Backbone: Short Stories

Backbone: Short Stories

by Carol Bly


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ISBN-13: 9780915943043
Publisher: Milkweed Editions
Publication date: 01/01/1985
Pages: 125

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Chapter One

The Last of the Gold Star Mothers

On a windless early evening in October, almost the best time of day of the best time of year in Minnesota, no one was standing on the escarpment path in Rachel River County Park, where you can look out over the fir forests toward Lake Superior and the distant glow of lights of West Duluth. The park was deserted, in fact—no one was leaning on the old W.P.A.-built wall to watch the Rachel River falling perfectly from one black stone to the next, eventually to find its way down the escarpment to the place where it joins the St. Louis River. People in Rachel River keep busy, and sometimes they seem too distracted to see things. No one, for instance, had noticed a battered safe, which sat in the bed of the stream in the park. It had been stolen from a Union 76 gas station a month earlier, in a celebrated local crime. The thief had been found out and caught, but the safe, torch-cut open and dumped right in the middle of Rachel River, still lay among the rocks, and the slight, spindly water fell on it without variance.

    On this particular evening, a Tuesday, most of the regular people—that is, not the Duluth Airbase personnel and their wives, who don't count, but the regulars—were down at the Rachel River V.F.W. Lounge. Drinks, for once, were at half price, in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Kevin Ohlaug's son, Curt. Everyone explained to everyone else that Curt Ohlaug had been in the service in some native place called Engola or Angola, no one knew in what branch of the service, but, anyway, now he was back, anddrinks were at half price. The local radio-news lady, a thirty-three-year-old divorcée named Mary Graving, sat in the best corner booth of the V.F.W. Lounge. She was celebrating something secretly. From the beginning, she had intended to spend the whole evening there, so she had had the foresight to prop herself up in the right angle between the back of the booth and the wall. By her elbow, someone had scratched on the wall a suggestion to the I.R.S. about what it could do with itself. Mary had arranged a smile on her face quite a while ago; now it was safely fixed there, and she herself was safely fixed, and although she was immensely drunk, she was not so drunk as the others, which meant she counted as dead sober.

    When Mary Graving was sober, her face was too decided and twitchy to look good with the large plain earrings she always wore. She thought she was generally too grim-looking, and her earrings looked too cheerful at the edges of her face. Now that she was drunk, though, and wearing a red dress, her face felt hot and rosy. Her smile stayed stuck on, and she knew that the earrings—a new pair, especially cheap, not from Bagley's in Duluth but a product of the Ben Franklin Store in Rachel River—looked fine. She was not beautiful but she was all right.

    She was crowded into the booth with seven local people whose familar faces were getting blurred. One was LeRoy Beske, the sheriff. Each person had a hand round his glass, and their fingers looked silvery in the night-club lighting. The fingers were numb and stiff with drink, as silvery and thick as fingers in the empty suits of armor in city museums. No one is shallow and vulgar forever; sooner or later the whole species likes to be profound. Now, after everyone had pleased everyone else by adding comments to the I.R.S. graffito, a moment came when LeRoy Beske was profound. The others could take it from him, the sheriff explained, that all of culture—all of American culture, and that went for the Europeans, too, they weren't any better—was getting more and more slovenly and cowardly and uniquely filthy. The sheriff repeated the last phrase clearly, as sonorous as John Donne. "Yes," he said, "uniquely filthy." In 1946 he had stood on the Boulevard Saint-Germain with his buddies, and he could assure them the French, too, like everyone else, even the French with their fancy Paris, were uniquely filthy. Everyone in the booth marvelled at every remark. A hundred philosophies brimmed wonderfully in their heads.

    That was Tuesday night. At nine-thirty the next morning, Wednesday, the dispatcher's room in the Rachel River jail was softened by sunlight that slanted through the barred horizontal windows. Kristi Marie, who covered the radio, was filling out court forms at her desk under the two radio speakers; a deputy named DeWayne Sorkelson sat at another desk, idly making throws onto the blotter from a dice cup. The sheriff himself leaned by one of the windows, watching for the other deputy, Merle Schaefer, to come in. Everything was as usual, but the team was a little nervous this morning, because Kristi Marie and DeWayne knew that LeRoy Beske was going to put the scare onto Merle whenever he showed up. Now and then, while they waited, a message came crackling in on the radio; Kristi Marie replied, and a voice would say "Ten-four," and the radio went off again.

    Kristi Marie was on the two-way for the forenoon, but she had told them plainly that someone else would have to cover in the afternoon, because she and five other girls were going in a car to Duluth, to an art gallery. A member of their study club had suggested that with the world getting the way it was in so many places, it was a shame to throw away the cultural opportunities they had, what with Rachel River being only eleven miles away from Duluth, so Kristi Marie was going. Now the sheriff straightened up. Merle had appeared outside the jail, where he paused on the concrete steps and gave a languid smile to a little boy named Gregsy Hanson, whose face shone up at him. Poor kid, the sheriff thought. Gregsy Hanson's dad sold him out for the bottle, and his mother sold out everybody in town. When she went down the aisles in the Super Valu she even sold out her baby as he sat in the cart, explaining his faults to everyone in the produce section. And now, the sheriff thought, even this cop that Gregsy admired wasn't much good. Merle came in the jailhouse door, and Gregsy stood one-legged on the concrete, with his other knee thrown over the seat of his bike, as he watched him go. The Duluth Herald bag lay, caved in, in his bike basket.

