When Joe Brinson was sixteen, his father moved the family to Great Falls, Montana, the setting for this harrowing, transfixing novel by the acclaimed author of Rock Springs. Filled with an abiding sense of love and family, and of the forces that test them to the breaking point, Wildlife--first published by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1990 and now reissued as a Grove Press paperback--is a book whose spare poetry and expansive vision established it as an American classic.
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January 01, 2010
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Excerpt from Wildlife by Richard Ford
IN THE FALL OF 1960, WHEN I WAS sixteen and my father was for a time not working, my mother met a man named Warren Miller and fell in love with him. This was in Great Falls, Montana, at the time of the Gypsy Basin oil boom, and my father had brought us there in the spring of that year from Lewiston, Idaho, in the belief that people--small people like him--were making money in Montana or soon would be, and he wanted a piece of that good luck before all of it collapsed and was gone in the wind.
My father was a golfer. A teaching pro. He had been to college though not to the war. And since 1944, the year when I was born and two years after he married my mother, he had worked at that--at golf--at the small country clubs and public courses in the towns near where he'd grown up, around Colfax and the Palouse Hills of eastern Washington State. And during that time, the years when I was growing up, we had lived in Coeur d'Alene and McCall, Idaho, and in Endicott and Pasco and Walla Walla, where both he and my mother had gone to college and where they had met and gotten married.
My father was a natural athlete. His own father had owned a clothing store in Colfax and made a good living, and he had learned to play golf on the kinds of courses he taught on. He could play every sport--basketball and ice hockey and throw horseshoes, and he had played baseball in college. But he loved the game of golf because it was a game other people found difficult and that was easy for him. He was a smiling, handsome man with dark hair--not tall but with delicate hands and a short fluid swing that was wonderful to see but never strong enough to move him into the higher competition of the game. He was good at teaching people to play golf, though. He knew how to discuss the game patiently, in ways to make you think you had a talent for it, and people liked being around him. Sometimes he and my mother would play together and I would go along with them and pull their cart, and I knew he knew how they looked--good-looking, young, happy. My father was soft-spoken and good-natured and optimistic--not slick in the way someone might think. And though it is not a usual life to be a golfer, to make your living at it the way anyone does who is a salesman or a doctor, my father was in a sense not a usual kind of man: he was innocent and he was honest, and it is possible he was suited perfectly for the life he had made.
In Great Falls my father took a job two days a week at the air base, at the course there, and worked the rest of the time at the club for-members-only, across the river. The Wheatland Club that was called. He worked extra because, he said, in good times people wanted to learn a game like golf, and good times rarely lasted long enough. He was thirty-nine then, and I think he hoped he'd meet someone there, someone who'd give him a tip, or let him in on a good deal in the oil boom, or offer him a better job, a chance that would lead him and my mother and me to something better.
We rented a house on Eighth Street North in an older neighborhood of single-story, brick-and-frame houses. Ours was yellow and had a low, paled fence across the front of it and a weeping birch tree in the side yard. Those streets are not far from the train tracks and are across the river from the refinery where a bright flame burned at all hours from the stack above the metal tank buildings. I could hear the shift whistles blow in the morning when I woke up, and late at night the loud whooshing of machinery processing crude oil from the wildcat fields north of us.
My mother did not have a job in Great Falls. She had worked as a bookkeeper for a dairy company in Lewiston, and in the other towns where we had lived she had been a substitute teacher in math and science--the subjects she enjoyed. She was a pretty, small woman who had a good sense for a joke and who could make you laugh. She was two years younger than my father, and had met him in college in 1941 and liked him, and simply left with him when he'd taken a job in Spokane. I don't know what she thought my father's reasons were for leaving his job in Lewiston and coming to Great Falls. Maybe she noticed something about him--that it was an odd time in his life when his future had begun to seem different to him, as if he couldn't rely on it just to take care of itself as it had up until then. Or maybe there were other reasons, and because she loved him she went along with him. But I do not think she ever wanted to come to Montana. She liked eastern Washington, liked the better weather there, where she had been a girl. She thought it would be too cold and lonely in Great Falls, and people would not be easy to meet. Yet she must've believed at the time that this was a normal life she was living, moving, and working when she could, having a husband and a son, and that it was fine.
