In Someone to Watch Over Me (Harper Perennial, 224 pages), with stories about older men with younger women, a woman recovering from a dysfunctional relationship who hooks up with a horrible golfer who persuades himself he is good, a man with low self-esteem who stumbles out of a bar drunk one morning to save a busload of children, a man who wins the lottery only to face the final anomie of life as loss, Richard Bausch takes somewhat downtrodden and mundane middle-to-lower class characters and reveals them in their secret glory. He has a way of fully seizing an everyday situation and revealing to us its depths, sometimes switching character point of view within the same story. The stories have the opposite effect of Chinese food according to the culinary cliché: they may seem on the light side while being mentally digested, but in retrospect they confer literary nutrition–staying, like the best fiction, with you long after the book is closed; these then are stories whose characters, if not the most memorable, are so real, so deeply sliced from the pie of modern American life, that their quandaries and partial resolutions, their fictional or fictionalized lives, tend to merge with one’s own memories.
—Dorion Sagan, author of The Devil’s Comic (2000) and co-author of Pack of Lies (forthcoming).
I was pummeled as a teenager. For some reason I had the sort of face that asked to be punched. It seemed to me in those days that everybody wanted to take a turn. Something about the curve of my mouth, I guess. It made me look like I was being cute with people, smirking at them. I am what is called a late life child. My brother, Doke, is twenty years older and played semipro football. But by the time I came along, Doke was through as a ballplayer and my father had given up on ever seeing a son play pro. I was a month premature, and very, very tiny as a child. Dad named me Ignatius, after an uncle of his that I never knew. Of course I didn’t take to sports, though I could run pretty fast (that comes with having a face people want to hit). I liked to read; I was the family bookworm. I’m four feet nine inches tall.
Doke married young, divorced young, and had a son, Doke Jr., that the wife took with her to Montana. But Doke missed the boy and went out there to be near him, and when I graduated from high school, he invited me for a visit. That’s how I ended up in Montana in 1971. I’d gone to spend the summer with Doke, in a hunter’s cabin up in the mountains. It was a little cottage, with a big stone hearth and knotty-pine paneling and color photos of the surrounding country. On the shelf above the hearth were some basketball trophies belonging to the guy who owned the place, a former college allstar now working as an ophthalmologist down in Dutton.
Doke taught me how to fly-fish. A fly rod had a lot of importance to Doke, as if being good with the thing was a key to the meaning of life or something. He had an image of himself, standing in sunlight, fly rod in hand. He was mystical about the enterprise, though he didn’t really have much ability.
While I was staying with Doke, I met Hildie, my eventual ex-wife. She was a nurse in the hospital where Doke took me the night I met his new girlfriend, Samantha. I met Samantha about two hours before I met Hildie.
Samantha had come home to Montana from San Francisco, where she’d been with her crazy mother. Before I met her — many days before — Doke had talked about her, about how beautiful and sexy she was. According to Doke, I just wasn’t going to believe my eyes. He’d met her in a bar he used to frequent after working construction all day in Dutton. She was only twenty-five. He told me all about her, day after day. We were drinking pretty heavy in the evenings, and he’d tell me about what she had gone through in her life.
“She’s so beautiful to have to go through that stuff,” he said, “suicide and insanity and abuse. A lot of abuse. She’s part Indian. She’s had hard times. Her father was a full-blooded Cherokee. She’s a genius. He killed himself. Then her mother went crazy, and they put her in this institution for the insane over in San Francisco. Her mother doesn’t know her own name anymore. Or Samantha’s. Pathetic, really. Think about it. And she looks like a goddess. I can’t even find the words for it. Beautiful. Nobody in the world. Not even Hollywood.”
At the time, I was worried about getting drafted into the army and was under a lot of stress. They were drafting everybody back then, and I was worried. I didn’t want to hear about Doke’s beautiful girlfriend. “Man,” he said, “I wish I had her picture — a snapshot of her — so I could show you. But the Indian blood means she has this thing about having her picture taken. Like it steals part of her soul. They all believe that.”
He was talking about her the night she arrived, the traveling she’d done when she was a back-dancer for the Rolling Stones (“She knows Mick Jagger, man”) and the heavy things she’d seen — abused children and illicit drugs and alcohol — and also the positions she liked during sex, and the various ways they had of doing it together.
“She’s an Indian,” he said. “They have all kinds of weird ways.”
“Could we go out on the porch or something?” I said.
He hadn’t heard me. “She wears a headband. It expresses her people. When she was six her mother went crazy the first time. A white woman, the mother, right? This poor girl from Connecticut with no idea what she was getting into, marrying this guy, coming out here to live, almost like a pioneer. Only the guy turned out to be a wild man. They lived on the reservation, and nobody else wanted anything to do with them because of how he was. A true primitive, but a noble one, too. You should hear Samantha talk about him. He used to take her everywhere, and he had this crazy thing about rock concerts. Like they were from the old days of the tribe, see. He’d go and dance and get really drunk. Samantha went with him until she was in her teens. She actually has a daughter from when they traveled with the Rolling Stones. The daughter’s staying with her mother’s sister back East. It’s a hell of a story.”
“She’s only twenty-five?”
He nodded. “Had the daughter when she was seventeen.”
“The Rolling Stones,” I said. “Something.”
“Don’t give me that look,” he said.
I smiled as big as I could …