NEA Literature Fellowships

Bill Roorbach

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships
(2002 - Prose)

from "Big Bend"

That night Mr. Hunter (the crew all called him Mr. Hunter) lay quietly awake two hours before the line of his thoughts finally made the twitching conversion to mirage and hallucination that heralded ease and melting sleep.

Primarily what had kept him up was a worry that he was being too much the imperious old businessman, the self he thought he'd conquered, even killed in retirement, the part of himself poor Betty had least admired (though this was the part that brought home the bacon). This area of worry he packaged and put in its box with a resolution to ask only questions for at least one day of work, no statements or commands or observations or commentary no matter what, to Stubby or anyone else, no matter what, questions only.

Secondarily, Stubby, who was now asleep and snorting in the next bunk of their rather nice but rustic staff accommodations here at Big Bend National Park. Stubby was not hard to compartmentalize, particularly: Mr. Hunter would simply stop laughing with or smiling at or even acknowledging Stubby's stupid jokes and jibes, would not rise to bait (politics primarily), would not pretend to believe Stubby's stories, especially those about his exploits with women. Scott was Stubby's actual name, his age fifty-three, an old hippie who'd never cut his ponytail or jettisoned the idea that corporations were ruining the world and who called the unlikely women of his tall tales "chicks" and "chiquitas." Strange bedfellows, Stubby and Mr. Hunter, having gotten the only two-bed room in the worker's dorm by dint of advanced age.

Thirdly, Martha Kolodny of Chicago, here in blazing, gorgeous, blooming, desolate Big Bend on an amateur ornithological quest. Stubby called her Mothra, which at first was funny, given Ms. Kolodny's size and thorough, squawking presence, but which was funny no longer, certainly, given the startling fact of Mr. Hunter's crush on her, which had arrived unannounced after his long conversation with her just this evening and in the middle of a huge laugh from the heart of Ms. Kolodny's heart, a huge and happy hilarious laugh from the heart of her very handsome heart. The Kolodny compartment in his businesslike brain he closed and latched with a simple instruction to himself: Do not have crushes, Mr. Hunter. He was too old for crushes (sneakers, he'd called them in high school, class of 1945). And Ms. Kolodny not the proper recipient of a crush in any case, possibly under forty and certainly over one hundred fifty pounds, Mr. Hunter's own lifelong adult weight, and married, completely married, a stack of two large rings on the proper finger, giant gemstones blazing.

Fourthly, fifthly, sixthly, seventhly, eighthly, up to numbers uncountable, many concerns, placed by Mr. Hunter carefully one by one in their nighttime lockers: the house in Atlanta (Arnie would take care of the yard and the gardens, and Miss Feather would clean the many rooms as always in his absence); the neglect of his retirement portfolio (Fairchild Ltd. had always needed prodding, but had always gotten the job done, and in the last several years spectacularly); the coming Texas summer (he'd lived through hot summers in more humid climes); his knee (but his knee hadn't acted up at allãhe was predicting, and predicting was always a mistake and a manufactured basis for worry and to be abolished except when proceeding from reasonable evidence, of which there was none in this case, his knee having been perfect for nearly thirty years since surgery after hyperextension in tennis). Many concerns, more and less easily dismissed, and overshadowed all of them by Bitty (he always called her): Betty, his wife, his girl, his one and only love, his lover, his helpmate, his best friend, mother of their three (thoroughly adult) children, dead of stroke three years. They'd planned all they'd do when he retired, and when he did retire she died. So he was mourning not only her loss but the loss of his long-held vision of the future, the thought that one distant day she would bury him. No compartment big enough to compartmentalize Bitty, but a kind of soft peace like sleep when he thought of her now and no longer the sharp pains and gouged holes everywhere in him and the tears every night. Count your blessings, Mr. Hunter, he had thought wryly, and had melted a little at one broad edge of his consciousness, and had soon fallen asleep in the West Texas night.

Bill Roorbach is the author of five books, including Big Bend, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short fiction. Other books are: The Smallest Color, a novel; Into Woods, essays; Summers with Juliet, a memoir; and Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas Into Essays and Life Into Literature. Bill is also the editor of the Oxford anthology Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth. All are in print, with a seventh book, Temple Stream, forthcoming from Random House / Dial Press. He has recently left full-time teaching (and tenure ... ) in order to write full time. Bill lives in western Maine with his wife and daughter.

Author's Statement

"Big Bend" got started in a funny way: I wanted to write a story about an older fellow, and I wanted to write a story set in the Big Bend country of West Texas, one of my favorite places on the planet. I put the two wishes together one morning and pretty soon Dennis emerged, and I just really liked him and wanted the best for him after all his sorrow. The rest is all him. He arrived and took over, the way retired executives will. Oh, and it had to be a love story, so I put Martha in there. And any control over the story that Dennis might have had was gone. He's a sweet old guy. I think about him all the time, about what might happen next.