A Star Tribune serialized novel by Richard Horberg
The story so far: Allen feels like hugging each member of the cast.
It was a beautiful early June morning in Stone Lake, Minnesota.
School was out for the summer, bright sunshine illuminating the streets, houses and water tower. Even the pine trees were fragrant again.
Allen Post was ready to leave. The night before he had packed up most of his things. Bruce Dunne and Ray Nord were coming by in a few minutes to help him move boxes and bookcases down to his car — his file cabinet, his suitcases and his trusty old Underwood typewriter.
A couple of days earlier, he had received a letter from Auntie telling him that she and Uncle were back in their house in Minneapolis and hoped he would come and live with them again. He intended to do just that — for the summer.
Goodbye, Stone Lake.
The day before, at graduation ceremonies, Helen Vorgt had been valedictorian and Lois Knight salutatorian. Sitting in the back of the gym, he listened to both of their speeches, the first a little timid, the other a little bold. Neither, unfortunately, was very original. Scholarships had been passed out, awards presented. He’d been asked to give a certificate to the Best Senior English Student and knew that he was expected to give it to Helen. Impulsively, however, and perhaps a little defiantly, he had given it to Leo March. A little cheer went up when he did.
How fickle he was.
After the ceremony, he caught up to Helen in the hall, still in her cap and gown. “You were the best Senior English Student,” he said. “I just thought you had enough awards as it is.”
“Oh, too many.” She wore here cap tilted back on her head, light flashing off her glasses. “Leo was a good choice.”
He hesitated. “I wanted to thank you, too, for all those nice walks we took,” he said. “I’m sorry they had to stop.”
She nodded. “People were talking.”
“So I’ve heard.”
He touched her arm. She smiled, turned and walked away.
Afterward, it being his last afternoon in town, he took a little walk through the streets, admiring the spacious lawns, the white houses, the curving avenues (free, at last, of mud), the green crowns of deciduous trees and the blue-green of spruce. A lovely town, indeed.
He walked to where the streets ended and looked out at the fields of early corn and wheat, farms and silos in the distance. He could scarcely believe that there had been a winter and that on those silent frosty nights, under the stars, he had walked Helen Vorgt home. Fickle, indeed.
He passed Jack Palmer’s house, the musical principal. He passed Don Worthington’s pile of bricks, its pillars still in need of paint. He passed Ruth Armstrong’s house with the widow’s walk on the roof, the house in which had had spent a dreadful, never-to-be-forgotten cultural evening.
At last he passed the Lutheran and Baptist churches.
Downtown, he stopped in the bank to close out his account and to get a check for the money he had saved during the year: $1,237. He passed The Food Box, and the little shop from which his clothes had been sent to Crookston for cleaning. He went into Iverson’s Drug Store and bought a last Nut Goodie, remembering George Schuelke and his purloined Pall Malls, glancing inevitably at the booth where he and Annette Bowman had passed the better part of a Sunday afternoon. Back on the street, he remembered the homecoming parade, as well as the students he had run into on autumn nights, the pleasant, impromptu conversations they’d had.
To his surprise, a new business had opened up in an empty building, the North Woods Gun Shop. Curious, he looked in and found behind the counter none other than Henrik and Orda, she waiting on a customer, he opening a box of Copenhagen snuff.
“Yah, ve bought da place and stocked it,” Henrik said to him, wearing a gratuitous apron over his suit. “You know people, dey alvays need guns and ammunitions. Now dey don’t have to go to Crookston or Bemidji.”
Allen congratulated him. “I hear you’ve moved into Dave Meyers’ apartment above the hardware store too.”
Henrik laughed. “Yah, ve had to fix it up a bit, you know. It vas a little too pretty for us.”
Orda, turning from her customer, laughed too. “Much too pretty,” she said.
He wished them both good luck.
Finally, he walked over to the school to say goodbye to Superintendent Magnuson, who had accepted his resignation with regret. Magnuson, wearing a sport shirt, was dusting his bookshelf. Allen told him that he’d liked the town and the school very much and was sorry he had to leave. “I liked you in particular,” he said, and added, “I think you’re a great superintendent.”
“Thanks. Maybe you’ll come back some day.”
