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“Hassler’s brilliance has always been his ability to achieve the depth of real literature through such sure-handed, no-gimmicks, honest language that the result appears effortless.”
—Richard Russo, New York Times Book Review
“Hassler has tapped every pulse with his pen. This is his sixth novel, and it is great.”
—Detroit Free Press
Master storyteller Jon Hassler draws us into the vividly rendered, emotionally...
“Hassler’s brilliance has always been his ability to achieve the depth of real literature through such sure-handed, no-gimmicks, honest language that the result appears effortless.”
—Richard Russo, New York Times Book Review
“Hassler has tapped every pulse with his pen. This is his sixth novel, and it is great.”
—Detroit Free Press
Master storyteller Jon Hassler draws us into the vividly rendered, emotionally charged world of Father Frank Healy, a priest hoping to reawaken a vocation that he fears is leaking away. Working at a mission on an Ojibway reservation in Northern Minnesota, Frank unexpectedly encounters his old high school girlfriend, Libby, and is swept up in a gripping drama of temptation, crime, and love that shows him how wounded hearts are healed. This absorbing novel, among Hassler’s finest, is a beautifully told tale of blighted spirits restored by the power of hope.
After 20 years in the priesthood, Father Frank Healy goes to Minnesota's Basswood Reservation to bring Catholicism to the Ojibway Indians. He finds only a few believers--and the woman from his past, Libby Girard. As events erupt in a tangle of drugs, despair, alcoholism, and death, Healy is tested by his continuing love for Libby.
Introduction Amy Welborn
Jon Hassler is often described as a “regional writer.” That’s true in the sense that John Updike and William Faulkner are regional writers. Like them, his novels are rooted in the particularity of a regional setting—small-town Minnesota in Hassler’s case. And his fiction, like theirs, flowers from these regional roots into narratives that touch on universal concerns. There’s nothing narrow about Jon Hassler’s regionalism. From his chilly corner of the world, this masterful novelist explores an inner landscape where fully realized characters live and breathe, find and lose connections, and neglect and restore hope. Always hope. Hope is Jon Hassler’s literary virtue. It’s the soul, as well as the title, of this novel, his richest and most ambitious.
Hassler’s fiction, beginning with Staggerford (1977) and continuing through three decades to The New Woman (2005), introduces us to characters who are ordinary people. But as we ordinary people know—every ordinary life embodies a story worth telling. Hassler’s characters are shopkeepers, professors, homemakers, priests, teachers, bankers, and doctors. Young and old frequently collide but always manage to learn from each other. Catholics watch, sometimes sadly, as their church changes. Family bonds are broken, reknit, and stretched to embrace the runaway, the abandoned, the rejected.
In the outwardly tight, secure bonds of the small town, the university, the Native American reservation, Hassler’s characters often find themselves in vexing situations of loneliness and separation. They feel displaced, whether they have just moved to one of Hassler’s rural outposts or lived in the same house their entire lives. As one writer put it, “His stories are about people who don’t quite fit where they are, discovering where they belong” (Patricia Horn and Mark Preece, “When We Don’t Quite Fit: Novelist Jon Hassler’s Rich Search for Community,” Sojourners 26, no. 1 [January–February 1997]).
All of these qualities are evident in North of Hope. We explore the territory of this small Minnesota town and the neighboring reservation through Hassler’s unwavering eye for telling detail. We meet fully drawn characters who are never stereotypes, even when they cross the boundary, in this novel, from understandably flawed to evil.
North of Hope is about human beings, their choices, and consequences. Although adult readers of any age will appreciate the novel, it speaks most powerfully to those who have had to confront the questions of midlife, in which we wonder how we got to the place we are now, and what the rest of the journey could possibly hold.
At the center of North of Hope are Fr. Frank Healey and his unrequited adolescent love, Libby Girard. The novel begins in the 1950s, with Frank as a boy, having recently lost his mother, living with a reclusive father, but under the watchful gaze of the local Catholic priest and his rectory housekeeper. Libby, recently moved from Minneapolis, strikes Frank with her beauty and her forthrightness, and he is startled by an inner voice that insists, “She’s the one.”
Jon Hassler has acknowledged that this first part of North of Hope contains a heavy dose of autobiography:
The high school experiences of Frank Healy, my protagonist, were much like my own. Although I, unlike Frank, had both parents well into my fifties and I did not aspire to the priesthood, I, too, was . . . very shy of girls. I find this entry in the journal I kept while writing North of Hope, dated January 1, 1987:
I hope to God this novel works out. I can see what sort of boy Frank has become. He is taught to venerate women the way his father venerates the memory of his mother, and there are no women in his life whom he knows well enough to see them as ordinary mortals. Maybe if he (and I) had had sisters, we’d have been more realistic in our relations with women. . . . To flesh out the tale, I will have to add scenes from my memories of Plainview [the Minnesota town where I grew up], such as Frank candling eggs [as I used to do in my father’s grocery store], Frank at his piano lesson, Frank in the cemetery at a military funeral, and Frank serving Mass for his old pastor [as I did, year after year, for old Father O’Connor].
The girl in my life was named Mary, and I, too, was devastated when, in the middle of our senior year, she told me she was quitting school to marry her high-school sweetheart.
(Jon Hassler has maintained journals during the writing of all of his novels. One of them, about the writing of his first novel, has been published as My Staggerford Journal [Ballentine Books, 1999].)
This first section of the novel draws a precise and bittersweet portrait of love that might be young, but is no less real for its youth. Frank and Libby trust each other as neither can trust anyone else, and the missed opportunities in their relationship are heartbreaking.
But are they? Both Frank and Libby make choices in this first part of the novel, choices that propel them down life paths that prove to be challenging, puzzling, and even disastrous. As we watch them make these choices, we cringe, but at the same time, we have to admit that we understand, for our choices sometimes come from the same place as theirs: reaction, fear, and resignation.
Fast-forward to twenty-five years later. This part of the novel, not at all autobiographical and “entirely imagined” according to Jon Hassler, reintroduces us to Frank and Libby, as well as a rich cast of characters that surround them. Frank has been a priest for many years, although he has reached a crisis. After ordination he remained as a faculty member at the minor seminary he had attended, staying there until the place ultimately closed. His first assignment, at the dioceses’ cathedral parish, had not ended well, as Frank, unaccustomed to parish life and ministry, began experiencing a “leak”—a sense of emptiness and uselessness that manifested itself, quite dramatically, in moments of literal speechlessness during homilies. The bishop suggested that perhaps regrouping was in order, and the best place to do that would be back in Linden Falls at the parish in which he grew up.
As associate pastor of the parish he has an additional responsibility—the struggling mission on the nearby Native American reservation. The mission’s future existence seems doubtful, the community diminished and weakened by substance abuse and the attractions of the world outside the reservation. It seems like a small thing—this tiny group on the edge of hope, but haunted by his childhood inspiration, the nineteenth-century priest who died in the process of bringing the faith to the area, Frank finds in this community and in the simple faith of his now elderly pastor, Monsignor Lawrence, the possible means to stem the leak.
The challenge, though, is Libby, who reappears in Frank’s life, superficially happy, but in reality sinking under the weight of what her life has become, a process that will be accelerated by almost unbearably painful revelations in which Libby will have to confront her own role in her daughter’s damaged life.
In a cold winter full of all kinds of ugliness, hope seems out of reach. The foundation of the lives that Libby and Frank have built is revealed to be unstable, inadequate, and illusory. The choices they made as young people seem at best naïve and at worst disastrously wrong-headed and even based on what turns out to be a lie.
