1. “Your name means ‘the king,” Norma Jean says. . . . she is reading a book about another century. . . .
“Am I still the king around here?”
Norma Jean flexes her biceps and feels them for hardness. “I’m not fooling around with anybody, if that’s what you mean. . . .”
This quotation, which appears near the end of the story, reveals that Norma Jean’s foray into education both empowers and drives her away from Leroy. When she learns, for example, that le roy means “the king” in French, she seems aware of the irony in the definition. Her husband, an out-of-work pothead, strikes her as anything but kinglike. When Leroy asks, “Am I still the king around here?” he reveals his uneasiness. He knows that Norma Jean’s books, which he can identify only vaguely as “about another century,” are taking her beyond his reach, and he senses that she may have ceased to consider him the head of the household. In answer to Leroy’s question, Norma Jean “flexes her biceps,” a gesture that should confirm Leroy’s suspicions. Norma Jean is literally flexing her muscles and showing her husband that she is the one in charge of things now. She then provides a grudging and stereotypically male reassurance that she is not having an affair. Both mentally and physically, Norma Jean is toughening up.
2. Leroy has the sudden impulse to tell Norma Jean about himself, as if he had just met her. They have known each other so long they have forgotten a lot about each other. . . . But . . . he forgets why he wants to do this.
The quotation appears near the middle of the story, as Leroy smokes a joint on the couch. “Shiloh” is in part a story about the impossibility of knowing other people, even people with whom you have spent more than sixteen years. Leroy’s long absences on the road have distanced him from Norma Jean, as has the couple’s inability to talk about Randy’s death. The institution of marriage itself has also separated the couple. In marriages, Mason suggests, chit-chat and comfortable silences can easily replace honest communication, leading to a paradoxical state in which people “have known each other so long they have forgotten a lot about each other.” Although Leroy feels a connection to his wife, he no longer understands her motivations or is privy to her thoughts. In fact, her actions often bewilder him. Occasionally he imagines starting over from the beginning and talking to his wife as if they are strangers getting to know each other for the first time. But everything from shyness to marijuana to general stasis prevents him from acting on this impulse. The estrangement only increases as the story goes on, until Leroy is sitting in a car with his wife and feeling as awkward as a young guy on a date with a sophisticated older woman.