My mother had a bachelor cousin who used to visit us on the farm once a summer. He brought along his mother, Aunt Nell Botts. His own name was Ernie Botts. He was a tall, florid man with a good-natured expression, a big square face, and fair curly hair springing straight up from his forehead. His hands, his fingernails, were as clean as soap, and his hips were a little plump. My name for him—when he was not around—was Earnest Bottom. I had a mean tongue.
But I believed I meant no harm. Hardly any harm. After Aunt Nell Botts died he did not come anymore but sent a Christmas card.
When I went to university in London—that is in London, Ontario—where he lived, he started a custom of taking me out to dinner every other Sunday evening. It seemed to me that this was the sort of thing he would do, because I was a relative—he would not even have to consider whether we were suited to spending time together. He always took me to the same place, a restaurant called the Old Chelsea, which was upstairs, looking down on Dundas Street. It had velvet curtains, white tablecloths, little rose-shaded lamps on the tables. It probably cost more than he could afford, but I did not think of that, having a country girl's notion that all men who lived in cities, wore a suit every day, and sported such clean fingernails had reached a level of prosperity where indulgences like this were the usual thing.
I had the most exotic offering on the menu, such as chicken vol au vent
or duck à l'orange,
while he always ate roast beef. Desserts were wheeled up to the table on a dinner wagon. There was usually a tall coconut cake, custard tarts topped with out-of-season strawberries, chocolate-coated pastry horns full of whipped cream. I took a long time to decide, like a five-year-old with flavours of ice cream, and then on Monday I had to fast all day, to make up for such gorging.
Ernie looked a little too young to be my father. I hoped that nobody from the university would see us and think he was my boyfriend.
He inquired about my courses, and nodded seriously when I told him, or reminded him, that I was in Honours English and Philosophy. He didn't roll up his eyes at the information, the way people at home did. He told me that he had a great respect for education and regretted that he did not have the means to continue his own after high school. Instead, he had got a job working for the Canadian National railways, as a ticket salesman. Now he was a supervisor.
He liked serious reading, but it was not a substitute for a university education.
I was pretty sure that his idea of serious reading would be the Condensed Books of the Reader's Digest, and to get him off the subject of my studies I told him about my rooming house. In those days the college had no dormitories—we all lived in rooming houses or cheap apartments or fraternity or sorority houses. My room was the attic of an old house, with a large floor space and not much headroom. But being the former maid's quarters, it had its own bathroom. On the second floor were the rooms occupied by two other scholarship students, who were in their final year in Modern Languages. Their names were Kay and Beverly. In the high-ceilinged but chopped-up rooms downstairs lived a medical student, who was hardly ever home, and his wife, Beth, who was home all the time, because she had two very young children. Beth was the house manager and rent collector, and there was often a feud going on between her and the second-floor girls about how they washed their clothes in the bathroom and hung them there to dry. When the medical student was home he sometimes had to use that bathroom because of the baby stuff in the one downstairs, and Beth said he shouldn't have to cope with stockings in his face and a bunch of intimate doodads. Kay and Beverly retorted that use of their own bathroom had been promised when they moved in.
This was the sort of thing I chose to tell to Ernie, who flushed and said that they should have got it in writing.
Kay and Beverly were a disappointment to me. They worked hard at Modern Languages, but their conversation and preoccupations seemed hardly different from those of girls who might work in banks or offices. They did their hair up in pin curls and painted their fingernails on Saturdays, because that was the night they had dates with their boyfriends. On Sundays they had to soothe their faces with lotion because of the whisker-burns the boyfriends had inflicted on them. I didn't find either boyfriend in the least desirable, and I wondered how they could.
They said that they had once had some crazy idea of being translators at the United Nations, but now they figured they would teach high school, and with any luck get married.
They gave me unwelcome advice.
I had got a job in the college cafeteria. I pushed a cart around collecting dirty dishes off the tables and wiped the tables clean when they were empty. And I set out food to be picked up from the shelves.
They said that this job was not a good idea.
"Boys won't ask you out if they see you at a job like that."
I told Ernie this, and he said, "So, what did you say?"
I told him that I had said I would not want to go out with anybody who would make such a judgment, so what was the problem?
Now I'd hit the right note. Ernie glowed; he chopped his hands up and down in the air.
"Absolutely right," he said. "That is absolutely the attitude to take. Honest work. Never listen to anybody who wants to put you down for doing honest work. Just go right ahead and ignore them. Keep your pride. Anybody that doesn't like it, you tell them they can lump it."
This speech of his, the righteousness and approval lighting his large face, the jerky enthusiasm of his movements, roused the first doubts in me, the first gloomy suspicion that the warning, after all, might have some weight to it.
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“This book can make your skin crawl with its uncoverings of the transitoriness and precariousness of comfortable everyday existence…a masterpiece of plotting… Written with veteran assurance, brimming with intensely believeable characters and rich social detail, these dispatches from the most unsparing reaches of Munro’s imagination confirm her acclaimed place on the highest ground of contemporary fiction”
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