But into this reality—sometimes a very cold and ugly reality, because that is the way life can be—warmth creeps, slowly. All of the characters in North of Hope face crises, small and great. The real drama, slower, absorbing, and deep, lies in the process of these same characters emerging from the crises that have shaken them, and accepting that the past cannot be changed. You are where you are, and right now, another choice presents itself. You can drown in regret and self-loathing, or you can reconnect with life, with hope—with God.
It happens, of course, through love. North of Hope is, among other things, an exploration of love and its power. It is not a potboiler or a novel about ideological conflicts within Catholicism, despite this central relationship between a celibate priest and a woman, potentially dangerous material in the hands of another writer. The respect Jon Hassler has for life, its realities, and the human beings who struggle through it bring a solidity and grace to the page, impossible to miss. What critic Philip Zaleski wrote about another Hassler novel, Dear James, applies to this one as well: “One feels a great moral force surging through this novel, a sense that lives do indeed matter, that God oversees the comedy and that fiction is the right means to get this message across.” (First Things, August/September 1994)
“She’s the one” are the words Frank hears when he is young, watching Libby from behind in a movie theater. Decades later, he hears these words again as she comes to him in the cold of winter, broken and far, far north of hope. The beauty in this novel lies in discovering, along with Frank, what those words really mean.
Amy Welborn is the general editor of Loyola Classics.
North of Hope
Frank first laid eyes on Libby Girard at the Sunday matinee a minute before the lights went down. She and Sylvia Pofford came in together, talking a mile a minute, and took seats two rows in front of Frank and over to his left. His first impulse was to point her out to his friend Danny Ash, who was sitting on his right and talking to somebody in the row behind them, but a second impulse told him not to share her with anybody for the time being, not to draw attention to her beauty before he had time to fully appreciate it in the privacy of his heart.
For Frank was stunned by Libby Girard’s beauty. She had large, happy eyes and dark hair. She smiled broadly as she spoke. She had a pretty neck. Unable to take his eyes from her as the theater gradually darkened, he considered it something of a miracle that a girl so dazzling should come to live in a town so dull. Sylvia Pofford had told him there was a new girl in Linden Falls and that she was their age, a junior-to-be, but had withheld the fact that she was a knockout. Which was understandable because ever since the primary grades Sylvia Pofford, unchallenged as the class brain, had been regarding herself as the class beauty—a major case of self-deception, in Frank’s opinion, Sylvia having a bumpy forehead and an unpleasant way of squinting when a thought crossed her mind.
The newsreel began and Libby and Sylvia continued talking while a woman with polio, who had been taken from her iron lung to give birth to a baby, exchanged smiles with her nervous-looking husband; while the city of Dresden, four years after the war, was shown to be rebuilding itself; and while Ingrid Bergman announced at a press conference that she was leaving her husband and giving up films to marry Roberto Rossellini and retire to private life. Finally a man sitting in front of the girls turned around and told them to pipe down.
The feature was A Portrait of Jennie. It was the first movie in at least ten years to make Frank cry. Watching Jennifer Jones come back from the dead and run across the beach and fall into Joseph Cotten’s arms, Frank was shocked to realize his cheeks were wet. He wiped them with his fingers, glancing left and right to see if anyone noticed. He was puzzled—frightened even—to find his emotions so far out of control. This hadn’t happened at a movie since he was five and wailed so loud at the terrible things happening to Pinocchio that his mother had had to take him home before it was over. Now, at sixteen, he was weeping for his mother. He was shedding tears more profusely, in fact, than at any time since her funeral. Ever since he and his father and brothers turned away from the open grave and headed across the snowy cemetery to their car, Frank had been strict with himself, never allowing himself to stray from what he took to be the straight and narrow path to manhood. He almost never cried or even felt like it. As a movie addict he had sat dry-eyed through any number of sad farewells, death scenes, lovers pulled apart. Why was he crying now?
Jennifer Jones couldn’t stay among the living, even though Joseph Cotten loved her. She told him she had to return to her spiritual realm, wherever that was. She didn’t get emotional about it. Her smile remained serene and superior, as if Joseph Cotten’s desperate pleading struck her as childish. Frank’s heart ached for the man because Jennifer Jones was a real dish, the kind of dark-eyed brunette he had always been crazy about. As she released herself from Joseph Cotten’s embrace, Frank silently urged him to implore her one more time. Which he did. He sounded as if he might cry. “It’s you I want, Jennie, not just a dream of you.” She smiled wisely and advised, “There is no life until you find love, Eben. Then life cannot be lost.”
Was this true? Surely it was nonsense. Frank had loved his mother, then lost her. His father had loved her—he lost her. His brothers had loved her—they lost her. Frank recognized the words on the sound track as the sort of whipped cream screenwriters were always coming up with in the concluding scenes in their attempt to make the language as impressive as the music. No, he didn’t believe a word of it, and yet as the waves came crashing in and the violins came up, Frank’s heart pounded as if he’d just been told some wonderful news. He shook with weeping and he bolted from the theater before the lights came on so no one would see his tears.
It was raining. He stood under the marquee composing himself and waiting for Danny Ash. He saw Libby and Sylvia in the crowd coming out. Libby glanced at him, looked away, and glanced again. Frank watched the two girls hurry off in the drizzle, and it was then that he first heard the voice.
She’s the one, Frank. That’s why you cried.
Nonsense, he thought, setting off down the street with Danny Ash. Why should the sight of a pretty girl make anyone cry?
But the voice persisted all the way home.
She’s the one.
“Sylvia, does Frank Healy have a girlfriend?”
“Are you kidding?”
“I wonder if he’d be a good boyfriend for me.”
Sylvia made a sound like spitting. “Boys our age are such children.”
The two girls, drinking Orange Crush on Sylvia Pofford’s front porch, were planning Libby’s debut as the new girl in the junior class. It was evening. The rain had stopped. Their conversation was broken by long silences, for neither girl was yet quite free of the spell cast over them by A Portrait of Jennie. Across the street the slow-moving Badbattle River was purple and pink. A short way upstream a rapids produced an endless gurgling sound. The voice of Fred Allen drifted out from the radio in the living room, where Sylvia’s parents were sitting with books in their laps.
“But he’s smart, you said.” Coming out of the matinee, she had asked Sylvia about the tall, dark-haired, bleary-eyed boy standing under the marquee.
“As and Bs,” said Sylvia. “Mostly Bs.”
“And he’s out for football.”
“And he’s handsome,” said Libby.
“For a child. He’s only sixteen.”
“Well, we’re sixteen.”
“But he’s such a mama’s boy. You’ve got to date seniors, Libby. Or older. Boys our age are so dull. Bob’s got a cousin coming through next weekend on his way east to college. He’d be a good one for you.” Bob was Sylvia’s boyfriend—Bob Templeton, senior-class president, first-string quarterback, the only son of the only doctor in town. Libby had been introduced to Bob and thought it a superb match, both he and Sylvia being humorless and immensely impressed with themselves.
“What good’s a boyfriend in the East?” Libby asked.
“You’d have him to write to. You’d be the only one in our class writing to a guy in college, except me.”
“No, I need a boyfriend close by.”
“Next year Bob’s going to Cornell.”
“Next year I’ll be married.”
“Libby!” Sylvia was shocked. It was Sylvia’s frequently declared opinion, handed down by her mother, that the only girls who married before graduation were either pregnant or mentally handicapped or both.
