Men may be kinder but when women really do take their hair down they can be more understanding

MILDRED WALKER April 15 1943


Men may be kinder but when women really do take their hair down they can be more understanding

MILDRED WALKER April 15 1943

ALICIA MORE sat at breakfast with her husband, big Jim More. Jim was deep in the news. The woman’s section of the Ironstone Star lay still unopened by Alicia’s plate, but for a second she sat enjoying herself in one of those unexplained moments of perspective that women have when they see themselves against their own backgrounds—if that background is as they like it.

This dining room was just as Alicia had wanted it. She could look through the glass doors onto the flagged terrace that was unique in Ironstone. It was bordered by a brick wall that had cost big Jim plenty, but that shut out from the windows the vision of the little bungalows planted at monotonous intervals on the flat prairie, and the rows of startled little elm trees, so small they looked like tomato plants just released from the cans in which they had been started.

From where Alicia sat she could see only the distant range of the Rockies. “Jim and I have to be able to look at those mountains. They make up for the things we miss in the East,” Alicia was apt to say rather often, with an effective catch of wistfulness in her voice. Sometimes she went on in a warm tone of confidence to say, “We’ve talked so many times of moving East, but I don’t know, I sometimes think Jim is just too much of a Westerner to be happy away from the big open spaces.”

And her hearers marvelled at what an understanding and unselfish wife Alicia was and forgot, if they knew, that she was a Westerner herself, bor and bred in sight of the Rockies.

But there was truth in her love of the mountains. When Alicia Sorensen served short orders in the Beehive Restaurant in Carson Corners, she used to look out of the window, past the oil derricks and mud and shacks to the mountains, and by her glance remove herself completely from the smell of hamburgers and onions, coffee and stew and dishwater. Big Jim was just starting then. He was a rigger. He came in one day in his oil-blackened overalls and sat down at the Beehive counter.

“Whatcha lookin’ at, baby, them mountains?”

Alicia had turned and looked at Jim, “Suppose I am, Grandad,” she came back at him. “What’s it to you?”

But the next Saturday night Jim More came around and took the pretty eighteen-year-old Norwegian girl to the movies. They were married a year later and lived in a succession of dirty little oil towns, both north and south of the boundary, but always in sight of the mountains. Alicia never complained. She worked as hard as Jim. She could always get a place in a restaurant. Why not? She was quick and bright and her feet never gave out. Sometimes she heard other oil men talking, the big shots, and remembered things she heard to tell Jim. She could save as well as her mother, who’d saved the money to come from the old country. And after a while Jim bought in.

When Jim’s well came in they moved down to Ironstone. Jim was thirty-seven; Alicia was twenty-eight. Jim was out in the oil fields but he could get back to town often. They rented a clean little duplex and Alicia set about living without knowing a soul in town. Jim knew people, oil people, but Alicia meant to know other folks as well.

She poured herself another cup of coffee and took up the paper. For the most part she had only mild interest in the society announcements; the meetings of the Foothills Club, “How to Live Well on $10 a Week.” She read Kathleen Harris’ column on domestic problems because she had started reading it back in Carson Corners. In those days she had identified herself with the young wives to whom Mrs. Harris addressed her wisdom. Now, without realizing it, she had come to feel as though she were Mrs. Harris herself, addressing the young wives.

She glanced over the notices of club meetings— the Sunset Club, the Frontier Women’s Club. She herself belonged to only one club, the Parnassus. It had taken time to be invited to join, but time went fast. The Polish or German or Swedish names featured in the news in terms of weddings or deaths or births she passed over with an impatient turn of the page.

A large photograph was centred on the sheet, a photograph that bore under it in small letters the name of an Eastern photographer. Alicia stared at it. Large dark eyes looked back at her from under beautifully arched brows. A long nose, flaring delicately at the base, suggested an ever so faint air of superiority. The lips met in a grave line; those lips that were usually parted in the gayest of light laughter, laughter that could shut one out so completely. Her hair must be entirely white, but it still waved back from the middle part with that purity of line that belongs to the classic Madonna. It was the face of a beautiful woman, the woman who had taught Alicia more and hurt her more than any other person in the world, and who had kept her from her secure place in the town as long as she had lived in Ironstone.

Alicia dipped her toast into her coffee, as she did when they were alone, and without raising her eyes said, “Stella Wrenn is coming back to Ironstone, Jim.”

“Who?” Jim asked, wrinkling his brow. “Oh, Mrs. Wrenn, the lawyer’s wife.”

