Authors: Alice Munro
“What do you want me to write?”
“I don’t care. I just want to see how you do it.”
I wrote his name and address in full:
Mr. Benjamin Thomas Poole, The Flats Road, Jubilee, Wawanash County, Ontario, Canada, North America, The Western Hemisphere, The World, The Solar System, The Universe
. He read over my shoulder and said sharply, “Where is that in relation to Heaven? You haven’t got far enough. Isn’t Heaven outside of the Universe?”
“The Universe means everything. It’s all there is.”
“All right, you think you know so much, what is there when you get to the end of that? There has to be something there, else there wouldn’t be an end, there has to be something else to make an end, doesn’t there?”
“There isn’t,” I said doubtfully.
“Oh yes there is. There’s Heaven.”
“Well what is there when you get to the end of Heaven?”
“You don’t ever get to the end of Heaven, because the Lord is there!” said Uncle Benny triumphantly, and took a close look at my writing, which was round, trembly, and uncertain. “Well anybody can read that without no trouble. I want you to sit here and write a letter for me.”
He could read very well but he could not write. He said the teacher at school had beat him and beat him, trying to beat writing into him, and he respected her for it, but it never did any good. When he needed a letter written he usually got my father or mother to do it.
He hung over me seeing what I wrote at the top:
Flats Road, Jubilee, August 22, 1942
. “That’s right, that’s the way! Now start it off.
“You start with
and then the person’s name,” I said, “unless it’s a business letter and then you start with
if it’s a lady. Is it a business letter?”
“It is and it isn’t. Put down
“What is her name?” I said troublesomely. “I could just as easy put her name.”
“I don’t know her name.” Impatiently, Uncle Benny brought me the newspaper, his newspaper, opened it at the back, in the classified ads, a section I never got to, and held it under my nose.
Lady with one child desires housekeeping position for man in quiet country home. Fond of farm life. Matrimony if suited.
“There is the lady I am writing to so what can I do but call her lady?”
I gave in and wrote it down, executed a large careful comma and waited to start the letter under the
as we had been taught.
“Dear Lady,” said Uncle Benny recklessly, “I am writing this letter—”
I am writing this letter in reply to what you put in the paper which I get through the mail. I am a man thirty-seven years old living alone on my own place which is fifteen acres out at the end of the Flats Road. There is a good house on it with stone foundation. It is right by the bush so we never run out of firewood in winter. There is a good well on it drilled sixty feet down and a cistern. In the bush is more berries than you can eat and good fish in the river and could have a good vegetable garden if you could keep off the rabbits. I have got a pet fox in a pen by the house, also a ferret and two minks and there is coons and squirrels and chipmunks around all the time. Your child will be welcome. You don’t say if it is a girl or a boy. If a boy I could teach it to be a good trapper and hunter. I have a job working for a man that raises silver foxes on the next place to this. His wife is an educated woman if you like to go visiting. I hope I will have a letter from you soon. Yours truly, Benjamin Thomas Poole.
Within a week Uncle Benny had a letter back.
Dear Mr. Benjamin Poole, I am writing for my sister Miss Madeleine Howey to tell you she will be glad to take up your offer and will be ready to come any time after the 1st Sept. What are the bus or train connections to Jubilee. Or it might suit better if you could come down here, I will write out our full address at the end of the letter. Our place is not hard to find. My sisters child is not a boy it is a girl 18 mos. old named Diane. Looking forward to hearing from you I remain, Yours truly, Mason Howey, 121 Chalmers Street, Kitchener, Ont.
“Well it is taking a chance,” said my father, when Uncle Benny showed us this letter at the dinner table. “What makes you think this is the one you want?”
“I don’t figure any harm in lookin’ her over.”
“It looks to me as if the brother is pretty willing to get rid of her.”
“Take her to a doctor, have a medical examination,” said my mother firmly.
Uncle Benny said he sure would. Arrangements from then on went swiftly forward. He bought himself new clothes. He asked for the loan of the car, to drive to Kitchener. He left early in the morning, wearing a light green suit, a white shirt, a green, red and orange tie, a dark green felt hat, and brown and white shoes. He had got his hair cut and his moustache trimmed and he had washed. He looked strange, pale, sacrificial.
