Fiction

THE LOVERS

They’d never let their love get plump and prosaic. So they worked hard at keeping it young—too young

MONA WILLIAMS April 1 1949
Fiction

THE LOVERS

They’d never let their love get plump and prosaic. So they worked hard at keeping it young—too young

MONA WILLIAMS April 1 1949

THE LOVERS

MONA WILLIAMS

I HAD accepted the fact that Jean Patrick and Fred Monroe belonged together when I was too young to wonder about it. Like cup and saucer. Knife and fork. Ice cream and cake. We were all in our early teens then and no one else had paired off except those two.

It started, as romances did in those days, in Friday-night dancing class. They simply began to dance together and after a time, in spite of Miss Atkins’ attempt to break it up, they forsook all other dancing partners.

Sometimes they didn’t dance at all, but sat side by side on the folding, slatted chairs that bordered the room, shamelessly holding hands. At first this embarrassed us and we had to work out our feelings by such crudities as “Get a good grip on her,

B’reddy, old boy—she might get away from you!” or, smirkingly, “Ain’t love just grand?”

Jeannie never seemed to mind, but Freddie’s dimpled chin would harden and perspiration would come out on his short upper lip. And his grip on Jean would tighten defiantly.

Before long nobody, even Miss Atkins, tried to break it up; it began to seem natural to us. Once we had jeered at them while they danced; now we were a little proud, having a romance right here in our school-day lives. Jean was small and blond and delicate and B'red was nearly a foot taller, with one of those crisp, serious faces—short, straight nose and cleft chin—that we used to call the Arrow Collar look. When they danced together, B'red bending over her, her little hand resting high on his shoulder, as we danced in those days, we looked at them, feeling kindly and indulgent. “Who,” we danced to, and “Sleepy-Time Gal.”

Fred certainly wasn’t a typical boy, yet he enjoyed doing all the things the other boys did like hunting and fishing. The difference was this; instead of seeking male companionship, he made a companion of Jean. On her sixteenth birthday he gave her a .22 rifle. She showed it to me one day after school.

I regarded it, awed and uncertain. A .22 was something your kid brother got, or hoped to get on his twelfth birthday. I had never known a girl who owned a gun.

“But, Jeannie, what are you going to do with it?” “Learn to shoot. Fred’s going to take me over to Paradise Pond and set up some targets. Tin cans, things like that. I’ve shot off his .32 a few times. He says I’ve got a good eye.”

“But, Jeannie, why? Do you really like shooting and fishing—all that boy stuff?”

Sitting curled in a big chair, clasping the rifle

tenderly as though it were a baby, she looked so frail and incompetent that it was almost laughable. But she answered soberly.

“I’ll get to like it, Alcie. Fred thinks the reason why so many marriages fail is that the man and woman have all separate interests. It happened to his parents, you know—they’re divorced. Well, it’s not going to happen to us—we’re going to do everything together.”

THEY talked like that about their marriage from the time they were sixteen, simply, unaffectedly, as though it was inevitable. And so it happened. We all graduated from high school the same year, and while most of us went on to college or left town for new jobs or adventures, Jean and Fred stayed right where they were and got married. They rented a three-room apartment on Waterton Street, and every day instead of going to school, Fred went downtown to his father’s law office.

He was eighteen, and she a month or so younger, and they were the first settled, married pair among our contemporaries. It gave us all a queer feeling, like reading the last page of a book before you were half through it.

I went to university and stayed there four years; then I met a boy and brought him back to the home town just long enough for our wedding before we went west to live. The first time I returned east for a visit with my parents, I’d been Mrs. Stephen Sloan for five years. My third child had just been weaned and I had it coming—a vacation, I mean. Steve’s mother and a nurse were home coping, and I was free as the air.

The Sunday afternoon before I was to leave for the west, I walked downtown in the rain. I wanted a last look around—I had a hunch it would be a long time before I saw the old town again. Then I saw Jeannie and Fred.

They were sauntering along under a big umbrella and I saw them before they saw me. Jean was clutching Fred’s arm and he was matching his long step to hers: The impression I had was that they loved the rain, and if they were wet or uncomfortable they didn’t know it.

