06/1/16

from: the Department of Rejection — “Thanks Again (Alternative Lit History Series #4)”

Like “Oats,” “Thanks Again” is a kind of rewrite.
Alice Munro published “Thanks for the Ride” in the late 1950s and in it describes a couple of relatively privileged middle-class young men who visit a run-down rural outpost in what seems to be Ontario’s cottage country.
Exploring the power dynamics of class difference and heterosexual relationships, the story pits the two relatively self-assured male visitors to this town against a pair of scornful townie girls. Filled with mutual antipathy and struggles for control, their unpleasant double-date features both sex and disdain. At the end of the foursome’s evening, one of the young women leaves the guys’ car and expresses her contempt for them, her own situation, and, seemingly, the entirety of their evening and the future that looms above her. The male narrator states, “And then we heard the female voice calling after us, the loud, crude, female voice, abusive and forlorn: ‘Thanks for the ride!'”
As a thought experiment and writing challenge, I kept the mid-century historical setting and basic character dynamic. Instead of small town Ontario, I transplanted the action to New Westminster, BC (with a population of 28,000 in 1951). Instead of two heterosexual guys visiting small town girls, I changed the narrator to a young man who has recently come to understand his homosexuality and hopes to (a) wait until ‘the phase’ passes and (b) emulate his manly cousin’s ways with women. With those changes thrown in, the circumstance I hoped to explore related to how the new dynamic might alter the outcome. The story below supplies one answer.

 

Thanks Again

 

Thanks Again (Alternative Lit History Series #4)

 

Bodybuilding and the creation of a rugged powerful body will almost always
remove the stigma of ‘sissy’ from any young man, because big muscles and
femininity are incongruous. —Physique Pictorial (June 1960)

 

The family had stuck a label on Phil, calling him a motormouth, a real case of nerves. “Yappy,” Mother said of her sister’s only child. He and I hadn’t ever been that close.
What felt like comfortable silence to me must have struck him as a lapse, a breakdown of civility. Since swinging open the passenger door he’d circled around career prospects a few times. “Yessiree, kid, I’m working my way up,” Phil announced once news of uncles and aunts petered out. Instead of asking “To what?” I’d let him continue. Watching the road took precedence, anyhow, as did picturing Father’s armchair fretfulness as his polished pride and joy hurtled into the night’s fender-bending and paint-scraping dangers. Night driving was his test. I’d fixed my sights on the Honour Roll.
“Ladies shoes are just the beginning, a foot wedged in the door,” Phil promised. He had a plan, with steps and a timetable. And back ups, just in case. Being in sales, he’d confided, meant reaching a plateau and bowing to fickle housewives with penny-pinching husbands. “That’s for chumps. Management, that’s where it’s at.” With enough get-up-and-go, he declared, he could be a Fortune 500 president—easily—by 1970. “But the door won’t open itself,” he told me. “Nosiree.” Only failures resorted to prayers for good luck and promotions.
Sprawled on the seat Phil offered advice as though my face begged for it. “Timing is paramount,” he declared before returning to doubts over Father’s wisdom (“New off the lot? Sheesh, that’s flushing prime loot right down the shitter”). Of Mother, he’d only quipped “She might consider laying off the tea biscuits for awhile” before outlining how size nine heifers demanding footwear made with Grace Kelly in mind had him pounding his noggin for ways to hasten his upward progress. “Creating opportunities,” he assured me, “means money in the bank.” He told me about a whore you could pay with a sack of flour or some potatoes. “A Polack,” he added. I wasn’t sure what he was getting at and sighed with relief to mutter “Skunk” as one’s rank spray wafted inside.
Phil’s eyes more than matched his mouth. They darted, taking inventory maybe, or else as utterly fascinated by every new detail—a neon sign, a muddy farmer’s truck, a pair of girls strolling the highway with linked arms—as a man reared in a cave. Spotting the diner he mentioned stretching our legs. He had a hankering for a bit of old-fashioned adventure, he winked.
I was just out of school then. As impressed by my IQ as she was, Mother had reached the conclusion that I needed guidance, a push into the deep end. “Taking your sweet time” and “dawdling,” she liked to remind me, stuck in her craw. “The sooner you start, the sooner you finish” had been her motto since the war. Of Phil: “A man of the world, well, relatively,” but available here and now. She had no doubt about my brains, she told company, surprised often enough that God had found a way to stuff them all inside my skull. She also believed, she’d informed me and, I overheard, her sister Inez, that applying yourself is impossible, like breathing in outer space, if you’re stuck inside a bedroom daydreaming all day.

