Authors: Alice Munro
“Helen, you want to wake everybody up in this whole town?” said Buddy Shields, sticking his head in at the window. He is the night constable and I used to teach him in Sunday school.
“I’m just conducting a shivaree for the newly married couple,” I said. “What is the matter with that?”
“I got to tell you to stop that noise.”
“I don’t feel like stopping.”
“Oh yes you do, Helen, you’re just a little upset.”
“I called and called him and he won’t come out,” I said. “All I want is him to come out.”
“Well you got to be a good girl and stop honking that horn.”
“I want him to come out.”
“Stop it. Don’t honk that horn one more time.”
“Will you make him come out?”
“Helen, I can’t make a man come out of his own house if he don’t want to come.”
“I thought you were the Law, Buddy Shields.”
“I am but there is a limit to what the Law can do. If you want to see him why don’t you come back in the daytime and knock on his door nice the way any lady would do?”
“He is married in case you didn’t know.”
“Well, Helen, he is married just as much at night as in the daytime.”
“Is that supposed to be funny?”
“No it’s not, it’s supposed to be true. Now why don’t you move over and let me drive you home? Lookit the lights on up and down this street. There’s Grace Beecher watching us and I can see the Holmses got their windows up. You don’t want to give them anything more to talk about, do you?”
“They got nothing to do but talk anyway, they may as well talk about me.”
Then Buddy Shields straightened up and moved a little away from the car window and I saw somebody in dark clothes coming across the MacQuarries’ lawn and it was Clare. He was not wearing a dressing gown or anything, he was all dressed, in shirt and jacket and trousers. He came right up to the car while I sat there waiting to hear what I would say to him. He had not changed. He was a fat, comfortable, sleepy-faced man. But just his look, his everyday easygoing look, stopped me wanting to cry or yell. I could cry and yell till I was blue in the face and it would not change that look or make him get out of bed and across his yard one little bit faster.
“Helen, go on home,” he said, like we had been watching television and so on all evening and now was time to go home and go to bed properly. “Give my love to your momma,” he said. “Go on home.”
That was all he meant to say. He looked at Buddy and said, “You going to drive her?” and Buddy said yes. I was looking at Clare MacQuarrie and thinking, He is a man that goes his own way. It didn’t bother him too much how I was feeling when he did what he did on top of me, and it didn’t bother him too much what kind of ruckus I made in the street when he got married. And he was a man who didn’t give out explanations, maybe didn’t have any. If there was anything he couldn’t explain, well, he would just forget about it. Here were all his neighbors watching us, but tomorrow, if he met them on the street, he would tell them a funny story. And what about me? Maybe if he met me on the street one of these days he would just say, “How are you doing, Helen?” and tell me a joke. And if I had really thought about what he was like, Clare MacQuarrie, if I had paid attention, I would have started out a lot differently with him and maybe felt differently too, though heaven knows if that would have mattered, in the end.
“Now aren’t you sorry you made all this big fuss?” Buddy said, and I slid over on the seat and watched Clare going back to his house, thinking, Yes, that’s what I should have done, paid attention. Buddy said, “You’re not going to bother him and his wife anymore now, are you, Helen?”
“What?” I said.
“You’re not going to bother Clare and his wife anymore? Because now he’s married, that’s over and done with. And you wake up tomorrow morning, you’re going to feel pretty bad over what you done tonight, you won’t see how you can go on and face people. But let me tell you things happen all the time, only thing to do is just go along, and remember you’re not the only one.” It never seemed to occur to him that it was funny for him to be lecturing me, that used to hear his Bible verses and caught him reading Leviticus on the sly.
