Authors: James Jones
The stream could be dug out to make a little lake below the house. The lake could be stocked with trout. Trout would stay in the same pool for years, Larry had read. The tiny falls at the upper end could be raised and fixed so they were two or three feet high. Then they would always have the music of falling water with them. Across the stream there was a little glade, where someone’s cows pastured now, flat and grassy and rising to a bank that hid it from the open meadow beyond. It could be cleaned up for a barbeque pit and picnic table. It could even be made into a garden, with terraces of rocks and shrubs. The hillside where the house would be could also be terraced and fixed with walks and shrubs. The stream could be bridged in two or three places with those high arched Japanese style stone bridges. And all the time over it all the soaring pine trees and the wind soughing through them high up in the tops, and the sound of the water, and the sun dappled shade under the thick pine branches that dripped both peace and incense, and when they stood against the bank of the glade across the stream their heads just showing, they could look out from under into sunlight and across the meadow at the hazy mountains all around them. It was like a cave.
They were having a fine time. They were spending hours and hours together, almost the whole of every day, more time than they had spent together in years and years even including their annual vacations, and neither of them was ever bored. It was almost like a second honeymoon, Larry thought sometimes.
The house itself, they decided, would be made of mortared field stone, picked up right in the fields around. There would be a big stone living room, with a huge fireplace. One that would draw and that in winter they could heat with and that wasnt just for looks. There would be a studio with a big window for Larry where he could paint and write and a shop where he could do all kinds of work. There would be a sewing room for Mona which would really be a ‘designing room,’ where she could design and make her own clothes and go on with the designing work she had done at Antoine’s. And above all, there would be here right in this place right in this house among the pine trees, where the world could not come in, all the things each of them had ever wanted from the world or dreamed of.
And so in the cool peaceful afternoons away from the sun glare the place gradually became The Place, and grew and grew, until finally it became a game. There was no longer even any remote possibility of realizing it or any vain hope that whatever amount of money they might be able to amass together would ever be able to pay for it. But that did not matter. They didnt care about that. At all. What mattered was that they had it. They had the ideas—and their plans—for it and when they went west to Albuquerque to work for Beckett (whom they had not heard from yet) they could find a terrain just like it or almost like and began to work on it there, a cheaper version. What mattered was that The Place had become a symbol for both of them the opposite of which was Baltimore and the life they had lived in Baltimore.
In the midst of all this Larry progressed almost visibly. The weakness and shakiness disappeared. Each day he walked farther and farther. In two weeks he had gained seven pounds. He had some trouble making the farmer down the road understand that he did not want the wood delivered already cut for the stove and wanted to chop it himself. The farmer explained that it did not cost any more already cut, and that he did not mind doing it since he had a chain saw and it was only a matter of minutes to saw it to length. Larry finally had to explain that he just liked to cut wood. Once when he was there after the milk the farmer called him off to one side away from his wife and offered to sell him a pint of corn whiskey he got from a friend, a courtesy which Larry virtuously declined. Every day he took longer and longer walks through the woods by himself, and had Mona purchase a sheath knife for him in town.
Once a week every Saturday Mona drove in town in the afternoon to get the next week’s supply of groceries, one afternoon in seven that they did not spend together up at The Place. Luckily, Mona’s family had lived on a farm for a while when she was a girl, and she knew how to handle the wood range and cook on it. She fixed them cornbread in a skillet country-style, and they gorged themselves on green peas which were already in when they got there. A month later the farmer had green beans and new potatoes from his truck patch too, and shortly after that green corn. They gorged on all of them. Larry thought he had never eaten such delicious, or such healthfully nourishing food; he thought he could actually feel strength seeping back into him through the very membranes of his mouth as he chewed. And Mona, who thought she had long ago forgotten all about such things, loved it and enjoyed stumping around the cabin in levis and moccasins and was continually looking astonished at the things she remembered how to do. They both begrudged her having to go into town every week for groceries, and Larry never went with her. That afternoon he would spend chopping wood for the range or walking by himself in the woods with his sheath knife. He never went up to The Place when she was not there because in some obscure way he felt it would be unfair.