 

We didn’t get off to a promising start with the counter waitress, a string bean of a girl my age with pretty hazel eyes who handled pie orders and scooped ice cream when the other two (“Lifers,” Phil decided) cut her some slack. Phil started by flicking crumbs and saying the counter could use a better wiping.
Ordering our hot turkey sandwiches, he’d pointed out misspelled words on the menu and a missing “and.” The counter waitress said “Oh my. I better alert the local authorities” so lightly it barely stung. She ambled by Phil’s drained coffee cup and ducked into the kitchen when he began striking the saucer with a teaspoon.
“Excuse me, miss—,” I’d attempted, embarrassed by Phil making a scene.
“Don’t be so stiff.” Phil stretched, clasping his hands behind his neck. “Girls don’t like it, least not right away.”
“Hold your horses.” The eldest waitress rushed by, a coffee pot swooping by Phil’s ear. “Ernie, is Astrid back there with you again? Tell her to haul—.” She regarded us, potential regulars. “Kindly inform her that the owner doesn’t pay us to take breaks.”
Astrid peeked her head out a minute later. She walked right by us, collected a smeared butter knife from the counter, and returned to clear our plates.
“So,” Phil said. “Astrid. What’s there to do around here?”

 

I’d been letting Mother work herself into a lather about my failure to apply myself. Her concern about eyes (weakening by the hour, she predicted, from reading trash in such dim light) and life passing me by met Father’s work-weary sigh: “Let the boy stop and smell the roses while he can. Soon enough—.”
When her sister suggested they could kill two pesky birds with one stone by shaking a pair of idling sons from their hair for a few hours, Mother began selling me the virtues of older cousins, joy rides, and tasting the wild blue yonder. With Phil saving up for a car and Father’s Buick making friends with dust in the carport, she said, necessity would be the mother of invention.
Sayings weren’t her strong suit, but the woman’s determination could move a planet.

 

I pushed my pie plate forward and rested an elbow on the counter. Astrid swept by, cleaning rag in hand. I turned to Phil, feet planted. Firm, decisive, a Colossus of Rhodes posture.
Phil’s eyes roved, as though seeking a worthy destination and never finding it. Sticking to the counter waitress, he watched her bare arms lifting plates at the order window. He nodded in appreciation when she crouched to stack dirty dishes on a tray. “Nice gams.”

 

Mother needed to learn to keep her snout out of my business. For that reason I’d rented a post office box and kept mum about acceptance letters from three universities and two job offers, junior positions, at tony city offices. Father appeared to trust my instincts. I felt sure he’d respect whatever choice I made.
Well, almost. Some decisions stand out as being forever incomprehensible, like a team captain’s first pick being a hopeless spaz.
That summer I’d taken to story magazines. Galaxy was my favourite. The title was hard to come by secondhand, though. Settling for If and Astounding felt alright, depending on the roster. Really, anything with Ray Bradbury or Martians kept me hooked. Used goods store owners dumped all those magazines together with pulps in musty rear corners. They were donated maybe, or unloaded for peanuts, and cost practically nothing for a foot-high pile.
Sorting through useless copies of Other Worlds and Fate on a morning no different than another, I saw One, a bundle of four pint-sized issues secured with elastic bands. The copy I flipped through, which had to have been ordered by somebody in the vicinity and came all the way from Los Angeles, practically grew hot to the touch; from cover to cover the word “homosexual” appeared twenty times at least. I slid it back into place and dropped the bundle to the floor.
I purchased two Life magazines about the Korean War; around the corner outside, I pretended to re-tie a shoelace and pulled stolen booty from my sock.
In a pantomime of waiting for an eternally delayed bus, I pored over the entire bundle while hunched on a bench, cars before me barreling by. I used Life as a shield. No one bothered me or asked if I’d missed my connection.
Leaving the magazines there in plain sight struck me as a provocative but reckless act. On a trail I’d once found a girly magazine. On the return trip it had vanished and I cursed my timidity.
I carefully tore out one article and folded it small; the rest I stuffed into a City of Burnaby garbage can. If one of Mother’s cronies happened by at the exact moment I stepped away, there would be questions I wasn’t prepared to answer.
At home I detoured to the carport and filed the article in the middle of a newspaper stack. Father never felt the urge to tidy up. “I know where everything is,” he’d reply when Mother butted in. Along with the den she granted him that unheated territory.
As with everything, I’d learned, gradations are what matter. Objectivity and the full-length mirror that Mother had insisted on in the hall by the front door confirmed that I wasn’t a lost cause.
In a letter to One’s editor, a man had written: “The hissing ‘S’ used by males, the use of well-defined words which stamp the male homo, the exaggerated walk, the compulsion to use cosmetics and feminine attire, can all be banished through hypnotherapy.” I didn’t hiss or think to use cosmetics; according to the mirror, my walk stood out in no way. A hypnotist wasn’t in the cards.
Still, I’m no different than anybody else, and there’s room for improvement.
The carport article, by an expert with tips for success, made it clear that swish mannerisms can attract scorn, or at least the wrong kind of attention. No news there. People, animals basically, sniff out cues by instinct, and before you know it you’re branded. A scarlet Q, cut from the pack. “Avoid the limp wrist as you would the plague,” that was the expert’s first commandment. Only a dolt doesn’t know that. “Learn to control the little finger.” “Remove ‘honey,’ ‘dear,’ and ‘gracious’ from everyday conversations. They’re dead giveaways.” I’d never said any of those words in my life. “Learn the masculine manner of smoking, Johnnie.” Mother would throttle me in my sleep if she caught the least hint of cigarette on my clothes.
“Next, Johnnie, learn the upright posture of masculine males.” Mother’s daily errands and appointments let me unscrew the hallway mirror clips and prop the glass against the front door. Striding toward it, I caught the swing of my arms, the length and solidity of each step. To take corrective measures, if need be.
I wiped up any plaster dust, naturally.
“When standing at ease, under no circumstances allow the weight of your body to rest on a single leg while the knee of the other dips below.” I memorized all this free wisdom. “Your posture while seated can be as telling as at any other time.” At my desk again, I sat, in pretend conversation with good friends or nodding sagely at a meeting with my future boss in the Mortgage Department. “The masculine way is to prop the ankle of one leg on the knee of the other; and to drop the elevated knee to such a level that the leg is almost parallel to the floor.” That’s useful information.
My hands? Best kept in a loose fist position, I’d decided. Relaxed but ready: a reliable message to onlookers.
For the time being, a semblance of normalcy would work. Eventually, I believed, the inner man would catch up with the outer shell. The period between then and now, that I’d keep to myself.

