Wendell Coldtart got me into it actually, even though he wasn’t such a close friend of mine. He didn’t live in our end of Khartoum or go to Haig School with me and Fat and Hodder and Rin and Peanuts and Mate and Ike. Quite often though he would be in our part of town to visit his aunt who taught us in Grade 4. He would always come down Sixth Street most of the time by walking on his hands with his head up and back arched, his knees spread slightly and legs loose so that his toes kept tapping the top of his head. Behind him Gusty spraddled along with eyes rolled upwards so that four-fifths of the whites showed, slobbering and snuffling with chronic sinusitis. Wendell had won Gusty with 46,529 Bulldog Orange wrappers. Wendell always stopped at our place because he was determined to walk downstairs on his hands, and our front porch had five shallow steps for him to practise on. Eventually he was able to walk downstairs on his hands, an impractical accomplishment really, because the Coldtart house had no front steps at all; their house was not even a two-storey house. Ours was three.
Every time Wendell came by either on foot or on hand, always with Gusty behind, he was a living proof to other Khartoum boys that contests could be won. There were other things about Wendell: his nose bled very easily, so that in a fight with him all you had to do was try for it. In spite of his spurty nose no one tried to provoke a fight with him, because he had taken up what we called “joo-gipsy” and if he was half as good at that as walking on his hands, it would be silly to take him on. He was quite likable and he was willing to show anybody how to walk on their hands and do joo-gipsy holds and throws if they promised to be careful and not bunt his nose and make it bleed.
But the salient thing about Wendell was that he had won a bulldog simply by collecting a higher number of Bulldog Orange wrappers than any other boy in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia: 46,529. Wendell’s father was the southern Saskatchewan manager for Watkin’s Fruit Wholesale. It was therefore in a way Wendell Coldtart’s fault that I got mixed up in the Ten Thousand Dollar Contest in back of Olga’s Ranch Romances magazines.
The contest was illustrated with the picture of a lovely woman who had just been splashed with mud from a passing Stutz Bearcat; the balloon issuing from her mouth contained a lot of jumbled-up numbers. By substitution of “a” for 1, “b” for 2, and so on, you were able to decipher what she said. The result was enigmatic to me: “Oh my, now you will have to buy me new hose. The best is none too good for me. It will have to be Tite-Wove Lingerie for real value, style and freedom of action!” I told Olga that seems a funny thing to have in a Ten Thousand Dollar Contest. Olga said that it was their ten thousand dollars, that probably they’d put it in to make the deciphering that much harder.
We mailed our solution and waited with impatience. We knew
This W O. Mitchell memoir first appeared in the May 2, 1964, issue of Maclean’s. It was reprinted in An Evening with W. O. Mitchell, selected and edited by Barbara and Ormond Mitchell, published by McClelland & Stewart. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
A boy, a contest, and the kindness of strangers
we weren’t likely to win the three-thousanddollar first prize, or perhaps even the second-place two thousand or third-place one thousand, but there were forty consolation prizes of one hundred dollars each and we were sure to get one of those. I suppose the reply to our entry came as soon as such replies generally do, though the time seemed to stretch elastically. When the answer came it was a large carton containing among other things a letter:
Dear Miss Mitchell:
You have perfectly unscrambled the numbers in our Grand Ten Thousand Dollar Contest, which has placed you in the semifinals along with nineteen other successful contestants. The next step, in order to determine the winner of our first prize of three thousand dollars cash, explains to you our shipment of a consignment of Wear-Rite Beauty Garments and Tite-Wove Lingerie. All W you have to do is sell these ™ * lovely, waffle-knit, misty, sheer garments in plum, puce, magenta, coral and petal pink to your friends. See how delighted they will be. Points will be awarded you per unit sale and so the deadlock will be broken. Good luck, contestant!
According to the price list enclosed there was fifty dollars’ worth of lingerie; my friends were Ike and Fat, Hodder, Peanuts, Mate, Fin, and I could tell right away how delighted they would be. There were, however, my mother, my auntie Josie, my grandmother, Olga, the thirty members of my mother’s Burning Bush chapter, the twelve female singers of Knox Presbyterian Church choir, in which my Mother sang alto, her bridge club and the Ladies’ South Khartoum Golf Club. There were as well those friendly individual women along Sixth Street, at whose homes—for a price—you left May baskets fashioned of wallpaper and filled with crocuses, where you were sure of Halloween generosity: Mrs. Campion and Mrs. MacKinnon, Mrs Zabel, Mrs. MacLean, Mrs. Oncough.
Included with the inventory list was descriptive literature intended to be helpful. Stockings were said to be “whisper light” and “cobweb delicate”; chemises had “self-flounce in bottom of full hem.” This was simply unintelligible but the rest was unrelieved pornography.
