Fiction | December 01, 2003
Social Discourse, 1944
“HELLO,” SAID BOBBY Houston. He was slight, with wire-rimmed glasses over pale, almost white-blue eyes. He had a nervous tic—his left hand jabbed out. She could see through his skin.
“You’re the replacement milkman,” said Alice.
“Here to serve you, ma’am,” said Bobby and doffed his cap. Wispy hair surrounded him like a halo.
“Milton’s in Paris right now,” Alice said. “I believe.”
“Four-F on account of my stutter,” Bobby said. The word “stutter” refused to come out until he’d taken about four whacks at it, during which time his cheeks, formerly white as aspirin tablets, turned the colour of beets.
Alice said, “Isn’t it funny that I’m on my own husband’s route?” She looked out through the sleet at the roadway. Taffy, her husband’s dapple-grey mare, put her head up and stepped forward so the cart carrying the milk bottles clanked. “Taffy’ll be wanting her apple.”
“One quart of Golden Guernsey!” said Bobby Houston, unloading it onto the speckled Arborite of Alice’s kitchen table. He had trouble with the ‘g’s.’ “Guaranteed tuberculin free. Twelve percent more solids. Superior flavour. One-third more cream.” He lifted a bar of butter. “One pound saltless creamery butter. One pint virgin whipping cream.” V v-v-v-virgin. The tip of his nose was red with cold; his natty blue jacket dripped with rain. “Liquid health,” he said and saluted. “You can’t wash milk! If you knew the hazards that beset milk cleanliness you would insist on knowing your dairy. Take no chance with the milk you drink. Phone Michael 8944 and order Mountain Dale better milk delivered to your home.” M-m-milk. Ho-ho-home.
Alice laughed and plucked Tracey from the playpen. Bobby Houston made faces at the baby, and she giggled wildly.
Bobby Houston took to stopping after,every delivery; it felt as good to Alice as if her brother were visiting. Alice had not been prepared for married life—for the sex, Milton’s absence, the pregnancies, the child—and Bobby reminded her of an easier time, when she flirted with boys as a matter of growing up, when she flashed her teeth and shook her hair, when she worried her stockings up her legs wrinkle by wrinkle. Now there weren’t stockings and she used eyebrow pencil to draw lines up the backs of her legs like everyone else, only they always wavered. She’d taken to leaving them off. Why not? Who was to see? Her mother and her sister were in Saskatchewan. Her father was dead. Her husband was at war. Bobby Houston was deeply familiar—he had Milton’s smell (horse sweat, hoof trimmings and sour milk), Milton’s sharp uniform, the same bottle caddy, the same spit-polished shoes. The same route boss, the owner’s son Maurice Maclean. Maurice called every week to see how she was getting along. Just a courtesy, the way the dairy had other courtesies: a sewing group for the troops; picnics and parties.
Alice knew she shouldn’t have Bobby Houston over every afternoon, that people would talk. But he seemed to like her, and the baby loved him, and when Alice’s ankles were throbbing he lifted them into his lap and massaged them until the bloating rose back up her legs. There were no improprieties. Alice didn’t feel about Bobby the way she felt about Milton, and Bobby didn’t feel that way about her either, she was certain.
He told her things about the Maclean brothers, who ran the dairy, how Dave Maclean had chewed out Diane at the switchboard, making her cry (no news there—Milt had told similar stories of Dave Maclean s bullying); how he’d seen Patrick Maclean’s wife taking stationery from the supply cupboard and dropping it into her purse—pads and pencils and erasers; how he had bumped into Maurice Maclean, his immediate boss, at the corner getting a shave. He swabbed at his head when he told Alice this last—his stutter was worse than ever, and the tips of his ears flared red as crayons. He wanted to know what Alice knew about Maurice Maclean, but Alice didn’t know much. He was the bachelor brother in the family; he lived with his aging mother; he seemed to have a special fondness for horses. He always remembered the name of Alice’s baby, along with the date of Alice’s wedding anniversary. Milton thought highly of him. Alice shrugged. Talking about the Maclean brothers was like talking about the constellations in the sky-they were there, above everybody, but not touchable. They didn’t keep her warm when she was lonely for Milton.
Poor, pale Bobby. His eyes lit up as if he had fever. “Because I think he likes me.”
“Of course he likes you, Bobby. Doesn’t everyone like you?” This was far from true, as Alice was learning. Bobby was becoming a topic of conversation. Her mother-in-law, the dairy wives, everyone had something mildly unpleasant to say about him. Little things Alice was certain were contrived—that he’d left Nellie’s blinders and bridle on overnight; that he’d come up a dollar short in his reckonings; that he’d been observed lurking outside the ladies’ washroom.
“Let me clean up these dishes for you,” said Bobby and jumped to his feet, his glasses sliding down his nose.
Alice couldn’t help but let him. Bobby in his crisp, blue, ironed milkman’s uniform sang show tunes as he scrubbed, and he didn’t stutter at all. As for Alice, she hadn’t had much sleep. She’d been up half the night with Tracey, and now the baby inside was restless, kicking her inside out. Bobby was Alice’s consolation. She found herself laughing uproariously while they played gin rummy, say, or when he told risque jokes. Everything got easier.
