WITH WHOM THE BELL TOILS

JON RUDDY August 1 1968

WITH WHOM THE BELL TOILS

JON RUDDY August 1 1968

WITH WHOM THE BELL TOILS

JENNY DRIVES A dark-green TR. She likes the sound of the exhaust when the motor is idling. The sound reminds her of “speeders,” mahogany inboards she loved as a child, summers at the lake. She used to watch them coming in to public docks, racy and expensive-looking, throttled down with their exhausts half out of the water so that they made a sensuous burbling sound and a slapping sound and kicked up white bubbles on the surface of the water. White smoke would come out when the bubbles burst. Jenny sometimes thinks of her car as a powerful speedboat. Once she drove it through Mexico and in a bright, terrible desert between Chihuahua and Parral she imagined she was planing across the water to McCracken’s Landing at Stoney Lake. She associates the sound of the TR with holidays, with “doing crazy things.”

She picks up the phone and says, “Miss Lyon speaking.” She has a nice voice. She wonders if one of the two service observers in the office is monitoring the incoming call. The function of the service observers is to encourage the 89 service reps who sit at identical metal desks in the big, party-colored office to be helpful and pleasant to Bell customers on the phone. She is a service rep. “Certainly,” she says. “What type of PBX do you require?” PBX stands for private branch exchange, which stands for switchboard. On her desk is an 18-button call director and a small metal structure with three shelves. On the shelves are a TODAY file, a

PENDING file, a COMPLETED file and a Germaine Monteil Super-Royal Lipstick.

Jenny is 25, conventionally pretty. The best thing about her looks is her hair, which now is tied back neatly but which outside the office tumbles down around her face like a chestnut waterfall. It gets in her eyes and her mouth. She sticks out her chin and blows upward, whuh, whuh, and it flies away for an instant. There is a picture of Jenny taken halfway up the Pyramid of the Moon near Mexico City in which you can't see any face at all, only hair. She is afraid the Bell wants her to cut her hair. She has noticed that one of the three office managers, older men, sometimes glances at her hair in a disapproving way. Or is it an approving way? She can’t be sure. Most of the Bell girls have bouffant hair styles ossified with hair spray.

Jenny would have her hair cut if the Bell asked her to. It is hard for her to explain about the Bell. She likes working there. She likes the way they have fixed up the office with walls of different colors and orange pillars and blue pillars. It is a very cheerful atmosphere. She works a five-day week from 8.30 to 5 with an hour for lunch and two 15-minute coffee breaks that are staggered from 8.45 to 10.15 and from 2.30 to 4. She eats her lunch in the Bell cafeteria and then goes to the Bell lounge where there are magazines and telephones for personal calls. The Bell is very good about personal calls. Today after lunch she calls her

continued on page 48

JON RUDDY

WITH WHOM THE BELL TOILS continued from page 17

“Let’s go to Mexico,” said Jenny. So they did—just like that

girlfriend, Laurie, then thumbs through a women's magazine. She glances at an Avon ad. Avon colors, the ad says, “Speak Sheerly. Pearly. Wildly. Wonderfully.”

Laurie went to Mexico with Jenny in 1965. Both girls had quit high school after grade 12, had come to Toronto and found jobs in a depart-

ment store. For two years they had lived in a single, crummy room on Bernard Avenue and saved their money. Jenny had bought a used TR. Then they had done this crazy thing— Jenny can't explain it.

One night in February they were sitting around in their room, and it was one of those nights when every-

thing in Toronto is covered with snow, and the snow is the color of a rat in somebody’s garbage can. “Let’s go to Mexico,” Jenny said, and they quit their jobs, closed out their savings accounts, bought a luggage rack for the TR, got passports and tourist cards anti smallpox shots and sandals and bikinis and headed for the border.

It was their great escape, and it changed them. Jenny has a mystical feeling about the whole thing.

After work she goes over to Yorkville to meet Laurie. Laurie works in a discothèque over a boutique. There is something funny about the window of the boutique — the window itself, not the psychedelic culottes and art nouveau Grateful Dead posters inside. The window pane is rubbering in and out like the torso of a cookie salesman on a Vic Tanny belt massage. The explanation of this marvel lies upstairs in a room where everything is orange — orange walls, orange lights, orange people — and everybody is doing a certain dance that involves a lot of stomping around in unison and an upward flinging of the arms. The stomping must be buckling the floor, causing the glass to flex.

Laurie is serving orange sandwiches and wearing a sort of dressless strap. Jenny says she doesn’t like the idea of her working in Yorkville because it is a sick scene now. She says Laurie is a nut, she is worried about her. Laurie says she doesn't want a “good job.” So what does she want? A drink, she is so hot.