I sold stockings to my mother, my aunty Josie, bloomers to Olga, who actually would have preferred stockings, but I explained to her that I anticipated no difficulty in getting rid of them. I was right for I had sold them all before I got down to the Ladies’ South Khartoum Golf Club. Now, pulling the carton behind me in my brother’s wagon, I had the distasteful task of selling the other stuff from door to door and to ladies I didn’t know. It was like trying to commit an inept crime over and over again. I must twist door bells and interrupt ladies at their baking or ironing or napping; it was a sort of wrongful and mortifying assault—to enter strange homes uninvited. I was quite unsuccessful, and after my tenth attempt
without selling a single article, I commented to Olga that it looked as though Khartoum ladies didn’t go in much for underwear.
I had worked our entire end of town and moved to Government Road with no sense of adventure at all. I knew in my heart that there wasn’t a chance I could break the deadlock to win the Ten Thousand Dollar Contest. And if I couldn’t sell the lingerie I didn’t know what I could do with it. The contest people had assumed in good faith that I would sell it, and it would be cheating of some sort to return it unsold; quite possibly it would be breaking some sort of law.
Mrs. Halstead had closed the door gently in my face; she had been kind without buying anything, and I stood disconsolate and ashamed on the front porch with the iodine smell of old paint hot under the sun bitter in my nostrils. Here it was the second Saturday afternoon in May and I should have been out on the prairie drowning gophers or watching William S. Hart in the HiArt Theatre. I pulled my wagon and its carton of obscenity to the corner and stood there uncertain. I’d run out of houses; in the next block south came the Co-op Creamery, Stuarts’ Livery Barn, then the Massey-Harris implement sheds. To the west lay the Fair Grounds, beyond that open prairie and then Sadie Rossdance’s.
Miss Rossdance was a milliner and lived in three little cottages with bonnet roofs, an optimistic fragment of street some contractor had built in the 1900s when Khartoum had been exuberantly subdivided for a mile in every direction. The prairie between Miss Rossdance’s and the Fair Grounds was exciting, for here camels and elephants were staked and circus tents pitched whenever they came to town; this was the camping ground for gypsies, and since these were the immediate post-First Great War days, flying aces with white silk scarves landed their Jennies, staked them down against the prairie wind, did wing-walking and trapeze-swinging, took up passengers for ten cents a pound. These were short-lived and seasonal gaieties, which somehow seemed to infect the Sadie
Rossdance houses with carnival spirit. Each had a piano and someone to play it. From opened windows came Roses of Picardy, Barney Google, Marquita, Let Me Call You Sweetheart, and Yes, We Have No Bananas.
I can’t remember the day my younger brother and I visited Miss Rossdance’s first and got a glass of milk and cookies, probably a Saturday morning on a return from a gopher hunt in the prairie beyond. After that it was a regular port of call. Miss Rossdance was a slender woman with very blond hair and pale eyes. She had a tight energy that made her talk quickly; she laughed a great deal and had a way of cocking her head as though she were listening with comradely amusement. As only a child can tell, she liked children with an impromptu affection.
Standing on Government Road I was suddenly not so disconsolate or ashamed; I began to pull my brother’s wagon filled with contest-breaking chemises and slips and nightgowns over the virgin prairie wool towards Sadie Rossdance and all her friends. The bright song of a meadowlark dropped again and again, then borne to me on the prairie wind, the piano: Doodle dee doo, doodle dee doo/I like the rest, but what I like best is/Doodle dee doo, doodle dee doo!
I came to the edge of Vandedreische’s oat field with the moist May wind rolling waves through the shrill green. I saw a gopher sitting upright at her hole, paws held up before her fawn belly swollen with spring and young. Woman laughter drifted to me as I came up to the backs of the three beehive houses.
They were all on the porch of the second house, in kimonos or wrappers, seated on the rail, three of them on kitchen chairs there. They were drying their hair and leaning forward so that it curtained their faces, and they were laughing and laughing all the while the piano played inside the house. It wasn’t as though they were happy sisters in the same family so much as though they all belonged on the same girls’ basketball team.
Miss Rossdance gave me cookies and a glass of milk; I finished them and then sat on the edge of the porch, not knowing how to begin. I started finally by telling them about the Grand Ten Thousand Dollar Contest. Miss Rossdance got me to bring the carton up onto the porch. I didn’t have to do any selling. The dark woman with thick black hair and full cheeks, the one with the narrow face and wide forehead with the fair hair that seemed to spring from her temples rather like the hirsute wings that go with the balding and professorial clown, Miss Rossdance herself, bought: “bud-burst brassieres with elastic inserts for better control and floating-action circular bust cups,” “petti-panties cut in one piece for extra comfort and longer wear, with opaque silk tricot and non-chafing double crotch.” The girl with the black eyes and cream skin, the very lovely one, took my last nightgown with “eyelet embroidery on bodice with overlays of lace—daisy white.”
I sent all the money away and waited for the contest results. Three weeks later there was another carton with an enclosed note telling me that the deadlocked contestants had been thinned down to nine. The carton contained a gross of little bottles of perfume.
My mother made me return them. I could have sold them all inside of five minutes out at Sadie Rossdance’s. □
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