domingo, 27 de outubro de 2013

Fiction By Alice Munro, part 1

By Alice Munro

"Fiction" by Alice Munro by Alice Munro. Copyright 2009 by Alice Munro.
All Rights Reserved.
Sharing not permitted.

From the short story collection Fiction
The best thing in winter was driving home, after her day teaching music in the Rough River schools. It would already be dark, and on the upper streets of the town snow might be falling, while rain lashed the car on the coastal highway. Joyce drove beyond the limits of the town into the forest, and though it was a real forest with great Douglas firs and cedar trees, there were people living in it every quarter mile or so. There were some people who had market gardens, a few who had some sheep or riding horses, and there were enterprises like Jon’s—he restored and made furniture. Also the services advertised beside the road, and more particular to this part of the world—tarot readings, herbal massage, conflict resolution. Some people lived in trailers; others had built their own houses, incorporating thatched roofs and log ends, and still others, like Jon and Joyce, were renovating old farmhouses.
There was the one special thing Joyce loved to see as she was driving home and turning in to their own property. At this time many people, even some of the thatched-roof people, were putting in what were called patio doors—even if like Jon and Joyce they had no patio. These were usually left uncurtained, and the two oblongs of light seemed to be a sign or pledge of comfort, of safety and replenishment. Why this should be so, more than with ordinary windows, Joyce could not say. Perhaps it was that most were meant not just to look out on but to open directly into the forest darkness, and that they displayed the haven of home so artlessly. Full-length people cooking or watching television— scenes which beguiled her, even if she knew things would not be so special inside.
What she saw when she turned in to her own unpaved puddled driveway was the set of these doors put in by Jon, framing the gutted glowing interior of their house. The stepladder, the unfinished kitchen shelves, exposed stairs, warm wood lit up by the lightbulb that Jon positioned to shine wherever he wanted it, wherever he was working. He worked all day in his shed, and then when it began to get dark he sent his apprentice home and started working on the house. Hearing her car, he would turn his head in Joyce’s direction just for a moment, in greeting. Usually his hands would be too busy to wave. Sitting there, with the car lights off, gathering up whatever groceries or mail she had to take into the house, Joyce was happy even to have that last dash to the door, through the dark and the wind and the cold rain. She felt herself shedding the day’s work, which was harried and uncertain, filled with the dispensing of music to the indifferent as well as the responsive. How much better to work with wood and by yourself—she did not count the apprentice—than with the unpredictable human young.
She didn’t say any of that to Jon. He disliked hearing people talk about how basic and fine and honorable it was to work with wood. What integrity that had, what dignity.
He would say, Crap.
Jon and Joyce had met at an urban high school in a factory city in Ontario. Joyce had the second-highest IQ in their class, and Jon had the highest IQ in the school and probably in that city. She was expected to turn into a fine performer on the vio- lin—that was before she gave it up for the cello—and he was to become some daunting sort of scientist whose labors were beyond description in the ordinary world.
In their first year at college they dropped out of their classes and ran away together. They got jobs here and there, travelled by bus across the continent, lived for a year on the Oregon coast, were reconciled, at a distance, with their parents, for whom a light had gone out in the world. It was getting rather late in the day for them to be called hippies, but that was what their parents called them. They never thought of themselves that way. They did not do drugs, they dressed conservatively though rather shabbily, and Jon made a point of shaving and getting Joyce to cut his hair. They tired of their temporary minimum-wage jobs after a while and borrowed from their disappointed families so that they could qualify to make a better living. Jon learned carpentry and woodworking, and Joyce got a degree that made her eligible to teach music in the schools. The job she got was in Rough River. They bought this tumbledown house for almost nothing and settled into to a new phase in their lives. They planted a garden, got to know their neighbors—some of whom were still real hippies, tending small grow operations deep in the bush and making bead necklaces and herb sachets to sell.
Their neighbors liked Jon. He was still skinny and bright eyed, egotistical but ready to listen. And it was a time when most people were just getting used to computers, which he understood and could patiently explain. Joyce was less popular. Her methods of teaching music were thought to be too formalized.
