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Country editors boy, p.27
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       Country Editor's Boy, p.27

           Hal Borland
 
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  Mother smiled that all-knowing smile. “Just as well. You two were getting pretty thick.”

  I bit back my answer, knowing that anything I said would just prolong an argument I didn’t want. I didn’t know what was going on in Mother’s mind, but whatever it was it was it didn’t need any further fueling, especially from me. I went over to the drug store, found Little Doc, and we agreed to go to the movies that evening, just the two of us. I had quit running the projector the previous summer, so we would have to pay our way. But a Norma Talmadge picture was on.

  Nothing was said about Marjorie at supper, but I thought from their looks that Father and Mother had been talking about something that involved me. Father kept watching Mother and kept the conversation general and harmless, and Mother was more tense than usual, and quieter. But we got through supper and I said I was going to the movies and added, pointedly, “Little Doc and I, and nobody else.” Mother was on the point of saying something, but Father cut in and said, “Run along. Enjoy yourself. Nobody is going to sit up waiting for you.” He glanced at Mother as he said that, and I grabbed my jacket and got out of the house quickly.

  We went to the movie, Little Doc and I, and afterward went over to the drug store and he made sodas for us both. We sat there talking about the picture and I said, “Who does Norma remind you of, right here in Flagler?”

  “Who?”

  “Mabel Seal.”

  “Hey, she does, a little! What do you know!” He grinned. “I’ll bet Norma can’t hunt ducks the way Mabel can, though.”

  And I remembered Mabel with a shotgun, at the pond in November. I had watched her, from up on the hill near the school, because she was such a good wing-shot. “How old do you suppose she is?” I asked.

  “Mabel? About Emp’s age. He used to date her once in a while. She went to Denver, you know. And got married. And divorced.”

  I nodded. I had heard the gossip, too. And the stories that went around school. At school they said it was an impulsive marriage that didn’t work so she got out. None of the young folks blamed her. But among some of the town’s older women, and more tight-laced younger ones, divorce was rated almost as sinful as bastardy.

  We said no more about her, and I went on home a few minutes later. Nobody was waiting up for me, but Father called from the front bedroom, “Is that you, son?” I said yes and good night, and went to my back bedroom. And lay awake, thinking first about the movie and Norma Talmadge and then about Mabel Seal. I was surprised at the things I remembered about her. The way she laughed, how she walked, the tones of her voice. And when I slept I dreamed about Mabel and Norma, all mixed up.

  The next day when I went downtown to get the Sunday Denver Post I stopped at the News office before I went home. I had a key, and I went in and got out the subscription list and went through the Denver subscribers till I found her name and address. I copied the address and that evening, with the excuse of having some writing to do, presumably homework, I sat in my room and wrote a letter about the weather and what was going on at school and how the pond looked after the February melt. I mailed it to her the next morning when I got the office mail.

  Getting the morning mail had been one of my daily chores, a part of helping Father open the News office and get the day started before I went to school. Some days, in the past, I had forgotten the mail, but from then on I didn’t have to be reminded. There were two mail trains from Denver a day, one early in the day, the other in midafternoon, but most of the first class mail came in the morning. I didn’t know whether to expect a reply or not, but I went through the letters every morning before I took the mail down to the office and put it on Father’s desk.

  A week later the letter came, in a gray envelope addressed in a firm, unfamiliar, feminine handwriting with blue ink. I thrust it into an inside pocket and couldn’t wait to leave the office and start to school. Then I opened it, drew out the single page and read it quickly, just to know that it was a reply. Then I read it word for word. She thanked me for writing to her. She said she was homesick for the plains. She wanted me to tell her all about them. Please write again when I had time. There wasn’t one sentimental word in it, but she signed it, “Love, Mabel.”

