A Star Tribune serialized novel by Richard Horberg


Chapter 20 continues

The story so far: Mary Zane writes to say she’d like to join the around-the-world voyage.


Allen’s date the next night with Helen Jacobson started out well enough. Even though they were only going to dinner and a movie, Allen brought her a little corsage to pin on her coat.

It was a warm spring evening, much warmer, Allen knew, than it would be in Stone Lake, and she was wearing a black dress under a light jacket, the fragrance of her corsage a pleasant reminder of spring. She was a beautiful young woman, her long blonde hair falling over her shoulders. Stealing glimpses of her in the car, Allen wondered if she was too beautiful for him.

He told her about his adventures in Stone Lake — the churches, the marching band, the class plays, his students. She said she was starting to think she could never teach school, especially in a small town like Stone Lake, or in a town like the one she came from — Hardwick, Minnesota, in the very southwest corner of the state, only a stone’s throw from Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. “The most boring place in the world,” she said.

“You like the city?” he asked.

She shrugged. “I guess so.”

They had dinner at the Sky Room, on the top floor of Dayton’s. She ordered something rather expensive off the menu, as did he, different fare than he got at The Food Box, to be sure. He hoped for stimulating conversation as well — ideas, laughter, shared experiences, books. But the dinner talk did not go well. He felt that he had to do all the work and that she contributed little. Her comments, when she made them, were flat, superficial, filled with clichés.

A couple of weeks earlier, after receiving her note accepting his invitation, he’d written to her again, a long letter. He’d offered her a scenario for the summer, a two-character plot: Helen and Allen. Forgetting Mary Zane for the moment (she was a thousand miles away), he’d asked her to stay in Minneapolis instead of returning home — she could take summer classes or get a job, he suggested. The summer was going to be great for him, he knew, but it would be even greater if she were here. He offered to show her every square foot of the city, and to give her a name for every star above it. He mentioned interesting parks they could visit, lakes, waterfalls and hidden tennis courts. He would take her to ball games. He would take her to see plays at little theaters around the city. He mentioned restaurants, the Dutchman’s Steak House, Lee’s Log Lodge, the Forum cafeteria. “There’s even a great Coney Island place just off Hennepin Avenue,” he’d written, “if you don’t mind sitting at the counter.”

It was clear to him now that she had no intention of sitting at a counter with him or anybody else. She was blasé. She considered herself sophisticated. She had adopted a feigned ennui with the world. But she gave no evidence that she had an idea in her head, or that she ever read anything.

Except “The Sun Also Rises.” She’d read it for a class, she said, and loved it. In particular she loved Brett Ashley. Lady Brett Ashley, a phony, Allen thought, if there ever was one — whatever Jake Barnes might think of her. Allen tried to make the best of it. He remembered Greg’s comment that she had cut him cold when he tried to talk to her after a class. But he also remembered his hope on their first date that her aloofness might be mere shyness, and that she might loosen up when she got to know him better.

Now he knew that he was wrong. She was not shy. She was merely superficial, a pretty girl trying to play the role of the bored sophisticate. The fact that he had opened himself up to her in his letter embarrassed him.

He let her choose the movie — Richard Widmark in “Yellow Sky,” which was showing at the State. He had hoped he would be able to hold her hand during the film, but found now that he had absolutely no desire to touch her. Glancing at her from time to time during the movie, he found her face fixed on the screen, far more interested in the film than in him.

How stupid he’d been, driving some 300 miles for this. What a romantic he was, impossible expectations and all. Annette Bowman, at least, had been able to get over it.

In the car afterward, driving her home, he thought of his copy of “The Book of Living Verse,” which he’d put in his glove compartment, hoping to read a little Wordsworth to her. Like Ezra Pound, he had over-prepared the event. He wished he’d never left Stone Lake.

“Are we going to stop for a drink?” she asked him. “If we are, please stop someplace where I can get a pack of cigarettes first. I’m all out.”

My God! He felt like telling her to get out right then. He felt like dropping her off at the nearest bus stop. But he recalled a passage in “Look Homeward, Angel,” where Eugene Gant insulted a girl and years later remembered how childish his action had been. So even though they didn’t stop for a drink, he pulled up at a drugstore, bought her a pack of Chesterfields and went back for matches. He even lit one for her. He still wanted to insult her, so he did it in a devious way, criticizing the kind of people she loved. The phony sophisticates of the world. The poseurs, the snots and the frauds. She didn’t know it. She even agreed with him.

“You’re very exciting intellectually, Allen,” she told him when she got out of the car. “It’s too bad I’m so dull this evening or I could challenge you or agree with you.”

He knew he would never see her again.

In his next letter to Greg Schmidt, he expressed it a little differently: “The topless towers of Ileum are now ashes,” he wrote, “and the only ship Helen’s face will ever launch, as far as I’m concerned, is a garbage scow.”


Tomorrow: Chapter 20 continues.