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'Old Crimes and Other Stories': Jill McCorkle probes the misdeeds and secrets that haunt us

The cover of "Old Crimes and Other Stories" and author Jill McCorkle. (Courtesy of Algonquin Books, Tom Rankin)
The cover of "Old Crimes and Other Stories" and author Jill McCorkle. (Courtesy of Algonquin Books, Tom Rankin)

Author Jill McCorkle has published a collection of short stories about the secrets and small misdeeds that can stay with us forever.

She speaks with host Lisa Mullins.

Book excerpt: ‘Old Crimes and Other Stories’

By Jill McCorkle

★ The Lineman

I am a lineman for the county.

It’s true and there was a time when Pam laughed when I said that but now she just smirks and turns away; now she monitors the time I spend with Amanda and counts the days until the divorce comes through. Whenever I pick Amanda up for dinner, a wave of teenage cologne and strange hair colors, there’s yet another pasteboard box or torn grocery bag Pam has left on the steps with some of my belongings—old shaving cream, single socks, junk mail. She says she can’t bear to see me. We once had an old retriever mix named Teeny, who when caught spread-eagle on the living room sofa, stared into the far corner as if we couldn’t see her plump body because she couldn’t see us. We laughed at it then. Even Pam, who was not a dog person and got angry about her shedding in the living room, had laughed and marveled at Teeny’s sweet passive attempt to make us disappear.

“Pulling a Teeny,” I almost said the other day when I arrived early and caught her off-guard, my mother’s old jewelry box and a T-shirt I hadn’t worn in over a decade in her hand. The last time I tried to make light of her ignoring my presence, she said I repulsed her. Somehow she has managed to take her affair and turn herself into the victim. It’s not easy to cross those lines up but she has become a pro. I almost said that but then thought better because Amanda was standing right there—fourteen and so easy for me to lose right about now. Her hair had a bright blue streak that day, like in the comic books, and her boots looked like the ones I wear on the job.

The lines are still important, I had told Pam when it was clear she’d lost interest in everything about me. The lines aren’t what’s eating everybody up with cancer.

I love that song “Wichita Lineman” and have since the first time I heard Glen Campbell singing it in 1968 when I was only twelve years old. I read in an interview where the guy who wrote the song saw somebody out in Oklahoma way up a pole working all by himself and said it was “the picture of loneliness.” That phrase “picture of loneliness” has stuck with me all these years, coming to mind when I see a certain look cross a person’s face, the look my mama often had when she thought no one was watching her. I loved the song “Galveston,” too, and always pictured my sister—or who I thought was my sister—there on some deserted beach waiting for her sweetheart to return. And now look at Glen, would you. Glen and my mama are riding on the same old dementia bus—destination unknown.

My parents were really my grandparents but I didn’t know that until around that same time I heard “Wichita Lineman” for the first time. Kids had teased me about how old they were, especially at school events when my mama showed up and everybody assumed she was my grandma. My mother—my real mother— was my long-lost “sister” they rarely talked about. I only have brief, blurred memories of her—long, dark hair that hung to her waist, fringe jacket and purse. She had a chain she had made of chewing gum wrappers—Teaberry, Clove—and it trailed around the mirror over her dresser.

I learned the truth the same day my old man said he’d washed his hands of her. He wasn’t the easiest person to live with before this, but afterward he was no more than a ghost. My first wife, Linda, who was my childhood sweetheart and best friend, was there to witness this. She was the only person I talked about it with, and I talked about it for the next twelve years in fact, right up to that moment I f***** everything up. My biggest failure will always be the way I so irresponsibly lost her. It’s hard even now to understand, like watching a nightmare or Hitchcock. Oh no, don’t go there. But I did.

One of the boxes Pam left on the steps had our first car phone. It was the size of a large shoebox and plugged into the cigarette lighter. She surprised me with it one Christmas, thinking I’d be impressed. She had just started her graduate work in a program called Communications and she laughed to say that this is what we had in common. We both worked in communications. We’d made jokes imitating Alexander Graham Bell: Pam, come here, I need you, I’d sometimes call from the bedroom.

Alexander Graham Bell didn’t need Mr. Watson, he wanted him. “There’s a total difference,” Pam always said, hands on her hips. “Need is so desperate,” she had said on more than one occasion, and I always responded by singing a line from Glen: “but I need you more than want you,” and then explained to her how the line didn’t work without that second part, “and I want you for all time,” and that I was a man who was all about getting the lines right. I told her how my ideal position was strapped to a pole with my dangling cable in full view. How could she not laugh at that?

But by then, she didn’t and of course that’s when I knew the lines of communication weren’t just experiencing a little overload or a break to be spliced. There was clearly someone else. I thought of poor Elisha Gray in that moment—competitor and first runner-up to Alexander Graham Bell, lost by a nose, otherwise we’d all be saying Ma Gray. All those years of hard work invested and then some other guy sweeps in and gets the prize.

And talk about miscommunication: Bell and Watson couldn’t even agree on what was said and they were both right there. Bell reported: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” But what Watson heard was “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.”

From “Old Crimes and Other Stories” by Jill McCorkle. Used with permission of the publisher, Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2024 by Jill McCorkle.

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