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

 

Dear Mr. Ken Boudreau,

I just thought I would write and send my thanks to you for the nice things you said about me in your letter to your daughter. You do not need to worry about me leaving. You say that I am a person you can trust. That is the meaning I take and as far as I know it is true. I am grateful to you for saying that, since some people feel that a person like me that they do not know the background of is Beyond the Pale. So I thought I would tell you something about myself. I was born in Glasgow, but my mother had to give me up when she got married. I was taken to the Home at the age of five. I looked for her to come back, but she didn’t and I got used to it there and they weren’t Bad. At the age of eleven I was brought to Canada on a Plan and lived with the Dixons, working on their Market Gardens. School was in the Plan, but I didn’t see much of it. In winter I worked in the house for the Mrs. but circumstances made me think of leaving, and being big and strong for my age got taken on at a Nursing Home looking after the old people. I did not mind the work, but for better money went and worked in a Broom Factory. Mr. Willets that owned it had an old mother that came in to see how things were going, and she and I took to each other some way. The atmosphere was giving me breathing troubles so she said I should come and work for her and I did. I lived with her 12 yrs. on a lake called Mourning Dove Lake up north. There was only the two of us, but I could take care of everything outside and in, even running the motor-boat and driving the car. I learned to read properly because her eyes were going bad and she liked me to read to her. She died at the age of 96. You might say what a life for a young person, but I was happy. We ate together every meal and I slept in her room the last year and a half. But after she died the family gave me one wk. to pack up. She had left me some money and I guess they did not like that. She wanted me to use it for Education but I would have to go in with kids. So when I saw the ad Mr. McCauley put in the Globe and Mail I came to see about it. I needed work to get over missing Mrs. Willets. So I guess I have bored you long enough with my History and you’ll be relieved I have got up to the Present. Thank you for your good opinion and for taking me along to the Fair. I am not one for the rides or for eating the stuff but it was still certainly a pleasure to be included.

Your friend, Johanna Parry.

 

 

Edith read Johanna’s words aloud, in an imploring voice and with a woebegone expression.

“I was born in Glasgow, but my mother had to give me up when she took one look at me—”

“Stop,” said Sabitha. “I’m laughing so hard I’ll be sick.”

“How did she get her letter in with yours without you knowing?“

“She just takes it from me and puts it in an envelope and writes on the outside because she doesn’t think my writing is good enough.”

Edith had to put Scotch tape on the flap of the envelope to make it stick, since there wasn’t enough sticky stuff left. “She’s in love with him,” she said.

“Oh, puke-puke,” said Sabitha, holding her stomach. “She can’t be. Old Johanna.”

“What did he say about her, anyway?”

“Just about how I was supposed to respect her and it would be too bad if she left because we were lucky to have her and he didn’t have a home for me and Grandpa couldn’t raise a girl by himself and blah-blah. He said she was a lady. He said he could tell.”

“So then she falls in lo-ove.”

The letter remained with Edith overnight, lest Johanna discover that it hadn’t been posted and was sealed with Scotch tape. They took it to the Post Office the next morning.

“Now we’ll see what he writes back. Watch out,” said Edith.

 

 

No letter came for a long time. And when it did, it was a disappointment. They steamed it open at Edith’s house, but found nothing inside for Johanna.

 

 

Dear Sabitha,

Christmas finds me a bit short this year, sorry I don’t have more than a two-dollar bill to send you. But I hope you are in good health and have a Merry Christmas and keep up your schoolwork. I have not been feeling so well myself, having got Bronchitis, which I seem to do every winter, but this is the first time it landed me in bed before Christmas. As you see by the address I am in a new place. The apartment was in a very noisy location and too many people dropping in hoping for a party. This is a boardinghouse, which suits me fine as I was never good at the shopping and the cooking.

Merry Christmas and love, Dad.

 

 

“Poor Johanna,” said Edith. “Her heart will be broken.”

Sabitha said, “Who cares?”

“Unless we do it,” Edith said.

“What?”

“Answer her.”

