Off Keck Road
Bea Maxwell remembered the first time she'd driven out to see the new part of town. It was 1956 and she was home from college for the winter break. After Christmas, though, she had to get away from the house. Her sister and her sister's entourage had taken over the place. Her sister always tolerated an entourage. And it was still nine days before Bea could return to the sorority in Madison.
Bea had friends from high school, too, quiet girls who were back from other colleges, even a few who had stayed in town, working in the kindergartens or the hospital or at Kendalls, the big department store, but these were not the people she wanted to see. She needed someone from Madison, to touch that part of her life. So she'd called June Umberhum.
June sounded glad to hear from her. She was going stir-crazy, too, she said.
Just then, someone else came on the line. A farmer's wife June said she'd never even seen, who lived somewhere farther out.
"Well, how much longer are you going to be?" that woman asked.
"Just a jiff," June said. "Already been on a quarter hour."
After she hung up—rather loudly, Bea thought—they hurried to make their plans.
June wanted downtown. They agreed on Kaap's, for ice cream.
But Wednesday morning, June telephoned. Her brother and his awful girlfriend, Nance, had driven the only car up north. Both her sisters were working. No one could run her in. Bus service from Green Bay didn't reach that far out yet.
Where she lived was not part of the city proper. It was still Prebble, but there was already a motion to incorporate the village into the city charter.
"Probly never happen," June said. "Or when we're forty."
But three days before, Bea had got her own car, a 1956 Oldsmobile Holiday, red, her Christmas present. She could go and fetch June.
On the party line, though, June sounded stingy giving directions.
"I can walk to the highway and meet you somewhere? Or should we just make it another day?"
When Bea insisted she wanted to take the car for a spin anyway, June sighed. "Oh, okay."
It was a bright cold day with a weak blue sky. It wasn't snowing anymore but it had and the white was everywhere, glaring off in planes, making flat surfaces of things ordinarily rounded. Bea wore driving gloves with holes cut out for the knuckles—her other present, from Elaine, although she was sure her mother had picked them and seen that they were gift wrapped—and her mood lifted as she drove past the stately houses, away from the quaint, pretty downtown. The specialty shops (Vander Zanden's Fine Jewelry, Jandrain's Formal and Bridal) had the ravaged feel of the boxes still under the Christmas tree in her own house. She knew their contents.
She heard the regularly spaced girders of the bridge click under her new tires. Once you came down off the ramp on Mason, you passed a number of old buildings that happened to grow up near one another; they were clearly not built to look any way together or to make up a "downtown." There was a cheese factory with a sour smell and a canning plant, with small windows and two large chimneys, operating today, judging from the squiggles of white smoke on the blank sky. They'd reopened already or perhaps the factories didn't close for Christmas, as the small shops did. Then there was a low bank of brick storefronts; Bea spotted a selection of electric organs, sparkly green and gray, inside one—the Music Mecca, where people also went to take lessons.
She drove farther east on Highway 141, which was what Main Street turned into.
"That road was never any good," Bea's mother would say, and as long as Bea could remember, it had not been.
In 1956, the highway had a junk store, a truly immense dilapidated place that reminded Bea of a banked ship. She could vaguely make out a man inside, carrying a stick, moving amid the dim jumble.
She passed a motel, two-storied, with a slim twirled railing along the top floor. The son of the people who lived there, behind the lobby, had gone to high school with June. He was also the Maxwell's paperboy.
The Starlight Supper Club had a ball revolving on top of a tower, set over the octagonal dining room. There was a drive-in movie theater, which advertised Friday Night Fish Fry on a home-painted sign. And of course Kroll's, a rectangular building of yellow and maroon tiles, where teenagers for two generations had gone for malteds and chili dogs. Bea's mother had been taken there on dates, in her youth. "When I was dating" was as clear an era in Bea's mother's life as when she was in grade school or when her own children were still in diapers.
By the time Bea came to the part of the highway that ended June's road, she felt she'd already left town. There was a deep snow over everything, and when she turned onto Keck Road, she had to slow down. It was cleared out by hand. She could see the rows a shovel blade had made, two feet wide.
The city snowplows wouldn't come this far, either. At one corner, there was a white farmhouse, and on the other, a small tavern, pink and gray, that looked like an ordinary house during the daytime. Children's boots drooped on the porch. A little farther up, the plowed middle of the road narrowed, and on top of the icy snow were sprigs of hay.
The road was paved only as far as there were houses, eight in all. From where she was, Bea could see the road ending, and beyond that, fields led down to the railroad tracks.
The houses looked small and hastily built, but the land out here was magnificent. Her mother would have loved to see the trees. A Norway spruce was half again as tall as the tree in front of City Hall, the one lit with candles at the annual Monk's Charity Carol on Christmas Eve.
Sun glittered on crusted snow, a forbidding brightness. Even in the intricate construction of ice and crystals, there was the promise of a green melting, change.
And everywhere here, there were children, children running, children rolling snowballs, children on lumber they used as toboggans, children jumping off a shed into banks of snow so deep they turned invisible to Bea when they landed.
They seemed scantily dressed and altogether unattended, some downright wild, such as the one swinging from a bare hickory branch, which looked like it could break any minute, some fifteen feet above the snow. That child, like many others, was not wearing mittens.
The claustrophobia Bea had felt since the indoors day of Christmas was swept clean out of her. She rolled down the new car's window (inside the chrome handle, a circle of red leather). This vigor outdoors looked to her like a painting she had seen projected up on the auditorium screen at college, a Brueghel sparked to life.
A thin-ankled, pregnant woman stepped out of one of the small houses, carrying a baby. She walked down the driveway, putting a letter in the mailbox, just a few feet away from Bea's car. The baby, with a brown mark on its eyelid, couldn't have been more than a few months old. Could she have been that pregnant again already?
Bea felt like stopping to get out and go tromping in the snow. She thought of her cross-country skis leaning in the garage at home.
June, the sorority sweetheart (literally, she was that, she'd been elected; Bea had voted for her in Green Bay solidarity), June—who wore wore a sparkling blue-and-gold sari to the house invitational—lived here! Perhaps she'd been one of these antic children.
Bea would not be invited into June's house, not this time. On the other side of the road, there was a semicircular driveway before a pretty two-story white house. There, under the most spectacular tree Bea had ever seen, June stood like a tiny queen, stamping her feet in fur-trimmed boots.
Her whole body leapt into motion as she opened the door and flew into Bea's new red car.
"Let's go," June said.
From there, they talked a mile a minute—nothing about their Christmases, nothing about their homes, only about people they knew in Madison.
But Bea wondered, in a scant way, as she glanced in her rearview mirror, about to turn onto that bad highway, what would become of these ruddy, unminded children.