“Jeannie—Fred!” I called out, “how wonderful to see you!”

They came out of their dream. “Why, Alcie! Fred, you remember—it’s Alice Warren.’*

“Alice Sloan now. I have a husband and three children.”

Fred herded me in under the umbrella. “We met your husband once—remember?—We were at the wedding. He here with you now?”

When I explained that I was alone, a fugitive from the domestic life, they were clearly bewildered.

I suppose they couldn’t understand how a happily married woman could enjoy a holiday away from her husband.

I brushed it off. “Well, we can’t just stand here in this rain! Couldn’t we find some den of vice and have tea or a drink or something? We’ve got to catch up.”

Jean said softly, as though she were speaking of a little nest, a cozy hide-out of some kind, “We’ll take you to our place—it’s just around the corner.”

IT GAVE me the oddest sensation—that nest of theirs. A faint, half-amused distaste, added to that curious embarrassment you feel for other people. Towels marked “His” and “Hers” in a strange bathroom make me feel like that. The twosome look to everything. The napkin rings on the breakfast-nook table, two ruffled pillows side by side on the love seat. And in the bedroom where I took off my wet jacket, two chests of drawers. On one (hers) was a framed photograph of Fred, and on the other (his) one of Jean. In front of Jeannie’s picture was a bud vase, holding a single pink peony.

Everything was sweet and clean and orderly, and yet there was a musty, hideaway feeling, as though no fresh air ever blew through these little rooms. It was as though—it is the best way I can express it Jean and Fred weren’t really married, as though they were lovers who must hide from the eyes of the world.

I had a perverse desire to talk about my children.

They’d never let their love get plump and prosaic. So they worked hard at keeping it young—too young

I knew I was being tactless, yet I heard myself rattling off names and ages. Then I asked, “How about the old crowd? Have they all been as prolific as I have?”

Fred said, pouring out sherry, “A surprising number are still around. All married now. This town has grown, you know, since the war.”

“And all having children,” Jean said. “I spent all my evenings last winter knitting bootees for new babies.”

She spoke in her usual gentle voice, so I dared to ask delicately, “But you and Fred haven’t joined the -er, ranks, yet?”

“No. I doubt very much that we ever will.”

I was baffled. Her voice held none of the quality with which people speak of physical limitations. But I couldn’t imagine people not wanting children, especially a couple who loved each other as much as Jean and Fred did.

It was Fred who explained it to me. “You ought to see some of the girls we went to school with. No older than you or Jean! Lost their figures, don’t take care of themselves, nothing in their minds but diapers, formulas and babies. Not you, Alcie, you’re too intelligent. But you know how Jean gives

herself.” He smiled gravely. “I tell my girl she’s already given herself. To me.”

I looked at Jeannie. She didn’t look any older than she had in high school. A little prettier, if anything. She was always blond, but in the chill rain light of that faraway Sunday afternoon I remember her hair was like a little pool of sunshine.

“Besides,” she said then, leaning toward me and clasping her narrow hands together, “you can’t tell me that children don’t change a marriage! Sometimes, I suppose, it’s for the better, when a man and a woman need some joining interest to hold them together, some tangible proof of—well, of their mating—”

She flushed, and her voice grew louder, almost passionate. “But when a couple are purely congenial, and have every interest in common, children would be an invasion of their privacy. You must have to spread love awfully thin to cover a big family!”

I laughed. “That’s a funny way to look at it. As though love were like butter. It’s much more like yeast. If you’ve got a little culture to start with, you can work up all you need.”

“Alcie—please understand—Continued on page 56

Continued from page 11

we’re just talking for us! Don’t take it personally. I’ve always thought you were just the kind of woman who should have children, healthy and capable, and oh, not afraid of anything! But Fred and I—”

Her voice started to rise again, and Fred pulled her back against him on the love seat, his two hands fitted over her shoulders, gentle, but firm, the way you’d close down a bird’s wings.

“Let’s skip it, honey. Remember the last time you agreed we weren’t going to talk about it again?”

She nodded, the color dying out of her face. I was silent, taking that in. His voice sounded casual, and yet, in a way, that handful of words seemed to cancel out everything Jeannie had said.

