Short Story

Give the Bride a kiss, George

JAMES McNAMEE September 15 1953
Short Story

Give the Bride a kiss, George

JAMES McNAMEE September 15 1953

Give the Bride a kiss, George

Short Story

When the parson brought the girl into the orderly room of the prairie camp we all knew she was “in trouble.” But how could we know that a strange vision would stir the compassion of Pte. George Letourneau?

JAMES McNAMEE

WHEN DELEGATIONS of local merchants came to ask the Old Man if he would mind hanging a couple of bodies as an example of what could happen to soldiers who were slow in paying their bills, we knew the battalion was about to move.

The Old Man always told these people that, even if he wasn’t sunburned, he was in the army to fight, not to run a collection agency, and they could dirty well do their own dirty business. How could they, said the merchants, when the outfit was moving? Splutter, said the Old Man, who’s moving? The outfit was in for a long period of serious training and couldn’t possibly move out of the district for months, and when it did, no more Hitler. Maybe, they’d say, but the outfit was moving to Camp Codshead, Nova Scotia. Dirty well ridiculous, he’d say. On Wednesday, they say. Go home, says the Old Man. Who are they to tell him he’s moving? If anybody knows when he’s moving, he knows when he’s moving. He won’t budge a step till snow comes.

They would go home. On Wednesday we would go to Camp Codshead, Nova Scotia.

Or our departure would be foreshadowed by another type of delegation, the discreet and small one, whose members were more concerned with the salvage of reputation than the subject of money and, unlike the merchants, complained of soldiers adding to, not subtracting from, the town’s resources.

On an afternoon of dust and prairie wind, during a pay parade,

no one, apart from the Old Man behind his partitions, was in the orderly room but George Letourneau and myself. /

George was typing. As a typist, he was smart, as a soldier, notorious, for he had once for two days mislaid the bolt of his rifle, and his manners were a lot more polished than his buttons. My work, at the moment, consisted of flipping paper clips with an elastic at the bald spot about the size of a silver dollar he had on the top of his head, when I saw, standing by the door, a clergyman dressed in the unmistakable grey flannels of the Church of England. A girl was with him.

She wore a tailored suit and horn-rimmed glasses. Her hair, bundled on the neck, looked like a wad of last year’s straw. I knew who she was. Her father sold cars and farm machinery and ran a fleet of transport trucks from a long, stuccoed garage on Main Street. The girl managed the office. She did not appeal to me. She had the secretarial look of those denatured and specialized creatures of low temperature and studied neatness who work for stockbrokers.

By the Old Man’s manner when I announced them I saw they were expected. The clergyman made derogatory remarks about the weather. The girl said nothing.

“Got any ideas?” I asked George. I had an idea. There was only one reason girls came to our orderly room accompanied by parsons. George raised an arm and extended his fingers, a gesture he used as a variation of the Gallic shrug. Continued on page 66

Give The Bride A Kiss, George

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 16

The girl was in her late twenties, much older than the others who had come. They had been dowdy little clucks with more of a barnyard than a financial look about them. With her, it took effort to imagine such pale, chilly flesh could harbor sufficient vitality to get into trouble. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” I said, “if some soldier finds himself a junior partner in the garage and farm implement business.”

“It is pathetic,” George said. His sensibilities were a little loose. I once saw him buy a thick slice of ham for a garbaging cat and her kittens.

We never saw the girl and the clergyman come out of the Old Man’s office, for as soon as the other clerks clattered back from pay parade we left to get our money.

We spent the evening in town and, walking back, took a road through the residential area. Some one had planted nicotiana in his garden and the perfume made a syrup of the darkness. The last house, before the road ended in bald prairie, was a rambling affair with picture windows. The sitting room had plastered pink walls and, under a lamp, to one side, sat a tired-looking man in his fifties.

“That’s the girl’s father,” I said. “He’s all tuckered out. Nothing tuckers out a man more than having a daughter in a delicate condition.”

“Is that a joke?”

“Just a sharp comment, George, just a sharp comment.”

