Monday, March 12, 2012

#24: "The Excitement Begins" by Leslee Becker

~This story previously appeared in Ploughshares (1995)


            On the day before his fiftieth birthday, Bill Lander received a letter from a woman he’d never heard of—Amber Harding—saying she’d be pleased to come to Wallace to meet him and be his birthday date.  She noted the time she’d arrive on the train and said she’d have no trouble recognizing him.  “I’ll just look for a tall, silent type,” she wrote, but warned that she had modified her appearance some since her ad ran in Soulmates.  “I took the plunge, and had my hair cut and permed.  The color’s the same.”   She closed by saying she looked forward to meeting a real cowboy and seeing Wyoming.  Her letter was mailed from What Cheer, Iowa, and Bill read it again, certain there had been a mistake.  He called Directory Assistance, then Amber Harding.
            “There’s been a mistake,” he told her answering machine.  “This is Bill Lander leaving the message.”  He noted the time and date, and left his phone number.
            He was outside spreading hay, when it came to him that someone was playing a birthday trick on him, someone’s idea of a gag.  He flung the hay, hitting a heifer, her big eyes regarding him stupidly, her tail flicking at a halo of flies. 
He had a long list of culprits to choose from.  He’d lived in Wallace all his life.  He was a bachelor, and friends were always trying to hook him up with someone.  They were the ones who were going all out for his birthday.  They rented the Union Hall and hired a local band, promising him he’d have a night to remember.
            He got in his pickup and went to the barbershop in town.  Ned Jencks grinned at him.  “The birthday boy.  The big five-oh.  Bet you’re here for a haircut.”
            “No,” Bill told him.  He saw Soulmates on top of a stack of magazines, and picked it up.
            “That’s an interesting publication,” Ned said.

            “Yeah,” Bill said, and went to the Busy Bee Café.  He saw men at the counter glancing at him.
            It was the spring issue of the magazine, and hearts and flowers were on the border.  On the cover was a picture of a woman named Roxanne in a red blouse, her short hair arranged stiffly.  The caption beneath her photo read, “The happiest woman alive.”
            Bill skimmed the ads and pictures, greatly annoyed that people had meddled in his life and in this pathetic way.  Did they think he was desperate?
            There was no picture of Amber Harding, but her ad was longer than anyone else’s.  She said she was petite—five foot three—and had maintained a desirable weight for years.  She had shoulder-length brown hair and was forty, born and bred in the Midwest.

 I’m not afraid to take on projects of considerable magnitude and complexity.  Friends describe me as intelligent, witty, mysterious, a deep thinker, compassionate, gentle, fun-loving, and somewhat guarded. I have an interest in good nutrition, reading labels and taking supplements.  I wouldn’t mind meeting a man who cooks and bakes on a regular basis and who is humorous by nature.  I like riding horses who don’t buck without  advance warning.  I love surprises, not shocks! Am hoping to hear from interested parties.  Only, no  inmates, please.

Unlike the other ads, Amber Harding’s listed no occupation, just a box number at the magazine.  Someone had chosen to write to her, he assumed, because the ad was silly.  He glanced at the rest of the ads: photographs of women dressed up for an evening on the town, the men in old-fashioned western outfits, their ads insistent on transformations and the desire to settle down and have a second chance after divorces and drinking. 
            Bill distrusted everything the writers said, but continued reading.

            Middle-aged man, tall, silent type.  Filled with common sense.  Has
            spread.  No dependents.  Realistic, all-around nice guy, average
            looking.  Been doing the solo act for years.  Something’s missing.
            Desperate to fill other half of team harness I’ve been dragging around.