Soon Bobby was coming for supper every night, carrying groceries in paper sacks up the driveway after he got off work. He cooked dishes like duck a Forange and vichyssoise. He said it was a miracle they’d found each other. He said he’d never had a good friend before, that he was always the boy everyone made fun of. “Because of my stutter,” he said mournfully. Alice said people had always laughed at how ungainly she was in gym class.
“Oh, me too!” cried Bobby. He lifted a wine glass full of milk in a toast. “You really are my friend.”
Alice clinked her glass. “I haven’t had a real friend since I was in high school.”
“I get so lonely. Do you get lonely, Alice?”
Alice didn’t know what to admit and what not to admit. She supposed she was happy with Milton; she was happy with Milton, just—She was happy with Tracey, too … mostly. Finally, Alice nodded. It seemed a brave admission. “I’ve been less lonely lately, though.”
“Oh,” said Bobby. “I’m so glad!” And he rose and massaged her shoulders.
Bobby confided to Alice that he liked to vacuum and dust and especially spread floor wax—then asked if she minded because his apartment was as small as a shoebox, with nothing to shine. Really, she’d be doing him a favour. It wasn’t hard to say okay. Alice stretched out on the couch with the small, crammed space that was her stomach full of rich French food and a cold compress on her forehead, with Tracey down for the night, and watched him as he ran a feather duster over the table she and Milton had bought in Richmond. He kept up a patter about Maurice Maclean while he worked—how he’d bumped into Maurice at the bowling alley, how he’d seen him at the grocery store with his old mother, how he’d run into him taking his shirts to the cleaners.
Alice lifted onto her elbows; the compress slid into her hair and fell to the floor. “Why do you talk about Maurice Maclean so much?”
Bobby Houston’s back stiffened, and the feather duster gave off an irritated vibration.
Alice sat up. Her stomach was getting huge. She was only seven and a half months, but she weighed exactly what she’d weighed with Tracey at birth. She’d been to the doctor, and he’d told her to go on a diet if she didn’t want the baby to be an imbecile. Plus, the doctor said, she was flirting with a lifelong weight problem. That was probably why she had the headache. She could imagine a horrible future where Milton came home from the war a decorated hero, took one look at his immense wife and cut out on her. She looked at the man across the room who wasn’t her husband, and for the first time in the weeks since he’d started coming around, she got a whiff of how odd it was to have Bobby Houston dusting her knickknack shelves.
“What are you saying?”
“I barely know Maurice Maclean, that’s all, and I get a little tired of hearing about him. I’m so tired.” Alice could hear Tracey starting to fuss. “I think I’ve been tired since the day I was born.”
Bobby Houston turned, an odd smile across his lips. “I will never get tired of Maurice Maclean,” he said. He stuttered over the ‘m’s’. Then he said, “Do you need your windows washed, Alice, by any chance? Because I picked up this new product by the Johnson and Johnson people and I’ve been longing to give it a go.”
Of all the dairy wives, Alice liked one woman, the wife of another milkman, the best. Ginger was everything a Ginger should be—brassy, loud, industrious. But Ginger was already saddled with four kids under the age of six. “I’m going out of my mind!” she’d shout. “I’d like to get together, of course I would, but Alice, I’m snowed under. I honestly am. Maybe we can have tea. Next week, or the week after that, when things here are more under control—” And Alice would hang up the telephone receiver and feel the silence of her own home echoing. It was the only time she actually wanted the baby to cry, just to hear a human voice.
“I brought dress-up?” Bobby announced one night. D-d-d-ress-uhuh-up. He pulled skirts and high heels and hats and slips from an Eaton’s bag and tossed some over to her. “Put these on.”
“These?” Alice lifted a man’s suit coat, a tie, wool trousers. “No, I won’t. I cant. I wouldn’t dare.”
“We’ll have fun. Please? Pretty please?”
But Alice refused, only giving in enough to plonk a hat on Bobby, a red, ladies’ chapeau with a mesh veil that could be brought down over the eyes.
There was a record on the radio in the living room—Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra—and Bobby pulled Alice to the floor to dance. She didn’t know where he’d learned, but he knew everything—the Carolina Shag, Shim Sham, the Lindy Hop. His hat kept falling off. Even with her swollen ankles and her oversized belly, Alice tried to keep up. When the segment ended, they fell laughing onto the couch together and Alice, without thinking, said, “I just love you, Bobby Houston.”
Bobby went quiet.
