LONG ROAD BACK
Valeria Winkler Griffith
THE APPLAUSE that followed Martin Arnold’s address was thunderous and prolonged, and although Jennifer hadn’t listened to more than a dozen words of it she joined in with enthusiasm. Her hands in their new white kid gloves made soft plushy little smacks, certainly not to be heard from her place in the last row of the auditorium to the platform where the speaker who had so charmed and impressed his audience stood smiling. Jennifer had chosen her seat with care. She didn’t want to be seen by Martin. Not just yet.
The crowd began to drift toward the doors. Jennifer clambered over the feet of the people in her row who were slow to rise. “Sorry,” she murmured as she resolutely pushed her way down the aisle. “Oh, I do beg your pardon.”
She slipped through the exit beside the stage and the heavy steel door clanged behind her. She took just a minute to straighten the seams of her hose, tug at the brief checkered jacket of her suit and open her compact. It reflected blue eyes, at first anxious and then reassured. Powder was smooth, lipstick bright and even, chestnut curls caught neatly into a mass at the back of her head under a straw pancake of a hat.
She went up a few steps and was in a long bare corridor lighted by a single bulb dangling on a cord. She located Martin, still standing in the wings, without turning her head. His face and the handker-
chief in his hands were white patches against the dark folds of the velvet cyclorama.
She walked down the corridor, passing directly beneath the low hanging bulb so that its naked light shone full force on her uptilted nose and rounding chin. He called to her. “Jenny?” he said hesitantly and then, with insistence, “Jennifer Gilchrist.”
She feigned surprise as she turned to him. “Why, Martin!” she said and nodded down the hall. “I was just escaping by the side door. There’s such a mob. It’s breathless in there.”
“You weren’t coming back to say hello?”
“Oh, well,” she shrugged deprecatingly, “I knew you’d be tired and after all it’s been such a long time.” She raised her head and smiled. “Your speech was wonderful, Martin. So brilliant. I wouldn’t have
missed it for worlds. |You were a hit, you know.” His smile was quizzical. “Sure about that, are you, Jenny? I seem to remember that when we were in school psychology was one of your greatest trials and chief bores.”
The steel door clanged once more and the chairman of the evening hurried up the steps, followed by his stout wife. He clapped Martin on the back. “Splendid talk, Mr. Arnold. Well received, too.”
The plump little woman scurried up beside her husband, panting and holding her long purple skirts clear of the dusty floor. She smiled fondly at Martin, “Mr. Arnold we were all so impressed. Really we were. I just wanted to tell you I’ve asked some people to the house. Not a party or anything like that. Just some of us who have so many things we’d like to ask you. We’d be so happy if you’d come. Really we would.”
Martin looked at Jennifer. She was preoccupied with the rearrangement of a drifting wisp of veil. “Thank you,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’ve other plans.”
LIGHT rain splatJ tered on the broken cement walk outside the exit door. He pulled her back close to the brick wall so that they stood partially sheltered by the low-hanging eaves.
The pressure of his hand on her wrist was firm and warm. “We’d better get in out of this,
Jenny. Do you know of any place around here where we could talk?”
She nodded. “There’s a drugstore on the corner.” They found an empty booth close to the door. It was warm in the room and the neon lights on the steaming window reflected a rosy glow down upon them. On the table empty glasses stood in sticky rings, and scattered about were crumpled bits of tissue that had contained straws.
Martin hung his hat and coat on the hook beside the booth and slid into the seat across from Jennifer, “Well, Jenny?” he asked and smiled and she smiled back at him, a little less certainly this time. The confidence that had carried her through the first part of her adventure was beginning to falter.
She slid her purse from the table into her lap. The manager of the little store beckoned a waitress. The girl slouched across the room and then she saw Martin and she stood straighter and tucked up the loose ends of her hair and plucked at the tired ruffles of her apron. For Jennifer the scene was the reprint of an old picture. It had always been like that. The trumpets always sounded for Martin.
Years ago there had been another drugstore booth in another town, a little college town. There had been Jennifer crowded into a corner and Martin and half a dozen others. There was noise and laughter and they shouted one another down, unless it was Martin who spoke. In unison they followed his moods. When his dark eyes were bright with merriment they waited expectantly to join in with laughter. Their brows furrowed with his when he argued campus politics. When at length the sun slid in at their window and flashed in their eyes he rose, a tall, bronze-headed, laughing boy. “There’s time for a set of tennis before dinner. How about it?” They all scrambled out of the booth and headed for the door, everyone except Jennifer. He went back to her and held out his hand. “You’re coming too, aren’t you, Jenny?”