“Cheer up, Benny,” said my father. “You’re not going to your own hanging. If you don’t like the looks of things turn around and come home.”
My mother and I went across the fields with a mop, broom, dustpan, box of soap, Old Dutch Cleanser. But my mother had never been in that kitchen, never really inside it, before, and it defeated her. She started throwing things out on the porch, but after a while she saw that it was hopeless. “You’d have to dig a pit to put it in,” she said, and sat down on the steps holding the handle of the broom under her chin, like a witch in a story, and laughed. “If I didn’t laugh I’d cry. Think of her coming here. She won’t stay a week. She’ll go back to Kitchener if she has to walk. That or throw herself in the river.”
We scrubbed the table and two chairs and a central space of floor and rubbed the stove with breadpapers and knocked down the cobwebs over the light. I picked a bouquet of goldenrod and put it in a jug in the centre of the table.
“Why wash the window,” said my mother, “and illuminate more disaster inside?”
At home she said, “Well I think my sympathies are with the woman, now.”
After dark Uncle Benny laid the keys on the table. He looked at us with the air of one arriving home from a long journey whose adventures can never properly be told, though he knows he will have to try.
“Did you make out all right?” said my father encouragingly. “Did the car give you any trouble?”
“Nossir. She run fine. I got off the road once but I hadn’t got too far when I figured what I’d done.”
“Did you look at that map I gave you?”
“No, I seen some fellow on a tractor and I asked him and he turned me round.”
“So you got there all right?”
“Oh, ye-uh, I got there all right!”
My mother broke in. “I thought you’d bring Miss Howey in for a cup of tea.”
“Well she’s kind of tired from the trip and all and got to put the baby to bed.”
“The baby!” said my mother remorsefully. “I forgot about the baby! Where will the baby sleep?”
“We’ll rig up something. I think I got a crib over there somewheres if I can put some new slats in it.” He took off his hat, showing the red streak across his sweating forehead, and said, “I was goin’ to tell you it isn’t Miss Howey any more, it’s Mrs. Poole.”
“Well, Benny. Congratulations. Wish you every happiness. Made up your mind the minute you saw her, was that it?”
Uncle Benny chuckled nervously.
“Well they was all there. They was all set up for the wedding. Set it up before I got there. They had the preacher there and the ring bought and fixed up with some fellow to get the licence in a hurry. I could see they was all set up. All prepared for a wedding. Yes sir. They didn’t leave a thing out.”
“Well you’re a married man now, Benny.”
“Oh ye-uh, married man all right!”
“Well you’ll have to bring your bride to see us,” said my mother valiantly. Her use of the word
was startling, evoking as it did long white veils, flowers, celebration, not thought of here. Uncle Benny said he would. He said yes he sure would. As soon as she got herself together after the trip, yes, he sure would.
But he didn’t. There was no sign of Madeleine. My mother thought that now he would go home for his dinner but he came into the kitchen as usual. My mother said, “How is your wife? How is she managing? Does she understand that kind of stove?” and he replied to everything with vague affirmatives, chuckling and shaking his head.
Late in the afternoon when he finished his work he said to me, “You want to see something?”
“You come along and you’ll see.”
Owen and I tailed him across the fields. He turned and stopped us at the edge of his yard.
“Owen wants to see the ferret,” I said.
“He’ll have to wait till another time. Don’t come no closer than here.”
After some time he came out of the house carrying a small child. I was disappointed; she was what it was. He set her on the ground. She bent, tottering, and picked up a crow’s feather.
“Tell your name,” said Uncle Benny coaxingly. “What’s your name? Is it Di-ane? Tell the kids your name.”
She would not say it.
“She can talk good if she wants to. She can say Momma and Benny and Di-ane and dink watah. Eh? Dink watah?” A girl in a red jacket came out on the porch.
“You come in here!”
