FICTION

SAWDUST IN THEIR EYES

ELEANOR COATES September 1 1945
FICTION

SAWDUST IN THEIR EYES

ELEANOR COATES September 1 1945

SAWDUST IN THEIR EYES

ELEANOR COATES

AS THE twig is bent, they say, inclines the tree. But sometimes you wonder about that twig. L What makes it bend? And why?

Stem and branch the Deens were farmers, with their roots deep in the rich, Ontario soil. But from the moment Greg Deen walked and talked he was a circus man. The first day he went to school he took with him a white collie dog which jumped through a hoop and walked on its hind legs. From time to time thereafter he brought white rabbits, grasshoppers, a tame rooster, six turtles which raced across a line, and a small deformed pig which danced on a barrel top. He was forever practicing acrobatics, training animals and organizing parades. When he was 10 he held a circus in Meade’s burn. Admission 10 cents. The kids

aU went, and some of the adults, and everyone said it was worth the dime, even in those days. Whatever the roots you could certainly see the deviation of that twig.

He was one of those lucky people who have a goal in their hearts and can put their whole hearts into reaching it. He never changed his mind. He was that way about Libby Halloran, too.

He was a serious little lad with round brown eyes and a round brown head when Libby moved to Middleton, and the first time Greg laid eyes on her she was enshrined. She rode in the pony cart in his parades, and was the queen of all Greg’s enterprises. Some schoolboys would have been teased, but Greg never was. Teasing is like gossiping. When a rumor becomes a well-known fact all the fun, all the daring, all the zip is gone. And if “Greg Loves Libby. Libby Loves Greg” was chalked on the sidewalks and board fences it had no effect on them. Of course they loved each other

When he was 14 he managed to buy a little merrygo-round. It was horse-drawn and quite small, and the little ponies had rococo manes and names like Nikki, Rollo and Lulu. Greg fixed it up with red and gilt paint, and it appeared at every church picnic and farmers’ meet with Greg driving the mare round and round and all the kids in the countryside paying a nickel to ride for 10 minutes. Libby Halloran and her friends rode free.

When he was 21 and she was 19 a carnival came to Middleton. You might have thought it a dingy little carnival contrasted with the clean, white-painted little town. You might have thought it a little comic and pathetic—like an old clown whose grease paint has slipped and streaked.

“Aren’t the lights pretty through the rain?” Greg said as he and Libby walked across town that gloomy Saturday afternoon and the music from the calliope grew louder in their ears.

Greg wanted to be a circus man. He also wanted Libby. So he gambled on a carnival — and very nearly lost more than he won

“They streak together like a rainbow when I squint

my eyes.”

“Your lashes are nice and long,” he said, and turned his own face into the rain. Such praise was unusual, but he was exhilarated and happy, and as they approached the little throngs of determined pleasure seekers they brought a little glow with them. Concessionaires and circus attendants looked a little more hopeful when they saw them coming. The Ferris wheel hadn’t had a passenger for an hour but when Greg and Libby got on a dozen others followed, and there was laughter and shouting through the rain. A knot of people followed them to the wheel of chance, which spun and yielded up a teddy bear. Beginner’s luck.

Although Greg and Libby didn’t realize it, their hilarity sparked the crowd all afternoon. At last, laden with teddy bears, boxes of candy and an Indian blanket, they reached the hot dog stand, and a big red-faced man nearby said, “Sit down, kids. For what you’ve done here this afternoon I owe you a treat. What’ll it be? On the house.”

They were puzzled. “But look what we’ve won,” said Libby.

“Good advertising,” said the fat man. “What’ll you have to eat? Chicken rolls? Hot dogs?”

“Do you mean you own the circus?” asked Greg. “You flatter me, calling it a circus,” said the man, “but for what it’s worth I own it. Till someone comes along who’ll take it as a gift.”

“You mean you’d sell it?” Greg’s voice was unbelieving.