Joyce and Jon cooked supper together and drank some of their homemade wine. (Jon’s method of winemaking was strict and successful.) Joyce talked about the frustrations and comedy of her day. Jon did not talk much—he was, for one thing, more involved in the cooking. But when they got around to eating he might tell her about some customer who had come in, or about his apprentice, Edie. They would laugh about something Edie had said. But not in a disparaging way—Edie was like a pet, Joyce sometimes thought. Or like a child. Though if she had been a child, their child, and had been the way she was, they might have been too puzzled and perhaps too concerned to laugh.
Why? What way? She wasn’t stupid. Jon said she was no genius when it came to woodworking, but she learned and remembered what she was taught. And the important thing was that she wasn’t garrulous. That was what he had been most afraid of when the business of hiring an apprentice had come up. A government program had been started—he was to be paid a certain amount for teaching the person, and whoever it was would be paid enough to live on while learning. At first he hadn’t been willing, but Joyce had talked him into it. She believed they had an obligation to society.
Edie might not have talked a lot, but when she did talk it was forceful.
“I abstain from all drugs and alcohol” was what she told them at her first interview. “I belong to AA and I am a recovering alcoholic. We never say we are recovered, because we never are. You never are as long as you live. I have a nine-year-old daughter and she was born without a father so she is my total responsibility and I mean to bring her up right. My ambition is to learn woodworking so I can provide for myself and my child.”
While delivering this speech she sat staring at them, one after the other, across their kitchen table. She was a short sturdy young woman who did not look old enough or damaged enough to have much of a career of dissipation behind her.
Broad shoulders, thick bangs, tight ponytail, no possibility of a smile.
“And one more thing,” she said. She unbuttoned and removed her long-sleeved blouse. She was wearing an undershirt.
Both arms, her upper chest, and—when she turned around—her upper back were decorated with tattoos. It was as if her skin had become a garment, or perhaps a comic book of faces both leering and tender, beset by dragons, whales, flames, too intricate or maybe too horrid to be comprehended. The first thing you had to wonder was whether her whole body had been transformed in the same way.
“How amazing,” said Joyce, as neutrally as possible.
“Well, I don’t know how amazing it is, but it would have cost a pile of money if I’d had to pay for it,” Edie said. “That’s what I was into at one time. What I’m showing it to you for is that some people would object to it. Like supposing I got hot in the shed and had to work in my shirt.”
“Not us,” said Joyce, and looked at Jon. He shrugged.
She asked Edie if she would like a cup of coffee.
“No, thank you.” Edie was putting her shirt back on. “A lot of people at AA, they just seem like they live on coffee. What I say to them, I say, Why are you changing one bad habit for another?”
“Extraordinary,” Joyce said later. “You feel that no matter what you said she might give you a lecture. I didn’t dare inquire about the virgin birth.”
Jon said, “She’s strong. That’s the main thing. I took a look at her arms.”
When Jon says “strong” he means just what the word used to mean. He means she could carry a beam.
While Jon works he listens to CBC Radio. Music, but also news, commentaries, phone-ins. He sometimes reports Edie’s opinions on what they have listened to.
Edie does not believe in evolution.
(There had been a phone-in program in which some people objected to what was being taught in the schools.)
Why not?
“Well, it’s because in those Bible countries,” Jon said, and then he switched into his firm monotonous Edie voice, “in those Bible countries they have a lot of monkeys and the monkeys were always swinging down from the trees and that’s how people got the idea that monkeys just swung down and turned into people.”
“But in the first place—” said Joyce.
“Never mind. Don’t even try. Don’t you know the first rule about arguing with Edie? Never mind and shut up.”
Edie also believed that big medical companies knew the cure for cancer, but they had a bargain with doctors to keep the information quiet because of the money they and the doctors made.
When “Ode to Joy” was played on the radio she had Jon shut it off because it was so awful, like a funeral.