I stood up. “I’ve got to run along. I’m leaving tomorrow. If you ever get out West, let me know. I’d love to show it to you. I’m one of those enthusiastic, transplanted natives.” Jean said wistfully, “Maybe we will sometime. It would be wonderful for a

while.”

When I left, Fred was saying worriedly that he was afraid she’d caught cold in the rain, that he was going to put her straight to bed with supper on a tray. Then he’d read aloud to her. They were discovering the classics together— right now they were on “Vanity Fair.”

1 walked briskly toward my parents’ house, and 1 thought about Steve, my husband. 1 felt like having a good, wholesome, bang-up fight with Steve, i and then I wanted us to laugh about it later, the way we did. Love was a lot more like yeast than it was like butter.

IT WAS twelve years before Fred and Jeannie got West. I had almost forgotten their existence,. Life was too lull. The past was like an old copybook in a dusty attic, perfectly legible, but not worth rereading.

Steve was doing well in a big realestate development. Stephanie, my oldest, would be entering university next fall and meantime kept the house gay with young people. Dana, my

strapping 14-year-old, was burning up the highways with his new motorbike. Tommy was twelve -the infant I had left the last time 1 went East, the last time 1 had seen the Monroes.

And yet, when Jean’s letter came, and 1 looked at her name at the bottom of the page, her face and Fred’s came alive in my mind. And the curious emotion they used to stir in me came back, too, slight but persistent., like an odor. Pity and indulgence, and a faint, unnamable distaste.

“We’re really going to see the coast at last,” Jeannie wrote. “It’s been our dream for so long! Could you find a place for us to stay? Not too expensive, as our funds are limited. In our minds, you have always been associated with the golden West, so please forgive this presuming on an old friendship. Fred and 1 are babes when it comes to travel —this will be our first time away from home

1 thought of all the days of all the years since their marriage in that musty little apartment, the thousands of meals eaten at that table with the two napkin rings—two lamb chops on the stove, butter bought in quarter pounds, one bottle of milk left at the door.

And then 1 looked around at our big, cheerful, disorderly house, and I listened to the children, raiding the kitchen for their enormous, afterschool snack, and the noise, the throaty adolescent voices of the boys, the laughter and the horseplay, even the wastefulness, all seemed beautiful to me.

At dinner I told the family about Jeannie and Fred. And I said firmly, “One thing I’ve made up my mind about. They’re going to stay in this house. Twelve years they’ve saved for this trip and I don’t suppose they have the faintest idea what hotels cost these days. Tonight, you kids go to work on the guest room. Clear out the dart board, and that dress you’re making, Stephanie, and the sewing machine, and Tommy’s half-built ship models. Tomorrow I’ll have it cleaned.”

Steve, my husband, said reminiscently, “I can almost remember her. Pretty little blonde, with big pansy-blue eyes. Came to our wedding.”

“That’s Jeannie. And Fred was tall,

dark and handsome. You know—they looked like an illustration in a child’s storybook. The beautiful princess and her gallant prince. Hand in hand. You always thought of them as hand in hand, and looking at each other dewy-eyed.”

“Gosh,” Dana said, taking his large, sneakered feet from a chair rung and slapping the front legs on the floor, “this should be something. This should he worth cleaning out the guest room for.”

I sighed. “Fred and Jeannie are forty now. My age. I’m afraid the prince and fairy princess are no more. They’ll probably be plump and prosaic and middle-aged. But they’ll still be in love—I’ll promise you that.”

STEPHANIE’S sixteenth birthday was to be the 22nd of May and we had planned a party for it. Now that I knew the Monroes would be here at that time I decided to move the party to the club where we’d have plenty of room and make it a dual affair. While the kids were dancing, Steve and I would entertain their parents at bridge and we’d serve a big, buffet supper for all.

It would be nice to have a gala event to highlight Fred’s and Jeannie’s visit. Of course Steve was going to fix it so they’d do all the things first visitors to the coast always want to do —swimming at one of the well-known beaches, a visit to Grouse Mountain, a trip to Victoria. But to me, hospitality means introducing people to your friends.

