Fiction

The shameless wooing of Clarence Patterson

JAMES McNAMEE April 2 1955
Fiction

The shameless wooing of Clarence Patterson

JAMES McNAMEE April 2 1955

The shameless wooing of Clarence Patterson

Fiction

IT HAD BEEN Clarence Patterson’s idea that on the day he turned sixty-five and someone took his place as bank manager, he would not stay all the time in Winnipeg but go to the West Indies or circle South America.

He had his mind made up for him by Margaret, his daughter, who was married and living on the coast. She insisted that he spend some time with her and Joe and the kids.

Clarence Patterson would have been happier if he had gone to Snag, Y.T. Margaret had become as saintly as her departed mother, and had inherited the conviction that drink was a bad thing and that the wine mentioned in Holy Writ was fruit juice. She did not say she, too, would prefer he took his cigar to the basement but by coughing she gave him the idea. Another circumstance that disturbed him was that both the baby, Joanne, and Joe Junior looked like Joe.

Joe was in business. He had borrowed money from his aunt, Miss Springer, to supply beadwork and moccasins to the transient trade, and sat in a tepee, on the other side of town, under a sign that said, Joe The Indian Trader. The nearest Indian ran a dairy farm fifteen miles to the north.

Joe’s house belonged to his aunt. Miss Springer had been a schoolteacher until she bought a car and asked Joe to show her how to drive it. The accident may have had nothing to do with his tuition but within a month she had splintered her spine. There had been a suit over the affair that had compensated her with thousands, and she had had an insurance policy that gave her a good income. She owned a building on Main Street and had the druggist and a jeweler as tenants, and she lived in a threeroomed apartment built on the roof.

Miss Springer was at Margaret’s the night Clarence was accused of showing interest in a woman. He was in his room at the time but he knew about it. There was a mirror at the turn of the stairs, and with the light off and the door open a few inches he was watching what happened on the ground floor. At Margaret’s, he never found much to do.

Miss Springer had a patch of hair that had stayed the original color and to Clarence it looked like a stick of rhubarb in a dish of soft ice cream.

Joe came into view. He stood in front of the mantel. He said, “How come there are no letters to mail tonight?”

Little Joe said, “I mailed one. Grandpop gave me a dime.”

“Who was it to, Joe?”

“The paper.”

“The local paper, Joe?”

Miss Springer secretly smoked cigars and she calW

JAMES McNAMEE

“No. The big paper. Box 203.”

“How come you remember it was 203, Joe?”

“Two and nothing and three make five. I remember five.”

The arithmetic was sound but the argument was faulty. Clarence had answered an advertisement inviting him to consider the potential of the Lost Shoe Gold Mine. The box number had been 302, not 203.

Okay, Joe,” Big Joe said, “I’ll take it from there. I’ll show you where you get your gift for analyzing. By looking through these classifieds I’ll deduct what your grandfather was writing about.” He gave part of the paper to his aunt.

Clarence watched them finger columns. He felt happy for the first time in months.

Big Joe said, “Joe, there’s no 203 in this paper. I got a 103 and a 403 in the used cars and a 603 in the musical instruments but, Joe, there’s no 203.”

Miss Springer said, “I found it.” Even to Clarence who saw her in a mirror she seemed excited. She spoke to Little Joe, “If I gave you ten cents, do you think you could run to the corner for a bar?” When he had left, she said, “I thought he had better not be here. I found the box number in the personal column.”

“In the bleeding hearts?” Joe said.

She gave him the paper. “The third from the bottom.” Joe read it. “Her own father!” he said. “I’m going to tell Margaret.”

“He inspired such confidence,” Miss Springer said. “Polite, intelligent, and when he came here, so neat in his clothes. Perhaps he feels lonely, Joe.”

“Margaret!” Joe said. He turned to his aunt. “No stranger is going to get money that’s coming to Margaret.”

“Joe,” Miss Springer said, “this is a matter that concerns his emotions more than his head. You could antagonize him.”

“Margaret!”

