Authors: Wallace Stegner
“Yes,” she says, and puts her forehead against his chest and pounds it on him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
“Sorry why? Don’t you want to?”
“I made you say it.”
“You never made me say anything I didn’t want to say.”
She rubs her nose against him. Her breath is warm through his shirt. In a little voice she says, “I just got my grades. They aren’t very good.”
“That’s my fault. I’ve been taking up all your time.”
“I took up yours, too. And you’ve been working, besides. What did
get, straight A’s?”
As a matter of fact, he did, but he lies. “Not that good.”
“Whatever you got, you can do it. You’re bright, and you’re a man. I’ll be lucky if I get my certificate, and luckier if I get a decent job. I’m twenty-two, Bruce! I don’t want to spend my life clerking at Auerbach’s.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll see you don’t have to.”
Now she is reading him again, braced back against his arm. “You mean you’ll take care of me? I wonder. You’ll take advantage of me and then something will come up, some chance or other, and you’ll drop me like a hot rock.”
The papers burn in his hip pocket. He does not know what he is going to do about them. But what he says is: “I told you I want to marry you. What more can I say? As a matter of fact, Joe was just telling me his dad wants the two of us to take over the nursery. He’d let me buy in. I’d be a partner.”
Hearing himself, he is both dismayed and thrilled—dismayed because he so falsely conceals the business about law school, thrilled because, spelled out this way, job and girl and all, the second option takes his breath.
“As for taking advantage of you,” he whispers into her pinesoap-scented hair, “yes! I can’t wait.”
Her eyes come up a moment and are hidden against his chest again. He sees the part in her hair. Even in his heated state, as with Forsberg a few minutes earlier, he notes how false real emotion can make us appear. She
coy and false.
“You, too,” he tells her. “You love me. You want to. Don’t you?”
She says into his shirt, “Would I be acting like this if I didn’t? Damn you, you … You know what I was thinking when I told Eddie you were driving me down home? I was hoping you would. I kept thinking of being alone with you. I kept wanting to show you off to Buck and my father and sister and everybody. My father’s always after me to marry some nice boy and settle down and quit living in apartments. He thinks it’s dangerous, or immoral, or something. And I was thinking, if we did go, there might be some place … I know I couldn’t say no to you, and I didn’t know how you felt about—marriage, and everything. If I didn’t say no, and then you didn’t want to marry me, where would I be? You wouldn’t respect me. You’d lose interest.”
What he hears is unreal, like the murmured talk of a talking picture heard without seeing the picture. Laocoön in the toils of his serpent had no more pressure on his chest or thunder in his ears. He tips her chin up and stares into her eyes, to see if they are saying what her mouth is saying. But she will not look directly at him. He encloses her in a shivering, exultant hug.
“When is this wedding?”
“Day after tomorrow.”
“Can you postpone starting your job? Say you’re not quite through school?”
“I think so.”
“I’ll get tomorrow and the next day off. How far is it down there?”
“A hundred and seventy-five miles.”
“My car’ll be fixed by tonight. We can leave early tomorrow and camp out somewhere and come in just before the wedding, as if we’d driven straight down.”
She studies him with her lower lip bitten thoughtfully under her even teeth. “I … can’t leave early tomorrow.”
Her eyes hunt in his like someone hunting for a lost earring in the grass. “I have to see somebody.”
“Why are you so inquisitive! The doctor, if you have to know.”
“About what? What’s wrong?”
“Can’t it wait?”
Her eyes still hunting in his, her lips bending into a smile, she shakes her head. “No.”
Heated conjectures have started up in him. He is almost totally ignorant, and timid to boot, and afraid to think what his mind suggests to him. Yet the suggestion is unavoidable. Something female. Something in preparation for their trip? He knows the limerick about the girl from St. Paul who went to the birth-control ball, and about her pessaries and other accessories, but he has only a dim idea what the accessories might be, or how they work. In the world of Jack Bailey it is the gentleman who provides protection. Is she really, as coolly as this, contemplating getting herself something, knowing she intends to go all the
way? The thought instantly quells desire. Then he realizes that she has no such thing in mind. She could not even conceive of taking love so coolly. She is only telling him that she has something wrong, some variety of the female troubles that the Lydia Pinkham ads speak of but nice girls do not.