THE day they arrived I took my daughter, Stephanie, to the station. I always like taking Stephanie around. She’s so attractive, dark and rosy and full of life, that I took her just as I might have pinned a fresh flower to my coat—to feel festive.

We were separated by an incoming crowd in the station, and Stephanie got to Jean and Fred before I did. They must have looked enough like my description so that she recognized them, but when I heard her high, sweet voice, “Aren’t you Mr. and Mrs. Monroe?” I turned and experienced a little shock.

Continued on page 58

Continued from page 56 They didn’t look plump and middleaged, but they didn’t look the same, either. Something was all wrong. Jeannie was as alight as ever, but her hair, hanging shoulder-length, had a brassy look, and her face was too thin, and she had on too much make-up. Fred wore a belted camel’s-hair coat and a jaunty bow tie, and when he took off his hat I saw that his hair had receded in two thin points toward the the top of his head.

That was all right; what I didn’t like was the way he was looking at Stephanie. It was that same expression dewy, I had once called it, but now “fatuous” was the word that cam« to mind—with which he used to look at Jeannie. And I had a flashing thought - he can’t help it! It’s the way he’s always looked at pretty young girls.

Then it was all forgotten in the flurry of greeting and I felt my eyes getting wet, because after all these people had been a part of my world before I ever knew Stephen or Stephanie or the boys, and they still called me Alcie, and nobody else knew that had been my little-girl name.

1HAD promised the family that Jeannie and Fred would still be in love; after they had been in the house for two days I wasn’t so sure. There seemed to be a kind of strain between them, and they no longer did everything together. The children were sweet to them. Stephanie’s best friend, Sue Norman, had a car of her own, and the two girls offered to drive the Monroes around, sight-seeing. Fred accepted almost too eagerly, but Jeannie seemed to prefer staying home with me.

She spent a lot of time in her room, setting her hair, doing her nails, creaming her face. One afternoon w'hen Fred was out with the girls I went in there and found her lying on the bed, her hair wound into tight little curlers. Thq shades had been drawn against the brilliant light, but if she was trying to rest she wasn’t accomplishing it; her whole slender body was tense with the effort to relax.

“Perhaps 1 shouldn’t have disturbed you,” 1 said, “but I’m going to drive the boys downtown and I thought you might like to go along for the ride.” She siit up at once.

“They belong to a hoys’ club and they’re working on some Dominion Day shindig.”

Dana and Tommy followed me into the room, wrangling about Dana’s gun. Tommy wanted to borrow it—it seemed he needed a gun for his part in the pageant— but Dana, from the vantage point of two years and five inches, was being tough about it.

“Now, boys,” 1 began. “After all, this is a lady’s bedroom—” But Jeannie was already up and wrapped in a dressing gown.

“Let me see that gun,” she said softly. “It looks just like mine.”

The boys were surprised into silence. Dana handed over the .22 and she ran her hand along the smooth stock.

“Of course, mine’s pretty old. And the barrel’s heavier, as I remember. I haven’t used it in a long time.”

Dana said, with interest, “What’d you do—hunt rabbit and quail and stuff? I mean, 1 guess in the old days there was a lot more wild stuff around to shoot at than there is now.”

“1 never shot at anything. I hated killing.” She sat down at the dressing table and began to take the curlers from the tight brassy little curls. Her face looked small and plain with her hair up that way. “Just targets. I never liked any of it, really. Hunting, fishing, camping out at night. It was lust that circumstances made an out-

door girl of me. Circumstances.”

“Run along,” I said to the boys. “Let Mrs. Monroe get dressed. And take that gun out of here.”

Half an hour later she was sitting beside me in the front seat of the car, with Dana and Tommy in back.

When a red light halted as beside a big, gaudy florist shop, she said suddenly, “Could you park for a few minutes, Alcie? I‘ve got an errand in here.”

I DREW up to the curb and she ran across the sidewalk into the shop. We could all see her through the big glass window, looking, at this distance, like a girl, in a full-skirted, cotton print, her hair flipping on her shoulders as she moved about, pointing out flowering plants and massed spring blossoms.

