A Star Tribune serialized novel by Richard Horberg
Chapter 4 continues
The story so far: A class discussion lights a fire in Allen's students.
"Doesn't it symbolize the fact that she's been reborn?" Allen said. "Bathing always represents rebirth. You always feel better when you come out of the bathtub, don't you? You come out of the bathtub like you came out of the womb."
They nodded, quite serious.
Allen asked if Henry was pleased by the change in her.
"Sure," someone said. "But he's a little confused too. He doesn't know what to make of her. Like somebody said, he doesn't know what he's married to."
"What is he married to?"
"A beautiful and powerful woman."
"And he's not a strong and powerful man?"
"How does Steinbeck tell us that they're not well matched? Symbolically again."
"It's like the tinker's mismatched team," Jimmy Kvist cried, excited. "A horse and a mule. They can't — they can't have little ponies."
"You're a real literary critic."
"Right you are. And how does she demonstrate her power?"
A moment's silence. Then someone said, "She makes him wait before she goes out to the car. She won't go out until he's turned off the ignition."
For some time they talked about what Elisa Allen should do. Several of the girls thought that if she had children she would find fulfillment. One said she might raise healthy children as she raised healthy flowers. Others disagreed. "She'd only pass her misery along to them," a girl said.
He asked them to pretend they were her county agent, dropping by for coffee — what advice would they give her? Should she leave that hard-swept little house and venture out into the world? Most of the girls said yes, most of the boys no. Allen asked what would happen to her if she got on a Greyhound bus and headed for San Francisco or Los Angeles. They weren't sure.
"Does Steinbeck give us any hints that Elisa might change? Remember that on the final page she's weeping like an old woman. She's 35 years old, we're told — but actually she's going on 60."
"When they're going into town for dinner," a girl said, "they go over a little bridge. Is that important?"
He could have hugged her. "Yes. She had a chance. But she's crossed over the bridge. I don't think there's any way back for her."
The hour was almost over. "There's one more thing," he said. "Remember that weather is often symbolic in stories and novels. What is the weather like in this story?"
"The farmers are waiting for rain," a boy said. "But it's not going to rain."
"How do we know it's not going to rain?"
"It's foggy. Steinbeck says that rain and fog do not go together."
"Exactly. Do rain and fog go together?"
"No, they do not. If it's foggy in the morning — I speak from experience — you can bet the sun will be shining before noon. Rain represents fulfillment and growth. Elisa needs it. But she's not going to get it."
"So the ending is unhappy."
He was about to say that endings are always unhappy. Instead he said, "The happiness comes in reading a beautifully crafted story."
"I'm going to show this story to my mother," JoAnne Winner said.
He smiled. "Maybe you'd better show it to your father, too."
When the bell rang and Allen left the building, he felt like leaping high in the air, dancing on the sidewalk. This is what teaching is all about, he thought. Not only had the class learned something, they'd had fun.
If all 11th grade English classes were like this, he told himself, there would be hope for America.
He had no doubt that he had chosen the right occupation.
By the end of September Allen knew all of his students' names, some 150 of them. The task was made more difficult by the fact that so many had similar surnames — Dahlberg and Dahlstrom, Kvist and Kvaal, Halvorson and Henderson, not to mention the Johnsons, the Carlsons and the Andersons. He prided himself on knowing who they were wherever he saw them, in the classroom or on the street.
Except for Dave Meyers and Orville Christopherson (and, inevitably, since she was his closest colleague in the curriculum, Patty Porter), he knew the other teachers in the senior wing only by name, 15 of them. Almost all were married, many with children, which put them out of his league. The grade-school teachers he knew not at all, quickly forgetting those he'd drunk beer with that night in Benson.
Whenever he saw old C.P. Arndt in the hall, the man's expression remained the same. He nodded but never spoke.
Allen got a haircut in the barber shop. He sent his clothes to Crookston to be cleaned, and had a heel replaced at the shoemaker's. He ate his meals either at The Food Box or the hotel or Hilma's. He stopped in Iverson's drugstore occasionally for items like toothpaste, shaving cream, hair oil and candy bars, where he often saw George Schuelke, the chemistry teacher, smoking his usual cigarette and talking to the owner. At Kvist's Standard Station — owned, he assumed, by little Jimmy Kvist's father — he had the distributor in his engine checked and the fan belt replaced. He bought a pail and sponge to wash his car at the Coast to Coast hardware store.
This was his world.
Tomorrow: Chapter 5 continues