The End of Storytelling
by Jeff Okay
Reading about Russian security policy in Central Asia, I am perched intently on the bench outside a pleasant left-leaning think tank. An old man dressed in a 1970s tweed monstrosity huffs and puffs his way onto the bench. I take my earphones out of my ears to greet him politely but distantly. He says that he's 92 and has foot trouble, to which I offer some elevator-worthy pleasantries.

Before I know it, he is deep into a story about his formative years as Rhodes Scholar touring Germany in the 1930s. At first the story is interesting – British divorce, boats, trains, the rise of Nazism! – and I welcome the enlightening break to my sunny-day work, but quickly I realize that this story has no end.

The characters move at a snail's pace, as if the man's memory has to run around in circles in order to find its true direction. His memory proves exhaustive as he describes the shape of the landscape behind the house of the professor at the university at which he and a friend had lunch in 1934, but my subtle efforts to prompt him to speed up only encourage him to slow down.

I tell him that I have to get back to my studies shortly, but he continues with the vigor of frozen molasses. The sun moves down the sky. The car traffic thickens along Massachusetts Avenue. I know this man is, or at least was, very important; perhaps he can help me get a job doing something important. I try to ask him about his field of study, but in order to know that he needs to tell me the rest of his life, from breakfast cereal choices to Peruvian research assistants to –

My phone rings. I'm saved. But the man simply keeps talking. He's somewhere on children now, or being ambassador to Latin America under President so-and-so, and everyone in his stories is dead but him. True, I covet this man's professional life, his experience, his memory, but if I allow him to keep speaking, he will take me through every child's formative years and each of Lyndon Johnson's affairs, and he will keep going until one of us is dead. Given his existing accomplishments in longevity, I suspect I would be the first to go.

There is no graceful way out. I tell him that I have to take the call, and he finally stops and walks away with anger in his light limp. As the sun's light vanishes from Massachusetts Avenue, I learn a valuable lesson: don't network with the elderly.
Posted by: Jeff Okay

Prose (August 19th, 2006)