Libby added, for effect, “I’m giving the boys of Linden Falls one year, then I’m choosing.” She loved shocking Sylvia. In the city a statement like this had had no shock value, because there she’d had no girlfriends like Sylvia. Her crowd in Minneapolis had come from families much like her own, except that very few of the other fathers drank as much as Libby’s father. There hadn’t been one college degree in the entire set of parents. Sylvia was the daughter of an attorney and a librarian. She was a pianist, an honor student, and a snob. She had five new dresses in her closet ready for the first five days of school. She had everything Libby lacked, except looks.
From the moment they met, Sylvia had assumed the role of Libby’s sponsor or patron or whatever you’d call someone as knowledgeable and possessive and bossy as Sylvia. Libby was lucky, and knew it. She’d been hoping for just such a friend to be her confidante, her rumor monger, her partner on double dates; someone smart, sophisticated, and not as attractive as herself. Libby was not duped by this instant friendship. She was well aware that Sylvia had befriended her for her looks, aware that Sylvia believed—didn’t everyone?—that the next best thing to being beautiful yourself was going into partnership with beauty.
Libby drained her bottle of Orange Crush, wiped her mouth, and tossed off another one, for effect: “If I don’t have a baby before I’m nineteen, I’ll feel like I’ve wasted my life.”
“Libby! You talk like a farm girl. The farm girls around here have babies like that.”
“My mother says have your kids early and grow up with them.” Actually these had been the words not of Libby’s mother but of a friend’s mother in the city. Libby’s mother, a downcast woman occasionally beaten by Libby’s father, refrained from making general statements about life.
“Bob and I are having two babies when he’s out of medical school and I’m out of law school.”
This was followed by a long, respectful silence before Libby spoke up. “Frank lives in a nice house.”
They could see the front of the Healy house from where they sat. It was half a block downstream, a high old house with balusters missing from the porch rail.
“It’s nothing special inside.”
“You’ve been in it?”
“Birthday parties when we were little.”
At that moment, the Healys’ front door opened and a woman wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a white dress emerged. She was accompanied by a man in black.
“That’s Father Lawrence and his housekeeper Eunice Pfeiffer. They eat supper at the Healys’ a lot. Eunice cooks.”
“Is she a widow?”
“Eunice? Are you kidding? She was born an old maid.”
“Oh, no,” said Libby sadly. She hated hearing about people who never got themselves matched up with anybody, and that was why at sixteen she’d already had seven or eight boyfriends and would have as many more as it took to find the right one to marry. Despite the unhappy example of her parents, the single life was her idea of hell on earth. “Doesn’t it break your heart to think she’ll never have a family?”
“She’s got one,” said Sylvia. “She’s mother hen to Frank. When Mrs. Healy died, Eunice Pfeiffer sort of took over both their lives, Frank’s and his dad’s. My mother says it’s her age. Her mothering instinct is real strong. It’s really tragic.”
“Why tragic? It sounds nice for Frank.”
“No, that’s what’s tragic about it. She’s trying to make Frank”—she paused, carefully choosing the word—“perfect.”
“And is he?”
“Yeah, he’s the kind of boy every girl’s mother points to and says, ‘I’d like to see you get interested in him—he’s the perfect boy for you.’”
“So what’s wrong with perfect?”
“Who wants a perfect boy when there’s real boys around? I mean you’ll never catch Frank Healy dancing or necking or anything. All he ever does is make model airplanes and work at the egghouse. He wouldn’t go to the Loomis Ballroom if you paid his way.”
“What’s the egghouse?”
“Schultenovers’ Egghouse. They do something to eggs. Eunice Pfeiffer got him the job. He started out the summer cutting grass, but everybody’s lawn dried up.”
“Is that his dad?” A tall man was following the priest and the old maid out to the street, where they paused to talk.
“Yeah, Martin C. Healy. You know what? He practically lives in the basement.”
“Who knows? Frank says there’s rooms they haven’t used for years.”
Father Lawrence and Eunice Pfeiffer strolled off down the street, and Martin Healy went back inside. The priest’s black suit blended into the twilight, but Libby was able to keep the white dress in sight for a long time.
“When did his mother die?”
“Years ago. Frank’s been strange ever since.”
Sylvia pointed to her forehead, indicating a mental case. Libby knew this wasn’t true. The eyes of Frank Healy, as seen this afternoon under the marquee, were deep and steady and wise.
Again the girls fell silent. The white dress turned a far corner. The rapids burbled. Dusk grew dense. Then a screen door slammed and they saw Frank, in swimming trunks, cross his front lawn and cross the street and wade into the river. He was carrying a football. He went in slowly, up to his waist, then stopped and stood still, facing downstream, as though in a trance. He kept moving his right hand back and forth, palm down, over the surface of the water.
“What’s he doing, Sylvia?”
He turned and threw the ball upstream. It was a remarkably long throw, and the ball splashed in the water nearly opposite Sylvia’s house. Waiting for it to float down to him, he lowered himself into the river until nothing but the top of his head was visible. Then he stood up again. He did this a number of times, dipping down and standing up. Was he bathing? Evading mosquitoes?
Again and again he threw the ball. An ingenious method for a boy alone to play catch, thought Libby. Again and again, waiting for the ball, he went through his dunking routine. Then he threw the ball up onto the bank and walked upstream, where the water was deeper. By the time he reached a point opposite Sylvia’s house, he was in up to his neck, and he stopped walking. He went under. He stayed under so long Libby became frightened. She stood up and said, “He’s drowning.”
“He’s not drowning,” Sylvia scoffed. “He practically lives in the river.”
“But he isn’t coming up!” Libby ran across the lawn and stopped at the street. Still he didn’t appear. She ran to the river, slipped off her shoes, and waded in. The water was up over the hem of her skirt when she saw him surface downstream. It was nearly dark now, and he didn’t notice her. He was facing away, standing trancelike again, in the same place as before, moving both hands around and around over the water. Libby, too, stood still, the current pressing around her legs, mosquitoes whining around her hair. She wanted to call to him, but didn’t because he seemed involved in a ceremony of some kind. After a while he turned and splashed quickly to shore, picked up the football, and ran to his house.
Libby stepped out of the water and onto the grass. She called good night to Sylvia and walked home carrying her shoes and wishing she had spoken to Frank in the water. She wanted to know why he just stood there and what he was thinking. And why there were tears in his eyes after the movie. And what it felt like to have only one parent. And how you could be a mama’s boy if your mother was dead.
On Friday of that week, the last week of summer vacation, Frank saw Libby for the second time. He had just returned from his afternoon malt break and was standing at the front window of Schultenovers’ Egghouse tying on his apron when he saw her climb the steps to the loading dock of the grain elevator and disappear into its shadowy interior.
The elevator and the egghouse faced each other across the railroad end of Main Street. The egghouse, a small, cubelike building of flaking gray stucco, was hidden all day from the sun by the enormous red elevator, which produced an endless undertone of machinery at work—pulsating hums and growls that Frank found vaguely soothing as he candled eggs. Candling was his primary duty, although since he’d turned sixteen and acquired a driver’s license, the Schultenovers, Herb and Selma, sometimes allowed him to take out the panel truck and deliver eggs to the bakery, the two restaurants, and the three grocery stores of Linden Falls and to their dozen other accounts in neighboring villages.
Selma Schultenover came over and joined him at the window, saying, “That must be the Girard girl.” Selma, partner to her husband in the egg business, was a fat, chattering woman. She kept the books, visited with the clientele, and directed Frank and her husband through their day’s work. She wore thick makeup in bright shades of purple and all her clothes were too tight. She was about forty-five. “They’re living in the Radditz house on Pincherry Street,” she said.
