Fiction

TAKE ME HOME AGAIN IRENE

His business associates in Vancouver called Henry Barstead a hard, square businessman. Irene’s world was the streets of Toronto’s tenderloin. Then it happened... he needed her in a way she did not understand. And they drove north in a race with death

FRED SLOMAN September 17 1955
Fiction

TAKE ME HOME AGAIN IRENE

His business associates in Vancouver called Henry Barstead a hard, square businessman. Irene’s world was the streets of Toronto’s tenderloin. Then it happened... he needed her in a way she did not understand. And they drove north in a race with death

FRED SLOMAN September 17 1955

TAKE ME HOME AGAIN IRENE

His business associates in Vancouver called Henry Barstead a hard, square businessman. Irene’s world was the streets of Toronto’s tenderloin. Then it happened... he needed her in a way she did not understand. And they drove north in a race with death

FRED SLOMAN

SHE NEEDED a new dress. When she had awakened at dawn because of the cold her guests were gone and they had used her dress for a towel and taken her purse with the two-dollar bill and the change in it.

Standing at the window, she noticed the convertible that stopped at the warehouse across the street. A man and a woman went into Wholesale Furs.

Without a dress, she could cover herself with the old bathrobe and saunter across the street with an empty milk bottle, as if going to the corner.

She paused by the convertible as if to tie a shoe, and when she walked away from it she had a fawn raincoat on her arm. When she came out of an alley doorway she was wearing t he fawn coat.

Usually the policemen on that beat did not bother her or speak to her unless she was on one of the bigger streets, where, if she stopped for a traffic light, a cop was almost sure to tell her to move on. This morning she said “Hello” to the cop who had last taken her to night court, and he said “Hello.”

The cop passed a few steps and then called, “Hey!”

h»he stopped and pressed her hands into the warmth of the stolen raincoat.

The cop said, “You need some coffee?” and he handed her a coin.

Thanks, copper,” and she crossed to the N*ite

Lunch and the man there handed her coffee in a thick cup and took her coin with a frown. She picked up a half cigarette that a truck driver had put down in a saucer.

Because the convertible was still in front of Wholesale Furs she walked down Gosmin Street and into St. Mary’s. The driver for Milady’s Dry Cleaners stopped and took several of his long Milady bags into a building, holding them high by the dress hangers, and he left the back of the panel truck open.

The girl came around the truck, neatly picked the next bag from the rack, stepped into the doorway just long enough to roll the hag into a tight parcel and then, without a glance around, walked quickly to Princess Street where she would be in a crowd of people getting off buses and hurrying to their work.

Now she had to go around three blocks to get back to the emptiness of her own street and that took her past the hotel garage where Henry Barstead was waiting for the hotel man to bring up his car.

She had to pause while a truck-trailer manoeuvred at a corner and she noticed the businessman staring at her and she said brazenly, “Gimme a dollar!”

Taken by surprise, the man handed her the dollar he had in his hand to tip the hotel boy, and in the

awkward pause while they both waited for the truck-trailer to move, he stared at the hard, smeared face and said, “What’s your name?”

“Irene if you want to make something of it!” And she curled her lips and her nose in a sort of sneer and went quickly past the freight truck.

The convertible was still in front of Wholesale Furs so she went another block and came up through the junk yard and the broken fence to her house.

The house woman met her at the door and asked for fifty cents for the room and she paid it with Henry Barstead’s dollar.

The dress was beautiful . . . papery taffeta in mauve with a feathery bunch of surah stuff at the shoulder . . . there was one like it in a store window marked thirty-nine dollars. She held it with just her finger tips and pressed it gently against her stained face. It was the kind of dress she had meant to buy with her second or third pay when she had first come to the city after completing her typewriting course hack in the home town where the streets had lots of trees, and where you just walked to the end of Main Street and you were in a land of river, and rocks, and ski hills, and long pine trails where you could run and climb with your yellow dog, Sandy.

She kissed the dress and she said, “Oh, Sandy, Sandy!” She wondered if Continued on page 74

Continued on page 74

Take Me Home Again Irene

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 33

Sandy were still alive and remembered.