Also, she thought Jon and Joyce—well, really Joyce—should not leave wine bottles with wine in them right out in sight on the kitchen table.
“That’s her business?” said Joyce.
“Apparently she thinks so.”
“When does she get to examine our kitchen table?”
“She has to go through to the toilet. She can’t be expected to piss in the bush.”
“I really don’t see what business—”
“And sometimes she comes in and makes a couple of sandwiches for us—”
“So? It’s my kitchen. Ours.”
“It’s just that she feels so threatened by the booze. She’s still pretty fragile. It’s a thing you and I can’t understand.”
Threatened. Booze. Fragile.
What words were these for Jon to use?
She should have understood, and at that moment, even if he himself was nowhere close to knowing. He was falling in love. Falling. That suggests some time span, a slipping under. But you can think of it as a speeding up, a moment or a second when you fall. Now Jon is not in love with Edie. Tick. Now he is. No way this could be seen as probable or possible, unless you think of a blow between the eyes, a sudden calamity. The stroke of fate that leaves a man a cripple, the wicked joke that turns clear eyes into blind stones.
Joyce set about convincing him that he was mistaken. He had so little experience of women. None, except for her. They had always thought that experimenting with various partners was childish, adultery was messy and destructive. Now she wondered, Should he have played around more?
And he had spent the dark winter months shut up in his workshop, exposed to the confident emanations of Edie. It was comparable to getting sick from bad ventilation.
Edie would drive him crazy, if he went ahead and took her seriously.
“I’ve thought of that,” he said. “Maybe she already has.”
Joyce said that was stupid adolescent talk, making himself out to be dumbstruck, helpless.
“What do you think you are, some knight of the Round Table? Somebody slipped you a potion?”
Then she said she was sorry. The only thing to do, she said, was to take this up as a shared program. Valley of the shadow. To be seen someday as a mere glitch in the course of their marriage.
“We will ride this out,” she said.
Jon looked at her distantly, even kindly.
“There is no ‘we,’ “ he said.
How could this have happened? Joyce asks it of Jon and of herself and then of others. A heavy-striding heavy-witted carpenter’s apprentice in baggy pants and flannel shirts and—as long as the winter lasted—a dull thick sweater flecked with sawdust. A mind that plods inexorably from one cliché or foolishness to the next and proclaims every step of the journey to be the law of the land. Such a person has eclipsed Joyce with her long legs and slim waist and long silky braid of dark hair. Her wit and her music and the second-highest IQ.
“I’ll tell you what I think it was,” says Joyce. This is later on, when the days have lengthened and the dandles of swamp lilies flame in the ditches. When she went to teach music wearing tinted glasses to hide eyes that were swollen from weeping and drinking, and instead of driving home after work drove to Willingdon Park where she hoped Jon would come looking for her, fearing suicide. (He did that, but only once.)
“I think it was that she’d been on the streets,” she said. “Prostitutes get themselves tattooed for business reasons, and men are aroused by that sort of thing. I don’t mean the tattoos— well that too, of course, they’re aroused by that too—I mean the fact of having been for sale. All that availability and experience. And now reformed. It’s your fucking Mary Magdalene, that’s what it is. And he’s such an infant sexually, it all makes you sick.”
She has friends now to whom she can talk like this. They all have stories. Some of them she knew before, but not as she knows them now. They confide and drink and laugh till they cry. They say they can’t believe it. Men. What they do. It’s so sick and stupid. You can’t believe it.
That’s why it’s true.
In the midst of this talk Joyce feels all right. Really all right. She says that she is actually having moments in which she feels grateful to Jon, because she feels more alive now than ever before. It is terrible but wonderful. A new beginning. Naked truth. Naked life.