Her smile was small and tight-lipped and it well concealed all of yearning and rebellion. “I don’t like tennis. It’s a hot dirty game. I think it’s a waste of time.” Before he could move her fingers closed over the pink check by her glass and she slipped by him and laid the notched bit of cardboard and a nickel on the counter. He held the door open for her and as she passed him she slid her notebook down so that it hid the frayed seams of her skirt.
JENNIFER realized with a start that they were both watching her, Martin and the waitress. “Is anything wrong?” he asked.
“Everything’s fine,” she said quickly. Her hand caressed the smooth supple leather of her bag. “Just fine.”
The girl moved away, studying the order Martin had written. Jennifer remembered that writing well. Square bold letters marching freely across a page, across pages, many of them.
“Jenny, it’s been six—no seven—”
She counted swiftly. “Eight years,” she supplied. “And what’s been happening to you all these eight years?”
“She shrugged. “Oh, the usual things. But what have you been doing, Martin?” She listened attentively, just as if she didn’t already know more than he was telling her. There was the scrapbook at home almost filled with clippings of reviews and reprinted speeches, and all of his books in a row on the top shelf of the bookcase.
“You’re even prettier than I remembered you,” he said abruptly. “That’s a crazy way of wearing your hat, but I like it. The hat’s fun, too.”
His praise emboldened her. “You’re so close here you really ought to have a look at Bridgewater, Martin. You haven’t been back since we graduated, have you?”
He shook his head and started to speak but Jennifer, fearful of an interruption, hastened on. “It might be
fun for you.” She laughed. “You really owe it to yourself to make that speech to the senior class.”
“The senior class?” He looked puzzled.
“Don’t you remember those endless speeches we listened to when we were in school? All those alumni; lawyers and writers and ministers who were forever coming back and giving us interminable pep talks on how to conquer the world? You used to say that you were going to have to become famous so that you could come back and avenge yourself.” Martin grinned. “Old Doctor Parker was the worst. He used to clamber up on the stage in that wrinkled pongee suit of his and shout, until you could hear him down at the drugstore.”
“Where we usually were,” Jennifer reminded him. “Why don’t you run down to Bridgewater, Martin? It’s only 20 miles from here. It might, be fun for you to look over the old school.” .She played with the handles of her purse. “You could stay at our place. We’d be glad to have you.” She issued her invitation brightly and after a moment’s pause so that it seemed quite impulsive.
She pressed her forefinger against the table’s edge and was rewarded by a small sharp sting.
The evening before, as she and Aunt Julia had gone about airing the guest room and putting fresh linen on the bed a bowl of roses had slipped from Jennifer’s nervous grasp and fallen to the hearth. Jennifer, groping among the wreckage, had cut her finger. Aunt Julia put a bandage on the wound. “Never mind, honey,” she said.
“That vase didn’t amount to much and your young man won’t miss the flowers.”
“Aunt Julia,” Jennifer protested, “don’t say it like that. Martin Arnold isn’t my young man and he may not even come. I only think he might.”
“So you’re living in Bridgewater now,” Martin was saying. “Didn’t you stay there with an aunt when you were in school?”
“Yes,” Jenny said.
“I’m tempted to stop over,”
Martin conceded. “Particularly since I doubt that I’ll be in this part of the country soon again. There’s a number of the old places I’d like to see.” Jennifer’s heart beat faster. He shook his head.
“There’s not much chance though. I’m running on a pretty tight schedule. I ought to get a plane out of Toronto in the morning and that’s almost a full night’s drive from here. I suppose, too,” he said slowly, “going back might be more of a disappointment than a pleasure. You rarely find what you’re looking for.
Things change so fast. I doubt if I even know where half a dozen members of our class are now. They’re married and scattered all over the country.” He studied the flyspecked cigarette ads back of the soda fountain. “You’re
married, of course, Jennifer?” He looked at her shyly.
“Of course,” she echoed. Now that Martin had turned down her invitation he must never know that there had never been—never could be—another man.
