Authors: David Adams Richards
“Someday you will box,” he said, pointing his finger at me in mischief. “You don’t want to. Well, neither did I. I didn’t want to fight — no, at first I ran. But like me you won’t have any choice. You have no choice, do you? Already you have to protect this girl here — this Autumn — and as she gets older the more you will have to — I know it won’t be easy for you — life is never easy for McVicers or Hendersons. It wasn’t meant to be easy — but grab life by the throat like a scrapping dog — and when it throws you on your back never hesitate to fight dirty, because it won’t fight clean with you.”
With his eyes burrowing into me, I nodded neither one way nor the other and glanced at my mom. Here, then, was a man much different from Dad. I think I was instantly in love with him.
My mother went to work in Leo’s drab masculine three-storey brick house out on the bay, with its yard filled with alders and gardens and secret alcoves.
Leo’s son-in-law, Rudy Bellanger, had the responsibility of driving my mother to and from her job. It has taken me almost ten years to discover, down to the very conversations, what happened between them at this time.
After a cool June, the summer days were humid, and each morning she would wait for Rudy at the top of our lane by our small twisted mailbox that would go months without its flag up. Sometimes I walked up the lane with her for company and sat beside this mailbox.
“It’s not any of my business,” Rudy said to my mom one day, after I left her. “I don’t know anything about Sydney, but he’s not much of a provider for you and the children, living in that spruce bog of yours — must be something — in the summer the mosquitoes and blackflies — you can’t sit outside. Really — with your looks, he’s not the man for you — is he? Think of that little boy there — what’s his name — Lyle — just looks like a scarecrow — you don’t want that, do you?”
He smiled and touched her cheek quickly and gently. My mother did not know what to say. She did not know what everyone else knew about Rudy.
The next day Rudy bought her a cassette so she could listen to music as she worked. She told him she had never been to a rock concert.
“I still go to them all,” he said, walking in his high-heel boots about her ironing board as she ironed McVicer’s shirts. “I can take you to one,” he said. He put his hand lightly on her back and took it away.
That day he seemed to be upset with his wife, Gladys, over something. Then the next day he showed Mom a wad of twenties, held by a tie clip. “See that clip,” he said. “Yeah — you see it, don’t you —
My mother was embarrassed by this, and said nothing about it to father or me.
Rudy was a friend of Mathew Pit, and Mat would tease him about her. Rudy’s fifteen-room brick house stood out on a promontory over the bay and like everything else in his life it was owned by Leo McVicer. He resented this, and had plans to use his father-in-law’s influence to make his own way in the world of Liberal party politics. Mathew and Cynthia monitored these plans of his with great sympathy and understanding. He was forever driving Gladys to and fro, but she gave him no affection whatsoever.
One morning in August of 1982, a month or so after Mom started work, Rudy asked her to go to lunch with him at Polly’s Restaurant. When Mom said she didn’t have the money, he simply laughed, took her by the arm, and walked her to the car.
Polly’s was an unruly place where people drank away the afternoons. My father himself would not go in there, given the temptation he felt when it came to drink. Rudy, however, was comfortable here, and spoke in a self-pitying way about his wife.
“I’m a full-blooded Canadian man, left alone,” he said with great piety. “She can’t even get out of a chair without help now — it’s just terrible.”
“I could go and sit with her if she doesn’t have many friends,” Mother said.
Rudy tipped a glass of rye and water, bit on an ice cube, and looked at her.
“Why don’t you drink your gin?” he said.
“I — don’t drink very much,” she answered.
“Why, just because yer husband can’t handle it?” Then, seeing he had alarmed her, he smiled. “Well — what I really want you to do is to come with me to the Bob Seger concert in Montreal — if you want to see a concert, I hate to travel there alone —we could get a room — you know, hotel room — you could tell your husband you have to visit some people for the weekend — I’d tell Gladys — oh, something —”
“Bob Seger. Who is he?”
“Ha!” Rudy exclaimed as he chewed his ice and looked quickly around. “I’ll have to teach you.”
