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Authors: Alice Munro

Selected Stories (8 page)

BOOK: Selected Stories
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Momma get up from her nap and go and put the kettle on so she could have a cup of tea and read her paper. Then some little time later she gave a yell and I thought somebody had died so I jumped off the bed and ran into the hall, but she was there underneath saying, “Go on back to your nap, I’m sorry I scared you. I made a mistake.” I did go back and I heard her using the phone, probably calling one of her old cronies about some news in the paper, and then I guess I fell asleep.

What woke me was a car stopping, somebody getting out and coming up the front walk. I thought, Is it Clare back early? And then, confused and half-asleep, I thought, I already tore up the letter, that’s good. But it wasn’t his step. Momma opened the door before the bell got a chance to ring and I heard Alma Stonehouse, who teaches at the Jubilee Public School and is my best friend. I went out in the hall and leaned over and called down, “Hey, Alma, are you eating here
?” She boards at Bailey’s where the food has its ups and downs and when she smells their shepherd’s pie she sometimes heads over to our place without an invitation.

Alma started upstairs without taking her coat off, her thin dark face just blazing with excitement, so I knew something had happened. I thought it must have to do with her husband, because they are separated and he writes her terrible letters. She said, “Helen, hi, how are you feeling? Did you just wake up?”

“I heard your car,” I said. “I thought for a minute maybe it was Clare but I’m not expecting him for another couple of days.”

“Helen. Can you sit down? Come in your room where you can sit down. Are you prepared to get a shock? I wish I wasn’t the one had to tell you. Hold yourself steady.”

I saw Momma right behind her and I said, “Momma, is this some joke?”

Alma said, “Clare MacQuarrie has gotten married.”

“What are you two up to?” I said. “Clare MacQuarrie is in Florida and I just today got a postcard from him as Momma well knows.”

“He got married in Florida. Helen, be calm.”

“How could he get married in Florida, he’s on his holidays?”

“They’re on their way to Jubilee right now and they’re going to live here.”

“Alma, wherever you heard that it’s a lot of garbage. I just had a postcard from him. Momma—”

Then I saw that Momma was looking at me like I was eight years old and had the measles and a temperature of a hundred and five degrees. She was holding the paper and she spread it out for me to read. “It’s in there,” she said, probably not realizing she was whispering. “It’s written up in the

“I don’t believe it any more than fly,” I said, and I started to read and read all the way through as if the names were ones I’d never heard of before, and some of them were. A quiet ceremony in Coral Gables, Florida, uniting in marriage Clare Alexander MacQuarrie, of Jubilee, son of Mrs. James MacQuarrie of this town and the late Mr. James MacQuarrie, prominent local businessman and longtime Member of Parliament, and Mrs. Margaret Thora Leeson, daughter of the late Mr. and Mrs. Clive Tibbutt of Lincoln, Nebraska. Mr. and Mrs. Harold Johnson, sister and brother-in-law of the bridegroom, were the only attendants. The bride wore a sage green dressmaker suit with dark brown accessories and a corsage of bronze orchids. Mrs. Johnson wore a beige suit with black accessories and green orchids. The couple were at present travelling by automobile to their future home in Jubilee.

“Do you still think it’s garbage?” Alma said severely.

I said I didn’t know.

“Are you feeling all right?”

All right.

Momma said we would all feel better if we went downstairs and had a cup of tea and something to eat, instead of staying cooped up in this little bedroom. It was about suppertime, anyway. So we all trooped down, me still in my dressing gown, and Momma and Alma together prepared the sort of meal you might eat to keep your strength up when there is sickness in the house and you can’t really bother too much about food. Cold meat sandwiches and little dishes of different pickles and sliced cheese and date squares. “Smoke a cigarette if you want to,” Momma said to me—the first time she ever said
in her life. So I did, and Alma did, and Alma said, “I brought
some tranquillizers along in my purse, they’re not very strong and you’re welcome to one or two.” I said no thanks, not yet anyway. I said I couldn’t seem to take it in yet.

“He goes to Florida every year, right?”

I said yes.

“Well what I think is this, that he’s met this woman before—widow or divorcee or whatever she is—and they have been corresponding and planning this all along.”

Momma said it was awfully hard to think that of Clare.