She would wear the dress that night with the fawn coat carelessly open, and she would stand casually down near the big hotel as if she were waiting for her escort to bring up his car, and a young man who was tall and handsome and

who was assistant manager of a mine in the wide wild rocklands would look at her with admiration, and would take her into the dining room and they would eat Lobster Newburg, and when they danced his hand would rest lightly on her shoulder. He would ask her in a rather embarrassed way to go with him to Montreal where there is a great ski hill and where his parents had a house on Mount Royal ... a great house with a great fireplace, and two Great Danes that would race down the driveway to meet the car. His mother would be pleased that she had come!

HENRY BARSTEAD had come to the city on business that would take him a few days. He also had a vague notion of buying a house.

He didn’t need a house for he had one back home that he liked, though it was somewhat old-fashioned even after he had spent nine thousand dollars remodelling it a bit . . . putting in picture windows, and taking off the wide verandas, and making a tiled kitchen. He didn’t remodel the third floor and the attic because that part was absolutely no use any more, and never had been of any use except as a playland

for the kids and their noisy, boisterous chums. Crude crayon pictures of a Humpty Dumpty were still on the wall where John had painted them on the white plaster. The piano was still there since Joan-Ann and her college friends had learned the steps of the Bunny Hug and the Black Bottom and crazy nonsense like that.

From the house he could look down the mountain to his mill.

He also had a town house in Vancouver, where his wife entertained, but three of his children and their children had come east one by one, and eventually he, perhaps, would buy a house in Toronto, or in Montreal, or in Ottawa.

He had the uncomfortable feeling that he was no longer of any particular use in the world.

It had been a pleasant trip from the west. He loved his car and had never quite got over the youthful thrill of having a powerful machine doing just exactly as he wished it to do. He liked to park at a curb without one bit of waste movement, and though he had worn out a dozen cars since cars were first made, he was pleased to think that, as far as he could know, he never once touched somebody’s fender, nor scraped a white-wall tire against a curb. If somebody honked behind him in a traffic jam, he found himself mentally checking to see if the jam was partly his fault.

He had lived with a dread of being in the way.

Educated people, who study such things, perhaps would say that this unhealthy attitude stemmed from the time when he lived in a family of eleven in a very small shack; and when the long ears of childhood had overheard a mother wondering to a neighbor, over a glass of beer, why God had cursed her by giving her a child who would be a burden to her all her life. His older brothers were strong and his younger brothers were clever. He had to wear an iron thing on his leg until he was quite a big boy.

A Marjorie used to pull him to school on a sled, or dawdle with him as he limped along until they were both late. Several times, when they were too late, they played truant and sat all morning on a bank by the river and she showed him the mysteries of take-away questions and multiplication questions, and pointed out that if they were going to get strapped for being late they might as well be strapped for playing truant.

She said, "You might as well get spanked for being a goose as for being a gander!”

Sixty years later he could still hear the Marjorie saying that as he rode alone in his big car in the sunshine through Dakota. She was smart. It was her father who told a doctor to take the iron off his leg and who gave him his first job at picking slab ends from the carrier belt that carried mill waste to the burner.

The Marjorie went away to a higher school, and then in the holidays he felt very shy when she brought other girls and boys who played tennis and talked of algebra teachers and of a Latin teacher who was an ogre. Sitting hour after hour at a conveyer belt, he had fallen deeply in love with red cedar and fir and the grain in hardwoods and lowly things like that . . . far removed from algebra and Latin . . . and he felt he would be a bore to the Marjorie and her college friends. While they talked and wished about going someday to Hollywood and New York and Paris, he dreamed of going someday to see such things as teak and mahogany growing in their native places.

Thus it came that he lost the Marjorie, though sixty years later he found himself speaking to her as he came in his big car in the sunshine through

Dakota and again when he stopped to look at a sunset in Minnesota.