“Would I sell it? Listen—you see this rain? The tents are mildewed. Business is shot. I gave the boys a pep talk the other day and they took up a collection and presented me with an umbrella. Would I sell it!” “How much do you want for it?” asked Greg. “Enough to set me up in the ice cube business,” said the fat man, wiping his moist forehead. But he looked at Greg more carefully.

“How much money have you got?”

Greg had saved dimes and quarters all his life, and for the past two years he’d worked in the Central Garage. He had enough money to buy furniture and make a down payment on a little house. And now while Libby listened, forgetting to eat her hot dog and drink her coffee, she heard him tell the fat man, and heard him add thoughtfully, “And I could sell my father’s farm to my uncle. He said he’d buy it whenever I was sure I’d never want to farm myself.” Swiftly he computed, and the fat man listened attentively.

“Ummm-huh. Well— For that money I think we could make a deal. But maybe your uncle wouldn’t want you going in the carnival business.”

“I’m of age,” said Greg proudly. “What do you think, Libby?”

“You mean you’d go away from Middleton? You’d travel around with the carnival?”

“You’d come too,” said Greg. “We’d get married and—”

Aunt Alva wouldn't allow it. Like turning off an alarm clock and returning to a pleasant dream, Libby ignored the idea of Aunt Alva. Carried away by Greg’s enthusiasm she saw life in gay galaxy. Throngs of people. Flashing. lights. Romance and escape. Fortune foretold and fortune found. Her parted lips and shining eyes, increased the throb of excitement in his veins, and under the sodden canopy of canvas, dripping rain on sawdust and mud, Greg Deen took another turn on the wheel of chance and bought himself a carnival.

A*

UNT ALVA came into the hall as Greg disappeared down the street. “Your feet are soaking,” she said to Libby. “You’d better run up and change.” “We’ve been to the carnival,” Libby began, for she could see that Aunt Alva was in a buoyant mood. The house was full of the aroma of biscuits and gingerbread, and Aunt Alva was as self-satisfied as a hen that has just laid an egg.

“I used to think,” she remarked reminiscently, “that Greg Deen would run off with a circus some time. He was always getting up parades—”

Libby’s voice was studiedly casual. “He’s doing better than that. He’s buying the carnival. Or at least the biggest share of it.”

The words hung in the air, and then, like gathering clouds, their import struck, and Aunt Alva turned. “Buying that dingy, broken-down carnival! Your Uncle Prentiss says it isn’t making any money and

we’ll be lucky if it gets out of town without going broke.”

Libby’s manner was still elaborately, even painfully, casual. “Greg will make money with it. He’s going to have the merry-go-round, and the Ferris wheel, and two practically new hot dog stands, and— ”

Aunt Alva sat down abruptly and stared. “His uncle will never allow it,” she said flatly. “Greg’s a Deen.

All the Deens are farmers.”

“Not Greg though,” said Libby.

She felt a little desperate, but she went on precipitately, grasping her aunt’s hands, her damp hair falling around her flushed face. “We want to get married right away—so I can go with him—with the carnival.”

“Libby,” said Aunt Alva, dismayed, but making a visible adjustment, “if Greg is going to sell his farm and put all his money into a carnival he can’t expect to get married too. He’ll lose every cent. That’s what he’ll do.”

“Greg—never loses his money,” protested Libby, “and—we want to get married. You said it would be all right to plan—”

Yes, it had been all right to plan. Libby was young, but farm couples should marry young. Aunt Alva had visualized herself at every point of marital strain. Helping with the first fall pickling, roasting the first Christmas turkey, making the first child’s layette, and nursing it through the colic.

There was only one attitude for Aunt Alva to take. “You must be mad. You and Greg must be mad. You travel around with a circus—”

BREATHING the evening air after the rain stopped falling was like eating fresh slices of apple. Hundreds of little springs started flowing inside you. Libby ran down the front steps to meet Greg and hand in hand they walked down the street under the dripping elm trees. Ordinarily on a rainy night they would have stayed on the porch, but not tonight. Tonight they had to go somewhere by themselves.