“I’m only saying how it looks to me. And she’s his sister’s friend, I’ll bet. The sister engineered it. They were the attendants, the sister and her husband. She wasn’t any friend of yours, Helen, I remember you telling me.”

“I didn’t hardly know her.”

“Helen Louise, you told me you and him were just waiting for the old lady to pass on,” Momma said. “Isn’t that what he said to you? Clare?”

“Using her for an excuse,” Alma said briskly.

“Oh, he wouldn’t,” Momma said. “Oh, it’s so hard to understand it—

“Men are always out for what they can get,” Alma said. There was a pause, both of them looking at me. I couldn’t tell them anything. I couldn’t tell them what I was thinking, which was about the last Saturday night up at his place, before he went away, him naked as a baby pulling my hair across his face and through his teeth and pretending he was going to bite it off. I didn’t relish anybody’s saliva in my hair but I let him, just warning him that if he did bite it off he would have to pay for me going to the hairdresser’s to get it evened. He didn’t act that night like anybody that is going off to be

Momma and Alma went on talking and speculating and I got sleepier and sleepier. I heard Alma say, “Worse things could happen. I had four years of living hell.” And Momma say, “He was always the soul of kindness and he doted on that girl.” I wondered how I could possibly be so sleepy, this early in the evening and after having a nap in the afternoon. Alma said, “It’s very good you’re sleepy, it’s Nature’s way. Nature’s way, just like an anesthetic.” They both
me upstairs and into bed and I never heard them go down.

wake up early, either. I got up when I usually did and got my own breakfast. I could hear Momma stirring but I yelled to her to stay put, like any other morning. She called down, “Are you sure you want to go to work? I could phone Mr. Hawes you’re sick.” I said, “Why should I give any of them the satisfaction?” I did my makeup at the hall mirror without a light and went out and walked the two and a half blocks to King’s, not noticing what kind of a morning it was, beyond the fact that it hadn’t turned into spring overnight. Inside the store they were waiting, oh, how nice—good morning, Helen, good morning, Helen—such quiet kind hopeful voices waiting to see if I’m going to fall flat on the floor and start having hysterics. Mrs. McCool, Beryl Allen with her engagement ring, Mrs. Kress that got jilted herself twenty-five years ago and then took up with somebody else—Kress—and
vanished. What’s she looking at me for? Old Hawes chewing his tongue when he smiles. I said good morning perfectly cheerfully and went on upstairs thanking God I have my own washroom and thinking, I bet this will be a big day for Children’s Wear. It was too. I never had a morning with so many mothers in to buy a hair-ribbon or a little pair of socks, willing to climb that stairs for it.

I phoned Momma I wouldn’t be home at noon. I thought I’d just go over to the Queen’s Hotel and have a hamburger, with all the radio people I hardly know. But at a quarter to twelve in comes Alma. “I wouldn’t let you eat by yourself
day!” So we have to go to the Queen’s Hotel together. She was going to make me eat an egg sandwich, not a hamburger, and a glass of milk not Coke, because she said my digestion was probably in a state, but I vetoed that. She waited till we got our food and were settled down to eating before she said, “Well, they’re back.”

It took a minute for me to know who. “When?” I said.

“Last night around suppertime. Just when I was driving over to your place to break you the news. I might’ve run into them.”

“Who told you?”

“Well, Beechers live next to MacQuarries, don’t they?” Mrs. Beecher teaches Grade 4, Alma Grade 3. “Grace saw them. She had already read the paper so she knew who it was.”

“What is she like?” I said in spite of myself.

“She’s no juvenile, Grace said. His age, anyway. What did I tell you it was his sister’s friend? And she won’t win any prizes in the looks department. Mind you she’s all

“Is she big or little?” I couldn’t stop now. “Dark or fair?”

“She had a hat on so Grace couldn’t see the color of her hair but she thought dark. She’s a big woman. Grace said she had a rear end on her like a grand piano. Maybe she has money.”

“Did Grace say that too?”

“No. I said it. Just speculating.”

“Clare doesn’t need to marry anybody with money.
has money.”

