Authors: Wallace Stegner
“But eventually,” Holly said. “And get buried in Salt Lake.”
“Necessarily,” she said. “Oh, Bruce, she doesn’t have a
“She’s got anything I want or need,” he said. They didn’t say much more. He was angry. So, he supposed, was she. Very shortly after that, Nola moved out of the tower. It was just too awkward.
She didn’t come to the Temple Square because it was a church hotel. Her family were as much cowboy as churchgoer, and she herself was no more religious than a lizard on a rock. She had a summer job in a downtown department store. The hotel was new, clean, and convenient. Perhaps there was also at work in her a residual country girl timidity. In the city she had lived in her sorority house or with roommates, never alone. Living alone would be pleasanter for her and Bruce, but she may also have
felt it more dangerous. This was Utah, 1929 or 1930. Perhaps she picked the church’s hotel to ensure the supervision she had just discarded.
Mason had no more idea now than he had then why she had chosen as she did when their growing involvement led them away from the awkwardness of being around Holly. Looking across at the bright entrance behind which a precise memory lay waiting to be examined, he first examined himself to see if there was any mold of old emotion on any of this, and decided that there was not. It was as clean as a bleached bone, without power to do more than make him smile.
It was late, well after midnight. He saw the two of them enter the lobby, he saw that walk of hers that made him, even in passionless retrospect, want to pat her on the haunch the way one might pat a muscled quarterhorse. He saw himself only vaguely, assiduous but in tow. He saw the elevator man stand up from his stool inside his lighted cage, rocking on one heavy built-up shoe.
Nola gave him her warm, sleepy smile. Bruce too smiled at him. He would have smiled at anyone on earth, and not simply because by that time he had been trained to smile for business reasons by J. J. Mulder. They were young, happy, and in love. They were what all the world is supposed to love, and they loved all the world. Probably they had in mind the same program: He would take her to her room, they would neck a while, they would part lingeringly, unwilling but not questioning the forms, and then he would go home. Tomorrow after work he would call her. They would go to a movie, take a walk, window-shop up and down Main Street, maybe drive up on Wasatch Boulevard and park above the valley lights. Summer stretched ahead of them, a succession of such days and nights.
Nola stepped into the elevator. But as Bruce started to follow, the steel door slid briskly across in front of him. The elevator man looked at him through the crack. “Not upstairs,” he said.
Bruce completely failed to take him in. “I don’t live here,” he said foolishly. “I’m only taking her to her room.”
“Not in this hotel.”
Still not sure he wasn’t joking, or that he had not misunderstood,
Bruce tempted his good nature with a disarming smile. “Why? What might I do?”
The elevator man’s eyes were as round as the eyes of a fish, and seemed to be surrounded by rings of cartilage. They goggled and stared, unamused. “Rules,” he said. “After eleven.”
Past his head, Bruce could see Nola. Instead of storming out, as he half expected her to, she only looked astonished. “Come on, this is a bum joke,” he said to the elevator man. “What kind of hotel is it where you can’t go up to a room?”
“She can go up.”
“Suppose we want to talk a minute?”
The goggle eyes rolled, indicating the empty lobby, lighted like a stage set.
“What if we’d rather be alone while we talk?”
“Good Christ!” Bruce said, unbelieving.
“No need to bla
,” the elevator man said meanly.
, the door slid shut. The brass needle above it started to creep up around the half circle of its dial.
Furious, Bruce darted around the corner and sprang up the carpeted stairs three at a time. Inside the wall he could hear the laboring sigh of the cable, the click as the slow cage passed the second floor. He was at the third floor ahead of it, but stopped short of the hall, his hand against the wall at the top step. There was an irritable series of clicks as the operator jacked the cage to the floor level, then the rattle of the folding iron grate, then the clash of the door. Bruce heard no talk. Did she bawl him out? Was she going to make him take her back down to the lobby, where he presumably was?
She appeared, walking past the stairhead. Her head turned very slightly, her eyes touched his with their very corners, at her left side her hand made a small, natural flicking motion. She went on without pausing.