 

Warming to us, bored, or else weary of being ordered around by the senior waitresses, Astrid spoke directly to me: “My shift ends at half past.” With the invitation she stalked off with a zoo animal look that told me she’d prefer the company of two young strangers over drudges whose every complaint she’d heard twice.
“I could have a second helping,” Phil said, eyeing dots of gravy on her apron. “Maybe a bit of peach pie for dessert.”
The articles never described a situation close to this one. A correct posture in an empty house was nothing compared to a night on the town with Phil.
As Astrid passed by he asked, “Say, you got a friend that’s free later?” Neither she nor I was shocked by the forwardness. “Freckled and pretty and fine as you, I hope?”
“You got a car?” Squinted, her eyes took on a calculating shape, how they’d react near a table of customers dropping coins on their bill.
“Of course. We’re parked right there.” Instead of turning she patted the dome of her hair.
“You will forever cease to pat your hair,” the guy in One with the hypnotherapy cure had written. I rested my rigid wrists on the counter’s edge.
“Ce’s usually home,” she said.

 

If she wanted, Astrid could watch her friend’s bedroom from her own right across the street, in a sleepy, canopied neighbourhood that butted up against wire fences. Dairy cows wandered the fields in the daytime, Astrid told us, along with the name on her friend’s birth certificate, Celestina, which only her mother dared to speak.
When I asked what name we ought to use, Astrid said, “I don’t care.” Her stock of expressions was crowded with surly indifference.
Phil held his tongue, for reasons I couldn’t begin to guess.
The whole town, twenty minutes up river from ours, was built on a series of slopes that eventually rolled down to soupy river flats, linked log booms, and mills in a winding line along the water’s edge. Even in pinkish fading daylight it presented a slumped personality. Slovenly. A fresh coat of paint and trimmed hedges would make a world of difference, but, season after season, the effort had evidently proved too taxing.
Locals still caught malaria there, Phil reported. Smiling, Astrid called him a filthy liar. “Mouth like a sailor,” that’s what Mother would say.