“What’s the plot?” Dana asked. “She going into the florist business?”

I said ruefully, “I’ve got an idea this is her contribution to the party tomorrow night. She can’t afford it and I can’t do a darn thing to stop her. Dana—run in and help—she can’t carry out all those things by herself.” Tommy and 1 sat on in the car and watched the three in soundless conversation, Jeannie, Dana, half a head taller, and the clerk who was taking the order.

It didn’t prepare xne for the sight of Jeannie’s face when she came out. All I knew was that, in the flick of an eyelash, something dreadful had happened, something that had turned her face into a pinched little mask. Dana and Tommy, sitting behind us among the flowers, saw nothing, of course. | Uselessly, I protested Jeannie’s generosity, and we drove on. And nothing was said until we had dropped off the ! boys and were headed back home.

“Alcie—”

It was coming now. I didn’t turn my j head. “Yes?”

“You know when I was in that store ! buying the flowers?”

“Uh-huh.”

“And Dana came in? Alcie, do you know what the man said, the clerk? He said, ‘I’ll give this heavy, potted one to your son. He’s bigger than his momma.’ ”

“I know. They think people like | that folksy approach.”

“He thought Dana—that great, big, I hulking hoy—was my son!”

“Well, but Jeannie, dear—”

“Alcie, he didn’t even question it! ' He took it for granted.”

“Dana’s only fourteen. We get used to these huge children out here—I \ suppose the coast climate forces their growth.” And I said very, very ! gently, “We’re the same age, Jeannie. ! You can’t expect it to seem so strange j to me.”

She was beginning to cry. “You must think I’m a fool! But can’t you see — it’s living with Fred! Fred couldn’t love a middle-aged woman. I’ve got to stay a girl for him, always. And I have, Alcie, I have! I take care of myself. I rest in the afternoon. He hates me to be tired. Why, if it were true that I looked like a woman who could be Dana’s mother—it would be — it would be the end of my marriage!”

I KEPT on driving. It’s wonderful the way your eyes and feet and hands take care of you, when your mind goes right off the job. “And does Fred believe that you two can do what no other pair of level's has ever done before you—hold time at a standstill?” “I don’t know what he believes! But he won’t accept life as it is. Everything must be beautiful. He makes a little occasion of everything—a bottle of wine and a poem to go with it. My last birthday he gave me a dozen flasks of perfume. Everywhere, under my

pillow, at my place at the table, in the toe of my slipper, 1 found perfume. And flowers for my hair. What can you do with flowers for your hair if you aren’t — young, Alcie? What—what?”

“You could put them in a vase.” “Don’t make fun of me! Oh, Alcie— don’t you see what’s happening? I’m not enough for him any more. Beauty and romance - the things he needs just as he needs food—he’s beginning to turn—elsewhere—”

1 suppose we both finished that in our minds—she meant to girls like Stephanie and Sue Norman. I said with brutal matter-of-factness, “It seems to me this whole thing is awfully one-sided. You keep talking about what Fred needs, but what about you? If Fred stopped being romantic to you, would you be through with him?” “I?” she said blankly, “I?” After a moment she went on in a small, tired voice, “Sometimes I think the most wonderful thing in the world would be just to—relax. To look ahead without that desperate wondering how long I’m going to be able to keep it up.”

I exploded. “Jeannie, if you wouldn’t be so darn meek about it! It’s tragic, but it’s ridiculous, too. Can’t you just sort of laugh him out of it?”

She shook her head. “I can’t laugh at Fred. I love him too much. Oh, Alcie, don’t set yourself against him—he’s such a darling, really! He’s just never realized that marriages have to grow up just as children do.”

I UNDERSTOOD finally. Looking at it one way you could say that Fred was more utterly faithful than Jean. But what he was being faithful to was his first love, the young and innocent Jeannie he first knew. She lived in his heart forever, radiant and ageless, and if sometimes it seemed to him that girls like Stephanie and Sue had more in common with the young Jeannie than this frail and nervous woman at his side, who tired too easily, laughed too shrilly, and sometimes cried for no reason at all was that the fault of anyone?

Because, obviously, Fred could not see that he had, in any way, changed at all.

