2013 Issue: Thomas L. Small: Stories (Essay)

By Thomas L. Small

As a boy, I spent a significant amount of time with my paternal grandmother, whom I called Kitty. My parents took vacations alone. I was often placed with her when bringing children along was too troublesome or annoying. I was only too happy to be left with Kitty, and slammed her front door on them before they even had a chance to get back in their car and drive to the airport.
She had been widowed in her late sixties, which for her generation was probably right on schedule. Little did she know she had more than twenty years to wait for widowhood to eat her alive. Her days had a certain sameness to them that probably bored her, but thrilled me.
One of the invariables of her days were her stories. After lunch, she would say, “Lovey, go warm up the Motorola.” I would run ahead; she would pick up her Parliaments and her lighter and lumber down the hallway to a room she referred to as the back parlor. That’s where she spent the afternoons of the last twenty years of her life.
For hours, she sat absorbed in the lives of the characters of The Guiding Light, As the World Turns, The Secret Storm and Days of Our Lives. Sometimes I sat with her for a little while, breathing in the blue smoke of her Parliaments. The wooden acting, incomprehensible characters, and the glacial story lines drove me out of the room within the first ten minutes. There were always far more interesting things in the attic or the basement. I was free to explore them uninterrupted while she was consumed by her ‘stories’.
Occasionally, I would wander back into the parlor before the end of one of the stories and watch for a few minutes.
“She’s a bad one,” Kitty would say, firing up another Parliament. She’d gesture towards some female on the black and white screen. I was always able to tell the bad ones without being told. In the early sixties, an elaborate B 52 was never a good omen.
“Him,” she’d say, pointing at yet another of the grainy, black and white denizens of the afternoon, “he’s trouble.” She would exhale a cloud of smoke for emphasis. “Trouble with a capital T.”
Her immersion in her stories was total. One afternoon, after an hour of searching the attic, I came downstairs with a handgun I’d discovered. I entered the room during one of those important moments usually accompanied by a crescendo of organ music. On the screen, trouble with a capital T was dressed in a tuxedo. His bow tie dangled rakishly from his collar; the top three buttons of his ruffled shirt were undone. The bad one was dressed in an evening gown that was slashed to the hip, and dark stockings. Her B 52 was in a disgraceful state.
“Whose is this?” I held the gun out for Kitty’s inspection.
“I don’t know,” she replied without looking at me.
“Can I have it?”
On the screen, trouble with a capital T and the bad one were caught in a steamy squeeze. Their clench was so red hot, that the bad one had lifted one high heeled foot completely off the floor as trouble gripped her in passionate embrace.
“He’s cheating,” Kitty said, grinding out her Parliament.
“You’ll have to decide,” said the bad one.
“I can’t,” said trouble with a capital T.
“You must.”
“Don’t make me.”
“Just leave it over there, Lovey,” Kitty said, gesturing to the coffee table, without looking away from the screen. “I’ll take care of it later.”
I put the gun down near her ashtray and returned to the attic.
At the time I didn’t understand her absorption in adultery, illegitimacy and amnesia. For decades I thought it just a quirky part of her personality, or perhaps part of the Zeitgeist of the fifties and sixties that widows her age were destined to suffer.
This past winter I contracted a virulent upper respiratory infection. Bored during the convalescence, I turned on the TV. It’s important to keep in mind that my wife and I didn’t have TV until after 9-11, at which point, getting all the world news from the Allentown Morning Call seemed, at that point, somehow inadequate.
One morning, cruising into the second week of recuperation, I also cruised into reruns of Dawson’s Creek. For the uninformed, The Creek, as we initiates call it, is a serial television show that ran from 1998 to 2003. It followed the adventures of a group of four teenagers, all friends, who lived in mythical Capeside. There they struggled through their relationships with one another, high school betrayals, broken dreams, and dysfunctional families. The median age of the typical viewer was fifteen. I was over fifty and hooked immediately.
I first tuned in on the day Pacey kissed Josephine behind Dawson’s back. I watched Dawson, Pacey and the gang struggle with their issues, and something in me was moved. Every morning of the next two weeks, I was in position, remote in hand just before 9:00 AM, awaiting the adenoidal warble of the Dawson’s Creek theme song. I sat immobile for the next hour. All that was missing were the package of Parliaments and the Zippo lighter.
My time spent at The Creek became the highlight of days otherwise spent with menthol inhalers, warm mist vaporizers and Vapo Rub. I suffered through detention hall with Pacey, commiserated over a doomed love life with Dawson and argued significant life issues with Grams and Jen. All became more important than recovery. I rescheduled a chest x-ray once because it would have required leaving the house before my story was finished.