They would have to type their letter, because Johanna would notice that it was not in Sabitha’s father’s handwriting. But the typing was not difficult. There was a typewriter in Edith’s house, on a card table in the front room. Her mother had worked in an office before she was married and she sometimes earned a little money still by writing the sort of letters that people wanted to look official. She had taught Edith the basics of typing, in the hope that Edith too might get an office job someday.

“Dear Johanna,” said Sabitha, “I am sorry I cannot be in love with you because you have got those ugly spots all over your face.”

“I’m going to be serious,” said Edith. “So shut up.”

She typed, “I was so glad to get the letter—” speaking the words of her composition aloud, pausing while she thought up more, her voice becoming increasingly solemn and tender.

Sabitha sprawled on the couch, giggling. At one point she turned on the television, but Edith said, “Pul-eeze. How can I concentrate on my emotions with all that shit going on?”

Edith and Sabitha used the words “shit” and “bitch” and “Jesus Christ” when they were alone together.

 

 

Dear Johanna,

I was so glad to get the letter you put in with Sabitha’s and to find out about your life. It must often have been a sad and lonely one though Mrs. Willets sounds like a lucky person for you to find. You have remained industrious and uncomplaining and I must say that I admire you very much. My own life has been a checkered one and I have never exactly settled down. I do not know why I have this inner restlessness and loneliness, it just seems to be my fate. I am always meeting people and talking to people but sometimes I ask myself, Who is my friend? Then comes your letter and you write at the end of it, Your friend. So I think, Does she really mean that? And what a very nice Christmas present it would be for me if Johanna would tell me that she is my friend. Maybe you just thought it was a nice way to end a letter and you don’t really know me well enough. Merry Christmas anyway.

Your friend, Ken Boudreau.

 

 

The letter went home to Johanna. The one to Sabitha had ended up being typed as well because why would one be typed and not the other? They had been sparing with the steam this time and opened the envelope very carefully so there would be no telltale Scotch tape.

“Why couldn’t we type a new envelope? Wouldn’t he do that if he typed the letter?” said Sabitha, thinking she was being clever.

“Because a new envelope wouldn’t have a postmark on it. Dumb-dumb.”

“What if she answers it?”

“We’ll read it.”

“Yah, what if she answers it and sends it direct to him?”

Edith didn’t like to show she had not thought of that.

“She won’t. She’s sly. Anyway, you write him back right away to give her the idea she can slip it in with yours.”

“I hate writing stupid letters.”

“Go on. It won’t kill you. Don’t you want to see what she says?

 

 

Dear Friend,

You ask me do I know you well enough to be your friend and my answer is that I think I do. I have only had one Friend in my life, Mrs. Willets who I loved and she was so good to me but she is dead. She was a lot older than me and the trouble with Older Friends is they die and leave you. She was so old she would call me sometimes by another person’s name. I did not mind it though. I will tell you a strange thing. That picture that you got the photographer at the Fair to take, of you and Sabitha and her friend Edith and me, I had it enlarged and framed and set in the living room. It is not a very good picture and he certainly charged you enough for what it is, but it is better than nothing. So the day before yesterday I was dusting around it and I imagined I could hear you say Hello to me. Hello, you said, and I looked at your face as well as you can see it in the picture and I thought, Well, I must be losing my mind. Or else it is a sign of a letter coming. I am just fooling, I don’t really believe in anything like that. But yesterday there was a letter. So you see it is not asking too much of me to be your friend. I can always find a way to keep busy but a true Friend is something else again.

Your Friend, Johanna Parry.

 

 

Of course, that could not be replaced in the envelope. Sabitha’s father would spot something fishy in the references to a letter he had never written. Johanna’s words had to be torn into tiny pieces and flushed down the toilet at Edith’s house.

 

 

When the letter came telling about the hotel it was months and months later. It was summer. And it was just by luck that Sabitha had picked that letter up, since she had been away for three weeks, staying at the cottage on Lake Simcoe that belonged to her Aunt Roxanne and her Uncle Clark.

Almost the first thing Sabitha said, coming into Edith’s house, was, “Ugga-ugga. This place stinks.”

“Ugga-ugga” was an expression she had picked up from her cousins.

Edith sniffed the air. “I don’t smell anything.”

“It’s like your dad’s shop, only not so bad. They must bring it home on their clothes and stuff.”