“That’s by our standards maybe, but not by his.”

thinking through the afternoon that Clare would come round, or at least phone me. Then I could start asking him what did he think he had done. I made up in my mind some crazy explanations he might give me, like this poor woman had cancer and only six months to live and she had always been deadly poor (a scrubwoman in his motel) and he wanted to give her a little time of ease. Or that she was blackmailing his brother-in-law about a crooked transaction and he married her to shut her up. But I didn’t have time to think up many stories because of the steady stream of customers. Old ladies puffing up the stairs with some story about birthday presents for their grandchildren. Every grandchild in Jubilee must have a birthday in March. They ought to be grateful to me, I thought, haven’t I given their day a bit of excitement? Even Alma, she was looking better than she has all winter. I’m not blaming her, I thought, but it’s the truth. And who knows, maybe I’d be the same if Don Stonehouse showed up like he threatens to and raped her and left her a mass of purple bruises—his words, not mine—from head to foot. I’d be as sorry as could be, and anything I could do to help her, I’d do, but I might think, Well, awful as it is it’s something happening and it’s been a long winter.

There was no use even thinking about not going home for supper, that would finish Momma. There she was waiting with a salmon loaf,
cabbage and carrot salad with raisins in it, that I like, and Brown Betty. But halfway through this the tears started sliding down over her rouge. “It seems to me like I’m the one ought to do the crying if anybody has to do it,” I said. “What’s so terrible happened to you?”

“Well I was just so fond of him,” she said. “I was that fond of him. At my age there’s not too many people that you look forward to them coming all week.”

“Well I’m sorry,” I said.

“But once a man loses his respect for a girl, he is apt to get tired of her.”

“What do you mean by that, Momma?”

“If you don’t know am I supposed to tell you?”

“You ought to be ashamed,” I said, starting to cry too. “Talking like that to your own daughter.” There! And I always thought she didn’t know. Never blame Clare, of course, blame me.

“No, I’m not the one that ought to be ashamed,” she continued, weeping. “I am an old woman but I know. If a man loses respect for a girl he don’t marry her.”

“If that was true there wouldn’t be hardly one marriage in this town.”

“You destroyed your own chances.”

“You never said a word of this to me as long as he was coming here and I am not listening to it now,” I said, and went upstairs. She didn’t come after me. I sat and smoked, hour after hour. I didn’t get undressed. I heard her come upstairs, go to bed. Then I went down and watched television for a while, news of car accidents. I put on my coat and went out.

a little car Clare gave me a year ago Christmas, a little Morris. I don’t use it for work because driving two and a half blocks looks to me silly, and like showing off, though I know people who do it. I went around to the garage and backed it out. This was the first time I had driven it since the Sunday I took Momma to Tuppertown to see Auntie Kay in the nursing home. I use it more in summer.

I looked at my watch and the time surprised me. Twenty after twelve. I felt shaky and weak from sitting so long. I wished now I had
one of Alma’s pills. I had an idea of just taking off, driving, but I didn’t know which direction to go in. I drove around the streets of Jubilee and didn’t see another car out but mine. All the houses in darkness, the streets black, the yards pale with the last snow. It seemed to me that in every one of those houses lived people who knew something I didn’t. Who understood what had happened and perhaps had known it was going to happen and I was the only one who didn’t know.

I drove out Grove Street and on to Minnie Street and saw his house from the back. No lights on there either. I drove around to see it from the front. Did they have to sneak up the stairs and keep the television on? I wondered. No woman with a rear end like a grand piano would settle for that. I bet he took her right up and into the old lady’s room and said, “This is the new Mrs. MacQuarrie,” and that was that.

I parked the car and rolled down the window. Then without thinking what I was going to do I leaned on the horn and sounded it as long and hard as I could stand.

The sound released me, so I could yell. And I did. “Hey, Clare MacQuarrie, I want to talk to you!”

No answer anywhere. “Clare MacQuarrie!” I shouted up at his dark house. “Clare, come on out!” I sounded the horn again, two, three, I don’t know how many times. In between I yelled. I felt as if I was watching myself, way down here, so little, pounding my fist and yelling and leaning on the horn. Carrying on a commotion, doing whatever came into my head. It was enjoyable, in a way. I almost forgot what I was doing it for. I started honking the horn rhythmically and yelling at the same time. “Clare, aren’t you ever coming out? Clare MacQuarrie for nuts-in-May, if he don’t come we’ll pull-him-away—” I was crying as well as yelling, right out in the street, and it didn’t bother me one bit.

BOOK: Selected Stories
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