A Star Tribune serialized novel by Richard Horberg

 

Chapter 5 continues

The story so far: Allen meets the troubled Leland’s lovely mother.

 

One day when Allen stopped at the post office, he found a letter waiting for him. He hoped it was from Mary Zane. It wasn’t. It was almost as good, however — a letter from his best friend, Greg Schmidt.

He had met Greg, as he had met Mary, at a meeting of the Lutheran Student Association. He and Greg were both a little skeptical of LSA but, as Greg said, it was a good place to meet women. Greg was two years younger than he, wry, clever and a good companion, square-faced, dark-haired, up-front. He was a history major, still in college and, like Allen, hoped to teach high school when he graduated. Unlike Allen, he’d lived his entire life with his mother and father in a conventional family (together with a sister and brother) and thus had enjoyed a more normal childhood than Allen, whose mother had died when he was 2. Allen thought Greg stabilized him.

Greg’s letter was funny and inspiring, He’d been checking out the new crop of girls at LSA, he wrote, some of whom looked promising — decent, proper, well-behaved young ladies who, away from home and church for the first time, both sought and feared their first improper adventure. He described some of them cleverly, also recounting his unadventurous adventures with some of the old timers like Lucille, Laverne and Lorraine. So far, all of their adventures with young women, both Allen’s and Greg’s, had been remarkably unadventurous.

His most memorable moments with Greg had come when the two of them were alone together, usually following a double-date. After they’d taken the girls home, they had often sat in the car for over an hour, parked in front of Greg’s house, the quiet street lying dark ahead of them, talking about life and literature, love, death and immortality, poets, artists, and philosophers. They loved James Joyce. They loved e. e. cummings. They loved Hemingway and Steinbeck, Thoreau and Emerson, Somerset Maugham and Thomas Hardy. Allen sometimes wondered if he would ever meet a girl to whom he could talk about the same things in the same way.

The camaraderie of young men — now some 300 miles apart.

The inspiring part of Greg’s letter came at the end. He had chanced across an article by James A. Michener that had been reprinted in an education journal. The title was unforgettable: “The World’s Hope Rests with English Teachers.” Greg, with a few ellipses, quoted several lines from it:

“I believe — considering how the high school curriculum is disposed — that the future decency of the world rests largely in the hands of English teachers. By a process of elimination, English has been left with the principal job of modern education. Literature must keep alive the sparks of idealism, human decency, hope, belief in a better world, and dedication to the goodness of mankind. By a process of elimination, teachers of literature have become the ministers who must see the world through its dark night of failing idealism. I repeat the phrase, by a process of elimination, because I mean just that. If English teachers do not do the big job, nobody will.”

Allen read the passage by Michener several time. He was inspired by it. He was an English teacher. The fate of the world depended on him. He would make a difference — he knew it.

***

It was the habit of Jack Palmer, the assistant principal, to give a little party every fall for some of the new teachers in the school.

In early October, Allen received an invitation to come to the Palmers’ house at 6 o’clock on Saturday evening for dinner. He was greatly pleased. It was his first invitation since arriving in Stone Lake.

Jack Palmer lived in a large white house (almost every house in town was white) not far from the school. As Allen rang the front bell that evening, first to arrive, he was surprised to find Jack Palmer, his wife and three children all lined up in the entrance, singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” to him. Why me, he wondered? But as the other guests arrived, they received the same treatment.

The living room was loaded with furniture — a huge sofa, oversize matching chairs, the longest coffee table Allen had ever seen, together with several excessively ornate lamps, both floor lamps and hanging lamps. Jack Palmer was an inch shorter than his wife, wore a light gray suit and sporty brown and white shoes, and appeared inordinately pleased to have them all there. His children retreated to the kitchen and he poured himself, Allen and his wife each a glass of sherry, which, he admitted with a laugh, he’d had to drive over to Crookston to get.

Besides him and Dave Meyers and Patty Porter, there were three other new teachers present, all of the latter grade-school teachers, all women. Allen made it a point to exchange pleasantries with each of them as he sipped his sherry. Then, to the surprise of everybody, the Palmer children, two girls and a boy, the oldest no more than eight, emerged from the kitchen in costume — Allen was not sure if they were pirates and princesses or Swiss yodelers — and, as their mother played the piano, sang three songs: “Peg O’ My Heart,” “Red River Valley” and “Oh! Susanna.” Allen and Dave smiled, the grade school teachers applauded and Patty Porter screamed with delight.

“Marvelous, marvelous!” she shouted. “Encore, please.”

“The encores come later,” Jack Palmer said, laughing, and escorted them all to the table, where roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy and green peas waited. Jack held out the chairs for all the women as they sat down, complimenting each of them in turn. Then he led his wife to one end of the table — she wore a light green dress with collar, cinched waist and a full skirt — and, seating himself, led them in prayer.

“As music is to the soul, dear Lord, so the food which you have graciously provided is to the body. For both, we give thanks.”

 

Tomorrow: Chapter 5 continues.