Authors: Alice Munro
“Two toasters, one with doors one you lay the toast on.”
“Seat out of a car.”
“Rolled-up mattress. An accordion.”
But we weren’t getting half, we knew it. The things we remembered could have been taken out of the house and never missed; they were just a few things revealed and identifiable on top of such a wealth of wreckage, a whole rich dark rotting mess of carpets, linoleum, parts of furniture, insides of machinery, nails, wire, tools, utensils. This was the house Uncle Benny’s parents had lived in, all their married life. (I could just remember them, old and heavy and half-blind, sitting on the porch in the sunlight, wearing many dark layers of disintegrating clothes.) So part of the accumulation was that of fifty years or so of family life. But it was also made up of other people’s throwaways, things Uncle Benny would ask for and bring home, or even lug from the Jubilee dump. He hoped to patch things up and make them usable and sell them, he said. If he had lived in a city he would have run an enormous junk shop; he would have spent his life among heaps of soiled furniture and worn-out appliances and chipped dishes and grimy pictures of other people’s relatives. He valued debris for its own sake and only pretended, to himself as well as to others, that he meant to get some practical use out of it.
But what I liked best around his place, and would never tire of, were the newspapers piled on the porch. He did not take either the Jubilee
or the city newspaper which arrived in our mailbox a day late. He did not subscribe to the
Saturday Evening Post
. His paper came once a week and was printed badly on rough paper, with headlines three inches high. It was his only source of information about the outside world, since he seldom had a radio that was working. This was a world unlike the one my parents read about in the paper, or heard about on the daily news. The headlines had nothing to do with the war, which had started by that time, or elections, or heat waves, or accidents, but were as follows:
FATHER FEEDS TWIN DAUGHTERS TO HOGS
WOMAN GIVES BIRTH TO HUMAN MONKEY
VIRGIN RAPED ON CROSS BY CRAZED MONKS
SENDS HUSBAND’S TORSO BY MAIL
I would sit and read on the edge of the sagging porch, my feet brushing Sweet William that Uncle Benny’s mother must have planted. Finally Uncle Benny would say, “You’re welcome to take those papers home if you want to. I’m all done reading them.”
I knew better than to do that. I read faster and faster, all I could hold, then reeled out into the sun, onto the path that led to our place, across the fields. I was bloated and giddy with revelations of evil, of its versatility and grand invention and horrific playfulness. But the nearer I got to our house the more this vision faded. Why was it that the plain back wall of home, the pale chipped brick, the cement platform outside the kitchen door, washtubs hanging on nails, the pump, the lilac bush with brown-spotted leaves, should make it seem doubtful that a woman would really send her husband’s torso, wrapped in Christmas paper, by mail to his girl friend in South Carolina?
Our house was at the end of the Flats Road, which ran west from Buckles’ Store, at the edge of town. This rickety wooden store, so narrow from front to back it looked like a cardboard box stood on end, haphazardly plastered with metal and painted signs advertising flour, tea, rolled oats, soft drinks, cigarettes, was always to me the sign that town had ended. Sidewalks, street lights, lined-up shade trees, milkmen’s and icemen’s carts, birdbaths, flower-borders, verandahs with wicker chairs, from which ladies watched the street—all these civilized, desirable things had come to an end, and we walked— Owen and I coming from school, my mother and I coming from shopping on a Saturday afternoon—on the wide meandering Flats Road, with no shade from Buckles’ Store to our house, between fields ragged with weeds, and yellow with dandelions, wild mustard, or goldenrod, depending on the season of the year. Houses here were set further apart and looked in general more neglected, poor and eccentric than town houses would ever be; half a wall would be painted and the job abandoned, the ladder left up; scars of a porch torn away were left uncovered, and a front door without steps, three feet off the ground; windows could be spread with yellowed newspapers in place of blinds.
