‘The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934’ by David Means

Means, David 2010

The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934 by David Means, 2010

The magic trick:

Letting the story unfold like an FBI analysis report

As a sportswriter reading a lot of short stories, I’ve been thinking a lot lately as I go on assignments how my stories could be so much easier if I incorporated the psychology behind what was happening. I write a story about a high school volleyball match, but the most interesting thing happening in the gym that night might be the marital problems between some of the parents in the stands. Who knows?

Anyway, this story brings that kind of thinking to life, only instead of a sports story it’s an FBI report. This is an old retired agent, Lee, remembering an important day spent on the job during his career. The narrator tells us that Lee, in retirement, has enjoyed the chance to not try thinking about how others think – a skill he obsessed over as a lawman. But of course this story reveals that notion as a lie, or at least a goal unfulfilled. Lee, in his retirement, is still thinking like a lawman. We get this story unraveled like a police report, with an obsessive psychology behind it, desperately trying to figure out which pivot could have produced different results. And that’s quite a trick on Means’s part.

The selection:

(7) It wasn’t simply what Barnes said, or his awkward inability to establish any kind of mature silence, but also the way he rounded his words, polishing them up, buffing them into a style of elocution that clashed with the landscape. He spoke with the sucked-in-cheeks manner of a man holding forth with unearned authority, as he said: It’s highly unlikely, Lee, regarding the patterns set forth by his previous movements, that he would alas venture, as I’ve said a few times before, to risk arriving at a location known to fit into his past movements. Snapping off his clean white teeth, his voice had a gee-whiz youthfulness until, catching hold, it shifted to take on the hardscrabble surroundings.

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