Lost in Storyland

America's Narrative Thread

In a time when lost stories seemed rare, Aunt Laura was the first I knew who lost one. In the gin mills near my home, where these days I can hear any number of stories about lost stories, some people say they lost their stories to thieves—but nobody blamed theft back when Laura lost hers.

Before she blew out her back in a furniture factory and got addicted to opiates, my aunt enjoyed telling my sister and me tales populated by witches, ogres, and brave children. Laura never wrote her creations, but dramatized them in her scratchy voice, her laughter at our reactions reminding me of the hoarse barking of seals in the Buffalo zoo. Gestating characters and coursing nicotine freed her mind, I suppose, from her dull duties in the factory, while, in the smoky somewhere else of a new story, the children—the little people—triumphed because they were clever and brave and remembered to say their bedtime prayers. I imagine also that just before the initial amp of pain, when she used her back rather than her legs to lift her assigned end of a wooden industrial product, an elusive finale distracted her.

She babysat once while my parents were at a New Year’s Eve party. My sister and I fell asleep on the couch before the ball dropped on television, but Laura woke us in time and later distributed pots and spoons and joined our celebration in our dark front yard, ringing welcome to the unknown, inrushing years. We beckoned the dead as well. When we were inside again, the floor puddled by snowy boots, the grump next door telephoned to complain. Laura suggested he have a good stiff drink. He called again in the morning, waking my hung-over father to complain, and Dad suggested he pound salt. 

In the possession of drugs, Aunt Laura no longer told us stories. Her words became slurred, her speech parsimonious and labored, and, like one of the dangerous creatures in her tales or the chained dog up the road, she snarled at the approach of children. One afternoon, Mom and Dad took her and my sister out to lunch while Uncle Pete and I searched his and Laura’s Buffalo apartment for the pills she had obtained by traveling from doctor to doctor, pharmacy to pharmacy, and who knows where else. I had almost as much fun as when hunting for Easter jellybeans. We found varicolored stashes under carpeting and grates and in the nooks of the pantry. As my uncle poured out pills hidden under the liner of a cereal box, they rattled into the kitchen sink like a frozen, shattered rainbow.

After a heart attack killed Pete, Laura moved in with each of her four brothers, one after another, wearing out each welcome by falling asleep while smoking. When she arrived at our house, my father made her promise not to smoke in bed and to allow Mom to hold and dispense the cigarettes and pills. Mom went through the suitcases, which must have been humiliating for both women, but Laura was accustomed to circumventing searches—and that night Mom discovered her asleep atop a smoldering mattress. 

Laura eventually moved in with a sister out in Michigan and stayed there for many years. I wonder whether, with her fairy tales lost, she told her sister grownup stories to which her brothers would have been deaf, applauding too loudly their own.

SO OF THE family stories within my personal story, one of the few about women (and the longest) is about an aunt storyteller who worked outside the home and was childless. I sometimes suspect that my father—who once informed me that having children improves a woman “just like having puppies makes a dog better”—assigned me to join Pete in the drug bust with the intention of teaching me what becomes of a woman who attempts to live in the wrong kind of story.

I know legends about my great-grandfather Samuel Phillips, who was a blacksmith in the North of Ireland before emigrating to America, and about Samuel’s father, a County Down dirt farmer, and one about Samuel’s grandfather, a seafaring horse trader from Wales who fell in love with a woman in Ulster and stayed. As female lives slip by unmentioned, an agnatic figurehead mounts the prow of family lore.  I can repeat dozens of tales about my grandfather Phillips, who was an iron worker in Buffalo, but can tell you little more of my grandmother Phillips than her surname and that her sons thought her the world’s best cook. 

I can tell you though that one afternoon, during the gray years when Grandma had dementia, Grandpa drove to my childhood home to say she no longer knew him and had told him her husband was dead. Standing in our kitchen, he wept as if he had lost everything.

