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‘That’s what I thought.’ Again he raised his eyebrows. He was dressed in a starched lab coat. It didn’t seem to Perry that he’d changed at all since high school. Wolff was one of the Germans. There were Swedes and Finns and Germans, and Wolff was pure German – impeccable and stiffly manicured, greedy eyes, a bristling crewcut and a voice that rose like deep magic from his sunken little torso. Wolff was proud of the voice. Back in high school, when it finally changed, it saved him from an adolescence of constant scorn, pity, practical jokes and half-serious innuendo about his malehood. He now loaded the voice with authority, successfully straining out most of the German accent, always speaking slowly and only after long and apparently tormenting thought. ‘A relative,’ he said.
‘That’s about it. You got any more of this coffee, Herb?’
‘Right.’ He sighed, giving up. Wolff refilled their cups and wrote out a new bill and they sat quietly and listened while the Coca-Cola clock ticked. ‘I reckon you know Jud Harmor’s got cancer,’ he said.
‘I’ve heard that.’
‘Did Jud tell you?’
Wolff shook his head. ‘Nope, but I heard it. I hear it’s bad, too.’
‘He’s old.’ Wolff was playing again with the salt and pepper shakers. ‘He ought to step down from being mayor if he’s got cancer like I hear he’s got. I don’t say he has to quit. I say he should quit. It’s for the better.’
‘I guess it is.’
When the Coca-Cola clock showed two minutes after eleven, Wolff got behind the counter and began making coffee for the church crowd. He still had the disjointed swagger that Perry remembered from high school, a sailor’s roll that joined with his deep voice to defy everything else about him.
‘Anacin and aspirin and all that stuff,’ Wolff was saying, talking to Grace like a teacher. ‘It’s made in these big vats, you know, and all it really amounts to is plain acid. And you know what acids are. Dangerous. You got to be careful.’
‘Why sell it?’ asked Grace.
‘Oh. Well, it is a medicine. That’s all I’m saying, honey. Aspirin is medicine and people forget that. I’m just saying you got to be careful because it’s not sugar. Not candy. Aspirin is a very potent medicine. Aspirin isn’t sugar. Sugar is organic, see? Sugar’s got carbons in it, but aspirin’s plain acid and acid is something you got to be careful of, see?’
Grace nodded. Then Wolff nodded. He straightened his lab coat and checked his watch against the Coca-Cola clock. ‘So,’ he said crisply, ‘bus gets in at eleven twenty. Who’s this relative anyhow?’
Grace laughed. ‘It’s no big secret, Herb. It’s Harvey. We just thought it would be best not to …’
‘Harvey!’ Wolff wailed. He held his hands to his mouth like a girl. His voice sailed up an octave. ‘Harvey? Well this is … Harvey!’
‘It’s no secret,’ Grace said. ‘We thought he’d just want to get off the bus without any fuss.’
‘Geez,’ Wolff moaned. ‘Well, this is something. Harvey? Geeeezzzz. You should’ve told somebody. For Pete’s sakes. Harvey. Well, how is he?’ Wolff looked about the store. ‘For Pete’s sakes! You should’ve told us. He’s coming on the bus? Geez, I got to get some people here.’
‘I don’t think he wants that,’ Perry said. He decided to cut Wolff off fast. ‘Let’s just let it be a nice easy thing.’
‘We got to!’ Wolff wailed. ‘He’s coming home, isn’t he? Geez. I got to make some phone calls.’ He yanked his lab coat down, dusting it and hustling for the phone.
‘Herb. Forget it, will you?’
‘The whole town’s in church.’ Wolff banged the phone down and went out into the street and came back. ‘Geez, this is … I can’t believe any of this. Harvey. I just can’t believe it. He’s coming home. I mean, we got to get some people out for him, don’t we? How is he? I mean, how’s the eye and everything?’
‘He’s fine,’ Grace smiled. ‘We talked to him on the phone and he sounded cheerful and fine.’
Wolff rubbed his crewcut. ‘Well, we got to do something. Don’t we? Maybe … Maybe I ought to run over to the church and make an announcement or something.’
‘Forget it,’ Perry said.
‘Just forget it, Herb.’
‘But … I mean, shouldn’t we get some people here?’
‘No,’ Perry said.
Wolff frowned. He looked shaken. ‘At least the mayor?’
‘Geez,’ Wolff moaned. ‘Somebody should be here when he comes. Don’t you think? If I’d known about it, why, I’ll tell you, I’d’ve had the whole council here. I’ll tell you.’
‘Leave him alone, Herb.’
Perry went outside and sat on the kerb.
The streets were dusty.
Jud Harmor’s pickup was gone now, but the two dogs were still there, curled in wait on the steps of Damascus Lutheran. Beyond the peeling buildings there was nothing but forest.
He cleaned his glasses and leaned back. Then he cleaned his glasses again. In a while Grace came out and sat with him.
‘Wolff still phoning people?’
‘Oh,’ she laughed. ‘I think I settled him down. He’s in there grinding fresh coffee for Harvey.’
‘Some creep, isn’t he?’
‘I’m sorry. You didn’t see the time in there?’
‘Few more minutes.’ She took his hand. ‘You all right now?’