“I am glad it is not a joke,” said George. “The loss of virtue is never funny.”

“Not even when it happens to a female operator in farm implements?”

“You are not funny, either.”

“Maybe I’m not. But when I’m thirty-five and bald-headed I won’t get sentimental over the troubles of punks.”

He hesitated. Whatever he had on his mind was probably being turned over in French. “When you are thirtyfive,” he said, “and bald-headed, I hope you will remind yourself you are a bald-headed Christian.”

“But not necessarily a sap,” I said.

He patted my arm. “Perhaps at times you have to be a sap to be a Christian.”

The subject was delicate and I let it die. George carried a prayer book, a Latin one, and frequently when he put his hand in his blouse for tobacco he pulled it out by mistake, and I kidded but we never talked religion.

THE Anglican clergyman saw the Old Man again and brought the girl’s father. When they left, we watched them cross to the parking lot. The girl’s father started his car in reverse, then messed with the gears. For a garage owner, it was a bad show.

“An emotional type,” I said to George.

After supper, over beer in a tavern, George surprised me by saying he had taken some training schedules into the Old Man for signature. It had become established procedure that only the orderly-room sergeant with his three stripes and me with the ability to take dictation from the Old Man without quivering were the only two other ranks more or less free to enter the office. “How come?” I said.

George shrugged. “It was nothing.

I wanted to make a suggestion to him about this girl and her trouble.”

“Did he talk to you about her? Do you know who the soldier is?”

“I know he is married,” said George. 4iT put the schedule on his desk and suggested I be allowed to marry the young lady.”

The tavern waiter saw me trying to pour twelve golden ounces of beer into an eight-ounce glass and hurried to slap his cloth on the table and puddle about in the mess I had made. My head was not for thinking. It was a camera that took pictures. I saw the waiter’s wet cloth and padded fingers and his onyx ring. “What do you want to marry her for?”

The waiter had been larding George with rumors of the regiment’s departure, and looked at me and uneasily cleared his throat. I nodded for beer.

I saw George. His ears were little wings and his mouth would have fitted a much bigger head. “Why should you marry her?”

“She may have been misled.”

“In a pig’s eye! Does the Old Man think you should marry her?”

“He thinks it would be kind.” “That’s not what he thinks. He thinks you’re scheming to get into the farm implement business.”

“That is one argument,” said George. “Is it yours?”

“It is not mine.”

“Then what is yours?”

“I have no argument,” said George. “It is a conviction. I am not doing it exactly for her sake.”

“Then for whose sake? The father’s?” “No.”

“Then for whose sake? The baby’s?” He had strong, square teeth, and his slow smile could have been the emulsion that brought harmony to the bones of his face and the flesh. “For the sake of My Lord Jesus,” he said.

It stopped me. All I said was, “He comes into it, too?”

George nodded. “He does.” After a bunch of long seconds, he said, “She may not care to marry me. If she refuses, good. I have done what I feel I should do. I do not have to worry. If she accepts, good. I will be gone tomorrow. I give her baby a name but what does the gift cost me? Nothing. Let us go and find out.”

“Tonight?”

“They are expecting us. The Old Man phoned them.”

“The Old Man’s got barnacles between the ears.”

“It is better to have them there,” said George, “than around the heart. At eight we see them.”

“We see them? You see them!”

“I would thank you to come with me,” he said.

The garage owner lived to the west of Main Street. As we walked toward the house, the sun was bouncing on the horizon and stung our eyes. Thousands of winged ants spiraled above the light poles. A boy, part child, part baby, ran, shuffling his feet, making an explosive powder of the dust in the middle of the road. His clouds were caught by the sun. I saw nasturtiums in the gardens and a few scrawny roses.

I had smelt nicotiana the night before and looked on either side and couldn’t find it. “I’ll talk to your padre about you,” I said. “Maybe he can put you back in your place.”

THE DRAPES were drawn across the picture windows of the garage owner’s house, and the red sun edged the folds with a brighter color. The door was fronted with a sheet of mahogany veneer and studded with brass. We heard the chimes of a cathedral when I pressed the button.

