One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Richard Bausch’s The Man Who Knew Belle Starr made the long list. My summer project is to read or re-read the 36 stories listed. Bausch's gripping tale of death is #18. This my type of story.
Having recently been let out of Leavenworth, Mcrae decides to head west with some cash in his pocket and feels that his luck may have changed for the better. He picks up a young woman who is hitchhiking. She calls herself Belle Star. They have an awkward conversation, and Mcrae admits to himself, “she was kind of good looking around the eyes and mouth.”
In direct clear prose, Bausch fills us in with the backstory of how Mcrae has spent time in prison after beating up a sergeant in his platoon and how Mcrae’s father had died.
“He started to feel like a happy man, out of Leavenworth and the air force, and now he was on his way to Nevada, or someplace like that – and he had picked up a girl.”
When the two pull off the road at an empty diner, the owner of the place starts preparing their plates while griping about his financial troubles. The owner makes a sexual innuendo to Belle Starr and she pulls out a gun and shoots the diner owner dead. Mcrae is horrified and suggests she take the keys and leave, but Belle doesn’t drive and insists on Mcrae leaving with her.
They get in the car and start heading west, and Mcrae’s mind races. He suggests he could join up with Belle Starr so she can form a gang, she has leadership qualities, but she doesn’t like this idea.
There’s this great scene where she suggests they drive until the car runs out of gas and then Belle will just hitchhike from there. Mcrae slowly comes to realize that when the gas tank runs dry his death is inevitable.
Eventually, Belle tells McRae to pull off the side of the road even though there is still gas in the tank. As he gets out, he tries to make an escape, running across the road just before a truck passes by. But Mcrae’s outcome is without doubt. The last line of the story reads:
"Mcrae was gone, someone far, far away, from ages ago–a man fresh out of prison, with the whole country to wander in, and insurance money in his pocket, who had headed west with the idea that maybe his luck, at long last, had changed."
I had read The Stories of Richard Bausch a few years ago, and this story stuck out as the best. Tension sets in from the first paragraph. The thought that this man is trying to change his luck by heading out west, the tough times he has faced in his life, ring true. Bausch writes cleanly. There’s no extemporaneous chatter in this story. The landscape is barren and stifling. The dialogue is intense and stark. We are all going to meet Belle Starr in some way. The question is, will she allow us to drive our car until it runs out of gas? Either way, our luck will ultimately come to an end.
I also can’t help be reminded of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. In her memoir written about the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, she wrote about a phrase he used frequently. If someone was having extreme good luck, or perhaps bad luck, he often noted, “It all evens out in the end.” It was only after Dunne's death that the weight of his statement was felt on Didion herself.