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.