“Like last week I’ll tell you,” he said, easing down Grove Street, in no hurry to get me home and have the lecture ended, “last week we got a call and we had to go out to Dunnock Swamp and there’s a car stuck in there. This old farmer was waving a loaded gun and talking about shooting this pair for trespassing if they didn’t get off of his property. They’d just been following a wagon track after dark, where any idiot would know you’d get stuck this time of year. You would
know both of them if I said their names and you’d know they had no business being in that car together. One is a married lady. And worst is, by this time her husband is wondering why she don’t come home from choir practice—both these parties sing in the choir, I won’t tell you which one—and he has reported her missing. So we got to get a tractor to haul out the car, and leave
there sweating, and quieten down this old farmer, and then take her home separate in broad daylight, crying all the way. That’s what I mean by things happening. I saw that man and wife downstreet buying their groceries yesterday, and they didn’t look too happy but there they were. So just be a good girl, Helen, and go along like the rest of us and pretty soon we’ll see spring.”
Shields, you can just go on talking, and Clare will tell jokes, and Momma will cry, till she gets over it, but what I’ll never understand is why, right now, seeing Clare MacQuarrie as an unexplaining man, I felt for the first time that I wanted to reach out my hands and
Mary McQuade had come, I pretended not to remember her. It seemed the wisest thing to do. She herself said, “If you don’t remember me you don’t remember much,” but let the matter drop, just once adding, “I bet you never went to your grandma’s house last summer. I bet you don’t remember that either.”
It was called, even that summer, my grandma’s house, though my grandfather was then still alive. He had withdrawn into one room, the largest front bedroom. It had wooden shutters on the inside of the windows, like the living room and dining room; the other bedrooms had only blinds. Also, the veranda kept out the light so that my grandfather lay in near-darkness all day, with his white hair, now washed and tended and soft as a baby’s, and his white nightshirt and pillows, making an island in the room which people approached with diffidence, but resolutely. Mary McQuade in her uniform was the other island in the room, and she sat mostly not moving where the fan, as if it was tired, stirred the air like soup. It must have been too dark to read or knit, supposing she wanted to do those things, and so she merely waited and breathed, making a sound like the fan made, full of old indefinable complaint.
I was so young then I was put to sleep in a crib—not at home but this was what was kept for me at my grandma’s house—in a room
across the hall. There was no fan there and the dazzle of outdoors—all the flat fields round the house turned, in the sun, to the brilliance of water—made lightning cracks in the drawn-down blinds. Who could sleep? My mother’s my grandmother’s my aunts’ voices wove their ordinary repetitions, on the veranda in the kitchen in the dining room (where with a little brass-handled brush my mother cleaned the white cloth, and the lighting-fixture over the round table hung down unlit flowers of thick, butterscotch glass). All the meals in that house, the cooking, the visiting, the conversation, even someone playing on the piano (it was my youngest aunt, Edith, not married, singing and playing with one hand,
Nita, Juanita, softly falls the southern moon
)—all this life going on. Yet the ceilings of the rooms were very high and under them was a great deal of dim wasted space, and when I lay in my crib too hot to sleep, I could look up and see that emptiness, the stained corners, and feel, without knowing what it was, just what everybody else in the house must have felt—under the sweating heat the fact of death-contained, that little lump of magic ice. And Mary McQuade waiting in her starched white dress, big and gloomy as an iceberg herself, implacable, waiting and breathing. I held her responsible.
So I pretended not to remember her. She had not put on her white uniform, which did not really make her less dangerous but might mean, at least, that the time of her power had not yet come. Out in the daylight, and not dressed in white, she turned out to be freckled all over, everywhere you could see, as if she was sprinkled with oatmeal, and she had a crown of frizzy, glinting, naturally brass-colored hair. Her voice was loud and hoarse, and complaint was her everyday language. “Am I going to have to hang up this wash all by myself?” she shouted at me, in the yard, and I followed her to the clothesline platform where with a groan she let down the basket of wet clothes. “Hand me them clothespins. One at a time. Hand me them right side up. I shouldn’t be out in this wind at all, I’ve got a bronchial condition.” Head hung, like an animal chained to her side, I fed her clothespins. Outdoors, in the cold March air, she lost some of her bulk and her smell. In the house I could always smell her, even in the rooms she seldom entered. What was her smell like? It was like metal and like some dark spice (cloves—she did suffer from toothache) and
like the preparation rubbed on my chest when I had a cold. I mentioned it once to my mother, who said, “Don’t be silly,
don’t smell anything.” So I never told about the taste, and there was a taste too. It was in all the food Mary McQuade prepared and perhaps in all food eaten in her presence—in my porridge at breakfast and my fried potatoes at noon and the slice of bread and butter and brown sugar she gave me to eat in the yard—something foreign, gritty, depressing. How could my parents not know about it? But for reasons of their own they would pretend. This was something I had not known a year ago.
