“Pair a Spurs” is a short story by American author Annie Proulx, published in the collection Brokeback Mountain and Other Stories.
Rather than open with landscape, sky-scape and weather, this time Annie Proulx opens with a political era. I remember it well, with lots about mad cow disease on the news in the late 1990s:
The coffeepot southeast of Signal had been an o.k. little ranch but it passed down to Car Scrope in bad times — the present time and its near past. The beef-buying states, crying brucellosis which they fancied cattle contracted from Yellowstone bison and elk on the roam, had worked up a fear of Wyoming animals that punched the bottom out of the market. It showed a difference of philosophies, the outsiders ignorant that the state’s unwritten motto, take care a your own damn slef, extended to fauna and livestock and to them. There was a deeper malaise: all over the country men who once ate blood-rare prime, women who once cooked pot roast for Sunday dinner turned to soy curd and greens, warding off hardened arteries, E. coli-tainted hamburger, and cold shakes of undulant fever. They shied from overseas reports of “mad cow” disease. And who would display evidence of gross carnivorous appetite in times of heightened vegetarian sensibility?
This time seems so bleak to people living in this farming area that it is possible to think the end of the world is nigh.
Landmarks, like people, are allegorically named.
Bad Girl Creek watered the ranch, in low ground twisted into a slough improved by beaver to three small ponds. A dusty driveway, intersected by a line of power poles slung with a single wire, wandered in from the main road, numerous side-branches cutting toward the far parts of the ranch.
Annie Proulx is quite specific about cardinal direction in “Pair A Spurs”. The Box Hammerhandle (the Muddymans’ dude ranch) lies ‘directly south’ of The Coffeepot. Mrs Freeze lives in a trailer to the west. To the south-east we have ‘high bony ground populated by wild animals’, and at one stage a runaway.
Is Proulx simply painting a picture for us, giving the impression of a narrator who knows the landscape intimately, or does this directionality mean something? In American literature direction has heavy meaning. East means civilisation, West means ‘Wild’ and the South, well that’s where you get all that southern gothic fiction from, with the grotesques and the dark endings. When we’re told Mrs Freeze lives to the west, she is a genuine wild woman, not like the actor who comes in after a lifetime acting, renaming the Muddymans’ ranch. The south-eastern part of the property is the wild, expansive part and since it’s already been described I imagine it’s where the three dude women get lost. (Dude culture coming from the east.)
Annie Proulx also makes use of altitude to perhaps say something about character priority: At the highest point of the ranch stands the calving barn. (Cows are the most important beings as far as Car is concerned.)
Dude is a word that comes up a lot in “Pair A Spurs”. Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast spent a whole episode on this word.
- ‘Dude’ first shows up about 130 years ago, coming from ‘nowhere’.
- In the 19th C it meant one specific thing, went underground, then re-emerged meaning a different thing, went underground, re-emerged meaning a different thing again.
- Now it is ubiquitous. The word alone can be used to express all sorts of emotions, depending on the inflection you give it and tone of voice.
- In March 1883, a Dude is a young man around the age of 25 who may be seen on Fifth Avenue between the hours of 3-6, dressed in clothes which are fashionable without being ostentatious. Tight trousers, a shirt collar clerical in cut, a tall black hat, pointed shoes and a cane. Fops and Swells are different because they aim for extravagance. The Fop and Swell are more high-spirited and given to laughter. There’s no evidence that the Dude enjoys life at all. He seems to have a mission and turns away from frivolity. A proto-metrosexual. The word Dude was not common at that time but took off. The word may have derived from ‘Duds’, a Scottish word for clothes. It denoted someone who was unfamiliar with life outside a city.
- How did it come to refer to people working on farms? Well, a lot of the people who ran cattle ranches were from the city, and seemed like city slickers to long-time farmers. In this way it came to describe a job — someone who works on a ranch. The three lawyers are described as ‘three dude women’, meaning, I guess, from the city. Their clothing is described to suggest a fashionable emulation of genuine ranching clothes, contrasting with the ensemble worn by Inez Muddyman — not fashionable in the least.