  That evening I wrote to her again. I told her how the February thaw was progressing, how the slew was filling up, that I had heard the coyotes howling a few nights before, and that a few horned larks were back already. And the next day, after I had mailed it, I kept watching and listening for things to tell her. After school I went down to Seal’s slew—it really was at the pond stage, at that time of the year—to see what was happening at first hand. And the next day I went out onto the flats east of town and listened for a meadow lark. But it was too early for meadow larks, so I looked for signs of life at a big ant hill, and I found ants at work. I saw a ground squirrel out, looking lean and hungry. And in her next reply Mabel said she loved my letters, that they made her see and hear what was happening.

  It was an early spring. I hadn’t watched the birds, the grass, the wild flowers, the ants, even the clouds and the sunsets, so observantly since we left the homestead. And I had never before tried to put into words on paper what I saw. I wonder now why none of my teachers ever tried to rouse my interest in that world around me enough to get me to write about it as classwork. None of them did, perhaps because it was too close at hand, too familiar, too commonplace, even though none of them knew much about it. Instead, they assigned topics such as reviews of “classic” books, essays about what we hoped to do when we finished school, descriptions of scenes or characters in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

  Through February and March I did my schoolwork with my left hand and gave most of my attention to the things I was writing about to Mabel. I wrote long, detailed letters full of the coming of spring to the High Plains. And she wrote warm, generous letters to me, usually with some amusing thing about her life in Denver, which she said was very dull.

  Then one afternoon the first week in April the inevitable happened. A letter from Mabel came in the afternoon mail. When I went down the steps to the News office after school I saw Mother, at the desk, glance over her shoulder, see it was me, then not even look up when I went in. I said hello and hung up my jacket, and I felt the tension. Father, at the back of the office, was wrapping out-of-town copies of the News—it was publication day; he glanced at me, drew a deep breath, and waited. Mother said, “Here’s a letter that came in the afternoon mail.” Her voice was icy. She held up the gray envelope with Mabel’s handwriting, and with her return address on the back.

  I took the letter and stood there a moment, not knowing what to do or say. “Well,” Mother said, “aren’t you going to open it?”

  I tore it open. There was only one page. She said my letters had made her so homesick she was coming down to Flagler for a few days and didn’t I want to meet her at the train? She would be on the afternoon train Friday. That would be tomorrow. I read it through and put it back into the envelope and thrust it into my pocket, undoubtedly blushing. I said, “It’s from Mabel Seal.”

  “I saw her name on the envelope,” Mother said coldly. “Her maiden name, just as though she had never been married and divorced.” She made divorce a dirty word.

  I knew I had to say it, get it said. “She is coming down from Denver tomorrow on the afternoon train. I’m going to meet her at the depot.”

  “You can’t do that!”

  “Why not?” It was Father speaking. He had come from the back of the office, a stubby little man almost an inch shorter than I was but a commanding figure just in the way he stood and looked at her, even in his ink-stained printer’s apron, a smudge on his flushed cheek. “Why not?” he asked again.

  Mother gasped. “Will Borland, are you in on this too?”

  “I don’t know what you mean, in on this. But there’s no reason in the world he can’t go down to the depot and meet Mabel Seal, if he wants to. It’s time you stopped treating him like a six-year-old.”

  Mother
took off her nose-glasses and wiped her eyes with her handkerchief. Wanting to put an end to the scene, I took the letter from my pocket. “Here, read it yourself, if you think she’s so awful!” I started to hand it to Mother but Father caught my arm.

  “It’s your letter,” he said. “You don’t have to show it to anyone.” Then, to Mother, “He’s my son too, and he’s going to get a chance to grow up.”

  “This isn’t the first letter you’ve had from her,” Mother said, biting her lip to check herself.

  “No. We’ve been writing to each other—”

  “Behind my back!” It burst out of her. She turned to Father. “You don’t care how you hurt me, either of you!” And she sprang to her feet, grabbed her coat from the hook, slammed the door behind her before she had even put the coat on.

