was getting darker by the minute. So was my mood. As I looked
across the table at Mr. Harmon, his eyes met mine. He smiled
and twinkled at me but continued talking. Miss Carswell was
standing at the sink. rinsing the nib of an Endura ringtop
that Arnold Steiner had asked her to repair during the meeting
of the pen club. Her eyes were on the pen as she listened
to her friend's account of his latest phone conversation with
some guy I'd never heard of. I could observe both of them,
but they couldn't see each other's faces.
"Well, he surely can't imagine that his action would
escape comment," Miss Carswell replied, shaking the pen.
"No matter how innocent or well-intentioned, his invitation
to the young lady will be discussed by neighbors and colleagues.
All sorts of interpretations will be offered, not all of them
benign. In fact, I'd be surprised, human nature being what
it is, if any were benign." She laughed shortly. "But
he certainly knows that. I don't think he should refrain from
doing a kindness on account of what people will say. He just
needs to remember that virtue is not only its own reward,
but more often than not its own only reward."
Bob Harmon shook his head, even though she couldn't see him.
"I don't think he realizes how people will talk,"
he insisted. "Stew has a streak of naivete."
"Must be more than a streak," she said with another
brief bark of laughter. "If he takes in a pregnant teenager,
someone is going to think he's the father of the child. He'd
better be prepared."
I tapped my foot softly. It was getting darker by the minute,
and I had to get home by six. I'd promised my father that
I'd return the truck promptly so Donald could go bowling with
his idiotic friends. Ever since my younger brother had discovered
bowling, that was all he wanted to do in his spare time. Not
that he had all that much spare time with school and chores
on the farm. But at least he got to use the truck most any
time he wanted it. I usually had to travel by bicycle or else
beg a ride from someone in the pen club in order to get to
meetings. And I didn't even own a bike. Donald was willing
to let me borrow his, but only for a price. I either had to
do his chores or cover for him when he was off in town bowling
while he was supposed to be studying or working.
This afternoon I'd borrowed the truck so I could stay after
the pen club meeting to talk with Miss Carswell, but now it
looked as if I'd have to leave without getting a chance to
do that. Mr. Harmon was always talkative, but he usually got
his time with Miss Carswell in before the meeting. Today he'd
come late, however, saying that his wife needed him to take
out the screens and put in storm windows. He seemed proud
of that fact, which I found touching, though very funny.
Mr. Harmon was the one I usually caught a ride with when I
didn't have a way to get to meetings. At first, my parents
were uncomfortable since he's an older, married man. But once
they'd met and talked with him, they got over their suspicion.
Mr. Harmon is a really good talker, especially to parents.
That's not too surprising, I suppose, since he teaches high
school. I'd always been glad that he taught in town rather
than out at the regional high school out in the boondocks
where I was a student until last year. It would have made
me uncomfortable to sit in pen club meetings with him on Sundays
if I'd had to take English from him during the week.
At the moment I wished he weren't such a good talker, or at
least not such a long-winded one. Miss Carswell seemed enthralled
by his story which I thought sounded like ordinary gossip.
"I'm glad Stew asked your advice, Bob," the old
woman went on after a brief pause in the conversation while
she pulled the nib loose. "I hope he takes it."
Mr. Harmon shrugged. "Well, Stew will do whatever he
wants, or should I say, is driven to do." He sighed a
little theatrically, I thought, and then added, "Oh,
by the way, he sends his regards and thinks he'll actually
be able to visit us some time during his long Christmas break,
so you will get to meet him after all."
"I'm looking forward to it, Bob. But doesn't Betsy find
him trying to be around? How will that play out?" Miss
Carswell asked, ignoring or perhaps not hearing my loud cough.
"Betsy was the one who invited him," Mr. Harmon
replied, looking quite pleased. "I think she's coming
Miss Carswell smiled. "I hope so. It's so hard when one's
spouse dislikes one's friends. Or vice versa."
Mr. Harmon nodded, but of course, she still couldn't see him
as she was peering at the Endura.
"Hmmph! Just as I thought! The feed is cracked. And I'm
not sure I have one that will fit." She frowned intently.
"I'll have to look tomorrow. It's getting too dark for
me to go rummaging through my stuff this evening."
"Well," Mr. Harmon said, standing up and stretching,
"I'd better get home. I'm glad you heard from Miranda.
And I'm not surprised that Ellen wants to sue the doctor who
misdiagnosed Needles' case of rubella as measles. But I think
it's a waste of time and effort. Since no real harm was done,
she should just be glad the child is all right."
"You know Ellen though," Miss Carswell said.
"Yes," he replied. "I certainly do. I'm glad
the little rascal is doing so well though. Imagine her telling
her mother she was going to write me a letter!" He looked
delighted at the prospect, which made me want to laugh. At
a pen club meeting after his return from the failed trip with
Miss Carswell to the Chicago pen show, he had held forth very
publicly and at great length about his discomfort with the
little girl he called Needles.
"Miranda said she was actually writing quite well. She
uses block letters, of course, but still, being able to write
complete sentences before her first day of school is no mean
Mr. Harmon grinned. "I'll look forward to her letter.
At least, it won't be a demand that I read to her." He
shook his head and picked up his case of pens from the table."
"Let me know if you need that leaf mulcher," he
said, suddenly in a hurry to leave.
"I think I'll wait until Jason comes home," she
replied, turning to look at me. "He will be back for
Thanksgiving, won't he, Lisa?"