“When do we go, then? Day after?”
“Can you arrange it?”
“I sure as hell
And the day after, too, so we can stop somewhere on the way back.” The further this conversation goes, the more unbelievable it is. He looks into the bottomless brown pool of her eyes, and what he sees there lifts him eight inches off the floor. “Do you know somewhere?”
“I was thinking. Have you ever been in Fruita?”
“In the Capitol Reef?”
“Yes. It’s just a pocket in the cliffs, on the Dirty Devil. An uncle of mine has a peach orchard there. We’ve camped in it sometimes. There’s a grove of cottonwoods, and a ditch that comes right out of the river, and an old log house that he stores hay in. Nobody lives within two or three miles. Anyway, they’ll all be staying on at home after the wedding.”
“Perfect!” He puts his lips to the fragrant part in her hair and whispers against her skull. “And you will. Tell me you will.”
“You’ll think I’m fast.”
“I think you’re wonderful. Gorgeous! Incredible! Beyond compare! Say you will.”
“Oh, do I have to
you?” She lays her forehead against his chest and immediately pulls it back. “Bruce?”
“I don’t want you to think …”
“I don’t think anything except that you love me.”
“No, there’s something.… Why I have to go to the doctor. I’ve got … You know, something’s a little wrong. To fix it they might have to … I might not be technically a virgin.”
Full of magnanimity, he forgives her. “Who cares?”
“I don’t want you to think anything.”
“You’re a darling.”
She takes his wandering hands and holds them. “You!” she says. “You’re exactly what my father is afraid I’ll get mixed up with!”
Her eyes swim and change, they have suction in them, they pull him down. She is smiling. With her eyes wide open she kisses him.
Eventually, somehow, he breaks away, still leaning to kiss her one more time through the door as it closes. He is shaky, his face is stiff. What he feels as he leaps down the sidewalk is not love, not desire, not anything that simple. It is nothing that needs further gratification. It is already gratified. It is wonder.
The sun is intense and dizzying, straight overhead. The shade where Joe sits seems like darkness. When he levitates into the seat, Joe rouses himself.
“You already? You haven’t been gone more than two hours. If you’d only stayed a while, Welby’d have had it all bagged.”
“Pree-cisely,” Joe says. Pulling away from the curb and setting a course toward Sugar House, he looks at Bruce curiously out of the corners of his eyes, but he asks no questions.
As for Bruce, he seethes behind his pretense of everyday-ness. His mind is full of reruns of the scene he has just left. He is formulating the lies he will have to tell J. J. Mulder in asking for two days off. And one other thing, one unworthy thought: If a girl were getting ready to go to bed with a fellow, and wasn’t sure how experienced or inexperienced he was, but was afraid he might know she was not a virgin, she might, if she were scheming but not too clever, tell such a story as Nola had just told him.
An expert in untruths, he feels the unlikelihood of her being deflowered, at just this moment, by a doctor. It is too pat. It anticipates potential questions. And there is Eddie Forsberg, high school sweetheart, who had some reason to think she might marry him and go off with him to the Philippines. He must have had reason. But he can’t pursue her down to the ranch because her father or brother might shoot him.
He dismisses these sneaky thoughts. He believes her because he wants to believe her, because he can’t equate such a lie with the look in her eyes and the passion with which she kisses him. He shoves the treacherous little notion back and away, he smothers it in anticipations, he obscures it with fantasies of pure young love in a paradise oasis among the red cliffs.
Except for the wrinkles in it, the sweater might have been brand-new. He held it up and looked for holes, sniffed the wool for the smells of preservation: neither moths nor mothballs had been there. The thing might have come straight from its original Utah Woolen Mills box. Mason couldn’t remember whether or not he had ever seen Nola wear it. At least she hadn’t given it to Bailey.
