Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
by Alice Munro

 

Years ago, before the trains stopped running on so many of the branch lines, a woman with a high, freckled forehead and a frizz of reddish hair came into the railway station and inquired about shipping furniture.

The station agent often tried a little teasing with women, especially the plain ones who seemed to appreciate it.

“Furniture?” he said, as if nobody had ever had such an idea before. “Well. Now. What kind of furniture are we talking about?”

A dining-room table and six chairs. A full bedroom suite, a sofa, a coffee table, end tables, a floor lamp. Also a china cabinet and a buffet.

“Whoa there. You mean a houseful.”

“It shouldn’t count as that much,” she said. “There’s no kitchen things and only enough for one bedroom.”

Her teeth were crowded to the front of her mouth as if they were ready for an argument.

“You’ll be needing the truck,” he said.

“No. I want to send it on the train. It’s going out west, to Saskatchewan.”

She spoke to him in a loud voice as if he was deaf or stupid, and there was something wrong with the way she pronounced her words. An accent. He thought of Dutch—the Dutch were moving in around here—but she didn’t have the heft of the Dutch women or the nice pink skin or the fair hair. She might have been under forty, but what did it matter? No beauty queen, ever.

He turned all business.

“First you’ll need the truck to get it to here from wherever you got it. And we better see if it’s a place in Saskatchewan where the train goes through. Otherways you’d have to arrange to get it picked up, say, in Regina.”

“It’s Gdynia,” she said. “The train goes through.”

He took down a greasy-covered directory that was hanging from a nail and asked how she would spell that. She helped herself to the pencil that was also on a string and wrote on a piece of paper from her purse: GDYNIA.

“What kind of nationality would that be?”

She said she didn’t know.

He took back the pencil to follow from line to line.

“A lot of places out there it’s all Czechs or Hungarians or Ukrainians,” he said. It came to him as he said this that she might be one of those. But so what, he was only stating a fact.

“Here it is, all right, it’s on the line.”

“Yes,” she said. “I want to ship it Friday—can you do that?”

“We can ship it, but I can’t promise what day it’ll get there,” he said. “It all depends on the priorities. Somebody going to be on the lookout for it when it comes in?”

“Yes.”

“It’s a mixed train Friday, two-eighteen p.m. Truck picks it up Friday morning. You live here in town?“

She nodded, writing down the address. 106 Exhibition Road.

It was only recently that the houses in town had been numbered, and he couldn’t picture the place, though he knew where Exhibition Road was. If she’d said the name McCauley at that time he might have taken more of an interest, and things might have turned out differently. There were new houses out there, built since the war, though they were called “wartime houses.” He supposed it must be one of those.

“Pay when you ship,” he told her.

“Also, I want a ticket for myself on the same train. Friday afternoon.”

“Going same place?”

“Yes.”

“You can travel on the same train to Toronto, but then you have to wait for the Transcontinental, goes out ten-thirty at night. You want sleeper or coach? Sleeper you get a berth, coach you sit up in the day car.”

She said she would sit up.

“Wait in Sudbury for the Montreal train, but you won’t get off there, they’ll just shunt you around and hitch on the Montreal cars. Then on to Port Arthur and then to Kenora. You don’t get off till Regina, and there you have to get off and catch the branch-line train.”

She nodded as if he should just get on and give her the ticket.

Slowing down, he said, “But I won’t promise your furniture’ll arrive when you do, I wouldn’t think it would get in till a day or two after. It’s all the priorities. Somebody coming to meet you?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Because it won’t likely be much of a station. Towns out there, they’re not like here. They’re mostly pretty rudimentary affairs.”

She paid for the passenger ticket now, from a roll of bills in a cloth bag in her purse. Like an old lady. She counted her change, too. But not the way an old lady would count it—she held it in her hand and flicked her eyes over it, but you could tell she didn’t miss a penny. Then she turned away rudely, without a goodbye.

“See you Friday,” he called out.

She wore a long, drab coat on this warm September day, also a pair of clunky laced-up shoes, and ankle socks.