  We watched her run up the steps to the street. Then Father went back to the long table at the rear of the shop and went on wrapping papers, one by one. After a few minutes he said, “You can bundle them,” and I got the ball of twine and gathered each pile of wrapped papers, which he had grouped by states, and tied them into bundles. Father finished the wrapping. I tied the last bundle, then took them to the post office.

  When I returned, Father was at the basin washing up. He soaped his hands and arms deliberately with the gray bar of Lava soap, worked the lather into his skin and around his nails, then slowly rinsed it off. As he dried himself on the worn huck towel he said, “Mabel’s a nice girl, far as I know. I always liked her.”

  “What’s Mother got against her?” I asked.

  “Well, for one thing, Mabel’s another woman. Much as she likes Marjorie Miner, your mother got pretty touchy when you took Marjie out a few times. I guess she said more to me about it than she did to you.”

  “And,” I said, “Mabel’s been married.”

  “Oh, yes, that makes it ten times worse. It doesn’t matter why she got the divorce. I’ve heard it was one of those intolerable situations and she showed good sense to get out of it, fast.”

  “What can I do about it? The way Mother feels, I mean?”

  “Nothing. Nothing in the world. That’s the way your Mother is. She loves you. She’d do anything in the world for you. Except let you run your own life. Or pick the woman you want to marry.”

  “I don’t want to marry Mabel Seal! She’s—she’s just a good friend.”

  “And, as I said, another woman.” Father hung up the towel, poured his wash water down the drain, and rolled down his sleeves. Then he sat down on the edge of his desk and rolled a fresh cigarette. “Remember how your mother and my mother never could get along?” he asked. “My mother—your Grandmother Borland—never did like Sarah. They were like two cats, clawing and spitting. That’s one reason we moved away from Sterling and came to Colorado.” He sighed. “I hope it won’t be the same way with your mother and whoever you eventually marry. But don’t be surprised if she rears up and goes on a rampage about any girl you get interested in.”

  He took a deep pull on his cigarette, let the smoke out slowly, and said, “Well, we’d just as well go on home. She’ll be in bed with a sick headache, if I know the signs. We’ll get ourselves something to eat. Bacon and eggs do for you?”

  He put on his coat and hat and I turned off the lights at the back of the shop. We went up the stairs in the first dimness of April dusk. At the corner Father paused a moment, then turned toward the drug store. “Better get some headache powders. Save a trip back.”

  22

  ONLY TWO PEOPLE BESIDES the station agent were at the depot when I got there, ten minutes before train time, a farmer and his wife from up north. I knew them only by sight, but they knew me. They were in the waiting room and she said they were meeting her brother, coming down from Denver. I couldn’t sit down. I had to get back outside, walk, work off some of the tensions. I walked to the end of the brick platform and stood there looking south—and didn’t see a thing. I was thinking about the scene at the office the previous afternoon, and what Father said after Mother left us. I thought of the silence and the darkness when we went home, Father and I, and how he went into the front bedroom and tried to talk to her and came out and closed the door and shook his head and said, “Let’s get something to eat.” And later, two hours later, he went in again and I heard voices and he came out and got a glass of water and one of the headache powders. Before he went back he said, “You’d just as well go on to bed, son.”

  I remembered this morning, when Father said, “Your mother’s still sick. Don’t bother with the chores at the office. I’ll get over there after while and take care of things.” Then, before I left the house for school, he said, “Better put on the clothes you want to wear to meet the train so you won’t have to come home.” And added, “Don’t worry about your Mother. She’ll be all right in another day or two.”

  So there I was, at the depot, in the clothes I had worn to school, fawn-colored corduroys, a black turtleneck jersey, the jacket from my gray herringbone suit, my “good suit.” And wondering what to say, what to do, when she got off the train. Whether to kiss her, or shake hands, or just say hello. I felt as though I had known her for years, and actually I had never even walked across the street with her, just the two of us, never talked to her alone, never even sat in a class with her at school.