The waitress set a cup of steaming coffee before her. Beneath the concealing edge of the table Jennifer tugged awkwardly with her gloves and felt the seam along one thumb give way. She slipped the wide engraved gold ring Aunt Julia had given her for Christmas from her right hand to the third finger of her left.
She consulted her watch. “I’ll have to drink this in a hurry,” she said briskly. “The Bridgewater bus leaves in thirty minutes.”
“Don’t worry about that. I’ll drive you back.”
“Oh, I couldn’t think of letting you. It’s out of your
“Not too far,” Martin said.
They followed the highway to the edge of town and turned off on a narrow gravelled road. Jennifer sat stiffly upright, not permitting herself to rest against the plushy cushions, careful not to touch the soft heavy wool of Martin’s coat. She studied the dials and gadgets ornamenting the dashboard of the car. It was a beautiful car, big and luxurious and smooth running; probably not Martin’s own, since he was taking a plane out of Toronto, but his kind of a car just the same.
Martin set the windshield wipers in motion. “It’s misting again. They’ve had a heavy rain out here.”
Jennifer nodded and checked her watch with the small clock before her. “The road isn’t any too good,” Martin said. “I hope we won’t be delayed getting you back. I wouldn’t want your husband to worry.”
Jennifer’s fingers tightened on her purse. “I—he isn’t at home. Now, I mean.”
“Army?” Martin asked.
“Air Force. He’s overseas.” She might as well be grand about it. “He’s a pilot.”
“Oh,” Martin said.
Matter-of-factly Jennifer dreamed up an officer, blond, equally as handsome and clever as Martin. In a few minutes’ time she knew him quite well. He was almost as real as Martin. “Bridgewater’s a funny little town,” she said. “Quite dull as you can guess. I’m only there because I want, to be with Aunt Julia while Peter’s away.”
The love story of a girl who waited eight years to discover, that pride is no substitute for happiness
Continued on page 45
Continued from page 9
“My husband,” Jennifer said with her eyes on Martin’s face. It was serious and inscrutable. She wondered what he was thinking. He believed her, of course. He always had. She was sure, for example, that he never guessed why, eight years before, she had never let him come to Aunt Julia’s for her on early evening dates. Why she always spoke of an errand in town and met him there. The street lights didn’t go out on James Avenue as far as Aunt Julia’s and when Martin brought Jennifer home at night all that was visible of the huge old house with its imposing tower was a shadowy outline. You couldn’t possibly see that it appeared to have never known paint or that the foundation at one end of the porch had given way and the shutters hung broken and crooked.
After graduation, after Martin and all the gay, money-spending, fun-loving crowd of young people had gone away, she went to work. When Aunt Julia, looking at her thin face and shadowed eyes, protested the long hours Jennifer said firmly, “We’ve got to have the money.”
She had the house painted and repaired, and when the carpenters reported the entire foundation of the porch to be a sorry mess she had it completely torn away and substituted rounding steps up to the front door, like diminishing pies piled one on another. She led Aunt Julia out to the gate. “Look,” she said gayly. “It makes the house look almost modern with the old porch gone.” Aunt Julia viewed the brick tower looming over the new little steps in surprised silence.
Finally the day came when Jennifer stood in the centre of the long softly lighted living room, with its mahogany furniture so painstakingly refinished and its bright draperies and slip covers of chintz, and knew that her work was completed. She could be proud to have any of them come here now. She imagined them, Martin and the others, wandering through the high-ceilinged rooms, sitting in the bay window, where the view of the rose garden was best, drinking tea from the fragile new cups.
When she read of Martin’s lecture in the nearby town she hadn’t been particularly surprised. It had to work out like that. She’d been getting ready for such a long time. She bought the new suit with the brief bolero jacket, and the silly pancake hat, and roses for the guest room, and went to find Martin. And then in a dirty little drugstore she had discovered that in spite of the carefulness of her planning she had made one mistake. A mistake so big that it eclipsed everything else. She’d been so busy she hadn’t realized how time had slipped by. The world had moved on and away from her. Martin and the others weren’t coming back to Bridgewater—ever.
MARTIN was looking down at her. “Warm enough?” he asked.
She smiled mechanically. “I’m quite comfortable.”
