Authors: Alice Munro
I didn’t want Uncle Craig’s manuscript put back with the things I had written. It seemed so dead to me, so heavy and dull and useless, that I thought it might deaden my things too and bring me bad luck. I took it down to the cellar and left it in a cardboard box.
The last spring I was in Jubilee, when I was studying for my final exams, the cellar was flooded to a depth of three or four inches. My mother called me to help her, and we went down and opened the back door and swept the cold water, with its swampy smell, towards an outside drain. I found the box and the manuscript in it, which I had forgotten all about. It was just a big wad of soaking paper.
I didn’t look to see how it was damaged, or whether it could be saved. It seemed to me a mistake from start to finish.
I did think of Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace. (Auntie Grace was by this time in the Jubilee Hospital, recovering, as it was thought, from a broken hip, and Aunt Elspeth was going every day to see her and sitting beside her and saying to the nurses—who loved them both—“Would you believe what some people will do to lie in bed and get themselves waited on?”) I thought of them watching the manuscript leave their house in its padlocked box and I felt remorse, that kind of tender remorse which has on its other side a brutal, unblemished satisfaction.
Now my mother was selling encyclopedias. Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace called it “going on the road!”
“Is your mother going on the road much these days?” they would ask me, and I would say no, oh no, she isn’t going out much any more, but I knew they knew I lied. “Not much time for ironing,” they might continue compassionately, examining the sleeve of my blouse. “Not much time for ironing when she has to go out on the road.”
I felt the weight of my mother’s eccentricities, of something absurd and embarrassing about her—the aunts would just show me a little at a time—land on my own coward’s shoulders. I did want to repudiate her, crawl into favour, orphaned, abandoned, in my wrinkled sleeves. At the same time I wanted to shield her. She would never have understood how she needed shielding, from two old ladies with their mild bewildering humour, their tender proprieties. They wore dark cotton dresses with fresh, perfectly starched and ironed white lawn collars, china flower brooches. Their house had a chiming clock, which delicately marked the quarter hours; also watered ferns, African violets, crocheted runners, fringed blinds, and over everything the clean, reproachful smell of wax and lemons.
“She was in here yesterday to pick up the scones we made for you. Were they all right, we wondered about them, were they light? She told us she had got stuck away out on the Jericho Road. All by herself, stuck on the Jericho Road! Poor Ada! But the mud on her, we had to laugh!”
“We had to scrub the hall linoleum,” said Auntie Grace, with a note of apology, as if it was a thing she did not like to tell me.
From such a vantage point, my mother did seem a wildwoman.
She drove our thirty-seven Chev over all the highways and back roads of Wawanash County, drove it over gravel roads, dirt roads, cow tracks, if she thought they might lead her to customers. She carried a jack and a shovel in the trunk, and a couple of short planks for easing her way out of mud-holes. She drove all the time as if she would not be surprised to see the ground crack open ten feet in front of her wheels; she honked her horn despairingly at blind country corners; she was continually worried that the wooden bridges would not hold, and she would never let anything force her on to the treacherous crumbling shoulders of the road.
The war was still on then. Farmers were making money at last, making it out of pigs or sugar beets or corn. Possibly they did not mean to spend it on encyclopedias. They had their minds set on refrigerators, cars. But these things were not to be had, and in the meantime there was my mother, gamely lugging her case of books, gaining entry to their kitchens, their cold funeral-smelling front rooms, cautiously but optimistically opening fire on behalf of Knowledge. A chilly commodity that most people, grown up, can agree to do without. But nobody will deny that it is a fine thing for children. My mother was banking on that.
And if happiness in this world is believing in what you sell, why, then my mother was happy. Knowledge was not chilly to her, no; it was warm and lovely. Pure comfort even at this stage of her life to know the location of the Celebes Sea and the Pitti Palace, to get the wives of Henry VIII in order and be informed about the social system of ants, the methods of sacrificial butchery used by the Aztecs, the plumbing in Knossos. She could get carried away, telling about such things; she would tell anybody. “Your mother knows such a lot of things, my,” said Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace lightly, unenviously, and I saw that to some people, maybe to most people, knowledge was just oddity; it stuck out like warts.
