Fiction

LOST AVENUE

When you’re looking for a dream to come true it helps to stop searching, fall in love and just look around

PAUL ERNST November 1 1947
Fiction

LOST AVENUE

When you’re looking for a dream to come true it helps to stop searching, fall in love and just look around

PAUL ERNST November 1 1947

LOST AVENUE

When you’re looking for a dream to come true it helps to stop searching, fall in love and just look around

PAUL ERNST

WHEN Pete Harley got off the train at Hampton it was bright morning, and that was not the proper time of day. The proper time was dusk, but he could wait for that as he had waited for the dusk in several towns near here. He wouldn’t know the street he sought for sure save after sunset—if then—but meanwhile he could look around for clues. It shouldn’t Lake him long; Hampton, snoozing on the river, had not more than a dozen up and down streets cutting its several through avenues and ending in the river as his street should end. Certainly he had ample time for breakfast, a meal for which he’d felt no appetite t ill now.

Pete checked his one bag at the station and went out on Hampton’s main street, bareheaded, in grey pants and windbreaker and grey flannel shirt open at the throat. He walked well, if slowly. You can’t imagine how wonderful it. is to walk well unless you’ve been deprived of the privilege for y while.

He turned into a lunchroom.

It was the first unaverage thing he’d seen about Hampton. It was not only clean, it was aggressively clean. It not only smelled of food, it smelled of good food. If not only had a girl behind the counter engaged at the moment in reading a thick book it had a pretty girl behind the counter.

She was small, viewed from Pete’s lank height. She had hair almost black but catching (lark chestnut glints from the May sun coming through the window. She had almost black eyes, too, and these wen* alive and composed and intelligent.

Pete glanced at the menu and shifted legs too long even for a lunch counter stool. He noted that the skin of the girl’s throat seemed as white as her white dress except for the warm undertones of color beneath its delicate softness. He ordered wheatcukes and sausage.

The girl called out t he order.

The kitchen door opened and a man, whiteshirted and aproned, appeared and glanced at Pete. “No säumiges,’’ he said.

“How about bacon, t hen?”

“Okay, it’s fat but not too bad.”

rpiIE DOOR closed. The girl I. returned to her book. Pete sat. The book looked as if it had been much read and its title was “The Art of Modern Decorat ing.”

From t he rear came sizzling sounds and across t ho street the hands of the bank clock edged to ninethirty.

“All right, say it,” said the girl, eyes on her book.

“Say what?” said Pete.

“What’s a girl like you doing, studying decorating in a jerk town like this?”

“Why wouldn’t you study whatever you want to, wherever you are?”

The girl’s lips kept t heir straight -ness, and Pete thought that their red young warmth called for a slight upturn at the corners. But he didn’t think it very hard; he’d not thought very hard of girls since receiving a kindly but inexorable note, along with the tray of fancy fruit at the hospital, over a year ago.

Thegirl’slips kept t heir straightness but her eyes met his over the book’s top and there may have been a hint of apology in them.

They were very nice, at any rate.

“Because in Hampton the last thing you could make a living at would be interior decorating.” “There’s the city,” Pete said.

“I have to stay in Hampton.”

“So okay,” said Pete, polite but indifferent; and the rear door opened and the white-aproned man came with the cakes and bacon, instead of setting them in the short-order window for the girl.

The man had great broad shoulders under his immaculate shirt, and his hands were thick and square. He should have worked outdoors. Pete couldn’t see why he would be interested in lunchrooms till he saw him walk, laboriously if cheerfully, with one stride smooth and long and the next short and jerky. Pete’s heart went out to this man.

“It’s poor bacon,” the man said, “but the best we can get nowadays. You’re not from around here, are you?”

Pete sighed. He’d lost his tolerance for small talk in the last two years. He said, “No.”

"But you’re not city?”

“No. Small town in the middle west.”

“Dad,” the girl said sharply, “let him eat his breakfast.”

“Sure, sure.” But you could tell that the man was disappointed. His place of business was his club; here he met old friends and made new ones. Pete colored slightly.

“It’s all right. I’m in no hurry. I have nothing to do but look around. I’m on a sort of vacation, bumming around the river towns,” he said.

“Oh? Well, I guess Hampton’s as good as any.”

As good as any, as bad as any. Take any ten small towns in the land, Pete thought, jumble them together and divide by ten and you have Hampton.

“I roofed some of it,” the man went on cheerfully. “Then I fall off a ladder and end up cooking wheatcakes and bacon. But then I always liked to cook.” “Dad!”

The man grinned, and it was a good healthy grin. “Sure, I’m talky. Always have been. Pay no attention, Mr. . .” “Harley,” Pete said, less from consideration than perversity. “Pete Harley.”