ON THE night of Stephanie’s party, when we were all hurrying to get dressed, so we’d arrive at the club before our guests, my husband walked into our bedroom and shut the door.

“Alice, you’ve got to watch Fred tonight. He’s had two cocktails, but it’s hit him like six.”

“What’s he doing?”

“He’s down in the living room, all dressed up, and pacing the floor like a nervous horse. You’d think he’d never been to a party before.”

“Wait till we get him to the club and herd him in with the grownups. That’ll calm him down.”

Steve absently fastened the bracelet on the wrist I held out to him. “If you succeed in herding Fred, you ought to take up steer roping as a profession. I’m warning you, Alice - he’s headed for the wild, blue yonder!”

1 NEVER saw a prettier lot of girls than we assembled for that party. It gave me a pang, not for myself, because I had a daughter in there, pitching—but for Jeannie. She was wearing sky-blue chiffon, and under the too bright hair her little collarbones had a birdlike prominence.

But Fred! — Even Steve had to admit, at this early stage of the party, that Fred was a success. The dinner jacket Steve had discarded when he put on weight, fitted Fred’s slender height to perfection, and his courtly manners, and air of grave, almost consecrated enjoyment, had a certain charm. A

period piece, but yes—charming. We all felt it, even the girls.

In a way, the girls were to blame for what happened later. They were too sweet to him. While the rest of his generation was in the bridge room sitting staidly over cards, Fred was out on the dance floor, cutting in on the most popular girls.

Once I looked out at the dancers, and saw Fred dancing with Stephanie, one arm held high, bending a little from the waist, as he used to dance with Jean in Miss Atkins’ dancing class. But now Jean was standing just outside the lighted room, in the half light of the veranda, watching.

It was right after supper, before the dancing had started again, that Steve sought me out, and this time there was no amusement in his voice.

“Alice, the kids are getting fed up. Freddie was a novelty at first, but he’s beginning to make a fool of himself.”

“Is this communique from Stephanie?”

Steve nodded.

“Well—look tell her I want to talk to her. Privately. I'll be out on the veranda—the pool end.”

There were three people sitting on the edge of the pool—Sue Norman, the boy she was going with, and Fred. Just before Steve spoke to me I’d been out for a breath of air, and it had been clear to me in the few seconds it had taken to walk past the pool that the two youngsters were trying to ease out on Fred. But apparently it had not been clear to him.

1 went back to the veranda and leaned against the railing. Just behind clumps of bushes was the pool. 1 could hear Fred’s musical voice—he was telling some long story. 1 lit a cigarette. 1 had never done a consciously cruel thing in mv life, and it wasn’t fun. But l couldn’t see any other way.

When Stephanie came out 1 let her come all the way to me before I spoke. Then I raised my voice just a little. I said lightly, “What’s all this about your Uncle Fred?”

“Mommy, 1 hate to complain, but, honestly, he’s getting so corny! All these flowery compliments, and the hand holding, and the boys are going to get rude if he keeps cutting in. 1 don’t know where he is now, but if you could just tactfully suggest that he act his age for the rest of the evening—”

The young clear voice stopped, but it was enough. Beyond the wall of bushes there was silence. 1 don’t remember how I got Stephanie and myself inside, but it was fast.

Ten minutes later Fred touched my arm. I turned and looked into those serious eyes, at the short upper lip, touched with perspiration, and the dimpled chin. I felt a little sick.

“Would you mind if Jean and I left a bit early? Steve has been good enough to say we may take your car. We’re a little tired.”

Then I saw Jeannie. She didn’t look tired. There was color in her face and she looked better than she had all evening.

“Why, of course,” 1 babbled, “you just run along. If you’re tired, there’s absolutely no point in staying on.”

“We’re not very used to parties,” Fred said, giving me his grave and courteous smile.

He had Jeannie’s coat, and now he laid it, with exquisite tenderness around those frail little shoulders. Her face was peaceful when she said, “Come in and tell us about it when you get. back. We won’t be asleep. We always read aloud to each other before we go to bed.”

He put his hand to her elbow, and guided her through the dancing, noisy, oblivious couples, out of the room. iy