He was getting a coffee out of his thermos when she came back and rapped on the wicket.

“The furniture I’m sending,” she said. “It’s all good furniture, it’s like new. I wouldn’t want it to get scratched or banged up or in any way damaged. I don’t want it to smell like livestock, either.”

“Oh, well,” he said. “The railway’s pretty used to shipping things. And they don’t use the same cars for shipping furniture they use for shipping pigs.”

“I’m concerned that it gets there in just as good a shape as it leaves here.”

“Well, you know, when you buy your furniture, it’s in the store, right? But did you ever think how it got there? It wasn’t made in the store, was it? No. It was made in some factory someplace, and it got shipped to the store, and that was done quite possibly by train. So that being the case, doesn’t it stand to reason the railway knows how to look after it?“

She continued to look at him without a smile or any admission of her female foolishness.

“I hope so,” she said. “I hope they do.”

 

 

The station agent would have said, without thinking about it, that he knew everybody in town. Which meant that he knew about half of them. And most of those he knew were the core people, the ones who really were “in town” in the sense that they had not arrived yesterday and had no plans to move on. He did not know the woman who was going to Saskatchewan because she did not go to his church or teach his children in school or work in any store or restaurant or office that he went into. Nor was she married to any of the men he knew in the Elks or the Oddfellows or the Lions Club or the Legion. A look at her left hand while she was getting the money out had told him—and he was not surprised—that she was not married to anybody. With those shoes, and ankle socks instead of stockings, and no hat or gloves in the afternoon, she might have been a farm woman. But she didn’t have the hesitation they generally had, the embarrassment. She didn’t have country manners—in fact, she had no manners at all. She had treated him as if he was an information machine. Besides, she had written a town address—Exhibition Road. The person she really reminded him of was a plainclothes nun he had seen on television, talking about the missionary work she did somewhere in the jungle—probably they had got out of their nuns’ clothes there because it made it easier for them to clamber around. This nun had smiled once in a while to show that her religion was supposed to make people happy, but most of the time she looked out at her audience as if she believed that other people were mainly in the world for her to boss around.

 

 

One more thing Johanna meant to do she had been putting off doing. She had to go into the dress shop called Milady’s and buy herself an outfit. She had never been inside that shop—when she had to buy anything, like socks, she went to Callaghans Mens Ladies and Childrens Wear. She had lots of clothes inherited from Mrs. Willets, things like this coat that would never wear out. And Sabitha—the girl she looked after, in Mr. McCauley’s house—was showered with costly hand-me-downs from her cousins.

In Milady’s window there were two mannequins wearing suits with quite short skirts and boxy jackets. One suit was a rusty-gold color and the other a soft deep green. Big gaudy paper maple leaves were scattered round the mannequins’ feet and pasted here and there on the window. At the time of year when most people’s concern was to rake up leaves and burn them, here they were the chosen thing. A sign written in flowing black script was stuck diagonally across the glass. It said: Simple Elegance, the Mode for Fall.

She opened the door and went inside.

Right ahead of her, a full-length mirror showed her in Mrs. Willets’s high-quality but shapeless long coat, with a few inches of lumpy bare legs above the ankle socks.

They did that on purpose, of course. They set the mirror there so you could get a proper notion of your deficiencies, right away, and then—they hoped—you would jump to the conclusion that you had to buy something to alter the picture. Such a transparent trick that it would have made her walk out, if she had not come in determined, knowing what she had to get.

Along one wall was a rack of evening dresses, all fit for belles of the ball with their net and taffeta, their dreamy colors. And beyond them, in a glass case so no profane fingers could get at them, half a dozen wedding gowns, pure white froth or vanilla satin or ivory lace, embroidered in silver beads or seed pearls. Tiny bodices, scalloped necklines, lavish skirts. Even when she was younger she could never have contemplated such extravagance, not just in the matter of money but in expectations, in the preposterous hope of transformation, and bliss.

It was two or three minutes before anybody came. Maybe they had a peephole and were eyeing her, thinking she wasn’t their kind of customer and hoping she would go away.