Frank pictured the Radditz house—a drab duplex built low to the ground, its rain gutters hanging crooked, and renters continually moving in and out.
“Herb,” she called to her husband, “come here and see the Girard girl.”
“Yo,” said Herb from the back room. Newcomers being a rarity in Linden Falls, he came forward eagerly and stood obediently at his wife’s elbow waiting for Libby to reappear. Herb Schultenover was a twitchy, fretful hypochondriac who put a lot of his meager energy into hating the grain elevator. It was Herb’s fondest dream that between mismanagement locally and bungled trade regulations in the Truman administration, Linden Falls Feed and Seed would go bankrupt. Frank wondered why, since eggs were the Schultenovers’ livelihood and the elevator didn’t deal in eggs, Herb felt such a fierce sense of competition. He had a hunch it was envy.
And envy (Frank concluded years later when he thought back to his first employers) of a vaguely sexual nature. In those postwar years there was a militant code of behavior among the men and boys of Linden Falls: males did masculine things and avoided doing feminine things. Men drove cars, they did not ride in cars with women at the wheel. Men did not talk about beauty, illness, or babies. In their early teens boys abandoned all sissified activities such as reading books for pleasure and taking piano lessons and went out for sports. Yet, here was poor Herb, dealing in eggs. On every farm the henhouse was the province of the farmer’s wife, and the term “egg money” meant the odd dollar set aside for needlepoint or hairpins or some other frivolity. While the farmer unloaded his oats or barley or wheat at the elevator, his wife came across the street with her three or six or ten dozen eggs and chatted with Selma while waiting for them to be candled; or if his wife was too busy to come to town, the farmer ducked in with the eggs and slipped quickly away. As men made for the door, Herb would call out some remark about crops or the weather, desperate for male conversation, but there was no detaining them. The Schultenovers might have been operating a beauty shop, the place made men that nervous. They came back later to pick up the empty crate and the egg money.
And it wasn’t just eggs. It was Selma, too. Selma was overpowering. You couldn’t talk to Herb without Selma interrupting and telling you what Herb would have said if she’d given him the chance. She was a good-natured woman, but her talk was loud and fast and her laugh hurt your ears. Men avoided her. It wasn’t masculine to carry on, in public, a prolonged conversation with a woman, especially a woman so overtly female, so brightly painted, so breasty.
That summer, however, Frank shared neither the farmers’ unease nor Herb’s feeling of confinement. Herb, gazing at the elevator from the front window, looked like a small boy wanting to go out, while Frank, without knowing quite why, was secretly pleased to be an egghouse employee. He wasn’t fully aware then (as he would be later, looking back) that working with eggs in the presence of Selma day after day would have a very soothing effect on any motherless, sisterless boy.
After a few moments they saw Libby step out onto the sunlit loading dock, accompanied by a man Frank had never seen before, apparently her father. He wore the green twill of an elevator employee, and his wrinkled brow and dapper mustache put Frank in mind of Clark Gable. He took a coin from his pocket and handed it to Libby, exchanged a few words with her, and bent to receive her peck on his cheek.
“Is that her dad?” asked Frank.
Selma nodded. “Started work yesterday.”
So that was what a drunk looked like, thought Frank, drawing his long apron strings around and tying them in front. Sylvia Pofford had told him that Libby’s father was an incurable alcoholic. Whiskey, said Sylvia, had made him unemployable in Minneapolis, where the Girards, a family of four, had been living until the previous Friday, and his last hope for a job was with his distant relative who operated Linden Falls Feed and Seed. The fourth member of the family, Libby’s twenty-year-old brother, Roy, had found work on a farm.
Frank, a movie addict, was struck by Mr. Girard’s swarthy, photogenic handsomeness. He was clearly miscast in a job that consisted mostly of wheeling bags of grain onto the dock on a two-wheeled cart. He belonged on the silver screen. His squint was more troubled than Clark Gable’s, his mustache grayer, and he was perhaps a little too scrawny to be a star, but sit him on a horse and he might serve very nicely as Hopalong Cassidy’s sidekick, or dress him in a suit and he could play a secondary creep in a mobster film.
Herb Schultenover spoke with a momentary sparkle of optimism in his eyes. “Bad idea, hiring a relative. Relatives can bleed you down to poor.”
Frank’s eyes followed Libby as she jumped down off the dock and strode away. She was wearing black slacks and a man’s white shirt with the tails out and the sleeves rolled up. Her dark hair bounced. He felt like running after her in order to keep her face in view. He loved her face. She had Ingrid Bergman’s cheekbones.
“Well, boys, let’s get to work,” said Selma, and Frank followed Herb into the back room. Herb, complaining of arthritis in his shoulder, carried several dozen eggs out the alley door and drove away in the egg truck, leaving Frank alone at the candling table. The back room, kept as dark as possible to make candling easier, smelled of musty cardboard, bad eggs, and dust blown in from the alley. Now and then Frank could hear a dim scrabbling in the walls as the bats shifted in their daytime sleep. An old tennis racket hung on a nail beside the candling table for the purpose of bringing down the occasional bat that came fluttering through the room. Once a day it was Frank’s job to check the mousetraps.
But to Frank, fairly new on the job, it had not yet become a depressing place to work. There was something comforting, almost mesmerizing, about holding dozens and dozens of eggs, one by one, up to the funneled light to make sure they weren’t bloody, fertilized, or cracked; something sensually rewarding about the vague, floating shapes of their illumined yolks and their various shades of shell—white, cream, tan, brown. He fell into periods of deep reverie at the egg table, eggs triggering his fantasies the way the rosary triggered his prayers in those years. As one by one, like oversized beads, the eggs passed through his fingers, he entered into a lengthy daydream, the same daydream over and over, a kind of never-ending film to which he had attached the title The Life of Frank Healy.
Mostly fact, but fiction at certain critical points, The Life of Frank Healy was subject to constant editing. There was a version in which his father continued to take an interest in him. There was another version in which his brothers were near his own age, and still another in which he had a sister. There were several versions concerning his mother. In one, his mother died giving birth to him, so he never knew her. In another she was perpetually on view in her coffin, having died only yesterday, and her funeral was yet to be endured. In a third she was not yet dead, but her doctor gave her only a month to six weeks. In a fourth she was destined to live to be old.
In this last version her case of leukemia was abroad in the world but missed its connection with his mother and attached itself to somebody else. The victim kept changing. His favorite version was that in which the illness attached itself to a stranger. And of course there was the version in which Frank himself was the victim—not (strange to say) his worst version. His worst version was what actually happened. Her leukemia was diagnosed in early November, a few days before his eleventh birthday, and she died six weeks later, at nine o’clock on Christmas morning.
Early that Christmas morning he had accompanied Father Lawrence to Basswood and served Mass with three Indian boys, Our Lady’s on the Basswood Reservation being a mission church attached to St. Ann’s in Linden Falls, Father Lawrence being pastor to both parishes, and Frank (an altar boy at St. Ann’s since the age of seven) being very fond of the pastor and accompanying him on errands whenever possible, liturgical and otherwise.
At the conclusion of the Mass, Father Lawrence and the boys came off the altar to find the Basswood postmistress, a non-Catholic, waiting for them in the sacristy. Hers being one of the few telephones on the reservation, Mr. Healy had called her with the message that Mrs. Healy was sinking fast.