The summer of that year was a time of forest fires. Great Falls is where the plains begin, but south and west and east of there are mountains. You could see mountains on clear days from the streets of town--sixty miles away the high eastern front of the Rocky Mountains themselves, blue and clear-cut, running to Canada. In early July, fires started in the timber canyons beyond Augusta and Choteau, towns that were insignificant to me but that were endangered. Fires began by mysterious causes. They burned on and on through July and August and into September when it was thought that an early fall would bring rains and possibly snow, though that is not what happened.
Spring had been a dry season and lasted dry into summer. I was a city boy and knew nothing about crops or timber, but we all heard that farmers believed dryness forecasted dryness, and read in the paper that standing timber was drier than wood put in a kiln, and that if farmers were smart they would cut their wheat early to save losses. Even the Missouri River dropped to a low stage, and fish died, and dry mud flats opened between the banks and the slow stream, and no one boated there.
My father taught golf every day to groups of airmen and their girlfriends, and at the Wheatland Club he played foursomes with ranchers and oilmen and bankers and their wives, whose games he was paid to improve upon and tried to. In the evenings through that summer he would sit at the kitchen table after work, listening to a ball game from the East and drinking a beer, and read the paper while my mother fixed dinner and I did school work in the living room. He would talk about people at the club. "They're all good enough fellows," he said to my mother. "We won't get rich working for rich men, but we might get lucky hanging around them." He laughed about that. He liked Great Falls. He thought it was wide open and undiscovered, and no one had time to hold you back, and that it was a good time to live there. I don't know what his ideas for himself were then, but he was a man, more than most, who liked to be happy. And it must've seemed as though, just for that time, he had finally come to his right place.
By the first of August the timber fires to the west of us had not been put out, and a haze was in the air so that you could sometimes not see the mountains or where the land met the sky. It was a haze you wouldn't detect if you were inside of it, only if you were on a mountain or in an airplane and could see Great Falls from above. At night, when I stood at the window and looked west up the valley of the Sun River toward the mountains that were blazing, I would taste smoke and smell it, and believe that I saw flames and hills on fire and men moving, though I couldn't see that, could only see a brightening, wide and red and deep above the darkness between the fire and all of us. Twice I even dreamed our house had caught fire, a spark traveling miles on a wind and catching in our roof, consuming everything. Though I knew even in this dream that the world would spin on and we would survive, and the fire did not matter so much. I did not understand, of course, what it meant not to survive.
Such a fire could not help changing things, and there was a feeling in Great Falls, some attitude in general, that was like discouragement. There were stories in the paper, wild stories. Indians were said to have set fires to get the jobs putting them out. A man was seen driving a loggers' road throwing flaming sticks out his truck window. Poachers were to blame. A peak far back in the Marshall Mountains was said to have been struck by lightning a hundred times in an hour. My father heard on the golf course that criminals were fighting the fire, murderers and rapists from Deer Lodge, men who'd volunteered but then slipped away and back to civilized life.
No one, I think, thought Great Falls would burn. Too many miles separated us from the fire, too many other towns would have to go first--too much bad luck falling one way. But people wet the roofs of their houses, and no one was allowed to burn ditches. Planes took off every day carrying men to jump into the flames, and west of us smoke rose like thunderheads, as if the fire itself could make rain. When the wind stiffened in the afternoons, we all knew that the fire had jumped a trench line or rushed forward or exploded into some untouched place, and that we were all affected, even if we never saw flames or felt the heat.
I was then beginning the eleventh grade in Great Falls High School and was trying to play football, a game I did not like and wasn't good at, and tried to play only because my father thought I could make friends by playing. There were days, though, that we sat out football practice because the doctor said smoke would scar our lungs and we wouldn't feel it. I would go on those days and meet my father at the Wheatland Club--the base course having closed because of the fire danger--and hit practice balls with him late in the day. My father began to work fewer days as the summer went on, and was home more. People did not come to the club because of the smoke and the dryness. He taught fewer lessons, saw fewer of the members he had met and made friends with the spring before. He worked more in the pro shop, sold golf equipment and clothes and magazines, rented carts, spent more time collecting balls along the edge of the river by the willows where the driving range ended.