In two bounds Bruce was down to the landing and around the corner out of sight. Just in time. Above him he heard the shuffling of what he supposed was the operator’s heavy shoe and the rasping of what he knew, holding his own breath, was breathing. He listened like a tourist in the tabernacle waiting for
the pin to drop. His ears were sticking two feet above his head, his heart was pounding so hard he was afraid the operator would hear it. It was like a movie chase out the windows and across the rooftops and through the alleys. He was pumped full of adrenalin and absolutely delighted. The operator of course couldn’t be sure he had come upstairs; he only suspected he had. And if Bruce couldn’t outfox that gimpy-legged cross between a bishop’s first counselor and a house detective, he was slower and less smart than he thought he was.
Shuffling. Breathing. Then nothing. Was he sneaking down the stairs? No, he couldn’t be that quiet. Bruce waited. After quite a time he heard the elevator door slide shut, then the inner grille. But the shaft, encased in the wall right beside his ear, gave up no sigh of the descending cage. Within fifteen seconds he heard the door softly open again. The operator was standing up there waiting to see if his pretense of departing had decoyed Bruce into the open.
He badly underestimated his opposition. Bruce went down to 2, where he could watch the dial. For a while it sat dead on 3, then it started down. He leaped back up to 3 and watched the dial there.
The operator was a most suspicious snoop. The needle stopped at 2, but instead of going on down to the lobby, it started up again. Ready to explode with excitement and triumph, willing to play hide-and-seek all night if the fathead wanted, Bruce slipped halfway down and around the corner. Again the sound of doors, again a wait. Finally the sighing of the cable within the walls. Bruce went up to 3 and watched the needle descend clear to L and stay there. All right, then. He must have satisfied himself that the rule-breaker was not in the building.
But he was, he was there like the Thief of Baghdad in the harem. The numbered doors flowed past him till he came to the right one. There he laid his cheek against the wood and scratched softly with his nails.
She opened, pulled him in, closed and locked again. She had let her hair down, and she was laughing without noise, whispering, “How did you duck him? He was sure you’d come up. When I passed you, he was right on my heels almost.”
“He’s got to be better than he is if he’s going to catch me.”
He was breathless, boastful, aggrandized. The chase had worked on him; the whispering secrecy of her room, made illicit by the elevator man’s suspicions, worked on him more. His hands were full of her clean, thick, slippery hair, their bodies were locked together, there were long close kisses in the close hallway. They made a stumbling sideward progress, without unlocking lips or arms, until they reached the sofa and fell into it. There, temporarily jarred loose, they looked into each other’s eyes with their noses two inches apart.
“Ah!” she said, and with her eyes wide open brought her lips close and put them with deliberate fierceness against his. “Ah, you!”
Bruce said nothing, burrowing into her throat to kiss a knob of collarbone. She had a sweet warm odor. Her hair smelled of pine soap, a simple village folk smell that somehow defined her.
“Sometime, sure,” he had told Holly on the porch of the tower house two months before. “Not right this week.” But here they were locked together, hungry, devouring one another. The escapade with the elevator man had quickened her as well as him. She was not phlegmatic, remote, or amused. She was aroused, and so was he.
But he had not yet naturalized the idea that a girl he was in love with, a nice girl, might be so emotionally excited that she would go, as the phrase went, “all the way.” They necked passionately for a while, and then after an unmeasured time—half hour, hour—she pushed him away and sat up and stretched. Her eyes looked unfocused, the pupils enlarged to fill the whole iris. “Well,” she said, and laughed softly, and at once grew serious again and said, “How are you going to get out of here? You’ll have to walk right past the elevator.”
“I’ll have to stay here all night and go out with the crowd in the morning.”
He said it jokingly, programmed as he was for the game of assault and resistance, siege and defense, scaling ladders and boiling oil, that was their accepted pattern. He said it hoping that against all precedent she might agree, and half terrified that she would, and sure all the time that she would not.
Erect on the sofa, her hair a tangled dark mass over her shoulders, she looked at him out of the corners of her eyes. He could
see the glint of white eyeballs, and in the dark pupils a dot of red reflected from the down-on-the-floor lamp. They stared at each other, precarious between opportunity and inhibition.