‘Sure. I’m okay. I’m priceless. I’ll bet that damn bus is late.’
‘Shhhhh. You just relax and start smiling. Have a bright face.’
He gazed up Mainstreet to where the bus would turn in and hiss and stop. The street was silent. The heat seemed to absorb sound. Sitting on the kerb, he felt like a boy again, waiting to be picked up from school, or waiting in a stifling theatre for the curtain to draw up and the lights to fade and the movie to begin. He felt he’d been waiting a long time. He was restless. The long night had caught up with him and he needed a cigarette. He was restless. He needed a cigarette and the pack was empty. Grace sat silently, twisting her wedding band, toying with his hand until he pulled it away and stood up. Across the street and down a way, he saw the shoddy frame building where he had his own office. The Venetian blinds were down, forming a white backdrop for the lettering on the window: PAUL MILTON PERRY, and below his name, painted in orange, DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, COUNTY FARM EXTENSION. Sucking the Federal Titty. Harvey always stated the unstated.
‘Awful hot,’ Grace finally said.
‘Damn bus is late. I knew it.’
‘Shall I see what time it is?’
‘Yes. And get me some cigarettes. And make sure Wolff isn’t on that telephone again.’
He walked to the end of the block and back again. One of the dogs trotted over to be scratched. The town was dead. He could hear the muffled sound of the organ inside the church. The town did not particularly depress him, but at the same time he often wondered why anyone still lived there. Wolff was there to sell coffee and medicine. The barber was there to cut Wolff’s hair into a flat crewcut once a week. The grocer was there to sell food to the barber. The farmers were there, trying to grow corn in the forest to sell to the grocer, and Perry was there to keep the farms going, to tell them when to use fertilizer, to fill out subsidy applications and loan applications, to watch the Swedes try to grow corn on land meant for pine and Indians. He didn’t know. It didn’t make sense. Once he’d asked his father why they didn’t just move on to Duluth, and the old man went crazy, charging into one of his fiery sermons about the virtues of hardship and how Perry’s grandfather had built the house out of the forest’s own timber and how a town was like tempered steel and how a transplanted tree never grows as tall or as fine as one rooted in native soil. The lesson of the sermon, if not the logic, always stuck with Perry. The old man died and Perry stayed on. And Harvey got drafted. Old Harvey. Harvey was different. Ever since the old man died, Harvey talked about leaving the town, and one day with the help of the draft board he did leave. A confused time. Harvey the Bull. He was a bull but he was no soldier. As kids they hadn’t even played war games. Indians were better, better targets for games with their leather jackets, sour faces, bad teeth and greasy hair, Chippewa mostly. They’d stalked the Indians, crawled on bellies in the weeds behind the house, yelped and bellowed. But never war games. Nothing serious. Trapping games and capture-the-flag and forts in the forest, not far from Pliney’s Pond, snow forts in winter and tree forts in summer, great camouflage in the fall, but never war games. And no one in Sawmill Landing knew a damn about the war anyway. It wasn’t talked about in the drugstore. Then gangbusters, bang, old Harvey gets drafted, good old Bishop Markham and Herb Wolff on the draft board – sorry, Harvey’s number was up, something like that, proper optimism and good humour, a little sympathy, proper pride. Perry stayed out of it. Nothing he could do, and the war wasn’t real anyway, and, besides, it seemed somehow natural that a rascal and bull like Harvey was the one to go off to the war. In that sleepwalking, slothful departure there had been no time to counter the nagging thought that the speed of it all, the blinding foggy invisible force behind it, was a sure sign that Harvey would come home maimed. Because no one knew a damn about it. Vietnam was outside the town orbit. ‘A mess,’ was what people would say if forced to comment, but a mess was still not a war, and it did not become a war until Harvey went to fight in it. Two Indian boys went with him. Their picture was on the front page of the town paper, Harvey in the centre, grinning and posing, his arms wrapped around the two dull-eyed Indian boys. In September, one of the Indians got killed and the paper carried a short obituary with an American flag stencilled in. But even then it wasn’t really a war. It wasn’t a war until Harvey got himself wounded and the paper carried another front-page story, pictures of Harvey in his football uniform, pictures of the old house, pictures of Perry and Grace, a picture of the dead old man in his preacher’s robes, a long history of the family, and for a time the war was really a war, though even then it was all jumbled and formless. No sides, no maps to chart progress on, no tides to imagine surging back and forth, no real battles or victories or defeats. In the tangled density of it all, Perry sometimes wondered if the whole show were a masquerade for Harvey to dress in khaki and display his bigballed outdoorsmanship, proving all over again how well he’d followed the old man into the woods, how much he’d learned, to show forever that he was the Bull.
The dog trotted back to the church steps.
Perry sat on the kerb again, cleaned his glasses, leaned back. Tips of high pine poked over the store fronts.
Grace came out with cigarettes and coffee. ‘Eleven thirty,’ she said. ‘Herb says it’s always a little late.’
‘I just wish that bus would get in.’
Then he saw it. It was as though it had been there all along, poised in turn around the corner, waiting to be seen. He saw it and heard it simultaneously. It was the giant Greyhound. It might have been the same silver monster that took Harvey to war in the first place.
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