I was still making music when the door opened enough for the girl’s father to expose his head and shoulder. He may have had trucks, a garage and an oil agency, and dealt in cars and farm implements, but his face was a lump

and leathered by sun and wind.

“Good evening,” George said.

Papa gave his regard to George. Then over his shoulder I saw the girl. Her skin was white against the suncured surfacing of her father, but her eyes had been chipped from the same glacial granite, although clearer behind the horn-rimmed glasses since time as yet had not muddied the frost.

“My name is Letourneau,” said George. “This is my friend.”

Nothing happened.

George asked, “You know why we have come?”

The garage owner looked at the girl. She smiled at us in a refrigerated manner and he swung the door open. She led us into the living room. They had not one but two chesterfields and an assortment of stuffed green chairs. The radio was as big as an orphanage stove.

The girl and her father sat together on a chesterfield. George stood as if waiting for an invitation and I told him to sit down. His chair was flanked by a floor lamp whose shade funneled a beam about his head. It put a light on his cheek and made his nose look

shiny. He studied the twisting pattern of columbine on the thick green carpet. The female executive in the business world and her father examined him with the curious reserve they would have given a bankrupt farmer. I studied them. They were both of the pragmatic type, and I did not doubt that the girl’s predicament had already been calculated, the costs assessed, the loss absorbed, and the books balanced. 1 wondered what George was doing in their living room.

George raised his head. Without preliminary discussion of weather or of

crops, he said, “Sir, I am here to discuss a marriage.”

The garage owner hardened his dead, disturbing eyes.

“Perhaps,” said George, “I should have first made known my sentiments to the young lady.”

The girl said, “Why should you marry me?”

“I believe,” George said, “you are in a condition where marriage would be welcome.”

The garage owner made the noises in his throat of an indignant chipmunk and shot his finger out at George.

“What are you trying to pull? Blackmail?”

“Blackmail?” said George.

“He means,” I said, “do you get paid or do you walk up and down with a banner saying the girl’s going to have a baby?”

“You can’t shake money out of me,” said the garage owner.

“He thinks I’m threatening him?” asked George. He reached into his blouse for papers and tobacco. “Here. We won’t stay longer than it takes you to smoke one.”

The girl rose from the chesterfield

and took a green chair closer to George. “You can’t blame my father for trying to find out what you expect. We would like to know more about you.”

“You’re a Frenchman,” said the garage owner.

“What do you care?” I asked. “The way things are in your family, you’d be lucky to get anybody.”

“I wish,” said George, “that you, too, would keep quiet for a minute.” In a gesture of depreciation he spread his hands. “It is not essential, miss, to talk of me.”

“But I don’t understand,” she said,

“why you should make such an offer.” “I’ll tell you why,” I said. “The guy’s nuts. He’s got a compulsion. He thinks he has to do it for Christ’s sake.” “For Christ’s sake!”

“You said it, lady.”

I saw I had shocked them as he had shocked me. They chilled George with the frost in their eyes. “He’s an ex-priest or something,” I said. “He’s got a Latin prayer book.”

Silence was absolute in the garage owner’s house, but the door had been left open and faintly from the outside I heard the acute scolding of an angry woman and I knew she would be the mother of the little boy we had seen playing locomotive in the dust. My cigarette was done. I got to my feet and threw the butt across the room into the fireplace.

“Wait,” said the girl. She seemed to be thinking. Perhaps she juggled factors to show a profit for the firm, a nominal marriage canceled by a tricky divorce, and the profits were there, freedom and respectability. She stared at her father and heightened interest came into his face, sly and somewhat paternal. She was as rigid and detached in concentration as if she had a seizure, then she turned to George and, cordially, said, “You don’t intend to make your home here?” George, his head bowed, his fingers clasped, was again studying the coils of columbine in the green carpet. “No,” he said.

