OF COURSE IT ONLY HAPPENS when we're on our way to the cottage, so I can't say that it has a recurrent frequency (my sister is a psychiatrist) or anything like that. I'll be sitting there rolling and unrolling the window in the back seat for the dog so he doesn't get a) a cold in his eyes or b) claustrophobia, and maybe I'll lean my forehead against the window and there it is bang, bang! It's always fall, you see, when this happens. With little folded-up dead brown leaves that you could never float in puddles on the sidewalk because they're full of pinholes. There were always leaves like that on Willow Street, bobbing around the gutters and whooshing up with every passing car.
We always sat on the porch. Gumby and I after the supper dishes were done, and watched the leaves flying around. And Gumby would say that Willow Street had more trees on it than any other street in Larchwood, and I would agree. I'm glad Gumby was my grandmother because anyone else would have put her into one of those most-unforgettable-character things and they'd never have really caught Gumby's flavor. People used to say (especially Mrs. Estley across the street) that Gumby and I looked alike. Which was to say that neither of us looked like anything. Both of us had pale brown everything, including freckles. My best friend at college. Sally Jane, used to tell me that I fitted into every surrounding. Like a kind of human chameleon. Elsie, she used to say, as she brushed out her long. long, blond hair, you're so bloody lucky you only look as good as your surroundings; you'll never offend anyone. To this day the best picture I have of myself was taken on our honeymoon; me beside a giant purple rhododendron in Stanley Park, Vancouver. I guess you could say that my idea of happiness is to feel like I looked beside that bush. I didn’t just fit; I belonged.
I never knew anything else besides the house, library and garden on Willow Street, Larchwood, until I was nineteen. My sister, who is fourteen years older than me, kept descending on us in successive Junes and demanding that I come with her on a bicycle trip through Provence, or on a tour of Scandinavian (“they're the cleanest people in the world, Elsie”) mental hospitals. But Gumby would always say that Elsie could get her best view of rape, murder and romance three blocks from our very doorstep, so what was the point of traveling three thousand miles for it? And I would spend my summer clipping the croquet field that ran all around our house. That fall, for the first time in years, George Ernest Estley was home. He was six years older than me, and he had gone to agricultural college to learn all about soil cultures. And he did that, more or less, for a few years, and then here he was for the fall. George drank.
I guess the fall that he came home for good, he had been in my life for at least ten years. In it but not of it as they say. I lived on the third floor of our house and because Willow Street curved I got a full side view of their house. I remember watching when he was still in high school. He wore running shoes all the time and baggy, dirty white pants and he went out with a girl called Waverley Wiggins who had brown hair like mine, but on her it looked like a Breek ad. Sometimes on Sundays she would come to dinner, wearing her beautiful white cloche her mother brought her from New York, with huge pink poppies all over it; she was also the first girl in town to wear her silk stockings rolled and make it respectable. She was clever; she had written The Development of Larchwood's Natural Resources for the Kiwanis Club Essay Contest and had won. It was the year of our centennial, so a great big fuss was made. I talked about her all the time to Gumby, and to myself; where I'd seen her. What she was wearing, what mark she would get in the Conservatory exams all the Larchwood pupils were taking. And I hated her. I hated her when I saw George Ernest come home at eleven and I knew that the Viscount movie house closed at ten-thirty and that it took fifteen minutes (full speed dowm Larch Avenue) to get to her house from downtown and fifteen minutes to get from her house to Willow Street; and I would hate her when he came home at one thirtyfive a.m. and sat in his car smoking three or four cigarettes in a row' before taking off his shoes and tiptoeing into the house. And maybe the next day. he would look up from w'ashing the car and 1 would look up from replacing the croquet wickets, and he would shout, “Hi. Elsie-chick. how’s your Gramma?” He used to come over and chat to Gumby when she weeded the front flower border; his conversation to me was limited to asking me how my bicycle chain w'as holding out. Or w'hether 1 wanted him to paint my pogo stick. I sat on a blue campstool and looked at him and thought that he couldn't be farther away if he were sitting on the top of Mount Everest. After he left. I would sit looking at the imprint his running shoes had made in the grass.
When he started to go to college, he came home at Christmas and announced that he no longer believed in God and wouldn’t go to church. As his mother had just become president of the Mothers' Union, as well as the afternoon WA. this was more than embarrassing. I w'asn’t shocked; I hadn’t believed in God since 1 was seven, the year after I stopped believing in Santa Claus. 1 just wondered that it took George Ernest so long to reach a conclusion I considered to be foregone. He now smoked openly. Every Friday and Saturday night when he
was home, he went
CONTINUED ON PAGE 32
continued from page 23
'‘Larchwood didn’t welcome George back with open arms; I was the only young person he talked to”
drinking with his high-school friends who
n°w worked in the soap factory. It was
generally acknowledged that he had gone
had. Waverley Wiggins had gone to the
States to a big women's college where her mother had gone. They had only gone out once since then. And that time, he tore the
right sleeve off her dress and actually bit
her arm. Then he yelled horrible things
at her (everybody on the street woke
up) and dragged her out of the car and pounded on her front door, holding her
by her bitten arm and calling to her
father to come and get his whore of a
daughter. And after that little display, the
whole town was disappointed that she
hadn t been raped and Jack-the-Rippered.
