The municipality of Haute Montagne stood at the junction of the Fresnel River and the railway, its water tower and its huge granaries erupting from the prairie like blocks of basalt from an eroded sea floor. Once, not long ago, the town had aspired to be a city.
It still had a little of city in it. There was the main street, Lawson Spur, or simply The Spur, which was blacktopped and lined with concrete sidewalks dazzlingly white in the noonday sun, which boasted the big Bingham's Hardware Store and J. C. Penney's and Times Square Lunch, all fronted in dusty yellow brick; and there was the trolley that ran on embedded rails from the switching yard down The Spur to the granaries farther south. Everyone agreed that those were big-city conveniences. Once they had been accepted as harbingers of greater things.
But Haute Montagne remained a small town in its artful cultivation of box elders and bur oaks, in its side streets on which the pavement gave way quickly to cobbles or pressed dirt, in its gabled clapboard houses with high dormers and big front stoops that looked so invitingly shady when high summer lay on the town like liquid metal. It was a small town by virtue of its silences at noon and midnight, and the distances the big trains traveled before they arrived hissing at the depot. The prairie vastnesses had made of the town an island, isolated, proud in its isolation, set apart from the chaos that had so lately descended on the country at large.
But the town was not in any real way safe, no safer than New York or Los Angeles or Chicago, and perhaps that unacknowledged wisdom made its decline the more galling. Haute Montagne ("where the railroad meets the wheatfield") might once have wanted to be a city, but that ambition had diedor at least had been set aside, like the hope chest of a young woman destined for spinsterhoodin the Depression that had come like a bad cold and stayed to become something worse, some lingering if not fatal disease. The granaries had laid off much of the town's male population; the trains stopped less often; dust and drought had withered too much fertile land. The noon silences became profounder. Midnights were interminable. There was a sense, never explicit, of some even darker eventuality hovering like an army of locusts beyond the indefinite horizonbiding its time.
Travis Fisher had some feeling of that when he stepped off the eastbound train and onto the white-washed boards of the Haute Montagne depot with July like a haze in the air.
He had been tempted to stay on the train all the way to wherever it wentNew York, Mainejust sit and watch the miles pass away like unremembered dreams. His ticket was paid up only this far, though, and he had change of a dollar in his pocket for money and no real choice. He climbed off the pullman car into an immense summer silence and withdrew from his shirt pocket the hand-drawn map his Aunt Liza had sent him in the mail. South down The Spur to Lambeth, west on Lambeth to DeVille, number 120. In truth he was a little afraid of this new place, but he was nineteen years old and had carried a grown man's responsibilities since the year he had turned twelve, and so he straightened his shoulders and picked up his bag and began walking. The canvas bag contained a change of clothes and a photograph of his mother. It was not heavy.
There were old men and young men side-by-side on the public benches in front of the train station, and they all looked at Travis with an eloquent incuriosity. His footsteps on the pavement were loud in his ears. At the corner of Lambeth and Spur he should have turned west, but he saw the Times Square Lunch with its wide glass windows and realized at once how hungry he was. He bought a dime western at a newsstand and let himself gratefully into the cool shade of the diner. There were three men at a side table but nobody at the long Formica-topped lunch bar.
He ordered himself a hamburger and a Coke. The hamburger was a slab of broiled beef and the Coke came in a big soda-fountain glass with condensation on it like dew. The waitress was young, dark-haired, small-breasted under her uniform, and she gave him a series of covert glances. When she brought over the side of french fries she said, "You must be Travis Fisher."
"Trav," he said automatically, only then realizing how odd it was that she should know his name. "How did you?"
"Relax," she said. She put her elbows on the counter. "I'm Nancy. Nancy Wilcox. My mom knows your Aunt Liza through the Baptist Women." She rolled her eyes to demonstrate her attitude toward the Baptist Women. "I guess just about everybody knew you were coming in today."
He was not sure he was pleased to hear that. But she was pretty, so he thanked Nancy Wilcox anyway and said he hoped he'd see her around.
"Probably you will," she said. "Mom and Liza Burack aren't exactly close, but they move in all the same circles. High-minded, you know: church committees, temperance league. Translation: busybodies." She winked and turned away, flipping her long dark hair out of her eyes. Travis gazed at her a moment before directing his attention to the dime western and the hamburger.
