Posts Categorized: David Means

Short Story: El Morro – David Means






Writing is about choices.  That may sound simplistic, but the decisions a writer makes will change the landscape of a story.  When does the story begin?  When does it end?  Time doesn’t stop just because the reader hit the end of the pages.  Time didn’t start on page one.  The writer chose the time frame.

In David Means‘ story “El Morro,” published in the August 29th, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, we are introduced to a young woman who is driving through the southwest with a dodgy guy.  All we know of the woman is that she was originally from the outskirts of Springfield, Illinois, her father was a farmer, he tossed her out of the house, the dodgy guy picked her up in California, he and the young woman occasionally have sex.  When she tries to tell more about herself, the man says, “Don’t say another word…Don’t say anything else.  That’s all I need to hear.  I’ll take the story from there.  I really mean it.  Not another word.  I’d rather fill in the blanks.”  Why do we meet the woman at this point in her life?  What does it mean for the man to make up her story?

Another decision involves characters.  Who are the people in the story?  Why are they in the story?  What is the point of their existence?  Characters can become dead weight if they don’t have a role to play in the story.  The young woman’s role in this story is to give us a view of the man, and later, to act as a third wheel.  I inadvertently brought up point of view, but in this case it ties into character.  The woman’s view of the man is not flattering.  She’s stuck with him, because she doesn’t have many options.  Or, maybe she does, but in this moment, he’s her best option.  The man is a rambling, inconsiderate, drug-addled, know-it-all.  He’s also a bullshit artist.  Means does such a good job of making this character unlikable that it’s hard to read the story.  Why do that?  What’s the writer trying to achieve?  Could this be accomplished in a way that’s less dissonant to the reader?

In an interesting transition the point of view shifts to a park ranger at the end of the story.  It’s interesting, because video cameras are used in the transition.  The characters are at the national monument, El Morro.  Circumstances changed as the man picked up another woman and is focused on her.  A park ranger watches the body language of the man and the new woman.  He provides another reference point, one in which the man does not speak.  There’s an overlap of time; we know what’s being said.  The young woman is left behind and the park ranger swoops in.

The park ranger, Russell, is of the Zuni Pueblo.  Not only does he give the reader a new view of the dodgy guy, but he also acts as a foil in terms of setting the record straight.  Throughout the drive, the dodgy guy spun stories about the Zuni.  He made the stories up.  He tried to impress the women with his non-stop talking about different tribes and spiritualism.  Through Russell’s view-point all of that drops away.  The dodgy guy is portrayed as an empty drifter who cannot see the young woman properly.

On a deeper level, Means is addressing story telling.  Whose stories do we tell?  Why do we tell stories?  What’s the importance of story telling?  The dodgy guy is a story-teller with no thought of his audience.  He’s trying to impress people and inflate his ego.  On the other hand, Russell, tells his wife the story of what happened, because “he knew he was getting to his wife’s heart by telling a good-deed story.  She liked it when he told stories that put him in a kind light.”  Russell also thinks about telling a different story to cover for the girl after she defaced the monument.  It will put him at odds with the archaeologists from Santa Fe, but whose monument is it, and whose story is it to tell?

Tree Line, Kansas, 1934 – David Means – Time

Five days of trading the field glasses and taking turns crawling back into the trees to smoke out of sight. Five days on surveillance, waiting to see if by some chance Carson might return to his uncle’s farm. Five days of listening to the young agent, named Barnes, as he recited verbatim from the file: Carson has a propensity to fire warning shots; it has been speculated that Carson’s limited vision in his left eye causes his shots to carry to the right of his intended target; impulse control somewhat limited. Five days of listening to Barnes recount the pattern of heists that began down the Texas Panhandle and proceeded north all the way up to Wisconsin, then back down to Kansas, until the trail tangled up in the fumbling ineptitude of the Bureau. For five days, Barnes talked while Lee, older, hard-bitten, nodded and let the boy play out his theories. Five days reduced to a single conversation.

David Means begins “Tree Line, Kansas, 1934” grounding the reader in the stakeout.  Five days it begins.  Five days it repeats.  Those five days run together and the moment becomes a lifetime.  How does Means achieve this?

After this opening paragraph the story moves to a time far in the future from this moment.  Lee is retired and lost in the past.  He thinks, “even at that moment in Kansas, turning to speak to Barnes, he’d had a sense that one day he’d be retired and reflecting on that particular point in time—back near the tree line.”  It’s not just that we see Lee as an old man looking back, but that even in that moment in the tree line he sensed this moment would stand out.

The third paragraph again starts with the repetition of five days. “Five days he had listened to Barnes, staying quiet, holding back on saying much until that last day, when Barnes turned and said, Look, Lee, all we’re doing out here is wasting time.”

What happens next is that Means slows down time even more.  Lee goes into a point by point analysis of how his gut feeling evolved into a hunch.  For the reader it’s obvious Lee returns to this moment often and plays everything out.  The scene finishes, and again we’re back at that future moment with Lee retired.

Years later at his summer cottage in Wisconsin, sitting on the porch and staring out at the water, listening to Emma inside cooking or watching television, he’d go back to that conversation, holding it out for examination and wonder if he had misstepped at that point. Shut your yap, he might have said. Clam up, kid. You can talk until you’re out of words, but, no matter what you might say or think, the fact that there is a chance Carson might show is the only thing that matters. Even later, Lee would understand that by holding back on his side of the argument he had allowed for a much more dangerous distraction, a paternal vibration—unsettling and unspoken—between the two of them. (That kid was like a son to me, he told his wife. He annoyed me the way I used to annoy my old man. Except the old man would’ve boxed my ears off.

Lee holds onto this moment looking for any chance he could have averted the outcome.  It’s not just that Lee thinks about this moment, but we get the feeling he brings it up often with his wife.  “That kid was like a son to me, he told his wife.”  How many times?

Again, the moment is broken down into bullet point style analysis.  This time it hones in on Carson and his men.  Lee is alone in the tree line.  The outlaws are knowledgable of law enforcement tactics.  Those five days of waiting were so lulling, so static; Lee and Barnes never had a chance.

As if out of a dream, Barnes emerges from his smoke break.

(dulled, Lee would later imagine, by the persistent tedium of a scene that had gone on, with the exception of the old man plowing on Monday, and again on Thursday, and the wind on Wednesday, for what had seemed, to his youthful mind, an eternity). He stepped forward into a single, ferocious moment. He stepped forward into a fury of gunfire while his mind—young and foolish but beautiful nonetheless—remained partly back in the woods, taking in the solitude, pondering the way the future felt when a man was rooted to one place, waiting for an unlikely outcome, one that, rest assured, would never, ever arrive.

The story ends.  For Barnes, with his youth, the moment ends with his death.  For the older Lee, who relives this moment again and again, there is no end.  It’s a beautiful split.  Caught up in the dream-like landscape, where time seems nonexistent, it twists the rules even further as the moment, and in a sense, Barnes, exist only in the mind of Lee.

It’s a beautiful story.  Read it.