She visualized herself as she knew she must appear to him. A self-assured well-dressed young woman, happily married, amused at the narrowness of
life in a funny little college town but gracefully acceding to the circumstances that placed her there. A man couldn’t look on such a person with condescension or disdain and certainly not with pity no matter how handsome or wealthy or important he was.
The headlights of the car picked up two wavering red discs on the opposite side of the road. “Bicycles,” Martin said. As the car drew close two small grinning faces turned back to them, squinting in the glare of the light. At the foot of the hill Martin slowed the car. “They were just kids,” he said. “I wonder what they’re doing out this late. Maybe we ought to wait for them and see how things stand. It might rain again any minute.”
“I’m sure they must live near here,” Jennifer said quickly. “I expect they’re on their way home now. And it isn’t going to rain. Look, there’s the moon.” The moon slipped out from a sheltering cloud and as the car gathered speed Martin looked over the fields. “I wish it was daylight. I’d like to see the country along here.”
“It’s very pretty,” Jennifer said. “Particularly in the fall.”
“Remember those picnics we used to have, down by Carter’s pond? I always thought fall was the best time for a picnic. Steaks and burning leaves and —well, all those things. We had some good times together, Jenny.”
“Yes,” she said softly.
“And there were the times that weren’t so good. You gave me some pretty bad moments.” He laughed a little unevenly.
Jennifer laughed too. It was ridiculous to suggest that anyone who had money, friends and position on the campus could ever have been affected by anything a nonentity like little Jennifer Gilchrist had said or done.
“There was the spring formal our senior year,” Martin recalled. He hesitated. “This is pretty old stuff. Am I boring you with it?”
“Oh, no,” she said politely.
“You called at the fraternity house the evening of the dance to tell me you’d gotten mixed up and made two dates and had to break the one with me. Do you remember that night, Jenny? I’d gotten you orchids, the first I ever bought for a girl. I went up to my room and slammed them out the window.”
“You didn’t!” Jennifer said.
Martin laughed. “Later I went down and pawed around in the bushes for the box. I gave the flowers to our housemother. She was very pleased. She said she’d never had an orchid before.” So it had been orchids. Jennifer and Aunt Julia had wondered about the color of the flowers Martin would select when they bought material for the dress. “White’s safest,” Aunt Julia had said. “Any kind would be pretty on white.” So they decided on the white organdie.
They took the organdie home with them, six yards of it and it cost just the amount of their milk bill for a month. Aunt Julia said it wasn’t as if they were children. Grownups didn’t need much milk. Jennifer shouldn’t have tried to save the price of the pattern though, or perhaps she shouldn’t have cut the dress out and sewed the long seams so late at night when her head ached from studying.
Until the very last evening she and
Aunt Julia told each other that the dress was going to turn out all right. Jennifer held her head over the teakettle until the steam made curls. She fastened Aunt Julia’s locket at her throat with a black velvet ribbon and then she put on the dress. She looked in the mirror and pulled at the skirt. Aunt Julia worked for a long time with pins and a blue ribbon sash until her fingers began to tremble and she burst into tears. Jennifer buttoned her raincoat over her shoulders and ran across the street to the grocery store and called the fraternity house.
“Yes,” she said to Martin, “I remember that night.”
Lightning split the sky and simultaneously came low ominous thunder and a swift pelting of rain. “This looks like the real thing,” Martin said. “See that the windows on your side are tightly closed, Jenny.” Water streamed across the glass and angry wind shook and pushed the car.
Jennifer seized Martin’s arm. “The boys,” she cried. “We’ve got to go back.”
He was puzzled at first. “Good Lord,” he said, “I forgot those kids.” He slowed the car and leaned forward watching the sides of the road for a chance to turn. “This road is so narrow and the shoulders look soft.” The car crept forward. “Jenny,” he said after a moment, “do you know we’ve gone 15 miles or more since we passed them? They’d surely be home by this time.” She shook her head. “Turn as soon as you can. We’ve got to go back.”
MARTIN swung the spotlight back and forth across the road. They saw the smaller boy first huddled over the bicycles. The older one was in the path of the car, leaping and waving his arms. As the car slowed he raced along beside it and wrenched at the door handle.
“It’s all right, fellow,” Martin said. The boy’s freckled face was streaked with dirt and water and the rain had plastered his hair flat to his head. “Get Jimmy,” he cried. “He’s scared and I can’t make him move.”
