Right out of the gate the voice is sure and angry and trapped:
Teenagers twine around each other and complain to me about the lame music. Do they think I can do anything about it? “Manager” isn’t the same thing as “Management” at Dogs ’N More. I’m the hinge on a greasy door that lets in frantic moms who can’t control their kids, horny teenagers feeling each other up, sullen cashiers who figure they’re too good for a hot-dog shack. You come to Dogs ’N More, you get what’s coming to you.
This is the opening of “Management” by Erin McGraw in KROnline. I’m fully engaged from the start, which is the holy grail of all openings: grab your readers and don’t let them go, don’t let them breathe.
Part of the trick here, I’ll point out, is McGraw’s use of the present tense. That’s a trendy mode these days and, to my mind, often overused. After all, the illusion of telling a story in the present, as if it’s happening right now, is not a little odd. Both logically and traditionally, storytelling deals with events that have already happened. But in “Management” using the present tense creates a particular effect. It increases the sense of entrapment. This narrator is here, and there’s no hope for a future, and the past is surely past.
So who is this narrator? “I’m the hinge on a greasy door,” he says, not with pride but with sullen resentment. He’s not a kid—we know that. He’s a “Manager,” but not management. It’s all there in the voice, the word choice. Note that the voice I’ve mentioned is not the author—it’s the character, the narrator, and it’s got to be true to who he is. The author’s control here, which we glimpse through the scrim of tone and diction, is masterful.
But the further, more pressing question is why is the narrator so resentful? Why is he stuck in this dead-end job? Is he just a loser—someone we couldn’t care about? That’s certainly our first impression, but the momentum and dramatic specificity of the story pull us along. And the finesse is terrific when we learn only in passing about his brother’s plight:
My brother Randy was pissed when I let the subscription [to GQ] go. He had liked the articles about ties and protein diets, and he said I’d left him with nothing but daytime TV. This was not even close to true—for starters, he could try washing a dish once in a while. But he says that the sink is hard to reach from his wheelchair, and anyway, I’m the one who does most of the eating. True that.
So the brothers are living together, but still there’s not much sympathy for the narrator. Even as we discover that he’s assumed responsibility for his paraplegic brother, which might mitigate our sense of him as a loser, we suspect that he’s done so only out of guilt. “I was the one driving the night he went through the windshield and broke his neck,” we are told.
Towards the end of this very short piece, however, we are suddenly plunged into a specific evening in what seems a distant past:
It had been another nice day, pre-accident, summer tipping into fall, when Randy and I went to a party at a guy’s house whose parents were gone. I was too old, already out of college, but they were Randy’s friends and there was a girl I wanted to see.
The evening had been a moment out of time, twilight a glimmer with hope and possibility as he kisses this girl and a world, a future seems to open:
Later, before the guys who lived there told me to take my brother home, she and I sat in lawn chairs, looking at the party going on inside. “It’s like watching a TV show,” she said. “They have no idea we’re here.”
That’s enough for our purpose. Read this lovely, lovely story for the full and rich ironies that blossom at the end. Choosing this one for KRO, as is often the case when something just right alights, was easy.