Chapter 3 continues

The story so far: The teachers dish on their students.

Even more confident now than when they had set out, she hit 80 mph, he would have sworn, on the gravel road. He squirmed, leaning one way, then the other. He was terrified. Had he been a religious man, he would have prayed. As it was, he could only hope a headline like this wouldn't appear in the weekly paper:

"Four Teachers Killed in Car Accident, One Paralyzed for Life"

Arriving at Stone Lake safely, Pauline sped through the streets and took him home first, tires screeching on the gravel. Driving away, she honked twice. Then someone — he didn't know who — stuck her hand out the window, waving goodbye. He didn't wave back. He had to burp.

For a moment he stood there alone on the walk in front of the quiet, dark house, his refuge, smelling the pine trees and the country air, perhaps haystacks in the distance. Down the next block a streetlight cast a solemn shadow on the gravel road. Farther away, even in the dark, he could see a church steeple. There was not a sound anywhere, nor a light in a window, neither the rustle of leaves nor the murmur of insects. He took a deep breath and looked up at a sky full of stars, a brilliant celestial canopy, eternally remote, uncontaminated by terrestrial events.

He tried not to think too badly of the women.

Chapter 4

That weekend, sitting in his room, Allen wrote a long letter to Mary Zane, his girlfriend of the moment, telling her everything that had happened to him since he left the city. The letter was too long, he knew — five single-spaced pages. But he wanted very much to impress her.

They had met the previous spring at a Lutheran Student Association picnic near campus. She had approached him, a slender, dark-haired, extroverted girl with a bright and vibrant manner. Different as they were, they had somehow struck it off. But since, as a nursing student at Fairview Hospital, she was to finish up soon, they had only a few weeks together. Of those 35 days (he later calculated), he had seen her no fewer than 29.

He awaited her first letter with high expectations.

* * *

On Monday morning, Dave Meyers got back from visiting his wife in Minneapolis too late to meet his first hour European history class, which Superintendent Magnuson took for him. At The Food Box that evening, he explained to Allen that he'd had a hard time persuading his wife, lonely as she was, not to come back to Stone Lake with him.

"She was in tears," he said, looking haggard, his shirt wrinkled and his necktie unknotted. "I spent half of the night convincing her that she had to wait till I found a decent apartment. Imagine her spending all day in that foul old house with those two old bachelors, holed up in that little attic room. For me it's OK — I can take it for a few weeks. But she'd never make it. She needs a nice place, someplace where she'll be comfortable, someplace where she'll have things to do while getting adjusted. Like cooking, and housekeeping, making new curtains. She's a great cook, Allen, and a great seamstress. I want her to be able to make friends gradually and look over the town at her leisure, instead of being thrown in without any preparation and with nothing to do. Much as I want her here, I don't think she should rush it."

Allen, eating a very good pork chop with mashed potatoes and applesauce, agreed.

"She was ready to start packing half a dozen times," Dave continued. "God knows, I understand how she felt. In her position I might have done the same thing. She even went so far as to tell me if I wouldn't take her with me she was coming up by bus. She really meant it. By the time I got her to listen to reason I was nearly in tears myself. The truth is, I didn't get started back till after 3 o'clock this morning. I barely made my second-hour class. Believe me, I'm worn out. I'm going home and sleep till tomorrow morning."

"Aren't there any empty apartments in town?" Allen asked.

"I've looked at two. They were both disasters. Magnuson assures me that something good is going to be available at the end of the month." He laughed. "Otherwise, he told me, we could move in with him and his wife and mother-in-law. I'm not sure — I'm never quite sure with him — but I think he really meant it."

Allen smiled. "I think he meant it, too."

"That would be a disaster."

Allen wondered what he would do if he were married to his girlfriend, Mary Zane, and she wanted to join him at once. She'd probably hitch-hike up to Stone Lake, he thought, and set up a tent for herself. She was that kind of girl.

"The trouble is," Dave said, "I've probably made the town look too nice to her in my letters and over the phone. It is a nice town, of course. Surprisingly nice. But maybe her expectations are too high. She thinks it's a little paradise in the north country, clean and pure and full of charming people she can't wait to meet."

"You mean like Patty Porter?"

Dave managed a laugh. "And Hector and Calvin Skogland, the two old farmers I live with."

Allen, wondering if he should order a piece of banana cream pie, confessed that he didn't have any expectations at all when he arrived in Stone Lake.

"Neither did I," Dave said. "But I'm afraid I've over-prepared the event for her — nice as the town is. It's an old story, Allen. The occupying forces move in expecting rich spoils — and end up burning the place down."

Three days later, there was a package for David Meyers at the post office — two dozen chocolate chip cookies from his wife. He shared some of them with Allen.

Tomorrow: Chapter 4 continues.