Clarence let his cigar get cold between his fingers. He locked the essentials in his mind, box 203, the agony column, third from the bottom, and determined if Joe did not leave the paper where he could get it, he would put on his shoes and buy one at the corner.

“Margaret,” said Joe, as she came from the kitchen. “You’d better have a talk with your father. He’s getting mixed up with a woman in the city. He’s answered a bleeding heart ad in the paper. Listen, Margaret— ‘Unorthodox but attractive widow, kind heart, willing to bring sunshine for indefinite period into life of elderly, cultured gentleman. No triflers. Must have means. Mat if suit. Box 203.’ Your father gave Joe a dime to mail a letter to box 203.

Continued on page 42

ii Beau. Could she outbid the "Tjnorthodox but attractive widow?"

The Wooing of Clarence Patterson

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 27

Mat if suit means matrimony, Margaret.”

Margaret sat on the chesterfield as if she had been pushed.

“You talk to him, Margaret,” Joe said.

Miss Springer gave Margaret a paper handkerchief. “I would do nothing yet,” she said. “He may have written for amusement. Or because he is bored. He knows no one here. His friends are in Manitoba. I would do nothing until 1 noticed he was going to the city more often than he is. I would think twice before I quarrelled. He is not a dependent, you know. He could find himself an apartment in the city. You can tell if he is interested in a woman. He’ll be more careful about his haircuts and the shine on his shoes.”

Joe analyzed her statements. “You have a point,” he said. He was thinking of the seventy-five dollars Clarence gave Margaret for his board.

Miss Springer said, “Margaret, I’ll help clean up. We can talk in the kitchen.”

CLARENCE closed the door. There was no need to buy a paper or to retrieve the one in tin; living room. He had the information, an unorthodox, kindhearted and attractive widow, box 203. He felt only slight dissatisfaction that it should have been considered possible for him, after a life of banking, to be impressed by the want ad of a skirted racketeer. Of those downstairs, it seemed that only Miss Millicent Springer had shown capacity in handling with any sense a preposterous situation, and he decided that instead of scampering to his room the next time she called, he would sit with her and, over a cup of tea, discuss Joe’s chances of finding a future in a wigwam not too full of thunderbirds, ten-inch canoes, buckskin jackets and rabbity moccasins.

On the following days when he returned from the post office with the mail, Clarence noticed Margaret was always on hand to scrutinize the writing, color, shape and smell of the envelopes. She would ask if he had letters and he would answer yes or no, and he was conscious of doubt in her brown eyes.

She fluttered when lie said lu; would spend Friday in the city. She asked if he would come home on the seven o’clock bus. The devil made him say, “I’ll he on the bus that gets here at midnight. Or is there another at a quarter to one? I may spend the evening with a friend.” Margaret asked if she knew the friend. He said, “Margaret, you don’t know this person at all.”

Since he remembered Miss Springer’s remark that he could be suspected of philandering only if he kept his hair cut and shined his shoes, Clarence, when he left the depot, looked for a barber. The hair needed cutting, the barber said, but it was a lovely color and they had a rinse that would make it sparkle like snow. And the black eyebrows, clip out the white hairs and what a contrast! If Clarence would excuse it, Clarence was the type to wear a bow tie. There was nothing in the world made a man of fifty look more distinguished than black eyebrows, white hair and a how tie. “T’m sixty-five,” Clarence told him. “Well, what do you know,” said the barber, “what do you know.”

The clerk at the haberdasher’s as-

sured Clarence that if he could tie a shoelace he could tie a bow tie, and Clarence bought four. The clerk had a sports jacket, charcoal grey, little white zigzag, reduced from fifty-sevenfifty that he would like to show Clarence. He also sold Clarence flannels and a yellow sweater.

Clarence checked his parcel, saw a movie, and caught the eleven o’clock bus. The lights were out at Margaret’s. He closed the front door and tiptoed across the hall but the lights went on and he met Margaret. Her head was covered with bits of paper. Her eyes were bright and lie knew she had not been sleeping. She sniffed. He had picked up a smell at the barber’s, and lie was glad he had his liat and she couldn’t see the glints and glory of his hair. In words showing as much concern as curiosity she asked if he had seen his friend. “Margaret,” he said, “it’s not time for talking. You get back into bed.”