“She’s going to visit Ida Hinchly.”

Alicia poured herself another cup of coffee. As though to reassure herself she glanced at the silver service, the period drop-leaf table, the well-rubbed wood of the lowboy. Everything here was in perfect taste. Stella Wrenn’s taste, but Alicia had forgotten that; it had become so completely her own.

YEARS ago Alicia had looked at the magazines spread out on Mrs. Wrenn’s library table and quietly had bought copies to lie on the cheaply elaborate veneer table in her duplex. When she looked inside them the pictures of rooms and people wooed her forever from the blandishments of a mail order catalogue. She had studied them with a quick eye. She threw away the bottle of wave set and her curlers and, taking a picture from one of the magazines to the hairdresser, said, “I want you to keep trying until you can do my hair like that.”

But some feeling of unsureness crept into Alicia’s comfortable security. Why did that woman have to come back here? Yet why not? She would see that Alicia More was an important person in Ironstone now. The teasing shadow of insecurity disappeared under the bright sun of her position, her possessions. It didn’t take long to reach the top rung of position in these small Western cities, not if you were smart, that is.

“Through, Jim?” Alicia pushed back her chair.

“Guess I’ll take a run out to the field,” Jim said after the comics page was done with.

Alicia looked at her husband, seeing him from a different angle—as he might have looked to Stella Warren. Even now that he had his clothes made to order, after he had worn them a bit they took on the bulge and wrinkled look of the coverall suits he used to wear as a rigger. At fifty-odd his hair was still black and unruly, his skin clear and taut, and he was only a little too heavy. He had taken the changes in their lives, from the shack to the duplex to the whitewashed brick house and the imported hedge without changing himself.

“You’re a smart girl, honey; you know what you want,” he had said each time Alicia wanted something new.

When he was wiped out once, wiped out clean so that he had to get a job as a rigger again and the men he met were apt to be a little patronizing, a little jocular, he said:

“They can’t beat us, Alicia; we’re a team that can’t be matched, aren’t we, honey?”

And even now, Alicia knew where every ten-dollar bill went as well as she used to know where every cent went. But as she looked at him this morning she was thinking how different he was from Edwin Wrenn, who had come from Montreal and always looked like Montreal even on Main Street in Ironstone. Nothing could touch her loyalty to Jim, but weighed in the same scale in which she weighed herself, he, too, was just a little lacking. The scale was Mrs. Wrenn’s.

“I think I’ll go along, Jim,” Alicia said. “Wait till I dress.”

Alicia had never outgrown the speed with which she used to dress for work at the Beehive at a quarter to five in the morning. She had a straight, slim figure, square shoulders, regular features, and blond hair that had greyed to a pleasant tweed color. She had learned from Stella Wrenn the kind of clothes she wanted to wear—tailored sports clothes, imported sweaters, hats with a casual roll to the brim that couldn’t be copied in a cheaper felt. She had copied her whole life from Stella Wrenn.

They drove as Jim always drove it, up and back, whirling along through stretches of wheat, fallow fields, through meagre towns clinging to a grain elevator—north to the oil field. They drove swiftly, silently, for the most part, and that was the way they had lived, keeping their minds on their destination, Alicia thought.

“The mountains are purple today, Jim.” They always noticed the mountains.

“Mhmm; got a lot of snow for this late.”

But she was thinking most of the time of Stella Wrenn’s coming back here. She had left just after her husband’s death. He was still spoken of as one of the town’s leading citizens. Stella had sold her house and everything she owned and had gone to live in Montreal. It seemed odd that she should come away back here just to visit.

Then Alicia settled back to thinking of Stella’s house and her own with pleasant content. Stella’s was a narrow three-story house, built back in the eighties in the style of that time. It was still standing, looking pinched and grotesque out here wdth all the prairie to expand on. It had a narrow, dark hall and long rooms, a basement kitchen and a dumb waiter to carry the food to the dining rooms above. And it was a rooming house now. Alicia thought of her own modern house with big sunny windows opening on the garden. But Stella’s had an air. She remembered how long she had waited to be invited to that house and she had been there only once.

IN SPITE of all these years, she felt the same uncomfortable feeling—her hands cold and her cheeks hot—that she had had when Sally White took her to the meeting of the Parnassus Literary Club at Mrs. Wrenn’s. That was away back in 1926, only a few months before Mrs. Wrenn moved away. She had been in black then because of her husband’s death.