Edith attended to the steaming and opening. On her way from the Post Office, Sabitha had bought two chocolate eclairs at the bakeshop. She was lying on the couch eating hers.

“Just one letter. For you,” said Edith. “Pore old Johanna. Of course he never actually got hers.”

“Read it to me,” said Sabitha resignedly. “I’ve got sticky guck all over my hands.”

Edith read it with businesslike speed, hardly pausing for the periods.

 

 

Well, Sabitha, my fortunes have taken a different turn, as you can see I am not in Brandon anymore but in a place called Gdynia. And not in the employ of my former bosses. I have had an exceptionally hard winter with my chest troubles and they, that is my bosses, thought I should be out on the road even if I was in danger of developing pneumonia so this developed into quite an argument so we all decided to say farewell. But luck is a strange thing and just about that time I came into possession of a Hotel. It is too complicated to explain the ins and outs but if your grandfather wants to know about it just tell him a man who owed me money which he could not pay let me have this hotel instead. So here I am moved from one room in a boardinghouse to a twelve-bedroom building and from not even owning the bed I slept in to owning several. It’s a wonderful thing to wake up in the morning and know you are your own boss. I have some fixing up to do, actually plenty, and will get to it as soon as the weather warms up. I will need to hire somebody to help and later on I will hire a good cook to have a restaurant as well as the beverage room. That ought to go like hotcakes as there is none in this town. Hope you are well and doing your schoolwork and developing good habits.

Love, Your Dad.

 

 

Sabitha said, “Have you got some coffee?”

“Instant,” said Edith. “Why?”

Sabitha said that iced coffee was what everybody had been drinking at the cottage and they were all crazy about it. She was crazy about it too. She got up and messed around in the kitchen, boiling the water and stirring up the coffee with milk and ice cubes. “What we really ought to have is vanilla ice cream,” she said. “Oh, my Gad, is it ever wonderful. Don’t you want your eclair?“

Oh, my Gad.

“Yes. All of it,” said Edith meanly.

All these changes in Sabitha in just three weeks—during the time Edith had been working in the shop and her mother recovering at home from her operation. Sabitha’s skin was an appetizing golden-brown color, and her hair was cut shorter and fluffed out around her face. Her cousins had cut it and given her a permanent. She wore a sort of playsuit, with shorts cut like a skirt and buttons down the front and frills over the shoulders in a becoming blue color. She had got plumper, and when she leaned over to pick up her glass of iced coffee, which was on the floor, she displayed a smooth, glowing cleavage.

Breasts. They must have started growing before she went away, but Edith had not noticed. Maybe they were just something you woke up with one morning. Or did not.

However they came, they seemed to indicate a completely unearned and unfair advantage.

Sabitha was full of talk about her cousins and life at the cottage. She would say, “Listen, I’ve got to tell you about this, it’s a scream—” and then ramble on about what Aunt Roxanne said to Uncle Clark when they had the fight, how Mary Jo drove

with the top down and without a license in Stan’s car (who was Stan?) and took them all to a drive-in—and what was the scream or the point of the story somehow never became clear.

But after a while other things did. The real adventures of the summer. The older girls—that included Sabitha—slept in the upstairs of the boathouse. Sometimes they had tickling fights— they would all gang up on someone and tickle her till she shrieked for mercy and agreed to pull her pajama pants down to show if she had hair. They told stories about girls at boarding school who did things with hairbrush handles, toothbrush handles. Ugga-ugga. Once a couple of cousins put on a show—one girl got on top of the other and pretended to be the boy and they wound their legs around each other and groaned and panted and carried on.

Uncle Clark’s sister and her husband came to visit on their honeymoon, and he was seen to put his hand inside her swimsuit.

“They really loved each other, they were at it day and night,” said Sabitha. She hugged a cushion to her chest. “People can’t help it when they’re in love like that.”

One of the cousins had already done it with a boy. He was one of the summer help in the gardens of the resort down the road. He took her out in a boat and threatened to push her out until she agreed to let him do it. So it wasn’t her fault.

“Couldn’t she swim?” said Edith.

Sabitha pushed the cushion between her legs. “Oooh,” she said. “Feels so nice.”

