Kyle Minor is the author of In the Devil's Territory, a collection of short fiction. Recent stories and essays appear in The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers, and Best American Mystery Stories 2008.
The Question of Where We Begin
We begin with the trouble, but where does the trouble begin? My uncle takes a pistol and blows his brains out.
Now we may proceed to the aftermath. The removal of the body. The cleanup. The reading of the will. The funeral in West Palm Beach, Florida. The woman he wanted to marry, taking the ring he gave her and putting it on her finger after the death.
But this beginning is not satisfactory. The mourners are now parsing their theories of why. Did you know that he was brain damaged when that city dump truck hit him twenty years ago? Look at his children grieving on the front pew of the funeral room. Why wouldn’t they visit him except when they wanted his settlement money? Had his settlement money run out? And where is his ex-wife? Why couldn’t she love him enough to stay with him (for better or for worse, right?)? Do you think it’s true he was physically violent with her like she told the judge?
Now we’re thinking the trouble doesn’t begin with the big event. It’s the grievance that led to the big event. Perhaps he wouldn’t have killed himself if his children had more demonstrably loved him. Perhaps he wouldn’t have killed himself if his wife hadn’t left him.
Perhaps his wife wouldn’t have left him if he had never been physically violent with her.
Perhaps he would never have been physically violent with her if his brain chemistry had not been altered by the city dump truck that hit him twenty years earlier. So perhaps we begin at his house, in the morning, him buttoning his workshirt, smoothing the patch that bears his name on the pocket of his shirt. Perhaps our story is about the workings of chance. What if he had stopped or not stopped this particular morning to get coffee? What if he had ordered two hash browns in the McDonald’s drive thru instead of one hash brown, but had to wait a little longer for his order, since only one hash brown was ready, and the second hash brown was still in the fryer?
But this, chance, isn’t story. Chance doesn’t satisfy the itch story scratches, or not chance entirely. Story demands agency. But whose? My uncle was no dummy. Why was he a common laborer? Why didn’t he go to college?
Now we’re parsing family-of-origin stuff. His mother and father. My grandmother and grandfather. She was a lazyish homebody who wore a muumuu in her trailer every day of her life I knew her unless it was beauty shop day. He was a wellpoint foreman who spent his child-raising years as a raging alcoholic who yanked the curtains off the walls. She didn’t finish the eighth grade. He only finished the sixth. Maybe if she had thought school was important, my uncle might have gone to college, got a white collar job, missed the dump truck. Maybe if he hadn’t made my uncle sleep in the bathtub almost every night, my uncle might have been more alert in school, been encouraged by some teacher to go to college, got a white collar job, missed the dump truck, married a different woman, had different children, earned until he was eighty.
But what if his mother and father had never met and married at all? What if sperm and egg had never met? Or what if, as my grandmother once asserted, sex was not a nasty thing forced upon her in the night, but rather a thing of love and passion? Or what if something had been different in Owensboro, Kentucky, where they met in a roadhouse? What if the idea of love somehow transformed my grandfather into a man who could declare that for his seventeen year old bride and their children-to-be, he would never touch the bottle again? If we change a variable here and there, my uncle doesn’t lock the doors, lie down on his bed, stick the pistol in his mouth, and blow his brains out.
And if we can lay some causal blame upon my grandparents, what about their parents? Who was this Kentucky coal miner Jess Westerfield who kept making babies with women and then making babies with their sisters? What did it mean for my grandmother, the little girl she was, to sleep in winter on the floor of a drafty shack in the mountains near a clear cut someplace? Who were the men her stepmother aunt brought home at night after her mother died?
Again we enter into the questions of chance and existence. What if a mine collapsed upon Jess Westerfield before he could make his way from the bed of one sister to the bed of another? What if he mistimed a subterranean dynamite fuse and blew himself to death? What if there was a weakness in the rope that was used to lower his cage from the surface of the mountain to the mine shaft below? What if the rope snapped, and he was crushed among the others in the bent metal, or run through by some sharp stalagmite?
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