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Country editors boy, p.28
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       Country Editor's Boy, p.28

           Hal Borland
 
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“That must be what makes their breath so sweet!”

  She was almost laughing as she said it. But with the nonsense talk we had passed the pool hall and Cuckow’s garage and the café. It was half past four and there were not many people on the street, but as we approached the post office several high school girls and two older women came out, heard us, and turned to stare. Mabel waved to the high school girls and they said, “Hello,” and she greeted the women, “Hello, Nellie! Oh, Ida! How are you?” But she never paused or missed a step. They both said surprised hellos and obviously would have liked to stop and talk, but we went on, past the bank corner, across the side street, past the Congregational parsonage.

  We were almost at the Seal house before Mabel stopped, caught her breath, and let it out in an audible sigh. She looked past a vacant lot, out across the flats all the way to the horizon. “Home,” she said quietly. “It’s still here, just as you said it was in your last letter.” Then we went on, and she said, “What were we talking about, anyway?”

  “Snarks,” I said.

  “Oh, you know your Lewis Carroll?”

  “That’s from Jack London,” I said. “He called his boat the Snark, after some legendary animal, I think.”

  She didn’t correct me or even mention The Hunting of the Snark, which I had never heard of. She said, “I’m so glad you were there to meet me.”

  We were almost at her father’s house. “So am I. And I was wondering, if you aren’t going to be busy tonight—”

  “It’s a date. Why don’t you come over around seven-thirty or a quarter of eight?”

  “I’ll be here.”

  We were turning in at the gate. I went to the front door with her and she took the suitcase and said, “Thank you. See you tonight,” and went inside.

  I went back downtown feeling that the world had somehow taken on new dimensions, sensing it but not knowing quite how or in which way it was so different. The wind was softer, the sky was bluer, the sun seemed warmer. And something inside me was singing.

  At the News office Father, who was distributing type from the paper’s forms, said, “Hello. Meet that train?”

  “Yes.” I took off my jacket and hung it up.

  “She was on it?”

  “Yes.”

  Father went to the stone for another handful of type. He seemed full of something he wanted to say, something exciting. But he went back to the case and began distributing the type without saying it. Finally he said, “Going out tonight, I suppose.”

  “Yes.” I put on my printer’s apron and was ready to help distribute type. But Father said, “No need to get yourself all inked up. There’s a couple of clean jobs I left for you to do.” He pointed toward the back of the shop. “I printed two orders of billheads that you can make up into pads. And when you’re through with that you can cut up some letterhead-size bond. We’re about out. You can cut about ten reams of twenty-pound Hammermill.”

  He hesitated, and I thought again that there was something else he was about to say. But he turned back and went on distributing type and I went about the clean, easy jobs, thinking about Mabel. She had a sense of fun that was brand new to me. Like that nonsense talk. I wondered where she would want to go, what she would want to do, that evening.

  Then Father said it was quitting time and we washed up. While he was drying his hands he said, “Why don’t you go down to the café and have supper? I’ll do whatever needs to be done at home.” Then he added, “By tomorrow your mother probably will be feeling better.” He went over and leaned against the edge of his desk and rolled a cigarette, relaxing as he so often did at the end of a day. He put away the papers and the bag of Bull Durham, lighted a match, got his smoke going, and looked at me with a little smile. “Can you keep something to yourself?” he asked.

  “Sure I can.”

  He inhaled deeply, slowly let it out in a thin cloud, then said, “There are going to be some changes around here. Big changes.”

  I waited, knowing he had to come to it his own way.

  “Before the year is out. Maybe by next fall.”

  I still waited.

  “Dick Goodman was in town today. You’ve heard me talk about Dick. He worked out of Omaha when I was there. He’s with the Western Newspaper Union in Denver now.”

  I vaguely remembered the name.

  “Dick knows where I can pick up a linotype, a good one, for less than half what a new one would cost.”

  “Wonderful!” I said.

  He didn’t respond. He sat looking at his cigarette a long moment, smiling to himself, before he looked up at me and said, “Dick had a talk with Ed Gibson before he came to see me, and—well, Dick had the word I’ve been waiting for.”