- In this story it refers to a cattle ranch converted to a holiday centre for tourists. It was used most commonly in the Western US.
- In the 1960s it became an informal word for man, similar to ‘guy’, appropriated by surfer culture.
- In the 1980s and 1990s it meant a ‘cool’ guy.
FABULISM AND MAGIC
The spurs in this story rely on a well-known trope about objects ‘meaning’ something. A lot of people live their lives based on the belief that certain objects carry good or bad fortune. The placebo effect is no doubt at work in many of these cases. Anyhow, Annie Proulx’s spurs are magical in this way. The characters are completely unaware of any possible bad fortune associated with the spurs.
“PAIR A SPURS” STORY STRUCTURE
The short story “A Pair A Spurs” almost counts as a novella, broken into chapters headed up thusly:
THE COFFEEPOT — Car Scrope lives on a ranch called Coffeepot which is now struggling to make money due to the threat of mad cow disease and people eating less meat for health reasons. Scrope puts 10 dollars towards a sign telling people to eat meat but hardly anyone drives past it. The weather is bad for cattle and he’s having to feed hay. This is followed by more harsh and unexpected weather. He commiserates with his neighbour, Sutton Muddyman. They’re still worried about the ice that hasn’t melted yet, coming down from the mountain. The foreman of this ranch is Mrs Freeze, who lives in a caravan 80 yards away from the ranch house. She is non gender conforming, presented asexually.
THE BOX HAMMERHANDLE — A description of the neighbours who live directly south of the Coffeepot, Sutton and Inez Muddyman. They have a daughter, Kerri, a pastry chef in Oregon. The Muddymans are introverts who don’t open all their Christmas cards. Inez (formerly Inez Bibby) grew up with horses in the mountains. Before marriage she was a barrel racer and roper. (Barrel racing is a rodeo event in which a horse and rider attempt to complete a cloverleaf pattern around preset barrels in the fastest time — basically it’s rodeo for women.) We hear how that marriage ended, with infidelity and violence. The character of Wrench is introduced — the man who slept with his wife. He is referred to as ‘that curly wolf’. They’d been as close as brothers growing up.
THE SPURMAKER — Harold Batts is an old guy with a pony-tail from California. He was laid off as an engineer but these days is into prophecies and whatnot. He has a wife called Sonia who was in car sales until sexually harassed out of that. The sect he’s involved with is called Final Daze. He’s retrained as a blacksmith. He makes stuff out of found metal and in spring makes a pair of spurs with half-drop shanks in steel. This scene is almost magical, portraying him as a wizard. He talks to the cat, saying, “Someone’s going to Connect.” On the way home he counts the dead animals on the side of the road.
NO SURPRISE — This is a section where what’s been mentioned before is explained in full. It’s the story of his wife’s infidelity and the car accident. One day Scrope and Mrs Freeze were out with their two farmhands shifting cattle to some land he leases. Jeri was expected to meet them at Pass Water Creek with sandwiches but didn’t. A few other things went wrong. Some guy called Kyle Johnson turns up and Scrope is going to have to leave his animals on his property til morning. Scrope doesn’t want to be indebted. He rides back home to Coffeepot and finds his wife’s underwear stuck on a barb wire fence. John Wrench’s truck is in the yard. He catches his friend and his wife in flagrante delicto. They go for a drive, argue, keep coming back to divorce and then they find themselves under the highway bridge. While Scrope is convalescing his wife moves to Signal.
PAIR A SPURS — This section is back to Sutton Muddyman, the neighbour to the South. He goes to town and sees those spurs made by Batts in his shop window. Batts tells Muddyman that the spurs are the Hale-Bopp comet and that the end of the world is arriving with the end of the millennium. Muddyman spends money he doesn’t have buying them for his wife as a birthday present instead of the keyring he went in for.
