Once upon a time people swapped stories with one another. In my own Southern family these stories were usually passed around in the evening, on the porch, as the twilight thickened and the first fireflies began to pulse above the lawn. The stories involved the calamitous fates of distant relatives—the more distant the better—or the escapades of those my grandmother or my aunt or uncle considered their social inferiors. I preferred the second category since they involved hapless and disreputable characters, evoked with a certain condescending humor. My mother told stories while she was driving. As the tale grew more and more complicated she would slow down to below the speed limit, but then, as she approached the denouement, she would hit the accelerator and we would be hurled forward to the climax. This had a way of imprinting those stories on my mind; even the most rambling of them were tinged with menace, enhanced by...

 

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