“It’s our open meeting,” Sally had said, but she knew Alicia knew that only those outsiders were invited whom the club would consider as prospective members. The Parnassus Club, in spite of its silly title, was forty-three years old. It had been and was still the guardian of culture in the town. To be invited to the open meeting was tantamount to membership. Only, Alicia felt, Stella Wrenn was opposed to her.

Alicia had had a complete new outfit for that occasion, in purple broadcloth trimmed with squirrel, and a felt cloche to match.

“Going to put their eyes out, aren’t you, Allie?” Jim had asked when he saw her. Jim never missed a trick even if he didn’t say much, and he had sent her a white gardenia to wear. Women didn’t wear gardenias then in Ironstone for no reason at all.

Afterward she had dumped that gardenia in the garbage while it was still fresh.

She had looked at the Wrenn’s house so many times when she had gone by, but the net curtains hung in full folds across the window and the golden aura of the big Chinese lamp by the front window and the back of a sofa in the south window were all that she could see from the street. As she stood in the narrow front hall with the mahogany and white stairway and the long gold-framed pier glass, her eyes searched at once for that sofa and the Chinese lamp, almost triumphantly. She was on the inside.

Stella Wrenn had met her at the door and by her severe black dress with its white frilled collar made Alicia feel flamboyant in her purple. Stella’s eyes barely touched the white gardenia and passed up to Alicia’s face.

“How pleasant to have you with us this afternoon, Mrs. More!”

“Isn’t she the bravest woman!” Sally whispered, going with Alicia into the library. “She insisted on going right ahead with it because the open meeting is always held here, but it must be hard for her with Edwin only gone two months ago.”

Alicia had not felt strange sitting there, Alicia Sorensen who had only finished the grades. She had felt as though rooms like this were her right. She sat happily on the sofa that had its back to the south window and tipped her head ever so little to smell the gardenia. Her eyes roved over the room looking at the magazines, the books, the fireplace, the curtains. She scarcely heard the book review.

Mrs. Ogilvie, the high school principal’s wife, had given the paper and Mrs. Wrenn had led the discussion. It was on a new novel by someone whose name Alicia didn’t catch—about oil. Alicia’s mind was busy planning on how she could change the living room of the duplex.

Stella Wrenn smiled and turned to her. “We are fortunate in having with us as our guest someone who will know at first hand about this subject. Mrs. More, will you tell us how true the book seems to you?”

Alicia had felt herself going red in the face. Mrs. Wrenn had no right . . . she was trying to shout that she, Alicia Sorensen, wasn’t the right material for the Parnassus Club. Perhaps she had seen her staring around her room. But not for nothing had she always had a comeback for the fresh guys over the counter at the Beehive. She remembered one speech near the beginning of what Mrs. Ogilvie had read, and took a chance.

“The author may know a great deal about oil,” she said in a clear voice, “but his characters hardly seemed lifelike.” Why hadn’t she said the characters didn’t talk the way folks did at the Beehive? Her voice fell on her own ears as affected. She looked into Stella Wrenn’s eyes and it seemed to her that they smiled with superiority.

“Thank you, Mrs. More. I was sure you would know.”

And she wasn’t asked to join the Parnassus Club that year, not until Stella Wrenn had moved away. This year she was president. And it would be only fitting for the present president of the Parnassus Club to give a tea for a past president. Of course, it would be at her house. Perhaps in some lull she would say to Mrs. Wrenn:

“Oh, by the way, have you read that new novel written about the oil fields? It’s more vivid than anything I’ve seen!” Alicia kept up now with the current books. They took the usual monthly releases, of course. It was like everything else; easy to do when you got the idea. Alicia squeezed her hands tightly together. Stella Wrenn would get it; she’d know what she meant.

“What’s the matter, honey?”

“Not a thing, Jim. Hungry, I guess. Let’s stop at the Beehive and have a bite.”

“Okay.” Jim laughed. Usually they ate in the hotel but they always looked at the Beehive when they passed it. It was all dressed up now.

While Jim was busy talking to some men, standing in the brisk wind with the wide brim of his hat pulled down, she sat in the car with the radio making a senseless but comforting clatter. Even the bleak ugliness of the derricks, the dust blowing, the shacks where the men lived, were familiar; but it seemed a long time ago that she had lived here. She was careful never to mention that she had lived here; she had almost forgotten it herself. She was glad when Jim was through and they were on the way home.

They were eating supper out in the kitchen when the phone rang. It was Ida Hinchly.

