Authors: Wallace Stegner
He told himself that he had been a very young nineteen. He told himself that the bohemian excitement boiling around Holly was an absurd and perhaps touching and certainly temporary phase of growing up. He told himself that he had not been ready.
Like a bubble of gas escaping from something submerged and decaying in deep water, there rose to the surface of his mind one of Blake’s proverbs of hell that he and Holly had admired together that long-gone Christmas morning. It burst, and it said, “Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.”
The last time Mason had seen Holly, she was boarding a train for Seattle, on her way to Shanghai and a job they all publicly envied and would probably not have risked themselves. Whatever happened to her, her life could not have been dull. She had probably spent it flying around the world like a piece of space hardware. As Mason himself had done, however inadvertently.
Holly had burst out of Salt Lake’s provincial security by choice. He had been thrown out like a bum through swinging doors. The result might have been the same, but the motivation was not; and remembering the night when she stopped playing make-believe and presented him with an option that would have totally changed his life, he half regretted his youthful unreadiness as if it had been a flaw of character and nerve. He disliked that cautious image of himself.
His watch told him it was nearly five. Starting for the door, he passed the dead woman’s table and looked again into her waxen, dead-white face. The skin was delicately wrinkled like the skin of a winter-kept apple, but soft-looking, as if it would be not unpleasant to touch. The barbaric silver necklace somehow defined her. What it said about frivolity, girlishness, love of ornament and life, made him like her. But it lay very soberly on the black crêpe breast.
He thought how she had been tampered with by McBride, and how further touches of disguise would redden cheeks and lips and complete her transformation from something real and terrible and dead to something that could be relinquished and forgotten. He turned away, frowning with a regret that was almost personal, a kind of rueful sorrow. He did not want her to have died.
As he reached the door he threw an apologetic look back at the room as quiet and empty as a chapel, and at the corpse that lay so quietly at its center. There was a dread in the room that he would not stay for. He meant to tiptoe out, but he heard almost with panic the four quick raps his heels made on the bare floor before they found the consoling softness of the stairs.
Smiling, with a manila envelope and a slip of paper in his hand, McBride intercepted him at the bottom. “Find anything you recognize?”
“Too much. Even the body.”
McBride’s eyebrows flew up. “What? Really? You mean …?”
“No, no. Figuratively. Ghosts.”
“Oh. Yes. Yes, of course, I suppose it
be rather disturbing, wouldn’t it? I’m sorry if I …” He handed Mason the manila envelope. “These are some things Mr. Philips brought down from the Home. Your aunt’s watch, wedding ring, and so on. And there’s this box. I don’t know if you’ll want to take it now, or get it later.” He stooped inside the office door and brought out a cardboard box tied with cord.
“Box?” Mason said. “What’s in it, do you know?”
“No. It’s marked with your name, so Mr. Philips didn’t feel he should dispose of it with her other things.”
Mason hefted the box. It was not very heavy. “That’s strange she’d package up something for me. Her mind’s been gone for years.”
“It was something she was keeping for you, I think. I gather it’s been in her room there a long time. I can keep it here if you’d rather take it tomorrow.”
“No, I can take it along now. It’s only two or three blocks.”
“All right. And there’s this,” McBride said, and handed Mason a slip of paper. “Someone telephoned, wants you to call her.”
At first Mason would not accept the piece of paper. He had the unpleasant sense that he had been shadowed, his disguise penetrated, his cover cracked. “Telephoned me? Nobody knows I’m here. Unless my secretary. Was it from California?”
“No, local. She’d read in the paper about Mrs. Webb’s death, and guessed you might be coming. She called the Home first, and they directed her here.”
Mason let his fingers close on the paper. There was nothing on it but a number. “She didn’t leave her name?”
“No. If you want to use the telephone, there’s one right in here.”
Briefly Mason considered and rejected the fantasy that by some incredible coincidence the call might have been from Holly—that he had wandered down this rabbit hole into the past and that now anything was possible, even likely. Absurd, of course. He said, “Was there an obituary notice that named me as a survivor?”
“I don’t know,” McBride said. “Probably. It would be a natural thing, considering who you are. Go ahead and call, if you’d like.”