            He saw the name Bill underneath and “Big Horn Country, Wallace, WY.”
            “Jesus,” he muttered, and imagined friends and neighbors sitting down to compose such an ad and a letter to Amber Harding.
            He returned home, and threw Soulmates in the trash, but couldn’t shake the portrait of himself depicted in the magazine.  He wasn’t aware of ever telling anyone that something was missing in his life; most likely, it was their assumption.  If he had to describe his feelings, he might mention a kind of contentment, along with the conviction that something dramatic—possibly awful—was in store.  The day he broke his leg three years ago, he came close to pinning down that feeling.  It was in the spring, and he’d gone on a horseback ride in the high country.  He could’ve sworn he heard a woman crying, moaning luxuriously, somewhere behind the rocks.  He spurred his horse, and the old bay, resentful and spooked, bucked him, then ran off.  He knew some damage had been done to his leg, but was afraid to look, afraid to move.  Then a mountain lion emerged, making that female crying noise.  The lion took possession of a boulder, sitting regally on it, its flanks still, its eyes patiently observing him lying in the damp grass.
            A sheepman had found him, nudged him with the toe of a muddy boot, then hefted him upon his shoulders like a bum lamb.  During his hospital stay, friends and neighbors signed his cast, and assured him they were seeing to things on his ranch.
            “Thought I was a goner.  Figured it was just a matter of time before that lion sprang on me,” Bill would tell people, never mentioning the curious elation that he’d felt that day. 
            He’d read of people who’d had brushes with death, their whole outlook changing afterwards, but when he returned home, everything seemed the same.  The cattle moved in deliberate processions, following the same rutted path to the fields and home again.
            Sometimes he rode back to the site, stopping always at the place where he had fallen, and lying down there to stare at the boulder again, waiting foolishly to see the mountain lion and to feel that solitary excitement.