“Allinson,” the big man’s hand was gentle with Pete’s long thin fingers, and Pete had the sudden notion that Allinson had read him more comprehensively than he let on. “Glad to know you, Harley. Going to stay here long?”

“Just for a day,” said Pete. “Just to look around a bit.”

“Can we help you? June and I sort of know this town.” He looked with affection at his daughter, who looked back with exasperated love in her eyes.

Pete considered telling them what he was looking for; but he had done this once, hesitantly, to a fellow two towns down the line. The man had laughed. And after all it was sort of crazy— a picture on a red tin tray.

“I’m just bumming around,” he repeated evasively. “Taking a rest. I’ve been laid up awhile.”

“If we can do anything, let us know.”

Allinson stumped back to the kitchen, great shoulders swaying and in spite of himself Pete warmed a little, and he looked at the girl. Her lips turned up a little now and in her dark eyes laughter glinted.

“He’s a regular old maid for talk,” she said. But Pete knew if any one else had said this he’d have had some hide removed by a sharp and loyal tongue. “He’s friendly, that’s all.”

“And you’re not?”

“I have more of a feel for things than for people.” Pete finished his coffee and matched the punched check with coins. “So long.”

HE WALKED to the last street east and methodically began his search, working westward block by block. There was nothing complex about it. He stood for a long time at each intersection, looking up the street at the placing and conformation of buildings, then looking down the street more hopefully toward the river. The river had to be in it, but then the artist might have turned the scene around and put the river on the wrong side, for reasons of his own. Pete knew vaguely they did that sometimes.

The river had to be in it, and the tower. The tower made it, centred in the distance, with the smoke red dusk behind it.

The tower was important. Two towns back he’d thought witti great excitement that he had located it at last, but that had been on a rainy, misty day and when the mist had thinned he’d seen that it was nothing but a small grain elevator across the river. The street had been different, too. It had been just another street, not worth a second glance.

Pete had worked down four intersections, taking many minutes to each, when he saw the girl. She wore a grey cloth coat over her white dress, and it fläred out at the skirt and slimmed in at the waist. He said, “Hello, Miss June Allinson.”

“Hello, Mr. Pete Harley,” she replied. “Still looking around?”

“Still looking around.”

“You’re going to clear an airfield, maybe? Or build a factory?”

“No, just a house.”

The sun was warm on them, and Pete leaned against a section of wrought iron fence, and the girl glanced at his attenuated length.

“Army hospital?”

Pete nodded, frowning slightly.

“You’ve been in quite a few of them, I’d say, for quite awhile.” As he kept silent, June Allinson nodded. “I know, the men don’t like to talk of these things any more.”

Pete shrugged indifferently. “People don’t like to hear about them any more.”

Her hand just touched his arm, not in sympathy but just in friendliness. She was like her father after all; she liked people. She might labor to keep herself to herself because she was so pretty and because for awhile each day she was on display. She might bark and hold you at a distance, but she was warm and gay and sweet and she would light some man’s home like a lamp. Though not the home of any man like Pete. Pete’s home was going to be his own.

She said, “Around the next corner and down two blocks is a wall along the river where you can sit and let your feet hang over.”

Pete Harley’s feet were all right but his legs had a tendency to tremble when they were tired, so he went with her to the river wall. The water was all sparkling little dollops from the sun, and insects hummed hymns to spring, and Pete sat with June on the sun-warmed stone while he rested, and he looked with her across the narrow river. An extension of Hampton lay over there—a few houses, a lumberyard, a gas tank and a big old building that once had been a mill.

“So you’re looking for a place to build a house,” June said.

“In a way,” Pete answered.

“For your family?”

“I have no family. There’s just me.” Pete hesitated, then went on. “It’s to be a kind of sample. A prefabricated house, complete with kitchen and laundry equipment and some built-in furniture. I’ve studied all that stuff, and I’d like to put one up and sell from that. At least, I think I would.” “Think?” said June sharply.

“For quite awhile I couldn’t think of anything I’d really like to do,” he said, almost apologetic about it. “I’d want to be sure of this.”

“Suppose you’re sure of it and they don’t sell?” “Oh, I can build any kind of house. And wire it. And put in heat and plumbing if I have to.”

June plucked a blade of grass and put it between her white, even teeth. Against them her halfparted lips looked redder than ever with health and life. Here was a girl who’d take some keeping up to.

“Why did you pick Hampton to build your house in?”

“I didn’t, exactly.” Pete plucked a grass blade too, and wondered whether to tell more. She might laugh, as the man had laughed. “I don’t know whether Hampton’s the town I want. I don’t know whether it has my street . You see, I’m looking for a certain street. I don’t know its name. I ... I just call it Lost Avenue.” He stopped, looking a little embarrassed.

HER EYES were gravely interested. He could reasonably hope she wouldn’t laugh.