Frank struggled out of his twenty-two-button cassock, Father Lawrence threw off his vestments, and they grabbed their coats and sped home. It was a snowy morning, dark enough for headlights at 10:00 a.m. Along the streets of Linden Falls, Christmas lights burned in most of the windows they passed. When they reached his house, Frank’s fear turned suddenly to lassitude, a state almost like sleepiness, and he didn’t want to get out of the car. Staring across his front yard at the lights of the Christmas tree glimmering in the living-room window, he begged Father Lawrence to let him remain in the car. Death had been lurking in the house for six weeks and he was sick of it.
But of course he had to go in. In the dining room, which had been converted into his mother’s sickroom so that she could be downstairs, he found Eunice Pfeiffer at the bedside. Eunice was holding his mother’s hand. His father stood at a window looking out at the snow piling down. His brother Peter, six years older than Frank, was upstairs with his door shut.
His mother, he realized, was dead.
The priest drew a small book from his pocket and read some prayers while Frank and his father and Eunice Pfeiffer looked on. Judging by the look on his mother’s face, death wasn’t as peaceful as Frank had been led to believe. She looked tense.
After Father Lawrence left the house and the body was removed by the undertaker, Martin C. Healy went out walking in the snow and Eunice Pfeiffer went to the kitchen to prepare a snack. Peter came downstairs at her bidding and she served both boys toast and cocoa and urged them to open their presents. Peter did so eagerly. He got a jackknife from Frank, an expandable watchband mailed from an army PX by their brother Joe, a shaving kit from Father Lawrence, handkerchiefs from Eunice, money from his father, and a hand-knit sweater with a sleeve missing from his mother. The sweater was light green with a wide white band across the chest. Eunice said that she would finish knitting the sleeve.
Frank didn’t want to open his presents, but Eunice insisted, saying, “Your mother would be so disappointed,” and he couldn’t disobey her. He opened them silently and unhappily, convinced that the momentous and horrible event that had taken place in the next room ought to be marked by something like penance and self-denial and not by tearing the ribbons and paper from his pen and pencil set (Joe), his handkerchiefs (Eunice), his marble chessmen (Father Lawrence), his crisp five-dollar bill (his father), and his storybook Augustus Helps the Marines (Peter). His gift from his mother he refused to open in front of the others but took upstairs to his room. This, too, was a hand-knit sweater, but more beautiful by far than Peter’s. It was light blue with a snowflake design on the chest and upper sleeves—and it was finished. So overjoyed was Frank to think that his mother had knit his sweater first that he buried his face in it and cried and cried, drying his tears only when Eunice came upstairs to have a talk with him. She began with holy and consoling platitudes that Frank found hard to concentrate on, but then she shocked him to attention with a statement that would ring in his memory every day of his life.
“Your mother’s dying words were about you, Frank. She said, ‘I want Frank to be a priest.’”
Frank, candling eggs in the dim back room, pondered the changes his mother’s death had wrought on the family. After the funeral, Frank’s father fell into a permanent state of self-absorption. Forsaking the living room where he and his wife had spent nearly every evening of their marriage, Martin C. Healy had enlisted Peter and Frank to help him carry his easy chair and books into the basement, and there he rebuilt his life around his workbench.
Peter was a senior in high school that year. Joe was overseas, an artilleryman fighting Rommel in North Africa, and did not get home for the funeral. Of the three Healy boys, Peter had the remote, preoccupied nature most resembling his father’s. After high school, Peter followed his brother into the army, and was scarcely out of boot camp when the war ended. After his discharge, he attended business college in Minneapolis and eventually became a tax accountant with a firm in St. Paul. He seldom returned to Linden Falls. Frank and his father would see him only for a day or two at Christmas. One Fourth of July Peter surprised them by showing up with a girlfriend named Bernice and offering to take Frank fishing on the river. They used a neighbor’s boat and caught some sunfish. Frank and Bernice, a giggler, hit it off. She promised she’d make Peter answer Frank’s letters, but she dropped out of Peter’s life soon after that and Frank’s letters went unanswered.
Joe never wrote letters either, but he had a friendlier nature than Peter’s when you saw him in person. The trouble was that you never saw him, for upon his discharge Joe followed an army buddy to his hometown in Montana, got a job with the highway department, and married a girl from Helena named Darla. Joe and Darla asked Frank out for a visit the summer he was fourteen. He made the trip alone on the train and stayed two weeks. He didn’t tell them how homesick he was and how glad he was to board the train back to Minnesota.
But it was Frank’s father who, after the funeral, moved farthest away. Was it a morbid kind of fidelity to his wife that forced him to follow her underground? Actually the basement wasn’t an uncomfortable place to be. It was cool in summer and warm in winter. On a typical evening, after coming home from his job as chief loan officer at Linden Falls Security Bank, he would help Frank clear off a corner of the kitchen table and they would eat sandwiches and ice cream, a butter knife and two spoons their only silver, a prayer their only formality. When the plates and bowls were washed and the butter put away, Frank would remain at the table, taking up his work on a model airplane, while his father descended into the basement and stayed there until long after Frank was asleep. His father’s easy chair was tucked between the workbench and the furnace, and near at hand were a lot of papers, magazines, and books. He read about banking, baseball, and woodworking. He fashioned benches and tables and knickknacks out of hardwood, lawn ornaments out of pine. Every few weeks he swept up the shavings and sawdust, but it was never very tidy in the basement.
And then there was that evening once or twice a week when Father Lawrence and Eunice Pfeiffer either joined them for dinner or invited them to the rectory. Frank was eager for these evenings, particularly in his early teen years, for he was doted upon by both the priest, who paid him much more attention than his father did, and by the housekeeper, who by having been his mother’s closest friend somehow kept him in touch with her. His father, however, was bored by these lengthy meals. He was polite and gracious enough, but Frank could tell he wished he were down in his basement turning out a chair leg on his expensive new lathe.
Was his father truly oblivious to Eunice’s poorly disguised infatuation with him, Frank wondered, or was he only pretending not to notice? Eunice was in her late forties, tall and angular, plain of face, straightforward in speech, fervent in the belief that God smiled on the just and sent transgressors straight to hell. She had a small nose, a small thin-lipped mouth, and the lines around her earnest, green eyes seemed to indicate that everyday life was worrisome and slightly painful. She and her two brothers had been reared on a farm between Linden Falls and Loomis, and none of the three had married. Was Martin C. Healy never aware, as Frank was, that something very piquant began cooking in Eunice the moment he came to the table? Her eyes brightened, her voice rose half a pitch, and throughout the meal it was “Martin, can I warm your soup?” and “Martin, can I warm your coffee?” and “Martin, what’s the news uptown?” There was nothing remarkable in the news she pried out of him—somebody had an auction, somebody had pneumonia—but she might have been listening to music, so deeply stirred she seemed. She gazed at him lovingly, but her gaze was not returned. She hung on his words, but he uttered as few as possible and let her drop. Again and again Frank witnessed her reaching across the corner of the table and touching the sleeve of his father’s suit coat (he was always dressed like a banker; even at his workbench he wore a tie under his apron), but not once did his father put his hand out to her.
Martin C. Healy was some five years older than Eunice, a tall man with thick glasses resting on his large nose and a scalp of hypertensive pink showing through his thin gray hair. A little overweight, a little self-conscious when he spoke, and always a little bored above ground, he impressed Frank as a man whose fire had gone out. Only once had he known his father to act impulsively, and whenever he came to this episode in his reverie in the back room of Schultenovers’ Egghouse, he was amazed all over again.
