Saturday, March 21, 2009

Saturday Story Hour: Roorbach on Love in Big Bend

This is your weekly dose of contemporary fiction. I call it "Saturday Story Hour."

This week, I'm inspired by Fosco Lives! reader Jill and her recent road trip into (what I imagine is called) the Big Bend country of Texas. Years ago, Fosco was floored by the 2002 collection of The O. Henry Prize Stories (seriously, if you can get a hold of it, it will be worth your while). One of the stories in that collection was called "Big Bend" by Bill Roorbach. At the time, Fosco had never heard of Bill Roorbach before. And, to be honest, he's never read anything by him since. Nor is "Big Bend" even the best story in that collection. However, there is just something about the story that has stuck with Fosco (going on seven years now).

When he read the story, Fosco had also never heard of Big Bend National Park. It's a huge national park that runs along the Texas-Mexico border, where the Rio Grande makes a very big bend (natch). It is extremely popular with birders, like Fosco's Aunt Merrill and Uncle Clark, because it's the home of dozens of species that are difficult to see anywhere else. And as for the terrain, the National Park Service notes:

Sometimes considered "three parks in one," Big Bend includes mountain, desert, and river environments. An hour’s drive can take you from the banks of the Rio Grande to a mountain basin nearly a mile high. Here, you can explore one of the last remaining wild corners of the United States, and experience unmatched sights, sounds, and solitude.
Roorbach's story is set in the park and he makes it sound absolutely gorgeous. After reading the story, Fosco became fascinated by Big Bend; however, sadly, he has yet to visit (he hasn't really had any good excuses to visit West Texas lately).

The hero of the story is a retired widower who has decided to work as a park employee at Big Bend for a year. He spends his days doing minor physical labor with a diverse team of other men. When we meet him, he has fallen passionately in love with a visiting birdwatcher from Chicago--a woman who is almost thirty years younger, bulky, and married. Her name is Martha Kolodny. Suddenly, Mr. Hunter (our protagonist) is confused:
Another cause of sleeplessness was Martha Kolodny of Chicago, here in blazing, gorgeous, blooming, desolate Big Bend on an amateur ornithological quest. Stubby called her "Mothra," which had been funny at first, given Ms. Kolodny's size and thorough, squawking presence, but which was funny no longer, given the startling fact of Mr. Hunter's crush on her, which had arrived unannounced after his long conversation with her just this evening, in the middle of a huge laugh from Ms. Kolodny, a huge and happy, hilarious laugh from the heart of her very handsome heart.
There is something about the line "a huge and happy, hilarious laugh from the heart of her very handsome heart" that Fosco adores. For me, at least, there is no resisting Martha Kolodny once she's described that way. She is a bringer of joy--both to Mr. Hunter and to the reader.

The other thing about this story that thrills me is the sheer optimism of it. Here are two oldish, semi-unattractive people who lead extremely sad lives in extremely sad parts of the country falling in mad passionate love like giddy teenagers. It's about a second chance at passionate love--but not in a mawkish or sentimental way. I just find it hard to be cynical about love when I'm reading this story. Not to mention that this surprisingly big, bright love is what makes this story work--it makes the images shimmer in Fosco's imagination.

And so, whether or not I ever read anything else by Bill Roorbach, there is a part of me that will always treasure this story. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

You can read it here.

You may want to order the O. Henry Prize Stories 2002 from Amazon. Or one of Bill Roorbach's books. Please follow these links:

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Jill said...

Crushes that sneak up on you...aka sneakers. "Stalking Mothra", "one batman joke", "forty is the youth of old age and the old age of youth" (this sucks, but I guess is true...although I'd like to insert fifty instead of forty...I feel like I'm sixteen still)

"It was that laugh from the heart and the bright conversation and something more: Martha Kolodny could see Mr. Hunter, and he hadn't been seen clearly in three years. Nor had his particular brand of jokes been laughed at, or his ideas praised, nor had someone noticed his hair (still full and shiny, and bone-in-the-desert white) or looked at his hands so, or gazed into his eyes."...this part brought tears to my eyes. It's so important to be "seen". Oh Fosco! Thank you. I thoroughly enjoyed this. Most with tears. I'm not a short story reader, so I look forward to Saturdays. I'm an excuse to visit West Texas someday. El Paso can be a pit stop!

FOSCO said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed this story! There is just something so sweet and sad and happy about it.

I will definitely pit stop in El Paso, thank you kindly!

Bill Roorbach said...

Thanks for the kind words, Fosco--and Jill, too! All yours in Maine, Bill Roorbach