The Upper Midwest, with its scattered small towns and bitter winters, is Carol Bly's source for stories that are, as Tobias Wolff says, "as particular in their settings and culture as those of Turgenev and Joyce and Flannery O'Connor, and as far from being simply regional." My Lord Bag of Rice collects Bly's best and most recent work, 11 stories fortified with sharp-eyed characters who stand a little apart from their routine, stolid lives, nurturing hardy seeds of self-worth in a mostly mediocre world. Tinged with humor, her stories always portray Midwesterners - and people in general - who manage to cultivate a sense of greatness in their lives.
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Renee: A War Story
Renee was the sixth-grade softball batter no one jeered at. Vern, the main bully of our class, leader of all the bullies, the natural hater of girls, chose Renee first for his team. Then boys, alternately with the other team captain until they used up the boys and started choosing girls. Vern rolled his eyes up and groaned over each girl's name, while the already chosen kidsin, safe, superiorleaned against the woven backstop fence. When Vern sighed, they sighed. They closed their eyes in fake pain as each girl's name was called out. Alice, a friend of mine, and I were invariably last. When it got down to us, anyone could see each team captain had to take one of us. Alice was no worse at bat than I was, but she had been what was called "socially promoted" from fifth grade last spring. Vern took me before he would take her, adding, "I guess," to show that he had no ownership in the choice. Neither team captain bothered to name Alice. They just pointed. By then all the kids would be walking to their positions.
All of that humiliation took place below Renee's world.
Her concentration was perfect. At bat she looked at nothing but the ball. She was the only one of us, boys or girls, who classically sagged her knees at bat. She was sprung like a daddy longlegs, her skinny chest vaulted so airily over the base. Her face was still as rock. Her eyes burned lovelessly toward the pitcher. Nothing he could send, her gaze said, nothing, not even anything the terrible Vern could send, would ever unsettle her.
That Renee rarely missed was all the more surprising because she swung at every pitch. If the ball came way inside, she would cave back fast to save her life, yet somehow she would give it a slug at the last moment. If the pitch was way outside, she would lunge across the base and then some, and bash it clean and hard. She batted pitches so high that she looked like someone using a baseball bat to serve at tennis. Since none of us, not even Vern, pitched very well, we were grateful to Renee for swinging at everything. Our school recess was only sixteen minutes. That meant a couple of fussy batters could fritter away the whole period. We glowered at fussy batters. They made us feel like people tied down while someone let our lifeblood out right in front of us. We were eleven and twelve years old. Most of us weren't allowed to swear or talk back or bust up stuff: these morning and afternoon recesses were our serious explosions of freedom.
I was too insecure a kid to love anyone much, particularly someone always picked first for softball when I was always picked next to last. Still, Renee, right from the first, touched me. I noticed her and noticed her. She didn't look like an athlete. At twelve, she had a serious home-kit permanent, with the usual pompadour above her forehead. Dark circles went round her eyes. Sometimes those circles were so pronounced you could see a clear circumference between their darkness and the rest of her facial skin. Surely she stayed up far past what my parents called a decent bedtime. On the days when Renee positively looked like a raccoon, Alice, my slow-paced but loyal friend, estimated that Renee had been memorizing away at the Old Testament until three in the morning. For all we knew she might even have started on the New. There wasn't anybody in our Sunday school who knew anything about the New Testament.
It was an amazement to me how someone at only my age could be wonderfully pale, waxy, thin as a page. Renee was the only friend I had who looked like the before part of an Ovaltine ad. We all admired her, but I did not admire the same things that Alice and the other girls admired. I did not admire the upsweep of hair, making her look like a Brownie 620 snapshot of a USO girl. I came from an agnostic family, a dreadful secret that I lied about. I would vehemently agree with Alice and the others that it was just plain very nice how Renee had memorized so much of the Old Testament. We girls walking home from school together were agreed on a number of other reasons why Renee was wonderful. She was a real good leader, Alice would say. But I could not casually add, "Well, actually, what I admire is that she is so unhealthy looking. I bet she gets to stay up late. And listen, you guys, I bet she will die young just after meeting a man who really loves her. She will be so ill that they will not even be able to consummate the marriage." In my fantasy I threw in that part about her being too ill to consummate the marriage a little insincerely. In our grade we were very big on consummation of marriages. Actually, I admired Renee for some dark future I felt would be hers. I knew deeply and sadly that I was bright as tinsel compared to her.
Renee had described for us her parents' smooth, white, leatherette-covered Bible. Her father's fingers sank into its soft, padded front when he led the family devotions. My parents and even my older sister and I had a lot of books, but none of them were plumped out like that white Bible. And though Alice's parents owned a gigantic shortwave radio with something called a Police Span, they had no books at all. "I can just see that Bible of theirs!" Alice would exclaim.
I could not tell Alice that I envied Renee the fact that her parents drilled her on Sunday-school memory lines. My father and mother thought my older sister and I were a gas. They would egg us on to tell funny stories from our eighth-grade and sixth-grade lives. They belly-laughed when I complained about the class bully.