She would not. She moved beyond the mirror’s reflection—stepping from the linoleum by the door to a plushy rug—and at long last the curtain at the back of the store opened and out stepped Milady herself, dressed in a black suit with glittery buttons. High heels, thin ankles, girdle so tight her nylons rasped, gold hair skinned back from her made-up face.

“I thought I could try on the suit in the window,” Johanna said in a rehearsed voice. “The green one.”

“Oh, that’s a lovely suit,” the woman said. “The one in the window happens to be a size ten. Now you look to be—maybe a fourteen?”

She rasped ahead of Johanna back to the part of the store where the ordinary clothes, the suits and daytime dresses, were hung.

“You’re in luck. Fourteen coming up.”

The first thing Johanna did was look at the price tag. Easily twice what she’d expected, and she was not going to pretend otherwise.

“It’s expensive enough.”

“It’s very fine wool.” The woman monkeyed around till she found the label, then read off a description of the material that Johanna wasn’t really listening to because she had caught at the hem to examine the workmanship.

“It feels as light as silk, but it wears like iron. You can see it’s lined throughout, lovely silk-and-rayon lining. You won’t find it bagging in the seat and going out of shape the way the cheap suits do. Look at the velvet cuffs and collar and the little velvet buttons on the sleeve.”

“I see them.”

“That’s the kind of detail you pay for, you just do not get it otherwise. I love the velvet touch. It’s only on the green one, you know—the apricot one doesn’t have it, even though they’re exactly the same price.”

Indeed it was the velvet collar and cuffs that gave the suit, in Johanna’s eyes, its subtle look of luxury and made her long to buy it. But she was not going to say so.

“I might as well go ahead and try it on.”

This was what she’d come prepared for, after all. Clean underwear and fresh talcum powder under her arms.

The woman had enough sense to leave her alone in the bright cubicle. Johanna avoided the glass like poison till she’d got the skirt straight and the jacket done up.

At first she just looked at the suit. It was all right. The fit was all right—the skirt shorter than what she was used to, but then what she was used to was not the style. There was no problem with the suit. The problem was with what stuck out of it. Her neck and her face and her hair and her big hands and thick legs.

“How are you getting on? Mind if I take a peek?”

Peek all you want to, Johanna thought, it’s a case of a sow’s ear, as you’ll soon see.

The woman tried looking from one side, then the other.

“Of course, you’ll need your nylons on and your heels. How does it feel? Comfortable?”

“The suit feels fine,” Johanna said. “There’s nothing the matter with the suit.”

The woman’s face changed in the mirror. She stopped smiling. She looked disappointed and tired, but kinder.

“Sometimes that’s just the way it is. You never really know until you try something on. The thing is,” she said, with a new, more moderate conviction growing in her voice, “the thing is you have a fine figure, but it’s a strong figure. You have large bones and what’s the matter with that? Dinky little velvet-covered buttons are not for you. Don’t bother with it anymore. Just take it off.”

Then when Johanna had got down to her underwear there was a tap and a hand through the curtain.

“Just slip this on, for the heck of it.”

A brown wool dress, lined, with a full skirt gracefully gathered, three-quarter sleeves and a plain round neckline. About as plain as you could get, except for a narrow gold belt. Not as expensive as the suit, but still the price seemed like a lot, when you considered all there was to it.

At least the skirt was a more decent length and the fabric made a noble swirl around her legs. She steeled herself and looked in the glass.

This time she didn’t look as if she’d been stuck into the garment for a joke.

The woman came and stood beside her, and laughed, but with relief.

“It’s the color of your eyes. You don’t need to wear velvet. You’ve got velvet eyes.”

That was the kind of soft-soaping Johanna would have felt bound to scoff at, except that at the moment it seemed to be true. Her eyes were not large, and if asked to describe their color she would have said, “I guess they’re a kind of a brown.” But now they looked to be a really deep brown, soft and shining.

