Something’s afoot. In Walleye, Quiltingsnatsch County. And Alice Munro’s damn well going to tell us about it.
Shortly before dawn, my mother, Serena Addlecrone—
—floating up to the borders of consciousness, swaddled in her duvet in her lacy-white bedroom in the town of Walleye, Quiltingsnatsch County, population twenty-six thousand (so read, and still reads, the weathered wooden sign that stands at the conjunction of the town boundary with Rural Route #3; Gerald Smitherjones, the town’s chief alderman, and hockey coach to several generations of boys—who, like all the solid, dependable citizens of Walleye, had been born, attended grade school, been pranked by the town kids, then proceeded to knock up someone called maybe Lillian or Ida, with whom they then dutifully tied the knot and, moving right along, attained complacent middle age—at which point they would have started wearing GAP Relaxed Fit if they’d been invented—started to wander Main Street in their underwear, and, right on cue, kicked the bucket, and all within the area limned by the icy winds blowing off of Lake Huron—had personally selected the maple wood for that sign, cut it into shape with his own jigsaw, lovingly sanded, painted and lettered it.)
The sign. You know. The sign at the junction of the town boundary with Rural Route #3. Are you paying attention?
This story I’m about to tell you takes place in the middle decades of the last century, when women were mindless baby factories frying up pork chops and apple slices three times a day, and men were charming reprobates and racists holding their pants up under their armpits with suspender belts, which freed both arms for smacking their wives upside the head.
The salt of the earth.
Nineteen fifty-five. In April, Gerald’s wife, Keepupwitha, who was rumored to be ‘part Indian’—“and I reckon not all the best parts, neither!” quipped one of the old wizened up racist suspender-belted gentlemen sitting outside the barber shop—made her one and only attempt to leave him. She had packed up her few belongings one chilly spring morning when she figured she’d fried her last pork chop and sliced her last apple slice and endured her last upside the head-smacking, and tip-toed down the staircase from their modest apartment and out of the front door of the dry-goods emporium.
Not even the abortion she’d self-administered three weeks earlier had given her such a sense of agency, of erotic transgression. She’d followed the advice her mother had given her just after her first period by ingesting a cake of lye soap, then hastened to Public School # 2256, where some girls were playing hopscotch in the yard.
“Muriel? Tabitha? Ardenia? Arbutus? May I join you?” she said, but without waiting for a reply she jumped with both feet right into the first two squares, jumped repeatedly with more gusto than some of those girls had ever thought her capable of, until she felt that familiar ache in her nether parts, like a hard, tight, furry, loafy lump of tightness and furriness.
“My saliva,” she would endlessly explain twenty years later to anyone who’d listen, standing in the doorway at Food Basics with her cart full of groceries, arms extended to block any attempt to exit by her fascinated audience, “well, it all came up like the grey scum come up when youse makin’ capon stock, or like the first foam of the grapefruit marmalade when it come to the burl!”
It wasn’t until she reached the western limits of the town, where the heads of corn and the softly munching cattle woke up something cold and furry and tight within her, that she realized it was their fourteenth wedding anniversary, the “mimeograph.”
But as Sam, the random guy who got to leave Walleye and do something hifalutin’ that no one could ever figure out what it was, in the big city, used to say: “That ain’t no mimeograph, Keepers. That there’s a Xerox!”.
A Xerox. In a panic, she had hurried back to what in those days was the lot of women in plain cotton frocks printed with little-bitty patterns of primroses: wifehood, and motherhood, and childrenhood, and pork chop-hood, and apple-slice-hood and pretend-like-we-still-married-by-the-common-law-hood, and the gas range hood and the hoodlums who used to hang around the town square dressed in black denims and turtlenecks. Hood.
But Walleye had its limits, besides the limits of gently munching corn and cattle swaying in the breeze. One disapproving frown from Alaska Vinesucker was all that it took to convey how much she saw; that the primroses on your plain cotton frock were faded with years of washing, or marred by a cigarette burn which you’d tried to cover up with a judiciously placed broach, given to you in secret by one of the old reprobates with suspenders who sat on the front stoop of the Town Hall.
Today Alaska was carrying an armload of pork chops and apples destined for midday dinner, though she was wondering how she’d manage that old cast iron frying pan, manage its almost transgressive, erotic heft, when her left eye was swollen shut and bruised like it was. Bruised the color of pig’s liver, she thought, like in that recipe she’d secretly ripped out from the Ladies’ Home Journal as she sat under the dryer at Mona’s Hair and Nails and thought no one was looking.
Back home, she quickly fried up the pork chops and apple slices, mashed the potatoes and heated a tin of creamed corn. She set the table for two with the good Spode plates. Then, her hands shaking a bit, she carefully redid her makeup, painting a fake eye over the bruised, swollen one (Perhaps he wouldn’t notice). She opened the big trunk at the foot of the bed, carefully extracted her mother’s wedding dress, and slipped it on.
