Rufus at the Door and Other Stories

Rufus at the Door and Other Stories

by Jon Hassler, Gaylord Schanilec

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Once upon a time, before Atheneum in New York took a chance on an unknown author and published Staggerford (1977), Jon Hassler wrote twenty-some short stories. He remembers exactly the day he began writing. It was September 1, 1970. He was thirty-seven years old and a teacher at Brainerd Community College in central Minnesota. "I finished teaching my nine


Once upon a time, before Atheneum in New York took a chance on an unknown author and published Staggerford (1977), Jon Hassler wrote twenty-some short stories. He remembers exactly the day he began writing. It was September 1, 1970. He was thirty-seven years old and a teacher at Brainerd Community College in central Minnesota. "I finished teaching my nine o'clock freshman English class and went to the library. I took out a notebook and pen, and began [my first] story."

Only a handful of these early stories ever made it into print (mostly in small literary magazines), and Jon stored them away "in an old wooden filing cabinet I bought for $25 at a now-defunct department store in Brainerd."

That cabinet later accompanied Jon to Collegeville, Minnesota, where he was writer-in-residence at St. John's University for seventeen years, and to his current home in Minneapolis.

In 1999 the Afton Historical Society Press published seven of these stories in Keepsakes & Other Stories to overwhelming public response. This companion volume, Rufus at the Door & Other Stories, brings to print seven more, beginning with the heart-wrenching tale of a good-natured, slow-witted man of about thirty-five named Rufus. Many of the characters in Jon's stories, including Rufus, are based on people he has known. You'll find out which ones in the Publisher's Note preceding the stories.

Six years ago, Jon Hassler was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. In a holiday letter to Jon's friends in 1999, his best-known character, Agatha McGee, wrote that the novelist's dreadful companion, Dr. Parkinson, "has begun to behave in cruel and irritating ways." This moving letter from Agatha appears at the end of this book as a postscript to Jon's stories.

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Afton Historical Society Press
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7.30(w) x 9.90(h) x 0.70(d)

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Chapter One

EACH YEAR the ninth and eleventh grades of Plum High School were loaded on a bus and driven to Rochester for a tour of what was then called the insane asylum. The boys' health teacher, Mr. Lance, and the girls', Miss Sylvestri, led us single file through a series of gloomy wards and hallways where we were smiled at, lunged at, and jeered by all manner of the mentally deficient. I recall much more about my ninth grade trip than I do about my eleventh. I recall, for example, how the faces of the retarded absorbed the elderly Mr. Lance, how he gazed at them the way we freshmen did, as though he were seeing them for the first time, and yet how he displayed none of our pity or shock or revulsion; his gaze, like a good many of those it met, was intense but neutral. I remember the middle-aged Miss Sylvestri bouncing along at the head of our column and—as though reading labels at the zoo—calling out the categories: "These are morons, class, and over there you have the imbeciles. In the next room they're all insane." I remember my relief when the tour ended, for the place had given me a severe stomachache. As we boarded the bus, Miss Sylvestri turned back for a last look and waved cheerily at a balloonlike face peering out the window of the broad front door and said, "That's a waterhead, class, and now we'll go downtown for lunch."

    Mr. Lance drove the bus and Miss Sylvestri stood at his shoulder and delivered an unnecessary lecture about how lucky we were to have been spared from craziness and retardation. She wore a long coat of glistening black fur, and the shape of her tall hat fitthe definition, in our geometry text, of a truncated cone. She asked if any of us realized that we had a moron living in Plum.

    Pearl Peterson's hand shot up. Pearl was the ninth grade's foremost sycophant. "Henry Ahman," she said. "Henry Ahman is a moron."

    "No, I'm sorry, Pearl. Henry Ahman is an epileptic, there's no comparison. Come now, class, I'm asking for a moron."

    I knew the right answer, but I kept my mouth shut for fear of losing face with my friends. This was the year a lot of us boys were passing through our anti-achievement phase. We had taken an oath never to raise our hands.

    "Please, Miss Sylvestri," said Pearl, "would you tell us again what a moron is?"

    Swaying with the traffic, Miss Sylvestri said that morons were a little smarter than idiots and a lot smarter than imbeciles. She said that morons could do things like run errands for their mothers while idiots and imbeciles couldn't leave the house. Sometimes imbeciles couldn't even get out of bed.

