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What We Keep

The Story Mine

People ask writers where stories come from, and all I can ever say is that they just are. We are stories already, even if some are inadvisable to tell.

I treasure what I remember of my parents’ storytelling. They were both writers and had been married for seventeen years before they had me, and as a child I always thought of that time as a sort of exotic landscape, peopled with characters who were now dead or mad or lost in some other way.

The Depression era house in Flushing, New York that they shared with multiple relatives and in-laws, all writers, had an interdimensional feel to me when I thought of it. Two enormous box turtles roamed the halls, the residents stocked up on groceries and whiskey when someone sold a story, and the cook carried on conversations with the cats until said whiskey was locked up. My uncle drove my aunt, the only one with an actual job, to the train station every day in a horse and buggy. When a lady in a chauffeured car pulled up and asked him, “My good man, who do you drive for?” he tipped his hat, gave his own name, and added, “the noted author.”

There were always dogs, including the ones who independently charged an ice cream cone at the drugstore the day they weren’t taken for their usual walk and cone, and the one who bit a Senate candidate. Later in California, there was a house in Topanga Canyon with a tree growing through the living room, and a goat that was serially sold to each new resident, a kind of initiation. They weren’t inclined to censor their storytelling for youthful ears, so I heard about night my [relative redacted] showed up on their doorstep with a lamp and said, “[wife redacted] threw this at me but I caught it.” I heard about the wicked multiple-great uncle who murdered his brother-in-law, and about the attic where my father made bootleg beer with a bad-influence friend while his own father, a circuit court judge, was out of town.

Why does their life always sound more interesting than mine? There is a sense of not having lived up to a sufficient number of mad friends and improbable road trips. And yet it takes a span of years for dangerous and not-thought-through to transmute into interesting. Maybe the interesting stories can safely be told only when the participants have left.
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