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‘Phew.’ She emerged from the sheets. ‘Phew, I had a dream … I was dreaming somebody was spraying insecticide. Did you have that dream? Phew.’ She was a handsome woman. When she smiled, her teeth shined. From September through May she taught school. Now it was summer. ‘Come here,’ she said.
‘Breakfast’s already on.’
‘I want some nice cuddling. Come here.’
‘Don’t you want some nice breakfast instead?’
‘Hmmmm,’ she said. ‘First some nice cuddling. Poor boy, you had a bad night, didn’t you? Come here and I’ll give you some nice cuddling.’
Perry shook his head. ‘Better hurry,’ he said. ‘Harvey comes home today, you know.’
‘Poor boy,’ she smiled. ‘Poor Paul. What you need is some cuddling.’
He backed the car into the yard, turned past the bomb shelter and drove out towards Route 18. Gravel clanked against the sides of the car. At the end of the lane, he stopped and Grace leaned out to check the mailbox, then he turned on to the tar road and drove fast towards town.
The road swept through state park land. Another dry day. Branches hung over the narrow parts of the road.
After passing Bishop Markham’s house, Grace moved over and put her hand on him. ‘Happy?’ she said.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Nothing. I’m happy. Can’t you see how happy I am? Watch out or I’ll drive into the ditch.’
The road ran in a drunken narrow valley of the forest, bumpy from winter frost heaves, old tar with a single white line painted down its centre, unwinding towards Sawmill Landing, where it would pass by the cemetery and the junkyard, disappear for a moment at the railroad tracks, then continue on into town, past the John Deere machinery yard, the silver water tower, into the hub of Sawmill Landing. Perry drove fast. He knew the road by memory: twelve years on a school bus, in his father’s pick-up, in his own first car, shuttling back and forth between the paint-peeling timber town and the old timber house. The road had no shoulders and the ditches were shallow rock and the forest stood like walls on each side, sometimes hanging over the road to form a kind of tunnel or chute through which he drove fast, opening the window to let the July heat in, lighting a first cigarette. It was a hypnotic, relaxing drive. Without recognizing anything in particular, he recognized everything in general – the sweep of the road down to the iron bridge, the sound of the tyres on the pine planks, the slow curve past the cemetery and junkyard.
‘If you’re happy, then, let’s see a nice smile,’ Grace was saying, snuggling closer. ‘There, isn’t that nicer? You have to smile when Harvey gets off the bus. Okay? You have to start practising right now.’
‘All right,’ he said.
‘Okay,’ he smiled, despite himself. She was like a gyroscope. A warm self-righting centre, soothing with those whispers.
‘Isn’t that better now?’
‘Don’t be that way. Be nice.’
‘I am nice. I’m priceless. Don’t you think I’m priceless? Harvey’s a soldier and I’m priceless. That’s the way it always seems to go. Perfectly priceless.’
‘Stop that.’ She pouted, puckering her lower lip. ‘I’m only … just trying to perk you up a little. Here, I want you to start smiling. Shall I turn on the radio? We’ll listen to some church music.’
‘If you want. Sounds priceless to me.’
‘Poor Paul.’ She turned the radio dial to find WCZ in Duluth. The car filled with July heat and the sound of pipe organs and a choir.
Perry concentrated on the road.
He felt her studying him, that vast womanly, wifely, motherly sympathy and understanding that both attracted and repelled him, often at the same time. ‘Like somebody’s goddamn mother,’ his father had said. In college, more than ten years ago, it was her heavy-breasted, sympathy that brought them together. She’d taken him in like an orphan, soothed him through four years at the University of Iowa, calmed him when he dropped out of the divinity school and steadied him when he started at the ag school, decadent Hawkeye sympathy that oozed like ripe mud. After all the years with his father, after pursuing the old man’s winter tracks, ice fishing and hunting and fiery sermons, after all that Grace had come with her whispers and understanding, and marrying her after graduation had been as easy and natural as falling asleep in a warm bath. By then the old man was dead.
She was still studying him, snuggling close. ‘Well,’ she finally said. ‘Well, Harvey sounded all right on the telephone. Don’t you think? I do. I think so. Actually, don’t you think he sounded pretty cheerful?’
‘I guess so. He sounded the same.’
‘You see? You see, he’s still cheerful and he sounded fine and everything will be perfect. You’ll see.’
‘So you can smile now. You can be cheerful just like Harvey.’
‘He lost an eye.’
‘Well …’ She trailed off as if recognizing the fact but not its importance. The radio played church music. Perry turned the car along the slow curve of the lake. He was nervous and he lit another cigarette. ‘Well,’ Grace said, ‘I’ll tell you this. I’m just glad you didn’t have to go. I’m glad about that much anyway. Aren’t you? I’m just glad you were too old for the dumb thing. I mean I don’t know. It’s awful about Harvey and everything. But I’m just glad you didn’t have to go, that’s all.’
Again she pouted, and the road bumped across the rusted railroad tracks, straightened and descended through a tunnel of white pine that opened into the town. Sometimes he got pleasure out of making her worry. ‘Priceless,’ he muttered just for that purpose. On the right, an enamel sign said: SAWMILL LANDING. It gave the population as 781, which had been about right until 1947 when the last lumber company had left town, taking thirty families with it.
The road made a sharp turn and became Mainstreet. Perry parked in front of the bank.
Church bells were ringing as they walked to the drugstore.
Except for two dogs, one sniffing at the other, the streets were as dry and motionless as a postcard. Sunday morning. Sunday morning, four dozen cars parked about the stone church, Jud Harmor’s pickup in front of the town hall, Sunday morning, paint peeling, pine rotting, the forest growing into vacant lots and abandoned lawns, fallen timbers, Sunday morning and even inside the drugstore everything was quiet.
Grace found a Sunday paper and they sat at the counter. A Coca-Cola clock showed eight minutes to eleven.
Perry kept his head down. He rambled through the comics and Sunday morning headlines. Grace read the Living section. A wall of mirrors faced them, running from one end of the long counter to the other, plastered with ads for ice cream and Pepsi and Bromo Seltzer, reflecting the rows of toothpaste and stationery and mouthwash and Kleenex, reflecting like a long mercantile mural, reflecting Grace who was gazing at him placid and soft-eyed, featureless as warm milk. He looked away. He looked away and continued through the newspaper until Herb Wolff swung behind the counter.
Without asking, Wolff poured coffee and put the cups down and wrote out a bill.
‘Coffee?’ he said.
‘No problem.’ He waited to be paid. Then he rang up thirty cents on his cash register, poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down beside Grace. ‘So,’ he said slowly, ‘so … what’s up?’
‘Not much. How’s your pa?’
‘Keeps holding in there,’ Wolff said. ‘So. What’s up? He had a deep voice that never stopped surprising Perry.
‘Nothing, Herb. What about you?’
They sat without talking. For hours at a time, people sat in Wolff’s drugstore without talking. Stirring coffee and looking at themselves in the long mirrors, listening to Wolff’s cash register, watching Mainstreet, asking folks who came in: ‘What’s new? What’s up?’
Wolff rearranged a pair of salt and pepper shakers. ‘So. Not in church today.’
‘Not today, I guess.’
‘So what’s up then?’
‘Nothing. We’re here to meet the bus.’
Wolff raised his eyebrows, waiting for more, then he sighed. ‘Relatives, I guess.’
That’s about it, Herb. When the devil do we get some rain?’
‘I reckon next week. That’s what everyone’s saying.’ He paused a moment as if trying to frame a difficult question, then very slowly he said, ‘Relatives, I reckon.’
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