A Man with Better Clothes

Photo by Dorthea Lange
Photo by Dorthea Lange

Carolyn had only known men in her family very well, and that didn’t fill in any gaps. The family had lived outside of Marquette while her father worked long, backbreaking hours mining iron ore farther west in the Upper Peninsula. Reese took off at sixteen to live with Uncle Frank in St. Louis. She thought it cruel of her brother, leaving her behind. Her mother, it turned out, wished all three could have left,  but Uncle Frank had opened a bar that thrived and she found drink less useful than a bur under a saddle.

The Cronins lived over a mile out from Marquette, on a spit of land that had been cleared of trees. The house was more a ramshackle rectangular shed. It felt precarious in snow or thunderstorms yet stood stalwart against nature’s assaults to remain erect by springtime. Carolyn and her mother were more with each other than the men in the family, or any others, for that matter. After her daughter’s schooling was done–graduated despite bets against reasonable odds–Mrs. Cronin worried how the girl would use her good mind and yet make a living. Carolyn could sew like she did but wasn’t fast or careful enough. Yet her mother was not keen about sending her off to the next man who came calling or sending her anywhere far, period, for that matter. She was used to (and greatly fond of) her. As for men–they were more often unreliable and unsettling; she found herself able to carry on fine with her own husband absent so much.

When Hal was spotted eating alone at Mabel’s Table the Saturday in May that Carolyn turned nineteen, she and her mother were there, too. The clusters of other young women held their breath as if a bona fide Medieval knight was in their midst, or perhaps to appear more svelte. Carolyn was eating mashed potatoes with roast beef and her fork wavered in the air. Her mother bent toward her.

“Don’t mind him. He’s a Matherson home from the University of Michigan. Law, I think. You might as well stop gawking and save yourself trouble. And we have work to finish at home so eat up.”

“Well, of course he’s home from University of Michigan–look at that pressed shirt and tie, jacket slung on the back of his chair.” Her tone was arch, dry. “He’s way too cleaned up for me, you know I need dirt under the nails and rough approximations of manners.”

Mother cast me a sideways glance, then chuckled despite her irritation. Carolyn could be disrespectful of her father’s kind even in his absence. It was hard to deny the truth of her words but no need to say them aloud. In public.

She had hoped for her daughter what she’d never gotten: a chance. She missed going to teacher’s college and so would Carolyn, at least for now. Money was not often easy to gather, less so to squirrel away. At nineteen, they both knew the best she might hope for was someone a bit older who had a little kindness and was moderately well employed. Neither being in abundance around there unless a miner or timber workers. Miners were out of the question to Mrs. Cronin. Lumberjacks were a more reasonable option, she couldn’t think just why, while clerks and salesmen were better. But how to maneuver it?

Buttery whipped potatoes with garlic filled her with pleasure. She licked the last of them from her lips. As she reached for the napkin that had fallen on the floor, a clean one was offered.

“Please, have mine.”

The room quieted enough that she knew who it was before looking up.

Up close Hal looked even better than from far away, a model of masculinity with an encouraging smile that flooded his eyes to disarm. A pipe was held between good teeth, his hand cupped around it now. The smell from the tendrils of smoke made her mouth water.

“Oh, mine is good, thank you. It barely hit the floor.”

“This floor has seen way too many travelling shoes.” He planted the napkin in her left palm, took her right and pumped it twice. “Hal, Hal Matherson.”

“We’re the Cronins.” Mother touched her chest as if she was going to cough, then it retreated to her lap again and her thorat was cleared. “I’m Mrs. Cronin and Carolyn is my daughter.”

He took the older woman’s hand and shook it, too.

“Mr. Matherson,” Carolyn acknowledged after her mother did the same.

“Carolyn and Mrs. Cronin, a pleasure to meet you. We’ve not met before, I think. Glad to do so now.”

He bowed a little, coming closer; Carolyn pulled back. His gaze swept over her face. When their eyes met, they paused but only for a quick superficial assessment. He then surveyed the room as though wanting to memorize it. He studied the Cronins, too, as if this place, these customers and this moment were the best things to happen since returning home.