I had had more than I could take of the room with the two chesterfields and the foaming green chairs, and the pink walls and white fireplace, and the dried, oceanless shark with his sly, lumpish face, and the chalk-white shark of a daughter, and I said, “I’m going back to camp, George.”

“Wait!” said the girl. She looked at George with calculation as if he had suggested terms to buy a combine and was forcing her to gamble. “You offer to marry me out of compassion?” “Yes.”

“You are not asking favors in return?”

“No.”

She sighed. There was satisfaction in the glance she gave her father. He nodded that he had juggled factors, too, and had discarded those that were improbable or dangerous, or clumsy, or extortionate and time-devouring, and was prepared to accept this unexpected gift horse from Quebec without further examination of motives or of mouth.

Sweetly, she said, “You consider it a Christian duty to marry me? I mean, to go through a form of marriage with me?”

“It seems,” said George, “it would be Christian to lend you my name.” “Then I will discuss it with my father. We thank you for your sympathy, Mr.—.”

“Letourneau.”

“Sucker Letourneau,” I said. She attempted to chill me with her eyes.

She spoke to George. “We’ll let you know. My father will get in touch with the colonel.”

That ended it. Within fifteen minutes of pressing the button and sounding the chimes we were walking down the driveway without as much as a cup of coffee. It made me feel I never would have what it takes to cover a chattel mortgage. The western sky still showed a line of lemon light. The air was clear and I tried to smell the

nicotiana. “I thought marriage was a holy sacrament with you people,”

I said.

“It is,” said George, “but this is not marriage. She is only getting the use of my name.”

“You’re the biggest fool I’ve ever seen. She’ll have a lien on your future.” He pushed the air with his hands. “We have one?”

At noon, George was told to see the colonel. I waited for him. When he returned 1 was by myself for the other clerks had gone to eat. “I am having lunch at her house,” he said. “Her father is coming for me.”

“Swell.”

“I’m getting married this evening.” “I’m sorry you couldn’t get something more like a woman, George, hut congratulations.”

“Would you lend me a clean shirt?” “Sure.”

“I asked the Old Man if you could come with me,” he said*., “but they don’t want you. They consider you were discourteous last night.”

“Then don’t bother to kiss the bride for me. You know, don’t you, you’ll have to assign her most of your pay?” “She may give it to me back.” “What! Money? Where are you spending the honeymoon?”

“I’ll be here tonight.”

“An army hut’s no place to bring a bride, George.”

“There you go. Do you know what?

I am asking a favor of her. If the baby is a boy, I would like him to have the name of my friend—you.”

“And I’ll tell you something. Sharp female operators in the farm implement business don’t have little boys and little girls, George.”

“No?”

“No. They have little ledgers and little adding machines.”

Standing by the door, he gave me his slow smile. “You’re crazy.”

“Am I? What are you?”

“What you think,” said George. “Well, good-by.”

THE VISIT of a girl and a clergyman to our orderly room was again the token of departure, and colonist cars strung on a siding told the local merchants their sharpened instincts had been sound, for on a Tuesday we sluiced the huts, and on a Wednesday, under the pressing of the summer’s sun, struggled into greatcoats and our harness, formed our platoons, and in threes, by the right, plodded without music toward adventure and our fates. The gophers and groundhogs by the edges of the wheatfields showed more interest in our going than did the patriots on Main Street. They sulked behind their counters, banked and bought.

George was beside me. When we came to the stuccoed garage, I said. “That’s it. That’s what you married into.”

“I never did,” George said.

“I guess not. You’d he too stupid to know when you had the makings of a good thing. Goofs like you they pick up dead under bridges without a penny.”

“So,” said George, “the birds of the air have their nests, the fox his hole, but me, I have a bridge.”

“I’ll brighten the picture, George. They find you with three pennies and a blanket.” I wish I had remembered then families are bigger in Quebec.

“Is the blanket over my face?” “Yes.”

He and his father may both have been seventh sons. He asked, “There’s dirt on it?”

“I’ll say.”

He may have had the second sight. “Look closer. You are not observant,” he said. “There is blood.” ★