I took a grand total of one literature course during my brief flirtation with college, and I attended class only once. That was enough time to realize that however much I loved to write, literature wasn’t for me.
The deciding factor in that decision came ten minutes after the first class had begun. The professor had taken that long to introduce himself, peppering his resume with words I could not understand. Then he asked that we each confess our favorite storyteller.
One by one he went through the class. Names of the immortals echoed off the walls—Fitzgerald. Kipling. Faulkner. Joyce. O’Connor.
I had decided beforehand that I was not going to lie, and it would have been lying if I offered up another name that would fit in neatly with the rest. So when the professor nodded in my direction, I answered with the truth.
“Jesse,” I said.
“I’m not familiar with his work,” the professor said.
“Oh, he doesn’t work,” I told him. “But if you go down to the hardware store where I live, you’ll see him. Best storyteller I know.”
The class snickered. I didn’t know why.
“Young man,” the professor said, “in this class we will deal with the Renoirs and not the Rockwells. Do you understand?”
I did. Which is why I never went back.
As a boy I’d walk from my house down the block to the hardware store just to hear Jesse talk. Age and a bad back had forced him to give up farming, so that’s where he spent most of his days—at an old wooden table beneath the mounted head of a twelve-point buck in the middle of the store, surrounded by six or seven other loafers.
Jesse would laugh and listen to whatever happened to be the day’s subject, which varied from politics to weather to baseball. Then at some point he would always remove the toothpick he kept in his mouth and say, “Well, let me tell you something.”
And then there would be quiet. Pure, utter stillness. Not just from everyone at the table, but from everyone in the store. Whether Jesse knew it or not (and I think he did), most people hung around the hardware store just to see him take that toothpick out.
Because Old Jesse knew how to tell a story.
His tales were snippets of his life, little moments that grew larger not because of embellishment, but because of application. Jesse could turn a story about his truck breaking down into a critique of the socio-economic condition of the country. He would regale us with a story of his first unrequited love that was darn near Shakespearean. Jesse could make a tale about his outhouse catching fire sound like an Arthurian adventure, and he could make us feel like we were all knights.
It was magic. Pure magic.
But not to the professor.
To him the real storytellers were the masters, the Renoirs of the literary world. The rest, especially the ones who weren’t published because they never wrote and instead chose to spin their yarns in the middle of rural hardware stores, were less. They were the Norman Rockwells of the world. The pretenders.
I couldn’t blame him then and I guess I still can’t now. After all, Renoir was the one who held the attention of the elites. His Bal du moulin de la Galette sold for $78.1 million in 1990. All Norman Rockwell did was design some covers for The Saturday Evening Post.
But to me a painting is only as good as the story it tells. I can look at a Renoir and be dazzled by the colors and the details, but I can’t get much in the way of a story.
But Rockwell? He’s different. I can look at anything he painted and see a little bit of myself.
There’s a difference, I think. A big one.
That’s why I’ll never try to be a Renoir, but I’ll always try to be a Jesse. Because the stories we write should be everyone’s story in some small way. And because they should not only speak of a larger truth, but include everyone at the table, too.