But Mrs. Wiggins anxiously assured ev-
eryone that horrible George Hstley was
just mean drunk, as usual. So then, of
couise, no decent girl could possibly go to
the corner with George without earning all kinds of unwarranted fame. And so
George went out with Rita Carlos who had emigrated with her brother from
New York and who didn’t stand a fighting chance against good old George when he had a mickey in him, and with
Olga Wasniewski who didn't know what
the word fight meant, in more than one
Olga worked at the Pinelands Hotel and Grill and had spent most of her life
in logging camps near Seattle. She came
and helped us spring-clean two years in
a row and I remember her tenderly be-
cause she told me she thought I would
have a real nice little body one of these
days. George used to smuggle her into
the house when his parents were away
at the Lake. She wasn’t pretty, though: 1
was glad she wasn't pretty.
Then he failed, and off he went, hitchhiking. Gumby got postcards about every four months, telling her that the
Danube was muddy, the Alhambra beau-
tiful and the Parthenon overrated. Then
we heard nothing.
In my Senior Matriculation year, he just walked into the house one day and
swung Gumby around, told her she was
still the spiciest Unitarian he'd ever seen
and asked her if she could still make
that Apple Betty. Then he looked at me.
it was one of those wonderful onstage
moments when I would have loved to
walk toward him with both arms raised
forward to shoulder level, à la Katharine
Cornell, head tilted to one side, voice
low and trembling, and said. “Welcome home, George.”
He said, “Hiya, old F.lsie. You haven't changed a bit.” And I said, "Neither
have you, George." I was lying and I hoped he was too. He looked thin and brown and old.
Fven when he smiled he looked tired,
When F looked at him, I wanted to cry.
He looked so old. so old.
Let's say Larchwood didn't welcome George back with open arms. In fact. I
was the only young person George Frn-
est Fstley talked to. He drank with the
soap-factory crew, he talked to Gumby,
he saw Olga Wasniewski, who no longer
had the sideline as waitress at the Pine-
lands, and he drank alone. Gumby said that he should be put to work or his brains would settle into his hind end. but I think she was as good to him as anyone in his life ever was. And I guess he paid attention to me as an extension of Gumby. Sometimes he would come over and just sit and watch while I did my crossword puzzles in the evening. One night he watched while I went through two and then he said. “Elsie, why are you so practical?”
I looked up at him. He held an open bottle of beer by one hand and with the
other he pushed his heavy horn-rimglasses high up on his forehead. I said, “Because I’m not beautiful.”
“Well, Elsie,” he said, after a moment's pause to enjoy my obviously unpained admission of fact, “that’s God’s truth. But of all the unbeautiful people I know, you shine the most. You do.”
I sat there, in all my eightecn-year-old unbeauty and thought, you handsome dissipated bastard, thanks a mill for less than nothing. But I said. “You sure know how to sweet-talk the ladies, don’t you, Georgie?”
He looked at me quizzically and said, “For God’s sake, you’re the first female over the age of fifteen I’ve told the truth to, except your grandmother, and you think it’s sweet talk. What’s the matter, can’t you tell honesty when you see it?”
“Maybe not.” But I mentally added that I could certainly tell George Ernest Estley when I saw him.
We glared at each other. Then George leaned over and tugged my nose out and down.
friends till the white hope of the Algonquins turns purple.”
Other times our conversations made sense. We competed with each other and with Gumby in our reading and I attribute my present middle-aged (almost) fits of morbidity to the fact of my having been forced to read Schopenhauer before I ever knew what the word will meant. Gumby and George and I would bat ideas around an open fire; I think it might have been the only time when George didn't drink steadily.
Then at Thanksgiving time, the Senior Matriculating class gave an evening of recitations and music. I asked George to come because I wanted him to hear me reciting Keats’s Eve of St. Agnes; after all, I had to take some chances. Gumby made me a new dress of bright pink (my eyes blink just to remember it) lace over moire taffeta, with pink silk stockings to match. George came all right, but the only thing that kept him from reeling into row H in the auditorium of Larchwood Memorial Collegiate Institute was Olga Wasniewski. She waved and threw a kiss to me; she knew half the people in the hall and winked and smiled at them all. George fell asleep on her shoulder and snored through Michael: A Pastoral Poem and a choral version of Psalm 139 for four male voices. By the time the program reached In Memoriam: Selections,
George and Olga had been led out by Mr. Watson, the school janitor. The next day, George appeared and told me that he hadn’t come to apologize, but to be thanked for leaving before he ruined my recitation. I guess I was silly, and Gumby would have been ashamed of me, but I sat on the edge of the porch watching Mr. Estley light a bonfire of leaves and cried. Like faucets. George looked into my face, which must have looked like a freckled dishrag, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Just remember, Elsie, that I’m probably the worst person you’ll ever know. As long as you live.”