IN THE morning, the sun was on the window; Joe Junior and his chums played marbles in the yard; green cherries hung in clusters on the tree, but Margaret, when she saw his hair, put down the coffee pot and cried. Later lie heard Margaret talking on the phone.

As he thought she would, Miss Springer came in the afternoon. Clarence put on a clean shirt, blue how, flannels, yellow sweater, blue socks, and the jacket with the zigzag. He left his room when he heard teacups. Miss Springer saw him, and watched with amazement as he came down the stairs. As his feet touched the carpet in the living room, he said, “Ah, Miss Springer, tea! Sometimes in color it’s as pretty as rye whisky.”

“Good afternoon, Mr. Patterson.” “To you, too, my dear Miss Springer. Where’s Margaret?”

“She’s coming. Please sit down.” Clarence had expected Margaret to show surprise at his appearance, not the palsy. She put out a trembling hand as if to make him keep a proper distance. Miss Springer came to her side. She said, “Did you forget the toast, dear?” Taking Margaret by the elbow, she led her to the kitchen.

Clarence looked at himself in the mirror. He tried half-sideways and full view. The jacket would be somewhat sharp for a hanker still in harness hut not for one who was absconding. He knew it was neither his clothes, his hair nor his black eyebrows that had curdled Margaret. No. In lier imagination she saw her own father spending the board money on sin.

His tie had swung off course. As Clarence attempted to correct it, another face was reflected in the mirror.

“Allow me,” Miss Springer said. She undid the knot, doubled the ends and gave him a bow that was perfection. “I see l haven’t forgotten,” she said. “At Normal we wore butterfly bows in our hair.”

“How could you have forgotten,” Clarence said, “in such a short time?” “I am glad we do not call each other by our first names, Mr. Patterson.” “Why?”

“You have such a gift for flattery. You could be dangerous.”

Clarence was under the influence of a haircut and new clothes. He said, “There’s only one way you can find out, Miss Springer.”

“H-m-m-m,” she said. “I’ll take a chance. I’m Millicent.”

Clarence did not like his name. He

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considered Chuck, Rusty, Gook, and lied. He said, “I have a friend who calls me Beau.”

Miss Springer said, “Does she?”

“She does. She! Did I say something?”

“You don’t have to. The name goes with your appearance. And you’ve had your hair rinsed with a chemical. Only a person who knew her way around a beauty parlor would have advised you to do that. Is she a hairdresser?”

“No, she’s not, Miss Springer.” “Beau, the name is Millicent. What does she do?”

Banking had not taught Clarence to practice deception. He said, “She plays the piano.”

“For money?”

Beneath his shoes the carpet was turning to quicksand. He was being forced to invent the biography of a woman who for a name had only a box number.

“Why are you blushing, Beau?” Blushing! Did she think building a woman from the ground up was a minor exert ion?

“Beau, why are you blushing?”

The question had authority. He suspected that as a teacher she never lost control of a class. “I am not blushing.”

“You are, too. Did you do something you shouldn’t have done?” She studied Clarence as if he were dead and stuck on a pin and she had to give a lesson on bugs. “When did you do it? Yesterday?”

He was still standing. “1 would rather not tell you,” he said. He saw that her streak of unfaded hair was not too far removed in color from barn paint. He wanted a cigar. He had no desire to drink tea. He said, “What happened to Margaret? She seems upset.”

“She is upset,” Miss Springer said. He was aware he himself had been the cause, but he said, “Do you think she’s fighting with Joe? You know how men are, Miss Springer.”

“No,” she said, “but I’ve often wondered.”

Clarence decided he would ask for cream and two lumps.

Miss Springer looked at him again. She said, “She plays the piano. She selects his clothes. She advised him to have his hair rinsed, his mustache trimmed, and gracious! his eyebrows plucked. Beau, could your friend be a little unorthodox?”