She buttoned up the back with the old pewter wedding dress button hooker, struggling with the buttons at her waistline. “A can a day of Walleye corn, then brides will find their figure’s gorn!” she whispered in a reverie as she pinned on the veil with the old silver wedding dress veil pinner. Her head was enveloped in a cloud of tulle, ready to burst into flame as it drifted through any stray bunch of candles that she might have forgotten were burning in some long-forgotten corner. To finish, she daubed an almost erotic, transgressive daub of Club House vanilla extract behind each ear.
Surely that would please her husband, Town-Drunk Tommy! “In twenty years of pork chops for mid-day dinner,” she thought, “wearing my wedding dress and veil, and Tommy all pissed to the gills, it’s just been one big slap upside the head, every day, like clockwork. Just like mom said. Still, that’s what it means. To be a you-know-what.”
The only sounds as they ate were the gentle munching and swallowing and jostling as Town-Drunk Tommy wolfed down what had taken her a good ten minutes to prepare. He licked the plate clean and with a loud grunt handed it across the table to Alaska. But was this a grunt of pleasure or disapproval? Alaska would only have to wait a Walleye minute, to find out.
Sitting on the Carnegie Library Steps-ness
Must be nearin’ mid-day dinnertime-ness at the Vinesuckers’, the wizened up suspender-belted racist old salt of the earth men were saying as they sat on the steps of the Carnegie Library, mending their fly-fishing tackle and repainting the stripes on the traffic cones.
“Get a move on, Walter!” one of them called out, and Walter replied, “Just you wait a Walleye minute!” as he ruffled the dirty blond hair of some young rapscallion who’d played hooky from school, deftly tucking some homemade buttercream fudge down the front of the lad’s shorts.
(“Young Trevor here’s come to me for his math tutorin’ and I was just explaining about the hypotenuse! Youse guys can do the Vinesuckers without me for once! Move on ahead, now, off with ya!”
Smack upside the head-ship
Alaska took the freshly-licked plate and replaced on the shelf. “I think the pork chops were a success,” she thought, unprepared for the big smack upside the head that came out of nowhere.
Tommy ripped the gas cooker from the wall. “I done tol’ ya, I ain’t holding with no molasses in this house,” he snarled, as he tossed the cooker out the window, splattering hot pork chop fat over the walls and counter tops and setting fire to Alaska’s veil.
And the posse of old suspender-belted reprobates, right on cue today as they had been for the past twenty years, tossed buckets of water and boxes of Cow Brand baking soda over the lot.
Salt of the earth.
Months later, young Harry Taintness dropped by, with instructions from his mother to fetch some bread and butter pickles from Missus Vinesucker’s pickle crock and no dawdlin’! That’s when he found her. On a hot summer evening, with the jelly drip drip dripping from the jelly bag.
After a good draught of laudanum, she’d covered her head in freshly-whipped meringue, then stuck it in the gas oven, 350 degrees for five minutes. When young Doctor Pringle arrived, hot on the heels of the First Responders, he just shook his head.
The kitchen was crowded with just about everyone in town who could still squeeze themselves into a print dress, and that was just the husbands.
“Baked Alaska!” he hissed, his voice rising three octaves as he pulled his suspender belt to maximum tautness. “I hope youse are all satisfied!”
But life soon went back to its usual small-town rhythm. Everyone at their usual business. Pork chops. Apples. Suspender belts. The oppression hanging like dark clouds in a blue summer sky.
How young everyone had been way back then, fifty years ago, even me, because my current age of seventy-five, minus fifty, is twenty-five.
You do the math.
Young and destined to star in some meaningless life-randomness up in Walleye, Quiltingsnatsch County.
It was, of course, Harry Taintness who did it. He left Alaska’s kitchen and walked to the conjunction of Rural Route three.
To this day, the sign reads:
Welcome to Walleye, the “Who the heck you lookin’ at” Town!
Though the paint has flaked and faded, with an almost erotic transgression. Population—and here we see the number 26,000 crossed out with angry strokes of red crayon, in which is written the number 25,999)—
—had a dream.
Remember my mother? So, my mother had a dream. Are you paying attention? Because if you’re confused now… oh, Jeezus.
We’re only just beginning.
2. Quick Editorial Intervention
OK, at this point you have two choices: Stay confused and plow through the rest of this hogwash, hoping for the bit at the end that ties everything together in a brilliant tour-de-force of New Yorker-style short story sense-making; or just leave your copy of The New Yorker open at the page on your coffee table, invite a few friends round, and make yourself a nice vodka and tonic.
We know you’ve got this!
If you were my mother, Serena, one of the many plain-named, plain-spoken, gritty old babes who’d lived in plain old Walleye all of their plain old lives, life followed a pattern. Marriage was simple.
You got up, cooked an armful of pork chops and served them with fried apple slices and a big hunk of cheese with fresh cream and brown sugar poured all over it, and maybe some raisins from the raisin jar, and a big, plain-spoken pot of coffee, the kind of blue pot specked with white that you’d use at a campfire.