Greg and Libby knew a spot, and instinctively their feet turned toward it. It was in the park, down near the edge of the lake. An old bandstand enclosed with boards around the bottom and covered by an umbrella-shaped roof. Here they were in a world of their own.

At first ¿hey whispered, for the trees were bending close and whispering too. She told him what Aunt Alva had said, and now they talked it over in little disjointed sentences, with pauses.

“You told her you wouldn’t be in the carnival—just with it?” Greg asked miserably. It was strange how you could be all alive one minute and all gone the next.

“I told her. But she thinks you’ll have a hard time. She thinks you’ll lose everything. She calls it madness.”

“You don’t think so though.”

Her hands tightened on the muscles of his arms.

“We could run away and be married,” said Greg.

“Oh, no,” demurred Libby quickly. “Aunt Alva brought me up after my own mother died. 1 couldn’t do that, you see.” He did see. Anti he did not question her loyalty to Aunt Alva. If you were Libby—if you were Greg —you had loyalties, and you couldn’t ignore them. But she belonged to him, too, and they belonged together. Aunt Alva had nothing to do with that.

Wanting to comfort him in her own hopelessness she said, “But if you went alone for a while. If she could really see that you were getting along all right—” “And leave you here? But Libby—we’ve always been together.”

His face was in her soft black hair.

“I don’t want you to go without me.” She was thinking of him against the bright background of the carnival, the fast-talking voices, and the persuasive music.

• “I’d be busy. I’d be all right,” said Greg. “Only you—”

“With us it’s always,” she said.

“With us it has to be always.”

The words gave a new validity to the emotions they had always known. A breeze swept like a veil across the tree tops and shook a shower of raindrops on the umbrella roof. There was a tremulous movement in the air.

Greg said, “It won’t be long, darling. It really won’t be long.”

GREG moved his carnival out of town the next day, and then for Libby the rain really began to fall as it never had before. Sometimes to be sure you’d worn raincoat and rubbers. But that was for variety. Raincoat and rubbers couldn’t keep the rain out of your heart.

She went to Normal School that fall. Not that she wanted to teach. Or expected to. Greg would be back, and he would convince Aunt Alva by that time.

But Greg wasn’t back. Not the next summer. Nor the next fall. Aunt Alva remained unconvinced and, in fact, seemed justified. Libby knew the carnival wasn’t quite a success. The fat letters from Greg grew thinner. Hope waned and the future looked thinner too.

One day Aunt Alva said, “How’s Greg?” and Libby, who was reading a letter, looked up dully and said, “All right, I guess.” Continued on page 27

Sawdust in Their Eyes

Continued from page 16

Aunt Alva went on, “I invited the new man teacher over this evening for supper. Why don’t you put on your new dress, and be nice to him. He stares at you in church, and I know he likes you. He’s a nice steady young fellow.”

After Libby went upstairs Aunt Alva said to Uncle Prentiss, “I should have thought Greg Deen would have sold that carnival and come back by this time. Plain to see he thinks more of it than he does of Libby.”

Uncle Prentiss put down his newspaper and looked over his half-moon glasses, “Figurin’ he loves her half as much as he loves his carnival, it would still be more’n most men ever love a woman,” he observed, and Aunt Alva snorted indignantly. Her mind was on Willoughby Baxter, the new man teacher, and her new recipe for devil’s food cake.

At suppertime Libby didn’t have on the new dress, but she looked pretty all the same. And if she was quiet that only gave Willoughby Baxter more time to admire the chicken pie with dumplings and the hot biscuits and the devil’s food cake.

Afterward they all sat on the front porch, behind the Dutchman’s-pipe vine, and Willoughby admired the town, the river, and Libby’s profile against the dusk. Aunt Alva admired Willoughby. And Libby looked off across the fields and said little. The flickering gleam of the fireflies reminded

her of carnival lights. Flashing and fitful. Undependable.