He wished he had excused himself and gone upstairs. “Piano players,” he saifl, “are not like other people.”

“Is she attractive, Beau?”

“Yes!”

“Has she a kind heart?”

“I’d say so, undoubtedly.”

“Does she advertise in the papers?” “Miss Springer, she’s a lady!”

“A widow?”

“Yes.”

“Then, Beau, she advertises in the papers.”

Clarence could do one of two things, he could leave the room or he could bluster. He said, “My dear Miss Springer!”

“The name is Millicent.”

“Millicent—”

“No. My dear Millicent.”

“My dear Millicent—”

“You could say Milly. Start again. My dear Milly.”

Fog covered Clarence. “My dear Milly.”

“That’s better. What were you going to tell me?”

The question was too difficult. He could only recall that somewhere was a gold mine, The Lost Shirt Gold Mine, box 203 or box 302, and somewhere was a spider, a black widow, no, an unorthodox widow, box 302 or box 203, of kindly heart, who would companion

an elderly gentleman for as long as he had means, and he, Clarence Patterson, retired, because of a haircut—

“What’s the matter, Beau?”

“I wish I could smoke a cigar.” “Then smoke one.”

“Not here. I can’t. Margaret won’t let me.”

“Then smoke it outside. Walk me home and smoke one.”

The suggestion was surprising but it tranquilized his mind. The drugstore, below her apartment on Main Street, sold cigars. If he talked about the weather, drew her attention to this and that, he should be able to thwart her probing into his activities.

MISS SPRINGER walked a trifle on the slow side. She said, “Let me take your arm, Beau.” He remembered she sometimes used a cane. She said, “I think you are bored at Margaret’s.” “There never seems to be anything to do,” he said.

“You evidently have found something, Beau, and I must say it has made a remarkable change.”

He suspected the statement might be the introduction to a further examination, and he stopped at the drugstore, telling Miss Springer he would buy himself a cigar.

“You haven’t seen me home, Beau,” she said. “J live upstairs.”

He met the situation with gallantry. “The door is not locked,” Miss Springer said, “go right in.”

The carpet was green, the davenport yellow. Two sides of the room had glass panels that could be opened to the terrace, and Clarence almost had the impression he was standing under shade trees in a park. The room he had at Margaret’s house seemed very small.

“Just a minute,” Miss Springer said. She left him.

He stepped out to the terrace. Bushy trees stood in tubs; there were boxes of nasturtiums and blue flowers; and in one corner garden chairs and an orange umbrella. Anyone could sit in comfort or even lie down and through the railing see all the activity on the other side of Main Street. From Glarence’s room the view consisted only of the side of the next house where lived a superannuated missionary and his sister, and they were careful people who never forgot to pull the blinds.

Miss Springer appeared. “Have a cigar,” she said.

“My dear Miss Springer, did you—” “My dear Millicent,” she said.

“My dear Millicent, did you go to the drugstore? I never heard you.”

“I always have cigars,” she said. “You do?”

“Yes,” she said. “I smoke them.” “My dear Miss Springer!” If Miss Springer had confided she was not an ex-teacher with an annuity but a lady wrestler who ate raw meat, he would not have been more startled.

“When I was in a wheel chair, the druggist persuaded me to try smoking,” she said. “I preferred cigars.”

“Does Margaret know?”

“You know. Until now it was a secret between me and the druggist.” That a lady of definite maturity, who sometimes in wet weather walked with a cane, who drank tea with Margaret, and traded small talk, and whom he had avoided on many occasions, who never lolled sitting or crossed her legs, should in the privacy of her apartment smoke cigars amazed him. In Manitoba women had not smoked cigars. There, it was woman’s nature to regard cigars with the same intolerance reserved for snakes. “Millicent,” he said, “I like character.”

“Thank you, Beau. Would you get the tray in the kitchen for me?”

That Miss Springer smoked cigars was one shock, that she drank gin was

another. He found gin, ice cubes, lemon pop and glasses on the tray. This was Miss Springer!