It was on an afternoon in the spring of his freshman year that his father came to the high school and called him out of class to announce that his mother was with God. It astonished Frank that Martin C. Healy, woodworker and loan officer, should do anything so unguarded and mystical as to knock on Mrs. Lindberg’s door in the middle of algebra and request that Frank step out into the hallway and there tell him, “Your mother’s in heaven, Frank, it just came to me five minutes ago in the bank.” He looked perhaps a little more earnest than usual, more serious, but there was nothing else in his expression—no wild-eyed ecstasy—to indicate that he had just heard from the other side of the grave. “So she’s okay,” his father added.
And Frank, on the instant, believed him. Who was less given to wild imaginings than his father? Who was steadier, more logical, more respectful of the truth? Was it so surprising, considering all the prayers the two of them had sent up on his mother’s behalf, that God should send down a personal reply?
“I thought you should know right away,” his father continued. “She’s been with God for some time. Her stop-off in purgatory is over, and we can quit praying for her soul. We can start praying directly to her for ourselves. It came to me right after lunch, like a message on the phone.” His father, moving off down the hallway, spoke over his shoulder: “I’ve got to get back to work. We’ll talk about it later.”
But they never did.
By the time Herb Schultenover returned from his deliveries and interrupted Frank’s reverie with complaints of sciatica and indigestion, it was closing time, and a warm, steady rain was falling. Frank walked home from the egghouse barefoot, carrying his shoes and socks and relishing the cooling rain soaking his hair and clothes and running down his face and arms. He was feeling particularly buoyant because tonight after the movie he and Danny Ash were to make their first visit to the Loomis Ballroom. This major and long-awaited step toward adulthood was to be made possible by Bob Templeton, who had the use of his parents’ car.
Frank took a bath and put on his second-best shirt and pants. His best would have fit the occasion, but he didn’t want to arouse his father’s curiosity. Not that his father was likely to object to his riding with Bob Templeton to Loomis, but his father might carelessly tell Eunice Pfeiffer, and Eunice was certain to disapprove. The ballroom came up now and then in gossipy tales of illicit love and fistfights, and his father’s sense of what to tell Eunice was not as highly developed as Frank’s.
After supper Martin C. Healy disappeared into the basement to turn out another chair leg on his lathe and Frank ran along the puddled alley to Danny Ash’s house and found the Ashes still at dinner.
“Pull up a chair and have some pie,” said Danny’s father, pointing to a sturdy wastebasket with a lid because there were no more chairs. Danny’s father, a livestock trucker, wore nothing over his undershirt. He had blurry blue tattoos on his hairy forearms and a small red scorpion burned into the hairy hollow of his throat. Below the scorpion and suspended on a silvery chain hung a small coinlike medal with the figure of the Blessed Virgin on one side and the head of Christ on the other.
“Maybe you’d like some spaghetti and vegetables,” said Danny’s mother, a husky woman with a round, dimpled face. “I’m afraid you don’t eat right at your house. Tell me honest now, what did you and your dad have for supper?”
“Fish with all the trimmings,” Frank assured her, pulling the wastebasket up to the table. The fish had been tuna fish sandwiches, the trimmings a scoop of ice cream and the remains of last night’s popcorn. He sat between Danny and Danny’s five-year-old sister, Virginia. Facing him across the table were Danny’s two younger brothers—Ronny, whose nose always ran, and Jerry, who stuttered. The pie was apple and delicious. He tried to restrain himself from wolfing it down.
Mr. Ash spoke with his mouth full. “Danny tells me you’re going to try out for the backfield this year.”
“I am. Coach Pangborn says I’ve got the hands to be a quarterback.” He modestly refrained from quoting the coach in full. The hands and the brains both, he’d said.
“Quarterbacks don’t do anything but block.”
“Not anymore. Coach Pangborn’s running the T this year.”
“The T? What’s the T?”
“T-formation. It’s tricky. The quarterback handles the ball every play. Hands it off or passes it or runs with it.”
“It’ll never work,” said Mr. Ash.
“More pie?” asked his wife.
Frank said no thanks.
“Danny says he wants to be a lineman,” said Mr. Ash. “Talk him out of it, will you?”
Danny said, “I like to tackle.” Danny was shorter than Frank, but stockier. He had his mother’s open, round face, his father’s blond hair and freckles. “I like to knock guys’ pins out from under them.”
“Linemen get no glory,” said his father. “They just get their faces kicked in.”
Mrs. Ash flinched at this. “Mercy, what do you boys see in football?” Her cheeks quivered as she shook her head vigorously. “I think it’s a horrid game.”
“It’s good fun,” explained her husband. “But it’s more fun in the backfield, Danny.”
Danny beamed. “I like to smear guys,” he said. “I like to put my shoulder into their bellies and cut guys in half.”
The meal ended with bowed heads and everyone mumbling, “We thank thee almighty God for thy blessings.” On “Amen,” Danny and Frank dashed out the door.
The movie was a mediocre western, Four Faces West. At first Frank felt betrayed by Joel McCrea, who departed from his normally virtuous role and robbed a bank. Then, pursued by the marshal (Charles Bickford) and falling in love with a nurse (Frances Dee), Joel McCrea came clean and his motive was judged virtuous after all, if you didn’t put too fine a point on it. McCrea’s father, it seemed, was destitute and needed two thousand dollars to pay off the mortgage on his ranch. All of which proved troublesome to Frank, whose habit it was to put fine points on all moral problems, and he left the movie wondering if ends sometimes did justify means, and wondering why, movie after movie, Charles Bickford never smiled, and wondering, too, what men saw in Frances Dee, who had no ranking in Frank’s pantheon of Hollywood goddesses.
The rain had stopped during the movie, but darkness brought no relief from the heat. They rode the seven miles to Loomis at seventy miles an hour with all the windows of the Templeton Pontiac open and the hot wind blowing in their faces. Carl Barkus rode in front with Bob Templeton. Frank and Danny, sitting in back, leaned forward to hear the two older boys discuss women.
“I’m only half a man without Sylvia,” Bob lamented.
What a sappy confession coming from the first-string quarterback, thought Frank. Bob was the player Frank wanted to be. He threw the ball fifty yards and ran like a rabbit. Coach Pangborn had been grooming him to direct the team this fall to what everyone hoped would be the Rockets’ first victory in three years. At the end of last season their losing streak had attracted the embarrassing attention of daily newspapers in Rookery, Berrington, and Duluth.
“When she’s out of town, I miss her something terrible.”
Carl Barkus, smoking a Lucky, responded to this with a grunt. Carl was a classmate of Bob’s—a senior-to-be—but their friendship struck Frank as odd. Carl, a pock-cheeked, bug-eyed little cynic, was not an athlete and never attended games. He mostly smoked and read novels.
“This is the three-month anniversary of the day I first got my hand on Sylvia’s tits,” Bob rhapsodized. “I taught myself to drive like this so I can get my arm around her.” He demonstrated—one hand on the wheel, the other around Carl’s neck.
“Watch it,” muttered Carl, sliding close against the door.
Bob went on to explain that every weekend since June he and Sylvia had danced at the Loomis Ballroom, and now with Sylvia gone on a shopping trip to Minneapolis with her mother, he was going to Loomis for sentimental reasons and taking friends along to stave off loneliness. “Without Sylvia,” he repeated, “I’m only half a man.”
Carl Barkus sat silent for half a minute, his cigarette burning bright in the wind, then said, “I don’t think you and Sylvia make a very good pair.”
“Hey!” Bob was offended. “Everybody says we’re a great couple.”