On an afternoon in late September, two weeks after I had started school and the fires in the mountains west of us seemed to be lasting forever, I went with my father out on the driving range with wire baskets. One man was hitting balls off the practice tee far away and to the left of us. I could hear the thwock of the club, then the hiss as the balls arched out into the twilight and bounced toward us. At home, the night before, he and my mother had talked about the election that was coming. They were Democrats. Both their families had been. But my father said on that night that he was considering the Republicans now. Nixon, he said, was a good lawyer. He was not a personable man, but he would stand up to the labor unions.
My mother laughed at him and put her hands over her eyes as if she didn't want to see him. "Oh, not you, too, Jerry," she said. "Are you becoming a right-to-work advocate?" She was joking. I don't think she cared who he voted for, and they did not talk about politics. We were in the kitchen and food was already set out on the table.
"Things feel like they've gone too far in one direction," my father said. He put his hands on either side of his plate. I heard him breathe. He still had on his golf clothes, green pants and a yellow nylon shirt with a red club emblem on it. There had been a railroad strike during that summer, but he had not talked about unions, and I didn't think it had affected us.
My mother was standing and drying her hands at the sink. "You're a working man, I'm not," she said. "I'll just remind you of that, though."
"I wish we had a Roosevelt to vote for," my father said. "He had a feel for the country."
"That was just a different time then," my mother said, and sat down across the metal table from him. She was wearing a blue and white checked dress and an apron. "Everyone was afraid then, including us. Everything's better now. You forget that."
"I haven't forgotten anything," my father said. "But I'm interested in thinking about the future now."
"Well," she said. She smiled at him. "That's good. I'm glad to hear that. I'm sure Joe's glad of it, too." And then we ate dinner.
The next afternoon, though, at the end of the driving range by the willows and the river, my father was in a different mood. He had not given a lesson that week, but wasn't tense, and he didn't seem mad at anything. He was smoking a cigarette, something he didn't ordinarily do.
"It's a shame not to work in warm weather," he said and smiled. He took one of the golf balls out of his basket, drew back and threw it through the willow branches toward the river where it hit down in the mud without a sound. "How's your football going," he asked me. "Are you going to be the next Bob Waterfield?"
"No," I said. "I don't think so."
"I won't be the next Walter Hagen, either," he said. He liked Walter Hagen. He had a picture of him wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a heavy overcoat, laughing at the camera as he teed off someplace where there was snow on the ground. My father kept that picture inside the closet door in his and my mother's bedroom.
He stood and watched the lone golfer who was driving balls out onto the fairway. We could see him silhouetted. "There's a man who hits the ball nicely," he said, watching the man take his club back smoothly, then sweep through his swing. "He doesn't take chances. Get the ball in the middle of the fairway, then take the margin of error. Let the other guy foul up. That's what Walter Hagen did. The game came naturally to him."
"Isn't it the same with you," I asked, because that's what my mother had said, that my father had never needed to practice.
"Yes it is," my father said, smoking. "I thought it was easy. There's probably something wrong with that."
"I don't like football," I said.
My father glanced at me and then stared at the west where the fire was darkening the sun, turning it purple. "I liked it," he said in a dreamy way. "When I had the ball and ran up the field and dodged people, I liked that."
"I don't dodge enough," I said. I wanted to tell this to him because I wanted him to tell me to quit football and do something else. I liked golf and would've been happy to play it.
"I wasn't going to not play golf, though," he said, "even though I'm probably not cagey enough for it." He was not listening to me, now, though I didn't hold it against him.
Far away at the practice tee I heard a thwock as the lone man drove a ball up into the evening air. There was a silence as my father and I waited for the ball to hit and bounce. But the ball actually hit my father, hit him on the shoulder above the bottom of his sleeve--not hard or even hard enough to cause pain.
