PEN/O.Henry 2011: Leslie Parry – “The Vanishing American” originally published in The Virginia Quarterly Review

"White Buffalo" by Marilyn Speck Ballard

The last word he spoke, right before the gas, had been a retort to one of Olivieu’s stories: baloney. That’s it. Sometimes he woke up at night, stuttering and apoplectic. Baloney? He couldn’t think of anything more than that?

This was another story I dreaded reading. I’ve already said I hate Westerns, and seems that goes for stories about filming Westerns, too. I read the first half page maybe four, five times before flipping over to the next page. But man, is this loaded with everything.

Indian #9 is the only name we get for the protagonist. He’s not an Indian at all, he’s an actor, an extra. His voice was “gassed out of him in a trench in the Argonne Forest.” The movies – pre-talkies – seemed like a fine career. He’s been playing gangsters and crooks for a few months, and this is the first time he’s had an actual line – he will move his lips and the words will appear on the screen. “Soon, back home at the DeLuxe Theater, everyone would see him speak again – his mother, his sister, his neighbors – all crowded onto those stained velveteen seats, squinting through the roiling dust at his face, two stories high.”

A herd of buffalo has been shipped to Catalina for this scene. Indian #9 ponders that no one is coming back for them. And the particular buffalo he’s working with in the scene is white. He thinks it’s pretty remarkable. So do I.

He goes through a lot during his day of filming, merging it with the war, writing a letter to Olivieu, the army buddy who didn’t make it. And there’s a young blond man, another actor, who kind of hangs around him. They end up crowded into the cab of a truck with a cute costume girl: “…even though she twisted subtly against Indian #9’s groin, grabbing his thigh with every lurch and turn, he was all too aware of his knee knocking gently against the blond man’s….”

The scene of the actual movie scene being shot, and the immediate aftermath, is really nice, rich and again loaded. Instead of his assigned line, he mouths, “Olivieu!” Maybe a little too loaded. Is that a valid complaint? There’s too much in the story? Nothing feels truncated or underdeveloped, there’s just so much. A little heavy-handed, maybe. Like surf-and-turf with a side of lasagna. But delicious.

After the scene is shot, he has some camaraderie with the other actors, and he has his moment with the costume girl in the dressing room.Life is good. “Still, he couldn’t help but think of the buffalo, how they had been left there in the glen overnight, how no one would be going back for them.”

When the movie plays in his neighborhood, he goes to see it. I think I held my breath for these three pages. I was completely surprised. It’s a little heavy-handed again, I suppose, but I loved it anyway. Sometimes too much of a good thing is a good thing.

I enjoyed reading Parry’s Contributor notes about the herd of buffalo (their descendents are still on Catalina today) used for the real film The Vanishing American, how she saw that film when she was a kid, and how later she put it together with an idea she had for a veteran who’d lost his voice in the war. This is her first published story. I’m eager to see what’s next.