But when I repeated one or another particular insult Vern had handed me on the softball field, they turned solemn. My dad would turn to my mother and my older sister. "We have to put our heads together on this," he said. "We have to figure out a way she can straighten out that little sawed-off bully once and for all." Then he turned to me, while rising to carve seconds for everyone. He said handsomely, "OK, honey-bunny-rabbit, now hear this! Now hear this!"he was in the navy reserve"We ... are ... all working on it!"
He was captain enough for my little ship. I knew I didn't have enough armament for the wars life might take me to, but I had my parents behind me. I would glow then, while he carved and passed seconds for us allbut always, always, at school during the week, and at Sunday school, I pretended to the other kids that, boy, if I didn't get my Sunday-school memory lines right my dad would go straight up.
Renee's most remarkable quality had nothing to do with either softball or bad health. It was her addiction to teacher-surprise parties. She would slink around to us sixth-grade leaders; me, Alice, other girls who had been elected monitors, any boys who had been elected police boys, anyone whose parents weren't on WPA. She would whisper, "The class is getting up a teacher-surprise party." In our dim intuitions we knew that only she, Renee, was getting it up. We knew we were the first few she had told, but when she whispered to us and regarded each of us from the center of those cloud-encircled eyes, we felt that the party was a fate brought on by powerful, absent forces, and Renee was simply the harbinger. We could no more stop that teacher-surprise party from happening than we could stop My Weekly Reader from showing up at three every Wednesday afternoon.
Renee got permission from the principal. He advised her to choose Wednesdays for all surprise parties, for the very reason that Wednesday was My Weekly Reader day and therefore the party would not interrupt any real curriculum. Renee would briskly put together a girls' food-buying committee and a boys' committee to soak everyone for a nickel each. Even the WPA kids had to ante in, but Renee made sure to collect from the WPA kids herself. Years later one of those kids told me that she used to stare them right in the face and tell them to quit whining: they had to pay up like anyone else but they could have three months' credit. As far as this kid knew she never dunned anyone for any of those many nickel loans.
At last, on the given Wednesday, Renee and two accomplices, usually Alice and I, crept down to the principal's office at three o'clock to pick up the apricot-glazed white rolls and the cupcakes that we had helped her stash there at first bell. Alice and I had all we could think about just to keep the big trays level on our arms so as not to lose the twenty-six cupcakes with stiff sugar flowers punched into their frosting. But Renee was already an organizer. She had thought to order an extra cupcake for the principal. Nor was her tone supplicating the way we girls talked to him whenever sent down to his office. Under the shopgirl permanent, Renee's grown soul sang out small talkthanks and good-byesto him.
When we got upstairs, Renee would fling open the classroom door and shriek, "Teacher surprise! Teacher surprise!"
First, our classmates would all look up at us. Next, everyone eyed the teacher's face. If she showed any signs of real surprise or of real ecstasy, I was willing to love her, but only for a few minutes. The fact was that teacher was dull. I would grasp her blackboard demos about fractions and decimals and percents only to be left for quarter hours on end to daydream about life lived with polar bears, and about mass killings that just started up spontaneously in cities larger than Duluth but would sooner or later come to Duluth too.
Renee wished on us more teacher-surprise parties than we wanted. If we demurred, she overrode us with her glassy philosophy. "The teacher works so hard for us," she said. "She gives us so much." I couldn't see that she gave us anything. She didn't even have to ante in five cents for the food.
I felt daunted by Renee's altruistic love of this teacherand her love of the one last year, too. She had even liked the fourth-grade teacher way back. I could not imagine myself loving a teacher, even for the reward of a cupcake with its frosting of mortar. But Renee already traveled far into the outer space of adults. She was galaxies outward from the rest of us. She cajoled us to support her celebrations; anyone on her surprise-party team lived briefly in the glow of her leadership. I was happy to do, anything Renee got us doing, but I also felt, heavily, how superior to mine her character was. I half-wanted to resist. At base, I was a contented slob. I had my slob-kid's lifereading books and daydreamingI couldn't fathom altruism.
Once, only once, Alice and I saw Renee's home. One Thursday morning, Renee had come to school with the darkest of dark, raccoonlike rings around her eyes. She seemed distant, vacant. I felt moved. For once her permanent did not look tacky. Her pallor was beautiful. Renee lifted her desktop, and her free hand hovered like an angel's over the pencils and workbooks. We other kids rummaged when we couldn't decide what we wanted. Not Reneenot that day, at least. At last her fingers floated quiet as snow down onto her copy of My Weekly Reader. We were supposed to write something about the world news lesson we had had the day before.
Just at the end of morning recess, Renee keeled over onto the playground gravel.
Since it happened in 1942 no one looked for a cause. Someone said, "I guess she fainted." When Renee came to, the teacher, in a no-nonsense way, assigned Alice and me to walk her home.
Our school stood in one of the last ordinary neighborhood blocks at the northwest corner of Duluth. We all believed that the woods there were not just woods, but solemn forest that led to Hudson's Bay. I daydreamed that in some millenium that forest would move back over our city.
Renee kept saying, "You kids don't need to walk me home. I'm just fine."