My father said, "Well. For Christ's sake. Look at that." He looked down at the ball beside him on the ground, then rubbed his arm. We could see the man who'd hit the ball walking back toward the clubhouse, his driver swinging beside him like a walking cane. He had no idea where the balls were falling. He hadn't dreamed he'd hit my father.
My father stood and watched the man disappear into the long white clubhouse building. He stood for a while as if he was listening and could hear something I couldn't hear--laughing, possibly, or music from far away. He had always been a happy man, and I think he may simply have been waiting for something to make him feel that way again.
"If you don't like football"--and he suddenly looked at me as if he'd forgotten I was there--"then just forget about it. Take up the javelin throw instead. There's a feeling of achievement in that. I did it once."
"All right," I said. And I thought about the javelin throw--about how much a javelin would weigh and what it was made of and how hard it would be to throw the right way.
My father was staring toward where the sky was beautiful and dark and full of colors. "It's on fire out there, isn't it? I can smell it."
"I can too," I said, watching.
"You have a clear mind, Joe." He looked at me. "Nothing bad will happen to you."
"I hope not," I said.
"That's good," he said, "I hope so, too." And we went on then picking up golf balls and walking back toward the clubhouse.
When we had walked back to the pro shop, lights were on inside, and through the glass windows I could see a man sitting alone in a folding chair, smoking a cigar. He had on a business suit, though he had the jacket over his arm and was wearing brown and white golf shoes.
When my father and I stepped inside carrying our baskets of range balls, the man stood up. I could smell the cigar and the clean smell of new golf equipment.
"Hello there, Jerry," the man said, and smiled and stuck out his hand to my father. "How'd my form look to you out there?"
"I didn't realize that was you," my father said, and smiled. He shook the man's hand. "You have a blueprint swing. You can brag about that."
"I spray 'em around a bit," the man said, and put his cigar in his mouth.
"That's everybody's misery," my father said, and brought me to his side. "This is my son, Joe, Clarence. This is Clarence Snow, Joe. He's the president of this club. He's the best golfer out here." I shook hands with Clarence Snow, who was in his fifties and had long fingers, bony and strong, like my father's. He did not shake my hand very hard.
"Did you leave any balls out there, Jerry?" Clarence Snow said, running his hand back through his thin, dark hair and casting a look at the dark course.
"Quite a few," my father said. "We lost our light."
"Do you play this game, too, son?" Clarence Snow smiled at me.
"He's good," my father said before I could answer anything. He sat down on the other folding chair that had his street shoes under it, and began unlacing his white golf shoes. My father was wearing yellow socks that showed his pale, hairless ankles, and he was staring at Clarence Snow while he loosened his laces.
"I need to have a talk with you, Jerry," Clarence Snow said. He glanced at me and sniffed his nose.
"That's fine," my father said. "Can it wait till tomorrow?"
"No it can't," Clarence Snow said. "Would you come up to the office?"
"I certainly will," my father said. He had his golf shoes off and he raised one foot and rubbed it, then squeezed his toes down. "The tools of ignorance," he said, and smiled at me.
"This won't take much time," Clarence Snow said. Then he walked out the front door, leaving my father and me alone in the lighted shop.
My father sat back in his folding chair, stretched his legs in front of him, and wiggled his toes in his yellow socks. "He'll fire me," he said. "That's what this'll be."
"Why do you think that?" I said. And it shocked me.
"You don't know about these things, son," my father said. "I've been fired before. These things have a feel to them."
"Why would he do that?" I said.
"Maybe he thinks I fucked his wife," my father said. I hadn't heard him say that kind of thing before, and it shocked me, too. He was staring out the window into the dark. "Of course, I don't know if he has a wife." My father began putting on his street shoes, which were black loafers, shiny and new and thick-soled. "Maybe I won some money from one of his friends. He doesn't have to have a reason." He slid the white shoes under the chair and stood up. "Wait in here," he said. And I knew he was mad, but did not want me to know he was. He liked to make you believe everything was fine and for everybody to be happy if they could be. "Is that okay?" he said.
"It's okay," I said.
"Think about some pretty girls while I'm gone," he said, and smiled at me.