One Saturday after they had been there five weeks she came home from town bringing the letter from Beckett, which had been forwarded. It waxed enthusiastic about the West and was elated at the prospect of their coming to Albuquerque. He said he thought he could still fix it for Larry to start in the fall, even at this late date, if they would send him a note and give him the okay. They sent it.
In this way they went about living out their summer, loving every minute of it, enjoying it more than anything either of them could remember. It was a full seven weeks before Larry himself went to town, and only then because he had to have his hair cut, and because Mona insisted on it. He would much have preferred to stay at home at the cabin. But by the time they were half way there he had to acknowledge he was beginning to feel excited at the prospect of seeing civilization again.
Strangely enough, he felt like an outlander hillbilly. The summer suit he wore felt strange and uncomfortable, and he could not get accustomed to the white shirt and tie and kept craning his neck and sticking his finger in the collar. He felt embarrassed as if he might do something wrong, for all the world like some mountaineer man who had only been in to this little jerkwater town twice in his life.
“Ill help you shop,” he offered as they began to come in between the houses. “Then maybe we can get home soon enough to still go up to the place.”
“You dont need to,” Mona smiled. “I can manage it all right. Anyway, you have to get your hair cut.”
“But I can still help,” he said. “Youve got quite a list and therell be a lot of sacks to carry.”
“Id really rather do it myself, Larry. I know just what I want and where to find it. And if you go get your hair cut, I ought to be finished almost by the time you are.”
So while she shopped he went alone to get his hair cut. He walked along the streets slowly, feeling an almost irresistible desire to gawk at the buildings and neon signs. The barbershop was Saturday-crowded with men, but not all of them were waiting for haircuts, some were just loafing. So he did not have to wait as long as he had thought when he first went in. There were no children or women in the shop and three or four of the men were discussing the fully developed physical virtues of the blonde headed waitress who could be seen through the plate glass window of the restaurant directly across the street. Larry sat down, grinning to himself and feeling a little less uncomfortable. It might have been any barbershop in the world. Or at least in the US. When it came his turn he climbed into the chair feeling conspicuous and still very much the hillbilly.
“Hello there,” the fat barber smiled.
“Hello,” Larry said, and told him what he wanted. He was aware of some of the men watching him.
“Say,” the barber said after a while, “seen you and your wife park your car down the street. Youre the folks took the Haines’s cabin up on Salt Lick for the summer, aint you?”
“Yes,” Larry said, surprised.
“You a newspaperman, aint you?”
“From Baltimore?” one of the other men said.
“Thought that was who you was,” the barber said.
“But how did you know? Who I was,” Larry said.
“See your wife come in every Saturday after groceries,” the barber said. “Heard you took the cabin. This the first time you been in town, aint it?”
“Yes. Thats right.”
“Heard youd been sick,” one of the other men said.
“Thats right. I had pneumonia.”
“Well, these mountainsll fix you right up all right,” the same man said.
Larry grinned. “They just about already have.”
“Well, if you want a good newspaper story to take back to Baltimore with you,” said still another man, one who had not spoken to him yet, as if he were trying to drag his own topic back in and attach it to the rest of the conversation, “theres one right over there for you.” He nodded his head across the street,
Larry was puzzled. “How do you mean?”
“Hes just kiddin’ you,” the barber grinned. “—And, also, tryin’ to get back on the subject. Thats our doll over there, that blonde. Shes quite a gal. We kid with her all the time. Shes a great kidder—”
“—and that aint all,” one of the men interposed—
“—that restaurant sells more beer than any other place in town,” the barber finished up, “just because that gal works there.”
“Here, watch this,” one of the men said, and went to the plate glass window and leaning forward pressed his nose against it and hung his mouth open, eyes goggling, head on one side, for all the world like a kid panting at a candy store window.
Across the street the blonde girl looked up and appeared to be suppressing a grin, then took a salt shaker off the table she was clearing and very ostensibly and disdainfully poured salt from it into the palm of her hand. Behind the cash register the florid owner of the restaurant was grinning.
