Timothy Melley in his story “The Prince of Natick,” writes a nice mix of people in a story that ends with busted pipes. It’s a frustrating story, not because the telling comes off like unbuttered toast, but because Mick Kosloski, the boss forman of the Water Division of DPW, orders the good work of Karl Osberg (“the scariest human” the first-person teller has “ever sat next to”) destroyed and blames beavers for problems everyone else could actually figure out.
The story jabs the reader with lots of asserted characters against a background most people never see–the sheds, the reservoirs, the rust at the other end of the water faucet. Here’s Mick:
Mick had white hair and a leathery face with deep weather-beaten crags. He shuffled and talked in a weird, gurgling lisp. He looked like someone who had gotten loose from my grandmother’s nursing home.
Mik’s big problem in life was thinking up ways to keep his crew busy. He looked at me and Stan like we were a pair of migrain headaches.
I like that last active expression of Mick, but think Mick’s walk and “gurgling lisp” is a little fuzzy, like a photograph taken by shaky hands.
“Natick” is told against a contemporary world where private contractors do all the work and the employees of the DPW are left to fiddle away time, money, and potential under the eye of an incompetent boss, Mick. It’s in this world that the protagonist, who’s working a public works job to save money for school, will get a new glimpse of “the truth.”
The street shimmered with heat. I hesitated. “How did Mick get to be in charge? I mean, he seems to make a lot of mistakes.”
Karl snorted and laughed a little to himself. “Haven’t you heard? Shit floats. Take a look around you.”
This was a depressing new way to think about life. I had always assumed people got ahead by working hard and possessing talent.
The reader may perhaps smile at the naiveté of the protagonist (since all of this is a retelling of a constant in human affairs with plenty of counterpoint, of course) but the story ends with that image of destruction in a new light for the protagonist, a sense, I would say, not just of deformity but of confusion. The protagonist, along with Karl, witnesses and takes part in the very thing we know he despises: stupidity.
How are we supposed to work and live? We’re supposed to work hard and obey the law? We’re supposed to do better than our parents? Get there on time, meet deadlines, speak our minds, be smarter about things. This is supposed to work. It’s what we tell the kids. We tell the kids that George (insert last name here) never lied and that the bible is full of wonderful stories, skipping over the massacres and the Book of Job. Short, funny words now, longer convoluted ones later because when older we really don’t want people to “get it.” It’s the kid who gets the Onceler’s last Truffle Tree seed, not a man or a women, remember. This is a kind of coming-of-age narrative, when the things of childhood are set aside to make space for “the truth.” Mick breaks Karl’s work because he doesn’t want to finish the job.
While I waited for Sully to snap another pipe, I looked for Karl. He stood next to his truck, staring into the distance. He seemed deep in thought, but I realized he was watching Stan walk away from the job. All the fury had drained from his face. He looked like a big, lonely kid who was used to being left out of things. I wondered what he was thinking, whether he envied Stan or just hated him, whether he wanted to walk away himself. A moment later, he looked over at us as though he had just noticed us all there. He reached into the truck bed and removed a flat shovel. Then he began scooping the broken pipes into the dump truck as if it were something he had done every day of his life.
There’s a lot to say about all of this, but here’s one little point to make about the story as a whole: Karl’s gestures are a surface. I see him move everyday. But the gesture doesn’t reveal or link back through the ages. The story reveals the space behind the gesture, a sort of uncertainty of movement, a piece of a crazy quilt that can’t be unroled or rerolled or requilted but you can add more thread to it.
That said, I found the story too formulaic. Could be coming-of-age, but it becomes good guy/bad guy. The bad guys win because we let them win. Maybe Karl did walk away; maybe Mick says, “Okay, let’s finish.” Maybe Stan punches his mayor dad and trips him into the trench. Maybe, maybe not.