Since those other days he had seen teak and mahogany and even banyans and palms in their natural habitat. His men bad cut a million million feet of lumber that had made houses and televisioE cabinets and bridges over canyons and props to hold up mine shafts, and (playground slides for little children. His associates described him as a haid square businessman.

ON THIS leisurely trip east he had passed through cities where, if he wished, he could have called on a judge and A physician and a publisher whose way he had paved through college. If he lud wished to detour north and east and west and south to other towns, he could find eighteen others whose way he had paved and also to a nineteenth whose way he had paved in vain.

Of course he did not call on them for he felt he had given them nothing but money and he did not want to embarrass them by pressing his acquaintance and perhaps making them feel obligated. Of the twenty-two young folks whom he knew by name and by genealogy and by press reports, one only had written a warm letter of gratitude' to The Memorial Bursary Fund, c/o the Trust Company, as if a Memonal Bursary Fund were a human thing that could appreciate a warm letter of thanks.

Henry Barstend had more money and time than he could use. On this delightful leisurely trip east he had picked up a hitchhiking youth who had told him of his ambitions. And he had chatted with a business associate in Duluth as they sat in a club and talked of ships and shipping. And he had given a push to a dilapidated tin car that would not crank, and had been pleased to notice that he could not tell the exact moment when his shiny chrome bumper engaged the rusted machine that was stuck; pleased again when the ancient wreck picked up its own engine stroke and chugged on in a cloud of blue-brown smoke. He was delighted when the driver of the wreck waved a hand to him as he passed him on the other side of the hill. It is a kindly world and probably there is nothing in the world more beautiful than the sun in some smoky air over a river near Detroit.

He had not made an appointment for his business in Toronto for he had more time than he could use. He could sit around for a week, or for two weeks, for Toronto is a very interesting town, just as Chicago and Vancouver and Goderich and Primrose Corners are interesting towns.

He would call up his associates and make an appointment to suit their convenience. He had decided to sell to Milford and Willis even though their offer was some thirty thousand less than the offer of General Wood Products, Inc.

He didn’t like the Inc. It sounded impersonal and he liked human beings with names. He could afford to pay for his fancies.

In the hotel suite he had bathed, and room service had brought a dinner to him. He shaved leisurely with the old straight razor that he liked, and then called up Joan-Ann to ask how she was and to say he was in town. She was delighted to hear his voice.

"Do come around, Father, before you leave town or get too busy. I’d ask you to come tonight but a few of the girls are in and you would probably be bored by our hen-talk. Can you drop in tomorrow? Or, no! say Thursday. Tomorrow the Murchinsons are coming to dinner and you don’t know them, and I want a long long time to talk to you and get all the news from home.

How’s Mother? And, oh! that inlaid cabinet is just perfectly darling. Edith Marsh says she would give her eyeteeth to have it or one like it. You’re far too good to me, Father.”

He said he would see her Thursday at seven.

He put a call through to Vancouver and talked to his wife.

She was glad that he had called and glad that he had had a nice trip and hoped that he would sell to General Wood Products, Inc. She would call him back next day at three for she was just dressing now to go to the luncheon

at the Art Academy and had to rush.

He called up his son. A woman’s voice answered.

"Hello.” and after a pause of a few moments, "Well, he is not in. He won’t be in till tonight. Will I tell him somebody called?”

He called up his son’s wife.

"Oh, it’s you . . . Daddy, isn’t it!”

"How are things going, girl?”

"Oh, not too bad. Both Bert and Audrey have grown so you would hardly know them.”

"Will Audrey get her part in that play?”

"It’s almost certain she will. Oh, Daddy, she’s good. I worry a bit lest all that will turn her head. She’s awfully young yet. And she has her father’s fingers at the piano. Oh, I’m proud of her.”

"Does John ever . . . ever see her now?”

"Oh, yes . . . well, no; we met him in the street three or four weeks ago but I think perhaps . . . maybe he didn’t see us. Audrey took it keenly, but I suppose we get over things . . . when we are young.”

