From ONE-EYED MAN AND OTHER STORIES by Geoffrey Craig
- Category: Excerpts from Our Books
- Published: Sunday, 10 June 2018 16:03
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The Courtship of Irma Zimmerman
While one or two of the women in Carmichael objected to giving up jobs they had grown accustomed to during the war, most settled back into housekeeping without a fuss. Albert Zimmerman took up his old accounting position at Majestic Machine Tools and drove the fifteen miles with Hugh Whittier, the plant foreman, just as he had done before the war.
By 1947, Irma Zimmerman, sixteen, was almost as tall as her father. Her thick, straight hair was reddish brown. Her nose was aquiline, her eyes dark and serious. She wore sensible shoes. When she was in a light-hearted mood, she pulled her hair back into a pony tail.
The Zimmermans lived on Garfield. Each of the small frame houses on their block had a front porch; one or two had newly-built decks in the back. The Babcock’s new ranch house stood out like a sore thumb. From her bedroom window, Irma could look across the river where black and white Holsteins grazed on Henry Farrell’s farm. One cold, autumn morning, with thick fog lying along the river bank, a black bear ambled through the back yard, crunching dry leaves. Irma rushed to the hall and shouted for everyone to come look; but all they saw was the bear’s rear end swishing through the tall meadow grass at the end of Garfield.
“Should have taken a snap shot,” said her brother Carl, nodding at the Kodak Ensign Irma had gotten last Christmas.
“Didn’t think of it,” said Irma.
Every morning on her way to school, Irma stopped at the Wheeler House, a Victorian built in the previous century from vast timber profits. Virginia Wheeler bounded off the swinging couch on the porch and hurried down the front steps. She took Irma by the arm.
“How do you like this color lipstick? Isn’t it simply too much?”
“Too much for Carmichael High,” said Irma.
“That wouldn’t take much. How did we manage to get so interesting growing up in Carmichael?”
“I’m not interesting,” said Irma.
“You are compared to the rest of Carmichael.” Virginia paused. “And you’ll be much more interesting if you come to New York with me.”
“Your parents won’t like you leaving.”
“As if I give a damn.” Virginia kicked at a few stray leaves. “I have no intention of breeding yet another generation of worthless Wheelers. I’m making something of myself – starting the day we graduate.”
A collie raced across a carefully-tended lawn. Irma stopped to scratch the dog between the ears.
“How you doing, Maggie?” Irma asked.
The collie followed them.
“Go home, Maggie,” Irma commanded.
Sad-eyed, the collie turned back.
“If you get married,” Irma said, “you won’t be a Wheeler.”
“They’d expect my husband to change his name.”
“That’s plain silly.”
“You’d be surprised.”
They crossed Main and turned up Sycamore which curved up to the high school. Students in twos and threes climbed the gently-rising slope. Yellow school buses inched past them. The odd driver honked to clear the road.
“What are you going to do when you get to New York?” asked Irma.
Irma had never paid much attention to Floyd Mulcahy until that past summer when she worked at the concession stand on the lake. He was a year ahead of her and planned on getting a college football scholarship. Making change from selling Velveeta sandwiches, potato chips and Cokes, she glanced at Floyd smoking Luckies with his buddies. They’d jab at each other’s biceps and slap each other on the back. They’d joke with girls strolling by in one-piece bathing suits. They’d stab the butts into the sand and dash for the water where they’d wrestle and dunk each other.
Irma felt an odd stirring watching his hard body, his black wavy hair and his casual exhaling of plumes of smoke. Her father had forbidden both Irma and Carl to smoke until they were eighteen. She couldn’t wait for her first weed. Floyd’s wet body sparkled as he rough-housed.
Like Apollo, whom she had seen in an illustrated edition of The Iliad while browsing in the library.
Floyd and his friends lifted boys and girls to their shoulders. Laughing hysterically, the kids tried to push each other off as their steeds charged and butted. Floyd and Katie Miller won hands down. Helped by Floyd, Katie clambered up from her sitting position, stood precariously for a second and, with a shout, dove into the water. A horde of kids begged a turn so the young men dipped under the surface and then rose, each with a kid tensed to dive.
Floyd always smiled and said: “Thanks” when he bought a Coke.
Irma mentioned Floyd to Virginia one evening as they rocked on the porch couch. It was a lazy summer night. Crickets chirped and fireflies flashed.
“You can’t be serious,” said Virginia. “Why would you look twice? His brains are in his biceps; and when he’s finished with football, he’ll turn into a sack of potatoes. Mark my words.”
“I think he’s sensitive and nice,” Irma said.
“You think he’s handsome and red-hot.”
“What’s wrong with all of the above?” thought Irma.
Most of the girls in Irma’s class bought their lunch in the cafeteria; but her mother, Louise, said it was a waste of money and they certainly had none to waste. She did give Irma money for a carton of milk to go along with the cheese and bologna sandwich and the apple from Lionel Jenner’s orchard at the end of Garfield. Irma bought a Coke more often than milk.
One lunch period, three senior girls took the table next to Irma and Virginia. They squirted ketchup on their hamburgers and layered on thin slices of sweet pickles. They talked about boys and shortly came to Floyd. Irma half-turned her head while Virginia rattled on about the latest Mr. and Mrs. North episode on the radio.
“I’m going to become a gumshoe when I get to New York,” said Virginia.