            He hardly slept.  He waited for his phone to ring, and fretted about the next day.  When he finally left his bed and looked outside, he saw fog obscuring the foothills and mountains.  He had hours to go before meeting the train at noon, and couldn’t imagine how he’d occupy a stranger until 6:00, the time of the party.
            He completed chores, and then took a long bath.  He dressed in a white shirt and Wrangler jeans.  He bet that this woman was expecting a man in a Stetson and pointed boots, but he wore his old oxblood Ropers and no hat.
            He was glad that there were no other people at the train station.  The day was still overcast, but it had warmed up, the sun moving in and out of rags of clouds.  On the distempered walls of the station were pictures of sleek locomotives conveying passengers over scenic mountain passes and silver streams.  He looked at a map of the United States, and traced his finger from Northeast Wyoming to Iowa, trying to locate What Cheer, the red and blue road routes, train symbols, and rivers so tangled and close he might be staring at a complicated wiring grid.  He was still looking for What Cheer when he heard the train.
            He went out to the platform, but couldn’t see anything in the train windows because the sun had emerged, casting plates of light on the smudged panes.  It occurred to him that he was experiencing the worst part of the birthday joke, standing there like a lunatic, waiting for a fraudulent date.
            A hiss of steam from the locomotive startled him, and then the curious sight of a step stool dropping to the dust as if flung there.  In time, a boot emerged, a pink western boot, small and unlikely-looking, like a shrimp in the desert. 
            She wore a salmon-colored dress, bell-shaped at the bottom, stiff and unyielding, as if filled with wire.  Bill would not call this woman petite, short perhaps.
            “Miss Harding?” he said.  “Amber?”
            “That’s right.  Howdy.”  She shook his hand vigorously.  “Hotter than I expected here, but dry, not like home.”
            “What Cheer,” he said.
            “Whatcher,” she corrected.  “Like what’s yer poison?”  She laughed loudly, and Bill smiled to be polite.
            “Welcome to Wallace,” he said.
            “We both come from places that begin with a W,” she remarked.
            He said nothing as he lifted bags as heavy as hay bales.
            “Did you have a good trip?” he asked her in the truck.
            “Worst food in the United States,” she said, “and I didn’t trust the water supply either.  You’re just as tall as I pictured.”
            “Your ad was accurate too,” he lied, surprised to hear her laugh again. 
            He took the back roads home, avoiding the town, and feeling embarrassed about the sight of himself and this woman, frocked up in an outfit a mail-order catalogue might describe as old-fashioned country-western.
            “It’s greener here than I expected,” she said.
            “We had lots of snow.  A good spring runoff.  Around this time of year, you get late-afternoon thunderstorms.”  He knew that he sounded like a tour guide, conveying a flatlander to a Wyoming dude ranch.  “The party’s at six.  You can rest up first.”
            “Rest up?  This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
            He was about to ask her why she put an ad in the magazine and why she picked him, but she piped in by telling him she had never done anything like this before, going off to meet a perfect stranger, even placing an ad.  “I’m not a lonely woman.  I turned forty in January.  I have studied two-step dancing, and spend my spare time reading travel books.”
            “What do you do in your other time?” he asked.
            “Well, Bill, I practice self-improvement.  What about you?”
            “I’m a little short on spare time,” he said, “but I like movies and reading my trade journals, and tinkering with things, gadgets and the like.  Sometimes I’ll take an appliance apart, for instance, clean it, and reassemble it.”
            She looked at him quizzically.  “Do you go to rodeos and dances?”
            “Sure, and livestock shows and auctions,” he said.
            “It’s always something, huh?”
            “You bet,” he said.  “I can hardly keep track of the time.”
            “I haven’t seen a single ranch,” she remarked.
            “We kind of keep to ourselves out here.  My father bought the land, and I’ve been running things on my own ever since my folks died.  My mother was an Easterner, not used to this kind of country.”  He saw that she was asleep, her head plastered against the window, ruining a hairdo he suspected she’d gotten for this trip, a kind of windswept thing, short on the sides, the wings of the hair above fanning out severely.  He brought his hand quietly up to her head, touching the brown hair and finding it softer than he expected.
            He nudged her awake at the ranch.  She rubbed her eyes and cast them over the property and him with a look of disbelief.  “I was dreaming,” she said.  “They say you can go right back into dreams if you concentrate.  Never worked for me though.”
            As she looked at the house, the muscular hills, and the livestock shambling along, he wondered what she was thinking.  “Most everyone around here raises cattle or sheep.  Not a lot of excitement, I guess you’d say,” he said.
            “In my dream, I climbed up a big tree, only it was inside, like a gymnasium, and there was a polar bear at the bottom of the tree just waiting for me to let go.”
            “Did you,” he asked, “let go?”
            “I woke up.  Wish I could go back to it.”
            “Maybe you ought to rest up before the party,” he said.  “You’ve had a long trip.”
            “But we haven’t gotten acquainted, Bill.  Wouldn’t be right to go to your birthday shindig, hardly knowing a speck about you.  That letter of yours piqued my curiosity.”
            “What part?”
            “All of it.  Here’s a sincere man, I said to myself, but guarded, like me.”
            He gave her a short tour of the property, and as soon as he led her inside, she moved about the place deliberately.  In the kitchen, he watched her remove food from a plastic bag—crackers, cashews, raisins, apples, peaches, and carrots.  “I’ll fix us something light, a nice fruit salad.  You’ve got a big night ahead of you,” she said.
            He had the odd sensation of being displaced and cosseted, as if he’d stepped into another’s childhood.  He felt sleepy.  Curtains gusted in and out the window near the sink where Amber stood cutting fruit, the delicate taps sounding like a code.
            “I’ll put your suitcase upstairs,” he said.
            “Sure.  Then we’ll sit down and eat.  The bag’s heavy because I couldn’t decide what to bring and what to leave behind.”
            As he lifted the suitcase and lumbered up the stairs, he figured the what-to-leave behind part lost out.  He placed it on the bed in the spare room and heard her humming downstairs.  He deliberated a few moments, and then opened the suitcase.  In a clear plastic bag, he saw a red dress, a ruffled thing with accordion pleats.  He cringed at the thought of her showing up in that dress at the party.  A white lacy nightgown was below it, still bearing the store tags and surrounded by lavender sachet packets.  It had a plunging neckline.  He looked up immediately, feeling a rush of shame, but he continued anyway, examining her things until he found Soulmates and a letter inside.
            Dear Amber,
                Sure liked your ad.  I am about to turn fifty and would like it if
            we could hook up.  I am a bachelor and have an ad in the very
            same magazine you’re in.  (p.23)  Don’t have a lot to say about
            myself, except I am average-looking, nothing to write home about.
            I run my own household.  I can cook.  I have cattle.  It is pretty
            here.  Would like to show it to you.  It’d be enough if you could
            just come for my birthday.  I promise no shocks.  (The birthday date
            is May 10.)
                       