“I guess it’8 pretty crazy —I saw a picture of a street I’d like to live on, so I started out to find it.” He told her then about the tray.

“I was sent this red tin tray of fruit in the hospital —you know, fancy pears and apples, grapes as big as plums. There was Cellophane over it to keep toe fruit in place on the tray. A picture was glued m toe centre of the tray, a street scene. There was a

letter with the fruit . . . but (hat's nol part of it.” Pete cleared his throat. “I gave the pears and stutf to the guys in the next beds and had the nurse take the tray out. But then I got to thinking of the picture and had her bring it back. Did you ever see a picture of a place and think you’d like to go there-you almost have to go there?”

June nodded. “There’s a picture in one of my books of a house on a river bank in New Zealand ... But why did this picture of a street get you so?” “I don’t know. Maybe because it looked so peaceful, and sort of warm, and like home. Or

maybe it was just because I was on the flat of my back for so long with nothing to do but look at t he propped-up tray. Anyhow, it did get me. When things were bad I’d look at it and lose myself in it and imagine 1 was in one of the houses and everything was all right. When things were good I’d make new plans to locate it.” He fumbled in his shirt pocket, took out a folded piece of paper and almost rudely thrust it at her. “Here.”

June unfolded the picture, which was gluecrusted on the back and had corners rounded to fit the tray. It was a Continued on page 48

Continued on page 48

Continued from page 11

standard reproduction of an oil painting, the kind you can buy in dime stores anywhere. It showed a block or so of scattered houses at dusk, a smalltown street. The houses, some white clapboard, some faded red brick, diminished with distance and ended with a river.

More by suggestion than actual line, the artist had caught a whole small world of evening life. Yellow dots indicated the lights just turned on in first floor, kitchen windows. A man in shirt sleeves puffed a pipe on one of the porches; two more men talked over a white-barred gate. A boy wheeled along on a bike, arm raised in the backhand swing with which he’d just thrown an evening paper.

The tone of the picture was dark, with sky and background a dusky, lavender-brown save for the upper sky. Here, beyond the street end and probably across the river, the top of a tower soared into upper sunlight. The tower reared, black strength reinforced by buttresses, against the sky.

“Nice,” said June. “But I don’t think there’s any street like that in this town. I wish there were.” She sighed and handed the picture back. “Maybe there’s no wonderful, peaceful street like that anywhere except in the artist’s imagination.”

“I can look,” said Pete stubbornly.

“Yes, you can look.” June stared across the river. “Who sent you the tray, and the letter you mentioned?”

“A girl. Sister of an old friend of mine.” A muscle jumped in Pete’s thin cheek. “We had . . . plans . . . but it began to look as if she’d have to wait for quite awhile, and another fellow came along ...”

June got up quickly and brushed grass bits from her coat. “It’s getting on to lunchtime. Why not come home with me and have a bite and then you can get back to your searching?”

“Don’t you have to go to the lunchroom?”

“I’m only there mornings. At eleven the regular girl comes for the rest of the day.”

The Allinsons lived four blocks away, a block from the river. Pete peered down streets as they passed intersections, but he was tired and not sure he would recognize his street if he saw it. He went with her into the house, a good-sized one of red brick faded to a rich raspberry tint. In a cool, dim dining room she gave him a pitcher of buttermilk and a plate with homemade bread piled on it, and a slab of butter.

AS THEY ate he enlarged on his contracting plans, and he talked vigorously and his eyes lit up. June said, “You want to do this, all right. You needn’t be afraid about that.”

She told him a little about herself, too. She had wanted to be a decorator since she was twelve. She’d studied and worked at it and thought of going to the city, but then her mother had died and she didn’t think she ought to leave her father here all alone. So she was stuck in Hampton.

“I’m just one of the millions who have ideas without having quite the push to do something about them,” she said, lips straight again for a moment.

Pete laughed. “We ought to open an office together. I put up the houses, you finish ’em off,” then he yawned.

There was a couch along one wall. June said “why don’t you have a nap?” When Pete woke it was three o’clock. June had her coat on. “Let’s go,” she said. “But if you find a street as nice as

your Lost Avenue in Hampton, I’ll . . . I’ll eat it.”

They went back to where Pete had left off, and block by block, looked carefully up and down each street. Pete explained that he couldn’t be sure of any street till he saw it in the same last light in which the artist had painted it; he could only mark down any that looked promising, with or without a tower, and return later. And he told how he had started his search. He’d phoned the store that had sold the fruit arrangement, and they’d told him the name of the jobber who had supplied the trays.

“I had plenty of time,” he said. “Finally I got the name of the artist, a fellow in New York. The artist had been dead for some time—he’d painted the picture years ago. All his wife could remember was that the street was in some little town along this river. She couldn’t say how much of the picture was real and how much her husband had dreamed up, but she said that he had usually painted things as he saw them.”

