A Star Tribune serialized novel by Richard Horberg
Chapter 11 continues
The story so far: Allen visits his dad and goes on a date with Helen Jacobson.
After three days, he drove down to visit “Auntie” and “Uncle” on the farm. The land having been rented out, they lived in the old farmhouse where Auntie had been born, keeping a few chickens and cultivating a small garden in the summer.
But in winter there was nothing to do. Auntie’s younger brother, Beauford, the runt of the family, unmarried, lived with them. In the evening Beauford and Uncle sat at the kitchen table and played cards. Auntie sat and knitted. In the afternoon they listened to the radio, read the newspaper, and dozed as they waited for supper.
They went to bed early, Allen on a cot in the attic, which was accessible by a narrow stairway and contained only a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. For whatever reason, they rose early.
Outside, Allen examined the property. The old barn still stood, some 30 yards from the house, together with a windmill, chicken coop, cook shanty and milk shed, a grove of bare trees on the north side of the house. Beyond lay nothing but white fields, absolutely flat, treeless, running to the horizon. Desolate. The nearest farm was half a mile away, abandoned. The nearest store, a shack at the crossroads, stood two miles distant.
He explored the barn and the milk shed and the few buildings that remained, empty, dusty, covered with cobwebs, the windows spotted with fly stains. Wearing heavy boots that he found in the milk shed, he tramped through the grove. The rusted old farm equipment on which he and his brother had played was still there. Relics. The whole farm was a relic.
Thomas Jefferson’s dream.
Nevertheless, he told himself that if he wanted to write a novel someday, this would be the ideal place to do it. All by himself in the old house, without neighbors, without interruptions. He would even disconnect the telephone. Still, wasn’t it necessary, if one wrote about people, to come in daily contact with them? At least in Stone Lake there were people.
The second afternoon he was there he drove Auntie into town to buy groceries. Main Street was only one block long, many of the storefronts boarded up. The houses beyond looked gray and bleak. There were a few trees, bent and twisted, deprived of water. There was also a motion picture theater, boarded up.
In the store, Allen encouraged Auntie to buy things which, he knew, she wouldn’t have bought alone — apples, bananas, cans of peaches and pears, ice cream, candy bars, dill pickles and half a dozen little Paramount pies, a nickel each. He paid the bill himself, reminding her of the many times he had gone to the grocery store with her when he was a child, but he did not say a word about the delicacies she’d refused to purchase then.
One afternoon he managed a little conversation with Uncle, a large man with a heavy face, his head almost entirely bald, covered summer and winter by a gray felt hat. In the city he had been a barber. As a child Allen had seen him only on Sundays, since he caught the streetcar to go downtown before Allen was up and didn’t come home until after he was in bed. Like his father, Uncle had come to love the city streets and looked upon himself as a city man, a little contemptuous of his two bachelor brothers who remained on the farm. Although he was not much of a father substitute — incapable, like Auntie, of showing affection — Allen knew that in their own way, they loved him. He remembered how when he left for the Army, Uncle had shaken hands with him at the door, then turned away quickly, hiding his tears.
“So you think you might come back to the city next year, Uncle?” Allen asked him.
“You bet your life we will.”
“But you looked forward to coming out here, didn’t you?”
“I was a damn fool.”
So, he thought, Thomas Jefferson’s dream of an agrarian America was dead.
What could he tell his students?
Auntie assured him that if he returned to graduate school next year, he could live with them again.
The third day, sitting in the attic with a little card table before him, he pounded out a letter to Mary Zane on his Underwood, telling her everything he had done since his last letter. He hoped she was interested. Chastened a little bit by his bleak surroundings, as well as the modest censure in her last letter, he was a little less high-handed this time.
He left a day early, explaining that he had lessons to prepare back in Stone Lake.
No sooner had Allen returned to Stone Lake than he came down with the flu. His throat was sore, he had a bad cough and, although he was very tired, his legs ached so much that he could hardly sleep.
Lying in bed, he remembered being sick as a child and Auntie had taken care of him, giving him medicine, putting a mustard plaster on his chest, keeping the shade on his bedroom window drawn. Once his father had come up on the streetcar and brought him a chocolate malted milk and two oranges. The memories soothed him.
Now, however, he had no appetite, and when his landlady brought him soup and a small sandwich, he could barely eat. She recommended a doctor, who arrived and told Allen that he had a temperature of 102, gave him a shot and prescribed a cough medicine. In three days, only a day before school was to start, he was on his feet again.
When he went outside he sensed that his view of Stone Lake had shifted, though he did not know why, nor in what way.
The following Sunday, Dave Meyers and his wife invited him to attend church with them. They were, somewhat to his surprise, Baptists and worshipped at the same church where the woodcutter with the wooden leg and his wife had temporary quarters in the basement. Curious as to what a Baptist service would be like, Allen went with them.
“The woodcutter and his wife are gone,” Dave told him. “The church found a little place for them at the edge of town. Just temporary. I understand he has a job at the lumber yard.”
“Henrik and Orda,” Allen said.
“Henrik and Orda. On their way up. The American dream.”
Allen wondered if he should offer to teach them English.
Dave’s wife, Jean, was wearing what looked like a new coat, a colored scarf over her head, gloves on her hands and overshoes on her feet. He thought she looked very nice. Allen asked her if they’d had a good Christmas.
“We loved it,” she said. “Our first Christmas in a small town. My parents expected us to come down, but I’m glad we didn’t. Maybe we’ll see them when spring break comes.” She laughed. “Or maybe we won’t.”
Allen, who had no idea what Christmas was like in Stone Lake, said he understood exactly what she meant.
Tomorrow: Chapter 12 continues.