The Flats Road was not part of town but it was not part of the country either. The curve of the river, and the Grenoch Swamp, cut it off from the rest of the township, to which it nominally belonged. There were no real farms. There were Uncle Benny’s and Potters’ places, fifteen and twenty acres, Uncle Benny’s going back to bush. The Potter boys raised sheep. We had nine acres and raised foxes. Most people had one or two acres and a bit of livestock, usually a cow and chickens and sometimes something more bizarre that would not be found on an ordinary farm. The Potter boys owned a family of goats, which they turned loose to graze along the road. Sandy Stevenson, a bachelor, kept a little grey donkey, like the illustration to a Bible story, pasturing in the stony corner of a field. My father’s enterprise was not out of the way here.
Mitch Plim and the Potter boys were the bootleggers on the Flats Road. Their styles were different. The Potter boys were cheerful, though violent-tempered when drunk. They gave Owen and me a ride home from school in their pickup truck; we were in the back, flung from side to side because they drove so fast and hit so many bumps; my mother had to take a deep breath when she heard about it. Mitch Plim lived in the house that had newspapers over the windows; he did not drink himself, was crippled up with rheumatism and spoke to nobody; his wife came wandering out to the mailbox, any hour of the day, in a tattered flounced housecoat, barefoot. Their whole house seemed to embody so much that was evil and mysterious that I would never look at it directly, and walked by with my face set stiffly ahead, controlling my urge to run.
There were also two idiots on the road. One was Frankie Hall; he lived with his brother Louie Hall who operated a watch and clock repair business out of an unpainted, false-fronted store building beside Buckles’ Store. He was fat and pale like something carved out of Ivory soap. He sat out in the sun, beside the dirty store window cats slept in. The other one was Irene Pollox, and she was not so gentle or so idiotic as Frank; she would chase children on the road and hang over her gate crowing and flapping like a drunken rooster. So her house too was a dangerous one to pass, and there was a rhyme to say, that everybody knew:
Irene don’t come after me
Or I’ll hang you by your tits in a crab-apple tree.
I said it when I went past with my mother, but knew enough to change
. Where had that rhyme come from? Even Uncle Benny said it. Irene was white-haired, not from age but because she was born that way, and her skin also was white as goosefeathers.
The Flats Road was the last place my mother wanted to live. As soon as her feet touched the town sidewalk and she raised her head, grateful for town shade after Flats Road sun, a sense of relief, a new sense of consequence flowed from her. She would send me to Buckles’ Store when she ran out of something, but she did her real shopping in town. Charlie Buckle might be slicing meat in his back room when we went by; we could see him through the dark screen like a figure partly hidden in a mosaic, and bowed our heads and walked quickly and hoped he did not see us.
My mother corrected me when I said we lived on the Flats Road; she said we lived
at the end
of the Flats Road, as if that made all the difference. Later on she was to find she did not belong in Jubilee either, but at present she took hold of it hopefully and with enjoyment and made sure it would notice her, calling out greetings to ladies who turned with surprised, though pleasant, faces, going into the dark dry-goods store and seating herself on one of the little high stools and calling for somebody to please get her a glass of water after that hot dusty walk. As yet I followed her without embarrassment, enjoying the commotion.
My mother was not popular on the Flats Road. She spoke to people here in a voice not so friendly as she used in town, with severe courtesy and a somehow noticeable use of good grammar. To Mitch Plim’s wife—who had once worked, though I did not know it then, in Mrs. McQuade’s whorehouse—she did not speak at all. She was on the side of poor people everywhere, on the side of Negroes and Jews and Chinese and women, but she could not bear drunkenness, no, and she could not bear sexual looseness, dirty language, haphazard lives, contented ignorance; and so she had to exclude the Flats Road people from the really oppressed and deprived people, the real poor whom she still loved.
My father was different. Everybody liked him. He liked the Flats Road, though he himself hardly drank, did not behave loosely with women or use bad language, though he believed in work and worked hard all the time. He felt comfortable here, while with men from town, with any man who wore a shirt and tie to work, he could not help being wary, a little proud and apprehensive of insult, with that delicate, special readiness to scent pretension that is some country people’s talent. He had been raised (like my mother, but she had cast all that behind her) on a farm deep in the country; but he did not feel at home there either, among the hard-set traditions, proud poverty and monotony of farm life. The Flats Road would do for him; Uncle Benny would do for his friend.
