(Spoiler warning: Don’t read this until you’ve finished the “S-Town” podcast, which you can listen to here.)
One of my favorite things about the “S-Town” podcast is how much host Brian Reed leaves out. He delves deep into the life of his main subject, John B. McLemore, and some believe he goes too deep. But he has the humility and plain good taste not to draw conclusions about things that are unknowable, or that not everyone needs to know.
For example: What happened to John’s gold. Or rather, to the gold that everyone believed John had, and that John himself professed to own. Gold turns out to be very important to “S-Town,” and not just because gold is made of gold.
It turns out John may have died by gold, and not in the way we briefly imagine he might have died, as the show briefly questions whether anyone might have killed him for his treasure. Rather, Reed suggests, John may have begun a long suicide, years before the night of his death, by ingesting mercury while using a rare, madness-inducing technique known as fire-gilding to ornament his clocks.
Reed opens “S-Town” with a lovely monologue about clock repair, noting that with many old clocks, the fixer has no guide. So he or she has to guess at the clockmaker’s intent using what are called “witness marks.”
“A witness mark can be a small dent, a hole that once held a screw,” he explains. “These are actual impressions and outlines and discolorations left inside the clock of pieces that might have once been there. They’re clues to what was in the clockmaker’s mind when he first created the thing.”
Seven episodes later, in the final installment of “S-Town,” Reed leaves us a witness mark of his own. Trying to determine what became of the gold — if, indeed, there was any gold — he plays a conversation he had long ago with Tyler Goodson, the young man whose complicated, intimate relationship with McLemore is at the heart of “S-Town.”
Early in the story, when he’s still alive, McLemore makes no secret of his desire to leave something behind for Goodson in the event of his death. Later, when John dies, leaving no will, Goodson makes no secret of his efforts to claim what he says John would have wanted him to have.
Not everyone sees the situation as Tyler does. By the fifth episode of “S-Town,” he has been charged with misdemeanor trespassing for going on John’s land, and then with felony theft charges. He is accused of stealing John’s property, including buses full of antiques and a 48-foot trailer he turned into the heart of a new home he is building for his family.
The conversation Reed plays for us in the last episode was recorded after Tyler was charged with trespassing, but before the more serious charges.
“Listen, I clearly want to know if you ever do find it,” Reed tells Tyler. “But you should think about it before you tell me. If you ever do. Because it’s going to then be public.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s what I’m scared of now,” Tyler tells him.
“Well. As far as just talking about this stuff?”
“I mean, you already got the trespassing charge,” Reed says. “But I would worry if you found a million dollars worth of gold or you found like, a bunch of gold. Just consider it before you ever tell me, alright?”
There’s a pause. Tyler gestures toward Reed’s tape recorder.
“Turn that thing off a minute,” says Tyler.
And then they talk about… something. Reed describes how they “sat on the porch of his trailer, and had a discussion off the record.”
The insinuation is obvious, at least to me: Tyler has told Reed he found the gold.
It’s also possible, of course, that the new owner of John’s property, Kendall Burt, found the gold — perhaps buried in John’s maze. But Burt laughs off that notion in another interview with Reed: “I also heard about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but I’m not chasing rainbows,” Burt says.
We should probably take it as a given that no one who finds the gold will admit it. Unless Tyler admitted it to Reed off the record, and that Reed relayed what Tyler told him to us, in the only ethical way that he could.
My hope? Tyler found the gold, and will use it to take care of his new wife and young daughters. I think Reed is too kind to Tyler to let him get himself in trouble on tape. But he’s also loyal to us, his listeners.
So he leaves us a witness mark. A small dent in his narrative. A small moment of discoloration and outline. Enough for us to get it.
It’s also possible that Reed, is just a master showman who left a deliberate gap in the story to let us imagine we’ve figured out what happened to the gold, even if we haven’t. He knows, given the history of “Serial” and “Making a Murderer,” that “S-Town” listeners will take to Reddit and Twitter and articles like this one to explain our own theories. He creates an information vacuum for us to fill with our own imaginations.
Maybe we don’t need to know everything. Some stories are better if we don’t.