“Put the gin under the table and pour from there,” she said, “then if a linesman climbs a pole on Main Street I’ll not be branded. Beau, does the widow drink?”

The widow had become not a phantom about his neck but a millstone. “Millicent,” he said, “let’s talk about you.”

“All right. What do you want to know? My age? I’m fifty-seven. How old is the widow, Beau?”

Clarence had intended to make his drink last as long as his cigar, but now he threw hack his head and gulped. “She’s a hundred and one,” he said, “and she suffers from bedsores.”

Miss Springer gave him the pedagogic look. “All right. We’ll talk about me. But, Beau, you answered her advertisement.”

r1LARMNC’E felt he had told more ¿lies in the last two hours than he had in forty-five years of hanking, and if he said he had only answered an advertisement, of the Lost Creek or Lost Something Cold Mine, his words would fall with the dull thud of a counterfeit fifty-eent piece. “Milly, can’t we talk about you?”

“If you want to. We’ll discuss my vices. I smoke, and I like a hot gin before going to bed.”

“Small vices, Milly.”

“I know, hut I’m thinking of a bigger one. I drink in secret. 1 smoke in secret. Why can’t I romance in secret?”

To Clarence no confession could be more startling than that she smoked cigars. He was not shaken. He said, “I don’t believe you, Milly.”

“It’s true. I intend to advertise. You’ll see it in print. Woman of means, unattached, orthodox on the surface, attractive in a fog, desires acquaintance of retired gentleman, matrimony in mind. How much would an ad like that cost, Beau?”

“I don’t believe you, Milly.”

“How much would it cost, Beau?” “Now you listen to me, Milly.”

“How much would it cost?”

“Maybe three dollars.”

“Is that all? I will add more. Applicant must have no objection to bottle kept for convivial and medical purposes. How much now? Seventy cents? I’ll have him look like you. That’s right. Must have sparkling white hair, black eyebrows and wear a bow tie. What else could I say for five dollars?”

Clarence stood up. “You could add that the applicant must also be an unmitigated liar.”

“Have I offended you, Beau?”

“No, Milly.”

“You know what I’m doing, don’t you?”

“Yes, Milly.”

“What am I doing?”

“You’re proposing marriage.’*

“Well?”

CLARENCE had already honored such a contract. It was not the recollection of what he had been through hut the trouble he was having to see Miss Springer in perspective that gave him the look of a dummy.

She said, “There’s no reason why we both should be alone. You supply the ring and I’ll supply the apartment.” This was Miss Springer?

“Beau,” she said, “you have a stinky little room at Margaret’s. You’ll be more comfortable here.”

Clarence had appreciated hanking clients who slapped the desk and said, this is the deal, and this is what I want, but the Springer proposition was not altogether business.

“Beau,” she said, “are you thinking of the widow?

“She advertised publicly she was in the market and I’m telling you privately I am, too. I’ve considered you for months. She made up my mind for me. She may be able to play the piano but you and I have something in common—a family to look after.”

“I know that, Milly. They need the money 1 give for board. What’s Joe going to do when the tourist season is over? He can’t sit on the roadside, out of town, in a wigwam.”

“No, Beau. In the winter he’ll

manage the coffee bar in the bowling alley.”

“What makes you so certain?”

“I own most of the bowling alley.” “Milly, why in the world do you want to marry?”

“Because 1 want something around here bigger than a budgie bird. You may have your mind on a widow but couldn’t you stretch a point and consider a spinster, Beau?”

“Are you unorthodox, Milly?”

“1 smoke cigars.”

“Are you attractive?”

“I keep gin in the house.”

“Have you a kind heart?”

“I can tie a bow tie.”

“Will you bring sunshine into my life for an indefinite period?”

She said, “Marriage is not indefinite, Beau.”

“Don’t remind me of that, Milly.” She said, “I’ll remind you of this though. No triflers need apply.”

“You mean no playing around with widows?”

“I mean no playing around with widows.”

“I won’t give trouble, Milly. Ours is a true case of mat if suit. We suit.” *