Inez Muddyman rides by horse over to Scrope’s hoping to continue the tradition of a fake roundup and plate of beans. Mrs Freeze passes her in a tractor pulling a flatbed with Cody Joe Bibby. That’s her cousin who suffered brain damage from an incident some years ago and is now only good for the most basic tasks. Mrs Freeze notices the spurs. Inez goes in for coffee and is shocked at the state of the kitchen, but little does she know a clean kitchen makes Scrope terribly sad. Inez is reminded of an elderly man she knew as a child who used to soil himself. When Mrs Freeze leaves the kitchen Scrope sexually assaults Inez. She does get away from him but he yells that he won’t be giving up. Inez seems to have ‘caught’ some of the fear of the millennium harboured by the maker of her spurs, evidence when she makes a comment about the bugs in Scrope’s disgusting hovel of a kitchen, “They must think it’s the end of the world or something.”
THE WOLF — Scrope continues an intense campaign of sexual harassment against Inez. Inez tells her husband about it but Sutton Muddyman doesn’t want to know. He refuses to listen. Three women lawyers arrive to try and sort out who’s getting the Muddymans’ sheep but on their search for evidence get lost on their property. They call Sutton on the mobile phone. One describes the landscape, asks Sutton to find her. Inez makes a comment about maybe her husband stopping off at Scrope’s in the hope he’ll latch on to one of them and not her, showing that Scrope continues to bother her and that she’s still trying to bring it up with her husband, hoping he’ll step in. Inez is out looking for them, sees a wolf, tries to rope it and is killed instantly after being smashed into the windshield. No one believes that there was any wolf, seen by the lawyers. An intertextual reference to “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”. Scrope very soon packs up and moves to Oregon to be near his daughter. Inez was wearing the comet spurs at the time of the accident so he doesn’t want them. They’re bad luck.
TEXAS BOYS — The Muddyman ranch is purchased by former actor Frank Fane who renames it Galaxy Ranch, because science fiction is his thing, though he has a similar fascination for Westerns. He hires Texans and a foreman by the name of Haul Smith. These guys are good with horses but even better at snooker. He likes to play Cowboy pool. This starts a new culture of serious play at the pub. Locals are annoyed that Frank Fane didn’t employ Wyoming locals on Galaxy Ranch. It is revealed that Mrs Freeze, watching the game, has ended up with the comet spurs. One of the guys wants to buy them off her. Wrench has made up with Scrope after the incident with Scrope’s wife. Correspondence from Sutton shows he’s very happy in Oregon where life is much easier.
MRS. FREEZE MOVES FIVE MILES OFF — There’s a tender moment between Scrope and Mrs Freeze, in which Scrope expresses his gratitude. Later that day they’re working on a fence together when Scrope comes onto Mrs Freeze, who is clearly not interested. Mrs Freeze asks Haul Smith next door for a job. He’s reluctant to give her one because she’s an old woman, but she sweetens the deal by saying because of that he doesn’t need to pay her as much. He’ll hire her to work with the buffalo but only in exchange for her spurs which he has previously admired at the pub. She agrees immediately. Scrope is devastated and offers up something akin to an apology. She ends up whacking him in the shoulder with a shovel after Scrope raises his shotgun to her. By now it’s clear that Scrope seems to be magnetically attracted to whoever’s wearing those ‘magical’ spurs. He can’t seem to help himself.
DEEP WATERS — The snowpack starts melting now that is’ June. Creeks swell to rivers, metaphorically mirroring Scrope turning to the drink. Scrope’s stream bursts for lack of maintenance. Next door, a bison expert from the university is talking to Mrs Freeze about how bison can’t actually be run on the property because they need a lot of land. Haul Smith is found drowned, ‘hauled’ away by twisted roots in the deluge. One of the three remaining Texans look for his boots which have come off in the current, saying that the spurs would be a nice thing for one of his kids to have. By this point in the story the reader has been roped in on the belief that these spurs really do mean bad luck. We are worried for the kid.
