Chapter 3 continues

The story so far: Allen learns the town's routines.

On the second Saturday night after school started, Allen sat alone at The Food Box. Saturday night was waffle-and-sausage night and the place was crowded.

Sitting at the counter, he couldn't help noticing four of the women teachers in a booth up front, laughing and talking and having a good time. Patty Porter, the junior English teacher, was there with Pauline Lund, the girls' phy ed teacher (she of the reputed alcoholic breath), and two women who, he thought, must be grade-school teachers. As he was getting up to leave, Patty Porter called him over.

"We're going over to Benson to have a few beers," she said. "Pauline's driving. Why don't you come along?"

He hesitated.

"So how come you're alone?" Pauline Lund interrupted. "Where's your friend, Dave Meyers?"

"He drove down to Minneapolis for the weekend to see his wife."

Pauline laughed loudly. "I don't think Old Dave would approve of you going out with a bunch of wild women like us. But we won't tell."

"Everyone pays for themselves," Patty Porter added.

Allen shrugged. Against his better judgment, he went with them.

Sitting in the back seat between Patty Porter and Gladys Laandsverk, a thirtyish woman who said she taught fourth grade, Allen was alarmed at the rate at which Pauline Lund drove. Never less than 70 mph, he guessed. Next to her in the front seat was the sixth grade teacher, Phyllis Clark, also thirtyish. As Pauline rounded curves, he found himself thrust uncomfortably against Patty on one side and then Gladys on the other. When they reached Benson, Pauline turned onto Main Street at top speed and screeched to a stop before a place called Erling's Town Tavern.

"Free at last," one of the women said.

"Those nasty little brats — I couldn't wait to get rid of them."

"Me too. I'm sick of them already."

Inside, the ladies sent him up to the bar at once to get a pitcher and five glasses, which he paid for himself, 25 cents. The tavern featured knotty pine walls, which clashed with mahogany booths and the mahogany bar. Cracked linoleum covered the floor, badly worn by half a dozen stools of mixed size. There was a fish mounted above the bar, near a few snapshots of men holding fish. In the back corner, a silent couple sat at a table.

Returning with the beer, Allen drew up a chair and sat down at the end of the booth rather than squeezing in with the women. Rarely did he drink beer. But when Pauline filled a glass and slid it over to him, he accepted it graciously. At once there were four packs of cigarettes on the table: Chesterfields, Old Golds, Lucky Strikes and Pall Malls. A cloud of smoke hung over the booth. The ladies were accomplished smokers.

"So how come you're not married?" Patty asked him unabashedly, a glass of beer in one hand, cigarette in the other. He wondered again why she wore glasses with such heavy black frames. Otherwise her face might have been fairly nice looking.

He smiled. "I think I'm too young," he said. It was the truth.

"You got a girlfriend at home?"

He said no, preferring not to talk about Mary Zane, the girl with whom he hoped to exchange letters during the year. It was his belief that if a couple could communicate through letters, there was hope for their relationship. If not, then chances were pretty slim.

"How come?"

"I've been busy with my studies."

"Oh, that." They all laughed. "Who the hell cares about that?"

All of them were unmarried, as he suspected, except Pauline Lund, who claimed to have two divorces notched on her stick, the second not yet final. She wore bangs with fluffs of hair in back. Of the four, he had to admit, she was the best looking and had the nicest body, one befitting a phy ed teacher. But he was a little afraid of her. In school, instead of walking down the halls, she often ran. She also did a lot of giggling and screaming. He thought she must be a little crazy, if not drunk.

Drinking and smoking, the ladies talked about the male teachers in the school, most of whom were either married or old or absolute duds. As for the men who lived in the town (a larger pool to draw from), they were all hopeless cases. Except for the new young car dealer, who might be interested in a good time, and the hairdresser's husband, an absolute dream, who worked for the lumber company.

"That man can come over and play in my yard any time," Pauline said.

"He can put his shoes under my bed too," said Gladys Laandsverk.

They looked over the half dozen men who sat at the bar, a couple of obvious farmers, a man wearing a brown suit who they guessed was a salesman, an old man with a dirty beard, a man they guessed was a schoolbus driver or a farm implement dealer and, most interesting, a young man wearing a baseball cap who occasionally gave them a glance.

"Wink at him, Pauline," Phyllis Clark said. She had a faint mustache on her upper lip. He wondered if she was one of the women living in the house Magnuson had shown him.

"I ain't winking at nobody. The last time I winked at a man I almost got pregnant." Pauline laughed hilariously and poured more beer for herself.

Tomorrow: Chapter 3 continues.