“I mean,” said Alice. “I didn’t mean—” She shook her head. She found herself telling secrets. She told him about her parents, how her father was the county vet and how her mother had longed to sing professionally and how there’d been three dead babies after Alice, and how her mother had wept the first decade of Alice’s life and then refused to speak for seven more years. She hadn’t started talking again until Alice was out of high school and standing at the door with her suitcase, ready to take a taxicab to the bus station and a future at a secretarial school in Birmingham, as far away as she could conceive of getting and where she had a cousin who would take her in. Alice said, “I knew I ought not to go. I knew she was talking again to keep me home, but I just had to get out of there.” Alice also told Bobby about how she met a fresh boy on the bus and had to report him, about meeting Milton and falling in love and deciding to get married even though she’d vowed she’d be a spinster if marriage meant becoming as dry and used up as her mother. Shyly, she mentioned sexual intercourse, what a welcome surprise it had been to her and how she couldn’t believe married couples ever got out of bed. She was a little embarrassed. To change the subject she said, “Now you. You tell me something scandalous.”
But Bobby began to kiss her. He kissed her forehead with lips as soft and dry as insect wings. He kissed her eyebrows and her cheeks and her chin and the tip of her nose. Her heart beat hard. She didn’t know how to take it. He threaded his fingers through hers, and when he looked up at her, his odd eyes were glassy with tears. “Alice, I wear—” he said and then stopped, his face flaming. He turned his head away from her and his voice dropped.
“Alice, sometimes I wear women’s underwear.”
Alice jerked her hand away, smoothed her skirt over her knees.
Bobby turned to look at her, eyes puffy with hope and fear. He said, “You hate me, don’t you? I know you hate me.” H-h-h-hate.
“How could I hate you?” Alice said, but the words were thick on her tongue. Of course he was right. The place where she loved him sprang a leak; all the affection drained right out. It wasn’t hate that was left, however, but revulsion. He made her sick. She didn’t even feel sorry for him, poor outcast, poor loser. She smoothed her skirt again as if he might try to look up it, and slowly stood. “It’s late, Bobby,” she said with a flat voice. “You should probably go home.”
“I don’t do it very often,” Bobby said, springing up beside her like a puppy, his absurd ladies’ hat tilting rakishly. “I hardly ever do it. Just once in a blue moon, when I clean—once a year, or once every two years, when I can’t stop myself.”
Alice lifted a hand to her sweating neck. “I don’t know why you’d tell me such a thing, Bobby.”
“I thought you’d under—”
“Understand?” she said. It was like saying you’d understand if a tornado hit southern Ontario. Of course she didn’t understand. Bobby Houston was a pervert. She suddenly saw what other people saw when they looked at Bobby—an oddball, somebody who could never fit in and was pathetic for trying. “I think I hear Tracey. Can you let yourself out?”
Women’s underwear! It made her shiver to think of it. She imagined his hairy legs, his belly, and then a pair of her underwear riding his hips—too tight, of course, because she was smaller and she didn’t have all that—equipment—to fit. She looked in on Tracey, who was sleeping soundly, her fat cheeks moist, then went into her bedroom and counted the pairs of underwear in her drawer. Most of them were sensible white cotton panties that went up to her waist, but there were two pairs tucked at the back that Milton had brought home on leave from France. Lacy, tiny as hankies.
Alice got into her pajamas and sat in the den with her knees up listening to a radio play. She heard the front door, her mother-in-law calling, “Yoo-hoo! Alice, dear!” and bringing in a sack of groceries. Dressup clothes were all over the floor, but Alice was immobilized.
“I got pot roast on special, Alice!” Then she noticed the scattered clothing. She bent to pick up a red lace slip. “Where did these things come from?”
“Um,” Alice said, embarrassed and instantly ashamed.
“It’s that milkman fellow, isn’t it, that curious little thing from the Dairy?”
“Tracey and I were just. . .” But Alice petered out. Were just what? Playing dress-up?
“Dear, you can tell me.”
So Alice did.
“Ginger?” said Alice on the telephone a few nights later when she thought loneliness would end up killing her. “Can I run something by you?”
“I have to get the children tucked in. It’s an hour past their bedtimes. Can I call you back?”
“Would you? Would you call me back?”
“Of course I will,” she said, but she did not.
Over the next days, Alice couldn’t get rid of the picture of Bobby Houston in women’s underwear. She imagined him in a bra, a girdle, a merry widow. She imagined him wearing lipstick, rouge and mascara; she imagined him teetering down the street swinging an alligator handbag. She made sure she and Tracey were out of the house—at the library, the market—when it was time for Bobby to deliver her milk. When she got home she’d discover bottles wedged between the screen door and the back door; once a week a bill was tucked in a pristine envelope.