Which was absurd, Carolyn thought with a sniff as the thought left her. Hal had many more interesting times in life than this. She still watched the back of his very white shirt leave the building, jacket now folded over his forearm. As he exited, mostly female voices started up loudly, scattering across the room like mice scurrying for morsels. Carolyn was no fool if not apprised of sophisticated things. She knew the social barometer in the room indicated she had been given a generous dollop of attention from a handsome and well-to-do man. But she had had looks before, plenty. She knew she was attractive enough. It was his manner and words that intrigued her, anyway. There had never been anyone in her world like him, rough edges tucked in, sentences proferred as if wrapped in satin and unequivocal good will.

When they got outdoors, midday light was austere and stinging. Carolyn felt it an affront to skin beneath the thin cotton dress. She tugged her rumpled straw hat down on long hair.

“I don’t like him.”

Mrs. Cronin hurried on. “Good. He’s not quite trustworthy, you can feel it creep out from under the charm. And he’s much too well off, dear.” She impulsively put her arm around her daughter’s shoulders and gave her a squeeze. “Happy birthday. Cake later whether or not your father gets home tonight.”

Carolyn lay her head on her mother’s shoulder for an instant. She was full and content, no cake needed–or even her father. Guilt threatened, then faded.

Hal Matherson, though. He could be quite trustworthy or not; he might be a gentleman or not. But Carolyn felt strongly she didn’t want to like him. She didn’t wish to recall the smile and words, that slightly sweetened, piney fragrance that found her nose as he made a formal little bow. Such men were meant to be thought of only from a great distance and then with reservations of every kind. She knew he should walk out of sight in the rather ordinary, curious, blank horizon of her mind.

But that was before they met again at church two weeks later, and then again at the June “Berries and Brandies Fair”, after a rainstorm as they sought shelter under the drugstore awning one afternoon. And again, during the fireworks at lakeside. He always found a way to root her out. She began to look for him, too. It became obvious to all that he wanted to spend more time with her and Carolyn was not against the idea, anymore. His family was another thing.

“Why?” she asked him insistently. “Why make our lives harder? You being there and I, here.” She pointed in opposite directions, towards his family home and hers. “Your father owns a lumber mill and my father works in the mines. You will open a law practice this fall and I will…I will be helping my mother with her seamstress business.”

Hal started to hum tonelessly as if he could care less what she was reiterating. He traced the curve of her jaw and chin with an index finger, then sat back against the tree, close to her. “I say we make a run for it, skip all the boring, messy in-between matters of little consequence.”

“What?” She spoke more loudly as fireworks exploded several hundred yards away.

“I said, it’s simple, really. We both love to learn, we both have a fondness for nature, we enjoy music, share a faith, are hard workers, are basically optimistic despite indicators we should not be and you are ravishing to boot…”

He kissed her while she was held in thrall by red, blue and gold flowerlets that dazzled the darkness.

And pushed him with both hands on his chest, hard. “Wait! Wait one minute!”

Carolyn stood up so fast she about tipped over. She grabbed her purse and started to trot away.

“What? Carolyn!” he called. “I’m sorry, I thought…!”

But she couldn’t turn back. She couldn’t explain it, how that warm, lively kiss filled her with alarm. How she knew she had to stop things right then so no one would have regrets or be hurt. Even him. She had been taught by her mother to be wary, to be smart, to take the upper hand if necessary, to walk away rather than give her heart such leeway. He father had taken her mother’s own into his hands and held it and cared for it, then tossed it aside as bitterness took over his savory-sweet ways. Working so long and hard with little reward had slowly compressed him, made vulnerable points obdurate. He was a man of miles of stone when there should have been layers of life-giving earth mixed in. He was a man who forgot his children because, finally, he had nothing left to give.

Carolyn was terrified of love. And Hal knew it as he watched her run and vowed to overcome it.

It was early spring, 1929, when he asked her to marry him and it happened fast. She had thought long about her mother’s and father’s cramped bedroom stuffed with worn paper bags of fabrics, a sewing machine with boxes of pins, needles and threads and a sloping bed in the middle that looked never quite warm enough. She observed her father’s face when he came home, how he looked at his wife as if reaching inside to remember something important–but just out of reach. And how she made him Dutch apple pie, anyway, but only after she had sat on the back stoop to watch birds leave and return a few times, only after she had strengthened her resolve to be content.

