school. It happened during basketball practice. We were on a fast break and I got tangled in someone’s legs. I went down. Somehow I braced for the fall improperly and the damn wrist broke again. Only reason I say this is because during the part of the season where I couldn’t participate in practice, I stood off in another part of the gym, shooting free throws. It was the only thing to do, since your off-hand isn’t supposed to be involved in the form of a good free throw anyway. And so I became a machine at free throws. In basketball, the free throw is the part of the game where, if given no direct immediate opposition, you are supposed to perform the sport’s most basic attribute, and you are supposed to be able to do this repeatedly, over and over, the exact same motion and form, using the same control and rhythm, over and over, perfectly. The curiosity of the free throw is that, to be allowed this opportunity to perform a basic exercise to a degree of perfection, there has to be an occurrence of violence that the game determines to be unacceptable. Someone has to hurt you. So the condition for the attempt of the simple is always a state of some disequilibrium, which is one reason why a free throw is always harder than it seems it should be. Which is why anyone can be a machine at shooting free throws in the corner of a gym with no one looking. It removes all the conditions and purposes for which the act was invented in the first place. But it seemed to me like it was still something to be good at them. That it was worth doing.
Say there is an occurrence of disequilibrium. One way to understand it is to describe what life was like before. Describe order. It started out just like any other day. Go back to a moment before the event when civilization was on its most admirable behavior. Describe the image before. Describe the overall happiness of the family. The family was extremely happy. The only problems were those of the tree and the belated newspaper. Then descend. Describe the occurrence. Maybe the really important thing to say is that none of it seemed all that strange at the time. The descent, a slow progression, felt natural. And crawling back out, there are pictures, images. There are hundreds of images. It seems like all you have to do is show them to someone and that person will understand. They will think, I, too, would have wanted to shoot those people. The occurrence of disequilibrium is not what happened but the problem of transcribing it into language, communicating it, taking anyone with you, of going back there. Of leaving someone else alone on a road covered in dust. Coming back, even, didn’t seem all that strange at the time, but it got stranger the longer it went on. Years passed. And now you have to fight for the idea that something really happened once, something true. The images are already changing. You are changing what they mean. Noticing different details. You are already lying to yourself and to other people. Lies you could not have imagined before. And so already there is the question, Do the stories we have, the things that really happened, do they mean anything? And would they mean more if they hadn’t happened? Are the stories we freely invent more permanent? And if they are, is it because they give us the idea that equilibrium is possible? That it is possible to come back?
I am looking at the pictures. I am beginning to edit the things that happened into a version that I can share with my parents while being honest, but not upsetting them more than is absolutely necessary. I am trying to craft the right story. It is not possible or advisable to share everything. The contractors looked like poachers and always went by their first names. Millionaires who never showed up on time to the mission briefs and never seemed to be doing anything once the missions were underway. Two occasions where the remote-controlled machine guns atop the trucks fired off rounds when no one was operating them. The history lesson that my team conducted with a few Afghan soldiers who had never heard of World War II. A thousand hours cleaning weapons. Another thousand hours doing preventive maintenance checks on the trucks. The exact profanities that were spoken about the Director of Homeland Security when she visited our base, which required that we triple security for her protection, hike up mountains to have better overwatch positions, shortly following her statement that military veterans, because of their residual bitterness from having deployed, were at a higher risk for becoming terrorists. Terrorist was her word. Cunt was ours. The extraordinary meal on Thanksgiving. The meal on Christmas. It is all a choice.
I am at the table in the apartment. It is five in the morning, still dark out the eastern window. The streetlights over the boulevard are a pink-orange color. Each light has four distinct points, like a compass, that are caused by the lines in the screen of my window. The screen diffracts the shape of the streetlights so that each one seems especially perpendicular. Even the nearest streetlights appear to me different than they really are. This is the same effect that happens in photographs of stars, where the aperture of the camera diffracts the shape of the glow into quadrants. The effect in those pictures is amplified because of the sheer distance between the star and the camera. But the same effect is possible at one hundred feet, or less.
The trees on the median of the boulevard are cast in the orange glow of the streetlights. Passing cars swim in the glow for just a moment, reflect it, then pass on. The buses so far must all have zero passengers because they haven’t bothered to turn on the interior lights. They go by almost fully dark, only tiny insignificant headlamps. Low heavy clouds over the neighborhood work to conceal the effects of the sunrise.
The tallest point in the neighborhood is the Russian Orthodox cross atop the golden peak of the church two blocks down. The dome is shaped like an upside-down teardrop, opaque gold, rising into a cross that seems to almost touch the clouds. There are four additional crosses marking the corners of the building, set upon similar but smaller golden towers. The distinction of the Orthodox cross is the horizontal beam near the bottom, which, depending on the sect, may indicate where Christ’s feet were nailed. The beam is set at an odd angle, slanted down to the right, the only non-perpendicular line in the symbol. And depending on the sect, the beam’s slant may indicate the bodily slump of Christ’s final breath.
A few beads of orange are scattered out in the hills of the distant neighborhoods. My every slightest movement changes which hole of the window screen they are visible through, so that they appear to flicker. In the far distance, past the rooftop machinery of the building across the street and between the power lines, there is an even smaller red light which is actually blinking. The red light comes on slowly, as a healthy pulse, and marks the top of the TransAmerica building, the iconic part of the downtown skyline.
With all the clouds there is not a brilliant sunrise, only a slow, gradual lightening, like your eyes are simply adjusting to what is already there.
It is necessary to expose the place and time of the narrator since it is not advisable to share everything—every fragment of a second and what it felt like—and since that is not advisable, there are infinite choices to make about what is important and how to put it down, and the choices are made by a person who is fallible, who is sometimes even more fallible because of the events themselves. A person who is tremendously, suspiciously unreliable. It is necessary to expose the point of telling because the telling, in these cases, is therapeutic, is the attempt at a restoration of balance. The belief that before the events, there was order, and order can be found again. So the primary fallibility is not of memory, but of motivation: I want something out of all this. And my wanting something creates a screen that diffracts the real events, skews them into particular shapes. The exposure of the point of telling is an attempt to admit the specific nature of the speaker’s fallibility—my fallibility—to say with as much certainty as possible what is true right now, so that you can see what I might have unknowingly skewed in the telling and why I needed to. The changes were mere selections, no doubt, telling one fact while omitting another. The selections were imperfect. What happened, however, is not damaged or lost; fallibility is a crucial part of the truth.
I am on the floor in the living room, looking at the pictures, making selections. It seems that if I can take them there somehow it can be over. I am trying to arrange the facts. I am trying to give the stories some order.
When finally they are home. ■
Steven Moore’s (“Room Where the Story Is Told,” p. 7) essays have appeared with The North American Review, The Southeast Review, Gravel, and DIAGRAM Magazine.