Edith knew all about the pleasurable agonies Sabitha was feeling, but she was appalled that anybody would make them public. She herself was frightened of them. Years ago, before she knew what she was doing, she had gone to sleep with the blanket between her legs and her mother had discovered her and told her about a girl she had known who did things like that all the time and had eventually been operated on for the problem.

“They used to throw cold water on her, but it didn’t cure her,” her mother had said. “So she had to be cut.”

Otherwise her organs would get congested and she might die.

“Stop,” she said to Sabitha, but Sabitha moaned defiantly and said, “It’s nothing. We all did it like this. Haven’t you got a cushion?”

Edith got up and went to the kitchen and filled her empty iced-coffee glass with cold water. When she got back Sabitha was lying limp on the couch, laughing, the cushion flung on the floor.

“What did you think I was doing?” she said. “Didn’t you know I was kidding?”

“I was thirsty,” Edith said.

“You just drank a whole glass of iced coffee.”

“I was thirsty for water.”

“Can’t have any fun with you.” Sabitha sat up. “If you’re so thirsty why don’t you drink it?”

They sat in a moody silence until Sabitha said, in a conciliatory but disappointed tone, “Aren’t we going to write Johanna another letter? Let’s write her a lovey-dovey letter.”

Edith had lost a good deal of her interest in the letters, but she was gratified to see that Sabitha had not. Some sense of having power over Sabitha returned, in spite of Lake Simcoe and the breasts. Sighing, as if reluctantly, she got up and took the cover off the typewriter.

“My darlingest Johanna—” said Sabitha.

“No. That’s too sickening.”

“She won’t think so.”

“She will so,” said Edith.

She wondered whether she should tell Sabitha about the danger of congested organs. She decided not to. For one thing, that information fell into a category of warnings she had received from her mother and never known whether to wholly trust or distrust. It had not fallen as low, in credibility, as the belief that wearing foot-rubbers in the house would ruin your eyesight, but there was no telling—someday it might.

And for another thing—Sabitha would just laugh. She laughed at warnings—she would laugh even if you told her that chocolate eclairs would make her fat.

“Your last letter made me so happy—”

“Your last letter filled me with rapture—” said Sabitha.

“—made me so happy to think I did have a true friend in the world, which is you—”

“I could not sleep all night because I was longing to crush you in my arms—” Sabitha wrapped her arms around herself and rocked back and forth.

“No. Often I have felt so lonely in spite of a gregarious life and not known where to turn—”

“What does that mean—’gregarious’? She won’t know what it means.”

“She will.”

That shut Sabitha up and perhaps hurt her feelings. So at the end Edith read out, “I must say goodbye and the only way I can do it is to imagine you reading this and blushing—”

“Is that more what you want?”

“Reading it in bed with your nightgown on,” said Sabitha, always quickly restored, “and thinking how I would crush you in my arms and I would suck your titties—”

 

 

My Dear Johanna,

Your last letter made me so happy to think I have a true friend in the world, which is you. Often I have felt so lonely in spite of a gregarious life and not known where to turn.

Well, I have told Sabitha in my letter about my good fortune and how I am going into the hotel business. I did not tell her actually how sick I was last winter because I did not want to worry her. I do not want to worry you, either, dear Johanna, only to tell you that I thought of you so often and longed to see your dear sweet face. When I was feverish I thought that I really did see it bending over me and I heard your voice telling me I would soon be better and I felt the ministrations of your kind hands. I was in the boardinghouse and when I came to out of my fever there was a lot of teasing going on as to, who is this Johanna? But I was sad as could be to wake and find you were not there. I really wondered if you could have flown through the air and been with me, even though I knew that could not have happened. Believe me, believe me, the most beautiful movie star could not have been as welcome to me as you. I don’t know if I should tell you the other things you were saying to me because they were very sweet and intimate but they might embarrass you. I hate to end this letter because it feels now as if I have my arms around you and I am talking to you quietly in the dark privacy of our room, but I must say goodbye and the only way I can do it is to imagine you reading this and blushing. It would be wonderful if you were reading it in bed with your nightgown on and thinking how I would like to crush you in my arms.