It is doubtful to me that my grandfather could have imagined women breaking into the stores of stories. Or “the ethnics”—as my father-in-law referred to people who had darker skin than his: busting in, filling sacks, departing with precious words. To some Americans it is still unimaginable. Men complain that women talk too much. White people complain that black people are too loud. And Hispanics talk too fast.

My wife every so often insists on recalling when we returned from a date and found her father asleep in a running car parked in the family driveway on a cold night. Margaret’s mother had thrown him out of the house. Recently, I interrupted the story: “Yeah. I know. I was there.”

She told it again anyhow.

A recent study found that the death rate for white middle-age Americans, especially in the working class, is increasing. Premature death from drug overdose and suicide were considered to be possible causes for the increase, but no definite conclusions were drawn. In an interview cited by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, Angus Deaton, one of the authors of the study, noted an anthropologist’s theory that white middle-age Americans “have lost the narrative of their lives.” A number of white working-class folk have subsequently suffered my questions about their reportedly lost “narrative”—typically while we are entertained by a sporting event on a TV mounted to a wall behind a bar—and usually it is the men who reply, in effect, Lost it, my ass. It was ripped off.

A FAMILY WITH brown skin has moved into what is called a neighborhood hereabouts—which is to say, within a few miles of my home in the hinterlands of the Alleghenies. I know a few people who have taken this change as evidence that our neighborhood is hopelessly lost. Our loose neighborhood has been the scene of two police raids on crude methamphetamine laboratories, but those occurred several years ago, when the population here was still entirely white and nobody thought we were lost. Within the past fifteen years, several neighborhood white guys have done prison time for drug dealing, arson, theft, and other such criminal acts formerly assumed to be distant and urban in nature, and yet neighborhood introspection is too superficial to halt the spread of certain rumors about our new neighbors. Stories circle like the wagons in a Zane Grey fiction.

During this long campaign season, some candidates have warned that immigrants are stealing both employment and the American story. Our government has made it easy for corporations to move jobs to countries with labor laws as scarce and lax as those in the American Gilded Age, but according to some of the scripts traveling across teleprompters, the immigrant population is—along with excessive taxation and regulation of business—a major cause of unemployment. In these contemporary Jim Crow yarns, which are devoid of any intended irony, immigrants are shiftless and yet labor long hours for employers who pay starvation wages rather than hiring U.S. citizens and paying them well.

I am reminded of the laboring characters in legends that seasoned the fare at my childhood dinner table. Unless smeared with grease or ground with coal dust, none had dark skin. Next to none was female. When, at age eighteen, I took a summer job in the coal-fired power plant where my father was a welder, almost the entire labor force there was Caucasian despite the plant’s proximity to a large African-American population that had its own family histories, including stories about employment applications lost in white, white Buffalo blizzards.

IN THE BLUE-COLLAR stories I heard following our mealtime prayers, work is sacred even when the Phillips legends are tragic. Falls at construction sites jar stories forever from the skulls of three ancestors; the ribs of another crumble with the errant swing of a fellow worker’s sledgehammer; and trees crush two kin in logging accidents, leaving both men with permanent disabilities. Surely the wounded required pain medication, and yet the pills go unmentioned except in the story about Laura. The living return to work: we men were to remember that for his faithfulness, all that he lost was restored to Job.

The power plant where my father worked has closed, but it seems that some things never change. A neighbor of mine took gentler and lower-paying employment after rupturing spinal discs while laying out steel forms for concrete; another is disabled because a fringe benefit of his factory job was asbestosis; and one is back to work after an industrial accident and a year filled with surgeries and physical therapy. I know a fifty-something guy who returns from work so sore that after switching off the ignition he flips open a cooler and unlatches his pickup door, downs a can of beer and soon another, nudges the door with his left shoulder, stiffly shifts his left foot onto the running board, has one more beer, and only several minutes after this necessary homecoming ritual does he find it bearable to actually limp into his home. 