    "Turn on the radio to KTRW, so we get the Rachel River program when it comes on," the sheriff said to Kristi Marie. "Turn it low until she comes on, though."

    Merle came in, raising a hand to his glossy thick hair. He was having an affair with a woman named Verona McIvor, in Floodwood, and whenever he looked in the mirror of his cop car he saw a man involved with a woman, and with women generally—a gigantic man hopelessly wrapped in physical satisfactions, his own desires, women's desires for him. When he walked, there was a lunge about his walking, as if he carried several women on his shoulders, clinging; they clung all about him, and his walk supported the great weight of them.

    "All right, Merle," the sheriff said.

    He's going to bust me for seeing Verona, Merle thought, instantly noticing that no one in the room would look at him. I don't want no counterculture job selling auto parts to farmers, he thought. I want this job. I want the uniform. His quick glance out the window showed him that that little kid, Gregsy Hanson, was still standing there waiting to look at him, Merle.

    "O.K., Merle," the sheriff said. "We live in one lousy, slovenly time of United States history, but there is one lousy, slovenly thing that's not going to happen again in Rachel River County. O.K.? O.K. Labor Day you were in charge of the Gold Star Mothers' car in the parade, right? O.K., the parade forms in front of the Vision Avenue Apartments where you pick up the Gold Star Mother, the only one we got left, and then everyone marches and drives to the cemetery where they have the doings. I got two complaints on you. First, you stuffed our one remaining Gold Star Mother into the car so mean she got bruised. She brought a charge. But that isn't all. Then you got to the cemetery, and I suppose I ought to be grateful you didn't run down them Rachel River Saddle Club horses on the way. When you got to the cemetery, what'd you do but get out and turn off the ignition, which means the air-conditioning went off. You left the windows rolled up and you left the Gold Star Mother in there. Mrs. Lorraine Graving is not a young woman; it was a hundred and five Fahrenheit. She could have died in there. I would like you to know that she is a symbol of our whole national honor. Without her we wouldn't be the kind of country we are today. Now, if we're not going to have any respect any more, it'll be the end of the Gold Star Mother program completely."

    Merle was so relieved it was not about this woman that he was seeing in Floodwood that he had to work to keep from smiling. He would not lose his job over stuffing a Gold Star Mother into a Ford.

    He said, "Yes, sir," in a tone he had heard on a police program on TV.

    "And there's another thing," the sheriff said. "You regard yourself as this big hand with the ladies."

    "No, sir," Merle said with great dignity.

    "Well, since you're such a great man with the ladies," the sheriff went on, "I've got something you can do today. You know her—it's Mrs. Blatke, that widow of that guy committed suicide. Well, I want you to find her, and then you make it clear to her she doesn't call the police anymore. I know she's upset. I know her husband robbed the Union 76 station and we caught him, and I know he killed himself. I took that refresher course on police psychology and I know she blames herself or something, but that don't mean she can go round town getting in fights with everyone all over Rachel River and then call the police. O.K.? And I don't want you to tell her mean. Tell her nice but firm. And don't make a pass at her."

    "You got to be kidding!" Merle shouted. "Make a pass at Mrs. Blatke! Listen, nobody would serve as a pallbearer at her husband's funeral, and who volunteers but me, and I got the five others, too!"

    "Yes," the sheriff said. "And then later that night you called her up and word is you made a pass at her."

    Kristi Marie waved one hand at them and turned up the volume on the speakers. "And now," the radio announcer's voice said, "we go to Mary Graving, in Rachel River, for the Rachel River County news. Good morning, Mary!"

    "Good morning, Bert!" said Mary. Her voice sounded a little husky, because it was carried by telephone from her house at the south end of Rachel River to the Duluth studio and then the eleven miles back again by radio.

    "Today is the Feast of St. Maurus," Mary said. She did not sound very hung over.

    "Gee, she's got a nice voice," the sheriff said. "I'm glad she took that job, since she had to get a job. Is it true she's got nerves?"

    "I don't know," Kristi Marie said. "I heard that, too. But she always seems real cheerful." Kristi Marie tipped her plump face up toward the loudspeaker over her desk. "She never forgets anything, either," she added. "She had it on five times to remind people to bring potluck to the St. John's annual meeting, and that's not even her church, she didn't need to have." They all listened to the radio over the quiet whine of the jail fan. The sheriff and the other officer had begun casting the dice to see who paid afternoon coffee.

    "Although today is actually the Feast of St. Maurus, we haven't got any reliable information about his life, and for a very special reason I'd like to tell you, instead, about St. Alban," the radio said.

