But I’ve run across a few people in my life who not only don’t tell a good story, they don’t even tell bad ones. This looks to me like a real affliction. I don’t know how serious it is, but since we communicate with each other through the stories we tell, it has to be more disabling than something like tone deafness and color blindness.
My Uncle Carl’s wife, Ruby, comes to mind. The groan that used to rise from my dad’s throat every time she came to visit us from California sounded as if he’d just stepped on a rusty nail. That mournful sound had nothing to do with knowing that Aunt Ruby would compulsively run her finger across any piece of furniture she walked by as if she were drill sergeant, conducting a white-glove inspection. No. We thought that was actually kind of funny. It wasn’t the fact that she considered us ignorant savages and thought that, since we weren’t members of her wacked-out religion, we were no doubt dancing, drinking, and fornicating our way toward the yawning gates of Hell. Naa. We kind of got a kick out of that too. My dad groaned because he knew that the bulky cardboard box she lugged around in those skinny arms of hers was stuffed to the brim with her dreaded pictures. And my dad also knew that immediately after Ruby was satisfied that all of our furniture dust had been properly accounted for, she would plop her butt down on our couch and begin dealing out those pictures, one-at-a-boring-ass-time.
“Here’s my sister Opal’s front yard,” she began during one visit, pointing at the picture of a middle-aged man, standing in a sandy yard, scowling at a scrawny little tree. “This is a tree,” she added as if we were too ignorant to recognized that little bit of flora despite the fact that we lived back in the woods and were completely surrounded by trees. She moved her long, slender finger across the slick black and white image, saying, “This is the edge of Opal’s driveway and here’s the street. Back here you can see a little bit of the Santa Monica Freeway…”
“But who is this man?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I think Opal said his name was Tom.”
“Why is he standing by this stick of a tree?”
“Opal told him to stand by the tree so I could take his picture. Somewhere in there I’ve got a picture of Tom’s wife standing by that same tree. Then I took a picture of both of them standing by the tree. I’ll get to those after I’ve pointed out all the things in this picture. Right here I’ve got a little of their front porch steps in the frame…”
And on and on. It was like death.
You can see the problem. Not even a wisp of narrative accompanied Aunt Ruby’s photo presentations. If a person shows you a picture of some guy named Tom standing by a scrawny little tree, you expect her to at least tell you who the hell Tom is. You might even want to know what his relationship is to the tree and why the tree is so scrawny. Why is Tom scowling at the poor little thing? Since he didn’t seem to enjoy the company of the tree, why did Opal insist that he get his picture made with it? And, after thinking about it a minute, you might ask why he was taking orders from this Opal woman to start with? You can only imagine. But I’ll bet Aunt Ruby couldn’t.