Then he walked, almost strolling, out of the little pro shop and up toward the clubhouse, leaving me by myself with the racks of silver golf clubs and new leather bags and shoes and boxes of balls--all the other tools of my father's trade, still and silent around me like treasures.
When my father came back in twenty minutes he was walking faster than when he'd left. He had a piece of yellow paper stuck up in his shirt pocket, and his face looked tight. I was sitting on the chair Clarence Snow had sat on. My father picked up his white shoes off the green carpet, put them under his arm, then walked to the cash register and began taking money out of the trays.
"We should go," he said in a soft voice. He was putting money in his pants pocket.
"Did he fire you," I asked.
"Yes he did." He stood still for a moment behind the open cash register as if the words sounded strange to him, or had other meanings. He looked like a boy my own age doing something he shouldn't be doing and trying to do it casually. Though I thought maybe Clarence Snow had told him to clean out the cash register before he left and all that money was his to keep. "Too much of a good living, I guess," he said. Then he said, "Look around here, Joe. See if you see anything you want." He looked around at the clubs and the leather golf bags and shoes, the sweaters and clothes in glass cases. All things that cost a lot of money, things my father liked. "Just take it," he said. "It's yours."
"I don't want anything," I said.
My father looked at me from behind the cash register. "You don't want anything? All this expensive stuff?"
"No," I said.
"You've got good character, that's your problem. Not that it's much of a problem." He closed the cash register drawer. "Bad luck's got a sour taste, doesn't it?"
"Yes sir," I said.
"Do you want to know what he said to me?" My father leaned on the glass countertop with his palms down. He smiled at me, as if he thought it was funny.
"What?" I said.
"He said he didn't require an answer from me, but he thought I was stealing things. Some yokel lost a wallet out on the course, and they couldn't figure anybody else who could do it. So I was elected." He shook his head. "I'm not a stealer. Do you know it? That's not me."
"I know it," I said. And I didn't think he was. I thought I was more likely to be a stealer than he was, and I wasn't one either.
"I was too well liked out here, that's my problem," he said. "If you help people they don't like you for it. They're like Mormons."
"I guess so," I said.
"When you get older," my father said. And then he seemed to stop what he was about to say. "If you want to know the truth don't listen to what people tell you," was all he said.
He walked around the cash register, holding his white shoes, his pants pockets full of money. "Let's go now," he said. He turned off the light when he got to the door, held it open for me, and we walked out into the warm summer night.
When we'd driven back across the river into Great Falls and up Central, my father stopped at the grocery a block from our house, went in and bought a can of beer and came back and sat in the car seat with the door open. It had become cooler with the sun gone and felt like a fall night, although it was dry and the sky was light blue and full of stars. I could smell beer on my father's breath and knew he was thinking about the conversation he would have with my mother when we got home, and what that would be like.
"Do you know what happens," he said, "when the very thing you wanted least to happen happens to you?" We were sitting in the glow of the little grocery store. Traffic was moving behind us along Central Avenue, people going home from work, people with things they liked to do on their minds, things they looked forward to.
"No," I said. I was thinking about throwing the javelin at that moment, a high arching throw into clear air, coming down like an arrow, and of my father throwing it when he was my age.
"Nothing at all does," he said, and he was quiet for several seconds. He raised his knees and held his beer can with both hands. "We should probably go on a crime spree. Rob this store or something. Bring everything down on top of us."
"I don't want to do that," I said.
"I'm probably a fool," my father said, and shook his beer can until the beer fizzed softly inside. "It's just hard to see my opportunities right this minute." He didn't say anything else for a while. "Do you love your dad?" he said in a normal voice, after some time had passed.
"Yes," I said.
"Do you think I'll take good care of you?"
"Yes," I said. "I think so."
"I will," he said.
My father shut the car door and sat a moment looking out the windshield at the grocery, where people were inside moving back and forth behind the plate-glass windows. "Choices don't always feel exactly like choices," he said. He started the car then, and he put his hand on my hand just like you would on a girl's. "Don't be worried about things," he said. "I feel calm now."
"I'm not worried," I said. And I wasn't, because I thought things would be fine. And even though I was wrong, it is still not so bad a way to set your mind toward the unknown just when you are coming into the face of it.