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Authors: Alice Munro

Selected Stories (4 page)

BOOK: Selected Stories
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In one house no door opens, though the car is in the yard. My father knocks and whistles, calls, “Hullo there! Walker Brothers man!” but there is not a stir of reply anywhere. This house has no porch, just a bare, slanting slab of cement on which my father stands. He turns around, searching the barnyard, the barn whose mow must be empty because you can see the sky through it, and finally he bends to pick up his suitcases. Just then a window is opened upstairs, a white pot appears on the sill, is tilted over and its contents splash down the outside wall. The window is not directly above my father’s head, so only a stray splash would catch him. He picks up his suitcases with no particular hurry and walks, no longer whistling, to the car. “Do you know what that was?” I say to my brother. “Pee.” He laughs and laughs.

My father rolls and lights a cigarette before he starts the car. The window has been slammed down, the blind drawn, we never did see a hand or face. “Pee, pee,” sings my brother ecstatically. “Somebody
dumped down pee!” “Just don’t tell your mother that,” my father says. “She isn’t liable to see the joke.” “Is it in your song?” my brother wants to know. My father says no but he will see what he can do to work it in.

I notice in a little while that we are not turning in any more lanes, though it does not seem to me that we are headed home. “Is this the way to Sunshine?” I ask my father, and he answers, “No, ma’am, it’s not.” “Are we still in your territory?” He shakes his head. “We’re going
fast
,” my brother says approvingly, and in fact we are bouncing along through dry puddle-holes so that all the bottles in the suitcases clink together and gurgle promisingly.

Another lane, a house, also unpainted, dried to silver in the sun.

“I thought we were out of your territory.”

“We are.”

“Then what are we going in here for?”

“You’ll see.”

In front of the house a short, sturdy woman is picking up washing, which had been spread on the grass to bleach and dry. When the car stops she stares at it hard for a moment, bends to pick up a couple more towels to add to the bundle under her arm, comes across to us and says in a flat voice, neither welcoming nor unfriendly, “Have you lost your way?”

My father takes his time getting out of the car. “I don’t think so,” he says. “I’m the Walker Brothers man.”

“George Golley is our Walker Brothers man,” the woman says, “and he was out here no more than a week ago. Oh, my Lord God,” she says harshly, “it’s you.”

“It was, the last time I looked in the mirror,” my father says.

The woman gathers all the towels in front of her and holds on to them tightly, pushing them against her stomach as if it hurt. “Of all the people I never thought to see. And telling me you were the Walker Brothers man.”

“I’m sorry if you were looking forward to George Golley,” my father says humbly.

“And look at me, I was prepared to clean the henhouse. You’ll think that’s just an excuse but it’s true. I don’t go round looking like this every day.” She is wearing a farmer’s straw hat, through which
pricks of sunlight penetrate and float on her face, a loose, dirty print smock, and canvas shoes. “Who are those in the car, Ben? They’re not yours?”

“Well, I hope and believe they are,” my father says, and tells our names and ages. “Come on, you can get out. This is Nora, Miss Cronin. Nora, you better tell me, is it still Miss, or have you got a husband hiding in the woodshed?”

“If I had a husband that’s not where I’d keep him, Ben,” she says, and they both laugh, her laugh abrupt and somewhat angry. “You’ll think I got no manners, as well as being dressed like a tramp,” she says. “Come on in out of the sun. It’s cool in the house.”

We go across the yard (“Excuse me taking you in this way but I don’t think the front door has been opened since Papa’s funeral, I’m afraid the hinges might drop off”), up the porch steps, into the kitchen, which really is cool, high-ceilinged, the blinds of course down, a simple, clean, threadbare room with waxed worn linoleum, potted geraniums, drinking-pail and dipper, a round table with scrubbed oilcloth. In spite of the cleanness, the wiped and swept surfaces, there is a faint sour smell—maybe of the dishrag or the tin dipper or the oilcloth, or the old lady, because there is one, sitting in an easy chair under the clock shelf. She turns her head slightly in our direction and says, “Nora? Is that company?”

“Blind,” says Nora in a quick explaining voice to my father. Then, “You won’t guess who it is, Momma. Hear his voice.”

My father goes to the front of her chair and bends and says hopefully, “Afternoon, Mrs. Cronin.”

