Authors: Richard Ford
is a work of the imagination. Every character and event in it is fictitious. No resemblance to real people is intended or should be inferred. I’ve taken liberties with the townscape of Great Falls, Montana, and also with the prairie landscape and with some particulars of the small towns in the southwest of the Province of Saskatchewan. Highway 32, for instance, was unpaved in 1960, although as I’ve written about it, it is paved. Beyond that, all outright errors and omissions are my responsibility.
IRST, I’LL TELL ABOUT THE ROBBERY OUR PARENTS
committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.
Our parents were the least likely two people in the world to rob a bank. They weren’t strange people, not obviously criminals. No one would’ve thought they were destined to end up the way they did. They were just regular—although, of course, that kind of thinking became null and void the moment they did rob a bank.
, Bev Parsons, was a country boy born in Marengo County, Alabama, in 1923, and came out of high school in 1939, burning to be in the Army Air Corps—the branch that became the Air Force. He went in at Demopolis, trained at Randolph, near San Antonio, longed to be a fighter pilot, but lacked the aptitude and so learned bombardiering instead. He flew the B-25s, the light-medium Mitchells, that were seeing duty in the Philippines, and later over Osaka, where they rained destruction on the earth—both on the enemy and undeserving people alike. He was a tall, winning, smiling handsome six-footer (he barely fitted into his bombardier’s compartment), with a big square, expectant face and knobby cheekbones and sensuous lips and long, attractive feminine eyelashes. He had white shiny teeth and short black hair he was proud of—as he was of his name. Bev. Captain Bev Parsons. He never conceded that Beverly was a woman’s name in most people’s minds. It grew from Anglo-Saxon roots, he said. “It’s a common name in England. Vivian, Gwen and Shirley are men’s names there. No one confuses
with women.” He was a nonstop talker, was open-minded for a southerner, had graceful obliging manners that should’ve taken him far in the Air Force, but didn’t. His quick hazel eyes would search around any room he was in, finding someone to pay attention to him—my sister and me, ordinarily. He told corny jokes in a southern theatrical style, could do card tricks and magic tricks, could detach his thumb and replace it, make a handkerchief disappear and come back. He could play boogie-woogie piano, and sometimes would “talk Dixie” to us, and sometimes like Amos ’n’ Andy. He had lost some of his hearing by flying the Mitchells, and was sensitive about it. But he looked sharp in his “honest” GI haircut and blue captain’s tunic and generally conveyed a warmth that was genuine and made my twin sister and me love him. It was also probably the reason my mother had been attracted to him (though they couldn’t have been more unsuited and different) and unluckily gotten pregnant from their one hasty encounter after meeting at a party honoring returned airmen, near where he was re-training to learn supply-officer duties at Fort Lewis, in March 1945—when no one needed him to drop bombs anymore. They were married immediately when they found out. Her parents, who lived in Tacoma and were Jewish immigrants from Poland, didn’t approve. They were educated mathematics teachers and semiprofessional musicians and popular concertizers in Poznan who’d escaped after 1918 and come to Washington State through Canada, and became—of all things—school custodians. Being Jews meant little to them by then, or to our mother—just an old, exacting, constricted conception of life they were happy to put behind them in a land where there apparently were no Jews.
But for their only daughter to marry a smiling, talkative only-son of Scotch-Irish Alabama backwoods timber estimators was never in their thinking, and they soon put it out of their thinking altogether. And while from a distance, it may seem that our parents were merely not made for one another, it was more true that when our mother married our father, it betokened a loss, and her life changed forever—and not in a good way—as she surely must’ve believed.
, Neeva Kamper (short for Geneva), was a tiny, intense, bespectacled woman with unruly brown hair, downy vestiges of which ran down her jawline. She had thick eyebrows and a shiny, thin-skinned forehead under which her veins were visible, and a pale indoor complexion that made her appear fragile—which she wasn’t. My father jokingly said people where he was from in Alabama called her hair “Jew hair” or “immigrant hair,” but he liked it and loved her. (She never seemed to pay these words much attention.) She had small, delicate hands whose nails she kept manicured and shined and was vain about and gestured with absently. She owned a skeptical frame of mind, was an intent listener when we talked to her, and had a wit that could turn biting. She wore frameless glasses, read French poetry, often used terms like “cauchemar” or “trou de cul,” which my sister and I didn’t understand. She wrote poems in brown ink bought through the mail, and kept a journal we weren’t permitted to read, and normally had a slightly nose-elevated, astigmatized expression of perplexity—which became true of her, and may always have been true. Before she married my father and quickly had my sister and me, she’d graduated at eighteen from Whitman College in Walla Walla, had worked in a bookstore, featured herself possibly as a bohemian and a poet, and had hoped someday to land a job as a studious, small-college instructor, married to someone different from who she did marry—conceivably a college professor, which would’ve given her the life she believed she was intended for. She was only thirty-four in 1960, the year these events occurred. But she already had “serious lines” beside her nose, which was small and pinkish at its tip, and her large, penetrating gray-green eyes had dusky lids that made her seem foreign and slightly sad and dissatisfied—which she was. She possessed a pretty, thin neck, and a sudden, unexpected smile that showed off her small teeth and girlish, heart-shaped mouth, though it was a smile she rarely practiced—except on my sister and me. We realized she was an unusual-looking person, dressed as she typically was in olive-color slacks and baggy-sleeved cotton blouses and hemp-and-cotton shoes she must’ve sent away to the West Coast for—since you couldn’t buy such things in Great Falls. And she only seemed more unusual standing reluctantly beside our tall, handsome, outgoing father. Though it was rarely the case that we went “out” as a family, or ate in restaurants, so that we hardly noticed how they appeared in the world, among strangers. To us, life in our house seemed normal.