"I’m rather busy this trip. Lissa, and

won’t be able to come over. But look, girl, you’ll tell me, won’t you, if I can be of any use . . . you know, for a crust of bread, or a trip to Spain or to Siam for you and the kids ... or maybe for a coming-out dress? You know.”

"Oh, Daddy, you’re too good to me. I really . . . really I have everything I need. It makes me feel good when you call me up . . . Daddy.”

"Well, I guess . . . well maybe I’ll see you . . . well, good-by.”

HENRY BARSTEAD stood looking

at the silent phone for several silent seconds.

He read the papers the boy brought him and then went down and walked on the lighted streets among crowds who were going to theatres. He did not meet any person he knew and was just using up time, of which he had more than he needed.

He slept. Next morning he stood at a laneway while the man brought up his car, and at that corner he gave a slut a dollar.

He drove around the city a bit and noted various construction jobs and noted office buildings where men he knew would be working at dictating letters or opening mail on their desks. He noticed several men he knew by name but did not stop. He drove down the crescent past the house where his son’s wife lived, but he did not stop at all except for traffic lights.

Downtown again he met the manager of the Scales Company. They chatted of old times and his friend told him to park his car in the private parking space. "Park it there all week . . . right next the hotel. Might save you a lot of time.”

Henry Barstead laughed and said that time was what he had too much of lately. His friend laughed too, and suggested that he ought to go and look

over the engineering work the city had put into their subway tram Lines.

"Go and call up Engels and he’ll show you the whole works, or he’ll send one of his engineers to show it. He’s mighty proud of the job.”

Henry Barstead took the subway just to go where it went. At the end of the run he transferred to a bus and at the end of the bus route he walked a bit.

There was a tang of frost in the sun and he liked it.

He walked down a byway and stood on a wooden bridge and looked down at a tiny stream and at tin cans and rubbish and presently he was thinking of a river where he had learned a multiplication table. Then he was thinking of three million feet of lumber in logs in a big river and every log good white pine and every log his.

Instead of tin cans and rubbish in a creek he saw an Ontario river piled with pulp wood, and then he saw planes circling over a fire that had broken out in a beautiful stand of fir in British Columbia.

The smoke came in his eyes and he made to lift his hand to wipe his eyes and then he knew it had happened. His hand would not lift.

His knees seemed to give way and he grasped at the rail with his other hand to keep from falling.

He had a fleeting moment of fear as he saw his hat fall into the creek and his face felt frozen or stiff. He would be in the way if he fell there on the road and he clung very tightly to the wooden rail of the bridge and he pressed his face against it and noticed foolishly that the rail was good clear elm, badly warped with age, and he tried to smile but his face would not smile.

He must get out of the way! If he had his car he could perhaps drive away to some place where there was forest.

This was a strange city he was in, and if they found him lying down they would take him to a hospital and his wife would have to come from far away, and his daughter would have to cancel her dinner party, and his son’s wife would be worried, and his business friends would come, or send their secretaries, and assure him that he was getting better, and they would give him cards and gifts and shake their heads among themselves in the hospital corridors and hurry back to their offices where their work was piling up. He was the only one who had more time than he needed.

Once upon a time he had been talking to a man in a hotel rotunda in Chicago, when the man just stopped in the middle of a sentence and fell sideways to the stone floor and looked up with a surprised foolish grin on his face.

Henry Barstead knew what had happened to him and he was not afraid. If he could just get to the bus line he might get back to his car and could drive somewhere! He did not want to be in the way.

He clung to the rail of warped elm for a long time and then found he could move along it inch by inch, sort of dragging his left leg. Then he stumbled. Trying to get to his feet, he rolled into the brush by the lane and perhaps became unconscious for a time.

Snow started to fall.

IN LATE afternoon, he managed to get to his feet. He was not conscious of cold. He was only conscious of a heavy iron weight on his left leg and of somebody saying, "We might as well be spanked for a goose as spanked for a gander!” He could walk half a step at a time, reaching for help to the bits of brushwood by the lane.

A diminutive Boy Scout at dusk asked, "Where you goin’, mister?” "Bus . . . just up to bus,” and he leaned heavily on the small child’s shoulder.

