I’ll Wait for You All My Life
A $500 prize winner in Maclean’s Short Story Contest this is the moving story of Jake and Sarah and a love that neither fully understood
THE first time we saw Jake was the day he brought Sarah the big potato.
We were in the kitchen, doing the last three days’ dishes and singing “Red River Valley,” in parts, when the rap came on the door.
Sarah opened it with hands that dripped dishwater, and stopped carolling in the middle of a high note when she saw the middle-sized, sandy sort of fellow who was standing there. He had a square sunburned face, that was redder than ever now, and he was holding the biggest potato I’ve ever seen.
For a moment he just stood there, his blue eyes earnestly on Sarah’s face, and the flush mounting in his cheeks. Then he said, swallowing, “I thought you might like this. I grew it in my back yard.” And with a kind of a burst of pride, “It weighs four pounds, two ounces.”
He thrust the potato into Sarah’s hands and was out the door like a flash.
Sarah carried the potato carefully to the table and set it down. Right away Rich, my brother, was wanting to know if he could take it to school to show the boys;, and Judy, my sister, was saying no, he couldn’t, because he’d be sure to hurt it, and we had to keep it till mother came home.
Sarah didn’t say anything. She just stood there with her wet finger tips resting on the potato and a little color touching her cheeks.
We asked her who the man was who had brought the potato. She said he was Jake Southey, who lived in the shack in the next block. She said he had a cow and the cow had broken away and eaten two rows of her corn.
Jake had been very apologetic for the cow, but Sarah had told him not to worry, because the corn wasn’t much good this year anyhow. And she had pulled up the other two rows and given them to him to take home.
So she guessed the potato was because he was grateful.
She stopped looking dreamy and gave the potato a little shove, and hustled us back to the sink and the dishes.
That was the year we moved to the North Hill in Calgary. Maybe you don’t know the North Hill. It’s a flat prairie spot on the top of the cliffs that rise to the north of the Bow River, with the foothills rolling up behind it. We lived on the edge of town, where there were only a few houses and plenty of vacant lots, and where you could go snaring gophers practically in your own back yard.
Mother was sick a lot that summer, and in and out of hospital, and Sarah had come up from East Calgary to look after us.
Just to look at her you would never think Sarah was an interesting person. She had a long thin neck and a thin, grim sort of face, with brown hair bobbed to the lobe of her ears, and a sparse figure that was full of angles.
But looking at her you wouldn’t know about the peacefulness she brought with her. You wouldn’t know that something in Sarah relaxed people right down to their boots, and left them looking out on the world with friendliness and a faint, stirring sense of adventure.
She wasn’t the best housekeeper in the world, though. Mother worried about that sometimes, when she wasn’t there to keep an eye on things, but she knew she never had to worry about us. Sarah liked things easy. Like those dishes we were doing when Jake came in. When mother was away we never did dishes till every dish in the house was dirty. Then we would all help, even Rich, while Sarah led the singing.
And the way we made beds was another example of Sarah’s housekeeping. Judy and I could roar
through the house and finish all the beds in three minutes flat. That was because Sarah pinned the sheets and blankets to the foot of the mattresses with big safety pins, so that all we had to do was yank them up into place.
After the day Jake brought the big potato we started going over to his place. It wasn’t much of a house, just one big room and a lean-to kitchen, set in the middle of a double lot. There was a bed in the living room and two leather chairs with torn seats, and a table and a gas radiant and a radio and a telephone.
Jake didn’t use the telephone much himself, but it was so handy for the neighbors that he hated to have it taken out. He always kept a big padlock on his front door when he went out, but everyone knew the key was in the mailbox, and when they wanted to phone they would go over and let themselves in.
We three and the three Jenkins boys used to have a lot of fun with that phone. We would call people whose houses were along the streetcar tracks, and when they answered we would ask, “Are you on the streetcar line?” And when they said yes, we would say, “Well, get off it, the streetcar’s coming!”
Sometimes Sarah would go over to phone. She would always dress very carefully first, in the navyblue silk with the white collar that mother had given her for Christmas, with a spot of lavender on the handkerchief in her pocket. And she would always go just around 6.30 o’clock, when Jake would be getting home from the railroad shops where he worked.
She would be surprised when he came, and she would go to the door to let him in, and they would stand talking before she came away. About their gardens and about Jake’s cow, which was temperamental, and about Social Credit, for which Sarah was planning to vote and Jake wasn’t.