Then he saw that she was not going to give in. “No,” she said. “No. Not now.”
“When, then?” Safe, he could be importunate.
Her eyes moved on his face, memorizing him. She leaned and kissed him slowly. He took a handful of her hair and pulled it across her mouth and kissed her through it, an exciting, sexy kiss that at once relinquished and asserted.
“Ah, you!” she said again. “I can’t seem to get enough of you tonight.” Then she removed herself from him, without moving at all. “How are you going to get past him?”
“That’s my problem. When are you going to move out of this old ladies’ home?”
“I’ve paid a week in advance.”
“Don’t stay any longer. Let’s start looking for some other place tomorrow.”
“All right. But you’ve got to go now. You’ve got to go
GO! My name will be mud if they catch you here.”
“What can they do?”
“I don’t want to find out. Write my father, maybe.” She took him by the ears and wagged his head back and forth, pecking him with kisses that hit and missed. “You!” she said a third time. “Get out of here! You’re driving me wild.”
He yielded. He had always been going to yield. He knew the rules. But as they went through five more minutes of panting good-nights, as he finally broke away and sneaked down the stairs and with ridiculous ease caught the elevator man dozing on his stool, and slipped out the side entrance unseen, he was full of the awed realization that the rules were about to change. One of these days, the next time the opportunity presented itself, he would press her again, and the answer would be yes. It was yes tonight. There was no way to think around a fact like that. All he could do, driving home, was visualize that coming event in a dozen ways, each softer and more secret than the last.
So there she was, retrieved by his computer along with all the rest of it. The old way of thinking of the memory as an attic was
absurd. In attics things gathered dust. There was no dust on any of this. It was as fresh as if he had reached back only an hour. He could feel the humorous violence with which she took hold of him, he could smell pine soap.
Without ever crossing the street to look into the hotel, he turned back along the wall of the temple block to where Brigham Young stood at the bright beginning of Main Street. The night was mild, with a steady flow of air from the mountains. The street reaching southward was Anystreet, Anywhere, and yet he knew it in its special and local identity. Simply by the way it lay on the earth he knew it. It lay on his mind that same way.
He turned down it among the thin evening crowds.
As he walked, scraps of a poem were bothering the back of his mind. Something about being sick for home for the red roofs and the olives, something about It is a strange thing to be an American. McLeish? Whoever it was, Mason agreed. He had felt it all during his years abroad, when he represented in foreign countries a country to which he himself belonged only tentatively and temporarily and partially, but by which he had been shaped, evoked, limited, given opportunity, perhaps warped or damaged. Many a time he, too, had been sick for home, not for red roofs and olives, but for this city planted between the desert and the mountains. Yet as he walked in the shirt-sleeve night among the paragranite urns, planters, fountains, and stelae that crowded the tiled sidewalks of transformed Main Street, there was little that evoked memory or nostalgia. Home was another word for strange.
His initial inclination to think well of it, to accept Progress, withered as he walked. Urban slick. He might have thought it attractive in Montreal or San Francisco, cities about which he held no illusions. But it wasn’t Salt Lake. A flock of bronze sea gulls rising from a sunken garden in front of the Prudential Building, new to him, revived his approval briefly. Then more paragranite,
and fountains whose jets wagged like sheeps’ tails. What he remembered was shabbier, homelier, friendlier than this. A salmon turning inland after years in salt water should taste with certainty and gladness the waters of its birth.
Something was missing, and it took him nearly a block to realize what. Streetcars. Now it was buses rank with diesel exhaust, silent on rubber. Then it was yellow streetcars with square wheels, clanking, pounding, groaning on curves, audible for blocks (and welcome, too, for their shelter in the rain, warmth in the cold). Their retracted front trolleys stuck out like unicorns’ horns, their rear ones popped blue sparks at the switches, and now and then jumped the cable and rained blobs of fire until the conductor hopped down and pulled the trolley away from the wire and set its wheel in place again. It was a favorite sport for boys to jerk the trolley and scatter, hooting derision as the conductor stormed out.