No One’s a Mystery

By Elizabeth Tallent


Well, on the fly close reading isn’t exactly what I had in mind right now, but Husband is busy falling asleep to Whitley Strieber on Coast to Coast AM and he doesn’t want to hear me watching some brainless (yet entertaining) police procedural. Whitley Strieber hails from the good old days of us listening to Art Bell, whose voice we miss, and reminds of those crazy times hearing about Mel’s Hole or the guy with the alien in the freezer in his garage–with audio! I’m only half-listening to Strieber because I don’t really care about nuclear terrorism–sorry–but I am disappointed that I missed hearing Richard Hoagland talk about an exoplanet. I like planets, and I like exoplanets, and he always puts on a good show.

I would go to sleep myself, except I have laundry in the wash that needs to be put in the dryer before I go to bed or else it will have that wet clothes smell in the morning, and there is still wine in my glass. I’m in a literary mood right now because at the Skeptic’s Guide forum someone was questioning the value of studying something that wasn’t a science; he was thinking of sociology, and the conversation has evolved a great deal and his point clarified–I don’t want to paint him as some monster–but it made me reflect on all the non-science studying I’ve done in my life. (It’s really not that interesting a conversation, at least not at the time of this posting. But they can takes some crazy turns, and I won’t say that boobs won’t come up.) Also, I had this crazy memory of this time I was in teacher school and went to this party that was way the eff out in East County and I could believe how far I had to drive from Center City to get to; I suddenly realized that I currently live way the eff out in East County according to my former standards–perhaps just off the road the party was on. (A Google search has been performed and a name extracted from deep storage, and a bizarre and random email sent to a person who looks like my memory, maybe, to find out.) That the person I ended up stalking tracking down also has an MFA and poetry credentials, so I guess I am vaguely competing to make myself seem more accomplished than I am, in case that person plays the game back and looks me up, and finds this blog, and is dazzled by my insight.

I would never have heard of this short story, either, except that Larry was over today ostensibly to play with the kids while I did piles of laundry (there is a plague in our house, introduced, sadly, by me), but he ended up doing my vacuuming (and picking up my floors, first). Vacuuming, you see, is my kryptonite. I can’t believe how much bigger the house looks with cleaner carpets. Larry came with his computer and his notebook for the writing class he was taking, and this Tallent story is one of the text selections they’ve read. He gave me the packet to peruse, and this was one that we talked about a little.

And I am suddenly running out of steam for analyzing this story, and now just want to say a few things about it before I go to bed, and put out a question to my Gentle Reader(s), to see what he/she/they think.

The title is taken from the lyrics of a song, It Hasn’t Happened Yet, performed by Roseanne Cash. I haven’t been able to track down a free performance of the song online; it’s not on YouTube in my cursory search and the preview of it wasn’t playing at iTunes, so I don’t know what the tone of the song is but the lyrics are pretty defiant to me. Skeptical and defiant. The characters of the story discuss the song, and wonder if the singer is famous only because she is the daughter of Johnny Cash. I don’t really know anything about Roseanne Cash, but I think it is interesting to introduce the father/daughter dynamic into a story about an adult male basically banging a teenager (to use the vernacular). The adult male, Jack, is a congenial fellow, for all that he’s cheating on his wife. We only get a snapshot of how he interacts with the narrator, a girl of eighteen, but he is respectful of if amused by her, and he has been thoughtful enough to get her a birthday gift even as he pushes her head below the truck’s window so she won’t be seen by his wife.

It’s a sweet little exchange between a girl who is sure she will be with this man forever, and a man who knows better and is nice enough to play along and honest enough to not play pretend. The specific lyric that “no one is a mystery” refers to the fact that the characters are completely predictable given their age and station, and it plays on the idea of the diary being in actuality a place to gather secrets and mysteries. There’s a lot more about theme and contradiction you could extract from the story if you were so inclined, which I was until I got distracted by my backstory and the hour, but I want to skip to the part where I had a completely different interpretation than Larry.

I think Jack and his wife have lost a child, which feeds into their estrangement and informs Jack’s considerateness towards the narrator. She’s a dumb kid, I suppose, in that all eighteen-year-olds are dumb kids way, but he’s not just using her for sex. He is fond of the girl. His wife is in a Cadillac; this is an older couple. I’m not going to say that he’s sixty, but I don’t think he’s that close to thirty, either. They have been married a while, and he’s in no hurry to leave her. We know only that the wife has faith in signs, even when there’s no reason to believe them. He’s cynical, she clings to outward manifestations, and they are both having meatloaf for dinner. I’m not saying he’s not annoyed with her, but they are attached.

Why do I think Jack has had a kid? Because he knows what children smell like after they’ve been breastfeeding and because he knows what they do at age three. Why do I think Jack doesn’t have a kid anymore? Because the narrator points out that no kids will ever enter the truck besides her. I’m just not getting that Jack’s kid is alive; do you really think he’d be buying a teenage girl/lover a teenage girly thing if he had a teenager at home? Or that his wife would believe people are watching from the sky to see what she does, even if she can’t see who they are? That seemed like a profoundly religious behavior, and Jack’s impatience with it strikes me as profoundly skeptical of anyone watching you from above.

I am reaching, perhaps, to make these kinds of conclusions in a story that is less than a thousand words. But when stories are this short, every word means something. If the girl isn’t a mystery to Jack, well, he’s not a mystery to me. The wife isn’t a mystery to me, either. You drive with your headlights on during the day so people see your car, so they don’t hit it. I bet she didn’t always used to do that. Jack hates seeing it because headlights can’t protect you any better than sky folk can.

Anyway… that’s the best I got. I don’t seek out short stories, but when they find me, I do them the favor and always seem to find something to say. Meanwhile, if you run into Larry and exhaust the topic of how his writing class is going, ask him about all those Cheerios on my living room floor.

Johnny 5 Is Alive

Johnny 5 Is Alive

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