    The impassive Mr. Lance found his way downtown and parked in front of the Green Parrot Cafe. He looked into the mirror that showed him his whole load, even those of us way in the back, and he said, "Chow time." But Miss Sylvestri begged to differ. She said nobody was having lunch until somebody came up with a moron.

    My friends and I groaned anonymously.

    Pearl suggested the Clifford girl.

    "No, I'm sorry, the Clifford girl is an out-and-out imbecile."

    Somebody else, a junior, said, "Gilly Stone."

    "No, Gilly Stone's problem is polio."

    Finally out of hunger—the jolting bus had settled my stomach—I shouted, "Rufus Alexander."

    "That's correct—Rufus Alexander. He's very low on the scale but he's still higher than an idiot. He's what you call a low-grade moron."

    We were permitted to eat.

    At the west edge of Plum, Rufus Alexander lived with his mother in a little house near the stockyards. Rufus was about thirty-five and his mother was very old, yet his hair was turning gray at the same rate as hers. On Saturday afternoons they walked together to the center of the village to shop—the tall, bony-faced Mrs. Alexander striding along with her shoulders hunched and her skirts flowing around her shoetops; her tall, grinning son stepping along at her side, his back so straight that he seemed about to tip over backwards. Though he walked fast to keep pace, there was in each of his footsteps an almost imperceptible hesitation, a tentativeness that lent a jerky aspect to his progress down the street and reminded me of old films of the Keystone Kops. Whenever he came to a stop, he always clasped his hands behind his back and stood as though at attention; from a distance, in his long gray coat and white scarf, he might have been mistaken for a diplomat or a funeral director. At home Rufus sat in a deep chair by the front window and listened all day to the radio. Passing the house on my bike, I used to see him there, looking out and grinning. Mrs. Alexander had raised three older sons, but it was Rufus she loved best. He was hard of hearing and mute, though on rare occasions he made guttural noises which his mother took to be words.

    In order to go about her Saturday shopping unencumbered by Rufus, who couldn't turn a corner without being steered, Mrs. Alexander would deposit him either in the pool hall or in my father's grocery store. She would look in at the pool hall first, because there Rufus could sit on one of the chairs around the card table, but if she saw that her card-playing son—her oldest son, Lester—hadn't come to town, she would lead Rufus down the street to our store and place him in my father's care.

    Not that he needed care. He was content to stand at the full-length window of the front door, looking out. For as long as two hours he would remain there as though enchanted, his hands clasped behind him, his eyes directed at a point slightly above the passing people, his face locked in its customary grin. When someone entered or left the store—Rufus would shuffle backward and allow himself to be pressed for a moment between the plate glass in front of him and the glassine doors of the cookie display behind him, and then as the door went shut he would shuffle forward, keeping his nose about six inches from the glass.

    Although our customers were greeted week after week by this moronic face, and although he obscured the cookie display, I don't think Rufus had an adverse effect on our business. Everybody was used to him. In a village as small as Plum the ordinary population didn't outnumber the odd by enough to make the latter seem all that rare. We became, as villagers, so accustomed to each other's presence, so familiar with each other's peculiarities, that even the most eccentric among us—Henry Ahman, who had fits in public; the Clifford girl, who was an out-and-out imbecile—were considered institutions rather than curiosities. I noticed that most of our customers ignored Rufus as they came through the door, while a few, like me, gave him a fleeting smile in return for his incessant grin.

    He had an odd face. His round, prominent cheekbones were rosy, healthy-looking, but his eyes were skeletal—deep-set eyes under brows like ledges, blue eyes perfectly round and (I thought at first) perfectly empty. I never saw him—except once—that he wasn't grinning. Though I told myself that this was an unconscious grin, that he probably grinned all night in his sleep, I couldn't help responding to it. Returning time and again to the store after carrying out groceries, I smiled. As an exercise in will power, I would sometimes try to control this reflex. Facing Rufus as I opened the door, I would tell myself that his grin was not a sign of good will but an accident of nature, and I would attempt a neutral stare, like Mr. Lance's, but it was no use. (I could never resist smiling at clowns either, even though I knew their joy was paint.) I asked my father one time if he thought Rufus ever had anything on his mind, if he understood what he was staring at—or staring slightly above. My father said he wondered the same thing himself and had concluded that Rufus was only two-dimensional; there was no depth to him at all. And this, for a time, I believed.

