“Walker Brothers Cowboy” is a short story by Nobel Laureate Alice Munro. The Canadian author first published this short story in her collection Dance of the Happy Shades: and other stories
(1968). Munro’s eighth collection of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades,
received the Man Book Prize. Dance of the Happy Shades
opens with the 18-page short story, “Walker Brothers Cowboy.”
Set in the 1930s, the story is narrated by a teenage Canadian girl who lives in the town of Tuppertown. The family used to have a successful fox farm, but since the depression, lost their capital and their social standing in the area.
Now her father is a traveling salesman for the company Walker Brothers, and one day he asks her to join him to “see if the Lake’s still there.” The daughter-father venture down to Lake Huron. On the walk, the narrator sees a lot of homeless men hanging around; they want to work but there are no jobs. She has a penchant for daydreaming, and along this walk she thinks about her father who, though he presents himself to be an authority on many subjects, he’s not old enough to live in a world where carriages were the only mode of land transportation. Privately, she thinks how old she’ll be when the 20th century comes to a close; she dreads the aging process and death.
The girl reports that her father sells just about anything: stool softeners, tea, rat poison, and a dozen other items. Consequently, her father has to appear knowledgeable about many things, even when he lacks the knowledge to be a real expert.
Business hasn’t been so good for him lately. The narrator overheard her mother complain about declining sales to a neighbor. They can’t afford some small luxuries like their other neighbors, and her mother pretends not to care. In truth, her mother is heartbroken over the loss of their fox farm and her husband’s demeaning job.
One day, mother and daughter run some shopping errands at Simon’s Grocery. The girl is very self-conscious that her mother has forced her to dress all “prim and proper.” She imagines that her peers must think she’s a square.
When they return, her mother has a severe headache. She lies down, while the rest of the family proposes various remedies. The father suggests that she get some fresh air with him; what he really means is that she should join him on his sales route. The mother can’t imagine anything more boring than this, but the daughter is rearing to join her father on the drive. Initially, her father says that her mother will require her help with the sewing. The mother declines the help, however, so the daughter accompanies her father. Her younger brother wants to come too and the father allows him.
When her father parks the car around people’s homes, the narrator stays in the car and observes his work. She sees the rare person actually buy something from her father, while most people just slam their door in his face. Some people are creative with their disdain for Walker Brothers salesmen. At one house, just as her father is walking away from what he thought was an empty house, someone dumps a chamber pot out of the window, nearly splashing her father. Fortunately, none of what was inside—mostly urine—strikes him.
The children find this encounter with “pee pee” to be hilarious. The father goes along with it, though he tells them to keep this a secret from their mother as she wouldn’t find this indignity so humorous.
The father drives (very quickly) to another house. They arrive on a barren street with a squat, husky woman hanging up various garments to dry from being washed. The father introduces himself as a “Walker Brothers man.” The woman isn’t interested in talking to him, as they already have a representative assigned to their area. But as the father approaches, the woman recognizes him.
The reader then finds out that the father’s name is Ben Jordan. The woman’s name is Nora Cronin. She is amazed that Ben now has two children. The children get out of the car and the group moves to the kitchen of Nora’s house. On the porch, they meet Nora’s grandmother, who vaguely remembers Ben.
In the kitchen, Ben and Nora drink whiskey while the children are given sodas. Ben feels comfortable around Nora, enough to relate the story of the chamber pot that was recently dumped near him. She finds the story hilarious; the narrator comments that Nora laughs almost as loudly as her brother did to the slapstick scene and to the phrase, “pee pee.”
Nora suddenly remembers there are children present, and she elects to entertain them. She plays a record to keep the young brother entranced and offers to teach the daughter how to dance. Nora and the narrator dance for a little while. Then Nora asks Ben to dance with her. The adults dance together, and the narrator knows there is some previous (or perhaps present) romantic chemistry between the two. She also knows that the brother is too young to comment on this and that when she gets back to her mother, she wouldn’t dare raise attention to the affection her father showed to another woman.