“We have reunions, you know.”
Allen told him that, though he was in no position to make any requests, he hoped he would re-hire Pauline Lund for another year. “She has a problem with alcohol, it’s true,” he said, “But she’s not a bad person. Maybe you can get her into Alcoholics Anonymous. I think she’s a good teacher.”
“She has a little competition.”
“I know. I met her at Thanksgiving. Dave Worthington’s sister. Believe me, she’s brutal. She’ll have them all in uniforms.”
Magnuson winced. “Ouch. I believe you. But I may have no choice.”
“The school board, you mean.”
Before returning to his room, he remembered to stop in the post office to ask the clerk to forward any mail he might receive to his aunt’s house in Minneapolis. To his surprise, there was a last letter for him from his father. In his usual scrawl, his father told him that Jack Dempsey was coming to town next week to referee a fight, and he hoped Allen would be back in time to attend. He would introduce him to the former champ, with whom, he claimed (Allen was skeptical), he had once been in the ring.
His father had more good news. Uncle Sam had informed him that when he reached the age of 60 (two years away), he would get a soldier’s bonus of $60 a month, as long as he made less than $1,000 a year at the market. Thus, he hoped to be able to cut down his time at the counter and spend more time at his drawing table.
On his way back to his room, he saw the eccentric old lady who had been the first to greet him, standing on her front porch, mop in hand, cat at her feet. She stared at him for a moment. “So you’re leaving us, are you?” she called.
He smiled. He wondered if she knew of his evening walks with Helen, too. “Yes, I am.”
“Going out to save the world, I suppose.”
He laughed and waved to her. “That’s another story.”
The following morning, as promised, Ray Nord and Bruce Dunne showed up to help him carry his things down to the car. To his surprise, Lois Knight was with them, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. For a moment, while Ray and Bruce were struggling to get the file cabinet down the stairs, they had a little talk out on the front sidewalk.
“So you’re really leaving,” she said, her hair blowing a bit in the light breeze.
He said he was. He told her that he and a friend were hoping to travel about the world at the end of the summer. “I bet you won’t stay here long either,” he said.
She screwed up her face, a lump in her throat. “I’m staying.”
“Really? I would have thought you’d be the first to go.”
She leaned forward and whispered in his ear that she was pregnant.
He couldn’t believe it. He didn’t know what to say.
“Oh, don’t worry. We’re getting married this summer.”
“Who’s the lucky guy?”
“You don’t know him. He’s the son of Jack Martin, the man who owns the lumber yard. His name’s Ted. He’s a few years older than me — about your age. He’s really a nice guy.”
“I’m sure he is.” He punched her on the shoulder. “But — you’re not going to college?”
She shook her head. Ted’s father was building them a new house. She would have plenty of work to do there, especially when the baby came. And she thought she could do some good in town. She thought maybe she could start up a newspaper, so Stone Lake wouldn’t be just one of the “Nine Towns.”
He told her that she would make a great editor.
Royal and Bruce came out the front door with one of the bookcases. She waited until they had gone back in the house, watching them. “I’ll probably be chairman of the 10th anniversary reunion too,” she said. “Don’t think I won’t invite you back.”
“I’d be disappointed if you didn’t.”
Impulsively, he told her he had something for her. Back in the house, at the top of the stairs, he found Bruce and Roy with the second bookcase. He plucked out “The Book of Living Verse,” hurried back down, and gave it to her.
There was a tear in her eye. With a bittersweet smile, she rose up on her toes and kissed him on the mouth. He held her for a moment. Then she was gone.
One more thing: When he was alone, he went back upstairs and took down from the wall his Cultural History of the World, now full of names and dates. “Say goodbye to Stone Lake,” he told it. Rolling it up, he put a rubber band around it and took it down to set carefully in the back window space of his car. He would hang in on the wall of his room in Auntie’s house.
It was nearly 9 o’clock in the morning when he started for Minneapolis, expecting to reach St. Cloud in time for lunch. Half a mile out of town, however, he couldn’t help stopping at the side of the road and getting out. He stood there for several moments, looking back. There it was, in all its glory, the same as he’d seen it last September, Small Town America.
Reunion or not, he expected some day to return.