Gradually, though, the picture of Bobby in women’s underwear started wavering like a mirage on asphalt; the shock wore off. She remembered how much fun they’d had. She was ashamed she’d told Milton’s mother, which was sure to stir the gossip pot. Without him, Alice’s existence was as empty as her morning grapefruit rind. She didn’t know how to fill her days. She couldn’t store up outrageous things her mother-in-law said to tell him later; she couldn’t show him how Tracey had learned to crawl with one leg stuck out straight behind her; she couldn’t brag about the scarves she was knitting for the fighting men. She missed him. Bobby had only been confiding a weakness to her, as she had confided various weaknesses to him: that she sometimes dreamed of alternate kinds of husbands, for instance, with more exciting jobs than Milton’s, who made more money than Milton did, who lived in more exotic places, like Toronto. Or that Milton hadn’t been the first boy to kiss her. Bobby had believed he could trust her. Bobby had exposed himself to her, and she had reached right in and ripped out his heart, ripped away the only significant friendship he’d ever made—or for that matter, she’d ever made. So what if the man wore ladies’ panties? As long as they weren’t Alice’s, why should she care? It didn’t mean anything, except that people were complicated. Within a week, she had vowed to renew their friendship and this time never to let Bobby down. When she heard the clop of horse hooves on the street, she wrenched open the front door, grinning. But it wasn’t Bobby delivering; it was Sam Bartholomew, a friend of Milton’s, who said Bobby had been let go.
“Let go?” she said.
Sam said, “I’ve got his route for the next few weeks at least.” He passed her over a quart of Golden Guernsey. “Hear from Milt?”
The milk was cold in her hand. She allowed as to how she’d gotten a letter with bits cut out by censors. “He’s still in France, is all I know.”
Sam eyed her belly. “You doing okay?”
Alice nodded. She didn’t get any sleep because she couldn’t get comfortable. She was getting purple bulges across her calves. Plus she had a network of stretch marks shimmering on her hips. She was huge, one sixty-six. She wanted Milton to come home. She wished Bobby, so handy and happy with chores, could go into labour for her.
She called the dairy for Bobby’s address—Broadway East and Cordova. She wheeled Tracey over. There was litter in the gutters, debris blowing in the breeze down the sidewalks. All the buildings were red brick and square. Sixty-two, sixty-eight, seventy-four—those were all houses. Twelve fifty-six Broadway East was a six-plex, and Alice found Bobby—Robert Houston—listed beside the bell. Bobby stuck his head out a front window.
“It’s me!” Alice called up, waving her handkerchief. “Me and Tracey.”
“I won’t go home!”
“You cant come up!”
“Let me in, Bobby. I came all this way. My feet hurt.”
“You hurt my feelings.”
F-f-f-feelings. Alice looked around to make sure no one was in hearing distance. “Do you want the stork to come here in the street?”
He floated down a key on a long turquoise ribbon. She left the baby carriage on the street, hoping no one would pinch it. She climbed up three floors wearily, both babies heavy as potatoes. It was three in the afternoon, but Bobby was wearing a plaid robe and slippers.
She stood just outside his doorway, panting with exertion.
“You were really mean, Alice,” said Bobby, with his chin absurdly high, his face half averted. His arms were clasped over his chest. “I would never be that mean to you.”
“Give me a lemonade.”
She shoved Tracey at him. He took her and let Alice pass. The apartment surprised her. She’d expected it to be dingy and dim, but it wasn’t. It was tiny but bright and orderly. Pin neat. The furniture wasn’t expensive, but it was nicely set out, with two easy chairs across from a deep chesterfield. There was a working fireplace, with logs snapping and crackling. The walls were kelly green.
Alice pulled a pair of panties she’d stopped for at Eaton’s from her diaper bag and dangled them, grinning.
At once Bobby thawed, as if he hadn’t really been mad. He took on a girlish openness. “Oh, Alice!” he cried and snatched the underwear. “You’re wonderful. I missed you like strawberries in January! Did you miss me?”
I really did! I’m sorry we fought.”
“I’m tickled pink that you’re here,” said Bobby. “You won’t believe what happened.” He bustled around straightening newspapers at the table, moving a coffee cup aside, asking her if she’d like some tea. “Water’s hot.” When he bent to put a stack of magazines on the coffee table, his robe parted and Alice caught a flash of hot pink. She bit her bottom lip. “I heard.”
“Oh, god, what?”
Bobby frowned. “Oh, my job! No, not that. Something wonderful. Something better than wonderful. It’s about Maurice.” He brought in teacups rattling on saucers, a bowl of sugar cubes with silver tongs, a small pitcher of cream.
“Maurice sacked me.”
“Well, yes, I heard.”
“I had to sign a letter of resignation.”
Alice widened her eyes and tilted her head forward.
“He pulled me into his office with some twaddle—” T-t-t-twaddle. “—about embezzlement and how Dave wanted to sack me himself, only Maurice stepped in and said no, it was his duty as my immediate supervisor and how he hadn’t wanted to fire me—he was right against it—but how since I was going anyway, at least he got to tell me, and to tell me how important I am to him and how he wants to keep seeing me!”
“To keep seeing you,” said Alice.
Bobby poured, holding an index finger atop the teapot. “I am on top of the world!”
My float was always short,” said Bobby, waving this irritation away.
“Floats are always short,” said Alice.
“There’s a dance next week.”
Alice wiggled her toes. They felt like small anchors on the ends of her feet. “I hadn’t thought about it. I generally do, but—”
“Morale booster,” said Bobby, then sighed and bit a nail. He peered at the damage. “Victoria Day. I was going to get my white trousers out of storage, but now . . .” He sighed elaborately. “I suppose I wont be invited. Can I trust you, Alice?”