Sometimes Sarah would go back into the kitchen and whip him up a bite of supper before she came home. Other times, when dad was staying downtown, she would shout to the bunch of us where we played out in the no man’s land of vacant lots, and we would go into Jake’s and eat with them.
Afterward the six of us children—because the Jenkins boys were always there too—would sit on the bed, and Jake and Sarah would sit in the leather chairs, and we would listen to Jake’s radio.
That was where I first heard “Red Sails in the Sunset,” and fell in love with Red Horner as he fought his way through the hockey games for the Maple Leafs. The two youngest Jenkins boys, Milt and Steve, would be sitting on either side of me and trying to hold my hands. But I wouldn’t let them, because I was saving my heart for Red Horner in his penalty box.
I was saving my heart, I told myself then, like Sarah was saving hers for Jake. Being 13, with the first seeds of the ancient passion stirring in me, I recognized it was love she held for him, for all she sat there so quiet with her knitting in her hands. And I wondered why Jake didn’t see it too.
But somehow he didn’t.
ALL our growing up was mixed in with those two, L like it was mixed in with our homes and the schools we went to. 11 was Jake whd ran out hose from his kitchen sink so the boys could flood their rink on the vacant lot next to his place. And he was as mad as they were when the Chinooks slid down out of the Rockies and turned their good ice into shell.
And it was Sarah who made the toffee for our toffee pull at Hallowe’en, and Juke who set the tub where we bobbed for apples.
We brought them our troubles too, because they had simple hearts and minds, not complex like our parents’, and they felt more the way we who were children did.
They were as worried as we were the winter young Milt Jenkins was running with that tough Brown kid, and we were all sure he was going to end up in Juvenile Court. They helped us cover up for him when he stayed out late and his parents started to wonder. And it was Jake, at last, sorrowfully, who gave him the good talking-to that straightened him out.
They chaperoned us, too, on our hikes out to the sandstone caves after we got into high school—if chaperoning was the word. Jake would drive Sarah out in his $25 jalopy, and she would be waiting for us at the big stone fireplace we had built, with the old brown bean pot packed in hot rocks, and a cottage roll and buns and doughnuts laid out on the table.
Funny thing was, we didn’t need chaperoning. We never really got to romance in our crowd. It all ended too soon. But we knew there was romance between Sarah and Jake . . . We all knew, except Jake.
He did start to realize, though, how important she was the day the pound man came.
It was Sarah who started Jake’s cat collection. She found a scraggly old grey Persian crouching on our hack porch one day, and when mother wouldn’t let her keep it, because we already had two cats, she took it over to Jake’s.
Jake nailed an apple box to the east wall of his living room and made a warm bed of old rags in it, and that was where the cat had her five kittens a couple of weeks later. Jake didn’t have the heart to drown any of the kittens, so after we’d found homes for two of them he kept the other three. In time they grew up and had families of their own. Whenever a new family arrived, Jake would nail another apple box to the east
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wall, so what with natural increase and the strays that kept moving in, he began to have quite a collection.
Our cats moved over there too. Our house was fancier than Jake’s, but his was more democratic. He never insisted that a cat stay off anything, even the table.
It was Sarah, too, who brought Jake his first dog, a Pomeranian called Snuffs. We didn’t approve of Snuffs. He was little and ugly and yappy. But Jake and Sarah were sorry for him because nobody loved him; and they saved him the best bones, and held him on their knees when we were listening to the radio at night.
One time Snuffs chased a boy on a bike, and the boy kicked at him and paralyzed Snuffs’ two back legs. We all thought Jake should have him destroyed, but he wouldn’t. He kept him at the vet’s for over a month, even though he was on relief at the time and had to go light on his own eats to do it.
Then he brought Snuffs home and built him a little two-wheeled wagon to tote his rear end around on; and after that Snuffs would meet us at the gate, barking his head off just as usual. The
only people he never barked at were Jake and Sarah.
There were other dogs too. Jake just couldn’t tum an animal away. They ate him out of house and home, and sometimes he would have been downright hungry if Sarah hadn’t sneaked over when he was out and replenished his stock of groceries.
By and by there was so much livestock on those two lots of Jake’s that some of the neighbors got mad and called in the city pound man. He counted hoses and it added up to 23 cats and four dogs, and he said that all but four of the cats and one of the dogs had to go.
