Connecting with Lauren Groff’s “Good People”

by Ra'Niqua Lee  ·  October 05, 2015

Picture2Cameras confront the brevity of a moment and preserve what a second can destroy. They make memory tangible while acting as a foil to our personal bias. We cannot deny what is caught on film, but we can take comfort in it.

In Lauren Groff’s “Good People,” first published in Five Points Vol. 16, No. 2, a mother clings to an idealized memory of her son, who has gone off to war.

She was deep in mint. Wild stuff, it had swamped the lavender and chives and thyme already.There was nothing to do but to dig it out.
 A movement at the edge of the property where it fell into the old sinkhole: jackrabbit, she thought, or hawk. She peered, hand to forehead. After a moment, she saw his face among the palmettos. Clear and pale. Her son. Younger than he’d been when he left. Pale head atop a skinny neck, rugby shirt she’d bought him in junior high.

The woman remembers her son in clothes she purchased. Her memory keeps him a child in need of her provisions and protection.

        These three years, she’d kept an image of him safe in her mind. She didn’t know where she got it, but it pleased her. He was on a dune. Sand the color of lemon-whip, sky a playful blue. He was walking on the dune, his footsteps casting snakes of sand down the sides, and he was as blond as he’d been as a baby and tanned. The kind of cloth that sheiks wear on his head, covering the jutting ears, handsome. That’s all she saw. No gun, no other soldiers, no Humvees.

She wants to preserve the memory of her son, keeping “an image of him safe,” but unlike a photo, which will remain the same no matter how much time passes, she cannot hold her memories in similar isolation. With each new experience, memories warp, twist, stretch, and fade. Sometimes, they grow too big for the frames we have created for them. As the story progresses, the nostalgic mother becomes an unhappy wife. She recalls her first date with her husband.

         On some deserted city crossroads, dark and flashing red with the light, a man rearing up in her window, more shadow than flesh. Tapping with the heel of a gun. He’d looked down at her. Matter-of-fact. She turned to wood. Her husband, the man she’d just barely met, so calm, so smooth, threw the car in park, opened the door. Had his pistol in his hand. There had been a flash, or perhaps not. A report? It was hard to tell.
        She had wanted him to fall. For scaring her, for wanting what she had. And the man who would become her husband came back into his seat, slamming the door. He was panting, put his gun in his jacket, the car into gear, squealed off. Every particle in her wanted him. Well. She got him. Took him in, didn’t let him go. She preferred not to ask. She preferred not to know. She was not without blame.

Where before she imagined her husband the hero, recent events have caused the memory to discolor around the edges. She realizes that she might not know her husband at all.

A camera can act as impartial eyewitness, but people live in bias and need. We see what we want, and what we want is not always what’s real. Like the mother in “Good People,” our sight is not without blame.