    "But she shouldn't have religion on the radio," Kristi Marie said. "Last time they had religion on, we got seven phone calls from Lutherans saying they didn't want that Catholic crap on the radio, and nine calls from Catholics saying they wanted equal time if they were going to have that kind of Lutheran crap on."

    "Speaking of religion," the sheriff said. "Do you remember when that occult group cut up all those cattle, over toward Perham?"

    "I remember that," Kristi Marie said.

    "It is too bad that St. Alban isn't better known," Mary was saying over the radio, "because we have a man in Rachel River with a birthday today, who is here, alive, able to celebrate that birthday, just because of people in France who did what St. Alban did long before that. St. Alban was the first martyr in the British Isles. During some persecutions, Roman soldiers were going around picking up Christians to torture them, and a legionnaire came to Alban's door and said, 'We are looking for a certain escaped Christian.' Well, this Christian was hiding in Alban's attic, and Alban had traded clothes with him. 'Yes, I know,' Alban said. 'I am the one you are looking for.' 'You don't look like him,' the soldier said. Alban said, 'Look at my clothes—look at me. I'm the one you want.' The Roman soldier was stubborn, however, and said, 'Somehow, you don't look like the right man.' But then he thought, I've got to bring in somebody, and it is getting late, so finally he said, 'All right, all right'—whatever the Latin or Celtic for 'All right, all right' is—and he took in Alban, and they killed him.

    "During World War Two," Mary's radio voice went on, "underground forces in Occupied Europe faced the same sort of thing Alban faced. It must have been terrifying to have someone knock at night and explain he was an American flier or an underground intelligence agent, and could you hide him? You always knew that if the Germans caught you, you would be tortured for information and then likely killed. Well, Mahlon Hanson, of Rachel River, who gets our radio birthday greetings today, is alive because somebody was brave enough to risk self and family to hide him, thirty-four years ago, and help him reach the Channel. And, speaking of help, what better help could you expect than to have your next winter's furnace costs cut in half—that's right, cut right in half. You couldn't do better than to plan now, because if fall is here, winter can't be far behind, and Merv Skjolestad is carrying a line of woodburning stoves that can make hundreds of dollars of savings for you."

    When the program was over, Mary replaced the telephone receiver in its cradle, turned off the power box, and unplugged the cassette player she used for taping town-council notices. The Duluth station had set up this radio-telephone hookup for her in her own basement. To Mary, the program meant a tiny, unfailing income, with the marvelous virtue that she could be home when her children, Will and Molly, got home from school every day. The other end of the basement was reserved for her toymaking business. Between the radio program and the toymaking, Mary spent many hours every day in the cool, brightly lighted basement. The old cellar shelves were soft and grainy with rot; the previous renter, an A.F.D.C. mother, had left loops of rusty Kerr-top canning rings there, but Mary had scrubbed off the space she needed, and spread out the tools of her trade there—a dish of chuck keys, a small sabre saw, two sizes of nail sets, all her lacquers, a mitre box, her power saws and sander. The place reminded one that generations of women had stored home canning there and had filled and emptied laundry tubs into the sump hole; there was an aura of domestic bravery and domestic squalor about the place still. But now the basement had some glint and bustle, too, which came from Mary's shiny, imposingly modern radio equipment on the desk, her squared-off drawings on the steel table, and the bright-orange electrical drop cords curling everywhere. In the middle of the room, and in the space where a washing machine had been before the men had recently come and repossessed it, there stood several half-finished castles and Norman keeps and three-storeyed doll houses, all smelling beautifully of AC ply.

    On school-day afternoons, the children would burst into the house above her; the old farmhouse shuddered when they struck the door with their knuckles and books. Mary would climb the basement stairs dazedly, and in the shabby living room she and Will and Molly would drink cocoa, sitting in front of a print of two sailing ships over the mantel. The ships were heavily square-rigged. They tore along in the lunging, green, tremendously deep Atlantic. The children loved to say, "Just think what would happen if a man fell overboard into the sea!" And Mary usually assured them solemnly, "It must have been nearly impossible, in those days, to put her about to pick up anyone." Sometimes Mary explained as much about the rigging as she understood. They all drank their cocoa and speculated silently about a man overboard treading water in the deep sea and watching his ship grow smaller as it sailed away and left him. Then, on most days, the children went outdoors to play, and Mary went into the kitchen. Little by little, the hours of silent work in the basement would sift from her mind, until soon her supper-making seemed perfectly practical, perfectly pleasant, in the way that hobbies are pleasant when you get your mind off your life work. If they were having pastry for dinner, she gave it her attention and got it right.

