Authors: Wallace Stegner
FIRST VINTAGE EBOOKS EDITION, FEBRUARY 2015
Copyright © 1979 by Wallace Stegner
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Originally published in the United States by Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
Vintage and colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Portions of the lyric from “Nobody Lied” (When They Said That I Cried Over You), music by Edwin J. Weber, words by Karyl Norman and Hyatt Berry. Copyright © 1922 Warner Bros. Inc. Copyright renewed. All rights reserved; “Ain’t We Got Fun,” words by Gus Kahn and Raymond Egan, music by Richard Whiting. Copyright © 1921 Warner Bros. Inc. Copyright renewed. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Portions of the lyric from “There’s a Quaker Down in Quaker Town,” words by David Berg, music by Alfred Solman. Copyright © 1916 by Edwin H. Morris & Company, Inc. Copyright renewed. International Copyright Secured. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Edwin H. Morris & Company, Inc., and Jerry Vogel Music Company, Inc.
eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-91172-3
The truth is like a lizard; it leaves its tail in your hand and runs away; it knows that it will shortly grow another one.
Think of anything, of cowboys, of movies, of detective stories, of anybody who goes anywhere or stays at home and is an American and you will realize that it is something strictly American to conceive a space that is filled with moving.
The highway entering Salt Lake City from the west curves around the southern end of Great Salt Lake past Black Rock and the ratty beaches, swings north away from the smoke of the smelter towns, veers toward the dry lake bed where a long time ago the domes of the Saltair Pavilion used to rise like an Arabic exhalation, and straightens out eastward again. Ahead, across the white flats, the city is a mirage, or a mural: metropolitan towers, then houses and channeled streets, and then the mountain wall.
Driving into that, smelling the foul, exciting salt-flat odor, Bruce Mason began to feel like the newsreel diver whom the reversed projector sucks feet first out of his splash. Probably fatigue from the hard day and a half across the desert explained both the mirage-like look of the city and his own sense of being run backward toward the beginning of the reel. Perhaps his errand had something to do with it; it was not the first time he had returned to Salt Lake to bury someone. But those previous returns, dim and silvery in his memory, almost subliminal, were from the east, through the mountains. This route suggested something else. This was the road out which, at sixteen or seventeen, he used to drive much too fast in stripped-down Ford bugs with screaming companions in the rumble seat. They must have
driven back, too, but he remembered only the going out. To see the city head on, like this, was strange to him.
He had not prepared himself for this return to the city of his youth, had made no plans beyond the obligation of seeing his aunt properly buried. And he had no psychological excuse or nostalgia, had not been left skinless and purified by a serious illness, had had no cause for reviving memories of his forgotten adolescence. Yet anticipation leaped up bright and unexpected in his mind, and his eyes were sharp for landmarks and reminders as he passed the airport and the expanding edge-of-town industries and the old fairgrounds, and slowed for the first streets of the city.
Forty-five years had made differences, but they did not seem critical. The city had spread a good deal, and he was surprised, after the desert, by the green luxuriance of its trees. But the streets were still a half mile wide, and water still ran in at least some of the gutters. It really was a pleasant town; it looked young and vigorous and clean. Passing the Brigham Young monument, he nodded gravely to the figure with the outstretched hand, and like a native coming home he turned at the light in the middle of the block and pulled into the parking garage that had replaced the old Deseret Gymnasium. That change jolted him a little. The old rattrap gym had held a lot of the boy he used to be.
The doorman collared his bag, a youth climbed in to take the car underground. Still running pleasantly backward into the reel, he went into the not-much-changed lobby and registered, and was carried up the not-much-changed elevator to the kind of room he remembered, such a room as they used to take when they held fraternity and class dances in this hotel, back in Prohibition times. During at least one of those years he had been on a diet for ulcers, and couldn’t drink, but he used to retire religiously with the boys, gargle raw Green River red-eye, and spit it out again in the washbowl, only for the pleasure of lawbreaking and of carrying a distinguished breath back to the ballroom and the girls.
With his bag on the rack, his hand still holding the handle, he stood still for a second, remembering his giddy and departed youth.
Later, fresh from the shower, he picked up the telephone book
and hunted up the Merrill Funeral Parlor. But when he had found it he was troubled, struck by the address: 363 East South Temple. On the Avenues side, somewhere around D Street, near the cathedral. He tried to visualize that once-familiar street, but it was all gone except for a generalized image of tall stone and brick houses with high porches, and lawns overtaken by plantain weeds. One, the one Holly had lived in, had a three-story stone tower.
That tower! With all the Jazz Age bohemians crawling in and out. Havelock Ellis, Freud, Mencken,
The Memoirs of Fanny Hill
Love’s Coming of Age
The Well of Loneliness
, Harry Kemp, Frank Harris. My Lord.