Sarah found Jake sitting on his back steps with his arms full of cats and the tears dripping down his cheeks. She heard him out, then she marched down to the back fence and roared at the six of us, who were working on the rink; and in five minutes she had us scouring the North Hill for homes for those animals.
It took us till past 10 that night, but we placed every last cat. Milt Jenkins persuaded 11 housewives into adoptions, They seemed to think Milt was cute, even though we were so worried about his cutting up.
Jake was very grateful to Sarah for that, and whittled her a bulldog out of a piece of pine. But still he didn’t seem
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to see what was going on inside her, or why she looked after him the way she did.
SARAH never mentioned it herself.
She didn’t even try to sparkle up to him when they were together, the way most women will when they’re fond of a man. She was just hound-dog faithful. Slipping over to use his phone when she knew he was out, staying to mend his socks or do a bit of washing, worrying about his eats when he was laid off at the yards and had to go on relief like a lot of others had to in those years.
He was a simple, trusting sort, Jake. I got to know that as I grew older. When we were kids he was just right for us; his mind worked just like ours did. But later on we would be talking and our minds would go shooting out ahead of his, figuring things out, questioning.
Jake took things the way he found them. He never thought people were any different than they pretended to be. And toward the end there, we puzzled him. We didn’t accept things the way we had when we were younger, the way he still did. We began to grow apart—not as friends, because we still thought there was nobody in the world like Jake—but just in our interests.
Sometimes days and then weeks would pass, and we wouldn’t go over to his shack. But Sarah still kept going over.
We were getting pretty well grown up by that summer of ’39. Milt Jenkins, the youngest in our bunch, was 16 a few days before Hitler invaded Poland.
Rich, my brother, was in a brown study all that first week. He’s a noisy wisecracking person most of the time, but that week he was quiet as the tomb. And then at the end he came out of it to tell mother and dad he was going to join the Navy.
He wasn’t the first in our neighborhood to go, though.
We were sitting at supper when he came to the door in the khaki of the Calgary Highlanders, and a queer little cold shock went over all of us when we saw him standing there. That was when the war became real to us for the first time.
We brought him in and set a plate for him and fussed over him a bit, trying to work off our feeling of awkwardness and solemnity. Mother couldn’t quite cover it, though. She burst out suddenly, “But, Jake, why did you do it? You wouldn’t have had to go for a long time—maybe never!” Jake stopped breaking the piece of bread he was holding, and looked at her with his clear mild blue eyes, and explained, “Well, it isn’t right the young lads should have to go. They haven’t had their fun out of life yet. Now me, I’ve had a fine time.”
And his eyes went to Sarah then, as though it were her, really, that he was telling and not us.
She didn’t answer him directly. Instead she said, looking down at her plate, “I suppose I might as well move into the shack while you’re gone. The animals will need looking after. And somebody’ll have to milk the cow.” Even then Jake didn’t know.
He didn’t know until that night we stood packed in Mewatta Stadium, watching the Calgary Highlanders march off to their tráin. There were M.P.’s in front of us, with clasped hands, forcing us back, but when Jake came by, Sarah, our quiet, retiring Sarah, burst past them. The tears were running down her grim, thin cheeks and losing themselves in the crevice of her lips.
Jake stopped dead. Maybe just then he realized he was leaving her, knew what it meant. The Highlanders swirled around him and past him, and he stood there looking at her, with the strangest light dawning in his eyes. And then all of a sudden he reached out and took her by the shoulders, and kissed her long and gently on the lips.
Then the Highlanders surged around him again, and caught him up, and he was gone.
The tears were dry, though, when I visited Sarah at the shack the next day. The doors were open wide and I could hear her singing all down the lane. The cats were stitting on the doorstep. with a dispossessed air, and Sarah was housecleaning.
“Too much order,” she said, sticking her head around the closet door as I came in, “can wizen a person up. But this place wouldn’t wizen a mouse.” She carried a pile of cat comforters to the back door and shook them vigorously in the wind.
Spring came and Sarah planted the garden as Jake had always planted it, only with a few minor changes. Throwing out the rocks that Jake had been content to garden around—planting giant peas instead of dwarfs—a standing argument between them. Boasting in the fall of the size of her spuds, like Jake always did, and giving them away right and left, like Jake used to do.