Carolyn took a chance and said, “Yes, alright then. Yes, I will.”

They were in a park. He picked her up and spun around, her legs flying. People clapped when he shouted it out. Carolyn was pleased he cared little for propriety.

Hal had opened a law office and so they lived in town, three blocks away from N. High Street. Mrs. Cronin didn’t crow about it. She smiled indulgently at those who shook her hand. She knew her daughter would get out of their deep, old rut. Her husband didn’t understand all the fuss. He told his wife and daughter with a shrug, “He’s just a man in better clothes, don’t forget that. But God willing, it might work out.”

******

And then the Depression arrived, even in Marquette. Within a short time the mines closed, the elder Matherson went bankrupt and lost his home, and the Cronins migrated to St. Louis to live above the bar with Uncle Frank, Reese and Reese’s pregnant wife. Carolyn and Hal had to release their house and business with all the others. And they bid farewell to the lovely, erratic four seasons of Marquette.

Hal (and Carolyn) had saved in old cans enough cash to get them through a few months if they were conscientious. It had been a habit from childhood to hide money that was not his father’s. And the Ford ran alright. They made camp as they moved place to place. He knew how to build and even fix things, after all, sometimes cutting down young trees and fashioning slim poles to make a lean-to with stitched together burlap sacks and any other scraps Carolyn found. She repaired any item (even a torn canvass rooftop slung over a truck) for a little sugar, a spponful of peanut butter shared on two slices of dry bread, a hot cup of tea made of a teabag diluted by many dunkings. They ate better than a few and they were healthy enough. By winter they had landed in Arizona and he still couldn’t find work as a lawyer, or any work, at all. Odd jobs were almost impossible to come by. Since he was so strong and managed to stay affable he got them by, day-to-day. He sold the Ford at last to a man who had been able to avoid the worst of things and hoped to become a driver for the better-off in California. That goal had lept him going.

Hal chatted with other camp members readily as they came and went. It was as if they shared a real neighborhood, as if the poor squares of dirt they claimed had front porches. Carolyn wondered over this, how they bonded when even despairing. Because of. She struck up friendships with a few women but some days found it maddening to wander among the throng. To absorb all that grief. She prayed for them and they for her–if they could bear to yet seek or praise God. Hal seemed to crave more contact, to press hands into his, to hear their stories. She watched him manage to get them to smile and, rarely, to laugh. He returned to her and set down his pain, shared his admiration: that they had all survived thus far, that many kept alive a dream. And yet so many more had let go all they cared for and dignity was fleeing, too. They couldn’t imagine it would get worse and yet he feared it would. At least there was sunshine, no snow and no one made them leave yet.

Things had gone downhill in the camp with illness and outbreaks of violnce and more squatters when Carolyn, dozing in the heat, saw Hal slide into their lean-to. He’d been in Phoenix, three miles away, looking for odd jobs.

“Hey, Hal.” Her throat felt on fire from mositure-robbing heat so sipped from a cup of tepid water.

He joined her. They rested in warm shadows cast upon the sacls thay had hung. He was quiet so that she could hear the breeze twist up more dust. She scratched her ankle, skin like parchment. Her hair was never brushed clean of grit and she thought of chopping it off. Dirty or not, Hal was doomed to look fresh-faced, even vivified amid folks who were grey, hollow-eyed. Her eyes lingered on him and sadness bloomed within her again, a garden of wistful, sorrowful flowers. He stripped off his damp shirt and sat.

When he finally spoke it was in a hoarse whisper.

“I found a job today, law office clerk, very small, twenty hours a week. If even that. Someone to file, answer a phone, be a go-fer. But I’m okay with this, you know it’s a miracle…”

She grabbed his bicep and her hand slipped from the sweat, the muscle contracting under her touch. He turned toward her and held her face in both hands.

“A real job at last.”

He shared bare facts, eyes glistening, as if speaking more or louder would bring worse upon them. As if his working meant the others could not have their own little, badly paying job and he was responsible, he was to blame. He struggled to feel happy. It confused him to win something he might not even deserve, to be the one who could leave the camp.

Carolyn threw her arms around him in a clinch of relief.