More than a busload of people were waiting in the cold for the bus to turn and the little Scout Samaritan tried to help the old man in through the crowd. Boy and man both fell flat over the step as the crowd pushed. The alarmed bus driver helped the man to a seat and did not bother to ask for a fare. His run was already three minutes late.

At the subway, the press of people carried him off and somebody steadied him for their own convenience and in a moment he was alone again, leaning against a smooth wall and holding tight to his key ring. He would be able to get to his car!

He must get to his car! He could walk. He would get to his car and would drive away into a bush of pine trees. His car was at the other end of this subway. The stairs below him stretched far beyond the distance he could see. Presently somebody would come and help him just a little bit.

People hurried past but did not notice him. As he leaned against the wall he held out his hand trying to ask for help but did not know how. It was something he had never done.

The iron weight that seemed to be on his left leg was heavy so that he could not lift that foot at all. He seemed to see derelict men standing by walls and mumbling, "Gimme a dime for cuppa coffee.” He saw hundreds of them and he wished he could give them all dimes. They were all around him and were coming closer and closer and it was just then the bunch of exuberant girls brushed against him and knocked the keys from his hand to the stone floor as the laughing bunch crowded and pushed to the stairs, and the man half fell over into the crowd.

One recovered the keys she had knocked from his hand and gave them

to him, and another who had tripped him said, "I’m sorry,” and Marjorie came from the crowd and said, "We are a goose and we are a gander,” and then ten or twenty or forty Marjories came and seemed to carry him down the steps and into a train. He felt very happy for there was light and brightness all about him and his keys were t ight in his hand and his car was beside Scales’ office and there was a long road leading away north without end into a land of spruce and jack pine and birch and poplar.

No other person was left in that train when it came to the terminal. He dragged his left foot with the very, very heavy iron brace when the train stopped, and there Irene met him.

She had stood quite near the great hotel entrance where young assistant mine managers might pass, and she had left her fawn coat open so that her taffeta dress could be seen. The doorman had told her to go away. She went to the corner and stood again, and a policeman told her to "Go on!” She had gone a bit up the side street and then back to the bright corner as often as she dared and then would circle a block and step down into the subway where it was a bit warmer. She could be there for some time before somebody told her to move on and then she could walk down a long corridor until somebody else told her to go away. Presently she would let a policeman take her to a station and she would have coffee and a place to sleep.

She was just moving toward the stairway when she saw Henry Barstead. It seemed to her he was ill. As he tottered she moved toward him quickly but still let her fawn coat fall open so maybe he would see her beautiful dress of papery taffeta.

He tried to draw back from her but the iron weight on his leg was too heavy and he bent his head on her shoulder.

She asked, "Where do you go?”

"The bush ... I want to go to the bush,” and he held out his ring of keys helplessly. "Your name is Irene.”

On the street the wind was bitter and the slush was deep on the walk. They went slowly down the block and he led her to his car.

She tried three keys and one opened the door and she helped the old man in. He put his hand on the wheel helplessly and looked at her, but his other hand would not lift up. She helped him over and got in behind the wheel.

She was a princess now with a beautiful dress and a beautiful car and was no longer cold or hungry.

"Where do you have to go to?” she asked again.

"To the bush ... I want to go to the bush.”

"Will there be a house, maybe, in the bush? There could be maybe a shack

and I can make a fire? I like to be in the bush. I have a dog there, maybe. It’s Sandy.”

And then in a little while she said, "My name’s not Irene. I just said that. My name’s Elsie.”

Henry Barstead said, "You are a good girl,” and as the car pushed steadily and evenly through the slush he leaned over against her. She took her hand from the wheel and stroked his hand and noticed it was cold. She said, "I never had anybody like you. We will get a house in the bush and I can make a fire.”

TRAFFIC was moving slowly because of the thick wet snow that clogged the wipers. Three hours later traffic had almost ceased because of the storm. There were trees on both sides of the road now and when they came to the fork that led to the bush where she had left Sandy some five or six years ago, she slowed to turn, but then took the other road. She found she was crying and the feeling was good.