The east wall was almost solid with apple boxes now, and when the pound man came again—at the neighbors’ request—to complain of the size of her family, Sarah sat him firmly in one of the old leather chairs and fed him some of the excellent shortbread she had just finished for one of Jake’s parcels. The big grey Persian climbed up on his lap and punched bread softly on his bony knee. And when the pound man went away the household was still intact.
Every three weeks she sent Jake a box. She would have done it every week, but her pay, garnered from homes like ours in which she worked, wouldn’t stretch that far.
When sugar was rationed she stopped taking it in her tea and gave up desserts. Not because of Jake’s parcels, though, she explained loftily when questioned—just because she was growing broad in the beam, “and hated a woman who let herself run to fat.”
And every Sunday, sitting at the table in the lean-to kitchen, she would write Jake a letter, gripping her pencil earnestly like a third grader, pressing hard into the white paper:
“Dear Jake. Old Tom cat was sick this week, that ear of his again. I been cleaning it out with cotton on a matchstick, and today he's drinking his milk again. Bob Kennedy has joined the Seaforth. They say he’s not so sissy now as he was . . .”
Every Sunday. Through Dunkirk and Dieppe, till D-Day and the drive into Germany. All the years rolling away under her kitchen table, and her pencil singing the song of our neighborhood. The kittens that were born, the new houses built, the baby the Binghams had, and how my brother Rich got sunk and came home on survivor’s leave, and went off to Kings to be a sublieutenant. And how young Milt Jenkins grew up and got wings on his chestand a D.F.C.,and how one night, flying out of England into the sunset, he didn’t come back . . .
WE WERE sitting on the back steps one morning, mother and me, when we saw Sarah striding across the vacant lots toward us, her blue canvas apron flapping in the breeze. “He’s been hurt,” she cried, throwing
the telegram into mother’s lap. Her face was all torn up with grief and terror. “Gravely injured,” the wire said, but that was all, and it was in shreds, with the reading over and over, before another came to say he was out of danger.
Sarah was happy then, wildly happy, and happier still when Jake’s letters started again, although she wondered how he’d been hurt, and why he never wrote about that. My brother Rich, coming home on leave from his ship, brought the news. He had visited Jake in hospital in England.
“You’ll have to come over with me when I tell her,” he said, a young man tall and sad and old, somehow, in his blues, with the gold braid on his sleeves. “I couldn’t go it alone.”
So we went together to the shack that had been so much home to us when we were children.
Sarah took Rich into her long bony arms and kissed him soundly. Then she settled him in one of the old leather chairs, and the words bubbled out all over the place for a minute or two before suddenly everything was quiet, and the seconds ticked off into nearly a minute before Rich said, with the strain in his voice:
She was very still, and she was old and tired as she lifted her eyes to him and whispered, “Yes. I knew there was something.”
He told her then, gently, but nothing could make what he had to say gentle.
“He hasn’t any legs left, Sarah. None at all. Not even enough stumps to put new legs on. He’s going to have to go around in a wheel chair all the rest of his life. He’ll have to be looked after. He’ll have to give up this place and live in a hospital.”
The young voice tripped, and went on. “He wanted me to tell you that he thought you were—that he loved you. That he’d made a lot of plans for you and him. But he’s afraid those—plans —wouldn’t work out now.”
Rich was silent at last, staring down at the floor, watching with infinite attention the kitten that played in the spot of sunlight by the door.
“Will he be coming home soon?” Sarah asked after a long time.
“In a few weeks. He’s pretty well now. As weU as he’s ever going to be.” She was quiet then, her hands still, her face still, nothing about her moving or living. Then she asked, “Would you go now? I have to think.” She didn’t come over that day or the next. But it wasn’t nine o’clock the morning after when there was a good thump on our back door, and Sarah put her head in the kitchen and shouted to mother, “You send that Rich over. And tell him to bring his tools. I’ve some jobs for him to do.”
“Mind your own business,” said Rich, late that afternoon, when he came home lugging his tool kit. And he wouldn’t explain, either, why he spent half an hour phoning lumber companies, pricing planks and chicken wire.
They had a pact between them, he and Sarah, in the weeks that followed. They forbade us the shack, and spent many hours together there. They went on long excursions, and even took themselves off to church three Sunday mornings running.
Then we got word that Jake was on his way home, and Rich phoned his commanding officer in the East to get an extension of leave. He explained something to him, but he shut us out of the room while he did it.