It wasn’t that she had suddenly started thinking she was pretty or anything. Just that her eyes were a nice color, if they had been a piece of cloth.

“Now, I bet you don’t wear dress shoes very often,” the woman said. “But if you had nylons on and just a minimum kind of pump—And I bet you don’t wear jewelry, and you’re quite right, you don’t need to, with that belt.”

To cut off the sales spiel Johanna said, “Well, I better take it off so you can wrap it up.” She was sorry to lose the soft weight of the skirt and the discreet ribbon of gold around her waist. She had never in her life had this silly feeling of being enhanced by what she had put on herself.

“I just hope it’s for a special occasion,” the woman called out as Johanna was hastening into her now dingy-looking regular clothes.

“It’ll likely be what I get married in,” said Johanna.

She was surprised at that coming out of her mouth. It wasn’t a major error—the woman didn’t know who she was and would probably not be talking to anybody who did know. Still, she had meant to keep absolutely quiet. She must have felt she owed this person something—that they’d been through the disaster of the green suit and the discovery of the brown dress together and that was a bond. Which was nonsense. The woman was in the business of selling clothes, and she’d just succeeded in doing that.

“Oh!” the woman cried out. “Oh, that’s wonderful.”

Well, it might be, Johanna thought, and then again it might not. She might be marrying anybody. Some miserable farmer who wanted a workhorse around the place, or some wheezy old half-cripple looking for a nurse. This woman had no idea what kind of man she had lined up, and it wasn’t any of her business anyway.

“I can tell it’s a love match,” the woman said, just as if she had read these disgruntled thoughts. “That’s why your eyes were shining in the mirror. I’ve wrapped it all in tissue paper, all you have to do is take it out and hang it up and the material will fall out beautifully. Just give it a light press if you want, but you probably won’t even need to do that.”

Then there was the business of handing over the money. They both pretended not to look, but both did.

“It’s worth it,” the woman said. “You only get married the once. Well, that’s not always strictly true—”

“In my case it’ll be true,” Johanna said. Her face was hotly flushed because marriage had not, in fact, been mentioned. Not even in the last letter. She had revealed to this woman what she was counting on, and that had perhaps been an unlucky thing to do.

“Where did you meet him?” said the woman, still in that tone of wistful gaiety. “What was your first date?”

“Through family,” Johanna said truthfully. She wasn’t meaning to say any more but heard herself go on. “The Western Fair. In London.”

“The Western Fair,” the woman said. “In London.” She could have been saying “the Castle Ball.”

“We had his daughter and her friend with us,” said Johanna, thinking that in a way it would have been more accurate to say that he and Sabitha and Edith had her, Johanna, with them.

“Well, I can say my day has not been wasted. I’ve provided the dress for somebody to be a happy bride in. That’s enough to justify my existence.” The woman tied a narrow pink ribbon around the dress box, making a big, unnecessary bow, then gave it a wicked snip with the scissors.

“I’m here all day,” she said. “And sometimes I just wonder what I think I’m doing. I ask myself, What do you think you’re doing here? I put up a new display in the window and I do this and that to entice the people in, but there are days—there are days—when I do not see one soul come in that door. I know—people think these clothes are too expensive—but they’re good. They’re good clothes. If you want the quality you have to pay the price.”

“They must come in when they want something like those,” said Johanna, looking towards the evening dresses. “Where else could they go?”

“That’s just it. They don’t. They go to the city—that’s where they go. They’ll drive fifty miles, a hundred miles, never mind the gas, and tell themselves that way they get something better than I’ve got here. And they haven’t. Not better quality, not better selection. Nothing. Just that they’d be ashamed to say they bought their wedding outfits in town. Or they’ll come in and try something on and say they have to think about it. I’ll be back, they say. And I think, Oh, yes, I know what that means. It means they’ll try to find the same thing cheaper in London or Kitchener, and even if it isn’t cheaper, they’ll buy it there once they’ve driven all that way and got sick of looking.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe if I was a local person it would make a difference. It’s very clique-y here, I find. You’re not local, are you?“

Johanna said, “No.”