The hamburger was satisfying, the magazine less so. He was an attentive reader, but today the heroes seemed too operatic; the violence perversely too affecting. Six-guns blazed, blood poured, justice (except in the "continued" serial) triumphed. But he could not help thinking of his mother and of the ugliness of her death and his impotent rage at it, so after a while he put down his thirty cents on the shiny Formica and left.
• • •
Haute montagne was French for "high mountain," his mother had told him, but whatever Frenchman named the place must have been drunk or blind. His aunt's house, 120 DeVille, stood on the highest plot of land in town, where the prairie rose in a kind of swell for thirty or forty feet before sloping away to the bank of the Fresnel River and the railway bed. The house itself was old but had once been fine: two stories plus a small garret with oculus windows overlooking the town; but the wooden siding was textured with paint curls and the weather had got into the dormers. Yellow curtains were drawn against the sunlight.
Travis had not been there since he was six years old.
He knocked three times on the rim of the screen door and then Aunt Liza answered.
Liza was his mother's older sister, in her middle fifties now, respectable in a print sack dress, and she opened the door and looked at Travis with a mixture of pity and suspicion that he recognized instantly over the gulf of years. She had aged some. There were lines in her high pale forehead; she wore a pair of silver-rimmed glasses with a bifocal half. Her figure was undefined, rounded. But she was unmistakably Liza Burack. "Well, Travis," she said. "Well, come on in."
His own reluctance to cross that threshold was surprisingly strong. But he shouldered his bag through the door and into the ticking silence.
Persian rugs. Mantle clocks.
In the whitewashed kitchen, an electric fan purred.
"Creath," Liza said, "Travis is here."
Creath Burack was the man Liza had married ("A steady man," she always told Travis's mother; he operated the Haute Montagne ice plant): immobile in an armchair, overalls riding up his big belly, hair thin, he stood up just long enough to shake Travis's hand. His grip was huge, painful.
"You start work tomorrow," Creath Burack said.
Travis nodded. Liza said, "Well, you probably want to see your room."
She led him up a flight of carpeted stairs to a room with naked floorboards and whitewashed walls, empty but for a narrow brass bed and a pine dresser. Travis raised a yellowing sash and was able to see an arc of the river, the railway trestle, the horizon like a line drawn against the sky.
Something moved, lightly, in the attic room above him.
He looked at Liza. She avoided his eyes. "We have another roomer up there," she said, "but you wouldn't know about that. You'll meet her at supper, I suppose."
"Yes, ma'am," Travis said.
She stood in the doorway and her eyes hardened.
"Travis, I want you to know there was never any question of whether you should come here or not."
"Oh, Creath might have raised a word or two. But he just likes his privacy. No, blood is thicker, I told him. Soon as I heard about your mama's tragedy I said, well, we'll take in Trav, and maybe you can get him a place down at the iceworks. I don't guess it was your fault what happened to Mary-Jane. Her own fault…if any, if any." This last because of the look Travis had given her. "But I want you to know. This is not the kind of household you might be accustomed to. We have standards of conduct. And Creath, he doesn't like a lot of noise. Best you keep quiet around him, Travis, you understand? And not ask too many questions."
Her face was shaded with old pain.
"Yes, ma'am," Travis said.
She closed the door, and he gazed at the cream-colored walls.
• • •
Dusk came, and he had not switched on the single overhead light when Liza Burack called him down for supper.
The dining-room table was heaped high with food. He remembered this, too, about his Aunt Liza, the way she went all out cooking for people, not so much generosity as compensation, as if the sheer weight of food could disguise some hidden inadequacy. Creath was already seated at the table, a massive blank weight, as Liza delivered a white china bowlful of mashed potatoes, a brimming gravy boat.
"Looks fine," Travis said. "Mama always admired your cooking very much, Aunt Liza."
"Just you sit down," Liza said nervously. "The proof's in the eating, Travis."
It was as if he was still six years old.
"Lot of work went into setting this table," Creath said; and Travis thought, yes, her work, but it was obvious he meant the ice plant. "Lot of time, lot of work. Hope you appreciate that."
"Nothing comes cheap." Creath's eyes were unfocused and Travis guessed he had said these things many times. "You work for what you get in this life, you understand that, Travis?"
"That may have been the problem with your mother. Expect too much without wanting to work for it. Well, we all know where that path inclines, I guess."