    But just now, in October, Will and Molly were spending a week at Pike Lake with their father, Cordell. As Mary worked on a bookcase she was building as a surprise for them, she kept track of the quarter hours as she waited for the time, arranged with Cordell, when she would telephone and talk to them. The calling hour was agreed on for midday on Wednesday, since school would be closed then for a Teachers' In-Service. Across from where Mary sat, there stood the old, red-painted steel table, on which she kept her drawings of toys and her general accounts. In her childhood, in Duluth, there had been metal furniture in two places in her house—in the maids' room in the basement and out on the shaded, north-facing terrace. Every spring, the terrace furniture was repainted by the hired man and then set out on the stone flagging. All summer, it never seemed to lose its chill. Mary had been expected to take part in her mother's teas out there, when she had to listen to her mother's friends and their little quarrels about books. They sat on the painted metal in their silk dresses, and responded to one another in flurries. "Oh, but Julia," they cried, "can you really say that with impunity?" Mary sometimes found herself staring down, past the terrace ferns, into the window of the maids' room in the basement. She could see the two iron beds there. Her own basement, Mary sometimes felt now, was not unlike the maids' room.

    Sitting by the unfinished bookcase, Mary fitted new paper into her sander. At the same time, she was estimating her income for the current year. The bookcase was to have a lever on one side, which opened a secret vertical shaft that would run from the top to the bottom of the case, at its back. On the opposite side, the left, there would be a fishing reel fastened to the case, which was to operate a miniature dumbwaiter inside the secret shaft. She meant to make a tiny velvet-covered chest to fit in the dumbwaiter, in which the children could keep their treasures—whatever they liked. She was not building this bookcase to be sold, and for this reason her face was mobile, nervous, and sometimes smiling as she worked. Her facial tic was not so bad as it was sometimes. The other toys standing about—the apartment-building doll houses, the sixteenth-century half-timbered dollhouses, the castles, and the puppet show—were all parts of her business. They sold at prices from sixty-five dollars to four hundred dollars each.

    Before she became self-supporting, she had never imagined that one tends to do major economic calculations over and over again in one's head, as if the figures might improve with repetition. She knew that her total intake this past year would be eleven thousand three hundred dollars, but she kept refiguring it. Now she added things up again while she carefully drilled a hole for the fishing-reel cable to run through. The twenty-minute radio program, five days a week, brought her five hundred dollars a month, which was six thousand dollars a year. If she got orders for four large castles at three hundred and fifty dollars each, that would be fourteen hundred dollars, which made a total so far of seventy-four hundred. Ten medium-sized castles would bring in fifteen hundred dollars more, making a total of eight thousand nine hundred. In the first year after he had left her, Cordell sent her eleven out of the twelve agreed-upon monthly child-support payments; in the second year, he sent ten. Now she figured he would send an average of, say, eight payments per year for another year or so. At one hundred and fifty dollars per child, that brought the total to eleven thousand three hundred dollars. It was not really enough.

    She worked at the children's bookcase for an hour, getting used to the pleasure and irritations of the task. She liked to work fast, watching her hands touching things gently. She disliked her habit of sometimes carrying a pencil or nails in her mouth. Presently, she went over to the radio table and telephoned a farm-equipment dealer named Merv Skjolestad to suggest that she write him an ad for his Patz manure-movers, which she could alternate with the ads she now read over the radio for his Schweiss woodburning furnace. She could alternate the ads—Monday-Wednesday-Friday and Tuesday-Thursday. Merv told her that wasn't all he had. He had a whole new line of grain-storage bins and some brand new milk-house equipment. She took down the sizes and prices, and told him she could do the furnaces on Mondays, the grain and milk-house line Tuesdays, and the Patz equipment and furnaces by turn on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. She eased him off the telephone in time to call the children at the prearranged time.

    She listened to the telephone ring twenty times. Then she decided she might have misdialled, so she called again and let it ring ten more times. After a while,-she went upstairs to wash her face, which looked awful. She was a person whose eyes puffed up quickly.

    She gathered her sheets and clothes from a basket and drove to the other end of town, to the laundromat. She was very sorry to find a woman she knew named Mrs. Blatke in the laundromat, sorting through a pile of unclaimed clothing. "Why, hello," said Mrs. Blatke, in a false tone. Mrs. Blatke's voice was not perfectly respectful, because although her husband had been caught knocking over the Union 76 station and then had felt so bad that he couldn't support her and their kids that he had committed suicide, at least he had been a faithful husband to her, and this Mrs. Mary Graving might be a big shot, with a big-shot job running the radio program from Rachel River and selling fancy toys to big shots in Duluth, but the fact was Mrs. Blatke's husband had died and Mrs. Graving's husband had just up and left her. Mrs. Blatke, therefore, did not move over enough to let Mary Graving get her laundry bag between the folding table and the line of machines. Mary, on her side, knew that Mrs. Blatke stole clothing from people's dryer loads if they were not watching, so she did not say "Excuse me," when her laundry bag hit Mrs. Blatke's leg, with the sharp edge of the Cheer box inside the bag doing the hitting. Then Mary thought of something she must have forgotten in her car, and she went back out and came back in and squeezed by Mrs. Blatke again and hit her legs all over again.

    "Funny a lady like you having to use the laundromat," Mrs. Blatke said after a while. "I've heard if you miss one payment on a washing machine they will repossess it, these days. But I wouldn't know. I was never one to buy stuff I couldn't afford and then have to have it repossessed."