Afterward Willoughby Baxter often sat with them on the front porch. He was agreeable and there was a certain balm in his unobtrusive compliments. He was a newcomer to Middleton, and, unlike the other boys, he didn’t persist in thinking of Libby always as Greg Deen’s girl. It was unfair that someone in the town wrote to Greg about Willoughby and his perfect manners, his persistent good humor and his nightly presence on the Halloran porch.

Greg’s letters were brief, and the note concerning Willoughby was even briefer than usual. Across the miles it seemed peremptory in its enquiry. Did Libby want to be engaged, or not? And if so, to Baxter or Deen? Libby’s answer was even briefer. So brief in fact that her own hurt feelings could send no healing ray through the scorch of her Irish temper. It wasn’t just Greg’s references to Willoughby. It was also a card someone had shown her that day. A picture of a girl in a leopardskin bathing suit.

Greg had written on the back: “Things are looking up. Have added the Diving Diva to the show. She’s quite a gal, and quite a drawing card.” All Greg’s friends in Middleton agreed that she would be a drawing card whether she could dive or not. They thought Greg’s luck was improving.

She stopped writing to Greg, because there wasn’t any point any longer. She found out that you didn’t feel things the way people felt them in books. Instead you just felt sort of numb, and Continued on page 29

Continued from page 27 neither good nor bad. If life was a song, it was a song without any high or low notes. Just a monotone.

IT WAS mere chance that old Miss Kelly who taught in the Centre School got sick that year and Principal Mortimer needed a substitute in a hurry. He was hesitant about taking Libby, she was so young and inexperienced. She could try it until the end of the term, he explained, meaning that the school board would try Libby for that long.

“Mr. Mortimer doesn’t seem to think 1 can teach,” Libby told Aunt Alva.

“That boy of his—that Chuck Mortimer—is in that class,” Aunt Alva reflected. “He’s had four teachers and never really learned anything yet. Seth thinks he’s perfect. If you could win Chuck over in the next two months—” “I might have a concert—”

“That’s the best way to impress the mothers anyway,” agreed Aunt Alva.

“I can try,” decided Libby. And she did try.

Never were drills, recitations and dialogues chosen more carefully. In the end there was a role for everyone, and Chuck Mortimer had two parts. He was won over to the idea of the concert by being cast as the Indian in a pageant depicting the discovery of Canada. Also he had a recitation, entitled “Gardening,” in which he travelled upstage hoeing leisurely and travelled back again harvesting his crop. For once Chuck was content with school and teacher.

“Don’t you worry,” Aunt Alva assured her. “If you can show Seth Mortimer that his boy can be taught a recitation he’ll let you teach in town next year, and then you can board home with Uncle Prentiss and me.” Libby stayed late after school, putting designs on the blackboards with colored chalk. She was oblivious to the powdery smoothness of her fingers, and to the gritty chalk dust on her face and hair. She was almost oblivious to the clean damp dusk as she walked home, and if she noticed an undercurrent in the town she put it down to a reflection of her own excitement, or to the fact that the next day was closing of the schools.

She didn’t realize what had happened until the next morning. The children received their report cards, and almost everyone had been advanced a grade. So there was general satisfaction. They were rehearsing for the final time when she noticed the tension, which was almost insubordination, among the pupils. Chuck Mortimer, for instance, was less than halfhearted in his portrayal of the Canadian Indian, and he went through his recitation without emphasis or a gesture.

“I hope you’ll do better this afternoon,” Libby told him.

Chuck mumbled something under his breath. “My ole man says a circus is important to kids. I heard him tellin’ Ma. An’ the last day of school don’t matter anyhow.”

It was the word “circus” that sent the blood rushing to her face, and made her ears keen as another boy said, “They’re settin’ it up now, and there’s going to be a parade, and Greg Deen said they’d open this afternoon.”