Was she calling Diane or Uncle Benny? Her voice was threatening. Uncle Benny picked up the little girl, and said softly to us, “You better run on home now. You can come and see the ferret some other day,” and headed for the house.
We saw her at a distance, in the same red jacket, going down the road to Buckles’ Store. Her hands were in the pockets of the jacket, her head was bent, her long legs going like scissors. My mother met her, finally, in the store. She made a point of it. She saw Uncle Benny outside, holding Diane, and she asked him what he was doing there and he said, “We’re just waitin’ on her Momma.”
So my mother went in and walked up to the counter where the girl stood, while Charlie Buckle wrote up her bill.
“You must be Mrs. Poole.” She introduced herself.
The girl said nothing. She looked at my mother, she heard what was said, but she herself said nothing. Charlie Buckle gave my mother a look.
“I guess you’ve been busy getting settled. You’ll have to walk over and visit me whenever you feel like it.”
“I don’t walk nowhere on gravel roads unless I have to.”
“You could come across the field,” said my mother, merely because she did not like to walk out and give this girl the last word.
” she told my father. “She’s not any older than seventeen, not possibly. She wears glasses. She’s very thin. She’s not an idiot, that’s not why they were getting rid of her, but she is mentally deranged, maybe, or on the borderline. Well, poor Benny. She’s come to live in the right place though. She’ll fit in fine on the Flats Road!”
She was already getting known there. She had chased Irene Pollox back inside her own yard and up her steps and brought her to her knees and grabbed that babyish white hair in both her hands. So people said. My mother said, “Don’t go over there, never mind about the ferret, I don’t want anybody maimed.”
Nevertheless I went. I did not take Owen because he would tell. I thought I would knock on the door and ask, in a very polite way, if it was all right for me to read the newspapers on the porch. But before I got to the steps the door opened and Madeleine came out with a stove-lid lifter in her hand. She might have been lifting a stovelid when she heard me, she might not have picked it up on purpose, but I could not see it as anything but a weapon.
For a moment she looked at me. Her face was like Diane’s, thin, white, at first evasive. Her rage was not immediate. She needed time to remember it, to reassemble her forces. Not that there was any possibility, from the first moment she saw me, of anything but rage. That or silence seemed to be the only choices she had.
“What are you come spyin’ around here for? What are you come spyin’ around my house for? You better get out of here.” She started down the steps. I retreated before her only as quickly as was necessary, fascinated. “You’re a dirty little bugger. Dirty little spybugger. Dirty little spy-bugger, aren’t you?” Her short hair was not combed, she was wearing a ragged print dress on her flat young body. Her violence seemed calculated, theatrical; you wanted to stay to watch it, as if it were a show, and yet there was no doubt, either, when she raised the stove-lifter over her head, that she would crack it down on my skull if she felt like it—that is, if she felt the scene demanded it. She was watching herself, I thought, and any moment she might stop, fall back into blankness, or like a child brag, “See how I scared you? You didn’t know I was fooling, did you?”
I wished I could take this scene back to tell at home. Stories of Madeleine were being passed up and down the road. Something had annoyed her in the store and she had thrown a box of Kotex at Charlie Buckle.
(Lucky she wasn’t holding a can of corn syrup!)
Uncle Benny lived under a hailstorm of abuse, you could hear it from the road. “Got yourself a Tartar there, didn’t you, Benny?” people would say, and he would chuckle and nod, abashed, as if receiving congratulations. After a while he started telling stories himself. She had thrown the kettle through the window because there wasn’t any water in it. She had taken the scissors and cut up his green suit, which he had only worn once, at his wedding; he did not know what she had against it. She had said she would set fire to the house, because he had brought her the wrong brand of cigarettes.
“Do you think she drinks, Benny?”
“No she don’t. I never brought a bottle into the house and how is she going to get a bottle by herself and besides I would of smelt it on her.”
“You ever get near enough to her to smell it, Benny?”
Uncle Benny would lower his head, chuckling.
“You ever get that close to her, Benny? Bet she fights like a pack of wildcats. You have to tie her up sometime when she’s asleep.”