He smoothed her ponytail, touched her lips with his. “And there’s a one room place, a garage really, Mr. Jensen said. Behind the law office.”

“A house? A job and a house?” She clamped a hand over her mouth. Felt she was dreaming.

“House? Well, Carolyn, that’s too much to call it… this garage is free because it’s a ramshackle, smelly wreck. But a job, yes. The pay is near nothing but it’ll be so good to work…”

“I don’t care. I’m in this with you. Always.”

She had never seen his tears fall like they did then, as if it caused him pain to let go each one made of relief and sorrow. He felt he hadn’t been able to protect her, but maybe this was too much to receive. He was just one man, no more deserving.

She looked away. She felt his need of her but sometimes being there meant waiting, being there but apart. In a few moments he found his pipe and setteld it between his lips. He let hope grab hold. Carolyn imagined she could smell burning tobacco and it filled her with excitement.

After having had an easier life and then having it be so hard, Carolyn believed as never before that she had made the right choice by marrying him. She had been so afraid but had taken a chance and they made a great match, not perfect but solid, even now. She vowed to never let it go bad, to not give up when she was running out of patience, to not hurl at him times he was dismisive of her ideas or still quick to tease her when she was weary or so silent she wondered if he had already left her like her father. She knew better; he cared about her more now, not less. A touch, a look. A found stone that shone when polished with dampened fingers.

Carolyn knew, too, that he was a man who was charming, smart, beautiful and such men were built to do excellent, even big, things–as well as fail spectacularly. She was already set like a compass, to move with him towards their true north. She had meant to love Hal a little but it had turned into something bigger. Carolyn brushed off her skirt and smoothed back her unruly hair. Hal Matherson was a man with more than better clothes. He had her.

 

Bound to Snow, Amelia

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No one else was out. It was his lucky break. All week he’d had something he’d tried to avoid. He’d felt a rumbling of imbalance before it grabbed him by the neck. He never got sick, mentally or  physically. Even if he had days, okay occasional weeks, of feeling stunned by the varieties of life’s misery, he called it a “rough patch.” Not “the blues” or “bad karma” or “the end of all good things” like his work buddy explained his depression. There was no end of things, period, or life, until it was over. And Billy was patient; if he kept enough around, almost anything got better. Or changed.

It had lasted four days, aches that made him wince and wicked tiredness that kept him home from work. Then he came back with a mind like a clear blue sky and strength returned full force. He saw on the television it had been snowing. The street view from his window confirmed it. He wasn’t surprised. The thick quietness of snow brought a smile to his pockmarked, angular face. It wasn’t blizzardy, but everyone kept to themselves when steps and car roofs were covered. Except for Billy. He’d grown up in snowdrifts and it was second nature to be right out in it. What was the town going to do, hibernate until a spring thaw?

He’d gotten dressed for a walk despite his wife, languishing in the chair as always, objecting.

“What’re you doing? You were sick yesterday and now I’m feeling it. I can’t have you relapsing and laid up again. Heavy snow.”

He’d glanced her way as he yanked on motorcycle boots. She was wrapped in the blanket he had just left, her slippered feet on the coffee table now that his empty mug and soup bowl were gone. Her hair wound down her shoulders, unkempt.  It had been unattended too long because he had been too ill to help her. Whereas she was always sick, with multiple sclerosis. Some days she could barely lift her arms, and brushing all that hair felt like trying to climb Mt. Hood, she admitted. Why not cut it?, he’d asked more than once, but she ignored him.

“I’m off to get some fresh air. I feel fine now. Anything you want?”

She’d shrugged. “More tea?”

He’d moved to the door, then paused.

“Chicken soup and tuna fish.” She sighed as though reciting the list was a chore.

He waited.

“Macaroni and cheese. Butter. More bread.”

Billy pulled his wool cap on when nothing else was noted and left.

That first step out was a swift slap in the face and he whooped loudly. The sweetness of the air was greater due to the cold. It’s whiteness illuminated the street. He felt everything got shined up when it snowed. He expected to feel even stronger after he walked the two blocks to the convenience store and back. Healing, the winter. Spring was a riot of newness that made him dizzy. Summer was too hot on his skin, but autumn was like a ride into paradise with a promise of the best to come. Winter.