Libby sat up straight. Willie Temple’s hand was up, and he was a dependable little fellow in a way. He was always on hand to report any news, misdemeanors of his fellows. Information the teacher might want and some she didn’t.

“What is it, Willie?” Libby asked. With 10-year-old ceremony he said, “Deen’s Circus came to town this morning, and my brother’s over there

helping them unload since early this morning. They might have a parade at two o’clock.”

In as firm a voice as she could muster, Libby said, “This is the last day of school. After today you’ll be free for two whole months. Your fathers and mothers will be here this afternoon, so don’t disappoint them.” The children looked evasive and sullen, but when they trooped out of the classroom they were quickly in holiday mood, shouting, hurrying off in the direction of the fair.

Her heart sank a little as she watched them go, but slowly, surely, there was the beginning of a song. Greg was back. He was back to show the town, and perhaps to show' her. Incidentally he was going to spoil the concert and her chance to get a teaching job in town.

Greg was back. She might run into him on the street, going home. Or anywhere. She jumped up and looked at herself in the mirror of the cloak closet. Did she look older? No. Her reflection gave back clear blue eyes, a complexion as creamy as ever, and a mouth that curvad sweetly despite a trembling lower lip. Her hair in a tight knot made her look a trifle prim, and she pulled out the pins and let it fall to her shoulders.

She would see him. She must see him. She would think of some excuse, so that he would not suspect how much she wanted to look at his round brown head, and touch his hard-muscled arm, hear his slow, earnest voice.

Perhaps she could ask him not to open the circus until evening. When he heard about the concert he could not refuse. Not Greg. Walking rapidly across towm toward the fairgrounds she understood the unruliness of the children. It was spring, and the lusty crazy music came to you on waves, as though to peel off layer after layer of your wintry constraint. You wanted to run in the san toward that wild rollicking music. Toward Greg.

Already a big tent had been erected, and the attendant told her with a nod, “The boss ought to be in that tent. Just walk right in, lady.”

The girl sitting at the table didn’t look pretty at first in the greenish gloom of the tent. Her hair was very bright, and her make-up, by Libby’s standard, covered her features like a mask. But she was a pretty girl, Libby realized presently, and she had a perfectly proportioned figure under the sheer black dress.

“Did you want to see somebody?”

“Mr. Deen,” said Libby, feeling young and countrified in her ruffled blouse and velveteen guimpe.

“He’s supposed to be right there at that desk,” the girl said lightly, “but you see, dearie, he isn’t. Was it the cashier’s job you wanted to see about?”

Libby hesitated. She looked curiously at the litter of papers on Greg’s desk. A telephone rang sharply and the blond girl sprang to answer it.

“Excuse me, dearie. I guess I’m elected. Hell-oo/i. This is Sally Belle. No, my husband isn’t here, so I guess I’m in charge. Yes, we’ll open about 2.30. The sound truck is out now announcing—”

Her husband! Was Greg married then? But, of course! That would account for the blond girl’s proprietary air. Libby’s smile stiffened on her face, but her thoughts were wildly disconnected. Reason told her that she shouldn’t be surprised. It was months —almost a year—since she had written to Greg.

Then, on top of the desk, she saw a clipping from the Middleton Herald:

SCHOOL CONCERT

Friday afternoon, June 16

At Centre School—2.30 p.m.

Miss Elizabeth Halloran, Teacher

Sally Belle sensed her dismay. “If there was anything you wanted, you could just tell me.”

“Did Mr. Deen see this clipping — about the school concert—before he went out?”

“He clipped it out himself,” Sally Belle remembered smilingly. “This is his home town and he reads the paper every week. He seemed to get a great kick out of it. Don’t touch it, dearie, because he’ll want it.”

But now Libby was on her way out of the tent. All she wanted was to get away from the fairgrounds. The spring air penetrated only the top of her lungs, and beneath was suffocation. And then, as she walked faster, the suffocation died down and the flame of anger flared. Greg knew enough about schoolboys to know that his circus would spoil her concert. He was intending to do so. Irrationally, vehemently, she despised him, as only a woman who has lately been in love can do.