“Ben Jordan,” says the old lady with no surprise. “You haven’t been to see us in the longest time. Have you been out of the country?”

My father and Nora look at each other.

“He’s married, Momma,” says Nora cheerfully and aggressively. “Married and got two children and here they are.” She pulls us forward, makes each of us touch the old lady’s dry, cool hand while she says our names in turn. Blind! This is the first blind person I have ever seen close up. Her eyes are closed, the eyelids sunk away down, showing no shape of the eyeball, just hollows. From one hollow comes a drop of silver liquid, a medicine, or a miraculous tear.

“Let me get into a decent dress,” Nora says. “Talk to Momma. It’s a treat for her. We hardly ever see company, do we, Momma?”

“Not many makes it out this road,” says the old lady placidly. “And the ones that used to be around here, our old neighbors, some of them have pulled out.”

“True everywhere,” my father says.

“Where’s your wife then?”

“Home. She’s not too fond of the hot weather, makes her feel poorly.”

“Well.” This is a habit of country people, old people, to say “well,” meaning, “Is that so?” with a little extra politeness and concern.

Nora’s dress, when she appears again—stepping heavily on Cuban heels down the stairs in the hall—is flowered more lavishly than anything my mother owns, green and yellow on brown, some sort of floating sheer crêpe, leaving her arms bare. Her arms are heavy, and every bit of her skin you can see is covered with little dark freckles like measles. Her hair is short, black, coarse and curly, her teeth very white and strong. “It’s the first time I knew there was such a thing as green poppies,” my father says, looking at her dress.

“You would be surprised all the things you never knew,” says Nora, sending a smell of cologne far and wide when she moves and displaying a change of voice to go with the dress, something more sociable and youthful. “They’re not poppies anyway, they’re just flowers. You go and pump me some good cold water and I’ll make these children a drink.” She gets down from the cupboard a bottle of Walker Brothers Orange syrup.

“You telling me you were the Walker Brothers man!”

“It’s the truth, Nora. You go and look at my sample cases in the car if you don’t believe me. I got the territory directly south of here.”

“Walker Brothers? Is that a fact? You selling for Walker Brothers?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“We always heard you were raising foxes over Dungannon way.”

“That’s what I was doing, but I kind of run out of luck in that business.”

“So where’re you living? How long’ve you been out selling?”

“We moved into Tuppertown. I been at it, oh, two, three months.
It keeps the wolf from the door. Keeps him as far away as the back fence.”

Nora laughs. “Well, I guess you count yourself lucky to have the work. Isabel’s husband in Brantford, he was out of work the longest time. I thought if he didn’t find something soon I was going to have them all land in here to feed, and I tell you I was hardly looking forward to it. It’s all I can manage with me and Momma.”

“Isabel married,” my father says. “Muriel married too?”

“No, she’s teaching school out West. She hasn’t been home for five years. I guess she finds something better to do with her holidays. I would if I was her.” She gets some snapshots out of the table drawer and starts showing him. “That’s Isabel’s oldest boy, starting school. That’s the baby sitting in her carriage. Isabel and her husband. Muriel. That’s her roommate with her. That’s a fellow she used to go around with, and his car. He was working in a bank out there. That’s her school, it has eight rooms. She teaches Grade Five.” My father shakes his head. “I can’t think of her any way but when she was going to school, so shy I used to pick her up on the road—I’d be on my way to see you—and she would not say one word, not even to agree it was a nice day.”

“She’s got over that.”

“Who are you talking about?” says the old lady.

“Muriel. I said she’s got over being shy.”

“She was here last summer.”

“No, Momma, that was Isabel. Isabel and her family were here last summer. Muriel’s out West.”

“I meant Isabel.”

Shortly after this the old lady falls asleep, her head on the side, her mouth open. “Excuse her manners,” Nora says. “It’s old age.” She fixes an afghan over her mother and says we can all go into the front room where our talking won’t disturb her.

“You two,” my father says. “Do you want to go outside and amuse yourselves?”