Billy expected to see someone out with a dog, but the squeak of snow beneath his feet was unaccompanied. There were two snow people across the street, half-dressed, which he found funny. On the top of the hill was a snow fort about two feet tall. Abandoned snowballs. Kids were probably called in for dinner. He picked one up and threw it hard across the street. It hit a brick building, a soft thwap in the stillness. He scooped up more– it was good packing snow–and made a little ball, then tucked it in his pocket.

by Julius

The tree branches moaned and creaked. They were dressed up in white like ermine, as if to shield their bark from cutting wind. The twilit sky was hosting more galaxies. His breath singed his lungs on its way back in. Billy was glad he’d let his bread grow back, even if his wife didn’t love it. Where he came from, a man without a beard was not quite a man. He knew better but winter and beards were made for each other.

Icicles sprang out in a streetlamp’s glow like fine sharp teeth of the abominable snowman. He stood beneath a row that hung off a windowsill and had the impulse to break one off, brandish it like a sword. He reached up and couldn’t quite grab it, so jumped a couple times,  grazing the sharp tips. An old woman appeared from behind a curtain and shook her finger at him. Billy made like surrendering, hands raised palms up. She grinned at him, all six teeth showing. He slid across the street, boots slicker now. What he wouldn’t give for a sled. His beat-up old toboggan that was sold for ten bucks when his family sold the cabin twenty years ago. Or the cross country skis for distant mountain trails that he put away when his wife got sicker.

By the time he reached the second corner, Billy felt better, just as he expected. The Curb ‘n Corner was all lit up. He pushed open the door and heard the chime go off. He could see the back of the owner as she restocked down the first aisle. He found a basket and filled it with the things he needed. At the back of the store, he deliberated on root beer or ginger ale and took two bottles of the second. His wife might need these if she got sick. Before the refrigerator door slammed shut he got a root beer for himself.

“Well, well,” she said as he stood before her.

She was tall and thin like a strong reed, he thought, in that grass- green uniform. It made her eyes almost turquoise. She leaned forward, palms pressed on the beige, ink-marred surface. “Where you been lately, good-lookin’?”

He took out the groceries and passed them to her hands.

“In bed a few days. All better now.”

“I see that. You snugged up to trudge out in this? Like a polar bear, Billy. For soda and tuna? Just makes me long for a piece of that perfect Hawaiian sunshine. But I knew it would come to this mess.”

Billy chuckled. “I know, you’re too soft for it but you gotta look for the best, Amelia.”

“Your fault. You ordered it. You told me it was comin’ but I held onto hope.”

After she finished ringing him up she put hands on hips and flashed him that mile-wide smile. It had the effect of turning the grimy, dull surroundings into a place worth inhabiting. She counted his change slowly then put bills and coins into his hand with a slap.

He said nothing as he set down the money but then grabbed her fingers, pulled the snowball from his pocket and lay it in her hand. A foolish, freezing gift.

She looked aghast and then laughed, tossing it back at him, a little melting clod of white.

“You sneaky devil! I told everybody–that Billy Cook, he said last week, ‘Bound to snow, Amelia, bound to snow good‘ and they said ‘Billy Cook’s a wild man escaped from his true element and he sure knows signs of weather. Like you’re an expert.”

He made a horrified face. “They didn’t say I was a wild man, did they?”

She threw her head back and laughed, chest bouncing, florescent light bathing her face and neck as though it was tropical sun shining down on her alone.

“Yes, but Billy, they also said you was a good man, crazy good. Now get on out of here before your head swells and so I can work.”

He stood still and the words he never said wanted to come out, but he snatched a peppermint from glass ashtray and grabbed his bag.

“Say hey to Erin. And stay healthy.”

He left, chime going off, the light dimming. When he crossed to the corner and turned back she was still looking at him. He waved at her but she just stared out until he thought she couldn’t possibly see him in the thickening dark. But he felt her thoughts and his brush like wings in the night, then fly off.

The walk home was shorter, his strides longer. He didn’t have time to play. Tea had to be made. Then he’d wash Erin’s hair if she was up to it. Tomorrow, work, but he smelled new snow on the way.
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