L-v-, Ken Boudreau.

 

 

Somewhat surprisingly, there was no reply to this letter. When Sabitha had written her half-page, Johanna put it in the envelope and addressed it and that was that.

 

 

When Johanna got off the train there was nobody to meet her. She did not let herself worry about that—she had been thinking that her letter might not, after all, have got here before she did. (In fact it had, and was lying in the Post Office, uncollected, because Ken Boudreau, who had not been seriously sick last winter, really did have bronchitis now and for several days had not come in for his mail. On this day it had been joined by another envelope, containing the check from Mr. McCauley. But payment on that had already been stopped.)

What was of more concern to her was that there did not appear to be a town. The station was an enclosed shelter with benches along the walls and a wooden shutter pulled down over the window of the ticket office. There was also a freight shed—she supposed it was a freight shed—but the sliding door to it would not budge. She peered through a crack between the planks until her eyes got used to the dark in there, and she saw that it was empty, with a dirt floor. No crates of furniture there. She called out, “Anybody here? Anybody here?” several times, but she did not expect a reply.

She stood on the platform and tried to get her bearings.

About half a mile away there was a slight hill, noticeable at once because it had a crown of trees. And the sandy-looking track that she had taken, when she saw it from the train, for a back lane into a farmer’s field—that must be the road. Now she saw the low shapes of buildings here and there in the trees—and a water tower, which looked from this distance like a toy, a tin soldier on long legs.

She picked up her suitcase—this would not be too difficult; she had carried it, after all, from Exhibition Road to the other railway station—and set out.

There was a wind blowing, but this was a hot day—hotter than the weather she had left in Ontario—and the wind seemed hot as well. Over her new dress she was wearing her same old coat, which would have taken up too much room in the suitcase.

She looked with longing to the shade of the town ahead, but when she got there she found that the trees were either spruce, which were too tight and narrow to give much shade, or raggedy thin-leaved cottonwoods, which blew about and let the sun through anyway.

There was a discouraging lack of formality, or any sort of organization, to this place. No sidewalks, or paved streets, no imposing buildings except a big church like a brick barn. A painting over its door, showing the Holy Family with clay-colored faces and staring blue eyes. It was named for an unheard-of saint—Saint Voytech.

The houses did not show much forethought in their situation or planning. They were set at different angles to the road, or street, and most of them had mean-looking little windows stuck here and there, with snow porches like boxes round the doors.

Nobody was out in the yards, and why should they be? There was nothing to tend, only clumps of brown grass and once a big burst of rhubarb, gone to seed.

The main street, if that’s what it was, had a raised wooden walk on one side only, and some unconsolidated buildings, of which a grocery store (containing the Post Office) and a garage seemed to be the only ones functioning. There was one two-story building that she thought might be the hotel, but it was a bank and it was closed.

The first human being she saw—though two dogs had barked at her—was a man in front of the garage, busy loading chains into the back of his truck.

“Hotel?” he said. “You come too far.”

He told her that it was down by the station, on the other side of the tracks and along a bit, it was painted blue and you couldn’t miss it.

She set the suitcase down, not from discouragement but because she had to have a moment’s rest.

He said he would ride her down there if she wanted to wait a minute. And though it was a new kind of thing for her to accept such an offer, she soon found herself riding in the hot, greasy cab of his truck, rocking down the dirt road that she had just walked up, with the chains making a desperate racket in the back.

“So—where’d you bring this heat wave from?” he said.

She said Ontario, in a tone that promised nothing further.

“Ontario,” he said regretfully. “Well. There ‘tis. Your hotel.”

He took one hand off the wheel. The truck gave an accompanying lurch as he waved to a two-story flat-roofed building that she hadn’t missed but had seen from the train, as they came in. She had taken it then for a large and fairly derelict, perhaps abandoned, family home. Now that she had seen the houses in town, she knew that she should not have dismissed it so readily. It was covered with sheets of tin stamped to look like bricks and painted a light blue. There was the one word HOTEL, in neon tubing, no longer lit, over the doorway.

“I am a dunce,” she said, and offered the man a dollar for the ride.

He laughed. “Hang on to your money. You never know when you’ll need it.”


 

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