After she had hung out the wash she had to soak her feet. Her legs came straight up, round as drainpipes, from the steaming basin. One hand on each knee, she bent into the steam and gave grunts of pain and satisfaction.
“Are you a nurse?” I said, greatly daring, though my mother had said she was.
“Yes I am and I wish I wasn’t.”
“Are you my aunt too?”
“If I was your aunt you would call me Aunt Mary, wouldn’t you? Well, you don’t, do you? I’m your cousin, I’m your father’s cousin. That’s why they get me instead of getting an ordinary nurse. I’m a practical nurse. And there is always somebody sick in this family and I got to go to them. I never get a rest.”
I doubted this. I doubted that she was asked to come. She came, and cooked what she liked and rearranged things to suit herself, complaining about drafts, and let her power loose in the house. If she had never come, my mother would never have taken to her bed.
My mother’s bed was set up in the dining room, to spare Mary McQuade climbing the stairs. My mother’s hair was done in two little thin dark braids, her cheeks were sallow, her neck warm and smelling of raisins as it always did, but the rest of her under the covers had changed into some large, fragile, and mysterious object, difficult to move. She spoke of herself gloomily in the third person, saying, “Be careful, don’t hurt Mother, don’t sit on Mother’s legs.” Every time she said “Mother” I felt chilled, and a kind of wretchedness and shame spread through me as it did at the name of Jesus. This
that my own real, warm-necked, irascible, and comforting human mother set
up between us was an everlastingly wounded phantom, sorrowing like Him over all the wickedness I did not yet know I would commit.
My mother crocheted squares for an afghan, in all shades of purple. They fell among the bedclothes and she did not care. Once they were finished she forgot about them. She had forgotten all her stories which were about princes in the Tower and a queen getting her head chopped off while a little dog was hiding under her dress and another queen sucking poison out of her husband’s wound; and also about her own childhood, a time as legendary to me as any other. Given over to Mary’s care, she whimpered childishly, “Mary, I’m dying for you to rub my back.” “Mary, could you make me a cup of tea? I feel if I drink any more tea I’m going to bob up to the ceiling, just like a big balloon, but you know it’s all I want.” Mary laughed shortly. “You,” she said, “you’re not going to bob up anywhere. Take a derrick to move
. Come on now, raise up, you’ll be worse before you’re better!” She shooed me off the bed and began to pull the sheets about with not very gentle jerks. “You been tiring your momma out? What do you want to bother your momma for on this nice a day?” “I think she’s lonesome,” my mother said, a weak and insincere defense. “She can be lonesome in the yard just as well as here,” said Mary, with her grand, vague, menacing air. “You put your things on, out you go!”
My father too had altered since her coming. When he came in for his meals she was always waiting for him, some joke swelling her up like a bullfrog, making her ferocious-looking and red in the face. She put uncooked white beans in his soup, hard as pebbles, and waited to see if good manners would make him eat them. She stuck something to the bottom of his water glass to look like a fly. She gave him a fork with a prong missing, pretending it was by accident. He threw it at her, and missed, but startled me considerably. My mother and father, eating supper, talked quietly and seriously. But in my father’s family even grownups played tricks with rubber worms and beetles, fat aunts were always invited to sit on little rickety chairs, and uncles broke wind in public and said, “Whoa, hold on there!” proud of themselves as if they had whistled a complicated tune. Nobody could ask your age without a rigmarole of teasing. So with Mary McQuade my father returned to family ways, just as he went back to eating
heaps of fried potatoes and side meat and thick, floury pies, and drinking tea black and strong as medicine out of a tin pot, saying gratefully, “Mary, you know what it is a man ought to eat!” He followed that up with “Don’t you think it’s time you got a man of your own to feed?” which earned him, not a fork thrown, but the dishrag.