“I mean, really trust you?” Bobby laid a hand over his heart.
Alice nodded slowly.
“Cross your heart and hope to die.”
She did it.
“The thing is,” said Bobby slyly, “I had the weensiest bit of social discourse with Maurice outside the office.”
Alice raised her brows. Tracey had gotten a sugar cube in her tiny fist and was sucking it through her fingers; Alice didn’t bother to stop her.
“He took me to—we went to his club together. Had cocktails at the bar, dinner in the dining room. Did you know the Golf and Country Club has hotel rooms upstairs? For members’ use only?”
“Hotel rooms?” said Alice. She was having trouble keeping up.
“And the next day he called me into his office and dismissed me.”
Then it dawned on Alice what Bobby was telling her. “But men can’t.” She stared at her lap.
“Can,” said Bobby, winking as she looked up.
“And anyway, Maurice Maclean isn’t—he’s a bachelor. He lives with his mother.”
“Is. Oh, deliciously is.”
“You and Maurice Maclean? Together, the two of you do—” She could not say the word “it” or, heavens, bear to think about what “it” might entail.
Oh, Alice, pumpkin, are you living in the Dark Ages?” Bobby snapped his fingers in her face and pushed his glasses up his nose. “This is good news. This is great news!”
This was worse than wearing ladies’ panties, this perversion between her best friend and his boss, her husband’s boss. She peered at Bobby. If he was her best friend, wouldn’t he behave with common decency? He was the one she got to lean on when times were tough, and he got to lean on her, too, didn’t he? Only what if—couldn’t he have social diseases? Couldn’t the baby maybe catch something? She scooped Tracey and held her close, while Tracey, naturally, reached out for Bobby. “Well,” she said. “I see.”
“I may be in love. Yes, Alice, finally in love!” Bobby rose and spun through the room, his housecoat flipping up when he twirled, showing off the ridiculous hot-pink lingerie.
“I don’t see, actually,” said Alice. There was a pause, during which Bobby beamed. “Love?”Alice muttered. “But he sacked you? You’re out of a job?”
“But, if you can believe it, he’s already phoned me. Twice. He wants another go-round. Maybe he’ll fall in love with me! Bobby’s willful hand flew out.
“Maurice Maclean,” said Alice, and the name had an actual acrid taste on her tongue. What objection could she reasonably raise? “But Bobby, he’s old enough to be your father.”
“Yes,” said Bobby with a blissful sigh.
“I don’t think Milt would be pleased,” Ginger said when Alice, over cookies and juice, mentioned that Bobby was coming around again. Ginger’s kids and Tracey were screaming. Ginger had to yell to be heard, and she was only half paying attention. She kept pulling one or another child off the others, threatening time out, no dessert, sitting in the corner, early to bed. “Everybody’s talking about him and you, too. Do you know what you’re doing, Alice?”
“He’s okay,” Alice said. She was crossing her fingers in her lap because she worried she was telling a fib. “Really. He is. He’s a good guy. I’m a good judge of character.”
On Victoria Day weekend, the spring cold snap finally broke, and half the civilized world tilled and seeded victory gardens. Alice was bloated; she couldn’t, didn’t want to, do anything. She craved Milton. The baby was coming down with something—wasn’t the baby coming down with something? She was slick with sweat and endlessly fussy. At the very least she was cutting teeth. Her bottom gum was inflamed, and when Alice ran her finger across it she could feel the sharp promontories of two teeth hiding there, about to pierce poor Tracey with the first great pain of her life. Alice had two teething rings and kept one in the icebox while Tracey sucked the other—quite avariciously, at times shaking her head and growling at it as if she were a puppy with a sock in its mouth. Alice knew she should be,more sympathetic (she did sometimes glance at Tracey and melt with love and pity) but mostly she felt aggrieved. She didn’t understand why Milton wasn’t home at a time like this. She didn’t understand why, when she was nearly nine months pregnant, she also had to have a cranky baby. Secretly, she resented the war effort. She didn’t understand why Bobby, who’d said he’d be there at one to help her plant peas and carrots, was late. He’d been acting hooey all week, on her about the dance, asking did she think anyone would mind if he attended with her?
Yes, yes, she was going to the dance. No, no, she wasn’t going. What did it matter?
“Because,” Bobby had said on Wednesday, “if I can go as your date, I’ll get to see Maurice. Wouldn’t that be divine?” D-d-d-divine. “My Maurice. My sweet Maurice. My very own lovable scoogey-woogey Maurice.”
Alice had closed her eyes.
“He took me to Toronto to the opera,” Bobby said. “He took me to the steam baths.”
“What steam baths?”
“We went to his club again,” said Bobby. Then his tone darkened. “But he says I can’t go to the dance with him. It wouldn’t look proper.”
“Well,” said Alice.
“You don’t agree?”
“I don’t disagree, exactly,” Alice had said carefully.
The telephone had rung while Bobby was still there. It was Maurice Maclean to see how she was getting along. She wrapped herself in the cord and said she was well. “Fine, thank you.”