I am a guest in his home, Travis thought, teeth clenched. I cannot say what I think. But he looked at Creath Burack with a barely restrained loathing.
"Creath," Liza said, gently warning.
"It's only what the boy has to hear. Better he should know it now than come to it hard later on."
Liza, silent, delivered a steaming pot roast to the table. The heat and humidity of it filled the dining room; Travis felt a drop of sweat travel down his chest. His stomach felt shriveled.
"Because," Creath went on, "and I say this honestly, I won't accept second-best from you down at the plant. Some might say it was favoritism, my hiring you on at all. Now I don't believe that. I don't think it is un-Christian to help a family member in need. The opposite. But charity does not extend to indulgence. That's all I'm trying to put across. Work is what is required. Maybe things have been easy for you before. But the sad truth is that they will not be easy now."
Travis said quietly, "When Mama was sick I hired the men to harvest. I drove a tractor, and a team of horses when we sold the tractor. And when we couldn't hire hands I took what I could of the harvest myself."
"Well," Creath said, "we know what the upshot of that was, don't we?"
"Creath," Liza said quickly, "will you give us the blessing?"
Creath muttered a may-God-be-thanked and was reaching for the boiled peas when the Buracks' other roomer came down the stairs.
She had been silent on the carpeted steps and Travis was startled at the shadow. He had forgotten about the attic room. He stood up from the table, a gesture his mother had taught him was polite when a woman enters.
There was a brief, tense silence.
"Travis Fisher," Liza said distantly, "this is Anna Blaise."
He stared at her a long moment before he remembered to take her hand. "Meet you," he said clumsily, and she made a movement like a curtsy.
He knew he was being impolite, but she was shockingly beautiful. She was young, Travis thought, maybe his own age, but the longer he looked at her the less certain he was. She was radiant and smooth-skinned but her eyes contained depths he did not associate with youth. Her face was round. Her hair was blond and rough-cut and tied back behind her with an alluring carelessness. She gazed at the floor as if uncertain what she ought to do or say; but beneath this shyness there was an inference of great poise, an economy of motion. Travis felt clumsy next to her.
"Why don't we all sit down," Liza said flatly.
"Yes," Anna said, and her voice was a match for the rest of her, calm and modulated, like the playing of a distant flute. She sat down opposite Liza Burack and made the table a symmetry.
For a time, no one spoke. The rattle of their cutlery was loud in the silence.
Covertly, Travis watched the girl eat. She kept her eyes downcast, took small portions, used her knife and fork daintily. It occurred to him to marvel that the Buracks had taken in another boarder. He remembered his aunt and uncle being intensely private people. Family people. Times were bad, he thought; they must need the money. But where had she come from?
"I'm from Oklahoma," he ventured to say. "Near Beaumont."
Her eyes were on him very briefly.
"Yes," she said. "The Buracks told me you were coming."
"You from around here?"
"Not too far," she said.
"Working in town?"
"I work here," she said. "In the house. I do sewing. I"
"For Christ's sake," Creath said, "leave her alone."
Travis was mortified. "I'm sorry," he said.
Anna Blaise smiled and shrugged.
Something wrong here, Travis thought. Odd and wrong. But he went about his eating.
"Didn't make but a dent in that pot roast," Liza said with a sigh when they were finished. She rose, moaning a little, and picked up the big china platter. Anna stood up unbidden and took her own plate, Travis's, Creath's.
There was the sound of clattering in the kitchen, a gush of running water.
Creath withdrew a big Virginia cigar and made a ceremony of lighting it. He looked at Travis for a time over the glowing tip.
"Don't think I don't know what's happening," the older man said.
"Keep your voice down." He sighed out a plume of smoke. "You think I don't know. But I do. The heat, the summerand you look at heryou have feelings. But there will be none of that in this house. Don't answer me! This is not a conversation. This is the rules. She is way out of your class, Travis Fisher."
Travis groped for an answer, astonished. But before he could speak Liza had come back from the kitchen with syrupy wedges of blackberry pie laid out on china plates.
"My!" Creath said expansively. "This is a treat."
• • •
It was round about midnight when Nancy Wilcox walked past the Burack house on DeVille.
She was coming from the open field where the railway trestle crossed the Fresnel River, where Greg Morrow had left her when she refused to let him put his hand up her skirt.