Martin carried the little boy across the road to the car. Jenny opened her door and held out her arms. “He’s soaking,” Martin said. “Your clothes will be ruined.”
Jimmy clutched at Jennifer. “It’s Miss Gilchrist,” he shrieked. “Arnie, it’s Miss Gilchrist and she’s come to get us.” He sobbed and clung to her.
“Gosh, Miss Gilchrist!” Arnie climbed into the back seat. “Shut up, Jimmy,” he ordered. “Don’t be a baby. Jimmy’s just a little squirt,” he apologized to Martin. “He’s never been caught out like this before. He’s kinda scared.”
“Sure, Arnie,” Martin said, “I understand. There’s a rug back there. You’d better wrap it around you.” He slid out of his coat and helped Jennifer tuck it around the little boy.
“He’s shaking,” Jennifer said. “We’ll have to get him home right away.” When Martin began asking directions of Arnie she interrupted. “Just go back on the road the way we came. I’ll tell you when to turn.” They approached a narrow crossroad. “There, turn to the right.”
Martin drove the front wheels of the car off the gravel onto the bisecting road. He opened his door and slipped out. “Not a chance,” he reported a minute later. “It’s clay and sticky.” Jennifer sat still for a moment. “There’s a schoolhouse down the road,” she said. “About half a mile. I’ll show you.” They drove up on the matted grass of the schoolyard. Jennifer took a key from her purse and unlocked the door. Martin carried Jimmy. The child was quiet in his arms. Arnie trailed
after them. His voice was shrill. “Gee, Miss Gilchrist, Jimmy’s all right, isn’t he?”
“Of course he is,” she said. “Get some kindling, Arnie. You know where I keep the matches. She knelt beside the little round stove and Arnie stood close beside her and sniffled. “Miss Gilchrist, Jimmy’s awful still.”
Martin took the matches and paper from her hand. “Come on, Arnie,” he said, “and see how a Boy Scout handles a job like this.”
Jennifer undressed Jimmy and wrapped him in a blanket and then she went to the telephone. “I talked with your mother, Arnie,” she said a few minutes later. “Your father’s out looking for you with the team. She’ll send him over here as soon as she can.”
“Did she sound cross or anything?” Arnie asked. “We’ve been over to Bud Fletcher’s. We were supposed to start home at eight-thirty but it was raining then, and besides he had a new dart board.”
Jennifer smiled. “No, she didn’t sound cross. She was very glad to know that you boys are all right.”
She made hot soup and set bowls of it on the scarred tops of two of the desks. “This sure is swell,” Arnie said.
Jimmy stared at the soup and then dropped his head on the desk and began to cry. “Listen to me, Jimmy,” Jennifer said. “I’m going to play a little song for you while you eat. She pulled a chair up to the piano. Her fingers rested on the keys. “The farmer in the dell,” she sang, “The farmer in the dell, Heigh-ho the dairy-o, The farmer in the dell.”
Martin picked up Jimmie’s spoon and waved it in time with the music. “Now here we go.” Jimmy giggled and swallowed a mouthful of soup. After awhile his head dropped down on the desk again.
“I guess he’s gone to sleep,” Arnie said.
Jennifer laid him on the bench near the stove and covered him with another blanket from the closet. Martin watched her. “You’ve got a little bit of everything on those shelves, haven’t you?”
“We have to be prepared for all sorts of emergencies in a rural school. A sudden storm can cut us off completely. You’d better lie down, too, Arnie,” she said. “It may be some time before your father gets here.”
Martin spread his coat over the boy. Arnie raised his head. “Miss Gilchrist sure is a swell teacher,” he said sleepily. “My Dad says we didn’t never have such a good one in the district before.”
“Didn’t ever, Arnie,” Jennifer said automatically. She gathered up the bowls and rinsed them with a dipper of water from the bucket. She went to her desk on the platform and moved the inkwell from one side to the other and tidied a pile of papers. She kept her back turned to Martin.
He came up and sat on a corner of the desk and lit a cigarette. “I’ve never understood why so many of these country school boards are prejudiced against married teachers,” he said easily. “It makes it awkward for a woman. Having to keep her marriage a secret, I mean.”
