Chapter 8 continues

The story so far: Allen helps Patty Porter with the class play.

 

One evening, with the sound of the cast rehearsing beyond the wall, both of them exhausted, without the energy needed to get up and leave, Allen asked whether Evelyn had always been a high school librarian. Immediately he regretted it, thinking that it must make her sound very old. She told him, her defenses down, that she’d come from a broken family in St. Paul. Her one desire had been to escape. And the place where she always felt safest had been the neighborhood library. So, when she grew up, she became a librarian. “The library is my refuge,” she confessed to him, offering a piece of gum. He took it.

“I didn’t think librarians were supposed to chew gum,” he said.

“There are a lot of things librarians aren’t supposed to do.”

She was wearing a dark green sweater and a plain gray flannel skirt. Rather attractive, he thought. Tiny wrinkles were etched permanently at the corners of her eyes and mouth.

“Do you miss anything in the city?” he asked

She sighed and smiled. “I miss the really good concerts and the really good theater in the city. I miss the services in those marvelous cathedrals too. But I accept the trade-off. For me, the library is a home within a home.” She smiled. “I’ll stay here the rest of my life.”

“Alone?” he dared ask.

The dreamy look came to her eye again. “Unless miracles happen.”

***

Miracles, Allen thought, were unlikely to happen in “Barney Comes Home.” The rehearsals, which he sometimes watched from a chair on the basketball court, dragged on interminably, and were interrupted over and over by forgotten lines. Patty Porter often lost her temper. “Dammit, I wish there was a dog in this play,” she said. “He’d do better than you.”

Someone asked her who was going play the part of the dog, which was supposed to bark offstage at the end of the play, announcing his return.

She said she might do it herself.

As the day of the performance approached, Allen had been unable to locate a large wooden lawn chair for the patio, a key prop. One of the girls said that her parents on a nearby farm had one she was sure they would let him use. Realizing that his car would not be large enough to carry a lawn chair that didn’t fold, he asked if anyone had a trailer and a car with a trailer hitch. One of the boys did and said Allen could borrow it.

It turned out to be a Model A Ford. Taking three kids with him, Bruce Dunne the fullback among them, as well as the girl whose parents owned the lawn chair, they headed into the country in an icy drizzle. They had not gone a mile before they ran out of gas. Fortunately, a farmer sold them a gallon, which was all he had. No sooner had they loaded up the lawn chair and headed back to Stone Lake than they ran out of gas again. Bruce hitch-hiked into town and half an hour later returned with more gas. The next day, in the school shop, Allen cleaned the chicken-droppings off the chair, made some repairs and painted it. When he showed it to Patty she threw up her arms in delight.

“Oh, Allen,” she cried, “I could kiss you.”

He declined.

When the night of the performance arrived, the cast appeared scared to death. (“Serves them right,” Patty whispered to Allen backstage.) They peeked out with alarm at the audience, seated on folding chairs — mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers — and turned pale. They examined their playbooks with last-minute intensity. At last, when the curtain opened, Tom Campbell and Hannah Storm, father and mother, each took a deep breath and, dropping their scripts on the floor, stumbled out on stage.

But to Allen’s surprise, the play went pretty well — far better than it had for the dress rehearsal the previous afternoon. After the curtain went up, he left the stage and walked to the back of the gym, where he sat on a solitary chair. Between acts, he returned backstage to encourage and compliment the cast. When the curtain dropped, even though he was in his old clothes, he was called forward to accept, with the others, the applause of the crowd. Someone stuck a flower in the lapel of his old jacket.

Patty told him the next day that the play, after expenses, took in $130.

He had the flats stored behind the stage, so that he could use them if necessary when his turn came.

***

One Saturday morning a week or two after his telephone conversation with Annette Bowman, Allen took his list of great novels to Lila’s Fashion Shop, where she worked. He wondered which novel she would choose first. If she asked his advice, he wasn’t sure what he would say. In the shop, however, he found no one about, the walls hung with dresses and skirts, blouses and slacks, two long counters placed end-to-end down the middle holding scarves, hats, shoes, gloves and aprons. Up front stood an ancient cash register. In back, next to a sewing machine, there was a dressing room with a curtain before it. Then a tiny, bent-over old woman emerged from a back room, all bones. She walked with a cane, her face jutting forward from her narrow shoulders, eyeing him eagerly.

“Is Annette Bowman here?” he asked.

“Oh, no. No, no, no” she scolded, “not this morning. You know that. There’s nobody here in the morning except me. She’ll be here this afternoon. We’re always busy on Saturday afternoon.”

Wondering what she meant by busy, he sealed up the envelope in which he had placed the list, wrote “Annette Bowman” on it and left it with the old woman.

A couple of weeks later, as he was reading at his desk, his landlady informed him that he had a telephone call. He had no idea who it could be, never having had a phone call since arriving in Stone Lake. As he picked up the receiver, it occurred to him that it might be his father in Minneapolis, that something might have gone wrong. It was not his father. It was Annette Bowman.

 

Tomorrow: Chapter 8 continues.