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An eleven-year-old boy sees his father in his own elongated shadow only to realize that he will not return from the war. In a parting moment, a young woman hired to “marry” vacationing soldiers, grasps the weight of the word “woe.” ...
An eleven-year-old boy sees his father in his own elongated shadow only to realize that he will not return from the war. In a parting moment, a young woman hired to “marry” vacationing soldiers, grasps the weight of the word “woe.” When a failing farmer senselessly murders a wandering aborigine, he imperils his son but discovers in the spring of sympathy that follows the power to influence others. Wise and moving, startling and lyrical, Dream Stuff reverberates with the unpredictability of human experience, revealing people who are shaped by the mysterious rhythms of nature as well as the ghosts of their own pasts.
Winner of the 2000 Neustadt International Prize for Literature.
Jack frowned. Don't, Mum, he said silently.
The two figures in the mirror, his mother smiling now, her head turned to one side, disturbed him; there was a kind of complicity between them. When they looked at one another and leaned closer, their eyes full of daring and barely suppressed hilarity, he felt they had moved away into a place where he was not invited to follow. Other rules applied there than the ones he knew and wanted her to keep.
'Well, I don't know,' his mother was saying. But she looked pleased, and his Aunt Susan giggled. 'Maybe,' she said. 'What do you think, Jack?'
He looked away and did not answer. She must know as well as he did that his father hated anything of that sort - rouge, painted toenails, permed hair. What was wrong with her?
For the past few weeks she had been working one night a week at a canteen. Now, under his Aunt Susan's influence, she changed her hairstyle to a glossy pompadour, put on wedgies and, drawing Jack into it as well, began to teach herself the newest dances. They tried them out with old gramophone records, on the back verandah; Jack rather awkward in bare feet and very aware that he came only to her shoulder. I'm only doing it to make her happy, he told himself. He felt none of the pride and excitement of the previous year, when he had gone along each Saturday night in a white shirt and bow tie to be her beau at the Scarborough dances.
Americans began to appear at their door. Escorts, they were called. It had a military ring, more formal, less personal than partner. They brought his mother orchids in a square cellophane box and, for him, 'candy', which only Americans could get. He accepted, it was only polite, but made it clear that he had not been bought.
His mother asked him what he thought of these escorts and they laughed together over their various failings. She was more critical than Jack himself might have been and this pleased him. She also consulted him about what she should wear, and would change if he disapproved. He was not deceived by any of this, but did not let her see it.
And in fact no harm was done. New dances replaced the old ones every month or so, and in the same way the Rudis, the Dukes, the Vergils, the Kents, were around for a bit and sat tugging at their collars under the tasselled lamps while his mother, out in the kitchen, fixed her corsage and they made half-hearted attempts to interest or impress him, then one after another they got their marching orders. Within a week or two of making themselves too easily at home, putting their boots up on the coffee-table, swigging beer from the bottle, they were gone. The war took them. They moved on.
Milt, Milton J. Schuster the Third, was an Air Force navigator from Hartford, Connecticut, a lanky, fair-headed fellow, younger than the others, with an adam's apple that jumped about when he was excited and glasses of a kind Jack had never seen before, just lenses without frames. Jack took to him immediately.
He wasn't a loud-mouth like so many of the others, he did not skite. And for all that he was so young, he had done a lot, and was full of odd bits of information and facts that were new to Jack and endlessly interesting. But most of all, it was Milt who was new. He was put together with so much lazy energy, had so many skills, so much experience that he was ready, in his good-humoured way, to share.
'Jack,' his mother protested, 'give us a break, will you? That's the fifty-seventh question you've asked since tea.'
But where Milt was concerned Jack could never get to the end of his whats and whys and how comes and who said sos, or of Milt's teasing and sometimes crazy answers.
Milt was a fixer. Humming to himself a tuneless tune that you could never quite catch, comfortable in a sweat-stained singlet with the dog-tags hanging, he would, without looking up from the screwdriver he was spinning in his long fingers or the fuse-wire he was unravelling, say 'Hi, kiddo,' the same for Jack and his mother both, and just go on being absorbed. It wasn't an invitation to stay, but it wasn't a hint either (Jack was sensitive to these) that you should push off. He accepted your presence and went on being alone. Yet somehow you were not left out.
In fact the jobs Milt did were things Jack's mother could do quite well herself, but she was happy now to have Milt do them. When he made a lamp come on that had, for goodness knows how long, failed to work, he wore such a look of beaming satisfaction that he might have supplied the power for it out of his own abundant nature, out of the same energy that fired his long stride and lit his smile.
So what was his secret? That's what Jack wanted to know. That was where all his questions tended. And what was the tune he hummed? It seemed to Jack that if he could only get close enough to hear it, he would understand at last Milt's peculiar magic. Because it was magic of a sort. It put a spell on you. Only Milt didn't seem to know that he possessed it, and it was this not-knowing, Jack thought, that made it so mysterious, but also made it work.
Milt was twenty-two. In the strict code of those times it was inconceivable that a woman should be interested in a man who was younger. Jack could imagine his mother breaking some of the rules, smoking in the street for instance, or whistling, but not this one. So he had come to think of Milt as his friend.
When Christmas came they took him to Schindler's.