    Mary looked thoughtfully out the window. "I doubt if that cop is coming to look for me," she said aloud. "I never have had cops coming after me in a laundromat. Maybe he's got something to say just to you? I could step outside."

    Mrs. Blatke jerked around and peered out the steamed window. "That's a no-good cop," she said warmly.

    "He isn't much," Mary said.

    They gave each other a quick look and then Mrs. Blatke said, actually in a kindly tone, "He did volunteer to be a pallbearer at my poor hubby's funeral, though, and no one else would, because ... because."

    "I know," Mary said. "And I'm sorry about your husband, too."

    Outside, in the autumn sunshine, the policeman leaned against his car, idly smoothing his glossy black hair.

    Mary didn't wait to dry her clothes, but took them wet from the machine and got into her car and drove away from the laundromat. In the rearview mirror, she saw the policeman—whose name she now remembered: Merle—amble into the building.

    She had an appointment with a man named Fran Paddock for three o'clock at Ye Olde 61—a kind of roadhouse dinner club, which he and a partner, who did some sort of cooking for the place, had recently bought. Now they were going to keep it open in the afternoons, too, in order to sell quality tourist items. The club stood halfway between Pike Lake and Rachel River, on a bypassed highway that supported a sprinkling of businesses that had been thrown up in the last few years where there had once been endless jack-pine forest. There were still patches of forest here and there, but as one drove along one saw the high domes of oil-storage tanks among the trees, and sometimes whole vistas of new, barracklike housing opened out. There was a turmoil about the landscape, as if it might all turn into a single giant shopping center by morning.

    Mary walked into the orange, varnished-log building. In the dining room there was one table, over by the window, that didn't have chairs placed on top of it. A youngish man with sandy hair came out of the kitchen, opening his palms in an apologetic gesture.

    "I'm Fran's partner," he said. "I can't shake hands, I'm baking—but at least I set up some place for you two to sit."

    They both looked out the window next to the table. "I'm feeding bears out there," he said. "This time of year, sometimes three or four come lumbering up."

    "Bears-shmears!" a cheerful voice said behind them.

    It was Fran. Long ago, he and Mary had gone to school together in Duluth. Looking at him now, in the shadowy restaurant, Mary could see that he had changed less than she had in the past fifteen years. He still had the undeniably comely looks and extroverted expression that had never caught her interest when she was a girl. The basis of their friendship was not their few dances together at the Northland Country Club in the summers but their nerveless and violently competitive dinghy racing at the Duluth Yacht Club, on Lake Superior. They had both won a lot of races, and Fran had probably beaten her a few more times than she had beaten him; the Coast Guard had had to bring them in out of trouble more times than all the other Duluth sailors put together.

    "I see you've introduced yourselves," Fran said now with his old grace. "Mary's an old friend—and a great sailor, too."

    He sat down; Mary sat down. Fran's partner hovered for a moment, and he and Mary exchanged a glance. They hadn't introduced themselves at all, and now Fran was still talking about sailing in the old days. Mary understood that he was probably being extra gregarious in order to assure her that even if they were meeting on business he did not discount his old association with her. He was trying to lessen the tension of one person being there to sell the other one something—telling her that he knew she was not trading in on old acquaintance for commercial use—or that if she was, he was not offended.

    "I still say there's nowhere you get that sense of reality that you do sailing," he said. "Hiked way out over the side—close to the water like that—you're touching down on reality.... But why should I tell that to you, of all people?"

    "I haven't sailed in years now," Mary said with a smile.

    She noticed that Fran immediately looked away when she said this, the way rich people sometimes do when they are afraid that a friend is about to explain that he has had to retrench.

    Fran's partner wandered back into his kitchen, and Mary and Fran began to talk business. From time to time, as they discussed orders and discounts, she heard the baker slapping dough in the kitchen.

    "There won't be any plastics," Fran said. "Strictly good things. What we're dealing with here is the guilty father. The children have been with him all weekend, say, and now it's Sunday afternoon, late, and they've been cross and that made him cross and he got sharp with them, but he doesn't want to deliver them back to their mother with them remembering that, so he stops in at Ye Olde 61, and buys them these very good toys. It'll work, Mary. When the kids get home, the mother turns over the toys, looking at the labels, checking to see if they're just strictly Airport, but Ye Olde 61 toys won't be Airport—so Dad will end up way ahead. O.K.! Let's see what you have, Mary. One of my real resources is what you are."

    She showed him drawings and descriptions and Polaroid pictures of her work. She saw he could tell that the things she had made were really first class—especially the French townhouse, with its blue-green mansard roof and the tiny sign painted on the smudgy cream outside wall: "Défense d'Afficher par la Loi de 1881."

    Fran laughed. "We need a tiny wooden toy dog out there peeing on that lamppost," he said. "It would be a great selling point. The French are great on peeing."

    The moment Fran said this, Mary knew he was going to cheat her clean. In the next few minutes, he did make an unfair consignment offer for her major toys, and said he would not handle the small ones. "What you really need are stuffed animals made with art fabrics," he said. "Or, you know—that quilted sculpture. Can you come up with a line of that?"