I just kept crying like a Greek widow, thinking of all the things I could tell him, if only I had had the courage and if only I didn’t know that he would only smile his thin hardly-a-smile-at-all and shake his head. So I kept crying. And then George said, slowly, “Elsie, would you like to go for a ride to Winchen’s to get an Eskimo Pie?”
“In your car?” I hiccupped.
“Yes, unless you’d rather go on your pogo stick.”
We drove to the opposite end of town to get our Eskimo Pies. Across the street in the Esther Larchwood Memorial Park, the Orange Lodge Band was playing My Hero and the Washington Post March.
“George,” I said, trying to sound elaborately casual, “George, are you still in love with Waverley Wiggins?”
He pushed his glasses up on his forehead.
“Elsie, from one old drunk to one little girl, never ask questions to which there are no answers. You only confuse people. And that’s not kind, is it?”
He sat in the twilight looking at me. I glanced at him and then looked out the window. Whenever I looked too long at him, I got the funny sensation that I wasn’t really seeing him, but only remembering him. As though his sitting there on the other side of the car, or the room, or the hall was only a result of my saying “George, George, George” over and over again.
He turned his head away and placed his forehead against the window. He rubbed it up and down, up and down.
“What would you like me to say, Elsie? You have your choice of the
Giant yellow equivocation or the Jumbo pure-white lie. Any preference? None? Oh hell, you're no fun.” "You'd never listen anyway. I know you.”
"Do you. Elsie?”
He shook his head. He started the Stutz and we roared back to Willow Street in silence.
"How do you know me. Elsie?" He was staring through the windshield as though he were still driving.
"I know you. George, because I've watched you all my life. From across the street. That's how.”
He got out of the car and opened my door for me. I stepped out of the car and felt the autumn wind, sharp as a reproach.
“Sleep the sleep of the just and innocent, Elsie. It's such a limited privilege. Make the most of it."
I turned and walked up the path that leads to our back door. Gumby always maintained that front doors should only be used for funerals and weddings. I started making coffee in the kitchen. 1 went upstairs to put my coat away and to get my Latin Authors homework. He was sitting at the kitchen table when I came back.
"If you know me. then you know I'm a coward, don't you?"
I put the cups on the table, and the cream and the sugar. "I don't know what you want me to say. George."
"Nothing at all. Just wondering if you'd noticed till my gem-like qualities. Front across the street."
We drank our coffee silently. George leaned over the table and said "Let's sing."
So we sang Whisperinp Hope and Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bap.
"What'll we do now. Elsie? The world's not frightened away yet."
“We're going for a walk."
“Out there? It's cold out there."
“I'll get my coat."
We walked around the house over the croquet field, round and round. We passed the elm tree fourteen times before I lost count. And George talked. Not that he told me anything I didn't know, but it was strange somehow to hear him tell it. I was dizzy at the time, thinking how he was confiding in me. Actually, I guess I was a kind of microphone through which he was speaking to an empty hall. It was too bad; we both needed an audience and we just had each other.
"Elsie, I'm going away again. I just can't stay here.”
"Where will you go?"
"Out into the night, naked in a wet mackintosh. Without a little girl to guide me in circles."
"What will you do?"
"What I do best, Elsie. Lie and cheat. And leave. Ah. back to the simple life."
He stopped suddenly under the elm tree which we were passing for the tenth mile and said.
"I talk too much, Elsie. Tell me about you. What’s ever happened to you?"
"Well, mostly pogo sticks and Eskimo Pies, 1 guess. George. Maybe a couple of bonfires here and there."
"Is that all?"
"Yes." I lied. I never felt badly about lying to George. He needed it. It was the only thing you could do for him. Like using lullabies to keep puppies from barking.
"Well, that's good. You're a lucky little girl. A lucky little girl. Don't ever let life grind you down, Elsie. Kiss and don't mean it; hit and do. The secret to life's success. Remember?”
“To make sure you do." And he bent over and put his lips to my forehead just above my right eyebrow. Smooth and cold as part of the night. I remember thinking that the bark of elm trees was the roughest thing I'd ever leaned a frozen hand on. And feeling like running water with sun on it. No wonder it makes me feci old to think about it.
And standing there like that. George said very quietly.
"Well. Elsie." And then. "Say that you know everything I've told vou, Elsie."
Even as I wondered where I would get the voice. I heard myself saying. "I know everything you've told me. George." And his arms folded around me. I was sure that when I opened my eyes the stars would be gone and the tree and everything but us. Everything would be gone that wasn't rocking gently, lightly. Rocking warm past cold Willow Street on an October night.
I only saw him once after that. I don't know what I expected; maybe that he would declare suddenly-discovered love for me. or that he would ask me to
carry his umbrella. It's been thirty years and Willow Street and Larchwood have passed silently out of my life, along w'ith news of George Ernest Estley. Gumby used to say that pain was like having your tonsils out: maybe nobody could tell to look at you. but it had happened just the same. One October day. George Ernest hopped on the 1.52 for Toronto and the whole town said a collective good riddance. With him went my chance to be a tiger-trainer, or a spy, or even beautiful. He just didn’t ask me. To be anything. 1 mean. *