On Essaying: The Beauty of Elusiveness
August 13, 2014 § Leave a comment
Some of this story is historical account and so treasured by most audiences; the leftovers are legend, elusive in ways that also nourish us.
August, 1876. Wild Bill Hickok sits in Nuttall & Mann’s No. 10 Saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory playing five-card draw with several men, among them Jack McCall. Both Hickok and McCall wear pistols in their belts. Hickok goes on a substantial run, chiefly at McCall’s expense. For hours they drink whiskey and jaw at each other. Hickok goes up big, and McCall goes bust.
Then the fateful gesture: Hickok passes a dollar across the table and tells a broke McCall to go get himself something to eat. Befuddled, McCall takes the money and disappears.
The next morning Hickok returns to the poker table early. McCall approaches him from behind, screams “Damn you! Take that!” and shoots Hickok in the back of the head. Hickok tips over, dead. He is 39 years old. His cards sit in front of him: aces and eights, now known to any rounder as Dead Man’s Hand. His fifth card, the draw card, is face down and will forever remain that way.
It’s the ambiguity, not the precision, of the episode which lends it such potency. That small kernel—the gift of a dollar—that’s the nerve center of the story, and as we try to unravel it, it ruptures, spilling out wave after wave of intrigue. Was Hickok’s dollar given as provocation? Or did Wild Bill have a soft spot, pity for yet another vanquished foe? Did McCall buy himself dinner with the gift, or did he instead, in a dreadful stain of irony, use the money to drink himself full of courage? And what about that draw card? Had Hickok completed the full house, the adrenaline pumping into his brain just before the bullet?
It leaves us in a sort of purgatory in which we must know and cannot know. We pore over the details, rooting around the story’s underbelly for some edifying particular. Before we even realize it, the story has drawn us into its orbit, enticing us with the prospect of discovery, and as we speculate, we also elevate. This, I think, is how we grow legends. They lurk where there is a gap in the historical record, and their energy emanates from opacity rather than clarity.
Despite their dalliances into fabrication, legends crave truth. They simply don’t find it. And it’s this craving which drives them and entices us. (After all, once we answer a question we stop engaging with it: knowing is static, but wondering is active.) Legends goad us into fixating on what we cannot know by convincing us that we can know it. This, I think, is why Hickok and Nessie and Atlantis and King Arthur and Helen of Troy have persisted the way they have. So long as their mysteries remain hidden but seemingly within reach, we will remain tethered to them.
This seems a good lesson for any essayist: pivotal gestures need not be clarifying; in fact, the best gestures might be a bit perplexing. Perhaps it is counterintuitive to build outward from uncertainty rather than precision, but a thousand fascinating legends would attest to its virtues. Done well, and it creates the veneer of partnership between writer and reader: We will solve this together, you and I, it says. Ambiguity is precarious, certainly. It can easily become a crutch we use to avoid articulating complexity or nuance. Harder still, we must give up a measure of control to the reader, allow her to navigate by bread crumbs rather than a freshly cut trail. But this, I think, is the sign of a healthy essay and a confident essayist. It is well beyond admitting ignorance; it is embracing that ignorance, making it the focal point, staring at it with the reader in hopes that together you might learn something.
In other words, the draw card holds more raw power than even an ace in the hole. The draw card will always be tantalizing because it is both directly in front of us and face down. Change either of those variables, and its clout fizzles. Authority borne from murkiness. I sometimes worry that we welcome ambiguity in fiction but feel entitled to nothing but clarity in nonfiction. I know I’ve often avoided writing the essay that puzzles me too much because I feared that gaps in knowledge would stymie rather than embolden the narrative. I worry that we have trained ourselves to overlook the beauty in elusiveness. But the curiosity borne from it can be exquisite: I don’t know why Hickok gave McCall that dollar, and I don’t know what his draw card was, but I feel so grateful that I get to wonder.
Ultimately, what do we know? McCall was hanged as a murderer. Hickok became an icon of the Wild West. In 1979 he even joined the inaugural class in the World Poker Hall of Fame. Would any of that have happened if he had instead died of tuberculosis? If he hadn’t offered Jack McCall that dollar? Do we really want to know?
Brad Felver’s fiction and essays have appeared recently in Colorado Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, BULL: Men’s Fiction, and Fiction Writers Review among other places. He lives with his wife in northern Ohio, where he teaches at Bowling Green State University and is hard at work on a novel.