But I shared my mother’s appetite myself, I could not help it. I loved the volumes of the encyclopedia, their weight (of mystery, of beautiful information) as they fell open in my lap; I loved their sedate dark green binding, the spidery, reticent-looking golden letters on their spines. They might open to show me a steel engraving of a battle, taking place on the moors, say, with a castle in the background, or in the harbour of Constantinople. All bloodshed, drowning, hacking off of heads, agony of horses, was depicted with a kind of operatic flourish, a superb unreality. And I had the impression that in historical times the weather was always theatrical, ominous; landscape frowned, sea glimmered in various dull or metallic shades of grey. Here was Charlotte Corday on her way to the guillotine, Mary Queen of Scots on her way to the scaffold, Archbishop Laud extending his blessing to Stafford through the bars of his prison window— nobody could doubt this was just the way they looked, robes black, lifted hands and faces white, composed, heroic. The encyclopedia did of course provide other sorts of things to look at: beetles, varieties of coal, diagrammed insides of engines, photographs of Amsterdam or Bucharest taken on smudgy dim days in the nineteen-twenties (you could tell by the little high square cars). I preferred History.
Accidentally at first and then quite deliberately I learned things from the encyclopedia. I had a freak memory. Learning a list of facts was an irresistible test to me, like trying to hop a block on one foot.
My mother got the idea that I might be useful in her work.
“My own daughter has been reading these books and I am just amazed at what she has picked up. Children’s minds are just like flypaper, you know, whatever you give them will stick. Del, name the presidents of the United States from George Washington down to the present day, can you do that?” Or: name the countries and capitals of South America. The major explorers, tell where they came from and where they went. Dates too please. I would sit in a strange house rattling things off. I put on a shrewd, serious, competitive look, but that was mostly for effect. Underneath I felt a bounding complacency. I knew I knew it. And who could fail to love me, for knowing where Quito was?
Quite a few could, as a matter of fact. But where did I get the first hint in that direction? It might have been from looking up and seeing Owen, without two dates or capitals or dead presidents to string together, as far as anybody knew, tenderly, privately wrapping a long chewed-out piece of gum around his finger. It might have been from the averted faces of country children, with their subtle, complicated embarrassment. One day I did not want to do it any more. The decision was physical; humiliation prickled my nerve-ends and the lining of my stomach. I started to say, “I don’t know them—” but was too miserable, too ashamed, to tell this lie.
“George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson—”
My mother said sharply, “Are you going to be sick?”
She was afraid I might be about to throw up. Both Owen and I were totally committed, on-the-spot throwers-up. I nodded and slid off the chair and went and hid in the car, holding my stomach. My mother when she came had figured out that it was more than that.
“You’re getting self-conscious,” she said in a practical tone. “I thought you enjoyed it.” The prickling started again. That was just it, I had enjoyed it, and it was not decent of her to say so. “Shyness and self-consciousness,” said my mother rather grandly, “those are the luxuries I could never afford.” She started the car. “Though I can tell you, there are members of your father’s family who would not open their mouths in public to say their house was burning down.”
Thereafter when asked—lightly asked—“Do you want to do some questions today?” I would slump away down in the seat and shake my head and clutch my stomach, indicating the possible quick return of my malady. My mother had to resign herself, and now when I rode out with her on Saturdays I rode like Owen, free and useless cargo, no longer a sharer in her enterprises. “You want to hide your brains under a bushel out of pure perversity but that’s not my lookout,” she said. “You just do as you please.”
I still had vague hopes of adventure, which Owen shared, at least on the more material level. We both hoped to buy bags of a certain golden-brown candy, broken in chunks like cement and melting almost immediately on the tongue, sold in one special harnessdraped horsy-smelling country store. We hope at least to stop for gas at a place that sold cold pop. I hoped to travel as far as Porterfield or Blue River, towns which derived their magic simply from being places we did not know and were not known in, by not being Jubilee. Walking in the streets of one of these towns I felt my anonymity like a decoration, like a peacock’s train. But by some time in the afternoon these hopes would ebb, or some of them would have been satisfied, which always leaves a gap. In my mother too there would be some ebbing, of those bright ruthless forces which pushed her out here in the first place. Approaching dark, and cold air coming up through a hole in the floor of the car, the tired noise of the engine, the indifference of the countryside, would reconcile us to each other and make us long for home. We drove through country we did not know we loved—not rolling or flat, but broken, no recognizable rhythm to it; low hills, hollows full of brush, swamp and bush and fields. Tall elm trees, separate, each plainly showing its shape, doomed but we did not know that either. They were shaped like slightly opened fans, sometimes like harps.