He was flooded with delighted recollection. They were all there before him—reed-necked aesthetes, provincial cognoscenti, sad sexy yokels, lovers burning with a hard, gem-like flame, a homosexual or two trying to look blasted and corroded by secret sin. Painters of bile-green landscapes, cubist photographers, poets and iconoclasts, resident Dadaists, scorners of the bourgeoisie, makers of cherished prose, dream-tellers, correspondence-school psychoanalysts, they swarmed through Holly’s apartment and eddied around her queenly shape with noises like breaking china. He remembered her in her gold gown, a Proserpine or a Circe. For an instant she was slim and tall in his mind and he saw her laughing in the midst of the excitement she created, and how her hair was smooth black and her eyes very dark blue and how she wore massive gold hoops in her ears.
He wrote the number down in his notebook and tucked it into the pocket of the seersucker jacket laid out on the bed. But when he had dressed and gone down and was walking in the blazing heat up South Temple past the Church offices, Beehive House, Lion House, the Eagle Gate, the Elks Club and the Alta Club, the old and new apartments, he began to look at numbers with a feeling that approached suspense, and he searched not so much for the Merrill Funeral Parlor as for the house with the stone tower. Finally, just past the cathedral, he saw it lifting across the roof of a mansion gone to seed, and in another thirty paces he could see the sign and the new brass numbers on the riser of the top porch step. It was the very house.
Quickly he looked around for something that would restore
and brace his memory. The street did not look much changed. Some of the old maples and hickories he remembered were gone, and the terrace rolled down with an unfamiliar smooth nap of grass. The porch no longer carried its sagging swing, and porch and steps had been renovated and painted. The door was as he remembered it, with rays of colored glass in its fanlight, and the doorknob’s massive handful was an almost startling familiarity. But inside, all was changed. Partitions had been gutted out. The stairs now mounted, or levitated, a spiral of white spokes and mahogany rail, from an expanse of plum-colored carpet. Instead of the cupping old parquetry his feet found softness, hushedness. The smells were of paint and flowers.
He was eying the stairs when a young man came out of the office on the left and bent his head leftward and said softly and pleasantly, “Yes, sir. Can I help?”
Mason brought himself back to what he had driven eight hundred miles to do. He said, “I’m Bruce Mason. My aunt, Mrs. Webb, died day before yesterday at the Julia Hicks Home. They telephoned me that she’d be here.”
“Oh, yes, Mr. Ambassador,” the young man said, and put out an eager hand which Mason found narrow, cold, and surprisingly strong. It was like shaking hands with a perching bird. “We’ve been expecting you. It’s an honor to meet you. My name is McBride.”
“How do you do,” Mason said, and added, “Let’s forget the ‘ambassador,’ shall we? That was a while back.”
“As you wish.” McBride regarded him, smiling, with his head tilted. “Did you fly in?”
“By yourself? From San Francisio?” He seemed surprised to learn that an ex-ambassador could drive a car.
“I slept a few hours in Elko.”
“It wasn’t so bad, then.”
“Oh, no. Not bad at all.”
This young McBride, Mason was thinking, might be left over from one of Holly’s parties. He looked better equipped to write fragile verses than to deal with corpses.
“She’s in the back parlor,” he said. “Would you like to see her? She looks very nice.”
That would be McBride’s function. He would be the one who made them look nice.
“Later,” Mason said. “I expect there are some details we should settle.”
“Of course. If you’ll just step in here. You have a family cemetery plot, I believe. This should take only a few minutes.” He motioned deferentially at the door.
A few minutes sufficed. They rose, facing one another across the desk coolly glimmering in muted light. “Now would you like to see her?”
Clearly he took pride. He probably stood back estimating his effects like a window dresser. Mister McBride, the mortuary Max Factor. “All right,” Mason said. “Though it’s not as if I had any tears to shed. I barely knew her, and I haven’t been back since I left, and she’s been senile for ten years.”
McBride guided him around the unfamiliar stairs to where the plum carpet flowed smoothly into what had once, perhaps, been a dining room. “She does look nice. Very sweet and peaceful.”
Which Mason couldn’t believe she did when she was alive. He went forward to the table with the basket of house chrysanthemums at its foot. To remind himself that this was his father’s sister, the only relative on that side that he ever knew, made him feel nothing. It was only a freak that she had come to Salt Lake at all, hoping to attach herself to his father, and arrived for the funeral. Mason had acquired her as an obligation when he least needed obligations. Though he had helped take care of her for half her life and more than half of his own, he could stir up no feeling for her wax figure. He supposed that if he had been attached to her he might think her peaceful, as McBride instructed him to. But all he could think was that she looked well embalmed.
Old Aunt Margaret, a stranger who had imposed herself on him as an obligation and an expense that at first he didn’t want and couldn’t afford, thrust her sharp nose, sharp cheekbones, and withered lips up through the rouge and lipstick and was only old Aunt Margaret, mercifully dead at eighty-six. He couldn’t even see in her face any resemblance to his father, and he felt none of the conventional disgust with young McBride, who tampered
with the dead. Considering what he had had to work with, McBride had done pretty well.