I replied in a principled tone, "We are walking you home because we promised to." My real reason for being so keen was that her house lay a good two blocks' length outside the city. By the time it got to her house, that street stopped being called a street and became a road. I wanted to get outside the usual civilization.
"Well, anyhow you wouldn't both have to come," Renee now said to Alice.
"I'd like to see that beautiful Bible your folks have," Alice said.
Renee's house had a wringer washer on the porch, rusted solid from mangle release to hose clip. We reached the porch steps.
"I'm OK now," Renee said. She said, "You guys wouldn't have to come in."
Alice said, "We're supposed to see you safe into your house."
Not a sound came from inside the screened door.
We all went in.
Renee's father, not her mother, sat across the living room from us. He looked like any man out of work, in his sleeveless undershirt and his bib overalls. He did not get up from the huge chair. The May issue of Detective Comics magazine lay in a double curve over his knees. Even from across the room I recognized the tiny bright squares of violence. Clearly, Robin swung on a rope and stuck one yellow-gauntleted fist into some bad person's face. It was very interesting to me that both Batman and Robin got around by swooping down from ropes that hung from a hook far above the full moon itself. There was never a half-moon, either. It was always the real thing.
Few men wore deodorants in the early 1940s, probably no poor men. All the way across from where he sat we caught the swift tang of this man's sweat.
"How come yer home?" he said.
Renee brought out a gauzy tone I had never heard. "It's nothing, Dad."
"Must be something yer home," he said. "If yer in trouble" He half-rose from his chair.
Then he paused. His face swung toward Alice and me. "You girls can just leave now," he said.
I got up my nerve. "She fainted during recess," I said. For a second I felt I had put myself between Renee and some obscure danger. My usual style was a combination of my own cowardice and a lot of admiration of people who were brave, so I now felt a little high.
But her father only glared. Then he turned back to Renee and repeated, "Oh, so she fainted in recess? She fainted in recess?"
Then he grinned at me, and this time repeated in falsetto, "Oh, so she fainted in recess, huh?"
"It's nothing, Dad," Renee sang, like a bodiless star.
"You girls could leave now," her father repeated, still in his falsetto.
We nearly flew.
Everyone gathered around us in the lunchroom. Even Vern, who generally avoided any table with girls at it.
Lunch was three cents unless your dad was WPA or out of work and you had a note from the principal. Both the richest kids and the poorest kids knew enough never to ask what anyone's house looked like, but the medium-rich and medium-poor kids were openly curious.
"You seen in Renee's house then?" they asked. They leaned toward us over their trays.
"It is beautiful!" I said. I slowly shook my head, a gesture of bemusement and sharing. "They have that Bible all right, the one with the soft white-leather cover. And a real fireplace, with the smell of birch logs burning in it, too."
Now Alice raised her face ponderously, infinitely slowly, to mine. For a split second her face looked blank yet illumined, like a marquee that they haven't put the movie-title letters onto yet. Then she said, "A real fireplace."
Alice was not a quick type of kid. She paused. Then she said, "And Renee's mother is so pretty ... so pretty."
I took it up. "They have a gigantic radio. They get stations from all over the world. Her dad happened to be home from his office, too. He was listening to Germany. It is like magic how clear it came in. As if we were right there."
"Germany!" Vern exclaimed. "How could he be listening to Germany? We're at war with Germany! Even if some radio could reach that far, what Americans would listen to German propagandaall that mean stuff they believe inmight equals right."
Just the day before we had had an article in My Weekly Reader about the Hitler Youth being taught that might equals right. Of course those German kids would grow up to be hopeless bullies. Everyone knew all about that.
But all that spring Vern had jeered at me because I couldn't ever bat myself to first base. So now I held out against him.
"Her dad was listening to Germany all right," I remarked. "Beethoven, if you want to know. They may not have the Bible over there but they got Beethoven and Renee's dad was listening to it."
Kids lost interest. Even Vern didn't stay to jeer any further. Boys and girls rose and drifted off as soon as they finished their trays.
I said to Alice, "I liked her mother's dress. I liked how there were flowers on the bodice. And those silver high heels. Not the unrationed kind with straps eitherreal high heels. Solid silver leather."
Alice and I steadily drank our soup. On that day we tipped the spoon edge into our mouths instead of shoveling in the whole spoon. In between spoonfuls we each regarded the other. We each nodded at everything the other said. We were like two lighthouses on the same promontory, whose beams gladly shone straight at each other.
I said, "I liked the way Renee's mother ran that hot bath for her. Those piles of thick towels."
"Those towels were scented," Alice said with some snap. "And she wrapped Renee up in an afghan and brought her a tray."
"With apricot-glazed rolls. And cupcakes," I said.
Alice said, "Those kind the frosting doesn't get hard."
Table of Contents
|Introduction BY TOBIAS WOLFF|
|The Last of the Gold Star Mothers||49|
|The Dignity of Life||79|
|from THE TOMCAT'S WIFE|
|The Tomcat's Wife||113|
|After the Baptism||153|
|The Tender Organizations||189|
|A Committee of the Whole||217|
|My Lord Bag of Rice||237|
|Renee: A War Story||271|