            He was certain that she was going to be on the lookout for signs of his desperation.  He glanced at himself in the mirror.  Well, she was nothing to write home about either, and if he’d had any selection in the matter, he would’ve discouraged her from getting that hairdo.  It made her face seem broad and looming, like one a person might see if he sat up too close to a movie screen.
            She was sitting at the table when he went downstairs.  “I’ve got a confession to make,” she said.  “I poked around in your fridge and cabinets.  You’re partial to nitrates.”
            “Amber, I’ve got a confession, too.”
            “No shocks, remember?”
            “I remember,” he said, and looked at her.  She had almond-shaped green eyes.  He had not noticed them before.  The table showed signs of her efforts: a bowl of fruit salad, water glasses with slices of lemon, and a loaf of bread, a large, miraculous-looking thing studded with nuts and raisins.  “My ad and letter,” he said, “weren’t entirely true.”
            “Bill, I guessed as much right off.  You do not pay strict attention to diet, and you like things just the way they are.”
            “I’d call that a fair assessment.”
            “I left out the occupation part in my ad,” she suddenly announced, “because I don’t have one, not at the moment anyhow.  I was employed at the Senior Center as a cook.  Of course, I couldn’t exercise my skills because they had set menus, packaged pudding mixes and so forth.  Lost the job because of budget cuts.  Isn’t that a sad thing, Bill, scrimping on old folks?  Some of them are lucky to get one meal a day.”
            “It is sad,” he said.
            “Hey, today’s your birthday, and I’m telling you sad-sack stories.”
            “I like listening to you.  How long have you been out of work?” he asked, and sampled the bread.
            “Five months.  I’ve been exploring options.  I check out books from the library all the time about significant life changes.  I wasn’t always on top of my nutrition.  Seeing those senior citizens every day, well, it scared me.  I’m afraid of old age.”
            “Shoot,” he said, “you’re only forty.  You look good.”
            “A lie, Bill.  I’m forty six.”
            “You look good, Amber.”
            “And you look like you could use some personal attention, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
            They were silent a moment.  Bill looked up at the clock, surprised at how quickly time had passed.  They had only an hour before the party.
            “Holy smokes!” she exclaimed.  “We leveled off this food, didn’t we?  Must be the mountain air.  We can work it off on the dance floor.”
            He wanted to remain in the house with Amber Harding, as if the moment might come, as it had minutes ago when he felt expansive, hearing her talk about her life and fears.  “I’m a little rusty,” he said.  “Haven’t kicked up my heels in a while.”  As soon as he spoke, he felt deflated.  He wished he had tried to tell her something significant.
            “Back home,” she said, “we got a television program that shows people two-stepping.  Looks like fun to me, but most of the dancers could stand to lose weight.
They dress in western wear and have themselves a real good time.”  She looked at her watch.  “Guess we better change.”
            Her petticoats made a noisy sound as she went up the stairs.  He followed meekly, regretting going through her suitcase.
            “What a pretty room,” she said.  “I plan to get up bright and early tomorrow to watch you with the cattle.  I’ve been picturing it.”
            “Big difference sometimes,” he said, “between what you picture and the way things really are.”
            He closed her door and went to his room.  He hadn’t planned on changing his outfit, but he put on his fancy blue-and-red striped shirt, black boots, and his good black Stetson.  He tried various poses in the mirror, and recalled the photographs in Soulmates,
the men trying too hard to look like something made up.  He removed the hat and went downstairs.
            She was taking her time, it seemed, and his impatience and resentment surprised him.  He heard no sounds upstairs and imagined that she’d dozed off again; worse, she’d discovered his luggage excavation.  He’d have to divulge that the entire thing had been someone’s idea of a gag.  He would give her some money for her troubles and see to it that she returned to Iowa in the morning.
            “Close your eyes,” he heard her call from the landing.
            He did as she said, hearing his heart racing and the rasping sound of her clothing as she came down the stairs.  She was upon him suddenly, smelling of lavender, her warm breath on his face.  “Surprise,” she said, and gave him a peck on his cheek.
            He opened his eyes and saw her in the red pleated dress, her feet encased in uncomfortable-looking new boots, also red, and of all things, rattlesnake tail earrings that trembled with warnings.  She held a gift-wrapped package, which she offered to him, her hands cupped as if presenting a drink of water.
            “Hold on,” she said.  “I want a picture of you.  Don’t you look nice.”
            He smiled, his eyes startled by the flash.  “You went all out,” he told her.
            “I got the dress in Cedar Rapids.  Go on, open your present.”
            He removed the wrapping paper.  Inside a jewelry store box was a gift card that said:  “Happy Birthday, Bill.  Mighty glad I could hitch my wagon to yours on this special night.  Hope you like this little token of appreciation.”
            It was a gold key chain with a bull’s head.  On either horn was an initial: W and L.  “I know you go by Bill,” she said, “but I figured your proper name was William.”
            “It’s a great gift.  Gold.  Monogrammed and everything.  Thank you, thank you.”