“Don’t you find it clique-y?”

Cleeky.

“Hard for an outsider to break in, is what I mean.”

“I’m used to being on my own,” Johanna said.

“But you found somebody. You won’t be on your own anymore and isn’t that lovely? Some days I think how grand it would be, to be married and stay at home. Of course, I used to be married, and I worked anyway. Ah, well. Maybe the man in the moon will walk in here and fall in love with me and then I’ll be all set!”

 

 

Johanna had to hurry—that woman’s need for conversation had delayed her. She was hurrying to be back at the house, her purchase stowed away, before Sabitha got home from school.

Then she remembered that Sabitha wasn’t there, having been carried off on the weekend by her mother’s cousin, her Aunt Roxanne, to live like a proper rich girl in Toronto and go to a rich girl’s school. But she continued to walk fast—so fast some smart aleck holding up the wall of the drugstore called out to her, “Where’s the fire?” and she slowed down a bit, not to attract attention.

The dress box was awkward—how could she have known the store would have its own pink cardboard boxes, with Milady’s written across them in purple handwriting? A dead giveaway.

She felt a fool for mentioning a wedding, when he hadn’t mentioned it and she ought to remember that. So much else had been said—or written—such fondness and yearning expressed, that the actual marrying seemed just to have been overlooked. The way you might speak about getting up in the morning and not about having breakfast, though you certainly intended to have it.

Nevertheless she should have kept her mouth shut.

She saw Mr. McCauley walking in the opposite direction up the other side of the street. That was all right—even if he had met her head-on he would never have noticed the box she carried. He would have raised a finger to his hat and passed her by, presumably noticing that she was his housekeeper but possibly not. He had other things on his mind, and for all anybody knew might be looking at some town other than the one they saw. Every working day—and sometimes, forgetfully, on holidays or Sundays—he got dressed in one of his three-piece suits and his light overcoat or his heavy overcoat, and his gray fedora and his well-polished shoes, and walked from Exhibition Road uptown to the office he still maintained over what had been the harness and luggage store. It was spoken of as an Insurance Office, though it was quite a long time since he had actively sold insurance. Sometimes people climbed the stairs to see him, maybe to ask some question about their policies or more likely about lot boundaries, the history of some piece of real estate in town or farm out in the country. His office was full of maps old and new, and he liked nothing better than to lay them out and get into a discussion that expanded far beyond the question asked. Three or four times a day he emerged and walked the street, as now. During the war he had put the McLaughlin-Buick up on blocks in the barn, and walked everywhere to set an example. He still seemed to be setting an example, fifteen years later. Hands clasped behind his back, he was like a kind landlord inspecting his property or a preacher happy to observe his flock. Of course, half the people that he met had no idea who he was.

The town had changed, even in the time Johanna had been here. Trade was moving out to the highway, where there was a new discount store and a Canadian Tire and a motel with a lounge and topless dancers. Some downtown shops had tried to spruce themselves up with pink or mauve or olive paint, but already that paint was curling on the old brick and some of the interiors were empty. Milady’s was almost certain to follow suit.

If Johanna was the woman in there, what would she have done? She’d never have gotten in so many elaborate evening dresses, for a start. What instead? If you made the switch to cheaper clothes you’d only be putting yourself in competition with Callaghans and the discount place, and there probably wasn’t trade enough to go around. So what about going into fancy baby clothes, children’s clothes, trying to pull in the grandmothers and aunts who had the money and would spend it for that kind of thing? Forget about the mothers, who would go to Callaghans, having less money and more sense.

But if it was her in charge—Johanna—she would never be able to pull in anybody. She could see what needed to be done, and how, and she could round up and supervise people to do it, but she could never charm or entice. Take it or leave it, would be her attitude. No doubt they would leave it.

It was the rare person who took to her, and she’d been aware of that for a long time. Sabitha certainly hadn’t shed any tears when she said goodbye—though you could say Johanna was the nearest thing Sabitha had to a mother, since her own mother had died.


 

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