She stumbled over her order, trying to decide what she might afford, staring now and again at the glasses of gin he put in front of her. He then told her he had gotten away with some big deals in his life. But Mom didn’t understand about big deals.
Nor did she want to go to lunch at Polly’s Restaurant, where men cursed, and where my father was the butt of jokes.
After work she would have trouble eating supper. And I remember her making us dinner and shaking, staring at her plate and pushing it aside.
Then the days became shorter, and fall changed the colour of the leaves, and the leaves died, and fell, and soon I could see the frozen brook through the bare branches and notice the ice along the riverbank as snow started to fall. My father had started work on the bridge, and worked ten-hour shifts. All of this made Autumn and me very happy — because for the first time we felt ordinary. Once I thought I saw Penny Porier smile at me — I was almost sure of it.
Elly was determined that we would go on vacation the next summer and spoke to us about it often. By November she had some money saved. We were going to go to Saint John; to the art gallery and museum. She revealed her plan to Mr. Bellanger at lunch one day.
“Oh yes,” Mom said, “next summer — we will take the bus to Saint John — I haven’t been there before —”
“I suppose big spenders like you have a luxury suite,” Rudy said.
She tried to make lighthearted conversation as they drove back to McVicer’s house, but he said nothing. She felt guilty for bragging.
After she got home that night she went over the brochures
she had collected, calculating what we might or might not be able to afford. I know now she wanted to give up her position. She did not want to let Mr. McVicer down, yet she believed Mr. Bellanger thought she was being ungrateful.
She did not see him for a while. Then one day a week or so later he went to the McVicer house. The stones and pebbles on the long cold drive were muted and there was a vague smell of burning branches. In the fields behind his old barn were traces of the snow falling hard from the raw sky. Rudy saw my mother bringing in some bedsheets at the clothesline.
“Look at this,” he said, holding up two plane tickets. “See?”
My mother looked at them.
“I’m — sorry — I don’t know what they are.”
“The tickets for me and you to Montreal — like I told you — I go to them all — you’ll get to see a real city.” He tapped the tickets and looked up at her with a strange smile, a smile that said he knew he was using deceit and could not help it.
“You come with me — see how the other half lives, eh?”
She shook her head, and he lingered in silence with the smell of autumn snow in the air. Finally he went away, slapping the tickets at the wind.
The next day there was a dusting of snow on the lane. Rudy came to the house in early afternoon and entered the side door near the back stairs.
He took off his black pointed cowboy boots, straightened his socks, and went inside. With his boots off he was one half inch shorter than my mother, but weighed eighty pounds more. He wore red pants with a wide belt, and a blue shirt with a pink tie.
My mother was vacuuming the den and was startled by him. She told him that if he needed to talk to Mr. McVicer he would
have to wait, for Leo had gone on his annual hunting trip.
Mother smiled. “Maybe you could come back Saturday.”
“Maybe,” Rudy said. “You don’t have a drink for an old friend, do you?”
“Oh no — I’m sorry.”
Mom stopped vacuuming as he came toward her, and tried to think of something lighthearted and kind to say. He walked straight to her — and touched her cheek.
When he touched her cheek in the room filled with the drab furniture of the generations gone by and the bits of squalid light that lay against the rear window, she backed away, tripped on the vacuum. Her skirt came up to her waist, and her panties were visible.
He pulled her to her feet, and he felt under her panties and fumbled his hand against her crotch hair, trying to penetrate with his finger. His eyes were closed, but when he opened them he saw that hers were terrified.
“I have to go home —” she cried, “I do — I want to go home — I have to, please, Mr. Bellanger — please sir — you do not understand — I love Sydney, please sir — I have hurt myself.”
“How can you love Sydney?” he said. “I mean — you wanted this —”
He realized she was mortified, but he couldn’t stop, because her legs were moving against him. And quite unexpectedly, he shuddered against her right leg.
The air had the faint smell of cleaning detergent. She looked so small, terrified, and countrylike. Not the kind of person he had imagined going to Montreal with, as he had when he walked to the house.