Sarah shocked and surprised us by refusing to go to the train. “I’ve things to do at the shack,” she said, her face stony.
“But, Sarah,” mother tried to tell her. “It wiH be you he’U be watching
for. And they’ll take him right off to the hospital. It’H break his heart not to find you there, even though he knows now—”
“Leave her alone,” said Rich, and he dragged us off to the taxi.
They carried Jake off the train on a stretcher, with only his khaki-clad arms and his face showing, his dear mild face, with the earnest blue eyes that saw us but searched past us and went slowly blank when they didn’t find Sarah.
He was trying to be very glad and gay, but he hardly noticed where they took him, and it wasn’t till they’d placed him in an ambulance, and Rich had told us to hop in, that Jake asked where we were going.
“Home,” said Rich. “Get in, padre.” The Army chaplain, who’d been hovering around us, climbed in front with the driver.
“We just thought you’d like to see the old shack before you went off to hospital,” Rich explained.
We made the conversation that is so terribly hard to make when you have just met someone you love who has lost so much. The ambulance stopped at the gate of the shack, and the doctor, who seemed to be in on whatever was up, started to take off the blankets that wrapped Jake in his cocoon. Together he and Rich lifted Jake out of the ambulance and carried him through the gate. They set him in a wheel chair that stood inside.
“From here on,” said Rich, “you’re on your own. Just turn that handle.”
For a moment Jake didn’t seem to know what was happening. Then, gingerly, he turned the handle, and the wheel chair moved. Slowly, slowly, up the walk, through the late-blooming asters that Sarah had set to greet him, up to the door of his shack.
The steps were gone now, and a smooth ramp led straight into the front room, to where Sarah stood, flanked on both sides by the cats, in her unbecoming best navy blue, with the scent of lavender about her.
There was a wild barking, and old Snuffs came dashing out of the lean-to kitchen, still toting his rear on that wagon Jake had built for him, half crazy with joy, hopping up to paw at the wheel chair with his two good feet.
“Sarah!” said Jake.
“We didn’t make many changes,” she told him, almost defensively. “Just the steps, and the chicken house in back.”
“What chicken house?” Jake asked.
“The one we’re going to raise chickens and eggs in. There’s three dozen laying pullets out there now. And we’re expanding into the next lot. We’re going to take year-round orders. Twenty-five cents a dozen, summer and winter. That’s Rich’s idea.”
“Who are?” asked Jake.
“We are.” And suddenly Sarah’s face was firmer than I’d ever seen it before. She planked her fists on her hips.
“Jake Southey,” she said, “I’ve waited long enough. I’ve seen you through a depression and six years of war. I’ve milked your cross old spoiled cow and kept your house and chased off the pound man when he came for your cats.
“Well, I’m tired of waiting. You and me are getting married today. This minute! Rich, where’s that minister?”
“Here,” said the padre, pulling out his book. “If you’ll just move over a little, Mr. Southey—I’ll take that cat out of the way—”
“Sarah, I won’t do it.” Jake was shaking so hard the wheel chair squeaked. “I’d be a burden on you all the rest of your life.”
“You would not.” Sarah’s voice was firmer stiff. “You’ll get yourself around
in that wheel chair and tend chickens and earn your keep. There’s not a place on these two lots you can’t get now in that chair.”
“But, Sarah,” mother burst in, “you haven’t a license.”
“I’ve had the banns read,” Sarah retorted.
“Where else,” demanded Rich, “do you think we’ve spent these last three Sundays?”
“Sarah, no, no,” cried poor Jake, his face shining with protest. “We have to think—”
“And anyway”—but his voice was weakening—“there isn’t a ring.”
“Really—” Rich’s voice was soothing as he drew the bridegroom up alongside the bride. “Did you think a
s best man like me would forget that?” e “We are gathered together before a God,” said the padre, “to join in holy matrimony this man and this woi man . . .”
It was later, long after the wedding i supper, that we left them. The lights were still blazing out through the 3 blindless windows, and a man on the e radio was describing a wrestling match down in Victoria arena. They hardly s missed us, I think. We are so old now e that we don’t properly fit into the shack.
But they won’t be lonely. They have s old Snuffs and the 28 cats—Sarah was proud to report a slight increase—and the new crop of neighborhood kids will 3 soon discover them, i No, they’ll never miss us.