            “Soon as I saw it, I said, girl, this man is taking the bull by the horns.  This is the gift for him.”
            His hands shook as he put his keys on the new ring, Amber helping him.  “I got big, clumsy hands,” he said.
            She put her hand on his.  “You’re a cattleman, a gentleman too.  I can tell.”
            “You don’t know me at all,” he said.
            “It’s part of the attraction, Bill.  I like a sense of mystery.  No shocks, though.”
            “Amber,” he said, after a pause.  “Something of a shocking nature might just happen tonight.  You see—”
            “Let’s just pretend, okay?  Would that be all right?  I’ll know when I see a certain woman what’s going on.  By the way, you might want to lay off the caffeine.  That’s what makes you shake.”
            But it was she who was shaking, the snake earrings confirming it.  It was all an act.  She was guarded, as her ad claimed, and she was putting on a show for him.  When he told her he liked her the way she was, she looked at him as if she’d missed something.
            He helped her into the truck, her dress covering most of the seat.  They said little on the ride into town, except for comments about the views.  “Is this the road we came in on earlier?” she asked.  “Seems different to me.”
            “No, I took you home on a different road this afternoon.”
            “And I ended up falling asleep.  I missed the sights.”
            “When I was a boy,” he said, “I went on a trip with my folks and saw a crop-dusting plane fall right out of the sky.  I kept waiting for it to hit.  It was a yellow plane, and we were headed right toward it.”
            “What happened?”
            “This is the funny part.  My parents claimed I was asleep and had dreamed up the whole thing.”
            “If you have a falling dream, you always awake before hitting the ground.  That’s what they say.  It happens to me all the time.”
            “Me too.”   He hadn’t thought about the plane in a long time and was certain, even now, that he’d seen black letters on the wings and streams of smoke in the tail section.  “I had something happen once,” he said, and went on to tell her of the mountain lion incident.  “A mountain lion sounds like a female in distress.  This one had my number, all right, but she chose not to pounce on me.  I’ve never told this to anyone, Amber, but for some reason, things seemed harder after that.”
            “So, Bill, you reckon your friends will wonder about me at the party?”
            “They’ll be happy for me, I reckon,” he said.
            It might’ve been a used-car lot for the number of vehicles at the Union Hall and for the banners someone had ringed around the parking area.  The hall was lit up, and the band was playing an unrecognizable tune, something that sounded like it needed a faster tempo.  Bill got out of the truck and opened the door for Amber, but she seemed reluctant to step out.  He assured her that she’d be looked after.  Just as she had emerged from the train, her boot appeared first, and the sight of it suspended there moved him.  He put his hands on her waist and lifted her from the cab.  She seemed suddenly and surprisingly light.  “You’re crying,” he said, and saw her try to conceal it.
            “Tears of fulfillment, Bill.  Let’s go.”
            The townspeople had decorated the hall lavishly with balloons, crepe paper, and an enormous banner that said, “Happy Birthday, Bill.  Just because the corral’s in sight don’t mean you can’t enjoy the pasture.”  Friends had signed the banner with good-luck wishes for many birthdays to come.  When a cheer went up, Amber held his hand tightly.
People approached, looking at him as if they couldn’t recognize him.  Then they returned to the buffet table and the dance floor.  He led Amber to the food, and pointed out the Rocky Mountain oysters, and watched her trying some.  She ladled potato salad on her plate and chips and dip, and hot dogs.  People nodded when he introduced her to them, making little show of any surprise, as if they’d known her a long time.
            “You’ve got lots of good friends,” she said when they sat down.  “You’re lucky.”
            “Yeah,” he said.  “I am lucky.”
            Then the band stopped, and Ned Jencks stood in the center of floor, making jokes.  He was followed by others also making jokes about birthdays and Bill, like TV celebrity roasts.  Bill laughed along, but knew he’d never remember a single one of their lines.  Ned Jencks called to him, and Bill reached for Amber’s hand, but she declined.  “It’s your night,” she said.
            He felt embarrassed standing there, and he dreaded the spectacle of a surprise announcement.  A drum roll began, and people quieted down.  “The Grand Finale,” Ned said.  Bill looked over at Amber.  She was sitting primly by herself at a long table.  Then the lights dimmed.
            Someone was making his way from a back door toward the center of the room, carrying a saddle.  It was the sheepman, Bill realized, the one who had rescued him three years ago.  The sheepman slowed at Amber’s table.  “Please,” Bill muttered to himself, “don’t tell her people cooked up a scheme.”  He closed his eyes and waited.
            “For you,” the man said, startling him, coming suddenly upon him.  He leaned towards Bill’s ear and whispered, “I did it, picked Miss Harding out special.  This here saddle was someone else’s idea.”  He placed the saddle at Bill’s feet.
            Bill thanked him profusely and saw the man retreat, walking uncertainly for a moment, until the lights came back on.
            Instead of the “Happy Birthday” song, the band played a waltz.  They were out of tune, and the name of the selection they played eluded Bill.  People swarmed on the floor, their boots clacking loudly, as if they were running instead of dancing.  Without hesitation, Bill joined the fray, having no trouble at all finding Amber Harding for himself.