    "Kids hate those art toys," Mary said.

    "Yes, but they're very counterculture-looking, and that's in," Fran said.

    He glanced out the window. "Hey, one of your bears has come in!" he shouted toward the kitchen.

    The baker hurried in and bent over their table to look out the window. His arms, sanded all over with whole-wheat flour, were very near Mary's face. Mary and Fran and the baker watched a huge bear moving things around outside, lifting garbage, studying it.

    "They're like dancers, compared to how dogs move," offered the baker.

    After a while, Mary got up. "I'll get back to you on the consignments," she said to Fran.

    "Remember, Mary," he said. "This is big. The guilty fathers, the classy toys, the grimy, whining kids wanting something. And don't forget to glue a dog onto the French apartment-building one. And how about a trademark, like La Vraie Chose. That could be your mark, Mary—La Vraie Chose on all your toys. It's a terrific idea!"

    She smiled. He wasn't mistaken. It was a sound idea; his shop was a sound idea. As she drove home, she felt so low-spirited that she forgot she was secretly celebrating, last night and today, and was not going to be sad.

    Back in Rachel River, she had one more appointment. She drove to the Vision Avenue Senior Citizen Apartments, where Mr. Dahle, the manager, said it was nice of her to come on time because it made him just so nervous when people weren't punctual. He expected punctuality of himself, he said; he expected it of others. "The problem is Lorraine, your mother-in-law," he said. "Or should I still call her your mother-in-law?"

    "I guess she still is my mother-in-law," Mary told him.

    "It's been five months since the rent was paid," Mr. Dahle said, holding his palms upward. "Now, I have discussed with Mrs. Graving—Lorraine—would she go on welfare. That is a practical move, you know, and there is no disgrace to it. She told me her son Cordell would pay the rent. I said, 'Well, he hasn't paid it for five months now.' Then she said I was lying and trying to cheat an old woman out of the rent, and she would call Cordell and he would drive over from Pike Lake and show me a thing or two. So I said, 'Well, you might as well call him, because if he comes in I can ask him in person will he pay the rent or not.' Then she grabs her Gold Star flag off the window and shakes it at me and says, 'You see this Gold Star? If you treat me wrong there's a lot of people who are going to remember what this stands for, and they won't like it.' I told her I am not treating her wrong, I am trying to get the rent paid is all."

    "I'll go up," Mary said.

    Her mother-in-law, Lorraine Graving, was crouched by the window, lifting the Gold Star flag up so she could see out. She was stooped but full of spring. "Ooh, did you see that!" the old lady said. "My, but there's a fight going on down there! Look at that—that grown woman grabbed that boy's bike and threw it right down on the sidewalk! Crazy! And she's left her car parked right out in the middle of the street!"

    She turned and looked at Mary. "Ja, I know why you're here," she said. "Now, you listen to me. I'm not letting that Dahle push me around, and I'm not going to let you push me around. You never gave Cordell the least bit of love and support. I always helped him and he always said, 'Mama, I'm going to take care of you when you're old.' Well, now I'm old and he is taking care of me. He was always an affectionate boy, Cordell was. I can't say the same for his brother Emmitt. Emmitt's the boy I lost. I don't suppose you ever met Emmitt. During the war, you know how people went around showing you all the letters they got from their sons, with those A.P.O. numbers, and reading you the letters, too? Well, we never got any from Emmitt—not a one. He seemed to be just as glad to be away from home. We was running forty head of cattle in those days, and they never took both boys off a farm. One would get drafted, one could stay home. So I said to Emmitt right out, 'Emmitt, you better be the one to go, you're always so restless anyway, driving around fast cars and all.' I told him a good joke that I thought would make him have a sense of humor about it. I told him, 'Join the Navy and See the World!'"

    Mrs. Graving paused to let Mary laugh, but Mary was hung over and had laughed at jokes all night at the V.F.W. Lounge, and a childhood friend had tried to skin her in business, and she decided she didn't have to get up a laugh.

    "Anyway," her mother-in-law went on, "he may not have had much sense of humor about going into the Navy, but he really enjoyed it once he got in. He must have, because he never wrote any homesick letters. He didn't ever write at all. Home never meant anything to him, like it did to Cordell. Cordell always had more plans, anyway. Dad and I helped him. We helped him buy all that lake frontage and that resort in Wisconsin that you were so set on having."

    "I never heard of any Wisconsin resort," Mary said.

    "I'm tired of people, lying to me," Mrs. Graving said. "First that manager, Dahle, and now you. We paid all your doctor bills, too. All them bills, and there was never anything the matter with you that I could see."

    "I never had any doctoring bills," Mary said. "I never went to a doctor, except for when the children came. You're probably thinking of Cordell's ulcer treatment."

    "I gave my son," Mrs. Graving said conclusively.

    Outside the glass doors of the Vision Avenue Apartments, Mrs. Blatke and Gregsy Hanson, who had once been a Faith Lutheran Church Release Time student of Mary's, were shouting at each other on the sidewalk. Mr Dahle, the building manager, stood by, wringing his hands. An interested circle of elderly residents had gathered. They murmured "Ohh!" and "Goodness!" from time to time.