But Mason stuck the paper into the breast pocket of his jacket. “Thanks, I’ll call from the hotel. Will you do me a favor?”
“If anyone else calls for me, or this woman calls again, you don’t know where I’m staying. Take their numbers, and their names, too, if you can.”
“What time should I be here tomorrow?”
“There’s only the graveside service. No reason to come until we’re about ready to start for the cemetery. Say eleven-thirty?”
“Good. I’ll try to have some flowers sent up.”
“That will be nice.” McBride bent his head sideward in deferential agreement, like a Goan houseboy, and Mason picked up the box by the cord and went out into the unabated heat.
The afternoon sun glared in his eyes. The sun glancing off the
pavement lifted into the air a dark, wet-looking mirage. Cars going townward into the rising heat waves began to blur, grew as tall and square and black as the old Dodges of his youth, stretched and lifted off the street darker and higher until, tall as towers, they merged with the buildings downtown.
All his impressions suffered from distortion and ambiguity. Looking at buildings, he couldn’t say whether he remembered them or whether his memory was filling the street with things it wanted familiar. Though he had been vaguely prepared for changes, he had not foreseen how strangeness and familiarity might fuse. He knew the street but was made uneasy by it. Was that because the person who saw and the person who remembered were not the same, though they used the same eyes?
He knew this Bruce Mason who walked down South Temple Street carrying a cardboard box of his aunt’s unwanted leavings. He had lived with him a long time, knew what he could do and how he would respond to different situations. But Bruce Mason walked double. Inside him, moving with the same muscles and feeling with the same nerves and sweating through the same pores, went a thin brown youth, volatile, impulsive, never at rest, not so much a person as a possibility, or a bundle of possibilities: subject to enthusiasm and elation and exuberance and occasional great black moods, stubborn, capable of scheming but often astonished by consequences, a boy vulnerable to wonder, awe, worship, devotion, hatred, guilt, vanity, shame, ambition, dreams, treachery; a boy avid for acceptance and distinction, secretive and a blabbermouth, life-crazy and hence girl-crazy, a show-off who could be withered by a contemptuous word or look, a creature overflowing with brash self-confidence one minute and oppressed by its own worthlessness the next; a vessel of primary sensations undiluted by experience, wisdom, or fatigue.
Put aside, postponed, schooled, overtaken by events, he was never defined, much less fulfilled—hardly even remembered until Mason came around Black Rock that afternoon and saw the old lake bottom littered with the stumps of the pilings on which the Saltair Pavilion used to ride above waist-deep water, and turned eastward to see the mirage city rising against its mountains, and heard the ghostly unmufflered roar of Jack Bailey’s bug.
When he took off his jacket, and a drift of air bushed his
sweating forearms with a chill like liquid nitrogen, it was the boy’s skin that cringed with remembrance of what evaporation can do in super-dry air. And when he looked at the people he met, half expecting to encounter someone in whose altered features he could decipher a face once known, it was the boy on whom he relied for recognition. He himself would not know an old acquaintance, no old acquaintance would know him. Actually, he would not have liked meeting anyone the boy might know. He didn’t want either the boy or himself to be recognized. He wanted them to see without being seen, as if they looked through one-way glass.
They met only strangers. In the hot street the sound of tires was sticky. The sidewalk was hot through his soles. Inhabited by his Doppelgänger, exhilarated by the sense of being invisible, he passed the old Church offices with their flower beds, and the garage ramp that had usurped the space of the old gym, and was sucked through a whirl of reflections into the Utah Hotel’s cool lobby.
For the last block he and the boy had been marching to the beat of a scrap of poetry, a little 4/4 tune risen from the same cistern that had produced Blake’s proverb of hell:
You need not be a chamber to be haunted.
You need not be a house.
In his room, where a chilly wind blew out of the air conditioner, he threw box and jacket on the bed and called Room Service for ice and tonic water. They came promptly—this had always been a first-class hotel, quintessentially Mormon both in its friendly efficiency and in the air of moneyed confidence it wore. More and more pleased to be here, he got the bottle of gin from his bag—before leaving he had remembered that Utah sold no liquor by the drink—and made himself a gin and tonic.