“Not me. I don’t say that.”
“Hey, what do you know? You wouldn’t know a great girlfriend if one hit you in the face. You’ve never had a girlfriend.”
“Sylvia’s a dud.”
“A dud! Hey, you’re nuts. Sylvia’s full of fun.”
“Fun, Jesus.” Carl Barkus turned to the backseat. “Does Sylvia Pofford look like fun to you guys?”
“Sylvia’s not bad,” said Danny Ash. “Good build on her.”
Bob Templeton nodded happily at this, his eyes on the road, both hands on the wheel. “See?”
“What about you, Frank?”
“Yeah,” said Frank, seeing Sylvia in his mind’s eye. She was short. She had pretty hair, green eyes, and a pouty lower lip. She was anything but fun.
“Yeah what?” said Carl.
“Yeah she’s built, and yeah she’s a dud.”
Bob, slowing as he entered Loomis, said, “Okay, you turds, here we are if you want to check Main Street for women.”
The only living things on the dimly lit Main Street of Loomis, a dying village with a population of two hundred and ten, were two old men and a cat. Bob followed a dirt street through town and out the other side, drove half a mile between cornfields, and turned through an open gate into a sloping, muddy field where fifty or sixty cars were parked in crooked rows. Above them, standing at the crest of the slope, was the fabled Loomis Ballroom, a monstrous firetrap of a building that had originally been a dairy barn.
Having heard so many tales about this place—sexual tales, drinking tales, pugilistic tales—Frank was in a state of high anticipation as he and his friends threaded their way uphill between the cars. He was excited by the mingling odors of ripening corn, overheated radiators, and spilled beer. He was enchanted by the dim, eerie glow given off by the pink bug-repellent light bulb high on a post. He was transported by the syrupy music leaking out through the loose siding of the barn—“My Happiness,” featuring a muted trombone.
He was somewhat disappointed to find that the entrance to the Loomis Ballroom, his portal to maturity, was a warped sliding door through which cows and bulls had filed for many years. Here they paid a man fifty cents apiece and had the word “paid” stamped on the back of their hands in the sort of purple ink it took a week to wash off. It was hotter inside than out, and nearly as dark. The dance floor, not as vast as he’d expected, was packed with a mass of moving bodies. At one end was a beer bar and two dozen small tables with folding chairs. At the other was a stage where the spotlighted musicians played. According to a banner hanging on the wall behind them, this was Lucky Mudget and his Orchestra. Lined up across the front of the stage were the four horn players—cornet, sax, trombone, clarinet. They were backed by drums and a bass fiddle. Lucky Mudget, waving a silver baton, wore a suit of gray gabardine with lapels of black velvet. When he turned around to smile down on the dancers gliding beneath him, a pink spotlight caught the brilliant jeweled rings on his conducting hand.
“Would you look at Lucky Mudget’s hair!” said Danny Ash, referring to its length. In an age of crew cuts, it curled over his ears and hung down over his collar.
“Just like a woman’s,” Carl Barkus sneered.
Bob Templeton’s eyes were glazed with dreaminess. “This is Sylvia’s favorite song, she sings it to me in the car.”
A girl approached Bob and asked where Sylvia was. This was a Loomis cheerleader—Frank had seen her at basketball and football games. Spotting two more girls approaching, Frank slid along the dark wall, separating himself from the group, afraid of being asked to dance. The girls of Loomis were forward, he’d heard, and often did the asking.
Carl Barkus, apparently seized by the same fear, came and stood at his side. Together they watched the cheerleader take Bob’s hand and lead him toward the tables and chairs. They watched Danny Ash pair up with one of the other girls and step out onto the dance floor, saw him place his hand on the small of her back and glide off toward the orchestra, making it look easy. This left the third girl stranded. She kept glancing at Carl and Frank.
“Why not dance with her, Frank? She’s not bad.”
True—she was no beauty, but not bad. She had a prominent chin and a lot of curly hair.
“I don’t know how to dance,” Frank confessed.
“Nothing to it. Put your hand on her back and walk around.” Carl indicated the couples sliding past them as the orchestra moved without pause into “Nature Boy.” “Look at their feet, nobody’s doing anything hard.”
“Why don’t you dance with her?”
“Me?” Carl looked astounded. “Why should I?”
“Because, don’t you come here to dance?”
“Naw, dancing’s dumb.”
“Then what do you come for?”
“To see how dumb it is.”
The girl with the chin gave up and walked away. Carl and Frank bought Cokes at the bar and pulled chairs up to a wobbly little table. Carl gave Frank a cigarette, which he smoked awkwardly, as though it were his first. It was, in fact, his third.
“Who’s that dish dancing with that big stud?” asked Carl.
Carl pointed to a girl passing slowly in front of them, and Frank’s heart bumped—it was Libby. Her partner was a tall, heavy young man wearing his pants tucked into his cowboy boots. Frank had seen them a moment earlier and not recognized Libby, for her dark hair was transformed, arranged not in its normal waves but piled high on her head with a long corkscrew curl dangling in front of each ear. In an engraving in last year’s history text Marie Antoinette wore her hair like that on her way to the guillotine.
“That’s Libby Girard.” Saying her name aloud made his heart bump again, and he wondered if this was love at third sight.
“Who’s the guy?”
Frank shrugged. “Some farmer, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yeah, his nose is peeling.” He had the customary farmer sunburn on his nose, ears, and neck, while his forehead, having been shaded by the bill of a cap, was pale.
Watching the two of them move away and circle back, Frank marveled that a newcomer virtually his own age should be so advanced in the rites of the Loomis Ballroom. How long had she been going out with older men? Dancing this close? Wearing her hair like a queen? In the dim light, swaying with her eyes closed and her ear laid tenderly against the farmer’s rib cage, she might have been a twenty-five-year-old cover girl. Or in movies.
And what happened next was straight out of Hollywood. The orchestra took a break and Libby Girard left the farmer, made straight for Frank, pulled a chair up beside him, and sat down. “Hi, you’re Frank Healy, Sylvia told me. Do you realize our hair is the same color?” She pulled a corkscrew curl across her cheek and gave him a mock-demure smile. “In here it looks black, but it’s really brown. How do you like the way it’s fixed?”
“I like it a lot,” said Frank, without quite looking at it. He had trouble facing her head-on. She was too beautiful.
“My name is Libby.”
“I know. This is Carl Barkus.”
Hunched over his Coke with his head down, Carl Barkus grunted.
Frank felt her eyes return to him. “Sylvia says your mother died when you were ten. That’s the saddest thing I ever heard.”
Startled that she should encroach upon this sacred subject, he risked a glance at her. Her smile was sweet and full of sympathy. “Eleven,” he said.
“Oh, that’s so sad. When dads or mothers die, it really gets me down. I knew a girl in Minneapolis, her dad died and she seemed to get over it before I did.”
“It looks pink,” said Carl, who hated it when people got serious. “In here everybody’s hair looks pink.”
She smiled at Carl but was not deterred. Patting her hair, she continued: “I mean this girl never talked about it much or acted different in school, but I couldn’t quit thinking about it. It’s very scary to me, the idea of my dad or mother dying.” She laid her hand gently on Frank’s arm, asking, “How long did it take you to get over it? You never get completely over it, I suppose, but I mean to get over the worst of it.”
He was stunned by her touch, amazed by her candor, and momentarily confused by her forcing him to choose between the masculine answer and the truth. Alone with her, he might have described the endlessly haunting effect of his mother’s death, and he might even have risked telling her about his tears at last Sunday’s matinee, but Carl was listening. He said, “Not long.”