“My dear, I’ve been trying to get you all day. Isn’t it wonderful that Stella Wrenn’s coming back? I’m giving a big tea so that all her old friends can come and see her and, of course, Alicia, I want you to pour, and could I borrow that lovely old silver service of yours?”

ALICIA went up to Ida’s early L with the silver service that had been in someone’s family for four generations even if not in hers. She took it in the back way where Mrs. Estes, who always catered for such occasions, was arranging open-faced sandwiches on silver trays. Then she laid off her coat in Ida’s back hall. Standing there, looking at her hair in the little mirror, she heard Stella Wrenn’s voice, very clear, very soft. Alicia felt suddenly almost frightened.

“You know, Ida, when I came here first years ago I hated this town, but now it’s like no place else on earth to me. Maybe the town you live your first married years in is always that way.”

For me, Alicia thought, that would be Carson Corners with the hot dog stand and the café and the general store and all the shacks. She put the idea of Carson Corners from her quickly and went in to meet that voice.

Stella was standing in the hall, leaning against the stair railing. Her hair was entirely white, her face was pale and she wore no lipstick. Her eyes were framed in lines, yet you didn’t think of her age; her way of holding herself made her seem young. Had her eyes always been so dark? They looked right through you.

“How do you do, Mrs. More.” Stella stretched out her hand as though they had been great friends, no, not friends—old acquaintances.

“How do you do, Mrs. Wrenn. How pleasant to have you here with us!” She shouldn’t have said that. It sounded almost patronizing. Then Alicia realized that those were the very words Stella had said to her that day.

“I hear you have built a beautiful new home!” Stella was, as always, completely at ease and had the same power she always had to make Alicia feel ill at ease.

“We have enjoyed it,” Alicia said quietly. “Where are you now?” As though she didn’t know.

“I am in Montreal,” Stella said conclusively. “Living in an apartment. There comes a time when one is glad to be relieved of the responsibilities of a house, you know.”

The guests began to arrive, everyone who counted at all in Ironstone’s social life, and Stella was again, as she had always been, the centre of attention . . .

All the time Alicia sat at the head of the big round mahogany table pouring tea, she was aware of Stella Wrenn. Now Stella was telling something amusing, everyone around her listening intently. An instant later her gay laughter led all the rest. Quick resentment burned up through Alicia’s mind. She felt worsted in some intangible way, set at naught, her triumph thinned. She consoled herself by planning for the Parnassus Club tea she would give.

“Isn’t Stella marvellous!” Mary Ross was pouring coffee at the other end of the table and she half spoke the words, half shaped them with her lips.

“She certainly is; she must be close to seventy!” Alicia answered.

The teapot had been refilled a number of times, the sky was the color of a pink shell in the little piece of it Alicia could see from the table. The door gong had finally ceased to chime. Over sixty-five guests had come and gone. Now only half a dozen remained, sitting together around Stella, just her oldest friends. Alicia went out to talk to Mrs. Estes about the number of cakes she would need.

When she came back in she stood in the doorway a minute. The room was a picture, with flowers in that big blue bowl of Ida’s and the firelight picking out the liquid shine of silver, the lustre of Marcia Sheldon’s Beleek china, the rich red in the Charlie Russell painting over the sofa.

Then Alicia looked at Stella Wrenn. These women who were old friends of Stella’s had unconsciously passed into talk of things Stella knew nothing of, immediate concerns, current bits of gossip. Stella was forgotten. She sat in the centre of the group, her face grown elderly in its disinterest. Alicia felt a kind of satisfaction; Stella Wrenn was old. She had been too long away. She no longer belonged ; she was fading into a legend along with the other figures of an earlier day. Let her see how it felt to be left out!

Then an odd impulse stirred in Alicia, the sort of impulse that used to move her to smile at some man who looked down on his luck at the Beehive. She went quickly across the room and touched Stella gently on the shoulder as though they had been good friends. Kindness seemed to take away her old feeling of self-consciousness.

“Mrs. Wrenn, come and see the sky from the dining-room window. You must miss these western sunsets.”

STELLA WRENN’S face lost its bleak look. She stood up instantly. “Oh, yes, I do. I often think of the skies we used to see from our bedroom window.” She added softly, almost to herself: “You know, what I really came back for was to look at the mountains, I believe.”

“Well, I don’t! Ask Alicia.” A woman’s voice rose shrilly from the living room. “Alicia! do you think we should take that Mrs. Zaceo into the Parnassus? She doesn’t have enough background in the first place. What could she contribute?”