His was a corner room. The west windows, which looked across Main Street toward Temple Square, he left shrouded, for he could feel how the undiminished heat would burst in at him if he drew the drapes even inches apart. But the south windows were shaded, and he pulled the drapes wide. Sipping his drink, he looked down on the intersection of Main and South Temple, a corner once as familiar as his own face.
Progress had been at work on it. Old buildings had been replaced by newer, taller ones, and something drastic had happened to Main Street. Its sidewalks had been widened well out into the former traffic lanes, and the street narrowed to half its former width. The sidewalks thus expanded had been encumbered with planters, fountains, flower urns, and stelae, all made of a substance that looked like granite but probably wasn’t. The effect was rather like the Soviet exhibit at a World’s Fair, something created by Heroic Workers. Merely human activities would be diminished on such a street. God pity the adolescent who in his exuberance, talking to his girl, turned around and walked backward. God pity the woman who window-shopped as she walked. Ass over teacup into a fountain or a bed of golardias.
On the other hand, it did get flowers and young trees into the downtown concrete. It did demonstrate that community pride, half Mormon and half Chamber of Commerce, that had always made Salt Lake a clean and pleasant town. What if the imitation-granite things were too heavy and too many? What if someone now and then did fall into the fountains or the flowers?
As far as he could see down Main, the wide encumbered sidewalks continued. Though he leaned, he couldn’t quite see to the entrance of the old pool hall. Was that smelly cave still there? Probably not. It would be incompatible with beautification and downtown renewal. But he felt its possibility down there, just out of sight, and he was aware of a prompt, defensive caution, like the caution he would have felt if he were walking along a mined road. He kept to one side. He circled.
Brigham Young’s frock-coated figure, standing where the Gentile jingle left him, with his back to the temple and his hand to the bank, cast its shadow almost to the bank’s doors. A car turning the corner burrowed under the shadow like a cat under a rug. When it had passed, the outline of Brother Brigham settled back upon the pavement as intact as revelation.
Then something strange. The intersection drifted and became a double exposure, as if a transparent overlay had been slid across it. Over the modern corner with its striped pedestrian crossings and its wide cluttered sidewalks hovered the image of an older, simpler meeting of streets. From his window he saw three foreshortened figures pass below him and turn to cross South Temple. The camera cut to street level and he saw them
plain: three sunburned boys of sixteen or seventeen or eighteen, one of them very tall, with red hair, one dark and curly-headed, one thin and blond, all of them in white shirts whose sleeves were rolled nearly to the shoulder, and in white Navy-surplus bell-bottomed ducks with laces at the back of the waist.
Slim-hipped identicals, walking with a spring that could at any moment break into a run, they grin back over their shoulders at the camera. Three abreast, they pass out of the frame, out of sight, out of time—glimpsed and gone, irrecoverable, their presence written on the hot summer air of a period as irrecoverable as they: Joe Mulder, Jack Bailey, Bruce Mason, fixed for a few seconds by a Pathé News cameraman filming a Salt Lake City street scene in the summer of what? 1925? 1926, the summer after their freshman year in college.
The day was there intact. They had just come from the tennis club, where Mulder and Mason had won a doubles match that put them into the third round of the state tournament. From the club they had accompanied Bailey to the Mission Home, which he would enter tomorrow to be briefed and purified for his coming mission to Tonga. They were now on their way down to Second South to have a hot beef sandwich at the workingmen’s restaurant known as Joe Vincent’s. On Mason’s palate, either as remembrance or as anticipation, lingered the flavor of that slab of white bread and slab of overdone beef smothered in brown Formula 57 gravy.
The vanished trio left him brooding with the cold edge of the glass against his upper lip. Irrecoverable, but fantastically more real than anything in the modern street, much more real than the planters and fountains of downtown renewal. He had seen them plain, living, solid, as unchangeable as history. They
history. That Pathé newsreel must be preserved somewhere. He could go to the archives and borrow it and project it and turn his momentary hallucination into actual images. Just before the boys appear on camera, President Calvin Coolidge has been crowned with a warbonnet by some tame Sioux in the Black Hills. Just after they pass out of sight beyond the bank corner, a forlorn family will start picking through the wreckage of their home in a tornado-struck Oklahoma town.