Uncle Benny my mother was used to. He ate at our table every day at noon, except Sunday. He stuck his gum on the end of his fork, and at the end of the meal took it off and showed us the pattern, so nicely engraved on the pewter-coloured gum it was a pity to chew it. He poured tea into his saucer and blew on it. With a piece of bread speared on a fork he wiped his plate as clean as a cat’s. He brought into the kitchen a smell, which I did not dislike, of fish, furred animals, swamp. Remembering his manners in the country way, he would never help himself, or take a second helping till asked three times.
He told stories, in which there was nearly always something happening that my mother would insist could not have happened, as in the story of Sandy Stevenson’s marriage.
Sandy Stevenson had married a fat woman from down east, out of the county altogether, and she had two thousand dollars in the bank and she owned a Pontiac car. She was a widow. No sooner had she come to live with Sandy, here on the Flats Road twelve, fifteen years ago, than things began to happen. Dishes smashed themselves on the floor during the night. A stew flew off the stove by itself, splattering the kitchen walls. Sandy woke up in the night to feel something like a goat butting him through the mattress, but when he looked there was nothing under the bed. His wife’s best nightgown was ripped from top to bottom and knotted in the cord of the window shade. In the evening, when they wanted to sit in peace and have a little talk, there was rapping on the wall, so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think. Finally the wife told Sandy she knew who was doing it. It was her dead husband, mad at her for getting married again. She recognized his way of rapping, those were his very knuckles. They tried ignoring him but it was no use. They decided to go off in the car for a little trip and see if that would discourage him. But he came right along. He rode on the top of the car. He pounded on the roof of the car with his fists and kicked it and banged and shook it so Sandy could hardly keep it on the road. Sandy’s nerves collapsed at last. He pulled off the road and told the woman to take the wheel, he was going to get out and walk or hitchhike home. He advised her to drive back to her own town and try to forget about him. She burst into crying but agreed it was the only thing to do.
“But you don’t believe that, do you?” said my mother with cheerful energy. She began explaining how it was all coincidence, imagination, self-suggestion.
Uncle Benny gave her a fierce pitying look.
“You go and ask Sandy Stevenson. I seen the bruises, I seen them myself.”
“From where it was buttin’ him under the bed.”
“Two thousand dollars in the bank,” mused my father, to keep this argument from going on. “Now there’s a woman. You ought to look around for a woman like that, Benny.”
“That’s just what I’m going to do,” said Uncle Benny, falling into the same joking-serious tone, “one of these days when I get around to it.”
“A woman like that might be a handy thing to have around.” “What I keep telling myself.”
“Question is, a fat one or a thin one? Fat ones are bound to be good cooks but they might eat a lot. But then so do some of the skinny ones, hard to tell. Sometimes you get a big one who can more or less live off her fat, actually be a saving on the pocketbook. Make sure she has good teeth, either that or all out and a good set of false ones. Best if she has her appendix and her gall bladder out too.”
“Talk as if you’re buying a cow,” said my mother. But she did not really mind; she had these unpredictable moments of indulgence, lost later on, when the very outlines of her body seemed to soften and her indifferent movements, lifting of the plates, had an easy supremacy. She was a fuller, fairer woman than she later became.
“But she might fool you,” continued my father soberly. “Tell you her gall bladder and her appendix are out and they’re still in place. Better ask to see the scars.”
Uncle Benny hiccoughed, went red, laughed almost silently, bending low over his plate.
“Can you write?”
said Uncle Benny to me, at his place, when I was reading on the porch and he was emptying tea leaves from a tin teapot; they dripped over the railing
“How long’ve you been goin’ to school? What grade are you in?”
“Grade Four when it starts again.”
“Come in here.”
He brought me to the kitchen table, cleared away an iron he was fixing and a saucepan with holes in the bottom, brought a new writing-pad, bottle of ink, a fountain pen. “Do me some practice writing here.”