  And I knew that, not the linotype, was the big, exciting thing. “Mr. Gibson is ready to sell you the Progress!”

  He lifted a hand in caution. “Not a word, not even to your mother. I’ll tell her, when the time comes. It won’t be for a while yet, maybe till the end of the summer, but it’s going to happen, just as sure as God made little green apples!” He looked around the office, his eyes glowing. “I started in here with a shirttail full of battered old type and two job presses, and one of these days soon I’m going to have the best damn print shop in this end of the state. And,” he added softly, “the only paper in town.”

  He threw away his cigarette, put on his coat, set his hat at a jaunty angle. But before he went out the door he turned and asked, “Got enough money? For supper, I mean, and for tonight?”

  “I’ve got enough.”

  “Well, I’ll go along home. Lock up when you leave.” And he went up the stairs with a spring in his step that I hadn’t seen in a long time.

  I went down to the café and ate supper at the counter, thinking about Father and the News. The Progress, now that I thought about it, had been losing business, or at best standing still, ever since the election that put the Democrats back in power in the state. Mr. Gibson was getting along in years. And when he was ready to sell out he could tell someone like Dick Goodman and not have to come to Father and in effect say, “I’m licked, please buy me out.” Dick Goodman would tell Father and the deal could be arranged without hurting Mr. Gibson’s pride.

  I ate and went back to the office and leafed through the Burlington Record and the Hugo Range-Ledger, and the Limon Leader, just going through the motions, hardly reading a word. A jumble of things was surging through my mind—Father and Ed Gibson, high school and Chautauqua, college and a linotype. They wouldn’t unscramble, but the more I thought about them the less it mattered. When I looked at the clock it was twenty-five minutes of eight. I slicked down my hair with a wet comb, turned out the lights, locked the door, and left.

  Mabel answered the door when I knocked. She was wearing a dark red corduroy skirt and a sweater that matched, a color that made her dark hair look black and her skin very pink. She said, “Come on in while I get a wrap,” and I stepped into the front room. But before I could even sit down she came back with a brown tweed coat. I held it for her, and as we went out she said, “I borrowed Clyde’s car.”

  We went around the house to where the Model T was parked in front of the stable. “You drive,” Mabel said, and I opened the door, helped her in, then set the spark and throttle levers and went to the front and cranked it. We didn’t own a car, but I had learned to drive while we lived in Brush. Harold Gray, whose father owned the Ford agency, showed me how so he and I could go places after he broke his wrist cranking a balky car. You didn’t have to have a driver’s license in those days, and there was no minimum age. So now I let the motor warm up a bit, then got behind the wheel and backed the car out to the street and asked, “Where shall we go?”

  “Let’s go out the Seibert road. And maybe stop at Kit Carson Hill. It’s been years since I’ve been there.”

  I drove down the back street, past the church and the blacksmith shop, down to the grain elevator, then turned east on the gravel road that paralleled the railroad. It was a beautiful nig
ht, mild for mid-April, clear and calm. The car was a touring car with the top down, so the smell of the night came at us from all sides, mostly the faint smell of grass starting to grow again, though there still was only a hint of green on the hills in daylight.

  Mabel’s hair began to blow, and she tied a silk scarf over it and looked like a gypsy girl. I said, “Now all you need is big gold hoops in your ears and you can tell fortunes.”

  “Want me to tell yours?”

  “Sure, go ahead.”

  She took my right hand and held it in front of her in the darkness. She couldn’t see a line in it, but she said, “After a troubled youth you will have a long, happy life.” Then she said, “Why, you have a square, practical hand, almost like mine! Not long, slim fingers like poets are supposed to have.”

  “Who said I was a poet?”

  “You write like one, sometimes. You could be an author, if you wanted to. You can do just about anything you want to, with those hands. And being a man,” she added. “My hands are square and practical, but I have to fight even to do what I know has to be done…. But I’m not going to talk about me.”

  “I wish you would.”

  After a long moment she asked, “Why did you write to me?”

  “Because—well, I saw a movie with Norma Talmadge, and she reminds me of you.”

