On an early September afternoon, a young man drove over a slight rise in the highway and saw spread out before him, half a mile away, the small town where he was to spend the next year.
In the clear sunlight, the town glowed pleasantly: a white water tower, the spires of several churches, grain elevators off to one side and everywhere, the lush green crowns of deciduous trees and the rich dark peaks of evergreens. From what he was able to see, the streets looked surprisingly wide and clean, lined with well-kept houses enveloped by spacious lawns. So spacious, in fact, that there appeared to be no more than two or three houses on each block. A lovely little town. Stone Lake, Minnesota, population 1,800.
Allen Post’s car was filled to capacity with his worldly possessions: two suitcases packed full of clothes, several cardboard boxes, a two-drawer file cabinet, shoes on the floor, an old radio and two bookcases lying flat on the back seat, filled with books. On the seat beside him lay his well-used Underwood typewriter, several notebooks and an old Dutch Masters cigar box holding his toilet articles.
An hour earlier, on the road, he’d encountered trouble: His engine had begun to make loud noises, then the car stopped with a bang and refused to start again. Leaving it by the side of the road, discouraged, he’d gotten a ride from a truck driver who took him back to the nearest town and dropped him off at a garage near Main Street. The owner of the garage, an old man in grease-stained overalls, drove him out to his abandoned car in a tow truck and pulled it back to the garage. Allen Post despaired. Not only had he hoped to arrive early, but he was disappointed in the car, a 1941 pearl gray Chevrolet which he’d just bought for $400, his first car. He’d named it Queen Pearl.
“What’s wrong with it?” he asked.
“Timing gear, I think.”
But as the old man worked under the hood, he discovered a simpler malfunction: the distributor cap had slipped. He adjusted it, replaced a spring, fastened it tight and sent the young man on his way, $2 poorer.
Which left Allen Post with $31 in his pocket. He’d set out from Minneapolis a few days earlier with $50, spent three days at a lakeside cabin near Alexandria at $5 a night, and, after necessary expenditures for gas and food, hoped he had enough to get by until his first paycheck.
In spite of the expense, he did not regret the three days at the cabin. They’d been marvelous. He’d cooked his own meals, read “Don Quixote,” gone for long walks through the woods and taken the boat out every evening. At night he stood at the end of the dock and introduced himself to the universe. When he went to bed, he opened all the windows, like Frederic Henry in “A Farewell to Arms,” closing them again in the morning and, hurriedly lighting the little heater, jumped back in bed until the room warmed up.
He considered those three days a necessary transition between his old life as a city-dweller and his new life in a small town. He was 23 years old. It was 1949.
Locating the high school without difficulty, he parked in the adjacent lot and found a secretary in the office. She directed him to the gymnasium, where he discovered Arnold Magnuson, the superintendent, in conversation with another man. It was Magnuson who had appeared at his aunt’s doorstep one afternoon last July and asked him to sign a contract. Allen, who vaguely remembered sending him a letter of application that spring, along with a dozen others (none of whom had responded), had signed the contract at once.
He found the gymnasium surprisingly spacious and bright — two ascending levels of benches on each side for spectators at basketball games, a high ceiling and an arched proscenium before a stage at the far end, no doubt where the junior and senior class plays were presented. The two men did not hear him approach. They were talking about the girls’ physical education teacher, a Mrs. Lund, who, Allen gathered, had been suspected of occasionally coming to class with alcohol on her breath.
“I had to re-hire her,” Magnuson said. “There was no one else available.”
“Well, at least she doesn’t teach home ec.”
As soon as they heard him, they stopped talking. Magnuson, recognizing him at once, shook hands with him and introduced him to the other man, Jack Palmer, who turned out to be the principal. Palmer wore a checked jacket and had black hair and a sharp grin. Shorter than Magnuson, he would have been handsome — dapper was the word — except that his ears stood out a bit comically. Allen thought that there was a curious eagerness in his eyes, a preternatural brightness.
“Jack’s not only the principal,” Magnuson explained, “He’s the band director and harmony teacher as well.”
Allen was impressed. He had never heard of a harmony teacher before.
He found himself very happy — and exceedingly pleased to be where he was.
A few minutes later, having shown Allen the room in the new wing where he would be teaching — “best room in the school” — Superintendent Magnusson took him on a little tour in his maroon Ford Fairlane, first the main street, then the hospital, the cannery and the cemetery.
“I don’t think you could find a better place to begin your teaching career than Stone Lake,” Magnuson told him. “I have no doubt you’ll like the students — intelligent and well-mannered, most of them. I have to warn you, though, about the winters — very cold and plenty of snow. And oh, by the way, perhaps you noticed, there’s no lake in Stone Lake. There are two taverns, however. I didn’t point them out to you because you’re not to be seen there. Some of the teachers will drive over to the next town occasionally — usually on Friday or Saturday night — to have a beer or two. That’s all right, as long as you’re discreet.”