 

Astrid’s mother deposited a vegetable peeler in the apron’s pocket and lifted the yellow skirt of it to dry her hands. “C’mon in, sit in the parlour if you like. There’s a fan. That girl of mine has a pygmy’s manners.”
The woman’s chore-drawn face offered no sign that she was upset over her daughter inviting in two strange men and leaving them shuffling like chain gang prisoners in the cluttered foyer. Or that she’d arranged to go out with them without permission.
“Nice to meet you.” Across the room Astrid’s mother kept her arms crossed even though I’d held out my hand.
“Yeah. Nice place.” Phil’s darting eyeballs took in and condemned the entire main floor before dropping to his shoes.
“We wondered who’d be pulling up unannounced on a Saturday night. Waxed and polished, I see, is it yours?” She smoothed the apron, picked off a strand of thread.
“Mine’s in the shop,” Phil lied. “His old man has money to burn. What’s her friend like?”
“She’s no fool, knows a thing or two.” The woman stared past us, at Father’s car maybe, or Ce’s family’s dry patch of yard.
“We’ll see.”
Astrid yelled from upstairs. “Ce’ll be ready when we pick her up.”
“Your father works in an office, does he?” Astrid’s mother didn’t bother to disguise her designs. I half expected her to yank back our cheeks and size up our teeth.
“So, where’s your mister tonight?” Phil treated our hostess as an impediment, an irritating gnat.
“He’s away just now.” Watching us, she retreated to the kitchen. She nodded, a strangely formal gesture, just before disappearing from sight.
“A mother’s blessings,” Phil said. “How sweet.” He used the rag rug to buff the toes of his shoes.

 

Before her friend shut the passenger door Astrid asked, “You get it?”
“Cripes, someone’s got a thirst.”
“And someone knows a thing or two. That’s what a little birdie told me.” Phil put his arm round Ce in the back seat. “No glasses, I guess we’ll have to pass it around and take swigs. You girls know a purr-ty place to set a spell?” Phil’s countrified words sounded playful but mean to me, as though he wanted to remind the gals who needed to be thankful for the special treatment and be aware of its cost.
“The flats, for one, but there’s mosquitoes.” Sensible and busty in the Jane Russell mould, Ce snapped open her purse. “Besides, I’m not really dressed for that.” I heard the clinking of glass.
“There’s the lookout by McKinnon’s farm.”
“Sounds fine by me.” Phil passed a pint jar forward and Astrid wiped the lip with her sleeve. She gulped the liquor.
“Golly, what a skilled mouth.” A slick of innuendo coated every one of Phil’s words.
On my turn, I tipped the jar to pursed then licked lips. Mother abstained, and Father could take an entire evening to finish a glass of sherry. Manly drinking wasn’t discussed in the One articles. Keeping up with the other guy and out-drinking ladies struck me as likely, part of the story. “Lord, what is this? Moonshine?”
“Swamp water, dummy.” Ce sat forward to clutch the seat. “That’s when you take a splash from every bottle and mix them all together. You know, so that nobody notices a thing’s missing. Keep that jar up front, As-y, we got our own back here.”
“Let’s get a move on, the night’s not getting any younger.” Astrid shifted, crossed her legs, and jabbed her index finger at the gear shifter.

 

The gradual climb on a rolling farm road led us to a dip and a pungent stand of cottonwoods. I already counted on washing the car in the morning, well before Father brought up the furry coating of dust.
“You ladies know all the spots, I’ll bet.” Phil toasted me, catching my eye through the rear view mirror. He held the jar to Ce’s mouth. “Good, that’s a good girl.”
After a gulp, Ce pushed away Phil’s hand. “Knowing pays off, doesn’t it?”
“Every towny and his dad knows about McKinnon’s. It’s only news for damned tourists.” Astrid’s anger buzzed with a fly’s craziness, alighting on Ce and Phil and then me before veering away to the outside world.
Along with the crossed wires of Astrid and Ce’s directions, I’d been grateful for the shifter and steering wheel. With free hands and parked roadside, I waited for clues from Phil, just as Astrid waited for a move from me. Upright but leaning against the door she smoothed her skirt with her mother’s nervous manner.
The mirror reflected my cousin nuzzling Ce and whispering lines that made her giggle and gush “Oh, you!”
Phil shot his gaze forward. Jerking his head the smallest of degrees toward the side window he arched his brow. Message delivered, he began nuzzling Ce.
“Say Astrid, how’d you like to show me the vista before the light’s completely gone?”
“The vista? Ha, seen one valley, seen ‘em all.” While accompanying us of her own free will, every word from the girl indicated disdain, an immense if obscure wrath. I imagined the sourness as a family trait reaching back generations. Or as preemptive, a reaction to a disappointment bound to happen later. She reached for the door handle. “Oh, I suppose. Alright.”
“Give the man a quarter for his bright idea.” Phil held up the jar to me as a toast before emptying Ce’s concoction. “Watch out for the malaria, but don’t hurry back.”