*****

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
I wrote “The Excitement Begins” during a 1994 residency at the Ucross Foundation in Clearmont, Wyoming.  Ucross provides the best assisted care imaginable: handsome living quarters, a well-stocked kitchen and larder, and a chef who delivers lunches to studios and prepares a sumptuous dinner for the artists.   I always tried to look busy when the chef delivered lunch to my studio, located a mile from the main house and sleeping quarters.  I spent most of days doggedly working on a story that can best be described as a bowser, and then showing up aggressively early for dinner, dreading the end of dinner and the return to my studio.  I associated my dread with the walk to the studio at dusk, through fields teeming with vipers and vermin, but I really knew that my dread stemmed from the story I was working on.
            I finished the bowser story the day before I was to leave Ucross, so I drove to Buffalo to buy a cowboy hat and some boots.  I wanted to look the part of someone who belonged in this territory, since I didn’t really feel like an authentic writer.  I stopped in a café, where ranchers and cowboys were having breakfast.  I picked up a local paper, discovering that it cast a wide net in its sincere attempt to hook people up from all parts of the West and Midwest.  A middle-aged woman was pictured on the cover, frocked up in a glittery blouse, her hair as fancy as a precarious-looking cake. I began to read The Personals, and then rushed back to my studio.
            Bottom line: I got coupled.  I found my dream date.  I worked on the story, missing lunch and dinner.  I’ll always think of this story as an unexpected gift, a lagniappe.  I don’t know beans about animals and ranching, but a rancher who heard me read “The Excitement Begins,” said this:  “Lady, you don’t shoot with blanks.”  A high compliment that complemented the high I felt when Ploughshares accepted the story in an issue edited by Ann Beattie, entitled, “Living Rooms.”  Yes, and it all began with assisted living.

*****
ABOUT LESLEE BECKER
Leslee Becker’s story collection, The Sincere Café, won the 1996 Mid-List Press Fiction Prize.  Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She has received the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society Award, the Nimrod/Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize, Wallace Stegner Fellowship, and the James Michener/Copernicus Society Award.  She lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, and teaches at Colorado State University.

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