Telling Tales

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine was recorded for a radio series reading a story he wrote about his exile from southern Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.

He’s good at telling stories. Some kind of southern thing, I guess. And he’s earned some renown in the local story slam circuit. In fact, he was on the radio because he was one of a sextet of story slam audience favorites.

My friends and I like to support that sort of thing, so a bunch of us joined him at his apartment on the night of the broadcast.

It was delightfully Golden Age, each of us taking a silent seat wherever we could to listen to a radio in real time. Table lamps cast an amber glow on our expectant faces. There was an old, gray dog curled up on the couch, and it was raining outside. All we were missing was a roaring fireplace and the faint haze of smoldering pipe tobacco. We could have been a pack of kids staying up past our bedtime to catch Gunsmoke on the wireless or to hear what happened last to Little Orphan Annie.

Actually, it was nothing at all like that. We all checked in on Foursquare, and I tweeted throughout the evening. And there was plenty of smoking, but it was all done just outside of the front door. But we did listen to the show on an ancient, crackly radio. The antenna was completely broken off. It leaned against a lamp for vertical support, and naught but gravity held it on its base with the most tenuous of connections. Sharp “s” and “f” sounds came through harsh and distorted. If someone stood too near the radio, we’d lose the signal for a moment. If a footfall shook the floor, the antenna would slip off its perch and the radio would go altogether silent.

It was right near the liquor, so we lost the signal a lot.

And thus we spent an hour listening to our friend and five other favorites telling their stories to packs of strangers all over the city. How odd it seemed that we should hear his voice without his making a single sound. And after the show, we turned off the radio and carried on telling stories without hesitation or transition.

Some were new, and others were old, but we listened even if we’d heard them before a half dozen times or more.

One friend’s story about gently breaking in to an empty upstairs apartment to turn off a carbon monoxide alarm reminded me of an incident with my real estate agent back when my husband and I were looking at houses last summer. I was glad I remembered it.

We had arrived at a building to walk through a prospective property, but the key that was left for us was not working for the apartment we were supposed to view. It was a condo in a building with five or six units total. Every door looked the same, and we wondered if maybe we had the right key but the wrong apartment number.

A passing neighbor brightly suggested that she could let us in to the condo with her credit card. Seriously? Oh yes, she said. Anyone can get into every one of these units with no more than a credit card. These doors are crap. Just slide it between the door and the frame, catch the latch, and presto!

Strike one. The prospect of having a neighbor who might rob us at any moment sort of soured us on the place. But we figured that, as we’d already made the trip, and we were still getting a feel for what was available in our price range, we’d take a look-see anyway.

Sure, we said. Go on and let us in.

We made our way into the unit and thanked the nosy but helpful neighbor. I noticed immediately that the seller had not done much to tidy up the place. I knew it was going to look “lived in,” but the unfolded blankets, piles of mail and crumbs on the countertop suggested the owner wasn’t trying very hard to sell it.

It was my habit during these house visits to speak in a low voice. Even in an empty house it seemed respectful somehow not to talk at full volume. Our realtor, on the other hand, emboldened by experience, strode around the living room loudly pointing out details of the construction, facts about the neighborhood.

Thank goodness she didn’t critique the decor, because a moment later, a woman appeared in the bedroom doorway with a look of utter … anger? confusion? fear? incredulity on her face. I read it instantly as What the hell are you doing in my house? half a second before she said “What the hell are you doing in my house?”

Evidently three strange voices plus the sound of us clomping across her hardwood floors was enough to make her wonder what might be happening in her living room.

She was maybe 50 years old and barefoot. She had glasses on. Her face was flushed, her hair was mussed, her shirt was on inside out, and her shorts looked as if they had been pulled on very quickly. Oh my god. Had she been napping? Oh my god! Had she been naked? Was someone else in the room?

My husband and I were shocked silent. Let the professional handle it, I thought.

And after some stammering and a couple of aborted sentences, with hands raised in the universal sign for “we didn’t mean to break in to your house, we mean it” our realtor explained that we were in the building to look at an apartment for sale. Clearly this wasn’t the place. And we’ll just be on our way now.

“Well, my house is most definitely not for sale,” the woman said, not moving from her doorway. She was starting to understand that it was a simple error, but she was still visibly shaken. She held no weapon, and I wondered what she had planned to do had we been there to cause trouble.

Our agent went further to advise her that one of her neighbors had actually let us in. Without a key. And she might want to look into getting her locks changed.

With that we scuttled toward the doorway, all three of us muttering profuse apologies. The woman closed the door behind us and I heard her latch it locked, little good that it did.

We hurried down the staircase, through the lobby and out into the sunlight. I imagined her looking down at us from a window. I couldn’t bear to look up to find out.

I don’t know that I could have told that story into a public radio microphone, let alone to a room full of stranger. But I don’t have to. My rather small audience enjoyed it. And now we know that there are a few among our ranks who are guilty of breaking and entering.

And so it went. Storytelling continued into the rain-soaked night. It’s how we tend to spend our time, my friends. That need to tell, that need to be known, overwhelms our modesty, and we just talk and talk. And somewhere in the repetition, the combination of those tales adds up to a larger narrative that we all own together.


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the untallied hours

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