In the barbership all of the men laughed, including the ogler.
“Got you that time, Perc,” one said. “She poured salt on your tail.”
“She makes me think of a ripe peach,” the barber said. “A big ripe juicy peach, ready to be plucked,”
“My guess is she was plucked a long time ago,” Larry said. It got a laugh all around.
“Oh, sure,” the barber laughed. “That wasnt what I meant. What I meant was the way she looks. You know?”
Larry grinned at him. “Im a married man.” That got another laugh.
“So’m I, pal,” the barber said. “Believe me, so am I. So is all of us. Say,” he grinned, lilting the hair up on his comb. “Shes gettin’ pretty thin on you, Mr. Patterson.”
“Yeah,” Larry said. “Guess Im getting old.”
Again they all laughed. “Well, once she starts to go on you there aint much you can do,” the barber laughed. “Look at me. Why is it three-fourths all the barbers always bald as cue balls?” Apparently it was a sort of catechism.
“Because they use their own tools,” one of the men chanted.
“Well, whatll it be, Mr Patterson,” the barber said removing the apron. “Anything else?”
“No, thatll fix me,” Larry said. Still feeling itchy but also feeling warmly friendly and having enjoyed himself immensely, he got up and paid. He wanted to remember to tell Mona about the whole thing.
Outside he looked up and down the street but Mona was not in sight, and she was not in the car either when he looked. After standing on the sidewalk a minute or two he walked back up to the restaurant across from the barbershop and then went in and sat down and ordered a bottle of beer. Across the street at the barbershop window the men were kidding him, making faces and shaking their heads and shaking their fingers at him. He couldnt help but grin.
“Those bums over there giving you a hard time, Mr. Patterson?” the blonde waitress grinned. She had a husky, wry, sardonic voice.
“No,” he said. “So you know who I am, too, hunh?”
“Everybody knows everything in a little old town like this, Mr Patterson,” she said wryly. “How you feeling?”
“Fine,” Larry said. “This is the first time Ive been in town.”
“I know,” the waitress said. “I see your wife go by here every Saturday. Well, Im glad youre feeling better. Dont let those characters over there kid you now. Theyre always comin’ over here devilin’ me,” she grinned. She started away and then came back.
“You know this ad for Carling’s Beer on the TV? Where the men whistle and say Hey, Mabel, Black Label? My name’s Myrtle. Well, they got it fixed up between them so when they come over here any of them they always holler Hey, Myrtle, Black Girdle.” She laughed wryly. “So I tell them Im going to get the boss to raise the price of beer to them so they wont drive off all the decent customers. You know. You know how it is in a small town.”
“Sure,” Larry grinned. “I come from a small town myself, in Indiana.”
“Oh, is that right? How come you ever to wind up in Baltimore then?”
Larry told her how he had worked in the Indianapolis paper after college and later got a better offer from the one in Baltimore.
“Ive always wanted to get away from this town myself,” she said cheerfully, “and go north to some city like Washington or someplace. But I dont spose I ever will.”
“If youre smart youll stay right here.”
Myrtle laughed. “Youre probably right at that.”
Across the street in the barbershop a couple of the men were trying frantically to attract her attention, and with a grin at Larry she turned her back on them.
“Theyre always kiddin’ me about my figure,” she grinned, and with a wink leaned forward and leaned on the heels of her palms on the edge of the table letting all her weight go on one leg. The movement called attention to her behind. “Kid them a little,” she said confidentially.
From across the street someone stepped to the door of the barbershop and let out a long drawn out wolf whistle.
“They all like to think theyre don juans,” she grinned. “But theyre really nice fellows. Wouldnt hurt a fly.” She had been married, to a local boy in the Army, and lived in Texas for a while, she told him. But that didnt work out, “Guess we loved each other too much, you know? No more that kind of love for me”, and she had come back home. She didnt like that Texas. But she still wanted to get out of this little town someday and go North. Even maybe to New York. She talked on for another minute or two and then walked off back to the counter.