    "Oh, hi, Mrs. Graving," Gregsy said, breaking off.

    "Oh, so it's 'Hi, Mrs. Graving,' is it?" Mrs. Blatke screeched. "But when I want to park my car in the parking place, he won't move his damned bike. Well, I'm asking you, 'Mrs. Graving,' since he seems to like you so much, who is that boy? I'm calling the police."

    "Yeah, and I won't tell you," Mary heard herself saying.

    "You going to take up for some kid who busted one of my headlights, are you? You going to take up for some kid against me?"

    Mary said to herself, I might as well get into a fight as not. I really might as well.

    "He's a friend of mine," she said aloud. Then she said, "You owe him an apology, too." She watched the woman's wrath with satisfaction.

    "Apology? Apology? Me apologize to that crummy kid?"

    "You threw his bike down on the sidewalk," Mary said. "I saw you."

    "Well, did you see what he done to my car?"

    It was bad. Gregsy Hanson or somebody had thrown a stone right into the left front headlight. For some reason—from pure force and accuracy, probably—the stone was still stuck in the shiny reflector of the light.

    "You tell me the kid's name, or I'll call the police!" cried Mrs. Blatke. "They'll make you tell."

    "They won't make me do anything," Mary said. Suddenly she felt very hung over. She said, "Maybe your other headlight will get busted by somebody."

    "Ladies! Ladies!" cried Mr. Dahle, grasping one earlobe desperately. "Please—I've called the police—they'll be here—please, please! Here they come now!"

    It was Merle Schaefer. Mrs. Blatke ran over to his police car and shouted that Mrs. Graving had just threatened to break one of her headlights and that kid there had already busted the other one.

    "What kid is that, then?" Merle inquired, getting out of the car languidly.

    The three of them turned and saw Gregsy Hanson now pedalling up Vision Avenue, away from them, and throwing rolled-up copies of the Duluth Herald at doorways as he went.

    "And anyway, she's crazy!" Mrs. Blatke shouted, pointing at Mary. "I know she's crazy because she goes and visits them people at the Lutheran Social Service on Thursdays. Everybody's seen her."

    Merle looked at Mary thoughtfully and then he turned to Mrs. Blatke. "Funny—I already told you, just today," he said. "You don't call a policeman, remember? You forget awful quick, Mrs. Blatke. Now, you listen to me. When you get home this afternoon and you see a big ape there, two storeys high, and this big ape climbs in your living-room window and swipes your TV and then it goes in your refrigerator and eats everything you got there, including the ice cubes, you don't call a cop! You understand that, now? You will get me in trouble yet."

    Mr. Dahle now held up his hands in a position exactly like the framed "Praying Hands" picture that hung in his office. "I think we can all go back in now," he said in a high, gentle voice. "I think the show is over." He giggled.

    Nobody who came to the Faith Lutheran Church to see a counsellor or therapist on Thursdays parked their car in the church parking lot. They parked across the street by the hospital, at the "Visitors" sign, and then walked over to the church. It didn't do any good. Everyone knew exactly who had nerves and who was crazy in Rachel River. It didn't matter about the wives of Duluth Airbase personnel; no one cared if they were crazy or not. But everyone knew exactly who the others were. Anyone who used the visiting psychotherapeutic services offered once a week by Lutheran Social Service was crazy or nervous. If they had a decent job, they had nerves; if they were on welfare, they were crazy. Mary Graving was just nerves, they guessed.

    Now Mary sat, facing north, in the Sunday-school room where she had taught Release Time Religion, years before. The window faced the forest, where there were still wild animals living. One spring, twenty years ago or more, when men who had come back from one war or another still felt purposeful when they were gathered in groups, someone in town had spread it around that you would get a bounty if you went into those woods and brought out two fox's feet. All that summer, people killed foxes; there was near and distant firing almost every day, and traps set everywhere. Men referred to the animals—as people always do, for some reason, when they intend to kill a lot of them—in the collective. "There's a lot of fox in there," they remarked to each other on Main Street. "a lot of fox and some bear, but not so much bear as fox," instead of saying "A lot of foxes and some bears."

    "I want to tell you something," Mary said to Jack, the therapist she saw every Thursday. "But before I tell you that, thinking of bears—out there—reminds me of something else I'll tell you."

    She told the therapist about the young man baking bread in the Ye Olde 61. She described his strong elbows and his arms, how they smelled of whole-wheat flour, and how he braced them strongly on the table so they were next to her face, while they all looked out the window at a bear. She told how she had sat there talking business with the other man, and this man had come and leaned over their table, and how all of a sudden there was this tremendous, irresponsible, unaccountable, absolutely unforeseeable desire, all because of this man leaning over while they looked at the bear. She told Jack how they all looked at the bear, which wasn't really that interesting but they quit talking and watched it, and then suddenly this man with his arms covered with bread dough—a man whose name she didn't even know—said, "Do you see how when a bear moves it is more like dancing than when a dog moves?"