Greg was a pretty rough character, oldest son of a granary worker. He owned a decade-old Tin Lizzie with a blown cylinder in which he squired around whichever female he could talk into a ride. He chewed tobacco and he used what the Baptist Women called "gutter language." Precisely the kind of date her mother would disapprove of…which was maybe why Nancy had agreed to go with him in the first place. His crudity was kind of fascinating.
Ultimately, however, Greg was not the person Nancy wanted to do it with. If she had had any doubts, the events at the trestle had settled them. She was not a prude; she had read about free love in a book by H. G. Wells before her mother caught her with it (and had the small volume deleted from the town library); she had even done it a couple of times before, with a boy named Marcus whose family had since moved west.
But not with Greg. Greg seemed to think it was owed him, something that was his by right, and Nancy did not feel obliged to encourage him in this delusion. So he had kicked her out of the Lizzie down by the trestle, which made her a little nervous because lately there had been hoboes gathering there; she had seen their fires flickering in the angular darkness under the railway bridge. But she just walked steady and kept her head about her and pretty soon she was back among the streetlights and the box elders. She would catch righteous hell for getting home so late, of course. But in a way she was glad. She liked this time of night, liked to listen to the town ticking and cooling after a blast-furnace July day like this one had been. The midnight breeze on her face was soothing; the trees chattered to themselves in what she liked to imagine was a secret language.
She gazed up at the gray outline of the Burack house against the stars.
In the darkness it appeared to be just what that Mrs. Burack obviously imagined it was: a sturdy keystone in Haute Montagne's social structure. You couldn't see the peeling paint, the rain gutters clotted with mulch. Nancy smiled to herself, thinking of what her mother always said about the Buracks: something odd there, something definitely odd, and that girl in the attic!about as talkative as a deaf-mute, and a lot less wholesome.
Nancy peered up at the attic room and saw a faint light flicker there, like fox fire behind the sun-yellowed blinds.
"Strange," she said to herself…
And there was that Fisher boy, now, too, the one who had stopped by the diner this afternoon. There had been rumblings about his situation, a fatherless family, mother a runabout, hints of some darker truth. But that could have been just the Baptist Women's rumor mill at work, Nancy thought, grinding a very modest kernel of truth. He had seemed nice. If distracted. He had left his magazine at the diner. Nancy had gazed a long time at the cover of it: horses, guns, a range of purple mountains. He is from far away.
She let the night air carry back her hair. She felt like a shadow sometimes, blowing through these night streets. Time carried her on like a cork on a waveshe was already eighteenand she had lately become desperate with wondering: where was she bound? She sometimes dreamed of mountains (like the mountains on Travis Fisher's pulp magazine), of cities, of oceans. She shivered, gazing up at the old Burack house.
She wondered what sort of person Travis Fisher was, and what he dreamed about.
In the attic room, the light flared brighter.
• • •
Travis lay in bed, exhausted but helplessly awake, an uneasy excitement running in him like a river. He felt the unfamiliar pressure of the mattress under him. He had covered his nakedness with a single sheet, because it was summer and all the heat in the house traveled up to these high narrow rooms and was retained there. The attic, he thought, must be sizzling.
She doesn't make much noise.
Anna Blaise, he thought, tasting the name: Anna Blaise, Anna Blaise.
He had heard, during the long evening, the restless treadle of her sewing machine, her radio playing briefly. Then silence. Later on, the quick compression of bedsprings.
The house made its own sounds, sighs and moans. Travis had propped open the window with a hardware-store expansion screen and every once in a while a breeze picked up the corner of the sheet. Sleep, he thought, and it was a prayer now: sleep, oh, sleep.
Shortly after midnight he heard footsteps on the stairway beyond his door.
Slow, heavy footsteps coming up from below. Aunt Liza didn't carry that much bulkit could only be Creath.
This time of night! Travis thought.
The footsteps paused outside his door and then proceeded upward.
Strange, Travis thought.
And now they were over his head. Creath, for sure.
A brief, low burr of conversation. Anna's voice like faraway music, Creath's like the grumble of some rusted old machine.
The repetitive complaint of the bedsprings.
Jesus God Almighty, Travis thought, that poor little girl!and he covered his ears with his pillow.
Copyright © 1986 by Robert Charles Wilson