It seemed to Alicia a long moment before she answered.

“Yes, I do. She’s a bright woman.” Strangely, she felt at ease, certain of herself. She didn’t have to pretend to be like anybody else. “After all, you took me in and I came from a place like Carson Corners in the oil field! I remember the first time I went to the Parnassus Club. I even had a new outfit for the occasion. Mrs. Wrenn asked me what I thought of the book they’d reviewed. I hadn’t ever heard of the book and I’d been so busy looking around at Mrs. Wrenn’s lovely room I hadn’t listened. I wasn’t invited to join the Parnassus Club that year, either!”

“Oh Alicia!” Ida said delightedly. “I don’t believe it!” They were all laughing. Alicia was laughing too— at herself that she could have been hurt over it all this time.

When the others had gone on talking, Stella Wrenn took Alicia’s arm and walked with her back to the dining-room window.

“Sit down; I want to tell you something. I was the one who kept you out of the Parnassus Club,” Stella said slowly. “Because I thought I could hurt your husband that way. Because he had—had hurt Edwin.” “Why, Mrs. Wrenn . . .”

“Did your husband never tell you about Edwin?”

Alicia shook her head wonderingly.

“Mrs. More, Edwin wasn’t well. I realize now that was back of it all. He had lost several cases and he was so anxious to win this case. He was trying to show that your husband and his partner had no right to a certain claim . . . Oh, I’ve forgotten all the details, though I made Edwin explain it all to me then. He must have been desperate. Anyway he bribed—no, I won’t say that, but he knew that one of the witnesses had been bribed. Your husband found it out and came to the house and confronted Edwin with it. I heard their voices and went halfway down the stairs.” Stella Wrenn seemed to be seeing it all again. “Your husband was saying something about dropping the case or he "would expose him in the courtroom.”

“Don’t go back over it, Mrs. Wrenn; it’s no matter now,” Alicia said gently.

“Yes, I want to. It’s bothered me. I stood w'here I could see them. Edwin looked suddenly so old and beaten. He had lost all the fire that brought him West to begin with. Your husband looked so young and vigorous and I felt he had done this to Edwin. I went back upstairs and I hated your husband—all the more because I knew he was right. Anyone who hurt my husband was an enemy of mine. Women are that way; out here in the West, anyway.” She was quiet a moment, looking out the window.

“The mountains have seen plenty of that sort of thing and it won’t hurt Edwin now. It doesn’t hurt me any more. A man does something wrong and it can hurt, but it doesn’t change a woman’s love for him. It doesn’t even seem to come out of the man she loves.” She spoke as though she were talking to herself or to the mountains.

“Edwin died that next spring and your husband came over to the house to say something kind. I was surprised to see him and so crushed over Edwin’s death that I wouldn’t shake hands with him. I said ... I don’t know just what I said, but I know I told him he had helped Edwin to his death and that I was going away from this town and never coming back where there were people like him. How childish it sounds now! You’d think we’d be bigger when we live right in sight of the mountains, wouldn’t you?

“Your husband just patted my arm and said, ‘You’ll come back, if only to look at the mountains your husband loved, Mrs. Wrenn.’ Men are kinder than women sometimes. Well, I did. You tell your husband I said that.”

JIM MORE was in the big chair in the living room when Alicia reached home, a big untidy figure of a man, smoking a cigar.

“Well, did you see Stella Wrenn?” “Yes,” Alicia said.

Jim looked quickly at his wife. “What’s the matter; did she get your goat, honey?”

“No. Jim, she said to tell you she came back to see the mountains.”

Jim smiled. “She was all right. She was worth two of her husband and she knew it, I imagine, but she never let on she knew.”

“Jim, why didn’t you ever tell me about Mr. Wrenn . . . about that lawsuit . . . ?”

“Oh, that!” Jim rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Well, honey, it seemed to me that you hated the sight of that woman and I couldn’t tell you a thing like that. That isn’t the way you wanted to get the edge on a person. That wouldn’t have been hardly fair.”

Alicia tore the list of names for the tea that was to impress Stella in two. It seemed so cheap.

“Jim, do you suppose she’d come over here and have dinner with us and maybe Ida and Bill? I like her so much, and at a big tea people are apt to go on talking about things that have happened since she left that she doesn’t know anything about. I thought coming to dinner would be a little—warmer, somehow.”

Big Jim puffed at his cigar with an odd smile on his face.

“Won’t do any harm to ask her, honey,” he said.