In “Eminence” by Caroline Casper, a woman travels to her hometown in Kentucky to retrieve an old answering machine she believes will contain messages from her mother, who died twelve years before. It is not so much the story itself, but the way it is told that fascinated me.
The story begins at the end. The narrator sits on the floor, listening to the white noise of the answering machine tape she has come so far to find. “There are 19 minutes and 30 seconds left,” she says. And in that time, she will tell us her story. By revealing how much time is left, we will pay better attention. We always appreciate something more when we know how quickly it will end.
Like any writer playing with notions of time, Casper does not give events in chronological order. After the scene with the answering machine, we are taken back to an earlier scene in the car: the narrator is driving and counting down the miles to Eminence, Kentucky. The narrator then remembers a nearly-forgotten day in her past, when her mother was still alive: the day a tornado touched down in Eminence.
She goes from present to past and back again, circling around each time to the day of the tornado, so that I began to feel as if I was in a funnel cloud myself, swirling closer and closer to some important truth that could only be found in the eye of the storm.
This is a story about the countdown of time and about the time we have left with our loved ones before they go. The narrator tells us when we are halfway through the story, when we are getting close to the end, and when we only have 98 seconds left. “It is easier to wait by the microwave than the stove,” she says wisely. I felt the time ticking away.
This is also a story about memory. The narrator had forgotten the sound of her mother’s voice. That’s why she wanted the answering machine. She had also almost forgotten about the day of the tornado. She keeps circling back to that day, her mind like a funnel cloud, trying to swirl in closer and closer to see what she can find in the very center of her memory.
“Eminence” is a story about a tornado, a story that is told like a funneling cloud. It is a story about the countdown of time that is told with an actual countdown. It is a story that gives everything away at the very beginning, and yet I didn’t understand what that meant until the very end. It is a story my mind has been circling back to ever since I read it.