THERE’S STILL WHISKEY — Fane gets out of the ranch game. The Texan farmhands leave. The Muddymans’ ranch is now owned by a man who made lots of money from breakfast cereal. (I’m thinking Annie Proulx doesn’t think much of breakfast cereal — I’d guess she’s a bacon and eggs kind of woman.) He wants to let the ranch revert to a state of nature. Mrs Freeze is therefore out of a job. She takes to drinking down at the pub. One of Scrope’s former farmhands who’s done a stint in jail for thieving cigarettes is now Scrope’s foreman. He says Scrope spends all day sat in a chair eating potato chips. In the end it’s Mrs Freeze who’s turning to the whiskey — all Scrope has is potato chips. She feels grateful she has that. Note that Annie Proulx set up reader expectations but subverted them in the spirit of realism — we’re almost expecting Mrs Freeze to die when she inherits the spurs. Instead she suffers another kind of death. There are many ways of being dead.
Car Scrope, forty years old, had lived on the Coffeepot all his life and suffered homesickness when he went to the feed store in Signal. He’d acquired a morbid passion for the ranch as a child when he believed he could hear its grass mocking him.
His ghost: He had an older brother called Train who suicided in the bathroom and his parents, though comforting each other, never allowed him to say one word about it. They kept on telling him lies, big and small. He had a car accident once on the highway near his ranch which almost killed his former wife. It’s left him with pins and leg screws.
As you can see, these characters are comically named — perhaps even more so than in other short stories.
He carries no small amount of sexual desperation. He has an ex-wife called Jeri — the marriage ‘fell apart in half an hour.’ He is a violent man who won’t let his wife leave him without shooting out her car windows with a shotgun. He also shot the truck windows of the man who his wife had taken up with, John Wrench.
Despite this early warning of who he is underneath, Proulx is sure to engender a bit of reader sympathy. His treatment of the runaway — the provision of food, the offer of a job — tells us that he is capable of compassion. We get snippets of what drives his lack-of-coping at life: His kitchen is an utter disgrace but that’s because a tidy kitchen makes him unbearably nostalgic and sad.
As we get to know Scrope, however, Proulx makes sure to depict him as increasingly grotesque. Our empathy for him is tested.
Scrope wants people to start buying beef again.
He is desperately lonely and wants female company.
His best friend slept with his wife. Until they homoromantically reunite, Scrope blames the friend for this but they end up mutually blaming the woman.
The women peripherally in his love do not return any affections. These are his ‘romantic opponents’.
Scrope puts in ten dollars for a sign telling people to eat beef — a comically underwhelming gesture to combat an unstoppable cultural trend.
His plans to find a woman span between sexual harassment and rape. The women are too strong for him, emotionally and then physically.
Mrs Freeze is Scrope’s long-term partner in the cowboy fashion. Think Call and Gus from Lonesome Dove. Theirs is like a marriage in many ways. Scrope’s big struggle with Mrs Freeze come when he points a gun at her. She turns it back on him and leaves, as planned. He now officially has no one.
When Scrope realises he has nobody he spirals down into a depressive state.
Scrope brings his old jailbird farmhand back and another fellow to run the place. He does nothing, living in a vegetative state.
Meanwhile, Mrs Freeze loses the job she loves, working with animals on the land and is going to have to go back to working in the kitchen which she hates, but she’ll get through it so long as she has liquor. We’re not told that’s what she’s going to do, but we know that’s her only choice, and the phrase ‘even in an apron’ in the last sentence gives us more than enough clue.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
Car, one of the tragic heroes from “Pair A Spurs” thinks he can hear the grass mocking him. This reminds me of the previous story in the Close Range collection, “The Bunchgrass Edge Of The World“, in which Ottaline hears a tractor talking to her and views her environs in an almost magical realist way.
In Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By, we have a tragic hero similar to Scrope. Like Scrope, Hud has no boundaries with women and drives his best worker away. In both McMurtry’s novel and in “Pair A Spurs” our heroes end up alone.