  “Oh? Thank you!”

  “And I remember you hunting ducks at the pond.”

  “And hated me because I’m a better wing-shot?”

  “And I remembered the way you walk.”

  “How do I walk?”

  “With your feet straight, not duck-footed. And from the hips, not the knees like most girls do. Did you notice, we were in step all the way up from the depot?”

  She laughed. “I learned to walk trying to keep up with three brothers. You never had a sister, did you?”

  “No.”

  “Too bad…. Am I what you expected?”

  “You’re more fun to be with and talk to.”

  “Thanks for a real compliment…. Why do you think I answered you?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “I was lonely and I was homesick. And I remembered you, too. You always seemed to be nice.” She chuckled. “There’s a compliment for you…. I hoped you would tell me about home. Not the gossip. I knew enough about that. But about the wind and the sky and the birds and the coyotes and the grass. I needed to know they were still here. And you told me.”

  I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know that was what I had been doing in my letters, but I couldn’t very well say that.

  A jack rabbit started to cross the road, was caught in the car’s headlight beam, and loped down the road ahead of us. It looked like a female heavy with young, and she ran so slowly we began to gain on her. Finally I slowed down and let her get off the road. When she finally dodged to safety Mabel said, “That’s another reason. I knew you wouldn’t be cruel. To anything.”

  Self-conscious, I said, “All I really know about you is—”

  “What people say,” she said with a flick of bitterness.

  “I was going to say the way you talk and the way you laugh and the way your nose wrinkles—”

  “And the way I walk. Don’t forget to mention that!”

  “You’re not at all like Norma Talmadge. You’re just you, I guess.”

  And just then, directly in front of us on the eastern horizon, the rim of a moon two days past the full appeared, blood red. We were on the hill just west of the river, the whole valley in deep shadow in front of us. I pulled over to the right, parked, and turned off the lights. We sat in silence as the moon rose, first that fragment of the rim, then a slice like a banana, then a half moon; and, more swiftly than seemed possible, a moon so big it looked three times the size of a normal full moon. It seemed to leap into the sky and there it hung, only a hand’s breadth above the horizon, still red but not blood red, more the color of a copper penny that has gone through fire.

  Mabel whispered, “I’ll bet you arranged it, just for me.”

  “Of course I did.”

  We sat and watched it rise another hand’s span. Then it began to slow down. Such a moonrise seems to happen on a special schedule, twice as fast as usual. Physicists explain it in terms of light and refraction, but to me it is just a special High Plains moonrise. Finally Mabel said, “Let’s go. I want to sit on Kit Carson Hill in the moonlight and see the whole world spread out in front of us.”

  We drove on down the slope, making an artificial moonset in the east as we dropped into the shadow of the valley, and then climbed the road that skirted the big hill. I parked the car and we climbed the hill on foot, up into the moonlight again, to the place where the stones were set in a rough square in the grass. Off to the west was the dim glow of Flagler with a few tiny sparkles. On a hilltop to the south, maybe two miles away, was the brief flicker of a moving light, probably a farmer going to the barn or the outhouse. To the north was only the deep shadow of the valley and its enclosing hills. It was, as she had said, the world spread out in front of us, with the tremendous dark bowl of sky over it.

  We sat down in the grass, which was dry as at midday; dew on the hilltops is rare in that high country. In the western sky were only a few stars, the bright ones not yet overwhelmed by moonlight. Sirius, the dog star, and Orion, the hunter, and Castor and Pollux, the twins. High in the northern sky was Ursa Major, the big bear or dipper, upside down. And Polaris, the pole star, and below and to the left the big, irregular “W” of Cassiopeia. I pointed them out and Mabel said, “I won’t remember, but tell me their names again.”

  We listened and far up the valley was the yelp of a coyote, then an answering yelp. Coyotes, like dogs, howl at the moon, and those two soon sounded like half a dozen with their warbling, ululating cries. I thought of kit foxes, wondered if I could tell her about George Sebastian. I started to, hesitated, and she said, “Go on. I want to hear it.” I went on, and it was easier to tell in the quiet of the night. I even told her what he said about Nell Bainbridge. Mabel said nothing for some time after I had finished, just sat looking at the moonlit distance. Finally she said, “Men!” with acid in her voice. Then, softly, sadly, “Poor Nell.”

