For #136 I’m turning the blog reins over to Marie-Helene Bertino, One Story’s Associate Editor, who was the issue editor for Smith Henderson’s amazing story “Number Stations.” Hope you all enjoyed this one as much as I did.-HT
Smith Henderson’s story “Number Stations” was pulled directly out of the slush pile by our keen editorial assistant James Scott who, when forwarding it to me, included this note: This is the best story about an ostrich I read today.
“Number Stations” is a story about the flawed members of a small summer town in Montana. The people in this town are tied together by the protagonist Goldsmith who owns the restaurant, employs the ex-con Bill, is crushed on by Emily, envied by Van, is father to Charity and whose mother’s late night finger of Beam is interrupted by the ominous voice of a man over the baby monitor, droning through a series of numbers. The story itself, however, is tied together by the sporadic sightings of a runaway ostrich.
There is much to say about the language of this piece. The verbs alone sing many sentences to new and unexpected places. Hot little clouds of breath are “chuffed” by the ostrich, testimonies of time “vouch” in glaciers, and thin water “rills.” Sometimes strong verbs can feel forced, but Smith Henderson’s capable voice sews each one perfectly into the dense fabric of the story. It is a voice that knows when it can get away with sentences that wind long around daring verbs and knows when to just land one quickly, in the case of: “Goldsmith didn’t mind if the biddies were upset. Life was short and weird.”
Smith Henderson’s writing favors fewer words to open up the door to everyday surreality. I think of “Number Stations” as an American story because America is weird. For proof, watch the first five minutes of any episode of Nancy Grace. In America, boys fly over cornfields in the Midwest in manmade space ships, women sell their granddaughters into sex trades, and former DAs with blonde helmut haircuts have successful talk shows delighting over all of it.
Once in a while, a miracle. The enormously difficult last scene balances Emily’s kindness to Bill, her simultaneous horror and inclination to help, his quick forgiveness, his pain, and ice cream. I read somewhere that endings should feel surprising and inevitable. This one was impossible for me to predict. Yet, every time I read it, I feel it ends exactly where it should. The story has already offered its explanation for these seemingly bizarre elements. Life is short and weird.
Bigfork, Montana. I’ve never been there. I’d like to go. I’d like to sit in a hot tub kept boiling by the take-turns methods of drunk kitchen workers. I would like to experience a late-summer snowstorm. I would like to chase a wild bird down a dirt road that changes to a meadow of Russian thistle. I would even like to realize, while watching an ostrich traverse the horizon, that my life is going to be difficult, like Charity does.
While working with Smith over the past few months, I never got tired of reading “Number Stations.” While each day the East Coast, shaking winter off, was becoming green again, each night I returned to the end of summer in Bigfork. Each night I starred different lines that struck me, in addition to the old ones again. Lines like, “Only seven, the girl already did not forgive herself her own crooked features and was certain that her destiny was to ride an ostrich or griffin or rainbow to her true self, who was beautiful and free.” Each night the language revealed itself newly, in the way certain people’s voices never fail to make me happy. Or, in the example of this story, the way Van’s “wonderful hips” never fail to elicit the same thrill from Emily. Each time the ostrich tink tink-ed on Van’s kitchen window, the snow falling behind its head straight then shunting sideways then straight, I could see it. It never got old.
Smith Henderson’s “Number Stations” is remarkable. At the very least, it will be the best ostrich story you read today.
Go here to read an interview with Smith about “Number Stations” and find out who he thinks “sings like an angel, looks like a sasquatch.”