‘Ghosts, Cowboys’ by Claire Vaye Watkins

Ghosts, Cowboys by Claire Vaye Watkins, 2012

The magic trick:

A density of ideas, commenting on life’s density of ideas

We’re off to Nevada this week.

This is a very special story.

Possibly even exhaustingly so.

But in a good way.

It definitely feels like one of those stories from a young writer (I believe Watkins was still in her 20s when this was published) where they seem hellbent on using up every single bit of their lifetime of acquired experience in one 4,000-word burst.

Here, we’ve got the settling of Nevada, a brief history of Reno architecture, the detailed story of the Spahn Ranch of Manson Family infamy, a startlingly intimate familial connection to said Manson Family, movie producers, failed romance and a soap opera of a family mystery.

It’s a lot.

So much so that for most of the story I felt its weight. I enjoyed the flurry of topics but wondered if perhaps this should have been 22 different stories instead of 22 pages.

Then I got it.

It all ties together in the end.

The amount of seemingly disparate topics, the weight, the exhaustion – that’s not an error. It’s all by design. It’s the story’s main point.

Life is exhausting because it’s all one story.

And that’s quite a trick on Watkins’s part.

The selection:

He was to retire, bow out of the ranching business, bury his tired feet in the warm Western sand. But retirement didn’t suit George. After two months he came home to their ticky-tacky rental on the beach and presented Helen with plans to buy a 511-acre ranch at 1200 Santa Susana Pass Road in the Santa Susana Mountains. The ranch was up for sale by its owner, the aging silent-film star William S. Hart.

The Santa Susana Mountains are drier than the more picturesque Santa Monica Mountains than line the California coast. Because they are not privy to the moist winds rolling off the sea, they are susceptible to fires. Twelve hundred Santa Susana Pass Road is tucked up in the Santa Susanas north of Los Angeles, off what is now called the Ronald Reagan Freeway. Back in 1941, when George was persuading Helen to move again, taking her knobby hand in his, begging her to uproot the tendrils she’d so far managed to anchor into the loose beige sand of Manhattan Beach – Just a bit east this time, sweet pea – the city of Chatsworth was little more than a Baptist church, a dirt-clogged filling station, and the Palomino Horse Association’s main stables, birthplace of Mr. Ed. Years later, in 1961, my father, still a boy, would start a wildfire in the hills above the PHA stables. He would be eleven, crouched in a dry brush, sneaking a cigarette. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

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