Chapter 1 continues

The story so far: Allen Post is pleased with his new town.

On Main Street, Allen stopped in a drugstore to buy a Mounds candy bar. The pharmacist was talking to a middle-aged man lounging in front of a display of Pall Malls, smoking a cigarette. His wrinkled old suit and necktie had seen better days. Allen thought he looked like nothing so much as a small-town schoolteacher, one of his colleagues, perhaps. The man nodded at him briefly, then turned away.

On the way back to his room, he got a little lost, confused by streets that crossed at unusual, if attractive, angles. Lost in a town of 1,800 people. City boy that he was, he had to laugh — and after orienting himself decided that it would be a good idea to make a little map of the town.

As he passed a vine-covered white house with a long porch in front, an old woman was working in the garden, tomato plants staked up and tied with rag. She wore a straw hat, heavy boots and an old housedress partly covered by a dirty apron. Allen nodded to her. To his surprise, she got up and hobbled out to the sidewalk, wiping her hands on the apron. By the look in her eye, Allen thought she was either eccentric or demented.

"So you're the new English teacher," she said.

News traveled fast. "Yes, I am."

The old woman looked him over. "And you've come here to save us, have you?"

He smiled. "Save you from what?"

She gave him a hard look. "Pettiness," she said, and turned away.

Privately, Allen thought he would be lucky if he saved himself.

Nor did he understand the pettiness. Stone Lake looked to him like a place where almost anyone of reasonable tastes could be content — not only was the town appealing, but there were rich fields of corn and wheat in the distance, gently rising plains with here and there an immaculate barn rising above carefully plowed fields, silos, groves of trees, the priceless blue sky. At the very edge of town, birds chirping in the trees, he gazed out at the bucolic scene.

In no way could it be called picturesque, like those artificial landscapes with which hobbyists surrounded their electric trains. It was real. It had substance. And it must have been the purity of the air, he thought, the atmosphere itself, which rendered the scene so vividly to his eyes, washed by nature. "Green to the very door," as Wordsworth would have it. Not that the colors were in any way garish — rather, they complemented each other in a way that few artists' brushes could do. The novels he had read about the north country — Ole Rolvaag and Jack London — had taken place in bleak, unforgiving landscapes. This was different. He felt lighter afoot than he had in the city (love the city though he did), his energy level increased.

He remembered a little conversation he'd had in graduate school that summer with a young man in one of his classes. He knew him only as Mr. Cook, the name their instructor used in class. He'd told Mr. Cook, walking away from class one afternoon, that one of his literature professors had suggested that instead of going off to teach in some hick town, he should continue his graduate studies and get a Ph.D. Mr. Cook had scoffed. "Those effete snobs in the English department," he said, "they can't believe anybody could be fulfilled without a symphony or a theater or an art gallery right next door. The ballet, you know," he said, doing a little mock step. "They think that only dead people live in small towns."

Allen Post was sure Mr. Cook was right .

Chapter 2

Allen met the senior faculty at a meeting held the following Monday, two days before school was to start. The most popular of them, he gathered, was Don Worthington, the football and basketball coach. Tall and lean, with a high forehead and firm jaw, he went around introducing himself to the new members of the staff before the meeting began, shaking hands and making a little small talk. He was also, Allen thought, the best dressed, wearing a light blue suit with sharp lapels and a rather flamboyant necktie (perhaps a gift from his team). Somebody whispered to him that Don had spent two years as a prisoner of war in Japan.

At the head of the room, Superintendent Magnuson introduced the permanent members of the staff to the newcomers, making a few mild jokes in the process. Allen was surprised to discover that three of them had been born in Stone Lake and spent their entire lives there, while several others were from adjacent communities in Minnesota and North Dakota. Allen imagined them staying a few years in one town, a few in another and finally retiring in a third. One such specimen was a very old man who sat in a corner puffing on his pipe, his face ancient, his hair white. His was one of the few names Allen remembered: C.P. Arndt.

Magnuson allowed the new staff to introduce themselves.

"I'm Allen Post," he said when his turn came. "I'm going to be teaching senior English this year. I'm from Minneapolis and graduated from the University of Minnesota last spring. I spent the summer taking graduate courses in English literature."

Magnuson smiled. "Allen is our fair-haired young man," he said. "Quite literally, as you can see. We expect a lot of him." Allen shook his head modestly, as though declining the honor.

Then, lowering his glasses, Magnuson looked over the room. "Does anybody know where Patty Porter is?" he asked. "She's the new junior English teacher. She should be here."

Everybody looked around. She was not there.

Tomorrow: Chapter 2 continues.