But when she woke up at three or four in the morning she wondered where she was. Not in their house anymore. Edie was in that house now. Edie and her child and Jon. This was a switch that Joyce herself had favored, thinking it might bring Jon to his senses. She moved to an apartment in town. It belonged to a teacher who was on a sabbatical. She woke in the night with the vibrating pink lights of the restaurant sign across the street flashing through her window, illuminating the other teacher’s Mexican doodads. Pots of cacti, dangling cat’s eyes, blankets with stripes the color of dried blood. All that drunken insight, that exhilaration, cast out of her like vomit. Aside from that, she was not hungover. She could wallow in lakes of alcohol, it seemed, and wake up dry as cardboard, flattened.
Her life gone. A commonplace calamity.
The truth was that she was still drunk, though feeling dead sober. She was in danger of getting into her car and driving out to the house. Not of driving into a ditch, because her driving at such times became very slow and sedate, but of parking in the yard outside the dark windows and crying out to Jon that they simply must stop this.
Stop this. This is not right. Tell her to go away.
Remember we slept in the field and woke up and the cows were munching all around us and we hadn’t known they were there the night before. Remember washing in the ice-cold creek. We were picking mushrooms up on Vancouver Island and flying back to Ontario and selling them to pay for the trip when your mother was sick and we thought she was dying. And we said, What a joke, we’re not even druggies, we’re on an errand of filial piety.
The sun came up and the Mexican colors began to blare at her in their enhanced hideousness, and after a while she got up and washed and slashed her cheeks with rouge and drank coffee that she made strong as mud and put on some of her new clothes. She had bought new flimsy tops and fluttering skirts and earrings decked with rainbow feathers. She went out to teach music in the schools, looking like a Gypsy dancer or a cocktail waitress. She laughed at everything and flirted with everybody. With the man who cooked her breakfast in the diner downstairs and the boy who put gas in her car and the clerk who sold her stamps in the post office. She had some idea that Jon would hear about how pretty she looked, how sexy and happy, how she was simply bowling over all the men. As soon as she went out of the apartment she was on a stage, and Jon was the essential, if secondhand, spectator. Although Jon had never been taken in by showy looks or flirty behavior, had never thought that was what made her attractive. When they travelled they had often made do with a common wardrobe. Heavy socks, jeans, dark shirts, Windbreakers.
Another change.
Even with the youngest or the dullest children she taught, her tone had become caressing, full of mischievous laughter, her encouragement irresistible. She was preparing her pupils for the recital held at the conclusion of the school year. She had not previously been enthusiastic about this evening of public performance—she had felt that it interfered with the progress of those students who had ability, it shoved them into a situation they were not ready for. All that effort and tension could only create false values. But this year she was throwing herself into every aspect of the show. The program, the lighting, the introductions, and of course the performances. This ought to be fun, she proclaimed. Fun for the students, fun for the audience. Of course she counted on Jon’s being there. Edie’s daughter was one of the performers, so Edie would have to be there. Jon would have to accompany Edie.
Jon and Edie’s first appearance as a couple before the town.
Their declaration. They could not avoid it. Such switches as theirs were not unheard of, particularly among the people who lived south of town. But they were not exactly commonplace. The fact that rearrangements were not scandalous didn’t mean they didn’t get attention. There was a necessary period of interest before things settled down and people got used to the new alliance. As they did, and the newly aligned partners would be seen chatting with, or at least saying hello to, the castoffs in the grocery store.
But this was not the role Joyce saw herself playing, watched by Jon and Edie—well, really by Jon—on the evening of the recital.
What did she see? God knows. She did not, in any sane moment, think of impressing Jon so favorably that he would come to his senses when she appeared to take the applause of the audience at the end of the show. She did not think his heart would break for his folly, once he saw her happy and glamorous and in command rather than moping and suicidal. But something not far off from that—something she couldn’t define but couldn’t stop herself hoping for.
It was the best recital ever. Everybody said so. They said there was more verve. More gaiety, yet more intensity. The children costumed in harmony with the music they performed. Their faces made up so they did not seem so scared and sacrificial.
When Joyce came out at the end she wore a long black silk skirt that shone with silver as she moved. Also silver bangles and glitter in her loose hair. Some whistles mingled with the applause.
Jon and Edie were not in the audience.
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