On my way to town one day, driving by tumbledown barns and hillside pastures abandoned to hawthorn, I heard a member of Congress propose a further lifting of the national retirement age. A news person was mechanically asking the usual questions of the important man, who was giving the usual greased replies, reminding me that—some years before and not far from my home—a silage chopper bit into a farmer, and that when he didn’t appear for dinner, it was his wife who found what remained of him.

If you would, consider for another few moments the surprising appeal of a businessman who is running for president of the United States as I write this in the year 2016. A callous on neither hand. Famous in part for humiliating workers on national TV by screaming with evident joy, “You’re fired!” Declared bankruptcy four times while some minimally paid workers have held down three jobs concurrently. Would any hard-laboring and weather-beaten or dusty-lunged American hope for such a man to become president? It once would have been hard to imagine. Yet in diners and gin mills in town I encounter hard-bitten white men who identify with this candidate. And hard-bitten white women who do, too. His supporters say he won’t tolerate uppity women and will wall out immigrants, and they accept his handout of a tale in which he fights for people like them—and I can’t help but wonder how overwhelming must the hunger for a story become before anyone would swallow one like that.

ONCE UPON A time, the poacher was a sympathetic figure in the lore of the Phillips family. As he sipped whiskey one night in our parlor, my father described his grandfather and great-grandfather’s method of quietly poaching pheasants from estates in the North of Ireland. They soaked grain in poteen, spread the bait in a remote corner of a field and eventually wrung the necks of the intoxicated and helpless birds before stuffing the carcasses into a sack. In another of Dad’s stories, a well-to-do landowner in rural New York discovers that a teenage trapper is poaching muskrats on his property. He chases the boy onto the small farm where my grandfather lived in his retirement. My grandfather, who happens to be outside, fetches a pitchfork from his barn and intervenes, allowing the lad to escape and thereby beating the devil at his own game. Yet these days, when stories are told at my family and neighborhood gatherings, the poacher is somehow no longer one of us. As voices rise over the hot spitting of the grill and the icy clattering from the beer cooler, the poacher is now characterized as a threatening outsider: a job-seeking Mexican who snuck across the border, an African American who benefited from affirmative action, a woman in a profession formerly reserved for men. And each time the poacher appears in a new story, usually as the usurper of someone’s American dream, I recall the day when a friend and I pursued poachers—actually ourselves—through a winter forest.

My friend wanted to show me the landscape around the farm owned by the family of a woman he was dating. We set off late on a March morning, the snow somewhat blinding in the sunlight. On the far side of cropland, where after spring plowing one might find knapped tools of Native Americans, we unstrapped and removed our snowshoes temporarily so we could pass over a barbed wire fence and into a maple woods. Snow fleas swirled like windblown dust over the whiteness. Here and there, covered buckets hung dented and askance from spiles. Sap drummed tin. Trudging onward, we shouldered our coats, and I was urged to be on alert for trespassers in the thickening forest beyond the sugar bush. “A lot of trouble with them around here,” my friend explained. “Poaching deer.”

Many bare trees and much bright snow later, he halted and lifted his right arm and hand into a droopy point. 

“Look—tracks. Poachers.” 

The tracks resembled our own. Indignant at my suggestion that we were lost and had traveled the woods in a large circle, he said, “I know where I’m going.”

So we set off after the two poachers, eyes watering in the glare, noses dripping, thighs and calves pushing off sorely and mechanically, snowshoes lifting and arcing, snow crunching under the rhythm of our march. His legs were longer than mine, and, eventually, laboring to match his pace, I caught one of my snowshoes on the other and tumbled face-first into the snow, righting myself only moments before he halted and pointed at new tracks.

“Damn,” he said. “Now there are four of them.”

Published in the October 21, 2016 issue: 

Mark Phillips lives in Ischua, New York. His essay here is excerpted from his collection Love and Hate in the Heartland: Dispatches from Forgotten America forthcoming from Skyhorse Publishing in April.

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