“Floyd Mulcahy is such a dreamboat,” said one of the seniors, Mindy Jameson.
“He's dreaming of getting in your undies,” said Donna Samuels.
“It might be worth it,” replied Mindy, “given his looks."
“That is one-hundred-per-cent the truth,” said Donna.
“It’d be worth it if you’re willing to be the talk of Carmichael,” said Renee Adler.
“What’s the big deal about being the talk of Carmichael?” asked Mindy. “Heck, Roy Rogers passes for excitement.”
“Irma, are you listening to me?" snapped Virginia.
The seniors glared at Irma.
“Listening to other peoples’ conversations is rude, Brown Bag,” said Renee.
“What’s so fascinating anyway?” asked Donna.
“Are you by any chance hooked on Floyd Mulcahy?” asked Mindy. “Well, forget it. Why would he be interested in a junior, especially a brown bagger? Besides, I got dibs on the hunk – unless one of you girls wants him.”
“You’re up,” said Donna.
“All yours,” said Renee.
“When one sees what passes for intelligence around here,” Irma said quietly to Virginia, “I wonder if you might not be right about New York.”
“Coming in?” Virginia asked when she and Irma reached the Wheeler House after school that day. Mrs. Wheeler had cookies and steaming cider waiting. The cider came from Lionel Jenner’s stand. Leaving the Wheelers later that afternoon, Irma walked to the river. She took a path that slanted diagonally across the meadow next to the Jenner orchard. Reaching the bank, she sat on a flat, round boulder. She turned up the collar of her plaid wool coat. It was early November, and the afternoons had turned crisp and smoky from burning leaves.
She threw a stick and watched it ride the fast, swollen current, bobbing and weaving and glancing off rocks. She watched until it disappeared and then threw another. She studied the ripples and the eddies. Behind her, a line of densely-wooded hills rose to a crest. While the trees nearer town had lost much of their foliage, the hills were still a patchwork of colors. Here and there a house stood out among the trees.
How nice it would be to live up there and gaze over the valley at breakfast, she mused. She walked into town then, with no other purpose than to avoid homework. She couldn’t bear the thought of doing math problems across the kitchen table from Carl. The wind sharpened, and dry leaves skittered around her ankles. She felt a glow in her cheeks. She looked in the window of Tucker’s Sweet Shoppe. Floyd Mulcahy sat at the counter, eating a hamburger. She pushed through the swinging door and sat next to Floyd.
“Hi Irma,” he said.
“You know who I am?” she asked.
“Carmichael,” he answered, “has two restaurants, one sweet shop, one movie theater and two bars.”
“I see what you mean.”
“Besides,” he added with a grin, “do you think there’s a beautiful girl in this town whose name I don’t know?”
A blush spread across her cheeks.
“Don’t tease,” she said.
He picked up a tall, fluted glass and, through a candy-striped straw, sucked hard at his ice-cream soda.
“Want one?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said.
Molly Carpenter set the foaming soda on the counter. Irma took a long pull through the straw. Without looking at Floyd, she said:
“There’s a good movie at the Orpheum this weekend: Roy Rogers.”
On Monday, Irma shuddered at the glares of the senior girls. On the way to school, Virginia had told her to be prepared; but the transparent animosity still shocked her. She struggled for composure as she went from class to class. Mindy Jameson passed her in the hall and hissed, “Drop it if you know what’s good for you.”
After school, Mindy, Donna and Renee confronted Irma and Virginia at the edge of a small park.
“Well, Brown Bag,” asked Mindy, “are you going to drop it?”
Mindy was bulkier than Irma. Her eyes burned into Irma’s skull. Irma felt her heart pounding. She found it difficult to look straight at Mindy.
“Well?” asked Mindy.
“No,” said Irma.
Mindy shoved Irma who stumbled backwards. “I warned you,” said Mindy, taking a step towards Irma with hands raised to shove her again. Irma then did something which still surprised her years later. She plunged her right fist into Mindy’s stomach and drew it back ready to strike again. Mindy doubled over, gagging.
“Let’s go, “said Irma, taking the stunned Virginia by the arm.
Floyd called that night and, trying hard to contain his laughter, said, “I hear you have a hell of a right. Don’t try it on me unless your left is just as good.”
“Don’t ever give me a reason to,” she replied.
They had been dating for a month when, leaving the Orpheum one Saturday, she remarked on what a beautiful night it was.
“I’d like to see the stars,” she added.
“Shall we drive down to the river?” Floyd asked.
“I don’t see the harm in it.”
Floyd drove the two miles, crossed the bridge, then turned onto a dirt road on the opposite bank. Half a mile later, they came to an open area. One other car was there with no visible sign of its occupants.
“Let’s look at the river,” said Irma.
It was a cold, clear night with stars crowding the sky. Swollen by rain and the first snowfalls, the river ran fast and dark and made a steady whirring sound. She stared thoughtfully at the water and then up at the sky.
“So many stars,” she said. “Think how long it would take to count them.”
“Think how far away they are,” he said.
“I like living in Carmichael,” she said, “but it would be nice to see other places from time to time.”
He started to extract a cigarette from a pack of Luckies. She put a hand on his. “Not now,” she said. He put away the cigarettes. She leaned over and brushed his lips with hers. Giving his hand a squeeze, she turned towards the car.
When Irma walked down the aisle the following May, she was almost five months pregnant. She never finished high school, and Floyd never did play college football.