‘Billboard’ by Richard Bausch

Billboard by Richard Bausch, 1995

The magic trick:

Building a cheesy romantic comedy plot out of what should be a dark, disturbing premise

Richard Bausch is one of those writers who will never be in your lit hall of fame. He was probably never ever one of the best 20 short story writers of any year in his prime. But at the same time, pretty much every single one of his stories is good. So who cares about that kind of sports/competitive approach to assessment?

He’s really good. Really consistent. Really great at capturing a certain reality.

If you were only going to read one Bausch story, you could do worse than starting with “Billboard.” It may not be his best, but it’s certainly representative.

“Billboard” introduces us to the emotional life drama behind the scenes of the stereo department of your local Walgreen’s. If that doesn’t hook you, well, I don’t know what to say. That premise sums up the appeal. The story gives us smart, witty, likable characters from the forgotten corners of society. We also have a protagonist with murderous designs. He literally wants to burn down his ex’s house. He’s buying the requisite gas halfway through the story. But the story isn’t dark. It’s funny in tone, and the plot connects like the corniest of romantic comedies. It’s a great mix.

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

The selection:

When she’s like that, talking to her can be like trying to give complicated instructions to a foreigner.

“I know what it means,” she says. “You’re not as big as you wish you were. That’s why you’re on the scooter.”

“No,” I say, “I owned a scooter last year.”

“You never rode it,” she says.

“Well, it doesn’t matter whether I rode it or not,” I say.

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