LIFE IN EATON’S CATALOGUE

Or, How I wrestled my Uncle Ernest in my medium-weight thermal underwear

Peter N. Allison April 20 1963

LIFE IN EATON’S CATALOGUE

Or, How I wrestled my Uncle Ernest in my medium-weight thermal underwear

Peter N. Allison April 20 1963

LIFE IN EATON’S CATALOGUE

Or, How I wrestled my Uncle Ernest in my medium-weight thermal underwear

Peter N. Allison

THE EATON'S Spring and Summer 1963 catalogue arrived at my house the other day and, naturally, I sat down to read it. Like most Canadians, I have been reading catalogues nearly all my life, from the time I checked my Santa Claus lists against them, through the years when I would sneak the odd lascivious glance at their naughty ladies in their underwear (the mail-order catalogues were the prewar Play-boys, and their models still look sexier, if you ask me, than those bovine creatures in the flesh books), through the times when my new wife decided we'd have to buy most of our furniture from department stores, which offered credit, up to the present, when we check our kids’ Christmas lists against the catalogues to see if we can possibly afford half of what they want. These days, 1 read them as much for pleasure as for business. 1 am not alone. Last year Eaton's put a catalogue-vending machine in Union Station in Toronto. Travelers could get a book for a dollar, and after their first five-dollar purchase from it they could get the dollar back. About six hundred people bought catalogues. but fewer than half of them sent in any order; the rest, presumably, just wanted something to read on the train.

1 love the heft of a good catalogue — Eaton's and SimpsonsSears' often make two pounds an issue — and the slick, glossy handsomeness of the cover. 1 like the way a new one smells: sweet, and somehow secure. 1 like the kaleidoscope of colors, a street bazaar in my hands. 1 love that flat graybrown that covers page after page inside. With my nose deep among the crowded, dull battalions of pots and pans, brushes and bulbs, tables and toys — everything you need except food and housing, or. in other words, everything you need except what you need — 1 am once again nine years old. curled up beside my mother, explaining why 1 have to have a new Official Wolf Cub Jersey, all Botany Wool, green only, state size.

Eaton's is my favorite. 1 am not alone in this either. It is the favorite — or a favorite — of more than two million other Canadians, who have given it for years, 1 believe, the largest circulation of anything published at all regularly in Canada. This year, all the mail-order catalogues together will send out close to forty million copies. They'll attract, at best guess, more than half a billion dollars from their readers. Eaton’s alone will publish seven or eight different editions, and orders from the latest one will pour in at the rate of roughly fifty thousand a day.

No matter whether people buy catalogues to shop from or just to look through (one man in Alberta has told Eaton's that he always takes their Fall and Winter, soaks it in salted water, dries it and uses it as a Yule log), they have become as common a Canadian denominator as snow. Since Timothy Eaton issued his first one in 1884 (“Seeing that the ladies of today wear corsets over one half of their lifetime. and how necessary it is to secure that which is comfortable and beneficial to health, we devote one separate department to these goods alone"), the catalogues have reflected our way of life. The products they have displayed have been the products out of which we've built our country, and the people they have shown have been us.

In Eatonia, telephones come magically out of people’s sleeves

Thus musing, I turned the pages of the Spring and Summer, leafing through the fabric of Canada. Here / am, I thought, as my head began to nod. This is me, and my country. I drifted off . . .

Someone was shaking me. "What time is it?" I asked groggily. "Eighteen minutes past eight,” my wife said. "You should know that. It's always S: IS here."

"Here?” I said. "Where the . . . What am I doing wearing this long underwear? Where are the rest of my ( lothes?"

"Oh, you don't need anything else," my wife said. "Lots of men just wear their long underwear here. They wear it to shave in — although they never spill any shaving soap on it — and to talk on the telephone in. and to yawn in and, of course, for The National Sport of Eatonia." (People often use capital letters, as well as italics, when they talk to me in my sleep.)

"The what?" I said. "Where are we? What's happened to the furniture?"