  “I shouldn’t have told you,” I said.

  “Why not? You have to get something like that out of your system. You certainly need a sister!” And a moment later she said, “Let’s go to Seibert and you can buy me a soda or a sundae.”

  We walked down the hill and drove on east to Seibert, the next little town. The street was deserted, only two places still open, the café and the drug store. The drug store had a fountain and the owner himself made ice cream sundaes for us. Then we drove back the way we had come.

  “What are you going to do this summer?” Mabel asked. “I see by the paper that you are graduating. Class president, too.”

  I told her about the Chautauqua job and she said, “That sounds wonderful. You will get out and see what a big place the world is. But do you know something? This will still be a part of you. All this,” and she gestured at the wide, moonlit horizon. “Like your blood, maybe.”

  Then we were at Kit Carson Hill again, and now the moonlight had reached down into the valley. It made the jumbled stones in the dry river bed glow like a scattering of giant marbles left over from a game. We crossed the concrete slab and I told her about the time the flash flood almost caught me there. And soon after that we were in the edge of town and I turned up the side street and drove slowly and quietly to their place and pulled into the driveway to the stable. The roofs glowed in the moonlight. The big cottonwood tree beside the driveway looked almost white, its dark twig tips like round lance heads with their fat, resiny buds.

  Mabel said, “It’s been a wonderful evening. I can’t remember such a nice evening in a long, long time.”

  She opened the car door and I went around to help her but she didn’t wait for my hand. We went to the front porch and she said, “I want to walk up to the pond tomorrow morning.
Do you want to come along? About ten o’clock.”

  “Yes!” I started to put my arms around her, but she put her hands on my cheeks, drew my face down, and kissed me. Then she said, “Good night,” turned and opened the door and was gone.

  I went home, walking with giant strides, six feet six tall, feeling exalted, almost anointed. Life was all ahead, it was a big, big world, and I was going to live, be, explore, reveal. Life even had fun and laughter in it. I had been kissed by—by life.

  Fritz heard me coming, recognized my step, came to meet me and licked my fingers. I hadn’t changed at all, for him. He still knew me. I was somewhat disappointed at that; maybe that is what made me tiptoe into the house and go to my room more quietly than I ever had before. I undressed by moonlight, not wanting to break the spell. And I lay awake fully half an hour, remembering the moonrise, the look of the world from the hilltop, her voice, her laughter, her kiss. But no more than half an hour, I am sure. Even youth exalted and anointed doesn’t lie long awake, no matter what the romancers say. I always had been, and still am, one of those who rarely stay awake five minutes after hitting the pillow. Half an hour would have been an eternity of sweet remembrance for me.

  Mother was busy in the kitchen when I got up the next morning. I heard her washing dishes as I dressed. Father must have gone to the office. I had no idea what time it was, maybe eight-thirty. At first I hesitated about going out to face her. Then I remembered yesterday and last night and I opened the door and went out into the kitchen. Mother turned and said, “Well, you finally did get up! I’d have got you up an hour ago, but your father said to let you sleep.”

  “I guess I was kind of tired.”

  She didn’t even ask what time I got home. She did say, “It’s almost nine o’clock,” though the clock showed just eight-fifteen. To her, always, anything past the hour was “almost” the next one. She looked thin and pinched, and her dark eyes were full of questions. But all she asked was, “Shall I bake you some pancakes? I saved some batter.”

  I said yes and I washed up while the pancakes were cooking. My place was still set at the table, with butter and Karo syrup at hand. I sat down and ate, and still she asked no questions, not even where we went last night, the one she always asked when I had been out with a girl. She didn’t even stay in the kitchen. She busied herself in the front bedroom. I finished eating and got my jacket and shouted a goodbye. She came to the living room door and there was that look in her eyes, half accusation, half deep inner hurt. I said, “I’m going over to the office,” and I left.

 
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