Dispatches | August 20, 2010

The beginning of the fall semester means having to straighten my office, dry-clean some shirts, wash out my coffee maker that the summer has turned into a science experiment…but the good news is that it also means rereading some favorite stories that my creative writing students will be seeing for the first time. One that I keep returning to is Richard Bausch’s story “The Man Who Knew Belle Starr.” There are any number of wonderful aspects to this story, from its blend of humor and tragedy to its take on American mythologies to its clever nod (in my view, anyway) to Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

But what really gets me is the opening paragraph.

I love how much we learn about these two characters without ever being told explicitly. But I especially love how what looks at first like a relatively straightforward paragraph of summary is actually a series of small mysteries that raise key questions in the reader’s mind, questions that make us want to keep reading. (The footnotes are mine.)

On his way west1 McRae picked up a hitcher, a young woman carrying a paper bag2 and a leather purse, wearing jeans and a shawl—which she didn’t take off, though it was more than ninety degrees out and McRae had no air-conditioning.3 He was driving an old Dodge Charger with a bad exhaust system and one long crack in the wraparound windshield.4 He pulled over for her, and she got right in5, put the leather purse on the seat between them, and settled herself with a paper bag on her lap between her hands.6 He had just crossed into Texas from Oklahoma.7 This was the third day of the trip.

(From The Stories of Richard Bausch. Copyright 2003 by Richard Bausch)

  1. Why is McRae heading West? And what, specifically, is his destination?
  2. Um, what’s in the bag?
  3. Why won’t she take off her shawl? Also, McRae must not have a lot of money.
  4. Yep. These details confirm that he’s pretty broke, which makes his road-trip that much more interesting and tinged with desperation. (And as anyone who’s ever driven a car with a large crack in the windshield knows, this is a precarious situation: the windshield could shatter at any moment!)
  5. The woman shows no hesitancy at all. No fear.
  6. Seriously, what’s in the paper bag? It’s been mentioned twice already. She sure is protective of it. Must be important.
  7. Oklahoma? He still has a ways to go. Perhaps this doesn’t bode well…

That’s a lot of work for one paragraph—especially one that reads like no work at all.

Any favorite story openings?

Michael Kardos is the author of the story collection One Last Good Time, forthcoming in February 2011 from Press 53. While earning his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri, he served as Contest Editor for The Missouri Review. He currently co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University. His website is michaelkardos.com.