Laying it aside, he picked up the two bundles of letters, one tied with string, one with a piece of brown velvet ribbon that he seemed to remember around Nola’s hair, times when she let it down and bound it behind her head. When she sat at the piano it hung down her back in a thick, dark-chestnut sheaf like a horse’s tail, clear to the bench.
As between those tied with string and those tied with ribbon, he chose those tied with ribbon. They were not, he saw, chronologically arranged, only bundled together. Put in order and read consecutively, they might make a sort of sickly
Sturm und Drang
novel, a decaffeinated
Sorrows of Young Werther
Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre.
He was certainly not going to read them through. He might look at the top one.
It was postmarked March 4, 1931. That would have been only
a little while after he got back to Minneapolis from Chet’s funeral. At Christmas he hadn’t been able to go home because the banks had all failed, and the savings of more than four years at the Mulder Nursery had gone in one blow, crossed out. Lesson number one in the curriculum of growing up. The holidays he had hoped to spend with Nola in Salt Lake he spent in Minneapolis in the company of other threadbare students, eating crackers and cottage cheese, and milk kept cold on the window ledge, and reading, reading, reading, boning up in hornbooks, reviewing torts and contracts and crimes in preparation for February’s exams, and putting in a systematic three hours a day on general books calculated to improve his mind. Aristotle just then, as he recalled:
, one after the other—books he had managed never to hear of during his undergraduate years, and as unrelated to his immediate life as the Harvard Classics philosophers he had read when he was fifteen.
Then, at the end of January, on the eve of examinations, came the telegram announcing the last of Chet’s misfortunes and mistakes. Lesson number two followed so fast upon number one that he hardly had time to set his feet. Like his catch-up reading, his instruction in real life had much ground to cover in only a little time.
If Chet had not been generous and good-natured, he would not have worked up a sweat on a cold and windy day, helping dig somebody’s car out of the snow at the Ecker ski-jumping hill outside of Park City. If he had been born luckier, he would have waited to catch pneumonia until after antibiotics had tamed it. Being generous, unlucky, and ill-timed, he dug and pushed, he got overheated, he fell sick, and he died within six days. “I’m leaving you the dirty work, Ma,” he told his mother a few hours before he drowned in his own secretions. Then he escaped from his future, which was drab, and his marriage, which was in trouble, and abandoned to the responsibility of others the daughter he had conceived before he was legally a man.
Bruce came home to a week of clenched misery. Chet’s wife had gone to pieces, his father ate his own vitals in guilt and self-blame, his mother tried to hold them both up, Bruce tried to support her. It was his father who took that death hardest. He had always liked Chet better than Bruce. Chet was an extension
of himself, wholly masculine, big-chested, unbookish, an athlete. Even after the runaway marriage and the subsidence into odd jobs and semipro baseball, the dream of the big chance, big leagues, big success, had never quite died for either of them.
It was like the game of swatting the baby with a pillow: the old man never realized it wasn’t going well until it had gone all to pieces. He never knew how he felt about Chet until Chet was dead. Every night Bruce heard him moaning in nightmares, and his mother’s voice as she tried to wake him to a reality as bad as his dreams.
Death closed their closed family in upon itself more than ever; they were as impervious as a spore. There was no room for Nola among them. Bruce had to find time for her separately, which was not easy. She was tied down by classes and practice teaching. He saw her only in the evening, late, when her own work was done and when his parents had gone to bed so that he could borrow the car. Their hours together were somber. Though she was sympathetic, and cried for his trouble, it was the renewed separation that she feared. She couldn’t make anything out of their brief bleak reunion for thinking how soon it would end.
He could give her only scraps of himself. His mind was always back at the house where his mother would be lying sleepless, waiting for the next installment of his father’s nightmare and hoping for the sound of Bruce’s key in the door. Through the months in Minneapolis, Nola had been an anguish in his blood, he had been swollen with visions; but while he was at home they never even tried to make love. There was no place, and anyway Chet would have lain like an accusation between them. All they did was sit in the cold car and torment one another with abortive touching, and kisses that had in them something like a groan.