If the bears didn’t get you first.
Marriage didn’t change the relentless passing of time, or the way you ran into some kid you hadn’t seen since grade two and who was now thirty-six and working as a Montessori instructor until her encaustic portrait business took off; ran into and got wife-swapped at some pretentious party held in a ramshackle sex club that hugged the shoreline of some island in Georgia Strait with an almost transgressive, erotic insistence.
Inevitably, with the passing of time, you’d excuse yourself from the party, saying something like, “Do you mind looking after the kids? My nether parts are in a terrible state, and I think I’ll just lie down and stare at the ceiling with an old washcloth soaked in witch hazel between my legs,” and some of the other swapped wives would give each other smirking, meaningful looks, or mutter, “TMI, Serena!”
Simple to get married, but all it took was one new perspective out in some field full of jostling grass and gently swaying rabbits and furry, cuddly, munching cows for it to end.
In her dream, my mother was looking out at the backyard of her childhood home in Blandsville Station, but something was wrong.
The trees weren’t like they used to be and the grass wasn’t like it used to be, and everything else what exactly not like it used to be.
Everything was covered with snow.
Snow on the trees and snow on the garden, snow on the zinnias and the cosmos and the marigolds. All were all covered with a thick layer of snow. Snow! Snow on the blackbirds, snow on the gently munching cattle, snow on the baby carriage.
The baby carriage.
In her dream, my mother floated down to the baby carriage, and suddenly she was filled with an old pain, probably comparable to the pain like a big hard loaf of furriness and tightness that had shriveled up the testicles of her uncle Eustace, just off the boat from Lithuania and making his way in the cold new world of Canada. In her dream, mother waded through snow up to her waist, up to her nostrils, over her head, but in vain. The carriage held no baby.
Who do you think I am? No, really, who? Because damned if remember.
The baby carriage held box upon box of Kraft Dinner. “Boil water!” said a voice coming from somewhere, you figure it out, but how to boil water in the snow?
In her dream, Serena wracked her brain for the boiling water method she’d learned in Miss Measurespoon’s Grade Eight Home Economics class. She knew it involved some sort of liquid, and a saucepan, and something about a stove. She felt as though something terrible, like a smack upside the head, might happen, unless she remembered, something desperately important and earth-shattering. Think, think! Did you turn on the stove, or—? What did liquids have to do with a saucepan—? No use, it was gone.
“Boil water,” repeated the voice, implacable. “Add the pasta, cook for six to eight minutes!” The box of Kraft Dinner seemed to have a face that echoed with all the sorrows of mankind, an ancient pain, an old grievance, a complaint that was earlier than today, an accusation that happened at least a week ago, if not more.
“Drain the pasta. Add a knob of margarine and a splash of milk.” A snow-covered cow, munching away and standing on its hind legs, ambled up and casually milked itself, discharging a quarter cup into the mound of snow that had once covered a baby carriage and all that it contained.
The voice—and all this time everything’s still covered with snow, remember?— was now replaced by the mournful sound of a train that would also be covered, you got it, with snow, if it was actually part of my mother’s dream, and, whoa! I’m waking up!
4. The epilogue that ties together all the loose bits while still leaving you with an uneasy impression that you just don’t get it.
Later in my life, I married Keepupwiththe—and doesn’t that just throw you for a loop, as we used to say!—and learned to make proper Kraft Dinner. The way lesbians always make it, these days, with cream, and butter, and all the good, modern things that nonetheless make us regret the days when one packet of Kraft Dinner served four people, with not even a pork chop to stretch it out, and suddenly it’s the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature and I loom out of the shadows like a ghost and make the girls scream, except Margaret Atwood who can afford to be magnanimous because she got the deal with HBO.
Then I wake up, but only in my dream. Within my dream I awaken into the dream that’s inside the original dream, to find I am sitting in a rowboat, in the middle of a pond. My white-gloved hands rest in my lap, my floral print summer dress is pulled primly over my knees.
Pine trees bowed low at water’s edge. A loon calls out. A mysterious man looks directly at me, don’t try and figure out who.
Where do you think you are? he asks, gazing across the pond.
I think I’m, you know. In a boat. On this pond. Eating Kraft Dinner. Dabbing the white linen napkin to the corners of my mouth. In this fucking print dress.
And it seemed to me that everything in my life had led up to this moment of suspenseful confusion in the Canadian wilderness.
Maybe next time I should add some apple slices. And a pork chop —
— this was years ago. In Walleye. Sitting in a boat, gently swaying in the middle of a pond. Dabbing the yellow cheese from the corners of my mouth.
And the call of the loon, the gently swaying jostling munching boat, the murky roiling water, what’s his name looking at me, the tight, furry, lumpy loafy fields, the looming pines and the snow by the water’s edge, all seemed to say:
You’ll never figure this out. Never.
This is what it means to be a woman: A person who gets smacked upside the head. Whose nether parts are in a terrible state. Before the change.
In Walleye, Quiltingsnatsch County.