    Then one Monday morning—it was around the time of my first trip to the insane asylum—word spread through the town that Rufus had another dimension after all. It was said that during a Sunday picnic in Lester Alexander's farmyard, Rufus had flown into a rage. The picnic was attended by scads of Alexanders from far and near, and three or four of his little cousins began to taunt Rufus. They made up a song about his ignorance and sang it to him again and again. He rolled his great round eyes, it was said, and he made a mysterious noise like a groan or a belch (it was not reported whether he lost his grin) and he set out after the cousins, brandishing the long knife his mother had brought along for slicing open her homemade biscuits. Hearing about it, I couldn't believe that anyone had actually been in danger. I pictured Rufus tipping backward as he ran, too slow to catch his quick little cousins; I pictured the knife—a bread slicer, dull at the tip; I pictured the many Alexander men—strapping farmers all—who could easily have restrained him. But on the other hand, I could also imagine the alarm. I had attended a few of these farmyard picnics, invited by friends, and I imagined how it must have looked to a bystander: the afternoon hazy and hot; dozens of relatives deployed across the sloping, shady lawn; the children shirtless under their bib overalls; the women at the outdoor table, uncovering their tepid hot-dishes and their runny gelatins; the men smoking under the trees; then suddenly this heightened racket among the children and everyone turning and seeing, to their terror, the youngsters scattering and shrieking (half in fright, half in glee) and Rufus hopping jerkily over the grass, the bread-knife in his hand, the blade glinting in the sun as he thrust it stiffly ahead of him, stabbing the air. As it was told the next day, Rufus's wild mood quickly passed and a half hour later he and the smaller children, full of food, lay down together for a nap in the shade. But he had given his brothers and their wives a terrible fright. Rufus would have to be put away, his brothers told their mother. He would have to be taken to the insane asylum.

    Never. As long as she lived, said Mrs. Alexander, Rufus would never leave her side. Not once in his life had he disobeyed her; never had he been anything but gentle. How would any of them like it, she wanted to know, if they were teased and attacked by a bunch of impudent snips? No, if anyone was coming to take Rufus away, they were coming over her dead body.

    And there the matter rested. The three sons refrained from saying what they foresaw. They foresaw the day when their mother would die and Rufus would be whisked off to Rochester.

    After the upheaval of that Saturday afternoon, Mrs. Alexander no longer left Rufus at the pool hall, for it was card-playing Lester who had been the first to speak about putting him away. In my father's keeping, then, Rufus was placed each week without fail. Now and then I would glance up from my work and see him there and wonder how it would end. Morons, according to Miss Sylvestri, sometimes died young. Maybe his mother would survive him, and wouldn't that be a blessing? His brothers' secret intention—like all secrets in Plum—had become public knowledge, and I didn't see how Rufus, after all these years of fixed habits and mother love, could adapt himself to the gruesome life of the asylum, particularly now that he had exhibited strong emotion. Hearing of his anger at the picnic, I now suspected that Rufus was capable of perceptions and emotions beyond what my father and I (and probably most of the village) had formerly believed. Now, though his eyes were consistently shallow and his grin steady, I had a hard time thinking of him in only two dimensions. This was a man who knew things, who felt things, I told myself, and therefore if he outlived his mother he was bound to come to grief. I didn't ask my father what he thought about this. I was afraid he would agree.

    In the autumn of my junior year, Mrs. Alexander died. Rufus apparently didn't recognize death when he looked it in the face, for although the coroner said she had been dead since midnight, it wasn't until the following noon that Rufus went next door and by his moaning and wild look alerted Mrs. Underdahl. No one could say for certain how Rufus, waiting for his mother to wake up, had spent the forenoon, but judging later by the evidence and what we knew of his habits, the village imagined this:

    Rufus got out of bed on his own and went into his mother's room to see why she hadn't awakened him, why she hadn't started breakfast. The depth of her sleep puzzled him. He was capable of a number of things; he could dry dishes and dress himself, but he couldn't figure out why his mother lay so late in bed. He put on his clothes and breakfasted on biscuits and milk (or rather cream, for he opened a full bottle and swigged off the top) and he evidently passed the rest of the time listening to the radio. In my mind's eye I see him sitting in his favorite chair by the window, soothed by the voice of Arthur Godfrey. I see him grinning when the audience laughs and grinning when it doesn't. At noon he went back into his mother's bedroom and pulled her by the arm, and when she didn't respond, he tugged harder. He pulled her out of the bed and onto the floor. Then, seeing her there at his feet, twisted among the sheets, he perceived something new. A door in his dense thinking opened on an emotion he had never felt before. Not anger this time, but fear. He went straight to Mrs. Underdahl's house and called up the same belching groan he had uttered at the picnic. His great blue eyes were rolling, Mrs. Underdahl later told my father in the store, as though he sensed that this day marked the end of his childhood and now, in his late thirties, he would have to face the world alone—far off from his mother's house, which had been arranged to fit so well his simple needs, far off from his mother's love.

    I was one of the altar boys at Mrs. Alexander's funeral. I looked for Rufus among the mourners, but he wasn't there. I supposed, correctly, as it turned out, that he had already been taken to Rochester. At the cemetery it rained. There were dozens of Alexanders standing three-deep around the grave. The little cousins, wearing short pants and neckties, were as antic as ever. While the priest blessed the grave and read aloud the prayers of burial, the cousins shrieked and played tag among the tombstones. Impudent snips, their grandmother had called them.

    Six months later my classmates and I were bussed to Rochester for our second look at the unfortunates. Over the years I have tried to figure out why everyone who went through school in Plum during the Lance-Sylvestri era was twice required to pass through this gauntlet of retarded and insane humanity. Surely all of us had been sufficiently impressed the first time by the smells and vacant faces of this dismal congregation, sufficiently impressed by our own good luck at having been spared. One thing we did learn this second trip—and this may have been the lesson our teachers had in mind (particularly Mr. Lance, who taught it by example)—was how to look impassive in the face of chaos. I had the same pain in my stomach that I had two years earlier, and one of the inmates leaped at me and tried to pull off my jacket, but, like most of my classmates, I played the stoic from the time I entered the broad front door until I departed. I acted this way because I was sixteen, the age when nothing seems quite so crucial—especially if freshmen are watching you—as appearing to be above it all; nothing seems quite so clever—if joking would be out of place—as disdain. I discovered that I could be really quite good at looking neutral. The trick was simply to tell myself that none of these crouching, drooling, gawking people were experiencing the misery that visitors pitied them for. They had no knowledge—no memory—of life as it was lived among the normal—life, say, in Plum. Unaware of any better form of existence, they were content. Brainless, they possessed the peace that passes understanding.

    But then I saw Rufus. We were boarding the bus when Miss Sylvestri suddenly pointed behind us at the broad front door and said, "Why, that's Rufus Alexander." I turned and saw two men on the doorstep with their backs to us. One was an orderly, the other was a tall, white-haired man with a straight spine and his hands clasped behind his back. It was Rufus, all right, and I was surprised—not only because his hair had turned white, but because he had slipped my mind over the winter; I had forgotten that he lived here now. Where had he been during our tour? Outside, strolling the grounds? Or had he been present in one of the crowded wards we passed through, and had a familiar face told him that we were the Plum delegation? Had he tried to follow us out to the bus? The orderly had him tightly by the elbow and was steering him through the door we had just come out of, but he seemed reluctant to go. Though he didn't struggle, there was a hint of unwillingness in his movements, a hesitation in his step.

    This time Miss Sylvestri did not lecture us as Mr. Lance started the bus, but she sat visiting with Pearl Peterson in the front seat on the driver's side. I sat in the back, next to a window, and looked straight at Rufus. The broad front door was now locked and he was standing behind the glass. Our two windows were scarcely thirty feet apart. He didn't look as healthy as he used to. The color was gone from his face and his ledgelike brows were sharper, deeper. While the whiteness of his hair was alarming (in six months it had grown much whiter than his mother's had been), the astonishing thing was the look on his face. He wasn't grinning. His face, without a grin, was that of a much older man, the jaw hanging slack, the cheeks hollow. In his round blue eyes, without a grin, there was something obviously very deep, like yearning. Obvious to me, at least, because his eyes were aimed directly at mine—not slightly above me, the way he used to look at things—and they told me that he had indeed tried to follow us out to the bus; moreover, they told me that mine was the face that reminded him of Plum. I looked away, Mr. Lance shifted gears, and I never saw Rufus again.

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