For our Marginalia web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite works of literature by way of a short piece of prose. This week, Marilyn Abildskov, whose story “Dermatology” appears in the Summer 2020 issue, examines a theme from “Walker Brothers Cowboy” by Alice Munro.
“The tiny share we have of time appalls me, though my father seems to regard it with tranquility.”
So says the narrator of Alice Munro’s short story “Walker Brothers Cowboy.”
Told from a girl’s point of view, the story traces an afternoon that culminates in a surprise visit to the father’s old flame, Nora. The girl watches as her father and Nora speak the coded-language of former lovers—whisky, dancing, and the past.
But it’s the girl’s earlier observation on time that haunts the story. Before Nora’s house, the father takes the girl to the lake. He tells her how the Great Lakes came to be, how where Lake Huron is used to be flat land, a wide flat plain. “‘Then came the ice, creeping down from the north, pushing deep into the low places,’” he says.
Like that—and he shows me his hand with his spread fingers pressing the rock-hard ground where we are sitting. His fingers make hardly any impression at all and he says, “Well, the old ice cap had a lot more power behind it than this hand has.” And then the ice went back, shrank back towards the North Pole where it came from, and left its fingers of ice in the deep places it had gouged, and ice turned to lakes and there they were today. They were new, as time went by.
The girl tries to imagine it but can’t.
Set in the hunger-stricken, desolate 1930s and replete with lean dogs, worn cars, and gray barns, Munro’s story resonates today when millions of Americans are unemployed, and a global pandemic keeps us homebound. Time shape-shifts. Our senses sharpen. Little things—the taste of sourdough; the sight of snap peas pushing through the dirt; the texture of a handwritten note—become large.
The story ends as the father drives home, and the girl feels her father’s life flowing back from the car “darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it,” reminding the reader that stories are enchantments, spells, visitations—tiny shares of time. It’s astonishing, really. Yet Munro allows time with all of its strangeness and tenderness and bitterness to unfold with tranquility.