Bobby had bobbed beside her on the balls of his feet, mouthing,”Who is it?”
She’d turned away from him. “No, thank you, Mr. Maclean,” she said, “there’s nothing we need. Thank you for asking.” She listened.
“Yes, hopefully Milt will be home in time. It’s wonderful that the Dairy is a family to us while Milton is away.”
“That was him, wasn’t it?” Bobby had said when she was off.
“He checks in on all the wives.”
“Phone him back,” Bobby had said. “Tell him I want to go to the dance.”
“I can’t,” Alice had said. “Bobby, I’m sorry, but please understand. He’s Milton’s boss.”
“Pretty please? Pretty please with a cherry on top?”
“It’s just a dance, Bobby. It’s no big deal.”
“You take me then.”
“I can’t. I’m sorry.” People would laugh and stare. People would be terrible to her, and to Bobby too.
Bobby had pushed out his lips and refused to look at her.
That had been three days ago, and now Alice forced herself to go outside, stuffed Tracey into her baby carriage and started banging at the ruins of last year’s garden. It had been cool, but it hadn’t rained. The hoe kept hitting stones, and when she looked around, she saw that
Tracey was about to fall out of the carriage. She righted her and wiped off her teething ring.
Bobby came rolling up the alley like a burr. She saw him from a block away but pretended she didn’t.
“He shouldn’t have fired me!” he said and swiped his cap from his head. When he was mad, his skin became even more translucent.
“Hello to you, too.”
Tracey cooed delight and reached out for Bobby, but he ignored her.
“He didn’t have any right. I could sue.”
“I thought you liked it,” said Alice. “I thought you said Maurice fired you so he could give you special treatment.”
“That was my damned livelihood! What am I going to support myself on now!”
“Don’t,” said Alice. “Language. Tracey.”
“I will sue him,” cried Bobby. “I saw him again on Tuesday, the bastard.”
Alice dropped the hoe and put her hands over Tracey’s ears.
“Nothing. Nothing since then. Nada. Zilch.” Maurice hadn’t called. Hadn’t sent flowers. Hadn’t sent a note. Wouldn’t answer calls Bobby made to the Dairy or his home. So Bobby had gone by his place, had lurked by his place (1-1-1-lurked) until finally Maurice came out, and when Bobby ran up to him, Maurice tossed him aside like an old banana peel.
“He wouldn’t even look at me! He always loved to look at me, especially in underwear.”
Alice didn’t know what to say.
“I followed him, and you know what? There’s someone else. He picked up a man with the biggest nose this side of Lake Huron.” Bobby shivered. “An ugly man. A man probably forty years old. And he took him into the club.” Bobby paused, and his pale eyes glittered. “Do I deserve this, Alice? Do I deserve to be thrown away like an old … Menstrual pad?” M-m-m-menstrual.
Bobby took her by the shoulders. She could smell his breath; vinegar, she thought, as if he’d spooned some onto his tongue and let it dissolve. “Did you decide if you’re going to the dance?”
“Don’t,” said Alice. “I don’t know. Let me go.” She pulled away. She liked him better when he was carefree, like a girlfriend.
“I want to know whether he’s there,” said Bobby. “And what he’s wearing. And whether he drinks. And whether he dances. You dance with him, Alice. Ask him about me.”
The sun was making Alice woozy. “Come inside,” she said.
“I can’t,” said Bobby. “I need to know if you’re going. Are you going?”
“Come have some lemonade.”
But Bobby vanished, jittering down the alley like debris in a windstorm.
Alice thought Bobby would be back that afternoon or evening—maybe they’d have one of his fancy meals and she could gain another five pounds—but he didn’t show up or telephone, then or the next day or on Victoria Day itself. That afternoon, so that Alice could have a liedown, her mother-in-law took Tracey, but when the baby was gone, Alice, though she’d pulled on a negligee, couldn’t sleep. The time without a baby shrieking seemed too precious to waste with unconsciousness. Instead, Alice lingered in front of her makeup mirror, which cut her reflection off above her breasts—Alice could pretend she wasn’t pregnant, was young and free. She applied makeup heavily. Cream, foundation, concealer, eyeshadow, eyeliner, mascara, rouge, lipstick, carefully blotting. She even curled her eyelashes. She batted her eyes at herself. Maybe she would go to the dance. Her mother-inlaw would keep Tracey, and Alice could cut the rug with—why, with Tom or Pete or George, Milt’s 4-F coworkers. Their wives wouldn’t mind sharing them out for a dance apiece. A sudden wave of nausea made her clasp the vanity.
When Bobby called, that was all he wanted to know: “Are you going? We had a deal, right? You’re going?”
“Say you’re going, Alice. You must go.”
“I don’t feel so well, Bobby.”
“I thought I could count on you.”
“I think I might be sick, Bobby. I can’t go to the dance.”
“Go anyhow. Go for me. Alice, I’m begging you. You don’t realize how important this is.”