 

Cutting across a ditch and marching to a gap in the trees, Astrid told me she’d changed into her nicest outfit. “So don’t even think of taking a fork off the trail. I had to save up for the material.”
Phil would scheme to have his way with her, I understood, and that meant I should act angry, tricked by her and led on, or plead for attention with a beggar’s starved expression.
“I promise, I promise. No monkey business.” Away from Phil, the Buick, and Ce’s readiness, the view’s promise urged me forward.
We perched on a warm granite ledge, just a boulder of river stone but somehow deposited miles above water. A few lights flickered below. Further on, unfathomable, the flats and brown water were blanketed in darkness. At twilight an hour earlier, the expansive scene would have been spectacular.
Astrid fidgeted and sighed. Breezes rustling a bank of leaves that stood over an immense snaking river made me think of explorers, of astronauts landing on Jupiter and opening spaceship hatches onto who knows what. To her, the outdoors must have meant sore feet, insects with stingers, and soiled hems that would demand scrubbing.
She turned to me. “You’re cut from a different cloth than that Phil.”
“That’s ridiculous.” I heard an accusation in her tone.
“No, it’s the truth. He’s loud, for one. And a regular Don Juan. At the diner, he measured me. I could feel his eyes. Want me to go on?”
“No, that’s alright. You’re right. Tonight I’m just along for the ride.” I thought better of talking about Mother and her resolve to have me flee the nest. Mother troubles, I suspected, were a surefire way to make fiery Astrid go off.
“Great, lotta good that’s going to do me.”
“You don’t make things easy, do you Astrid? Just tell me what you want and we’ll do it.”
“You couldn’t begin to understand.”
“Great, lotta good that’s going to do me.” My grin matched hers. I thought of my post office box and the advice article hidden in the carport. She was only half right, I decided.

 

“Close enough, just pull over here,” Phil said. He tapped his wristwatch, “Nearly witching hour, and I gotta wonder what you gals might turn into.”
Braking, I caught Astrid’s eye roll in the mirror. I wondered how jaded she’d become by Mother’s age.

 

Pacing outside the Buick Phil had teased us as we returned. He ribbed me about the nice view and whether I appreciated the splendour and queried Astrid about when she’d first seen the view and how often since then. With his adventure winding down he seemed irritable. Now he’d pick a fight for no reason except to cause a stir.
Pretending I misunderstood what he was getting at, I answered. “I’ll bet on a clear day you could see all the way to Washington state.”
Astrid acted as if she’d heard nothing. “If it’s no trouble, we should be getting back.” She addressed me alone. Putting up with Phil likely reminded her of impending years of cafe shifts. “There’s church tomorrow and company right after that.”
“By all means,” Phil said.
“Thanks.”
“I bet Ce there would prefer to snuggle with another gal, As-y. I think that swamp water was a bit more than she could take.” He drummed the trunk with his hands before swinging open the passenger door.
Inside, a gaseous sourness instructed me that I’d have to air out the car on the drive home.

 

The Buick rested at a stop sign from which we all could see the girls’ houses. In the blackness I could see that no other cars were coming or going. “Cripes, it’s a minute, Phil, I think we can spare it.”
“It’s no problem.” Astrid nudged her drowsy friend.
I pressed on the gas pedal and kept my eyes on the road.
“Here we are, ladies, homes sweet homes.” I pulled into Astrid’s driveway.
“Yeah.” His forearm outside, Phil slapped a fast beat on the door.
“C’mon Ce, it’s time.” Though speaking to her friend Astrid’s eyes implored me. With the engine idling, I pushed open my door.
Astrid handed Ce’s purse and shoes to me and pulled her friend’s arm. Phil fiddled with radio dials and adjusted the side mirror to pat his hair.
“Do you need help with her? She’s dead weight, I guess.”
“I can manage. I’ve managed before.” With Ce’s arm draped across her shoulders, Astrid began to cross the road.
In stockings, Ce didn’t appear to notice the gravel’s sharp stones.
Half-turned to me Astrid said, “Thanks again.” The flatness of her voice and the limp wave could have meant anything.
Instead of catching up with the girls and risking gratitude, contempt, or indifference, I placed the purse and shoes side by side and upright on the road.
Pulling away, I imagined an early morning passerby catching sight of these feminine possessions seated in a tidy row. “There’s a story, I’ll wager,” he’d say. Fetching them, Ce’s mother would make a stink, lecture her daughter uselessly about the straight and narrow.
I reached for the radio switch, praying to delay Phil’s barrage of questions and the detailed answers they’d require.