Allen felt comfortable with the man. He had a face that inspired confidence, an administrator’s face with, surprisingly, a touch of the poet in his eyes. He told Allen that last year’s senior English teacher had been a disaster. “The man’s name was Sidney Kingston,” he said. “I’m not going to tell you the details. No doubt you’ll hear the story soon enough. Not only did his students despise him, but everybody in town did too.” He tapped Allen on the shoulder. “I hired you,” he said, “to restore faith in the English program.”
It was the first Allen had heard of it.
They looked for a place for him to live. Magnuson had three places in mind, homeowners who’d expressed interest in renting out a room to a teacher for the year. The first house was on the edge of town, a bit shabby, owned by a woman who, Magnuson said, was raising two young sons by herself and had a spare room off the kitchen. Unfortunately, the room was very small and contained but a single window. Two amateurish paintings hung on the wall, cheaply framed. There was a pine dresser and a very small pine desk, both of which appeared to have been bought unfinished, then stained and varnished by the owner. As Allen examined the room, the woman who owned the house stood back. Dark-haired and girlish, she was wearing a skirt and blouse, which he guessed she had put on hastily for him. At the door, she smiled desperately. The arrangement was hardly to his taste, however, and he shook his head discreetly at Magnuson, who informed the woman that they had a couple of other places to look at.
The second house, much larger, was occupied by a fiftyish couple who rented out the main floor to teachers and lived upstairs themselves. When nobody answered Magnuson’s knock, he opened the door and beckoned Allen in. They found the living room and kitchen littered with old newspapers and magazines, dirty dishes in the sink and dirty laundry on the table. Magnuson explained that three women grade-school teachers shared the main floor and that a room and bath were available in the basement for him. Allen, who had spent a year and a half in the army, said that he wasn’t much interested in communal living and they moved on.
The third place pleased him at once — a spacious, pleasant second-floor room-and-a-half in a beautiful old white house owned by an elderly widow, Mrs. Algaard. Allen accepted her offer with great pleasure and paid her $10 for his first month’s rent.
Which left him in pretty good shape, he thought, returning to the school with Magnuson to get his car.
With the help of a young man who happened to be passing on the street and volunteered his assistance, Allen moved in. The young man’s name was Ray Nord. He was tall, slender and very polite — and would be, he said, one of Allen’s students in senior English that year.
“I hear the winters are long and cold up here,” Allen said. “Is that right?”
“You heard right. If it wasn’t for the basketball team, everybody would die of boredom.”
“The town loves basketball?”
“The town goes crazy over basketball.”
“And you’re on the team?”
“I’m the center.”
The front door opened onto a flight of stairs with carved balusters, angling upward to his room. They had a little trouble hoisting the file cabinet, in which Allen kept all the short stories and poems he attempted to write, as well as all of his college papers. They had to be careful, as well, with the bookcases, holding them flat as they ascended. Allen had left the books in place so he wouldn’t have to re-arrange them after moving: novels, poetry, drama, criticism, dictionaries. Still, a couple of volumes slipped out when they had to tilt the cases past the landing. Ray reached down with a long arm and picked them up. “Moby Dick,” he said. “Are you going to teach us that?”
Allen laughed. “Not if you’re good, I won’t.”
He reflected that the boy was not much younger than he was.
Afterward, having put his things away, he looked over the room with satisfaction. There was a dresser with a mirror, an old fashioned bed, a desk with a lamp on it, and a rocking chair. Two ancient pictures hung on the walls. One, titled “Guided by Love,” showed a young couple in a boat pushed by Cupid. The other featured an angel in a gilt-edged frame playing a violin, “Adagio.” He puzzled over some kind of pulley system in the center of the ceiling, with a bulb on one end and an iron ball on the other. What it was for he had no idea. Nor did he know what purpose the adjoining half-room served, but he was pleased to have the extra space. Both rooms had a window facing west, with the bathroom only a few steps away. The rest of the upstairs, Mrs. Algaard had told him, contained an apartment occupied by a married couple.
A little later, Allen went for a walk around the town, marveling again at how spacious and tidy the yards were, noting that all of the streets were gravel instead of blacktop and none had names. Nor did the houses have numbers. He told himself that, as a citizen of Stone Lake, he had a new perspective on the world. He was not far from the Canadian border, and fancied that he looked down upon the state as though from a summit, the gravitational pull of the great cities diminished.
Tomorrow: Chapter 1 continues.