“Oh, you boys!” The band struck up “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover,” and she sprang to her feet. “You boys are all the same,” she said, scanning the dance floor. “I never know which it is—if you’re lying or if you haven’t got hearts.”
He wanted desperately to go on talking to her, or rather to have her go on talking to him, he wanted to take her arm and draw her back into her chair, he wanted Carl Barkus to disappear and allow the two of them to delve into the death of parents and the color of their hair. Oh, to have a girlfriend so beautiful. She was wearing a white blouse without sleeves and a light gray skirt. He wanted to touch the silky material of her blouse. He wanted to reach up and touch her hair.
“Who’s that stud you were dancing with?” asked Carl, but Libby was already moving onto the floor on the arm of John Emmerling, a former all-conference center on the Loomis basketball team and now a junior in college somewhere. As they danced away, the smile she beamed up at John Emmerling was no more radiant than the smile she had given Frank, and he took consolation from that.
“Let’s go upstairs,” said Carl.
“I’ll show you.”
They drained their Cokes and made their way to a narrow stairway leading to the game room, formerly the hayloft, where a number of men were playing poker at a round table, others stood at pinball machines, and a foursome played pool. Through the thick haze of cigarette smoke stinging his eyes, Frank recognized one of the pool players as Vernon Jessen, a classmate of Bob and Carl’s, a husky farm boy with large, blunt features and a sour disposition. Last year, at left tackle, he had been named to the all-conference team despite the Linden Falls losing streak. Vernon Jessen’s current girlfriend was one of the two sexy Peach sisters from Loomis, Mary Sue.
“Hey, Vernon, how come you’re not dancing?” asked Carl. “You and Mary Sue break up?”
“No, she gave me a few minutes off.” Vernon Jessen bent over the table, sighted along his cue, and sank the two ball in the corner. “She went to the can,” he added, taking aim at the six, which he sank in the side. He came over and said to Carl, “Got a smoke?”
“Athletes aren’t allowed to smoke.”
“Hell with Pangborn.”
Carl gave him a Lucky. Vernon lit it and turned to Frank and said, “What’s the matter with you, Healy?”
“I’m not crying. Smoke makes my eyes water.”
Vernon blew smoke in his face and went back to his game. Frank’s reaction to this, instead of anger, was a sudden and overpowering sense of loneliness. He felt like a stranger among aliens. He had heartily disliked Vernon since junior high and he wasn’t fond of Carl. He wasn’t interested in poker, slot machines, or pool, and his eyes were watering and becoming downright painful. He’d met Libby and that was good, but now she was in somebody else’s arms, and he wondered when, if ever, she would speak to him again. He wished he knew how to dance. He wished he had Danny Ash’s easy way with girls. He wished he had Carl Barkus’s cynicism or Vernon Jessen’s callousness to help him through difficult social occasions like this. Or, better than yearning for the impossible, he wished he’d gone home after the movie and taken up his balsa and glue and added a wing to his newest bomber.
“Jesus, would you look at that!” said Carl Barkus, turning Frank around to face the table of cardplayers. Seated there with the men was the other Peach sister, Rita Lou, the one with the long neck and the sleepy eyes. She held no cards, but seemed to be present as the companion to the cardplayer on her left, a wiry young man with prominent teeth and a low forehead.
“See that?” asked Carl, his eyes directed under the table.
Frank was astounded to see that Rita Lou’s wraparound skirt lay open on her lap, and the young man, holding his cards in his left hand, was burying his right hand—marked “paid”—between her bare thighs.
“Who’s the guy?” asked Frank, a little breathless.
Carl shrugged and stepped over to the pool table. “Hey, Vernon, who’s the guy with his hand in Rita Lou’s bush?”
“New guy,” said Vernon Jessen, squinting through the smoke rising from his nose. “Roy Girard. He’s got a sister named Libby you gotta see to believe.”
“We saw her downstairs,” Carl told him.
“Ain’t she some piece?” Vernon took a drag and again blew smoke in Frank’s face.
Practically blinded, Frank moved off toward the stairway, descended four or five steps, and stood below the thickest stratum of smoke. Below him the tightly packed mass of bodies, blurred in his watery vision and moving sensuously to the slow beat of “You’re Breaking My Heart,” sent up a strong odor of sweat. And he caught a whiff of something even more pungent and repellent—either the barn had not been properly cleaned or somebody had thrown up. As his eyesight cleared, he picked out Danny Ash, who was now dancing with the curly-haired girl with the prominent chin. He saw Bob Templeton swaying in place, holding the Loomis cheerleader at arm’s length as he studied his feet. He saw a fight break out in the pink-lit corner of the hall near the orchestra, the sunburned farmer in cowboy boots taking a swing at John Emmerling and missing, and John Emmerling punching the farmer in the stomach. They were apparently fighting over Libby, who stood against the wall with her hands covering her face. Dancers backed away and watched. Lucky Mudget shifted into something speedy and strident. The fighters exchanged words but no more punches. The farmer forced his way through the crowd and out the door. John Emmerling looked around for Libby, found her, and bent down close to her. Was he talking to her or kissing her? It was hard to tell from where Frank was standing. Suddenly the two of them straightened up, pumped their shoulders three or four times as though to catch up with the music, and set off around the floor in a hopping, twirling step that caused other dancers to scatter out of their way.
A few minutes later, Bob Templeton gathered up his passengers and led them out to the car. Riding back to Linden Falls, Danny Ash, who had had to be dragged away from the blonde with the chin, enumerated with glee the various parts of her body he’d managed to get his hands on. Carl Barkus gave an account of what Rita Lou Peach had let Libby Girard’s brother get away with under the card table. Bob Templeton then lifted his voice in song, moaning syrupy lyrics in the manner of Buddy Clark. Danny made it a duet: Carl, now safely away from it, allowed himself to be caught up in the spirit of the ballroom and joined in as the rhythm section: pum-pum pa-dum, pum-pum pa-dum. And Frank, pressed into a corner of the backseat, rode along in dejected silence. He had expected to be thrilled by the dance, but he was repelled. If the Loomis Ballroom was a necessary stop on the high road to love and courtship and holy matrimony, why was it so gloomy and foul smelling and why did fights break out? How could Danny Ash so easily overlook the unsavory aspects of the place and boldly take to the dance floor with a stranger, and what was wrong with Frank that he could never imagine doing the same? Was he by nature an alien? Was he somehow unfit for normal relationships? Was he destined to live out his entire life standing apart from the dance?
Posted January 11, 2003
Hassler is a master storyteller. If you want to curl up on the couch for a long winter's read - pick up a Hassler novel. You will not be disappointed. North of Hope is a seamless story with characters so real you probably have pictures of them on your walls. He lifts up the universal in human experience and allows you a moment to celebrate it for its goodness. Even, and especially, the unexpected, unplanned places and people whom you wouldn't think would be an occasion for gratefulness. But Hassler finds a reason. You simply cannot but feel the world's not-so-bad when you've finished North of Hope.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 24, 2000
The commitment to a celibate life in the priesthood does not mean the exclusion of all contact or relationship with females. The priest in this novel must balance the obligations of this vocation with the human need for female friendship. In this enlightening novel Hassler explores the needs of the religious life with the need to have the insight, experience and knowledge of a female. In this age when priestly celibacy is under question, Hassler explores the issue while spinning an absorbing tale of people and emotions in a small Minnesota town bordering on an indian reservation. A great read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 30, 2010
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