I shook my head. "I thought you knew. He's not coming
home until Christmas. In his last phone call he mentioned
a writing project he had to complete over Thanksgiving."
"I repeat my offer of the leaf mulcher, Anita."
Mr. Harmon called out as he opened the door. "You don't
need a ride, do you, Lisa?" he added.
I waved my hand at him. "I've got the truck, thanks,
Mr. Harmon," I called out to him.
"Bob," he shouted as he disappeared into the dusk.
I just didn't feel comfortable calling him Bob. Maybe it was
because he had been Jason's teacher, and Jason didn't call
him Bob. I called many of the pen club's members by their
first names, but Mr. Harmon and Miss Carswell weren't among
Miss Carswell wiped her hands on a dish towel and cleared
her throat. "I take it you want to talk with me, Lisa,"
"I did," I replied, "but I have to be home
by six. Dad needs the truck. Or rather Donald does, and dad
wants him to have it."
Miss Carswell scowled. "Still giving that boys first
priority, is he?"
I nodded and then felt disloyal. "Well," I added
quickly, "dad has a right to do what he wants; it is
his truck, after all."
"Indeed," Miss Carswell said. "And the money
you earn as a teller at the bank and stocking shelves at the
drugstore is his as well?"
I was surprised at her irritated tone of voice. "I have
to go," I replied.
"You still have a few minutes," she said, sounding
friendlier. "I didn't mean to put you on the spot, Lisa.
I understand and admire your loyalty and devotion to your
parents. I just wish they could see their way clear to letting
you continue your education."
"I'm taking a psychology course at the community college,"
She smiled. "Yes, I know. But you could be getting an
undergraduate degree at State, or maybe even somewhere better."
I shook my head. "Dad says we need my income to help
keep the farm running. Mark is sending some money home, but
he and Susie are sure to get engaged one of these days, so
that will stop soon. And Donald doesn't make much with his
paper route, and what he does earn he spends." I tried
to smile, adding, "It's the least I can do, given that
mom works that extra job at the children's home."
She looked at me with a very disapproving expression, refusing
to be distracted from her line of inquiry. "So Donald's
spending is okay, but your getting an education isn't?"
I had no answer, so I just shrugged. "Got to go."
I stood up and walked the three steps to the back door.
"What did you want to talk to me about?" she asked
as I turned the knob. "Jason?"
I stopped and turned to face her. "Jason, my family,
what I should do next."
Miss Carswell looked at the old clock on the wall behind her
stove. It was already ten to six. "You'd better be off.
I know how irritable Ralph gets when he feels anxious. Call
me tomorrow if you have time to meet me at the Barrow during
your lunch hour. We can talk then."
I stood up. "It's not about college," I said. "Just
about Jason, my folks, and me."
She nodded. "But the two topics are related, aren't they?"
I had to agree.
asked me a year ago, I'd have been willing to swear on a stack
of Bibles that Anita Carswell would be the last person in
the world I'd turn to for advice about my love life. Of course,
at that time my love life consisted of occasional dates with
Roger Healy or Mike McLaren, both of whom were about as interesting
as the ads in the local newspaper. My parents liked them though.
"Nice boy," my dad would say whenever Roger brought
me home after a movie. My mother was more partial to Mike.
"You could do worse, Lisa," was her comment each
time she saw him. "He's good-looking, hard-working, and
his father owns that big tract of land that Wal-mart wants
Until Jason appeared on the scene, Miss Carswell was nothing
more than the slightly scary, old woman at whose house the
pen club usually met and who knew more about fountain pens
than anyone else in the pen club. But once I met Jason, who
just loves her, I started to see her differently.
Still the idea that I'd ask her for guidance when it came
to my relationship with Jason seemed absurd until he left
for college. I'd hoped until the last minute that he'd change
his mind and go to school at State or, if he really wanted
to get a good education, at Washington U, only a few hours
from here. But once he got the athletic scholarship from Michigan,
it was clear that was where he was headed.
"You could apply too," he told me. "And I'm
sure you could get financial aid. It's not like you're rolling
Of course I wasn't rolling in money. My family was in debt
up to the ears, and I had to stay home and help them. I couldn't
just go off to Ann Arbor and let them sink. But Jason didn't
seem to understand that. There was a lot he didn't understand,
including why my parents really didn't want me to go out with
"I don't know what they have against me," he'd say
over and over, each time my dad gave him the cold shoulder
or my mom glared at him disapprovingly. I was sad that he
was so bewildered and hurt. So I turned to Miss Carswell.
Even though she'd never been married or even in a serious
romantic relationship as far as I knew, I was sure she'd understand
about my family and be able to help Jason understand as well.
Miss Carswell understood all right, though she didn't agree
with them. "They want you to make what they consider
a good match," she told me the first time I approached
her with my problem. "They don't see Jason's strengths
because their minds are closed."
"It's not as if we're planning to get married,"
I protested. "Jason is only eighteen and I'll be eighteen
in two months."
"Your parents see marriage as the only acceptable reason
and ultimate goal of dating," she explained patiently.
I remember shaking my head. "That's so absurd!"
"Well," she temporized, "I may be wrong about
that, but I don't think I am."
I knew she was right, much as I hated to admit it. "So
what should I do?" I remember asking, feeling very sorry
"You can stand up for yourself or stop seeing Jason,"
she replied. "Or you can put off making a decision until
he's left for Ann Arbor."
I could tell that she was not enthusiastic about the last
option, but I knew that was exactly what I was going to do.
I didn't really see that I had any other choice.