Long after midnight the dial said there was not much gas and the girl felt in the sleeping man’s pocket and took his wallet. Working it open with one hand as she drove, she held it down to the instrument glow and saw that it had paper money.

She turned into a place that had one light burning over a sign that said "Office.”

When she pulled up at the door a youth came out, sheltering his head from the freezing rain and snow that was coating the world with ice. When he saw the expensive car he said,

"Was you the party for No. 4? I’ll turn on the lights and you can pull right to the door. They said to tell you they put the things in the cupboard.” The girl made her big car follow him across a driveway where he went to turn on bright lights and as she parked in the breezeway the youth put down his head against the storm and went back to his solitary night watch in the office. Later, if some traveler came through the storm and found his reservation taken, perhaps the dull youth would have other room for him.

The room was comfortable, clean, and warm, and in a cupboard there was a tray with sandwiches covered with a linen cloth and there was cream and sugar and a small flask of liquor wrapped in store paper, and there was a package of cigarettes. Plainly the room had been readied for somebody who mattered.

The girl poured rye for her man and set coffee to perk on the electric stove and turned on the radio. She had found a house in the bush and had a man who said she was a good girl.

She took off his shoes and his clothes and bathed his face and his limp cold hand and the other hand that held hers

so tightly. She helped him into one of the white beds and tucked him in as a mother tucks her child. He smiled at her and closed his eyes without speaking.

When he seemed asleep, she poured herself coffee, cup after cup, and ate sandwiches that had been prepared for four people.

She hung her precious dress of taffeta on a hanger and caressed it and hung up her fawn raincoat. She filled the great tub deep with hot water and made herself clean. Then she put on her soiled clothes, all except the beautiful dress, and sat down beside the sleeping man who was breathing deeply and heavily. She touched his grey hair and smoothed it and he did not waken. His good hand that had held hers so tightly was outside the coverlet.

She turned out the light, then gently let herself down on the bed beside Henry Barstead so as not to waken him, put her hand in his and with the other hand turned out the bed light and they slept.

WHEN the bright sunshine of morning sparkled through the windows from all the ice-coated bush trees, she woke up.

When she went to the office the proprietor and his wife stared in astonishment. When she said, "My father is dead,” they managed to detain her in a garage building until the police came.

When they searched her they found the dead man’s wallet under her dress with his papers and addresses and much money.

The doctor came, and then the coroner, and they said the cause of death was obvious. Everybody questioned the girl and a policeman told her she was lying, and a doctor said, "You’ve got yourself into a fine mess,” but the girl had turned sullen and would not talk or even cry.

She insisted she had picked the man up in a subway and he wanted her to take him to the bush.

They held the girl in the little country jail and the police tried to get John so that he might make official identification of his dead father. But John could not be located, so they phoned John’s wife to ask if she could give them an address of some near relative who might advise them. Joan-Ann and John’s wife came in the police cruiser and then almost at once John came too from another town.

There was no foul play. The cause of death was obvious and the only thing they could charge the girl with was theft of a wallet and put her away for a couple of years perhaps, where she couldn’t talk. The embarrassing circumstances could be kept hushed.

John Barstead lit a cigarette and said, "I’d like to have a look at that female just for hellery!” and the policeman brought her in with a bit of chain on her wrist.

She was hard and sullen and looked ghastly. John asked her where she got her dress and she told him to go to hell.

When they badgered her some more, she repeated over and over again, "He told me to take him to the bush . . . where there were trees and Sandy” . . . and then she saw John’s wife looking at her and she looked back and all at once burst into sobs and put her hands over her face, "And I wanted to go to the bush and trees and Sandy.”

John’s wife turned from the girl to the little audience.

"This is to be a hush-hush affair. Give this girl that wallet and let her go!”

There was an awkward silence. Then John meekly handed over the wallet and a policeman unfastened a bit of chain that was on the wrist of Elsie, alias Irene. ★