"Oh, / thought that since we were here anyway, we ought to have everything at the Proper Angle. / guess you forgot while you were sleeping. We're in Eatonia now. and in Eatonia everything is at the Proper Angle, so it gives you a three-quarters view. Some things are propped up from the hack, too. so you get a sort of threequarters view of the top as well as the side, but nothing can ever he square."

“That dress you're wearing looks a little square to me," I said.

"Don't he funny," she said. I tried to look serious, but my mouth felt as if it were frozen into a permanent, involuntary smile. My wife was smiling too.

I reached for a cigarette. My hand felt strangely stiff. "Where did you put my cigarettes'?” I said.

"'¡'here are no cigarettes in Eatonia,” my wife said. "You couldn’t smoke even if there were. Your hand's in the wrong position. You have to keep it in a certain way so

YOU can hold gloves, or glasses, or a pipe — a pipe's all right — without someone having to redraw your hand every time you pick up something different.”

"O.K.," I said. “Let's do something, though. How about turning on the television set? I guess we can see it from this angle.”

"Oh damn,” my wife said, smiling as she tripped. ‘7 still forget

sometimes that all the carpets are turned up at the corners.”

The television picture snapped quickly into focus — extraordinarily clear. "Where are the little lines?” I asked.

"AH television pictures are absolutely clear in Eatonia,” she explained, massaging her toe. “Isn’t that a good shot?” We had a football game (odd, I thought, for

8:18), and the picture was a remarkable close-up, from head on, of a quarterback throwing a pass. So close was the camera to the action that I assumed someone must have tied it to a defensive lineman. who was now aiming at the quarterback's forehead instead of trying to tackle him.

Suddenly, I heard a phone ring.

It seemed to be coming from right where I was sitting, but I couldn't find it.

"hi your sleeve," my wife said.

“Wha . . . ?”

“Shake your arm. The phone comes out of your sleeve."

Sure enough. I caught the receiver in one motion, thinking how useful these stiff hands could be. "Hello,” I said into it.

“Got your National Sport suit on. Lucky?” said a voice that sounded surprisingly like that of my favorite uncle.

"Ernest?” I said.

"Who else? Want to have a quick one?”

"A quick what?”

"A quick round of our National Sport, stupid. I'm just on my way home, and we could have a fast one at your place.”

Cupping my hand, stiffly, over the mouthpiece, I whispered to my wife: “ What’s this National Sport?” “It’s Indian wrestling,” she smiled. "The Eatonia Game.”

"Well . . . ,” I said. Ernest is a fairly small fellow, but usually in good shape.

"I’ll he right there.” He hung up.

As good as his word, he was standing at the doorstep before I had tucked the receiver back up my sleeve. I looked nervously at the clock. The second hand was

moving, but the others still indicated 8:18.

Ernest looked very neat and trim in his new suit.

"Why are you holding your jacket open?” I asked him.

"Thought you might want to see the lining," he said. He jammed his hand into the pocket of his tight, slim pants. A shiver went up my spine. The pocket did not expand. "Your hand,” I gasped.

"Like it?” he said. "I got myself one of those disappearing hands finputting into my pocket. Doesn't wrinkle the trousers. / used to have

to use the old executive stance — you know, where you put just your fingers in your pocket and leave your thumb outside — but now, hoy!”

"Well, sit down,” I said.

“Sit down? 1 never sit down. Wrinkles the pants. Let's go.” He began taking off his suit. He was, of course, wearing long underwear too. As he turned his pants to a three-quarters view so he could lay them on the sofa, they went through a curious, independent

motion. First, they snapped together as if they had been instantly ironed. Then, slowly, the legs curled into an S-shape. "That was a close one,” Ernest said, as I stared in amazement. "They almost caught themselves on that exposed spring.”

He turned to face me. Again, I couldn't restrain a gasp. While he was stripping to his thermals, Ernest’s face had undergone a metamorphosis. His normally handsome brow had grown heavy with scar tissue, so that his forehead jutted out like a Neanderthal man's. His nose had flattened against his face. His ears were caul ¡flowered. I looked at the mirror, beside the clock. It was 8:18. The same changes were beginning to occur on my face.

It is still 8:18 as I write this and address it to Eaton’s. What I want them to tell me is: How do I get out of here?