Amuse ourselves how? Anyway, I want to stay. The front room is more interesting than the kitchen, though barer. There is a gramophone and a pump organ and a picture on the wall of Mary, Jesus’ mother—I know that much—in shades of bright blue and pink with
a spiked band of light around her head. I know that such pictures are found only in the homes of Roman Catholics and so Nora must be one. We have never known any Roman Catholics at all well, never well enough to visit in their houses. I think of what my grandmother and my Aunt Tena, over in Dungannon, used to always say to indicate that somebody was a Catholic.
So-and-so digs with the wrong foot
, they would say.
She digs with the wrong foot
. That was what they would say about Nora.

Nora takes a bottle, half full, out of the top of the organ and pours some of what is in it into the two glasses that she and my father have emptied of the orange drink.

“Keep it in case of sickness?” my father says.

“Not on your life,” says Nora. “I’m never sick. I just keep it because I keep it. One bottle does me a fair time, though, because I don’t care for drinking alone. Here’s luck!” She and my father drink and I know what it is. Whisky. One of the things my mother has told me in our talks together is that my father never drinks whisky. But I see he does. He drinks whisky and he talks of people whose names I have never heard before. But after a while he turns to a familiar incident. He tells about the chamberpot that was emptied out the window. “Picture me there,” he says, “hollering my heartiest.
Oh, lady, it’s your Walker Brothers man, anybody home?
” He does himself hollering, grinning absurdly, waiting, looking up in pleased expectation, and then—oh, ducking, covering his head with his arms, looking as if he begged for mercy (when he never did anything like that, I was watching), and Nora laughs, almost as hard as my brother did at the time.

“That isn’t true! That’s not a word true!”

“Oh, indeed it is, ma’am. We have our heroes in the ranks of Walker Brothers. I’m glad you think it’s funny,” he says sombrely.

I ask him shyly, “Sing the song.”

“What song? Have you turned into a singer on top of everything else?”

Embarrassed, my father says, “Oh, just this song I made up while I was driving around, it gives me something to do, making up rhymes.”

But after some urging he does sing it, looking at Nora with a droll, apologetic expression, and she laughs so much that in places he has to stop and wait for her to get over laughing so he can go on, because
she makes him laugh too. Then he does various parts of his salesman’s spiel. Nora when she laughs squeezes her large bosom under her folded arms. “You’re crazy,” she says. “That’s all you are.” She sees my brother peering into the gramophone and she jumps up and goes over to him. “Here’s us sitting enjoying ourselves and not giving you a thought, isn’t it terrible?” she says. “You want me to put a record on, don’t you? You want to hear a nice record? Can you dance? I bet your sister can, can’t she?”

I say no. “A big girl like you and so good-looking and can’t dance!” says Nora. “It’s high time you learned. I bet you’d make a lovely dancer. Here, I’m going to put on a piece I used to dance to and even your daddy did, in his dancing days. You didn’t know your daddy was a dancer, did you? Well, he is a talented man, your daddy!”

She puts down the lid and takes hold of me unexpectedly around the waist, picks up my other hand, and starts making me go backwards. “This is the way, now, this is how they dance. Follow me. This foot, see. One and one-two. One and one-two. That’s fine, that’s lovely, don’t look at your feet! Follow me, that’s right, see how easy? You’re going to be a lovely dancer! One and one-two. One and one-two. Ben, see your daughter dancing!”
Whispering while you cuddle near me, Whispering so no one can hear me.…

Round and round the linoleum, me proud, intent, Nora laughing and moving with great buoyancy, wrapping me in her strange gaiety, her smell of whisky, cologne, and sweat. Under the arms her dress is damp, and little drops form along her upper lip, hang in the soft black hairs at the corners of her mouth. She whirls me around in front of my father—causing me to stumble, for I am by no means so swift a pupil as she pretends—and lets me go, breathless.

“Dance with me, Ben.”

“I’m the world’s worst dancer, Nora, and you know it.”

“I certainly never thought so.”

“You would now.”

She stands in front of him, arms hanging loose and hopeful, her breasts, which a moment ago embarrassed me with their warmth and bulk, rising and falling under her loose flowered dress, her face shining with the exercise, and delight.

“Ben.”

My father drops his head and says quietly, “Not me, Nora.”

So she can only go and take the record off. “I can drink alone but I can’t dance alone,” she says. “Unless I am a whole lot crazier than I think I am.”

“Nora,” says my father, smiling. “You’re not crazy.”

“Stay for supper.”

“Oh, no. We couldn’t put you to the trouble.”

BOOK: Selected Stories
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