    "Well," Mary said now, "well, when he said that—Well, the way he said it—Well ..." She went on explaining, failing to explain it. "That part about the bear," she said at last, "that dancing—that finished me off!"

    They both laughed, but then the therapist waited, deliberately making a pause too serious to be filled with conversations about bears.

    "Well—and then I lied to you last week," Mary said. "And this is what I am celebrating. I told you I would not commit suicide because of the children. That is not the reason I won't commit suicide! I was wrong. I won't do it because of this thing I am celebrating. You see, I thought all life was of the creature, life of the body, and I felt I am dead in my body—yet I am not dead. So therefore I thought I would do a test. I would see if life is all life of the body or not. So I took nearly all the week and went back over, in my memory, all the body life I have ever had. I went back over how it was with every man I could remember—well, at least, every time I could remember!"

    This explanation seemed grandiose, and Mary became anxious because she knew that patients waste half the time in sexual bragging, so she said, "I went over some of the times, anyway, and I made myself remember everything, just as if it were now. I went through the births of the children all over again. Exactly as if it were happening now. I remembered every detail of the labor and the delivery—and oh, after the delivery!—of both children, and of beginning to nurse them in the hospital, and singing to them. 'Annie Laurie' I sang—not the first verse, which is dumb, but the other two—remembering to sing very quietly because you can tell a baby's ears are not yet spoiled by bad sounds. You can tell by that nearly mashed, delicate-looking way the ears lie close to their heads. The way they lie mashed back against their heads like that, you can tell they have heard only the most wonderful sounds, like sounds from underwater.... So I went back over all that, and it was awfully sad. My God, it was sad. But it was not what I was grieving for. It wasn't!

    "I felt sorry for myself and for everyone else in the meantime, because if it is physical delights we live for, we certainly don't get to spend our time in very nice places. We are always working in the basement, or drinking in the V.F.W., or washing things at the laundromat. The rich are the only ones that sail on beautiful lakes—and they call that 'touching down on reality.' Just yesterday, someone told me sailing was 'touching down on reality'—and all the while he was skinning me clean on a wholesale offer! Suddenly I realized I wasn't staying alive for my children. I was staying alive for something I haven't even begun to do yet. So I stopped being altruistic as if I were some saint, giving myself up for others. And I stopped thinking my life would be so different if only I could live in a cultivated place. Why do we praise children when they are willing to go into museums? So culture is nothing, I found out this week—nothing. It isn't why we live. And animal life—all that body stuff—that isn't it, either. It is something yet to do, something we're supposed to be doing in the future! But that's as far as I've got—I haven't looked at it any closer. I was simply so excited that I wasn't going to die, and that animal life is not all there is, that I went to the V.F.W. Lounge to get drunk and celebrate. And in there I listened to the men talking. They're in worse shape than I am, even—they thought World War Two was sort of a suit of armor, and now they don't know what they ought to be doing. Do you know that whenever I mention World War Two on my radio program five or ten of them, in this one little town alone, call me up and tell me things from their lives?

    "And yet I had a terrible day, yesterday. Because I didn't know what life will be, and animal life has been taken away, and then even the new life, my life of thinking about suicide, was taken away. I was so empty then. I was horribly empty! So I got into a coarse street quarrel with a woman over a little boy. When he called me up later and said, 'Thank you for standing up for me,' it was as if somebody who was not anybody had stood up for him. I was simply emptied."

    "But this week?" Jack said. "What about the suicide?"

    "It's gone," Mary said. "But, do you know, I used to make special toys for the children—I still do. I am making a bookcase with a secret compartment. When I was sewing for them, or building something, I used to think, Well, then this is life. And I was wrong about that, too. Life for others isn't anything, either. Just as the rich are mistaken in thinking there is reality in sailing, the rest of us are mistaken in thinking there is reality in carpentry.

    "So I think it is something we have to keep an eye out for—what we're supposed to do, why to stay alive. Do you sail, ever? Well, if you know small boats you know about keeping an eye out for the darker place on the water to windward, because the darker place, which keeps getting close, is what tells you how to trim differently. ... Well, that's enough!"

    She stopped. Her facial tic reappeared now, and she controlled it.

    "But it is wonderful, wonderful," she said, "to come here and tell you depressing stuff. Every day, I am cheerful on the radio, and people come up to me in Ben Franklin and say, 'Oh, you cheer us up so on the radio!' And my friends who are happily married come up and say, 'You do a terrific job of taking on that toy business so cheerfully!' We must be living in the most cheerful-minded century in the history of the world, even though the sheriff says the whole race is uniquely filthy!"

    Mary and the therapist both laughed, and then they did serious work for the remainder of the session. She was not allowed then to divert from this serious work by telling stories about coarse women, or any of the other supposed facts of her life.

Table of Contents

The Last of the Gold Star Mothers9
The Mouse Roulette Wheel29
The Dignity of Life55
Talk of Heroes77
Gunnar's Sword97

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