Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
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: G D Y N I A.
"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?"
"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?"
"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?"
"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 good-bye.
"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...
Copyright © 2001 by Alice Munro. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.