The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934


by David Means

From the New Yorker:

Five days of trading the field glasses and taking turns crawling back into the trees to smoke out of sight. Five days on surveillance, waiting to see if by some chance Carson might return to his uncle’s farm. Five days of listening to the young agent, named Barnes, as he recited verbatim from the file: Carson has a propensity to fire warning shots; it has been speculated that Carson’s limited vision in his left eye causes his shots to carry to the right of his intended target; impulse control somewhat limited. Five days of listening to Barnes recount the pattern of heists that began down the Texas Panhandle and proceeded north all the way up to Wisconsin, then back down to Kansas, until the trail tangled up in the fumbling ineptitude of the Bureau. For five days, Barnes talked while Lee, older, hard-bitten, nodded and let the boy play out his theories. Five days reduced to a single conversation.

Years later, retired, sitting on his porch looking out at the lake while his wife clanked pots in the kitchen, whistling softly to herself, he’d know, or think he knew, that even at that moment in Kansas, turning to speak to Barnes, he’d had a sense that one day he’d be retired and reflecting on that particular point in time—back near the tree line—because that was what you did after spending much of your career trying to think the way other folks might think. When you retired, you turned back into yourself and tried to settle into not thinking about the way others thought. You rested your feet and sat around tweezing apart past scenarios that had ended up with you alive and others dead, taking advantage of the fact that you were still alive while those others weren’t, and in doing so relishing—with a religious sort of glory—the fact that you retained the ability to look out at a lake on a clean, quiet summer day while the wind riffled the far side and a single boat oared gently, dragging a fishing line.

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