They stopped three blocks past the centre of town and looked toward the river. June had the picture; Pete, with every detail burned into his mind from months of staring, didn’t need it.

“There’s a white house like the one in the picture,” she said. “And next to it is another, and then a brick. The placing is right. But on the other side of the street is the church, which isn’t in the picture. And there’s no tower at the end.”

She sighed impatiently. “Lost Avenue is not in Hampton, Pete, that’s all. Maybe in the next town. But not here. And what will you do if you never find it?”

“Set up shop wherever business looks promising. I’m not going to crawl off and sulk if I can’t locate my street. I’d just like to if I could.”

“Well, you’ll have to finish here alone. It’s nearly five, and by then dad’s game leg is pretty tired and his partner takes over and he comes home. Dinner’s at six, Pete, don’t be late.” Pete looked at her, and thought that here was probably the nicest and most generous person he had met. Too generous, considering that he was a total stranger.

“Now, June, I’ve put you out enough already—”

“Don’t be silly, Pete. Six o’clock.” Pete finished in the next hour, working along the central avenue to the last street in town, which was a block past the Allinsons. He walked back wearily. Lost Avenue was not in Hampton. He climbed the porch steps. Mr. Allinson was in a rocker, short-stemmed pipe clamped between his teeth.

“Hello, Harley.” He waved the pipe hospitably. “Find whatever it is you’re lookin’ for?”

Pete thought of the one street vaguely like that in the picture—except the picture showed a tower and no church, and the street a church but no tower. “I don’t think so.”

“If it’s good, it’s worth hunting for.” June’s clear voice came from inside the house, and Allinson got up and tapped out his pipe. “Steak for dinner. I hope you’ve got an appetite.”

When the meal was over it was seven o’clock, although it was still light.

Mr. Allinson said, “I think Pete had better put up with us tonight, don’t you, June? Unless he thinks the hotel would treat him better.” Pete looked at June and she nodded, and he was almost unstrung by this further kindness. He guessed she’d mentioned Army hospitals to her father and he was being sentimental about it, but still it was fine of them to do this.

“Where’re your bags?” asked Allinson.

“One bag,” Pete replied. “Checked at the station.”

“June will drive you down—”

“Oh, no! Please.” This, on top of all the rest, he could not take. Besides he was rested again and the bag was light.

Pete retrieved the bag and started back. It was cool, just right for walking. Pete liked Hampton; it felt right. And when he got to the street with the church on it and peered down it and knew once more and with finality that it was not the street, he was only mildly disappointed. His had been a fool dream anyway, born in his mind when none of his thinking was quite normal. It had served its purpose as a mental crutch. What more could he ask?

He reached the Allinsons’ street with the sun just beneath the horizon’s rim, and with the distance darkening to a lavender-brown, pierced here and there by the orange oblongs of lighted windows. He went the few steps to the Allinson house with his eyes widening and with an odd trembling at his knees. Then he stopped and his bag fell to the walk.

Ahead, beyond the street and across the river, was his tower. Solid and sure it soared there, base hidden in the dusk. Solid and black and sure, but with a delicate tracery of flying buttresses against the darkening sky. There it was. You couldn’t possibly mistake it.

Pete passed his hand across his forehead and stared at the tower, and at the lighted windows.

“June!” Pete called. “June/”

The Allinson door burst open. June came down the steps and across the lawn to him. “Pete—what is it? What on earth is the matter?”

“June! My street. Lost Avenue.

There’s the tower. Look down there!”

June looked. She drew the picture from the pocket of his shirt, examined it, looked at the street again. And then she caught her lip between her teeth and stared almost in pain at what was in his face. This was so important to him. It killed her to have to say it, vet she must point out what his eyes would surely see in a different light—had seen, in fact, unheeding, and forgotten. The tower . . . his precious tower . . .

“It’s only a big tank, Pete. A gas tank, dear, across the river.”

“Of course. But it’s the tower in my picture. See the steel framework—the buttresses.” He laughed, a shaky sort of shout, and for a moment put his arm around her shoulders quite unknowingly. And then his laughter grew more quiet, and was directed principally at himself. “I’m not crazy, though I may sound like it. It’s just that this grew to mean so much to me—finding it came to mean so much. And now 1 have it Lost Avenue.”

June bit her lip. The placing of the houses on her street was quite unlike that in the picture. There was no whitebarred gate across which two men might lean and talk.

“The artist shuffled things around a little,” Pete said. “His wife told me he might have. But this was it!”

June stood there with his arm light on her shoulders. But maybe the perfect place was anywhere you thought it was. It seemed to be for Pete, at least. And looking along the shaded street, now almost in darkness, she had to admit that it did seem very beautiful, not at all like the street on which she’d lived her life and which she had never really seen until now. ★