She didn’t want to talk to anyone, but as she opened the screen door, she heard Uncle Prentiss. “Come in here, Libby. Look who’s here.”

Seated at the dining room table, with a glass of Aunt Alva’s root beer in his hand, his clothes more smoothly tailored, and his brown hair more smoothly brushed than she remembered, was Greg. She paused and then she went straight to him.

Greg Deen put down his glass and looked at her, dark hair tossed back, Irish eyes shooting sparks. She was a little incoherent, and Uncle Prentiss interrupted her once with, “Well—I’m blowed—”

“—and I know what you’re doing. I know. I was over at the carnival grounds and yourwi—Sally Belle told me you knew about my concert. And -—and Greg Deen—if you think I care, if you think anything you ever do can make me care two pins, you’re—very— much mistaken.” The last words as Libby ran upstairs.

“Now ain’t that a woman?” enquired Uncle Prentiss mildly.

Aunt Alva was standing in the kitchen door. “She’s all stirred up about that concert. It’s her chance to teach in town, and she’s been practicing for weeks.” Aunt Alva knew that Libby’s sobs were more than Irish temper. They were an accumulation of months of loneliness and doubt. Aunt Alva had accumulated a few doubts and regrets herself.

Libby didn’t go down to lunch. She didn’t open the door when Aunt Alva knocked. But at two o’clock she dried her eyes and looked at her face in the mirror. There would be a few children and parents at school. Perhaps enough for a few recitations and a song or two. She combed her hair back into its bun, and put on a fresh blouse and went to school.

The town hummed. Music was in the air, seeming to come from everywhere.

She turned the corner and faced the schoolyard, expecting to see one or two children and perhaps a few adults trickling in.

What she saw was a mill of activity. A merry-go-round had been set up in the schoolyard, and a sound truck was drawn up beside it, and every youngster in the town was clustering around it with parents and friends in tow.

The music stopped and a raucous voice spread over the crowd: “Now,

kids, you’re having a concert this afternoon. So go on in there and give. Do what the teacher says, and tonight you get to the circus free of charge. If you behave yourselves. You see this here merry-go-round? When the concert’s over you can come back out here and have a ride for free. Now go on in and do just what the teacher says. Remember.”

There never was a concert like it. The songs were sung loudly. The recitations were said quickly, without a prompt. Chuck Mortimer went down his garden row howing so fast you might have mistaken the motions for hammer blows, and came back with a full harvest. The drill was a huge success. Pioneers, frontiersmen and discoverers vied with the Canadian Indian, and if some of the performers appeared to jump their cues it didn’t matter, because the program had been a trifle long in rehearsal. Somehow Libby was in control to the very end, when she said, “Now, children, line up. Quick march!”

As they filed out the motor on the merry-go-round could be heard and the sound truck blared forth. Greg Deen unfolded his long legs from the back seat and came up. “It was quite a concert, Libby. Congratulations.” There were tears of confusion in her eyes, laughter and apology. “Thanks to you.” She hesitated and then carried on gallantly. “I didn’t expect you’d have time to come to the concert. I was going to write you a note of thanks

— and congratulations.” “Congratulations?’ ’

“On your marriage—to Sally Belle.” “Sally Belle?” Greg looked puzzled. “Oh—1 picked up a partner in Salinas

Bill Burke. Sally Belle is his wife— not mine.”

Dizzily Libby turned to someone who was standing beside them. Willoughby Baxter said, “You’ll get your school all right, Libby. The school board seems mighty pleased.” She said, “Oh, do you think so?” as objectively, as casually, as though he had predicted rain in 1950.

For suddenly, as Libby and Greg looked at each other, with the hurdygurdy music coming in the window, the only reality in the world outside themselves was a merry-go-round. A merry-go-round which somehow was quite stable beneath their feet, while the rest of the world swept crazily around.