She went to a chair and sat down, with her eyes cast toward the rug, some blood behind her ear. The worst object of indictment against him was her brown paper lunch bag that she had not yet opened, sitting on the dining-room table.
“You better not tell,” he said.
He pulled his boots on the wrong feet and fled the house. He staggered down the drive where he had walked in sweet anticipation a few minutes before.
He leaned against a spruce tree and tried to think. He knew if she told he would be fired, Gladys would leave him, and he would be left with nothing.
Now he smelled her sex on his fingers and felt the blood drain from his face.
He ran back to the store like a child.
He went into the store and closed the green door blind, locked the door, and in the back, near a barrel of McIntosh apples, began to shake.
He hadn’t intended this at all. But hadn’t she led him on? Yes — for why would she go to Polly’s with him? And how many people he knew saw her there? And how many drinks did he buy her? And how many men had she led on at Polly’s as well? They had all looked at her — she wanted them too. He could have witnesses lined up — he would need help! And wasn’t her husband a worthless example of a human being, robbing and setting fires (oh, he remembered that)! The two of them were, really. And their children, who he had seen at church; one a saucy-faced boy, the other a scrawny pink-eyed albino! Yes — they were depraved, ignorant people who did such ignorant things, everyone knew!
No — his story would have to be that she tried something and he had told her he was married that she then laughed in his face — and then demanded money! Yes — demanded money!
The phone rang in Rudy Bellanger’s house the next morning at eight-fifteen. His wife answered.
“It’s Daddy,” she said.
When he came to the phone he was trying to think of how he could extricate himself from this terrible feeling, as much as from the situation itself.
“How did you make out hunting — you get a deer?” Rudy asked.
“Rudy, what happened here?” Leo said, calm. “Were you in the house —?”
“I — don’t know —”
There was a long pause.
“Well, damnit, were you in the house or not?”
“No — of course not.”
“Was anyone hanging around the house?”
“Just Elly — maybe Sydney — I don’t know.”
“Well there you go — we were robbed of five hundred dollars — right from the drawer upstairs. So that’s why.”
“What’s why?” Rudy asked.
“That’s why Elly phoned in sick, Rudy, and said she wanted to quit. Get down here — I want to decide how I’m going to handle this. I mean, she must have been put up to it — by
, damnit — I’ve treated them decently — more than that —
He banged down the receiver in Rudy’s ear, but Rudy’s hand hung on to his phone, because he had never heard Leo say that word.
My mother heard about the robbery just after noon hour and went to see my father on the bridge. It was a black, cold day.
The snow had balked in the morning, but now it seemed certain to snow in the afternoon. Clouds hung over the woods, and the road already glittered with hoarfrost. All was silent, as it is in the country in late fall.
She looked ashamed, made attempts to look into Dad’s eyes but could not.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Mr. McVicer’s house has been robbed of money. Mr. McVicer phoned.”
“You weren’t at work?”
“No — I didn’t go to work today.”
Mother looked at him quickly and said nothing. Then she looked toward the flat ice just skimming the river. “I felt bad,” she said.
“What’s wrong?” Sydney bit his huge leather mitten off and then felt her cheek. His glasses were fogged, and at the best of times he could hardly see things close up. She grabbed his hand and kissed it and smiled.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Why — what has happened?”
“I must go to Mr. McVicer’s house — will you come with me? — I don’t want to go there alone.”
“Certainly. We’ll go now.” And he took off his safety helmet and told an already irascible Mr. Porier where he was going.
They started walking to the southeast, turning down an old chip-sealed road toward the shore as tiny dartlike snowflakes fell out of the winter sky and numbed their faces. A huge buck, whose doe had been shot by Mathew Pit two days before, stood far up the dirt side road, watching them. Autumn followed them at a distance, but they told her to go home and wait. She watched them walk together toward our destiny.
The bay was not yet frozen, yet most of the properties, being
summer cottages, were boarded for the winter, and the bushes entwined in burlap sacks. Wind whined through the trees along the shore road and up in the old man’s yard, while the long narrow drive glistened with black ice. As Elly got closer she took ever smaller steps.