THIS PAST JUNE, I traveled to my ancestral home in Fort Wayne, Indiana for my nephew’s graduation from high school. I don’t get back to the Fort often but when I do I always pay a visit to my former next-door-neighbor, Mrs. Stephens. Although Mrs. Stephens started off simply being the mother of my friends, as I’ve grown older I’ve been surprised to find that my relationship with her has grown into an adult relationship and our conversations are now adult conversations. When I was a kid, I always suspected that adults spoke about secret things – and I was right. A good chunk of “adult” conversation consists of gossip that passes as stories. These tidbits of news and ugly truths get passed along, from mouth to ear, just like well-worn dollar bills. This is the currency that adults trade. And it’s the currency I looked forward to trading with Mrs. Stephens.
My wife and I sat down in Mrs. Stephens’ living room and, to my pleasant surprise, her son (and my childhood friend) Greg was there to offer us large glasses of lemonade to sip while we passed along stories that had been passed along to us. The storytelling was perfectly pleasant until, just as our conversation was winding down (and just I started thinking about what my own mother was fixing for dinner next door), Greg perched on the edge of his easy chair and asked us if we knew about Trixie. Mrs. Stephens covered her mouth and said, “Oh, Trixie! Now that’s a story!”
I said I wasn’t sure if I’d heard it and Greg laughed. He said that if I knew about Trixie (not her real name, by the way) there would be no way I could ever forget it. Drawing us in, he said that after he was done telling us the story, no one would ever be able to tell the story again.
Obviously what he meant was that he was going to tell his story so well that it would be pointless for anyone else to even try re-telling the tale. I smiled because he was clearly exaggerating. Like Atlantis and leprechauns, stories that can only be told once aren’t real. However, despite my unbelief, I had to admit that it was a great way to start the story.
The story he and his mother told was, without question, the best story I’d heard all year. It was more fascinating, more enthralling, more surprising than any movie, television show or book I’d seen or read in a long, long time. No other story I’d heard even came close. It wasn’t just the juicy details of the story; it was how Greg and Mrs. Stephens told the story, like tag team wrestlers, each taking their turn to beat the story into submission.
Greg began telling the true story of how Trixie was going to introduce them to her brand-new fiancé. Mrs. Stephens then jumped in with the back-story, explaining how poor Trixie had always been unlucky in love (there was a nice flashback to the time she fell in love online with a self-professed rich doctor who showed up on her doorstep looking for a place to stay and some fried chicken). Greg then went off on a tangent describing how he paid a visit to the summer redneck games in rural Georgia before tying it all back neatly into the main story. He and his mother told a riveting story of love, deception, and murder with an outboard motor. They were animated; they used visual aids; they reenacted scenes. It was funny, violent and masterful. I wish you could have been there.
What was the story? How did the sweet promise of romance twist and turn its way into a dark tale of a double-life sentence without a chance for parole? Well, this is going to be terrible, but I can’t tell you – for three very good reasons.
1) The story involves real people who may get their feelings hurt.
2) The story involves real people who are criminals who may break out of prison in order to hurt me.
3) The story really can’t be told again.
Greg was absolutely right: he totally killed it. I’ve tried to tell the story a couple of times and I’ve never been able to recreate his mix of shock and awe. The story of Trixie was more than a cold restatement of the terrible things that happened to her; it was the manner and circumstances in which it was told. For you to truly experience the story, you had to have been sitting on Mrs. Stephens’ couch with a glass of lemonade in your hand. To fully appreciate the story, you had to know the Stephens and they had to know you. To be as jazzed as my wife and I were, you had to know a few things but you had to be completely ignorant about others. A perfect story (which that was) is in the telling. Greg and Mrs. Stephens’ story would be both different and diminished if retold. I can’t tell Greg’s story because I’m not Greg and I can’t copy his telling.
There are reasons why Alan Moore‘s “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” worked brilliantly as a comic book series and flopped spectacularly as a film. The screenwriters, as talented as they were, were not Mr. Moore so it only makes sense that their story isn’t Mr. Moore’s story. The film version of “The League…” is also different from the comic because, obviously, it’s a film and a film can’t do what a comic book series does. That doesn’t mean feature films are a lower art form; it simply means they are a different and have an entirely different set of strengths.
In a time when all stories are expected to work across multiple media platforms (the comic has to be a TV show; the book has to be a movie; the TV show has to mobile app, etc.), I suspect that great stories are great not just because of their specific details but because of the manner in which they were told. Stories that can be plugged into a wide variety of devices and reconfigured for endless formats are probably nothing more than merchandise masquerading as stories.
I would tell you the story if I could (no one likes adult conversation more than I do), but I sincerely believe that the best and only way to hear the story of Trixie was sipping lemonade on the couch in Mrs. Stephens’ living room, just as the sun was going down, in the summer of 2011. There’s no point in saying what the story was; Greg killed it.