  Mr. Groves arrived in his truck, bringing the outgoing mail sacks, waiting to take the incoming mail to the post office. He asked if I was going somewhere and I said, “No. I’m meeting a friend.” And just then the train whistled for the crossing two miles west of town. There was a smudge of smoke and a faint clack on the rails, and a moment later another echoing shriek as the whistle was blown for a milepost. Then it was in plain sight, coming up the track, straight at me, it seemed. The brakes hissed and squealed, the bell clanged, the train slowed, and the big black locomotive crept past the depot. The station agent hauled the four-wheeled baggage truck toward the open door of the baggage car, and the train eased to a stop with a long, dying hiss of air. The conductor clanked his sheet-iron box step on the platform, and a pudgy man with a salesman’s sample case came down the steps. Behind him was a tall, lean young man who waved to the farmer and his wife, the expected brother. And behind him came Mabel. The conductor reached up, swung her suitcase down, gave her his hand, and she came down the steps, saw me, exclaimed, “Hello! You are here!” and hugged me with one arm, looked up, and said, “I’m so glad!”

  I had forgotten how small she was, only an inch or two over five feet. Her face was rounded, her eyes brown and crinkly at the corners when she laughed. She had a small, snubby nose, a rather wide mouth, a firm, round chin. She wore a simple little hat at a perky angle and she had a ruffly white blouse under her dark suit. I thought she was beautiful, and I couldn’t think of a word to say after I said hello. She sensed it. “It seems forever,” she said, looking around, “since I’ve been home.” And I didn’t know whether it was defiance or fear or excitement that made her eyes look the way they did.

  The conductor shouted, “All aboooard,” the locomotive chuffed, the bell clanged, the train began to move, and there we were, alone on the depot platform. Mabel looked south, toward the flats, then north, toward the town, and she drew a deep breath. Her lips set in a firm, straight line. Then she looked up at me and smiled and said, “Let’s go!” I picked up her suitcase, she took my arm, and we went across the lot to the foot of Main Street.

  As we started up Main Street she said, under her breath, “Talk to me,” and she looked up at me, listening, as we walked.

  I said the first thing I could think of. “There are ducks on the pond.”

  “Ducks? Already?”

  “Yes.”

  “How many? What kind?”

  “Four pairs of mallards and three pairs of canvasbacks.”

  “Any teal?”

  “I haven’t seen a teal yet.”

  “If it was October instead of April we could go duck hunting tomorrow.”

  The Lavington garage was just ahe
ad of us. Several older men were loafing in the big open doorway. They were watching us.

  “Teal,” she said, “keep you on your toes. Canvasback or mallard is better eating, maybe, but any dub can shoot them.”

  “I’m one of those dubs,” I said. “I seem to be too slow a wing-shot to get many teal.”

  She laughed. It was one of those laughs that starts as a chuckle and becomes a soft, happy, rippling sound that makes you want to smile, just hearing it. “I’ll bet you use a big old twelve-gauge. You’d be a lot faster with a sixteen.”

  We were in front of the garage. She turned her head and smiled at the men in the doorway and greeted one of them by name, a grizzled man old enough to be her grandfather. He gave her a broad, pleased smile, said, “Why, hello, Mabel!” and swept off his black broad-brimmed hat in respect. All the others at least touched their hat brims. I glanced at the garage office door, remembering for the first time that Mabel was, in a way, related to the Lavingtons. Her older brother, Clyde, was married to Leon’s older sister. But there was no sign of Leon at the door or at his desk.

  Mabel glanced up at me and her eyes crinkled at the corners as she said, “And that’s the way it happened, just as simply as that!” She said it loud enough for the men to hear, and she gave me a quick little wink. I was baffled for an instant, then surprised even myself by saying, “It’s wonderful that you found them at all!”

  “It was luck,” she said, “just a matter of luck. They really are quite rare. Did you ever see any?”

  “I saw a pair of them once, out on the river. But they were awfully skittish. I never saw them again.”

  “They are very shy. What do you suppose they eat?”

  “Red clover, when they can find it. But alfalfa too, if it is in bloom.”

 
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