“No,” said Alice. “I’m sorry, but no.” She clasped her belly.
He slammed down the phone. Alice felt bloated and horrible, and she wondered whether she might be getting mild labour pains. She began to weep; she didn’t know why. She got up and caught sight of herself in the mirror—she looked like a tart, for G-d’s sake. She wet a washcloth and rubbed hard. Really hard, so that she took off not just her makeup but layers of her skin. She called her mother-in-law, begged her to keep Tracey and stayed in bed.
Bobby Houston blasted through her back door at a few minutes after midnight like a snapped electrical wire. Alice was heating a glass of
milk to settle her stomach. Bobby tried but failed to impart something, stuttering the syllables “foe” and “fie.”
She told him to compose himself. She worried that her nipples were showing through her nightgown or that Bobby might want to wear the garment for himself.
Bobby’s glasses had a broken stem; his eyes bugged out of his head. What did Alice see there? Terror? Glee? A vein shook on his forehead. Two fingers jabbed out at nothing. His face was red. He’d been running and was out of breath.
“Telephone,” he finally managed, and, “Fire.”
The Dairy’s dance? At Elk Hall? Just seven blocks from where they stood?
“People are falling!” Fa-fa-falling.
“What people?” yelled Alice. “What people?”
Later Alice wouldn’t remember the blocks she and Bobby covered together, her housecoat flowing out behind her like a cape. But there were images that never faded: the wail, first, of fire trucks and ambulances, one of which roared past Alice and Bobby as they ran; the terrible heat that latched onto Alice’s throat; the sight of smoke obscuring the tops of the apartment buildings; and then Elk Hall itself, a twostory brick building engulfed in flames. But this wasn t the worst. The screams and the sight of bodies littered around the cement, then tripping over someone’s shoes, finding her friend Ginger’s purse with its hasp open, its contents spilled and sooty. Stumbling around people, calling out the names of friends, finding Tom McIntyre blackened with smoke, his hair burnt off, clutching his leg where the femur poked through the fabric of his trousers, the white shattered bone like a fence post. Finding Ginger, at last, in a yard two yards over, where she’d apparently stumbled as she burned; bending over her. Ginger’s skin had peeled like birch bark.
Ten people died, including Ginger, and forty-eight more were seriously injured. Maurice Maclean, the only one of the Maclean brothers to attend, was on the critical list. He’d broken both wrists, some ribs and his back, and his burns were third degree, covering one-quarter of his body. The flash fire had broken out in the cloakroom, but how or why it had started remained a mystery. It had exploded up the stairs just as a Paul Jones tune started to play—the last dance of the night. The seventy people who had managed to escape were either pushed or jumped twenty-five feet from the two small second-floor windows. The newspapers reported the toll of dead and dying like a telegram from some new war. All week Bobby sat in Alice’s kitchen with the Birmingham Daily and the Toronto papers, assiduously cutting out articles.
“Listen to this, Alice,” he’d start and then read to her while she rocked Tracey.
“‘Virginia Marstock, thirty-one, wife of John Eric, 233 East Avenue, daughter of Mr and Mrs. Michael Williams of this city, was deceased on the scene. She leaves four children, John Jr., Virginia Claire, Michael Bartholomew III and Patricia Anne. She was born to this city and had been a lifelong resident. She was a member of St. John’s Presbyterian Church and is survived by, besides her husband, children and parents, two brothers Tom and Michael Jr., and three sisters, Jane, Lois and Margaret (Mrs. Earl Frawke).”‘ Fr-fr-fr-Frawke.
“Stop, Bobby! Stop! Ginger was my friend.”
“But there’s more. Listen. ‘Funeral services were held this afternoon for Mr. and Mrs. Alexander J. Petrie, Mr. John McKenzie, Mr. and Mrs. Roy Fontaine and Mrs. John Marstock, six of the fire victims.”‘
Alice shot up. “I know there was a funeral! I was there! What’s wrong with you! Why must you torture me with this?” She was still wearing her good black dress, her sensible pumps. She pulled Tracey’s head hard against her chest.
“‘Margaret Crawford,'” Bobby went on, Cr-cr-cr-Crawford. “‘Wife of James W. Muir,12 Graham Avenue South, was born in Scotland and was in her forty-third year. She had lived in Birmingham for twentyone years and was highly esteemed by her many friends throughout this district. Surviving, besides her husband, are one son and three daughters. The remains are resting at the J. G. Pearl Funeral home until ten-thirty o’clock Monday morning and will then be conveyed to St. John’s Anglican Church for service at three o’clock. Interment will be made in the Freemont Cemetery.”‘
“Shut up!” said Alice. “Cant you please for five minutes just shut up?”
“Ahh,” said Bobby, reading. “They’ve removed a pail—” P-p-p-pail. “—into which people emptied cigarette butts. What do you think that means?” He took off his glasses, swabbed his face and examined the tape holding them together.