I became more deeply enmeshed in the lives at Dawson’s Creek and aware too of a reawakening of my own high school memories. There’s no way Pacey would have hung out with me, even if we’d been in detention hall together. Dawson was too popular to ever have shared anything with me. Girls like Joey and Jen never knew I was alive while I was in high school. Yet, flying on codeine reinforced expectorants and doing two Vicks inhalers daily, I was baked enough to think I would be welcome to hang out at Dawson’s Creek.
I was right there when Joey broke up with Dawson.
“Dawson, our lives are so closely enmeshed that I don’t know where you end and I begin. We need some time apart.”
“You can’t mean that, Joey, we have something special and unique.”
“No, we don’t.”
“Yes, we do.”
I felt Dawson’s pain.
Pacey and I were in detention hall together when he discovered that he might have to repeat senior year. I was panicked for him. After all, I had graduated thirty years earlier. If he was left behind, what would happen to our friendship? The slights that Joey endured while waitressing at the Capeside Yacht Club because her father was an ex-con and her sister had borne an illegitimate baby, were all the more poignant for me. I knew she really needed the job, and I suffered for her as acutely as her boyfriend du jour. Whether Dawson and Pacey wanted to hang out with me, or whether Joey and Jen knew I was alive, I felt I was an important part of the group.
Recovered enough so that I was considered too well to be caught watching Dawson’s Creek, I began taping it and replaying them while my wife was out of the house. Sitting in the library, with the remote and a Klondike bar as the opening notes of the Dawson’s Creek theme came up, I felt a pleasure so guilty, that it should have had its own twelve step program. I counted on hearing the garage door going up to announce Maxine’s return, which gave me just enough time to hide the ice cream wrapper and switch to CNN. One day she parked the car in the driveway and came in the front door. I was busted.
The explanation was easier than I expected. I was absorbed in the lives of the kids at Dawson’s Creek. They were interesting and I was not. I was desperate to know how things evolved from one episode to the next. After a couple segments, the characters were real for me; I was engaged and kept coming back. Kitty had had the same experience.
I never would have started watching Dawson’s Creek had I not gotten sick in the middle of a harsh Pennsylvania winter. Kitty would never have started watching her stories, had she not been widowed in her late sixties with little else to do with her time. What difference does it make? The rules of engagement are hard to define.
We both became involved with stories of other people’s lives, stories that regardless of their quality, were magnetic enough to keep us interested. Although I required the care of an exorcist to recover from my own high school experience, I was only too happy to return to Capeside High. Perhaps, by spending time there, I was able to rewrite my own high school experience, into one including a group of interesting friends in whose lives I was an active part, whose problems involved me, and whose future well-being concerned me.
Was that any different from the characters whose lives absorbed Kitty? Where else would she have found the excitement of knowing a beautiful home wrecker? Certainly none of her friends could have introduced her to a tall, tuxedo clad stranger, who was “just in town for a little while.” At what other point in her life could she have been befriended someone repeatedly plagued by extended bouts of amnesia?
Therein lies the art of the story. Despite, or perhaps because of
the differences between the lives of the character and the observer, there is a connection. Whether it’s the bond that keeps pages turning or a daily commitment to sit and watch, it’s still a bond and it’s still
a story.
Fortunately for me, Dawson’s Creek ended after one hundred twenty-seven episodes. I’ve lived them all, some of them twice. In the end, Pacey and Joey were married and living in Capeside. Jen was dead of a congenital heart defect that became apparent only after she gave birth to her love child. Dawson was living his life, without Joey, in Los Angeles. I returned to being middle aged, without an upper respiratory infection, having kicked my addiction to Vicks inhalers. All of us have remained friends and continue to care about one another.
Fortunately for Kitty, the world continued to turn, as did the days of her life. Over the years, new troubles emerged, as did new and more evil bad ones. Kitty was still watching her stories when she died, in her mid-eighties. I can only hope that wherever she is now, Kitty has an eighty inch plasma screen TV and a remote the size of a surfboard. Devoted as she was to her stories and their characters for as long as she was, and to whom they brought so much pleasure, she deserves nothing less.
Kitty, and others like her, are every writer’s dream, a participant unquestioningly absorbed in the story. Whether one’s absorption is long term, say the final quarter of life, or limited to one hundred twenty-seven episodes, stories have the power to transport us for however long we are willing to let them. Their power is amazing testament to human imagination; both the imagination that creates them, and the one that believes in them.
Time spent with characters so consuming should be treasured and protected. Petty interruptions should be ignored. If anyone enters the room asking what to do with a stray hand gun, they should be told to leave it on the coffee table. It can be dealt with later.

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