~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
. Her letter was mailed from What Cheer, Wyoming , and Bill read it again, certain there had been a mistake. He called Directory Assistance, then Amber Harding. Iowa
“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
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.
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.