“Can’t you please?” said Alice grabbing the newspapers. Ten dead, five funerals, twelve orphans. Bobby went on and on—Elk Hall had been ordered to put in a fire escape, but building materials had been in short supply with the war. Guess who was still on the critical list? And who Bobby couldn’t get in to see? “Even though we’re so close,” said Bobby. “They just discount that. They say, ‘Family only,’ as if family means so much.”
Bobby stumbled in one afternoon saying he’d finally gotten in to see Maurice and it was true; he hung by a spidery thread to life.”He didn’t know me!”
“He’s in critical condition,” said Alice flatly and went back to cutting onions.
Bobby went into a pout.
“I’m making stew,” said Alice. She turned to look at him. “Did you notice? The peas have germinated. When I planted the seeds, Ginger was alive.”
Bobby crossed his arms over his chest.
“My mother-in-law’s coming for dinner, Bobby. You have to go.” Bobby unfolded himself. “Here’s what they’re about to announce: It was arson.”
“What do you mean it was arson?”
“The fire. Someone set it.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Joe Ferrare with the Chronicle told me. They’re going to announce that it started in the burlap cover of a chair in the cloakroom. It took thirty seconds to engulf the stairwell, Alice. Thirty seconds! I wish I’d seen that!” Bobby’s glasses glinted.
Alice turned to confront him. “Didn’t you see enough, Bobby? Didn’t you get a good enough look when people were falling from the windows like human torches?” She could feel her bottom lip curling. “Bobby, my best friend died. I knew every one of those ten people, Bobby, and all the rest that are still suffering. I was almost at that dance. Okay? Get out. Go home. Go get a job.”
“But Alice,” Bobby said and subsided into a chair.
“Out. I mean it,” said Alice. She pointed at the door with her chopping knife.
Bobby said, “You don’t mean get out.”
“I do mean get out. Get out, Bobby Houston, get out and don’t come back!” She stabbed at the air with the knife. “You’re perverted and you’re morbid and I hate how you keep rubbing this in. I just hate it. Go!”
“Alice, you don’t mean it.”
“I do mean it, Bobby! Go.”
And Bobby went.
Alice couldn’t get out of bed. The pregnancy wiped her out. Her eyes fluttered open to the sound of Tracey fussing in her crib, hungry and wet, and then fell shut. Finally she came to consciousness because her mother-in-law was shaking her shoulder.
“Alice, wake up. Get up. We need to talk.”
Tracey was crying at the top of her lungs.
“All this time it was Bobby Houston.”
“What? Bobby? What happened to Bobby?”
“He’s in jail.”
At that moment a labour pain hit; Alice didn’t really care. Bobby set the fire? she thought. Bobby, a murderer? A conviction came over her as the contraction grew: if she had gone to the dance, no one would have died. Or would Bobby have tried to kill her, too?
Vaguely, she was aware of her mother-in-law gathering diapers and clothing, of her mother-in-law lifting Tracey from the crib. Alice pulled up her nightgown, and she and her mother-in-law watched as her stomach forced itself upwards into the shape of an egg. The pain began, but Alice noticed it only at a remove. She thought: Alice is in labour. Alice is about to have a second baby.
The baby was a boy, a seven-pound, fourteen-ounce soldier with wisps of black hair that stood out from his scalp. He didn’t giggle as Tracey always had, but seemed rather to have been born carrying a burden. He grew up to be an accountant for the Royal Bank and married when he was only twenty-one years old—the same week, in fact, that Bobby Houston died in jail. Maurice Maclean, badly disfigured, didn’t return to work at the Dairy, his interest bought out by his older brother. He made a killing playing the horses and on the stock market. He lived with his mother at first, then moved into a high rise on Franklin Street with a financier named Mr. Gilhooley.
Milt came home from the war when Michael was two months old. He heard all the details about Bobby Houston from his mother, but he acted as if he had not. He settled back into their old life and let Alice and the children settle back into it alongside him. Breakfast at six; a quick cup of tea together when he delivered their milk in the afternoon; dinner promptly at five. Pork chops, ham steaks and spaghetti once each week; fish on Fridays; pot roast on Sundays after church. When little Tracey saw Bobby Houston’s mugshot in the newspaper, she snatched at it, crumpling it, but whether it was to bring Bobby Houston back or to send him further away, Alice never figured out.
If you are a student, faculty member, or staff member at an institution whose library subscribes to Project Muse, you can read this piece and the full archives of the Missouri Review for free. Check this list to see if your library is a Project Muse subscriber.
Want to read more?Subscribe Today
SEE THE ISSUE
Jun 19 2020
Joy Comes in the Morning
I went over to Rosalind’s house because the Sunday Sisters had gathered to pray for me. I told them I didn’t believe in God but attended services with my mother
Jun 19 2020
O’Herlihy (Née Noonan)
On the second of April 1923 she was born in the main bedroom of the family home, in Drumcondra. Her colour was deep blue. The thundery richness of this blue,
Jun 19 2020
My mother’s birdwatching mania began with my fourteenth birthday, when she gave me a pair of exorbitantly priced binoculars she’d bought from an enthusiast in Lexington, Kentucky. They weighed as