In the Last Chance Saloon at the Ports of Call Jennie and Laurie talk about themselves. Somehow it is all tied up with the trip they made three years ago. How do you explain about Mexico in 1965 and the hammocks on the beach? They drove through a lot of the country for a month, living as cheaply as they could but spending money too fast. Then they came down through the mountains from Taxco and there was the moment when they saw the Pacific through the mountains. To Jenny it was like seeing Stoney Lake through the trees and she had the surging childhood feeling that now she would not miss any more living, not even a little. On Condesa Beach in Acapulco there was a place called Alex’s where you could sleep in hammocks for nothing. All you had to do was buy some food at Alex's. They stayed around Condesa Beach for months. When they felt like sleeping in a bed they would rent a cheap room. They were utterly, utterly, utterly happy. Everything was covered with purple bougainvillea and orange fire plants. Royal palms swung and tiny bright birds made shafts of color in the air. Beer cost three pesos on the beach. The girls hardly spent any pesos. Boys would take them to dinner at La Perla or Hungry Herman's. Two boys from West Virginia with lie-down crewcuts took them dancing at Tequila à Go-Go. The Mexican boys were nice. All you had to do was say no.

They used to drive out to Pie de la Cuesta where the sun sets behind towering translucent breakers. They would play in the breakers. It was a crazy thing to do. A wave would gather itself quietly over them, shutting out the sky, and in the last moment they would see a cold green light through the body of the wave and the lip of the wave would curl and feather. Then the wave would release itself over the girls with a noise like rocks cracking together underwater and they would be tumbled over and over in terrible bondage, over and over in some com-

posite of water, land and air. Finally. the wave would die on the beach with a great hiss and white spumecovered water would race back down the slope of the beach into the sea. The girls would be sucked back to where the next wave was forming.

“Why did we come home?” Laurie says.

“We ran out of money,” Jenny says. “Remember?”

But Jenny believes that you have to come home. She reconciles the doing of crazy things with the Bell and its two staggered 15-minute coffee breaks and the chance you have to put 10 percent of your salary into Bell stock at 20 percent off the market price. Laurie doesn’t want a good job, but to Laurie, too, a good job is one where they let you make personal calls. Jenny thinks that the trouble with Laurie is that she has never come back. For a Canadian working girl, Mexico is supposed to be an interlude of crazy things. Laurie, working fitfully in a Yorkville discothèque, is still there.

“That’s true and it’s not true,” Laurie says over her third rum-andCoke. "I'd like to be there. The climate there is fantastic. It was fun. Why aren’t you supposed to have fun all your life?”

"Are you having fun?”

"I don’t know. Are you?”

“Maybe we should never have gone. We had boyfriends. They didn't understand. Are you going to find a husband in Yorkville?”

“Are you going to find a husband in an office with 90 women?”

"Everybody else does,” Jenny says. The very next day she goes to a shower in the Bell lounge. About 40 people are there with presents — a chrome gravy ladle, a wooden recipe box, a sex manual for laughs — which means that the girl who is getting married is popular at the Bell. Jenny knows all 89 girls in the office by name and has had lunch or coffee with about half of them. She hopes that they will come to her shower. The responsibility of expressing delighted surprise, of saying the right thing about an egg cup, is accepted lightly by the Bell girls. They have the easy social graces of people whose job consists of being pleasant on the phone. They have the temperament for it and they were trained for it, seven to nine weeks at full salary by

an instructor who was once a service rep herself. Jenny likes the Bell girls. They are good kids.

She likes her job. She does. The collection calls aren't much fun, though. She has 5.400 accounts to look after. They put out a list of delinquent subscribers and each girl has certain numbers to look after. A girl will phone and ask pleasantly if the payment for such-and-such a date has been sent in. She will write the phone number in a little book under the

date when payment can be expected. Jenny doesn’t like asking people for money.

The shower is almost over. The bride-to-be sits in the middle of a disaster area of torn wrapping paper, shower cards, paring knives, cartons, coffee mugs, wooden trays and the kind of enormous bows that come in a box. She looks as though it is getting hard for her to squeal. She smiles, nods, nods, nods. Girls are drifting away.

All of a sudden Jenny thinks of all the crazy things she has ever done. She wishes she were at Pie de la Cuesta with her hair falling over her face and the big waves roaring like freight trains up the beach. She sees herself standing knee-deep in the water and feels the seaward pressure of the water as the wave gathers, green and translucent in the hot sun of Mexico. She hopes that she will walk into marriage w ith her eyes bright with excitement and fear. ★