Ford does something in his stories that I can describe with a childhood memory. I am with my sister in the back of my father's blue Dart. We are in a downtown area surrounded by tall buildings. I have no idea which city or how old I am. The car is the same one in which my sister and I and one of our cousins got busted for sliding down the windshield on our little fannies, from roof to hood. It is also the car in which we accidentally broke a bunch of root beer bottles in the rear footwell, and then my sister fell into the glass and cut open her knee so that she needed stitches, although that memory is vague and could be wrong.
It is also not the memory for Richard Ford's stories. Here it is.
From the backseat of my father's car, I look across the street. Perhaps we are stopped at a light. Perhaps parked on the curb, waiting for someone. I cannot recall if either of my parents are there, only my sister. She is 16 months younger than me, which makes her subject to both my adoration and torment, although most of the family stories from our early childhood are about her trickery, how she could provoke me into trouble in order to get whatever she wanted—a cookie, Raggedy Ann doll, attention. What can I say? I had a short temper, and she was smart enough to use it to her advantage.
Across the street, a man stands on the corner, holding a cane. I have no recollection of whether he is old or young, tall or short, fine or poor. Only of the cane in one hand and, on his head, a hat such as other men are wearing on the streets of the city. I have enough time to peer at him, the man and his cane across the street from the wide, sticky-vinyl backseat of our blue Dart. There are no seat belts inside to secure us. We could have been hanging out the window, my sister and I, gawking at any passerby.
The moment of importance, however, is just that—a moment. Some pigeons break upward from the sidewalk near the man with the cane. An abrupt clatter of wings, the man turns his head, and I, watching him, turn with him, seeing what he sees.
That is the moment. In that instant, I am transported across the street to stand inside his shoes as if I am there with him, taking in his startled breath, grasping onto the cane with my hand, birds thrashing up from my feet.
As quickly as I understand the shift, it reverts back, and I am just a gangly-legged, tantrum-prone girl, skin sticking to the blue vinyl bench seat in the back of my father's blue Dart along with my pesky sister.
Did I make it up? Imagine it? Is it merely a child's fantasy? Does it matter?
That shift of perspective—the ability to look at someone and experience "being" them—is an exercise in empathy. It's what makes rich characters of depth live and breathe on the page. As a child, it may have been just a game. As a writer, it is a craft-worthy goal.
Ford's stories make that shift for me. Throughout his stories, I am drawn into the characters, breathe their air, feel the Wyoming night, Montana sun, or the Bitterroot river water on my face. Ache with their despair, confusion, and love. I case the parking lot of a Ramada Inn, understand how a man becomes a desperate criminal, drive a runaway through the night to Great Falls, hear my father crying—or dream it. Shoot a white snow goose.
Feel the curve of a cane in my hand. Witness the rise of birds.
That's a good story, isn't it?
The Darkling Thrush
By Thomas Hardy
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.