Jennifer’s hands tightened on the papers. Martin was giving her an opportunity to save her pride. He was showing her a way out. All she had to do was turn to him and say lightly, “Yes, isn’t it silly? Particularly since I’m only doing it because of the teacher shortage. Peter much prefers that I don’t work at all.” And then she could say, “It’s really foolish for you to wait around here any longer. Mr. Olsen will be here in a little while. If you lose any more time you may miss that plane.”
She looked around the schoolroom in which she had spent her days, fall, winter and spring for seven long years. Five rows of desks. Little ones for the beginners, graduating up to the big ones in the back for her eighth grade boys. Her own prints, reproductions of fine water colors on soft green walls. Across the top of the blackboard ran the sentences she had written there for the first graders that morning. The lettering was precise and even. Her lips formed the words as she read silently:
“I see the squirrel. The squirrel can run. Can you see the squirrel run?” And all the time in her mind was the knowledge of what she must do.
She didn’t look at Martin as she began to speak. Her voice was low and controlled. She might have been explaining long division to her 10-yearolds, except that then she would have tried eagerly to make them understand. She went back to the beginning, back to the day when Martin had swung his shining roadster out of the drive of his fraternity house and almost hit a small fair girl hurrying home from science lab. He had jumped from his car and carefully gathered up the papers that spilled from her notebook and offered to take her on home. She had said no, that she was on her way to the drugstore for a coke, so he had taken her there instead. While they sat in a booth eating pineapple sodas Chuck Williams, the captain of the football team, strolled by. Chuck was a smarty and rude but no one minded because that was the year the team was winning every one of its games. He put his palms on the table and leaned down so that he could look into Jennifer’s face. “A new girl, Martin?” he had asked and Martin had smiled pleasantly and said, “I don’t know. I hope so.”
There was quite a lot to Jennifer’s story and she told it all. The evasions, the misrepresentations, the pretenses and deceits. She told him about Aunt Julia’s porch with its rotten sagging columns and the organdie dress. She got along pretty well until she got to the point of her encounter with Martin after his lecture and then her tongue stumbled over the words. At last she was finished. Her throat burned and there was a bitter taste in her mouth. She knew that she’d been talking for a long time. She brushed her hair back from her face and the touch of her hand was shockingly cold on her flaming cheek. She looked down and saw the skirt of her new suit streaked with dirt where Jimmy’s muddy feet had been. Her confession had rewarded her with no sense of relief or acquittal. She felt nothing except humiliation and anger and hurt.
Behind her Martin still sat on the corner of her desk. Presently he said, “Jennifer, after graduation my mother sent you a letter asking you to visit us.
You wrote back that you’d made other plans for the summer.”
“Your mother’s letter came the day after I had got a job at the bakery,” she said dully. “I talked to Mr. Brewster about it and he said he couldn’t have his help running off for vacations whenever they felt like it. He said that if I didn’t want the job there were a dozen girls in town who’d be glad to take it.”
“And the letter I sent you that fall,” Martin went on, his voice strained and odd, “asking if I couldn’t come to see you. You didn’t even mention my coming.”
Jennifer answered dispassionately. “It turned cold early that fall. We hadn’t any coal in and the water pipes froze and burst. They weren’t fixed for months. We hadn’t any money or credit either. We carried our water from the grocery store.”
She stared out the window toward
the road and fairly willed into being the faint bobbing pin point of light, her escape from this sickening nightmare. “Mr. Olsen is coming with the team,” she said. “I’m going out to the farm with him and the boys and spend the night there. You may as well get started now.” She welcomed the occasion for activity. “We’ll get your things together. Arnie has your coat, hasn’t he?”
His hand on her arm stopped her. “You don’t need to disturb him yet, Jenny. I’m not leaving now. I’m going back to Bridgewater with you.”
“Why?” Jennifer asked stonily. “Why are you going back?”
“There’s that speech to the senior class,” Martin suggested, “and a certain amount of curiosity regarding the outcome of Aunt Julia’s porch.” He put his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him. “Jenny,” he said, “you know why.”
All time records for timber construc tion in the U.S. were established during the first half of 1943, when the largest amount of wood ever used in a building -27,000,000 board-feet-went into a
cargo-plane assembly plant. Largest clear-span timb~r arches ever erected were used in a blimp hangar; they rise 153 feet from the floor and span 235 feet.-Scientiflc American.