Jubilee was visible from a rise about three miles away, on the No. 4 Highway. Between us and it lay the river-flats, flooded every spring, and the hidden curve of the Wawanash river, and the bridge over it, painted silver, hanging in the dusk like a cage. The No. 4 Highway was also the main street of Jubilee. We could see the towers of the Post Office and the Town Hall facing each other, the Town Hall with its exotic cupola hiding the legendary bell (rung for wars starting and ending, ready to ring in case of earthquake, or final flood) and the Post Office with its clock-tower, square, useful, matter-of-fact. The town lay spread almost equidistantly on either side of the main street. Its shape, which at the time of our return would usually be defined in lights, was seen to be more or less that of a bat, one wing lifted slightly, bearing the water tower, unlighted, indistinct, on its tip.
My mother would never let this sighting go by without saying something. “There’s Jubilee,” she might say simply, or, “Well, yonder lies the metropolis,” or she might even quote, fuzzily, a poem about going in the same door as out she went. And by these words, whether weary, ironic, or truly grateful, Jubilee seemed to me to take its being. As if without her connivance, her acceptance, these streetlights and sidewalks, the fort in the wilderness, the open and secret pattern of the town—a shelter and a mystery—would not be there.
Over all our expeditions, and homecomings, and the world at large, she exerted this mysterious, appalling authority, and nothing could be done about it, not yet.
My mother rented a house in town, and we lived there from September to June, going out to the house at the end of the Flats Road only for the summers. My father came in for supper, and stayed overnight, until the snow came; then he came in, if he could, for Saturday night and part of Sunday.
The house we rented was down at the end of River Street not far from the CNR station. It was the sort of house that looks bigger than it is; it had a high but sloping roof—the second storey wood, the first storey brick—and a bulging bay window in the dining room and verandahs front and back; the front verandah had a useless and in fact inaccessible little balcony stuck into its roof. All the wooden parts of the house were painted grey, probably because grey does not need to be repainted so often as white. In the warm weather the downstairs windows had awnings, striped and very faded; then the house with its bleached grey paint and sloping verandahs made me think of a beach—the sun, the tough windy grass.
Yet it was a house that belonged to a town; things about it suggested leisure and formality, of a sort that were not possible out on the Flats Road. I would sometimes think of our old house, its flat pale face, the cement slab outside the kitchen door, with a forlorn, faintly guilty, tender pain, as you might think of a simple old grandparent whose entertainments you have outgrown. I missed the nearness of the river and the swamp, also the real anarchy of winter, blizzards that shut us up tight in our house as if it were the Ark. But I loved the order, the wholeness, the intricate arrangement of town life, that only an outsider could see. Going home from school, winter afternoons, I had a sense of the whole town around me, all the streets which were named River Street, Mason Street, John Street, Victoria Street, Huron Street, and strangely, Khartoum Street; the evening dresses gauzy and pale as crocuses in Krall’s Ladies’ Wear window; the Baptist Mission Band in the basement of their church, singing
There’s a New Name Written Down in Glory, And its Mine, Mine, Mine!
Canaries in their cages in the Selrite Store and books in the Library and mail in the Post Office and pictures of Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn in pirate and lady costumes outside the Lyceum Theatre—all these things, rituals and diversions, frail and bright, woven together—Town! In Town there were soldiers on leave, in their khaki uniforms which had an aura of anonymous brutality, like a smell of burning; there were beautiful, shining girls, whose names everybody knew—Margaret Bond, Dorothy Guest, Pat Mundy—and who in turn knew nobody’s name, except if they chose; I watched them coming downhill from the High School, in their fur-trimmed velvet boots. They travelled in a little cluster, casting a radiance like a night-lantern, blinding them to the rest of the world. Though one day one of them—Pat Mundy—had smiled at me in passing, and I made up daydreams about her—that she saved me from drowning, that she became a nurse and nursed me—risking her life rocking me in her velvet arms—when I nearly died of diphtheria.